His Key Is a Computer : Disabled Man’s Goal: To Be Useful

Times Staff Writer

David Ford, a 23-year-old student at Harbor College, began to show symptoms of muscular dystrophy when he was 5. He continued walking until about age 11, when the disease, which generally causes progressive weakness in muscle tissues, forced him into a wheelchair.

But although the disorder has robbed him of his physical mobility, Ford says, it has not affected his mind and spirit of humanity.

Two years ago, Ford said, “I evaluated my situation and decided that I could do something useful in the computer field. It’s important to be useful, you know.”

He said that for him--and millions of other disabled Americans--being useful means bridging the gap between a physically isolated intellect and the outside world, to be able to control his own environment and to function in the workplace.


That “interface gap” is rapidly closing as a result of high-tech developments of the past few years, says Steve Harshfield, director of Harbor College’s program for disabled and handicapped students.

Bringing It Together

“The new interfaces are out there now,” he said. “It’s just a matter of someone bringing it all together. A lot of it is offshoots from space technology. We’re getting more than Tupperware from those programs.”

Harshfield, who was paralyzed in a diving accident at 13, came to Harbor College in 1972 after several years of teaching psychology at other Los Angeles-area colleges. He said the Harbor program now serves about 150 students, including a number with learning disabilities.


Earlier efforts to establish a working relation between a physically disabled person’s mind and the outside world have relied primarily on the use of mechanical devices, Harshfield said. Disabled people grip brushes in their teeth to paint or pencils to punch keyboards.

Or they blow through straws on pressure-sensitive keys, or wave light wands at optical sensors, or push levers with their foreheads or elbows or toes.

More sophisticated systems are available to the disabled who can afford them, Harshfield said, such as computer-controlled devices in the home that operate lights, kitchen ovens, television sets, lawn sprinklers.

The Important Thing

“You see, the big thing is to become independent, self-reliant,” he said. “I used to drive a car to work, but I had to get somebody to help me in and out. Now I have a van with a hoist and some space-age controls, and I can do it all myself.”

For Ford and others with similar disabilities, Harshfield said, the most useful “interface” would be a voice-recognition system--equipment that would enable them to talk to a computer and tell it what to do.

“But that’s a much more difficult problem,” he said. “We have voice synthesizers that help the blind operate computers, and I’m told that text-reading equipment will be available in the near future. But the kind of artificial intelligence that’s needed to understand the human voice and respond reliably . . . well, I don’t know.”

Hard Time


But Ford said he is convinced that the equipment he needs does exist. As it is now, he said, “I am having a hard time learning how to program computers because I can’t use my hands on the keyboard.” He must rely on another student to input commands, which he said limits the amount of time he can practice programming assignments.

Ford said he has no money for expensive computer equipment, noting that “after I pay for my care I am left with about $25 in spending money.” He lives with his brother Scott, 21, at a convalescent home in Torrance. Scott, who is taking science courses at Harbor, is also afflicted with muscular dystrophy.

David Ford’s best hope of finding the right computer interface for his needs may lie with Gerald Schwartz, an Irvine engineer with a reputation for pioneering exotic new software used in advanced voice-recognition equipment.

Schwartz said he has worked with other physically disabled students in developing voice-recognition interfaces for their needs, and he wanted to see what he could put together for Ford.

“What David is looking for does exist,” he said, “and it exists now. I can build a hands-off package that can be totally operated by voice commands. David will never have to touch the computer, just talk to it. And it will speak to him.”

Donation Possible

The market price for such a package would run about $6,000, Schwartz said. But he said he would ask several manufacturers to donate the computer and voice-recognition hardware to Harbor College for use by Ford and other students, and he would provide the software and training without charge.

At week’s end, Schwartz said he had “good indications” from two manufacturers on donations of the hardware. “I’m 90% sure that it can be done,” he said.


Schwartz, a former aerospace engineer, said he became interested in the “interface problems” of the disabled while working on voice-command systems used by military fighter pilots.

“When a pilot is under nine Gs (of gravity force), his voice is the only thing he’s got to control the aircraft,” Schwartz said. “But even the pilot’s voice becomes distorted under those forces, and since we couldn’t simulate nine Gs in the lab, I started working with handicapped people” with similar speech impediments.

Change in Course

Those contacts, he said, raised his awareness of the needs of the handicapped and he began to devise ways to apply his expertise to their problems. “The response of the disabled community changed the whole course of my career,” Schwartz said. “I can’t tell you the satisfaction I get from seeing their lights go back on.”

He said computer interfaces for the disabled can “make it possible for 36 million (physically handicapped) Americans to become productive members of society. It’s mind boggling.”

Harbor College President James Heinselmann said “it would be just tremendous” to have the equipment proposed by Schwartz. Computer instructor Farah Fisher said the equipment “certainly would be a great help to David and other students.”

David Ford said, “I’m happy.”