June 10, 1996 in Nation/World

When Spokane Girl Talks, Gates Will Listen Firm Honors Young Ideas With ‘Imagine The Magic’ Program

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Seven-year-old Maryellen Cooley has a tip for Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

As one of six grand-prize winners of Microsoft’s “Imagine the Magic” contest, Maryellen will have an opportunity to share her ideas with Gates at the Kids’ Teen Summit at Microsoft’s world headquarters in Redmond, Wash., on June 17.

The Spokane girl also gets a Gateway Destination Multimedia computer and a Microsoft software library worth $15,000 for her home and school.

Maryellen’s was chosen out of 22,000 entries for her idea of the “coolest computer in the world.”

She imagined a computer that could convert sounds into words for people like her friend Katie Johnson, who has difficulty speaking.

“My friend Katie has cerebral palsy. She can’t talk but she can make sounds and she understands what I say,” writes Maryellen.

“If a computer like a lap-top knew what her sounds meant, then it could talk for her. If ‘aa’ meant ‘let’s play ball,’ then I would get a ball.” Maryellen and Katie, 8, both second-graders at Roosevelt Elementary on the South Hill, have been friends since kindergarten.

Maryellen said she got the idea for the computer when her family was discussing ways to help Katie.

Katie now uses a low-tech laser system, in which communication boards are set up with a series of letters, words and phrases specific to the subject the class is studying. Katie wears a baseball cap with a low-level laser attached, which she uses to point out letters, spell words, form sentences and take part in class discussions.

She also sometimes uses a lap-top computer that works similarly to the laser system. The laser system is time-consuming, but far more affordable than newer technology.

With eye-gaze systems, for example, a computer is controlled by a laser lens strapped to one eye.

Basic eye-gaze equipment costs about $17,000, compared to the system Katie uses, which ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, according to Nancy Kaputo, speech and language pathologist at Roosevelt,

Maryellen’s brainchild would be even more advanced - and probably more expensive.

Keeping disabled kids in the public school system helps non-disabled kids as well, Kaputo said.

“Maryellen being able to see Katie at school and in a regular environment - that brings out the best in all kids,” Kaputo said.

Maryellen’s mother, Storm Cooley, hopes Microsoft will consider her daughter’s idea and help make it easier for people with disabilities to communicate.

“It’s great to have an environment where they can play and have a real friendship and not an I-feel-sorry-for-you-because-you’re-in-a-wheelchair relationship,” Cooley said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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