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September 2004

Technology: Everyone, Everywhere, Everyday

By Judith Geppert
Presented at the ARATA 2004 National Conference.

Let's dance

Many felt the Age of Aquarius heralded the coming of the "end of times" as written in the Bible, others felt that it was the dawning of the "new world". It was when the first commercial computer evolved and man walked on the moon for the first time. Nobody, not the crazy inventors, nor the knee-jerk conservatives, had any real idea what choices were being opened up by this new technology, whether it meant reaching for the stars, by walking on the moon, or test driving my first electric wheelchair.

This paper is about the effect Technology has had on my life.

Niel Armstong on the moon.

PICTURE: One Small Step Neil Armstrong

But, for me it heralded freedom and the possibility
that even I could reach for the stars ...

For me, assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customised, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities for me or others with disabilities. Low-tech or high-tech technology can be made from store-bought items; it can be purchased through companies that specialise in making assistive and adapted products. Low and high technology allows me to achieve daily activities at home, work and in the community.

Low technology is my 'headpointer', which I have been using since 1972. High technology is an electric wheelchair, a PC and a 2.3 metre access yacht.

Being born in the early 1950s with Athetoid Quadriplegia a form of cerebral palsy and other health problems, meant my life started on pretty rocky ground, no one held much hope, especially my parents, when told that my prognosis was about ten years.

At this time, while my brother was learning to speak, walk and play, I would sit and watch him with envy, wishing that I could join in. I soon figured out for myself that having a disability meant my life was going to be different to other children.

All I wanted was just to grow-up and live a 'normal' life.

Unable to join in and play with other children, the one thing I could do was read. I read every newspaper and magazine that came within my reach. Then in 1956 technology entered my life with a 17 inch black & white television set. On this TV I watched documentaries, especially on the new technology which was evolving. Now I began to reach out and grasp every bit of information I possibly could.

IBM Typewriter.

PICTURE: This metal box was going to be a means to my new life.

My life changed the day I was sat me in front of a large metal box called an I.B.M. electric typewriter. I was asked to type my name. It took me 30 minutes and a foolscap page to type those two words.

The reason why it took me so long was, because I was four years of age; so small I couldn't see over the top of the typewriter, to see what I was typing. I can still remember how proud I was when I took that page of typing home to show my parents, but somehow it didn't mean anything to them. Maybe because they, couldn't understand the hieroglyphics.

Upon my return to school the next day I was told I couldn't type any more because it took me so long. Even though I was only four years old, I realised that this metal box was going to be a means to a new life for me.

At this time I was unable to speak. With the severity of my disability and poor health, my OT told my parents that this form of technology was not going to be an option for me.

So what did I do?

I played up like a naughty child every day for the next two weeks, until I was given back that typewriter. I was determined that nobody was going to take this piece of freedom away from me.

This electric typewriter became my best friend. I realised from the start that with it I could communicate and show people that there was more to ME, than what they were looking at. At last I could do something by myself and prove, not only to my parents and teachers, but to the therapists, that I was aware of what was going on around me and what I was missing out on. Now I was beginning to discover a new world, starting with schooling, and soon art.

PICTURE: Gumnut babies

Typewriter art.

Like most children I wanted to draw, so at the age of nine I started by designing "Typewriter Art", using different typewriter keys to create a picture. First I used a red/black typewriter ribbon, then, in 1974 I acquired three coloured ribbons. With these, I was then able to incorporate colour into my pictures. Over the next three decades I exhibited throughout the world and have been awarded a Diploma of Honour from Paris.

PICTURE: Music played an important part in my early life, and still does.

Judith selecting CDs with her headpointer, using her feet to operate the CD player and (insert) 1960s automatic record changer.

At the age of five my father gave me a transistor radio, due to the fact that I was unable to play with dolls or toys. From this, my love of music was born.

Then there were phonographic records. Because of my spasms, these records were easy for me to damage and had to be turned over every 20 minutes. Dad came home with a stereo phonogram which had an automatic arm. Now up to six records could be loaded at any one time. I could now listen for a longer period of time, but they still had to be flipped over. Next came cassette tapes, although harder to damage, these too had to be turned over frequently. Then along came the compact discs (CDs) and multiple CD players.

The music which I love was now available for me to enjoy for much longer periods of time, even hours, without any assistance. All I now need to do is place the CD into the load tray using my 'headpointer' and with my left foot, push the play button. With my 'headpointer' I can use the remote control to adjust the volume or change tracks.

For me the changes in music technology from the 1950s up to the 1980s have been significant.

The invention of the electric wheelchair became available in Australia during the late 1960s. Until then my wheelchair was an oversized canvas stroller, on four small wheels. Unfortunately for me there was no possible way I could move around unaided, once I was put somewhere, that was where I stayed until someone came back to move me.

My first electric wheelchair

PICTURE: "The Chariot"

My first electric wheelchair was known affectingly as 'the Chariot', it was designed and manufactured out of heavy steel pipes and metal, by The Spastic Centre of NSW. The design was not as sophisticated as they are today, but still each chair was made individually to suit the person.

My physio told me that the 'normal' way to drive an electric wheelchair was by hand. But how could I? I had no control over my hands I couldn't steer this chair in a straight line. I did try, but due to my spasms it would suddenly spin out of control and take-off in any direction.

Who says you can't walk through walls? Yes, that's right, straight through a fibro wall into the male toilets. I do not know who got more of a shock, the men or me.

After much deliberating I came up with a safer way to drive. As I was already using my feet to do different tasks, I thought that maybe I could go a step further. So I asked my physio if I could try controlling my chair with my left foot. She said "no", because there was no such thing, as a foot control.

