University of Missouri - Columbia.
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Posted 12.07.05

MU Technology Center Gives the Gift of Communication

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The blink of an eye, the exhale of breath or the slight twitch of a toe. These barely discernible movements are keys to communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia's Assistive Technology Evaluation Center. The Center is filled with switches, computers and other special devices that open a whole new world of possibilities for people with everything from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy.

"I love it!" said Billy Klutts, when asked how he liked his assistive technology device that gives him the ability to speak. Klutts, 45, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease a few months ago and can no longer speak or move. He uses tiny movements in his legs to press his knees against buttons mounted inside his wheelchair. Those buttons control a computer mounted across his lap where he can type or choose phrases to be played through a speaker.

"It is amazing to watch as people come here for evaluations," said Michelle Wheeler, speech language pathologist. "They can go from being totally closed off from the world to surfing the Internet and even regaining their voice."

At the recently opened center, there is something to help almost anyone gain access to a computer. Onscreen keyboards that are accessed with a mouse help people with limited hand movement use a computer. Any body part can be used to tap Morse code onto an oversized button hooked to a computer that turns the code into words on the screen. There is even a program for people with no movement that, through electrodes on the forehead, uses brainwaves to control a computer.

Knowledge and cost are the two most common roadblocks standing between people and assistive technology. Wheeler explained that many people are not aware the technology is available. Others are held back by the cost, the most common communication devices can range from $400 to $8,000. While most private insurance companies and Medicare will often pay 80 percent of the cost, recent cuts in Medicaid only leave this option open for people under the age of 21.

"There is a program in Missouri that will pay for the technology someone needs to gain access to a computer and the internet," said Shawna Dunnaway, occupational therapist at Mizzou. "It is underutilized because most people don't even know about it. The Telecommunication Access Program for the Internet is funded through a few pennies of tax that everyone pays on their phone bill."

"How do you tell someone that the cost of communicating their basic needs is too much to pay?" Wheeler said.



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