Enabling lives via technology
By Jennifer Brown
Denver Post Staff Writer
Jacob Ancell is 11, loves playing video games and joking with his school buddies. But his words are trapped inside his head.
Only technology can unlock Jacob's thoughts. Only the computer attached to his wheelchair lets Jacob, who has cerebral palsy, tell his mother he's thirsty, or introduce himself, or ask his teacher a question.
"Without technology, people underestimated his intelligence, underestimated his capability," said his mother, Holly Ancell. "Just because he doesn't have the ability to speak doesn't mean he's not thinking like we all are."
The blue-eyed boy with tousled sandy hair is one of hundreds of people with mental and physical disabilities whose lives have changed because of the University of Colorado's Assistive Technology Partners in Denver.
The program's year-old Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center brings together graduate students and professors in medicine, engineering, psychology and physical therapy to develop technology for people with traumatic brain injuries, Alzheimer's disease and other disabilities.
The center is one way a $250 million gift to CU in 2001 from Bill and Claudia Coleman is reaching people. The Coleman Institute is giving $1.3 million to the center, which also has a $4.25 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Technology created at the center will help the 21.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities live independently, get jobs and have happier lives, said Cathy Bodine, director of Assistive Technology Partners.
The industry is about to burst into a new era, she said. There are more than 29,000 technology devices for people with disabilities on the market - compared with about 100 in the mid-1980s, she said.
"Because of this explosion in commercial technology, there is so much more available," she said. "And people are finally paying attention."
A laser on Jacob's wheelchair detects when he turns his head to the right, allowing him to scan conversation topics on his computer screen. He turns his head to the left to select a feeling, question or one of his "power words" - "sweet," "gross," "disgusting."
Ancell tears up when she remembers the first time Jacob wheeled into a room and his computerized voice said, "I'm Jacob."
"It was thrilling," she said. "He's having true conversations and real relationships. People appreciate him for who he is."
Faculty and graduate students also are creating a virtual tutor, a "computerizedperson," to help people with cognitive disabilities get jobs.
Another device would alert Alzheimer's patients if they left the stove on or remind them when it's time to leave for an appointment. Eventually, a tiny computer could be embedded in their clothing.
And the center is creating virtual-reality exercise for people who use wheelchairs.
Eventually, people paralyzed below the waist will wear goggles that visually transport them to a bike path through Denver or along Boulder Creek as they pedal a stationary machine with their arms. They will be able to log online and exercise with friends, who can travel the same virtual path.
Jerry Soria, who was paralyzed from the chest down by a rare blood disease in 2000, went from 270 pounds to 186 pounds after Assistive Technology Partners built him an upper-body ergometer. He moved from an electric wheelchair to a manual one three weeks ago and recently pushed himself from the Capitol to Colorado Boulevard, just to see if he could.
"I just felt too crippled before, and I hated it," Soria said.
It's almost impossible for people in wheelchairs to make it to a gym, said Leslie McLachlan, a physical therapist in charge of the exercise project. Only one gym in downtown Denver even has an upper-body ergometer, and it isn't wheelchair accessible, she said.
Marty Sutherland, who has used a wheelchair since 1997 because of his cerebral palsy, has been coming to the center for months to get more comfortable in his chair. They've fitted him with a custom-molded leg rest, head rest and seat cushion.
"It's his legs, his whole life," physical therapist Kelly Waugh said. "It kind of has to be perfect."
Staff writer Jennifer Brown can be reached at 303-820-1593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.