As I donít take "no" for an answer, I pursued this idea by going around it another way. I approached the OT, persuaded him that with his help and my determination, it would work. So after many months, working together in a small back room, we came up with a foot control.

I will never forget that day when I saw my idea was a reality. I couldn't wait to get into my chair. Once in it, I finally found that I had complete control over it and in the direction, I wanted to go. This was only going to be a ten minute test-drive, but once in it, I took off. The OT searched for me for two hours. He finally gave up and decided I could keep my chair.

Now I had, my independence, my freedom and I was keeping it!

These days, it is a more lightweight electric wheelchair made from materials such as carbon fibre and titanium, spin-offs from space age technology, and I still drive with my left foot.

Once again my life changed, this time with the personal computer. With this piece of technology, I can now extend my intelligence, just as I used TV and books to expand my world and open my mind.

Computers are not specific to any one task; and that fact changes everything.

I started using the Internet over a decade ago; web sites were text-based and created simply to provide information. Then the web grew by leaps and bounds, along with the technology to support it. My PC enables me to communicate and interact, without physical or social limitations and also created alternative ways for me to receive information. E-mail, is a simple method by which people all over the world can communicate with one another. But for me, it has given me the opportunity to communicate with friends anywhere and at anytime. Also to meet people through participation in discussion forums or support groups.

As a child, I was unable play with traditional toys or games. Because of this, I feel that I have missed out on this part of my childhood. But with the invention of computer games there are now many electronic alternatives. Things such as card games, crossword puzzles and other interactive games are all now available for me to use on my computer.

Internet banking gives me a way to use the banking system and other financial services in complete privacy. Before this I had to rely on friends to assist me. My job as a desktop publisher did not happen like it would for a person without a disability.

Assembling telephone coils at the shetered workshop.

PICTURE: The Geppert Coil.

In a sheltered workshop I assembled an international
telephone switchboard coil, which was then named after me.

At 17 years of age I was placed in a sheltered workshop sorting nuts and bolts. Two years later, when the technology became available, a compressed air press was designed and constructed for me. I assembled on this press a coil for the PMG Department, later known as Telecom, for their huge international switchboards.

These days, I work with computers in the Community Development Department at The Spastic Centre of NSW, employed as a desktop-publisher working along-side 'able-bodied' colleagues. One of my publications, which I produce monthly, is a newsletter called 'TechnoTalk'.

My employment over the last 35 years has given me a sense of purpose, a thing we all need. So instead of being a burden on society, I regard my job as important; keeping my mind occupied and enabling me to contribute to my community in a meaningful way. Technology, specifically computers, has made this possible.

Working at the computer.

PICTURE: I regard my job as important,
Keeping my mind occupied.

Transport is another fundamental way to independence. It also a means to a better quality of life, something which we all need. Once, the only options for me to enter the outside world were to have a friend escort me in a manual chair, or in my electric wheelchair in a special purpose taxi. When I did use these taxis, I was limited to one trip a fortnight, due to their availability and fare prices.

Both of these solutions were not a very successful way for me to interact with other people or to develop socially. Access to transport is as important to me, as it is for people who do not have a disability. With the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 came changes; with design requirements to ensure access for people with disabilities to public buses, ferries and trains. Public buses were then converted for the first time into easy access buses.

Again, without technology this would not have been possible.

Now I began my integration into the general community.

Catching a wheelchair accessible bus.

PICTURE: Access to public transport

How did I feel the first time I ventured onto a public bus? This came in September 1998; it was the first time in my 47 years that I was totally alone.

Sitting alone at the bus stop in my electric wheelchair, I waited until the ramp was fully out before I boarded the bus. Once I positioned my chair in my allotted section, my journey began. Yes alone. I didn't know the driver or any of the passengers. I was finally my own master.

This journey, I now take several times a week, means even more freedom, which I never dreamed of. I can now choose the time I leave, the places I visit, and the time I return.

"You can't do that".
"You might hurt yourself, or even drown".
"Of course all boats sink. Just look at what happened to the Titanic" ... "Even that sank".

These were just a few of the comments that people made to me, when in the summer of '97, I decided to try my head at sailing. With a piece of technology in the form of a joystick strapped to my chest I can control my yacht by using my chin. It took me about six sailing lessons to master these controls.

Judith sailing solo on the harbour.

PICTURE: Look, no hands!

Over the years I have participated in the NSW State Finals, and once received a Bronze Medal. I also entered the National Championships in Canberra and at the end of the second day, the Governor General of Australia, awarded me the Silver Medal. Now I sail solo on Sydney Harbour every other Saturday.

Technology and assistive-technology has helped me not only to build my self confidence, but be able to perform daily tasks by myself; which is something that nobody ever thought I would. I have always tried to be independent, and believe that a person should try to do things unaided as much as possibly. Try to be as independent as you can, before asking for help. But if a technology device helps you, then get it, learn your limitations, then go for it!

People from around the world have come up with many ways for making daily activities, including the use of technology, more user-friendly for people with disabilities. Some general technological developments, which weren't specifically designed for people with disabilities, have also been beneficial. For some people, the convenience of these gadgets is a luxury for others, it is a necessity, but for me and others with disabilities it gives us the ability to live a more 'normal' life.

Only a few decades ago a TV remote control would have been considered a convenience for couch potatoes. Nowadays it is the most obvious accessory.

Convenience is not a negative word, what was once considered a 'convenience', what is 'normal' and what is 'necessity' certainly have changed over the decades.

I cannot even scratch the surface of what technology has done for me in my life, but hopefully I have shown just a small glimpse of how it can change someoneís life.

Technology has let me touch the stars, now I am a 'free spirit' and the Age of Aquarius have certainly dawned for me ...

Inspire to climb as high as you can dream.

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