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The Beginning…

Photo: Eva Sweeney
Today, with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram the social media of choice, the generational tech artifacts of blogs, email and, dare I say, telephone calls are all gathering virtual dust by the nanosecond. And so I tip my age with my first blog entry—an effort to think out loud about the current state of Assistive Technology (AT) in a manner informed by experience, reflection and an and an ever expanding curiosity about technology and its relationship to disability.

Why my voice? What’s to say about AT that hasn’t already been said? Where’s the added value that might warrant your time and consideration? Well, time and words will provide the answer to those questions.

I was first introduced to AT some thirty years ago shortly after the birth of our daughter. Eva suffered a traumatic birth injury resulting in brain damage sustained from a lack of oxygen over a period of several minutes. Six months later she was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy. Our world was turned upside-down. That’s where this story begins.

Desperately trying to navigate our way through a maze of medical pathology, emotional trauma and social service delivery models, we were more than fortunate to find the UCLA Early Intervention Program, a birth-to-three program for “children with special needs.”

It was a remarkable program—nurturing and innovative—with a staff of bright and creative therapists, educators and administrators. The program included a research project with the local school district with a focus on computer technology. This was 1985 and the early years as Apple brought computers into classrooms and living rooms for the first time. The research was focused upon one simple question: What would happen if you gave children with disabilities access to computer technology? This at a time when most people—most adults—were purchasing home computers for the very first time.

So even before her third birthday, there Eva sat literally propped up in front of an Apple IIe computer with a single-switch interface. For a young beautiful girl unable to walk, grab or even sit independently, the world outside of her control could for the first time be controlled. All Eva had to do was take her tiny little fist and strike a switch about the size of a small saucer. Even this was no small effort and yet—OMG!—she hit the switch and Sticky Bear jumped up and down on the screen and her world opened up like never before. It was a "before" and "after" moment in her life—in our lives.

Shortly afterwards, as her birthday approached, my wife and I prompted her to see what she might wish for her birthday. A book? A doll? A stuffed animal?—all items we knew Eva would enjoy but only passively and not as a toy she might grab and play with on her own.

I remember the moment well. Eva sat and ever so slowly raised one arm over the other in a cross at just about her wrists—an adapted sign used at the UCLA Early Intervention Program for "COMPUTER" and a wide, proud smile broke across her face as tears fell down mine.

Indeed, the world—Eva's world—opened up like never before and that was the beginning for Eva, our family and my subsequent career in Assistive Technology.