Inventions to extend our reach

February 28, 1992

Since the invention of simple machines like levers and wheels, technology has eased the way for people to accomplish critical tasks. The thrust of an annual competition sponsored by Johns Hopkins University, thousands of years after those simple inventions changed human history, is also simple: Why not the handicapped?

The answer is by no means simple. Making it possible for a person lacking a draftsman's fine motor control to become a fine draftsman anyway, via computer screens, "puff and sip" switches and special software, requires major creativity. But it is entirely possible. Specialists at the state rehabilitation center on Argonne Drive, who regularly use such devices and software to train neurologically impaired drafting professionals, can attest to that.

Besides, it takes major creativity to program a modern digital computer or improve on the high-tech gadgetry that has become so essential to modern life anyway. Why not encourage cross-fertilization to broaden life choices for the disabled?

Many of the devices, processes and computer software programs that can make life easier for those with impaired dexterity also provide good business opportunities for the market-adept. Thus, a recent Smithsonian Institution display of the Hopkins contest entrants served two important constituencies, in addition to bringing needed attention to the developers behind the devices.

The prizes the university offered are not insignificant: $10,000 for a 576-key "smart keyboard" for use with special software "overlays" that allow customization of computer commands; $5,000 for software written by a music teacher to allow disabled students to create their own songs; $1,500 for a computer program to allow vision-impaired users to participate in the "graphic revolution" sweeping today's desktop computer market.

At bottom, however, such inventions show the way to a market whose growth will improve the quality of life for all Americans, not just those with disabilities.

Who knows what songs could come from the imaginations of those society never expected to sing, or what whiz-bang business software could be written by visually impaired developers? The Americans with Disabilities Act requires new access for many disabled entrants to the labor market. These inventions, and the continuation of this contest, mean we have only to wait and see the wonders that can flow from the opening of real-time opportunities.

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