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Computers Give Handicapped New Freedom

January 11, 1988|WENDY HASKETT

LA JOLLA — Peter Mirche, editor of the Hot Digity Sig News, a newsletter on computer-related issues for the handicapped, recently bought a small, computer-like device named Butler-in-a-Box. He was delighted by how much "butlering" it could actually do for him.

"It operates 256 things around my house, 32 of them just by hearing the sound of my voice," explained Mirche, 44, a quadriplegic since a car accident 20 years ago.

"It locks the doors. Or unlocks them. It dims the lights, and turns on the stereo. It's very polite, too," he said. "If I say, 'Radio,' it says, 'Right away!' "

Milton Blackstone, founder of the San Diego Computer Society's Disabled Interest Group (DIGSIG), said that computers and computer-related aids "offer more hope to the disabled than any other development in modern history."

And it is only the beginning, Blackstone stressed.

Electronic Bulletin Board

On a recent sunny afternoon, Blackstone, a bearded, blue-eyed 63-year-old, was sitting in his office checking messages on his computerized bulletin board. An "open board," it's available 24 hours a day to anyone in the country who has a computer and a modem and is concerned, in any way, with the handicapped community.

As Blackstone's fingers tapped on his keyboard, 72 messages rolled brightly across the screen.

"Here's one from a young man in a wheelchair," he said. "He's 24. Sounds very bright. He's planning a business of his own, dealing with financial management, and wants to hear from others running similar businesses from wheelchairs."

When the computer group started its bulletin board in 1983, only two such boards existed in the country.

"And the other one, in Virginia, was primarily for the deaf," Blackstone said. "But now there are at least 50. Anyone tapping in a message may get several replies. And they usually do."

Many of the questions, on this particular afternoon, were from health professionals who work with the handicapped. Two were from attorneys. And some were about the nitty-gritty basics of everyday living.

"My father cannot use his fingers well enough to tie his shoes," glowed on the screen in bright green letters. "Does anyone know where to find tennis shoes with Velcro fasteners?"

Outside Blackstone's home-based office, beyond his wooden terrace, stretched a peaceful view of La Jolla rooftops and the ocean beyond.

Inside, things looked considerably more chaotic. Numerous shelves sagged with the weight of the latest reports on aids for the disabled. Eight computers--"Each one has different functions," he explained--were tucked among towering stacks of paper work.

"A lot of people feel they can't cope with a computer," he said. "And this is particularly true of people with severe disabilities." A glint came into his eyes as he added, " These are the people I'm looking for."

Up to the Challenge

The experiences of members of the computer group for the disabled have shown that even those with the most limited mobility can, and do, cope, he said.

"We have a young lady here in town who has ALS--Lou Gehrig's disease. Her muscles have weakened to the point where she can only use her eyes and her mouth. But she's writing a book using the 'gaze switch,' in which computer key selections are made through the movements of the eyes."

The computer group members who are able to leave their homes meet monthly in North Park. (The Hot Digity Sig News, and the bulletin board, are particularly important, Blackstone said, to the ones who are bed-bound or without transportation.)

At meetings, members often test new computer-related products designed for the handicapped and make suggestions to the manufacturers. The results have been so gratifying that Blackstone has helped to set up similar computer groups in 10 other U.S. cities and in Canada.

How did he get into all this?

That's easy for him to answer.

His son, Jamee, born 29 years ago, changed his life and, he stressed, gave it purpose.

In 1958, Blackstone was a television producer living on Long Island. He and his wife, Elvira, had a healthy 4-year-old daughter and they were looking forward to the birth of their second child. Elvira, however, had been exposed to rubella early in her pregnancy, when a neighbor's visiting nephew caught German measles.

"But she just carried the virus without actually becoming ill," Blackstone said. "So we were completely unaware that anything was wrong."

Jamee arrived with multiple handicaps. He was blind and brain-damaged. He had a cleft palate and a cleft through his upper lip. (He had surgery 10 times before his first birthday.) He was also functionally deaf, although the Blackstones didn't realize it while he was an infant.

They had a child, the doctors informed them, who would never talk, never walk, never be more than "a vegetable."

"There are two kinds of parents of handicapped children," Blackstone said. "Those who give up, and those who become assertive."

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