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Senate Panel Mulls High-Tech Plan

April 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Craig Fulford, just ending his freshman year in college, has cerebral palsy and needs help with his studies. The assistance he gets isn’t from a human but a cluster of high-tech tools in his college dormitory.

When he’s studying for a test at Vincennes University in southwestern Indiana, Fulford _ who has trouble seeing _ digitally scans class notes into his computer, which electronically reads the words aloud on a slightly modified laptop.

``All we’ve done to this laptop is put in a sound card and added a software program to make this accessible for me,″ said Fulford, 22, who was to testify from his wheelchair today before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee about assistive technology for people with disabilities.

The committee is deciding whether to authorize about $30 million, which would be a cut from last year, in federal grants to states for programs that will help people who use assistive technology, or to offer incentive money to specific states where there are no such programs. Those grants have been made since 1988 under the Technology-Related Assistance Act. Last year, Congress gave $36 million.

``The funding is a tough issue,″ said Silvio Cianfrone, president of NanoPac Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., which has fitted about 500 disabled people nationwide with high-tech computers costing under $5,000 that can change a television’s channels or answer a telephone for those who can’t use their arms.

``There are probably 90 percent (of disabled people) who could use it but who aren’t, primarily because of funding. The more severe your disability, the more likely you’re tapped out on insurance. It becomes very difficult to afford some of the technology.″

Fulford, the college student, said his laptop, scanner and specialized software were provided to him under grants. His parents bought the other equipment he needs.

For people with physical disabilities, such as quadraplegics, experts can rig a computer to listen for commands using speech recognition software. The blind can have their computers read text aloud, and people who can’t speak or use their limbs can control their computers using a sip-and-puff straw or even a scanner that tracks eye movements.

Such computers, for example, can be ordered to open and close doors or turn on lights or the dishwasher.

``I can now access America Online and communicate with my brother, who is in the Navy and stationed in California. This saves a long-distance call to him,″ said Carol Smith of Knoxville, Tenn., who also suffers from cerebral palsy and planned to testify today before the committee.

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