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Wednesday, March 24,2010

Laughter, tears and pepperoni

MSU’s Artificial Language Lab celebrates 35 years.

by Lawrence Cosentino

“What hath God wrought?”


“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


“I’d like to order a pizza.”


All three utterances are historic. Only one will get you a pizza.


In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message. In 1969, Neil Armstrong spoke the first words from the Moon.


Saturday night, the Artificial Language Lab at Michigan State celebrated a lesser-known, greasier milestone in human communication.


In December of 1974, Donald Sherman, an MSU alumnus and advocate for the disabled, became the first person to order a pizza using an artificial speech device. Sherman has Moebius syndrome, a facial paralysis that keeps him from closing his lips into a “b” or “p.”


That’s a cruel turn if you love big band music, “The Blues Brothers,” or pepperoni pizza, as Sherman does.


With the help of a computer voice called “Alexander,” Sherman got his pie, from nowdefunct Mr. Mike’s in East Lansing. Saturday night — 35 years later — the pizza was still rolling in.


Over 100 students, volunteers, clients and friends of MSU’s Artificial Language Lab, Sherman included, gathered with their families in an oversized classroom in the Communication Arts and Sciences Building to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the pizza call.


Working from obscure cubbyholes on the MSU campus, Eulenberg, his small staff and cadre of student volunteers have helped thou sands of people punch a hole to the outside world.


Saturday’s celebrants listened to the life stories of people who could not make their thoughts known to others until Eulenberg and his staff fitted them out with joysticks, computer word boards, artificial voices and other gadgets.


Canton resident Sarah Palk relished the chance to repeat, via computer voice, what doctors told her parents after she was born with cerebral palsy: “Take Sarah home and love her, because she’s never going to do anything but drink from a bottle.”


The prognosis proved a howling mistake. The MSU lab outfitted Palk with a series of computer aids that maximized the muscle control remaining in her left hand, using keyboards at first, then touch screens. She graduated from high school, works as a medical researcher, makes her own doctors' appointments and chats with friends on the Internet.


Palk also has a million -dollar smile, and she flashed it without mercy Saturday. “Without technology, I wouldn’t have created the relationships I now have,” she told the group.


Jim Renuk, a coordinator of MSU’s intramural sports, wowed the group with a com puter-assisted speech of his own. Like Palk, Renuk has cerebral palsy. “All my life, I have wanted to go beyond my physical limits,” Renuk said.


He also has a wicked sense of humor.


“When I was 7, my teachers and therapists told my parents they should think about institutionalizing me,” he said. “They did think about it, and I did, too.”


A slide of MSU’s Beaumont Tower appeared on the screen.


“Yes, I was institutionalized,” he said. “You see, I’m at MSU.”


While others guffawed, Melissa Martin of Lansing watched Renuk intently. Her 6-yearold son, Derek, also has cerebral palsy. Like Renuk, Derek Martin can’t walk, makes nonverbal sounds and has limited muscle control. But Eulenberg and his staff are fitting him with a customized device that senses acceleration as he moves his wrist. The technology is similar to the accelerometers used in sport simulators for the Nintendo Wii. For now, the device is little more than a duct tape bracelet with a computer chip inside.


“It’s still in the prototype stage, but it’s pretty exciting,” Martin said.


To communicate, Derek will wave his wrist over a symbol on a computer screen in his lap. He’ll select the symbol he wants to use by nudging a switch with his head, which he’s already shown he can do. It’s like moving and clicking a mouse, only with two different parts of your body. The corresponding word can appear on a screen or go through a textto-speech program to become audible.


Melissa Martin was reassured to see that Jim Renuk has traveled so far on a road that has just begun for Derek.


“The way Jim carries himself is so much like my son,” Melissa Martin said. “You don’t know what’s going on unless they have that outlet.”


Martin listened intently as Renuk talked about earning two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from MSU.


“That’s what I’m thinking with Derek,” she said. “Un-tapping his ability to speak is going to take him so far.”

John Eulenberg grew up in Chicago, where his mother was Director of the Red Cross Motor Corps in the late 1940s. At 7 years old, Eulenberg sang in a choir that entertained the disabled vets. “She would take me along when she drove a bus full of quadriplegic veterans, people with severe brain trauma, amputations,” he recalled.

