PORTERVILLE, Calif. — Robin Powers, who is moderately retarded and has cerebral palsy, sat in her wheelchair in a small room at Porterville State Hospital recently and watched 17 pictures flash onto a computer screen.
Shoes and shirts, combs and toothbrushes and records and televisions appeared before the cheerful 24-year-old who shakes her head in mock anger when she is teased, accenting medium-length brown hair and blue eyes.
Speech pathologist Theresa Buckles kept asking Powers questions about what she saw, and when Buckles asked if she wanted to take a nap, Powers pressed a switch and a picture of a bed stopped on the screen.
Powers is one of 14 developmentally disabled residents at the hospital participating in an experimental computer program designed to improve their communication.
Three times a week at the sprawling, 110-acre medical facility beneath the green Sierra Nevada foothills, the residents work on computer programs Buckles has designed.
Buckles says that residents who could operate a computer linked to a voice synthesizer could communicate when they wanted to.
She calls that a considerable advantage for speechless residents such as Powers. Powers carries a board on her wheelchair that enables her to point out basic needs but can use it only when an attendant is available.
The use of computers by the developmentally disabled is new, but many educators are excited about the concept.
"It's incredibly promising," said Barbara Hecht, an assistant professor in the school of education at UCLA who has worked on a computer program for developmentally disabled children.
"It opens up a whole new world. Before, they sat there and people did things to them or for them. This makes it possible for them to have an effect on their environment.
"One danger is that the computer could become the only thing the developmentally disabled person interacts with. You don't want the computer to replace people in social interaction. Otherwise, the individual can become increasingly isolated."
Buckles says that part of the promise is that the computer is adaptable to different needs.
Powers' program depends on the use of her hands, but crew-cut Gary Green, 40, can not use his hands. So Buckles designed a program for his feet.
Getting ready to employ the computer, Green sat on a stool and kicked off his shoe and stocking. He raised his big toe to the keyboard to give a command.
Message on the Screen
As his girlfriend, hospital resident Cathy Brown, stood next to him recently, a message flashed on the screen.
"Hello, Cathy. I love you," it said. "Will you go to the . . . dance with me? Pretty Please?"
Nervously rocking side to side, Brown, with medium length blonde hair, and a yellow T-shirt and blue jacket, nodded and said yes.
Buckles said that up to 50 of the hospital's 1,300 occupants could benefit. Some residents speak or use sign language and don't need computers, while others have difficulty mastering the machines.
Buckles, 26, has devised programs although she started working with computers only a short time ago.
Growing up about a mile from the hospital, she often played on the grounds but had no plans to return to Porterville once she went to college.
After earning her master's degree in speech pathology from Fresno State University, however, the hospital offered a position that satisfied her licensing and certification requirements simultaneously. She took it and has been at the hospital almost three years.
When an Irvine firm donated a computer about a year ago on the condition that it be used for residents, it took three months and volunteer help from Sandee Brown, a local college instructor, to figure out how to provide pictures.
The early model computer is primarily designed for games and household budgets. It has a limited memory, won't do angles or curves for drawings and required 4,360 steps to set up a recent program.
Buckles hopes that the hospital will purchase newer models soon. She believes the machines will allow educators to tap the hospital residents' greatest assets.
"We assess their problems and try to find one strength we can magnify," she said. "We try to turn it into an asset and make them have a better life."