It all started after reading an article..
In June of 1981, a front page article in the Fall River Herald News drew UMass Dartmouth Professor Lester Cory's attention. The story entitled "LINDA'S WINDOW ON THE WORLD" described a young woman whose only means of communication were her eyes. She spelled out words by gazing at letters of the alphabet painted on a Plexiglas board held in front of her face.
Linda Texceira was born with cerebral palsy. The degree of her disability, which affects the section of the brain that controls movement, prohibited Linda from walking, using her hands, and talking. One of her few physical abilities was to be able to control the movement of her eyes. Without the ability to speak or to write or even to point to things, Linda had no means of expressing her thoughts independently. Before having the eye board, her family asked her an endless series of yes/no questions to determine what she wanted to say. Linda patiently answered them by making sounds and by moving her expressive eyes.
At first, Linda's parents taught her the alphabet, and she tried to spell by pointing to letters on a plywood board. But unfortunately, she didn't have sufficient fine motor control to spell out words by pointing even when her father painted the letters very big. Then the idea struck her father to paint the letters on a piece of Plexiglas.
The 22 year-old woman was then able to communicate her thoughts by selecting letters with her eyes as her father held up the board between his eyes and hers. Mr. Texceira's invention was an immediate success. Within minutes, Linda selected the letters with her eyes, and she soon began to spell out her innermost thoughts and dreams. For the first time in her life, Linda was able to say absolutely anything that was on her mind. Linda communicated faster and more efficiently as soon her family and friends developed shortcuts and also became proficient users of the board. However, this mode of communication, although simple to use, took time and practice to master. Often people were reluctant to try the board or were not willing to take the time to learn to use it to chat with Linda. Among those unwilling to accept her eye gaze as an acceptable means of communication were the school officials who decided that Linda could not attend public school because she could not "speak." As a result, most of Linda's early education was conducted by her mother at their Little Compton, Rhode Island home.
Cory, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, was moved after reading about the 23-year-old woman. He pondered for a while if his expertise in computers could help her. Shortly after, he called Linda's parents to arrange a visit to determine what, if anything, could be done to enable her to communicate independently.
With her mother acting as eye board operator and interpreter, Professor Cory was able to converse with Linda. Not having experience talking to anyone with a severe physical disability, the engineer felt uncomfortable and even embarrassed. He didn't know what to say or what to avoid saying, and thought he had to somehow talk differently to a disabled person.
But as the evening progressed, his anxiety faded and he discovered that he could talk with Linda the same way as he could to a non-disabled person. Reluctantly at first, he even learned to use the eye board. They talked about Linda's struggle to communicate and to gain an education. They discussed her hope to earn a high school diploma and eventually to have a job -- "helping people less fortunate than myself," she said. And Linda shared an often repeated dream, to talk on the phone.
After the visit, Cory was convinced that something could be designed to enable Linda to communicate by herself. Building the system, he realized, could take hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of hours, too big a task for one person to undertake, especially a person with a full time job. He thought back to past projects that he had successfully undertaken with Prof. Philip Viall. Prof. Cory admired Phil's problem solving ability, and it seemed that no project was too large for him to tackle. Phil especially liked problems that "couldn't be solved." Cory knew that he was the right co-designer for the upcoming project. The only problem, however, was finding the young ambitious engineer. So Cory decided to write a message on a blackboard in a classroom where Vial was teaching a course. The fateful message read, "Phil, boy have I got a project for you! Les."
The two electrical engineers finally met and planned their strategy to build a communication system for Linda. They took into account that the young woman did not have the hand or foot dexterity needed to utilize a keyboard, and lacked the head control to type with a head pointer or mouth stick, which many disabled individuals utilize to type. With these factors in mind, a computer hardware-software package had to be designed which Linda would be able to control. Ideally, it should be controlled by Linda's eyes. That option was discussed, researched, and reluctantly abandoned in favor of a scanning system controlled by a head touch switch. Within a few days, work began in earnest on the system that, it was decided, would have a virtual reality pointer that automatically pointed to letters, words, and frequently used phrases. By pressing her head against the switch at the appropriate time, Linda would be able to spell words, write sentences, and eventually, to speak with an electronic voice.
After the schematics were drawn-up to guide the engineers, funding was needed in order to purchase the equipment to build the system. So, hoping to get financial support, Cory talked to members of his unit of the Rhode Island Air National Guard and to members of a local Rotary Club about his goal. Both groups were eager to help make the proposed communication system a reality.
Because she had been involved in almost every step of the design, it took only a few minutes for Linda to learn how to use her speech system. Ironically, it was finished on the very day of her mother's birthday, and one of Linda's first messages was "Happy Birthday mom, love Linda." According to Prof. Cory, "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."
Linda's dream of being able to talk with her friends by phone also came true because the system was designed to dial the phone. The two professors donated the parts for the switch interface that bypassed the keyboard and for the parts to interface the synthesizer, device controller and phone dialer. Phone numbers were dialed by the computer after Linda entered them the same way she wrote words and chose phrases. The speech synthesizer acted like translator, translating her thoughts. Her messages and poems are printed by activating the PRINT command. Educational opportunities also became possible after Linda gained her freedom of speech.
After the two engineers fabricated Linda Texceira's communication system, the news media was quick to pick up on the story of a non-speaking young woman being able to communicate via a computer. There were television appearances and stories in newspapers for miles around. For a while, the designers enjoyed the spotlight and prepared to resume their lives. But then, something totally unexpected happened.
The telephone started to ring. Families of people in situations similar to Linda's came seeking solutions for their inabilities to communicate. It had never occurred to either of the designers that there might be others with similar abilities and needs. At first it appeared that perhaps Linda's system could simply be duplicated for the second user, but his reading skills didn't match Linda's and his vision was limited. His physical dexterity, however, was much greater. The result was an entirely new system.
User number three didn't match either of the first two, and person four, who had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) didn't match any of the first three. Three things became obvious. One: people are unique. Each of them has a unique set of abilities and a unique set of needs. Two: there are a lot of non-speaking individuals in the world -- literally millions. Three: if they were to continue designing and building high tech adaptive equipment, Cory and Viall would need a place to work and a source of funds. They cleared a corner of a projects lab at the university for work space and contemplated the establishment of a volunteer organization to expand upon their work.
Prof. Richard Walder, another member of the electrical engineering faculty, was first to join the team. Together, the three became the co-founders of an incorporated entity which they christened Society for Human Advancement through Rehabilitation Engineering (SHARE). In time, a Board of Directors was selected and seated, bylaws were written and approved, and the organization began to develop an identity of its own.
Today, SHARE exists as the fund raising arm of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Rehabilitation Engineering. As of fiscal year 2006, more than 2,500 individuals in 37 different states have found help by turning to SHARE. The Center continues to design and build innovative systems to meet the needs of individuals. Les and Phil are still involved in the day-to-day operations of the Center, and although Rick has retired from teaching, he is no stranger to the design lab and serves as clerk of the corporation.