Morse Code Helps Man Live With Physical Disability

In 1979, eleven year old Steve Harper, unable to speak due to the physical disability, cerebral palsy, had never heard of Morse code and was struggling to communicate with a head stick, symbol board and typewriter. Using these methods made communication arduous since someone had to be right there with Steve when he tried to get his messages understood. He slowly signaled by pointing to various symbols and letters. First he had to gain the undivided attention of an adult and then feebly attempt to have them understand his erratic gestures. Even using the typewriter was awkward and painful. People often ignored what he wrote making him constantly discouraged. His frustration with being unable to enjoy normal activities for children of his age was aggravated by his inability to interact with others effectively. He felt very little independence as speech eluded him, so that he had trouble getting anyone’s attention.

That same year the University of Washington received a grant to research the use of the code as an assistive technology for the disabled. Steve’s speech therapist enabled him to be a subject of the research grant at the University of Washington where he was taught the code. Steve was chosen as one of four children to participate in this research. Although Steven and his parents neither liked learning code and initially resisted it, within only two weeks he had mastered the forty-four Morse code characters. He says his life became much easier after he began using the code communicator because he got his messages out twice as fast as before and he gained independence so he could function all by himself.

Ever since then he has used the code as his assistive technology. He has a lot more independence due to the code being adaptable to the computer. Anyone using the technology can write and then “speak” by using a speech synthesizer. Morse code has made Steve’s life and the lives of other disabled people easier.

More recently, Steve Harper serves as a volunteer mentor for the disabled at the University of Washington. Telling his story he says that he could neither walk nor talk due to an oxygen deficiency that occurred at birth. He says, “I use a Morse code communicator, which is mounted on the front of my wheelchair. I have two switches on each side of my head where I tap out the code. The right side switch is dots, left side is dashes, and I drive my wheelchair using my head, too. I have this thing called “KE:NX,” a special adapter that allows me to use my code with a MAC computer so I can really communicate with you.”

A brave young man who has overcome major physical obstacles, he is now a computer technology guru and believes that much of his accomplishment is a result of his experience with the Morse code.

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