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Giving Disabled a Voice

Small firms make most of the devices that enable people to speak and use a computer.

April 08, 2002|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Physicist Stephen Hawking owes his voice to Words-Plus, a Lancaster company that makes communication devices for the disabled. Lou Gehrig's disease long ago robbed him of speech, but the use of a highly sensitive pressure switch hooked into a specially designed word processor has allowed Hawking not only to write his best-selling "A Brief History of Time" but also to send e-mail, lecture and hold conversations often spiced with his sarcastic humor.

Words-Plus devices have had a similarly liberating effect for thousands of people worldwide, making the company one of the big-time players in the field of technology for the disabled.

But Words-Plus has fewer than 30 employees and last year had annual revenue of just $2.9 million--or about 4% of Microsoft Corp.'s average daily revenue in its 2000-2001 fiscal year.

Although the 33 million severely disabled people in the United States make up more than 12% of the population, the firms that enable the blind to surf the Web and quadriplegics to use a computer mouse are primarily small operations with few employees.

Words-Plus is among the few publicly traded companies, part of Simulations Plus Inc., which also produces pharmaceutical software.

"To put it frankly, there are not enough disabled people to make it worthwhile for the big companies to get involved," said Larry Israel, executive director of the Assistive Technology Industry Assn. "It's just not a big enough market."

At a recent trade show of high-tech companies serving the disabled, there were so many exhibitors that the ballrooms of two hotels had to be used, with a shuttle bus running between them. But with rare exception they were small, even mom-and-pop companies. Some of the big names in electronics donated funds and equipment to the show, organized by Cal State Northridge's Center on Disabilities, but few had products on display.

The severely disabled are a highly segmented group, making them a difficult target for a firm interested in mass markets. A company that makes products for the partially blind is not likely to also manufacture devices for the deaf or those in wheelchairs.

"The total industry just in augmentative communications, which is what we do, is only on the order of $50 million a year," said Words-Plus founder and Chief Executive Walter Woltosz. "If it was one company doing $50million, that would still be a tiny industry in the eyes of Wall Street."

And the industry is service intensive. "Almost nothing except for a little part is sold over the phone or through mail order," said Ron Creeley, marketing vice president at Words-Plus.

The company and its competitors sell units that are highly customized through meetings with clients and speech pathologists.

A Words-Plus setup, including a rugged laptop computer, can cost as much as $11,000. The relationship with the client does not end there.

"The support requirements are tremendous," Woltosz said. "If someone has a problem, it will probably be the caregiver who calls, and that person might not be all that familiar with computers. A call can take a long, long time.

"There are customers we have lost money on because of all the support time. It's another reason the big companies don't want to deal with this. They leave it to the boutique companies."

Some of the products most prized by the disabled were not even made with them in mind.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a voice-recognition program that works with impressive accuracy. "People who are not able to type love this program," said Jorge Sanchez, who does training at the Westchester-based nonprofit Computer Access Center, which matches disabled people with appropriate technology.

"But it was meant for doctors and lawyers who wanted to dictate without a secretary."

ScanSoft Inc., which makes the program, doesn't mention uses by the disabled on its Web site.

Some firms that make products expressly for the disabled got into the field by accident.

Origin Instruments Co. was founded in the late 1980s in a Houston suburb by two former aerospace engineers--Melvin Dashner and Steve Bain--who wanted to market an infrared tracking device.

"My partner was fooling around with the device to try and figure out how to show its abilities," Dashner said, "and he made a computer mouse that could be controlled with his head."

It consisted of an infrared unit, atop a computer monitor, that bounced an invisible beam off a reflective strip Bain stuck to his forehead.

This "head mouse" was a novelty until Dashner heard a local radio program about a group that provides computers for the disabled. He showed them the mouse and an industry was born. Dashner would not disclose the income of the private company, but he said the head mouse accounts for about half of it.

John Duganne III, who has cerebral palsy, uses the device daily. With a reflective dot affixed to the end of his nose, Duganne can pick out letters from an on-screen keyboard and draw graphics.

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