Technology, Accessibility, and my Aunt Pat

The start of a tribute to my aunt (and a nod to my dad)

I am mostly composing this blog post using my transcription software. I am still learning how to use the various commands in the software, so I’m still doing a few manual adjustments.

I have a few videos that I made yesterday and today, but I want you to see the video I made about my Aunt Pat, full name Mary Pat Radabaugh. (It is probably not a shocker to learn that my mom named me after her. I am my parents’ oldest child.)

Mary Pat Radabaugh, Champion for Tech Use to Help Those with Disabilities

Mary Pat Radabaugh was my mother’s oldest sister, and like many in her family, Aunt Pat worked for IBM.

I don’t know the full history because I was a child at the time, but Aunt Pat was the driving force behind IBM’s project for technology for people with disabilities in the late 1980s. I got to see some of that work up close and personal while a child, as I was by her side for a Kidney Foundation summer camp in the 1980s, in which she championed using technology to enable kids on dialysis to be able to control their world.

There is a lot more to the story, which I will cover in videos to come (probably not the inappropriate jokes, which my aunt didn’t contribute to). There is so much to unpack there, including how one can be effective in getting tech to people while not knowing how to use it yourself, who are the best teachers of really technical info, the myriad ways to have an impact on the world, and more.

Also, the whole floppy tie phenomenon. That was a thing.

The November 5, 1987 article

The following is a transcription of the article featured in my video:

IBM Center is Helping Disabled Expand Skills
by Liz Mangan
Staff Writer

For most of us, computers make many tasks easier. For the disabled, however, they do even more: they make possible activities that a few years ago would have been beyond the scope of someone who is paralyzed, blind or deaf.

That’s the message that Mary Pat Radabaugh wants to get across to medical workers, the disabled and potential employers.

Mrs. Radabaugh is manager of IBM’s National Support Center for Persons with Disabilities, which recently moved to Cobb County.

The center, now in the Wildwood Office Park off Powers Ferry Road, celebrates its second anniversary this Thanksgiving. In the past year, it handled more than 19,000 phone calls and replied to about 3,000 written inquiries.

A recent television commercial stimulated still more interest, and the toll-free number has been ringing constantly since the commercial aired during network telecasts of the World Series.

Prominently in the commercial is Patty Schoenfeldt of Cobb County, an IBM employee who is hearing-impaired.

IMAGE: photograph of two women, one sitting down with hands on a keyboard in front of a 1980s computer, one standing looking at the other woman wearing a 1980s power suit.

Photo caption: HELP TECHNOLOGY: Patty Schoenfeldt (left) and Mary Pat Radabaugh work at a terminal in IBM’s National Support Center for Persons with Disabilities.

“We’ve had a wonderful response,” said Mrs. Radabaugh, a Cobb resident. “It’s good to know that so many people are interested. We’d like them to know that, when it comes to technology that can help the disabled, we are really limited only by our own creativity.”

For example, equipment at the center includes special switches that allow a quadriplegic to write on a computer by clinching his teeth.

A telephone attachment, designed for the deaf or hearing-impaired, prints out phone messages on a computer screen. A caller can type a message on any touch-tone phone, using the letters like a keyboard, and the computer will “translate” it into a recognizable form on its screen. The deaf person can reply by typing in a response on his or her computer keyboard, which the computer then vocalizes to the caller.

A keyboard overlay allows those with cerebral palsy, whose hands may shake too much to use a regular keyboard, to type with accuracy.

“We say if you have the use of even just one eyebrow, you can use this sort of equipment,” said Walter Dean, who demonstrates the machine at the center.

He cites the example of a housewife, stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, who can use only small muscles in her forehead. With the help of adaptive computer technology, she’s teaching her children to cook — an activity she once thought impossible.

Or take the case of a major pizza chain. Mrs. Radabaugh spoke to company executives on technology that would enable them to employ blind order-takers. They now do so successfully, and a large banking chain is considering following their example.

Disability, Mrs. Radabaugh likes to explain to her audiences across the country, can strike any of us, any time.

“I sometimes say that we are mostly temporarily able,” she said. “We all face that potential, through accidents, or through surviving illnesses, which would once have been fatal. Disabilities affect one family in three today, and as the population ages, this percentage will probably increase.”

The work of the center includes not only educating the public and providing sales information about the technology available to help the disabled, but, in some cases, working with agencies to assist those in need to find the adaptive devices at a reduced price.

IBM does this in nine major cities, including Atlanta, through a partnership with Easter Seals. The charitable agency handles inquiries, checks on financial status and needs, and recommends potential users to the center. The agency also provides training when needed, and a follow-up support program.

Undiscounted prices range from around $149 for software for people who are speech- and hearing-impaired to $3,000 for more complex attachments.

A recent case illustrates poignantly the extent to which today’s high-tech can open a formerly closed world.

“We want about a 15-year-old deaf boy in a large Midwestern city,” said Mrs. Radabaugh. “He was mainstreamed in a regular school, but he felt very isolated, as he had no way to communicate with his peers. A telephone adaptation made it possible for him to ‘talk’ with them at last.

“And one of the first calls he received led to his first date, when a girl who admired him called him up and asked him. She liked him, but hadn’t been able to talk to him before.”

Mrs. Radabaugh was instrumental in founding the center. She has diabetes and must wear in insulin pump, and recently underwent foot surgery necessitated by the disease.

“I received a lot of help and support, and I felt it was time to pay something back to the community,” Mrs. Radabaugh said.

“As a next step,” she added, “I’d like to see our support center become international in scope. The bottom line is that the resources now available can improve the quality of life for everyone.”

Here are my scans of the original article:

Earlier video on training with my transcription app

Final thoughts

I have a lot of thoughts with regards to what technology can do for people with a variety of disabilities. This morning, I attended my son’s “Moving Up” ceremony (for 8th grade to high school…. but he’ll be in the same self-contained special education classroom), and all of the students I saw have been greatly benefited by current technology, not only in entertaining themselves, but also to communicate with the wider world. I watched a few of the students use specialized apps on iPads today to be able to communicate their feelings, and I laughed at some of the jokes they cracked via these methods.

A lot of the students have profound cognitive disabilities, and my own son shares in these. While he can physically talk, being able to interact with iPad and Kindle interfaces has provided some additional control over his world. It’s not about being able to work — it’s just being able to enjoy life in a way that many others can.

You may have noticed the past tense I used in reference to both my Aunt Pat and my dad. They both died very young — my dad was 38 when he died in 1990, and Aunt Pat was 43 when she died in 1991. I was a kid when they died, but even so, they’ve been the biggest influences on my professional life, as I learned so much from both of them when I was a kid. As I said, I’ll have many more stories about them.

More later!

PS for the Substackers

While putting this together, I found this following IBM Ad compilation, and I hope this comes up at the specific ad on speech recognition software from 1987:

If it doesn’t key up at the key point, it’s at about 2 minutes into the video.

I am skeptical about one of the examples. Just because of my “annuities”/“cheese” problem.