Inventors respond to new demands of the disabled


February 09, 1992|By Leslie Cauley

Demand for miracles is on the upswing.

Nudged by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which began taking effect this year, businesses are looking for ways to make their workplaces far friendlier places for physically and mentally handicapped people.

That need has translated into growing market demand for technology-driven miracles: software that can translate text into speech for the blind, computer keyboards that can accommodate paralyzed hands, devices that permit the deaf to talk on the telephone and the crippled to ascend stairs and maneuver through office buildings.

Some of the latest inventions for the disabled -- and their employers -- were on display earlier this month at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The 30 inventions, the result of a national search begun last year by the Johns Hopkins University, employed the latest computer technologies to aid the disabled. Among the inventions: a portable device that allows the deaf to see messages sent from any Touchtone phone, an electrical stimulation system that restores limited motor skills to paralyzed limbs and a software program that uses sound to guide blind users.

Johns Hopkins' 1991 search -- with a $10,000 first prize -- represented the second time in a decade the school has sent out a nationwide call to inventors to come up with computer applications to help the disabled. The first search, in 1981, yielded inventions that have become industry standards.

One invention to come out of that search was a computer that could tell blind users what was on the screen. The inventor, Deane Blazie of Street in Harford County, subsequently created a spinoff -- a hand-held device that converts Braille into speech. The Braille n' Speak personal dictation system is used today by thousands of people who are blind.

Likewise, an eyetracker communication system that won third place in the first national search has since won widespread acceptance. The system, developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University, allows paraplegics to synthesize speech through the movement of their eyes.

The original system that took up the better part of an exhibit booth in 1981 is today smaller than a breadbox.

Paul Hazan, assistant to the director for advanced computing technology at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory and director of the school's national search project, said the chances of inventions making it into the mainstream this time are far greater than a decade ago because of the disability act.

"With ADA taking effect this year everybody has a sense of what's coming up, and what they're going to need. This [national search] is the enabler to help make ADA practical," said Mr. Hazan, who also presided over the 1981 search.

The new law promises to bring unprecedented opportunities for the disabled and for makers of what the industry calls assistive devices for the disabled (ADD).

The Electronic Industries Association's assistive devices division, which represents makers of devices for the disabled, estimates that 43 million Americans are physically or mentally limited. Those limitations range from minor hearing loss, common among the elderly, to extreme physical and mental disabilities.

That customer pool has remained untapped, largely because of supply and demand: Mainstream manufacturers haven't been hit with a big demand for assistive devices, so they've concentrated resources elsewhere. Smaller makers, by comparison, haven't been able to muster the marketing muscle to force the issue of technology for the disabled to the surface.

The advent of ADA should go a long way to change all that, said Jeanne Chircop, a spokeswoman for the electronic association's assistive devices division.

"People are mandated to buy products to assist employees to do their jobs and it's opened up new opportunities for manufacturers," she said. "It represents the most explosive opportunity for electronics manufacturers in years."

Commercial opportunity has forced manufacturers to take a second look at the ADD market. That would include Ms. Chircop's own association, the 68-year-old Electronics Industry Association, which didn't establish an ADD division until four years ago.

There are other signs that assistive devices are on the verge of entering the mainstream. Once relegated to special trade fairs aimed at the disabled, ADD makers are beginning to show up in unexpected places.

Take the Electronic Industry Association's own semi-annual Consumer Electronics Show. A group of assistive device makers held court at the show in Chicago last June, representing the first time that assistive devices have been on display at the glitzy trade exhibit, which is a must for anybody who is anybody in consumer electronics. By the show's end, thousands of industry representatives from 11 countries had visited the booth, Ms. Chircop said.

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