Tim Smith is a former sheriff’s deputy with a high-caliber grin. He laughs until his body shakes.
“I was the most sociable guy around,” he says.
Smith speaks by typing on a hand-size recording device. He pushes a button and a sentence emerges. It sounds mechanical. Yet it’s music to the ears of the 31-year-old Coeur d’Alene man. He hasn’t spoken clearly since his brain was damaged three years ago in an airplane crash.
“It has been a lifesaver for me,” Smith says of the Language Master, which he carries strapped across his chest.
Recorders, computers, power wheelchairs, remote controls, hearing aids. All are “assistive technology,” a fancy name for gadgets that make life more livable for the disabled.
There’s great stuff out there, say experts in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. But the trick is knowing what’s available, and finding a way to pay for it.
“If getting money for college is a 4 on the scale of difficulty, this is a 9,” says Todd DeVries, coordinator of the Disability Action Center in Coeur d’Alene.
That non-profit center helps people live independently. It gets federal money to provide information about technology.
It’s a satellite of the main Idaho Assistive Technology Project in Moscow. That agency also can help people find or sell used equipment, and sometimes can arrange for low-interest bank loans.
The Department of Education also pays for a similar program at the Easter Seals Society office in Spokane. It’s offered by Easter Seals and the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance.
Both technology offices contain computers and other equipment that people can try out or borrow. They have catalogs full of information.
DeVries is blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from getting a master’s degree or paddling a kayak. He calls assistive technology “AT,” and claims to be an “AT head.”
“I have a scanner that reads books to me. I live on the Internet.”
Computer programs that read words aloud are useless unless the person at the monitor can turn on the computer and give it commands.
High-tech aids include keyboards with a few big keys, or with pictures or words instead of letters. There are floor mats that serve as switches, turning on the computer when a wheelchair is rolled up to the desk.
Some switches operate with the flick of a tongue or raising of an eyebrow.
“There’s one you practically breathe on, and it activates,” says Sharon Ferrell, technology coordinator in Coeur d’Alene. “You know what I got to do once? I got to run a computer with my eyes.”
Ferrell has a degree in computer technology. But she gets just as excited talking about low-tech gadgets, such as a fat pen that’s easy to grip and sold at stationery stores. Or an inexpensive remote control found at Radio Shack.
“Let’s say someone has a really hard time moving. They can control the TV with the remote. But how about the fan, how about the lights?”
At the Easter Seals office, Dorothy Haenle has fielded calls from people seeking an easy-to-grip fishing rod and easy-to-open school lockers.
Sometimes, people need to know how to use the equipment they have, Haenle says. One man was having trouble moving the computer mouse; Haenle showed him he could use the arrow keys on the keyboard to perform the same function.
She shows parents how to put a hole in a sock, stick their child’s keypunching finger through the hole to keep the “non-working” fingers from dragging on the computer keyboard.
A typist who lost use of one hand in an accident was thrilled to discover a five-finger keyboard.
The technology centers allow people to learn about equipment without sales pressure.
Carmen Soward wishes such help had been available a few years back, when she went looking for a communication device for her daughter.
“I rented quite a few machines through United Cerebral Palsy of Boise. That was the only way to get your hands on anything to try, which got to be a real hassle,” Soward says.
Holly Soward of Coeur d’Alene, now 7 years old, has cerebral palsy. She can’t speak and has limited control of her body.
The Sowards’ search for the perfect communication tool was so frustrating that they invented their own. The family named it the Holly.com and started Communications Devices Inc. to sell it.
The user touches a word or picture on a tilt-up screen. Touch a key, and a recorded message sounds off. New messages can be recorded at any time in anyone’s voice. They can be as simple as “Yes” or “I need another bite.” Or, they can be tailored to spelling lessons or physical therapy sessions.
The recording tool is helping Holly learn at Coeur d’Alene’s Fernan Elementary. New requirements that public schools integrate handicapped children are greatly increasing the need for, and awareness of, technology for the disabled.
Insurance companies are just beginning to pay for technology beyond the usual artificial legs and hearing aids. There’s almost no federal money for adults who need special equipment.
“You’re a little better off if you’re a kid,” Ferrell says.
Donnie McCoy is 13 but has the mental abilities of a kindergartner. He can’t speak.
His mother, Frances, wants Donnie to learn to write. She’s set her sights on a $2,500 Lightwriter machine that will fit in a fanny pack.
“Medicaid will pay for one communication device for his life,” says the Coeur d’Alene woman. “I have to make sure what I select will work.”
Thanks to a loaned computer and software advice from Easter Seals, Donnie has mastered writing a few simple words.
For grown-ups, the right equipment can mean getting back to work.
Smith, the former deputy, takes his talking machine to the Kootenai County sheriff’s office, where he helps with filing.
Before, he would carry a notepad everywhere and hoped people could read his shaky writing. Or he’d rely on his wife, Julie, to speak for him.
Now, Smith orders his own restaurant meals and strikes up conversations with strangers.
“Everybody needs a voice,” says Ferrell. “Can you imagine not having a voice anymore?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE TO CALL For more information, contact: The Easter Seal Society of Washington, W. 606 Sharp, Spokane. (509) 328-9350; toll-free 800-214-8731. St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, 711 S. Cowley, Spokane. (509) 838-4771. The Disability Action Center, 601 Sherman Ave., Coeur d’Alene. (208) 666-1362; toll-free 800-854-9500. The Idaho Assistive Technology Project, 129 W. Third St., Moscow. (208) 885-3621, toll-free 800-432-8324.