Group Targets Hi-tech Help For The Deaf And Blind

Optacon Allows Them To Read Printed Matter

July 31, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

For the first time in 20 years, Jack Wright can read about the Orioles in his Sunday newspaper.

Wright, who is deaf and blind, uses anOptacon, a $3,500 machine that "reads" printed material and translates it into raised, vibrating letters on an attached smooth surface.

On Aug. 15, he will demonstrate the machine at the Howard County Public Library in Columbia.

His aim will be to show how technologycan help him and others who are deaf and blind.

The demonstrationand accompanying open house, from 7 to 9 p.m., marks the rebirth of Columbia-based ACT, or Advocates for Communication Technology for Deaf/Blind People Inc.

The group, founded in November 1987, has been "dormant" because of lackluster fund raising, said Sheryl Cooper of Owen Brown village, one of the founding board members and board secretary.

"We do realize that (we need) to be more aggressive with our fund raising and to let more people know what we are doing," ACT president Kurt Milam said. "The whole problem initially was that none of us knew anything about fund raising."

Although Wright acquired hisOptacon through a state grant, the machine illustrates the sort of devices ACT hopes to purchase and distribute.

Deaf and blind peoplelike Wright, many of whom live on fixed incomes, wait years for state programs to provide them with such basic devices as a TeleBraille machine, which, at $5,500, allows them to receive and make phone calls.

"Foundations are so specific toward any group that we didn't fitin anywhere," said Milam, a rehabilitation specialist for the blind for the state Department of Education's Division of Vocation

al Rehabilitation.

"The technology does exist, but the deaf/blind community does not have a means of getting it. It's a challenge. I think getting more exposure to the public is a key."

To that end, ACT is sponsoring the open house. On Oct. 20, during National Disability Month, the group is planning a walk-a-thon at Towson State University, where Cooper directs the sign-language program.

The group is also beginning to solicit corporate memberships for $250 and individual memberships for $25. About a dozen individuals are already members, and Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. signed on in March.

The idea, Milam said, is to raise enough "so that we can achieve the goal of something approaching the cost of a TeleBraille," which once was taken out of production because so few people could afford the device.

ACT has raised and spent about $1,200 on devices for the deaf-blind.

But that money was only enough to purchase powerful hearing aids fortwo blind people with severe hearing impairments and two vibrating communication devices worn on the wrist.

The group eventually hopesto purchase devices too expensive for people like Wright, who is nowcompleting six weeks of training on the Optacon in his Millersville home in Anne Arundel County.

"Jack is somebody who is deaf-blind who we are trying to buy something for," Cooper said, "but the things that he needs are too expensive for us."

Wright, 57, a friend of Cooper's for more than eight years, said he would love an IBM computerwith a Braille printer that would enable him to write letters and receive phone messages.

"But that costs $10,000 or more -- forget that!" he said through a student interpreter who helped him with his Optacon classes last week.

Wright has Usher's syndrome, which rendered him deaf at birth and took most of his sight away by the time he was 36, in 1970. Six years ago he became totally blind.

For nine years, he did not even have the use of a TeleBraille machine, which uses moving pins to create a line of Braille when hooked up to a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, or TTD machine.

"I was very frustrated," he said, "I couldn't call anyone."

He even had to rely on interpreters for private phone calls.

"People were nosy and would get into my business," he said.

With the TeleBraille machine, he can have private phone conversations. Now, with the Optacon, he can read his mail privately as well.

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