Device opens a door long shut Computer helps woman overcome dyslexia, earn college diploma

May 22, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

When Donzella Curtis accepted her associate's degree in counseling at Merriweather Post Pavilion yesterday, she was the first Howard Community College alumna to graduate without having read a textbook, homework assignment or exam.

Diagnosed with dyslexia so severe that she has to ask strangers in stores to read greeting cards to her, Curtis once dismissed her dreams of college and went to work as a janitor. Even then, her inability to read stymied her career.

But thanks to a new computer that converts books, mail -- anything written -- into speech, the 33-year-old Columbia resident has accumulated a 3.52 grade point average, without a C, and graduated with honors with 365 fellow graduates.

"I never would have envisioned this," she says. "I feel like I am so blessed."

Curtis, who was given an award for outstanding academic achievement by the school's student support services program, is quick to share the praise with the Kurzweil 3000, a computer that has become her academic guide.

"This is, more or less, my bible," Curtis says. "This is my link to having communication."

Says David Bradburn, marketing director for Waltham, Mass.-based Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc., "By definition, people with dyslexia are not stupid. They just have trouble reading, which people seem to equate with lacking intelligence."

Curtis used her extraordinary intelligence to mask her disability throughout elementary, middle and high school until her aunt caught the then-16-year-old trying to decipher a shopping list by matching items on the list with canned goods in the pantry.

Family members shocked

Doctors at the Kennedy Krieger Institute diagnosed Curtis as suffering from dyslexia. Even though her father couldn't read, family members were shocked, says a cousin, Laurice Jones.

"She was brilliant, and she always wanted to go to college," Jones says. "That threw a monkey wrench into everything."

After high school, Curtis worked as a janitor at the Omni Harbor Hotel, progressing for six years until she was in charge of the mailroom. But when the position required her to read, Curtis -- rather than face humiliation -- abruptly quit and became a janitor at Westinghouse.

Through it all, a desire to go to college ate away at Curtis, who battled depression.

"I was angry and scared," she recalls. "I can remember being in a relationship, and he was very embarrassed. He was, like, 'How are you going to spell our name if we get married?' "

Finally, a psychological counselor suggested she enroll at Howard Community College in 1993.

Before the arrival of the Kurzweil 3000, Carol Manchester, a disabilities specialist at the school, accompanied Curtis to classes, took notes and transcribed them to tape -- an arduous process that eliminated any free time from Manchester's schedule.

The computer has helped Curtis gain confidence and a sense of independence, Manchester says.

"When she sits down to do a paper, we don't have to sit down with her and read everything," she says. "It allows her to take a test without us hovering over her. It's this 'We don't have to hang on to you for you to be successful' thing."

Adds Curtis: "I've realized that I'm not stupid or dumb or crazy. I just need help."

The Kurzweil 3000 was made practical last year after two years of work. According to Bradburn, the personal computer reading machine is the only product on the market that can scan information from documents and the Internet, reproduce the images onto the screen with color graphics and photos intact, and recite the text to the user in a computer-generated voice.

The system highlights each word as it reads the material aloud. ** Equipped with a 175,000-word dictionary and 14 synthesized voices differing in pitch and gender, the computer is widely regarded by industry experts as the best product for people with dyslexia.

Students learn more

A yearlong study released in January by the Lexia Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., reported that 13 of 14 dyslexic participants who used the Kurzweil 3000 increased their reading speed and comprehension.

Tom Turner, assistant superintendent of the Holdenville (Okla.) public school district, says the test scores of 130 dyslexic students have increased 5 percent since officials purchased 28 Kurzweil 3000s this year.

"When I talk to my teachers, they say that they can see a noted difference right away," says Turner. "The children are happy because they're doing better in school, and [the computer] enables them to learn like the other children," he says.

Although opinion of the Kurzweil 3000 is generally favorable, Don McCabe, research director for the Clio, Mich.-based AVKO Foundation, says the synthesized voices can't match their human counterparts.

"The human voice carries a tremendous amount of meaning," says McCabe, who is dyslexic. "But with a computer, you can't get a question to sound like a question. It can't give the proper intonation."

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