OrbiTouch: Shawn Grassley Discovers A New World Through Assistive Technology

You had to be there to capture the moment. It was more than a Kodak moment for Shawn Grassley. It was a moment of joy beyond description. It was an exhilarating moment of liberation when Grassley looked up and saw he had spelled his name using the orbiTouch keyless keyboard.

I was attending the Helping Hands 20th Annual Telethon in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on April 26. Hundreds of people were in the studio. Telephones were ringing. Voices were everywhere. Hundreds of eyes were focused on the master of ceremonies, who was making an impassioned plea for donations. In the center of all of this exuberance however, one set of eyes was focused on two domes. Shawn was sitting in his wheelchair, his head bent over the domes. His hands moved the domes forward and backward, left and right, and in other directions. His focus was like a laser beam. He eyes moved left and right and up and down as he moved the domes one at a time. First the letter S appeared. Then H. After two tries A was on the screen. Then two tries later W and finally N. Grassley moved his eyes upward and his head was rigid as he saw his name. Then came the look of triumphant victory. There was the smile. There was the shouting, “I did it. I am not a dummy.”

Very few moments have ever affected me like this one.

For the first time in his life, without assistance from anyone, 35-year-old Shawn had typed his name. For the fist time in his life, Grassley said, “I feel empowered. I want to continue.”

Continue he did. Slowly Grassley typed G. Then R, A, S S L E Y. Nothing Grassley did before in his life prepared him for this time as he read GRASSLEY. He had triumphed again. He was a man with renewed confidence. For the second time in less than five minutes he said, “I can write. I can write. I can speak. I am not a dummy.” Grassley created a keystroke by sliding the two domes into one of their eight respective positions.

When I asked his jubilant mother, Sandy, “Why does he say, ‘I am not a dummy?’” She said with bitterness, “His caseworkers and some of his former school teachers called him a dummy because of his cerebral palsy, and because he could not use a regular keyboard. He is not a dummy!”

Grassley is intelligent. He knows what he wants and says what he wants. He told me, “I want to use this keyboard so I can access the Internet. I want to write e-mails. I want to write letters.”

More importantly, he wants to work. He wants to be independent. He says, “I want to earn my own money and be my own man.” Grassley’s jubilance was shared by others. John Seamon, the executive director of Helping Hands, could not believe what he had just seen. A person he had known for more than 20 years, had in Seamon’s words, “surprised me beyond my expectations.”

Seamon wanted the orbiTouch keyboard. He has been looking for a device to help Grassley communicate, and now he grabbed it, saying with a tear, “I can not describe what I am feeling. I am speechless. This tool is the embodiment of what assistive technology was designed to accomplish for users.” Grassley’s story does not end there. He learned to use the keyboard in minutes, and kept it for some time. He smiled, laughed, and delighted in his new-found power of expression. He said triumphantly, “I can write.”

Grassley is getting an orbiTouch of his own. He knows it will change his life. He knows he has discovered the great equalizer for him. Thanks to technology, he is ready to move forward with his life.

-- John M. Williams, Assistive Technology Writer