The chance to help a longtime friend put Dean Blazie into the inventing business and on the road to developing a portable computer that has changed the lives of thousands of blind people.
The Harford County engineer was asked to design a system that would allow blind telephone information operators to type a name into a computer, which would speak the number to the caller. That was a dozen years ago, when his high school friend needed the device to get jobs for the blind with the Kentucky state government.
And when he entered his invention in the Johns Hopkins University national competition for computerized products to help the disabled in 1981, Mr. Blazie found the recognition and market for products he now produces at Blazie Engineering in Street.
"It really helped me to start my own company later," he said. "We kept improving the product, working with desktop personal computers, and we made them talk. Now we've got a portable that is little bigger than a paperback book," said Mr. Blazie, who sells about 1,000 of the devices each year.
Mr. Blazie hopes to enter the second national search for ideas, systems and devices to break down barriers for the disabled, which Hopkins is launching this spring, in cooperation with MCI Communications Corp. and the National Science Foundation.
"Through this search, people have a unique opportunity to apply computer creativity to urgent human needs and make a significant difference," said Paul Hazan, the project director and an engineer at the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Among the 8,000 entries submitted a decade ago were an eye-movement communications system, a voice-automated lighting-temperature controls system, a Braille word processor and an ultrasonic head control for wheelchairs.
Mr. Hazan expects many more entries than in 1981, when there were fewer than a quarter-million personal computers in use in America.
"Today, there are about 20 million PCs with a commensurate increase in the number of creative people who are computer literate," he said. A million computers in public schools are also available to use software programs that could help learning-disabled children, he added.
High technology is not essential. "It is far more important that the device be useful and affordable," Mr. Hazan said.
With 25 million Americans who are blind, deaf, physically or mentally disabled, the need and the possibilities for computer aids are great.
"The public needs to know about the many solutions that computing technology can provide," observed Larry Oliver of the National Science Foundation.
The competition is divided into 10 geographical regions, with amateur and professional divisions, and the top entries will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution next February.
Awards include cash, computers and certificates, as well as access to manufacturers and disabled groups that can promote development of promising inventions.
"The contest motivated me to think about how I could adapt my ideas to the disabled community," noted Reuel Launey, who runs a home-automation firm in College Park.
He was a winner in 1981 with a voice-activated system to control lights and temperature in a quadriplegic's home and a design for an automated office whose devices responded to voice commands.
But his system was too expensive to market at the time, he said, and there was no development funding available. So Mr. Launey returned to designing custom automation systems for upper-scale housing.
Since then, technological developments have reduced the price of systems, and he is now entering the mass market with automated devices, "which should have a good effect for the disabled community."
Much of the sophisticated technology that can help the handicapped is adapted from inventions developed for other uses, Mr. Launey observed. "That's a great advantage of this contest, because it fights that trend and focuses on developing products specifically for the disabled."
Mark Friedman of Pittsburgh was another winner in 1981 with a computer screen that could speak words activated by only the eye movement of the operator. Today, he and two former students at Carnegie Mellon University operate a company that is a leading producer of eye-gaze control systems.
Mr. Blazie has slowly branched out with his firm, introducing a low-cost Braille printer for a computer last year and selling computer products developed by others for the blind. His 13-ounce Braille 'n Speak word processor easily hooks up to a computer to print out letters or reports on a computer screen, as well as to speak the words back to the operator.
Last year, a blind news reporter typed her story into the device in Washington, hooked it up to a telephone and transmitted printed copy back to her newspaper in Cincinnati, he said.
Developing his talking computer part-time after the 1981 contest, Mr. Blazie used the invention to launch his new company in 1986, after he had to sell his computer services company. The contest convinced him there was a market for the product he could develop at home, with help from his family, he said.
"Knowing that someone cares about your work, that you are recognized, made us go on and do things that can solve problems for thousands of people," he said.
How to enter
Applications and information about the competition are available writing Johns Hopkins National Search, P.O. Box 1200, Laurel, Md. 20723.