Helen Keller was born both blind and deaf, but she was able to read lips and communicate with her hands. Stephen Hawking, who suffers from ALS, is able to communicate through his computer because of the strides made in assistive communications technology. This story is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with Pearson.
Assistive Communications Technology
AYMAN MOHYELDIN, reporting:
Helen Keller, a 20th century author and activist, who was unable to see or hear. Stephen Hawking , a 21st century physicist and author who has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
These two lives bracket a half-century of astonishing progress in technology that helps people with disabilities communicate.
There was very little “assistive” communications technology in 1882, when Helen Keller, not yet two years old, contracted a serious illness and lost her sight and hearing.
Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her to communicate through sign language, "spelling" letters and words into Helen’s hands so she could learn the finger positions.
To read, she learned an early version of Braille – running her fingers over raised dots on paper that corresponded to letters of the alphabet.
To write, she used a hand stylus to press out Braille letters and also used a typewriter.
ANNE SULLIVAN: By putting her hands on my face she felt the vibration of the spoken word.
MOHYELDIN: While there was no technology to help her speak, by placing fingers on her teacher’s lips and throat, Keller learned to copy mouth movements and vocal vibrations, and even make sounds.
SULLIVAN: Placing her hand in this position, she feels the G, the hard G.
MOHYELDIN: But her speech was never clear enough to allow her to use the great communications invention of her day, the telephone.
HELEN KELLER: All of the world, we must work together to build a new civilization we have glimpsed from time to time in radiant flashes.
MOHYELDIN: Keller died in 1968 , less than 10 years before a new era of technology would revolutionize communications for everyone, the age of personal computers, the Internet, miniaturized hardware, and advanced software. TTY, or teletypewriter, technology let the hearing-impaired send text over telephone lines.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You made the White House that belongs to everybody.
MOHYELDIN: Closed-captioning of television programming converted sound into text for the hearing-impaired.
AUTOMATED VOICE: Hello, Mozzeria, Melody here, how can I help you?
MOHYELDIN: Web cameras and video apps let the hearing-impaired sign ‘long-distance.’ People without the ability to see or hear could touch-type on computer keyboards, send and receive e-mail. Talking calculators translated math equations and problems into audio.
AUTOMATED VOICE: Nine eight plus six five equals one six three
WOMAN: Record a video
MOHYELDIN: Voice-activated commands let people with a wide range of disabilities operate computers
WOMAN: Turn left.
MOHYELDIN: Tablets, and smart phones.
WOMAN: Take a picture
MOHYELDIN: Screen-reading and speech recognition software turned spoken words into text.
WOMAN: What time is it in New York?
AUTOMATED VOICE: In New York City it is twelve thirty-nine p.m.
MOHYELDIN: And text into synthesized speech. These advances transformed life for Stephen Hawking. As his ALS progressed, he could no longer move his legs, arms, or hands, or speak. But state-of-the-art digital technology lets Hawking – one of the most influential theoretical physicists in history – communicate. He watches a cursor auto-scan across a graphic keyboard on his computer screen. When the cursor gets to a letter he wants to select, Hawking tenses a single muscle in his cheek – a tiny movement detected by an infrared switch mounted on his glasses, which stops the cursor, and records the letter. After a few letters, a software program predicts what word or phrase Hawking might be thinking of, so he doesn’t have to spell out every word of every sentence. When he’s finished, Hawking can either e-mail or text what he’s written, or “speak” it through a voice synthesizer.
STEPHEN HAWKING: Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know.
MOHYELDIN: Next-generation innovations go even further, including advanced sensors and software that can turn a person’s thoughts, brain signals, into speech or text. Technology – giving some of the most severely challenged a voice and a say in their lives, and a vital connection to the world.
Synopsis: Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France. The son of a harness-maker, Braille was blinded by an accident when he was 3. Educated at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille developed a raised-dot code that enabled blind people to read and write.
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