“I lived in that world all the time. I realized these people were human beings I had the chance to have as my friends.”


Eulenberg’s aptitude for language and linguistics made him a top student at Harvard and M.I.T., but he
never forgot the Chicago experience. He came to MSU as a computer
science professor in 1972, when embers of ‘60s civil rights battles
were still smoldering. Three years later, a campus controversy caught
his attention.


A
professor asked Jim Renuk, then a freshman, to drop a required course,
Communication 101, because it would take too long to wait for Renuk to
ask or answer questions by gesturing to his plastic word board.


After
working with Eulenberg, Renuk passed the same course, with another
instructor, giving a speech in class with a voice synthesizer. He
earned two bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In 1982, Renuk addressed Congress on the merits of assistive technology. It was the
first time anyone addressed a legislature with a computer voice.


“I
like to think that my words that day helped pave the way for the
Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990,” Renuk told
the pizza partiers Saturday.


Eulenberg
was deeply moved by Renuk’s determination. “He would not accept the
level of independence generally given to people who have his level of
physical ability,” Eulenberg said. “People thought he was retarded.”


More
than technical challenges, Eulenberg feels that social awareness keeps
severely disabled people from getting the help they need.


When he tells you this, his usual abstracted-professor gaze narrows into a white-hot beam.


“They didn’t realize it was they who couldn’t communicate — who couldn’t find a pathway for him to communicate,” he said.


Eulenberg
likes to point out that “vote” comes from the same linguistic root as
“voice.” He still views his work as part of the civil rights struggle
he joined in the early 1970s.


“It
might sound a little dated, but there was a lot of truth that went
along with those years, insight into the power structure of our
society,” he said.


Eulenberg speaks 12 languages, seven of them fluently.


During a meeting in his office two weeks ago, he switched to Swahili to practice with a student volunteer, Emma Ogutu, who is from Kenya and speaks KiSwahili.


“Kiti
kidogo,” he said to Ogutu. Kiti means a little tree. Kidogo means small. Say
“mti kidogo” inside an office and you’re asking for a small chair or
stool.


Such
linguistic juggling is Eulenberg’s bread and butter, in the lab and the
classroom. It takes a long time for a non-speaking person to point
every letter in a word, one by one, so most of Eulenberg’s clients use
message boards that combine whole words or concepts. To say “I am
hungry,” for example, a user might touch an icon of a girl pointing to
herself and an icon of a hot dog — two touches instead of nine to spell
it out.


The lab’s
clients have a wide range of disabilities, from stroke, cerebral palsy,
ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) to brain injury from trauma. To customize
the technology, Eulenberg fits them out with gadgets that pick up head,
foot, or even eye movement.


Every client presents a different challenge. To filter out random, uncontrollable muscle movements,
Jim Renuk’s joystick is “detented,” like the clicky settings on a
radio’s volume knob or the spinning wheel on the TV show “Wheel of
Fortune.” The joystick has over 200 points of resistance, or
“detentions.” If the user has a lot of random muscle tremor, the
detentions can be strengthened to filter it out and pick up only what
Renuk wants to say.


Eulenberg called the lab’s funding a “patchwork.” The never-ending hustle for grants takes up a lot of his time.


Clients
pay through insurance, court awards, or out of pocket. School districts, nonprofits and state agencies have also provided funding. One of Derek
Martin’s doctors nominated him for a wish through the Make-A-Wish
Foundation, which will pay the $7,000 cost of his device. Eulenberg and
his staff also do pro bono work.


Eulenberg’s
right-hand man in developing this gadgetry is Steve Blosser, who joined
the lab in 1978 after starting as a volunteer. Blosser enjoys telling
people that to join the MSU lab, he turned down a promising job offer
as chief production engineer at CTS Corp., then a growing engineering
firm. That means that if he weren’t helping the disabled at MSU, he
would have been working on throttle controls for Toyota.


Blosser called the job “life-changing,” and not just because he dodged that bullet.


“An engineer doesn’t often have opportunities like this — to interact with people oneon-one, let alone with peoplewho are struggling to communicate,” he said.


Blosser
said there is a potential for some of the lab’s gadgets to enter a
larger market. A tiny device that picks up intentional eye blinks,
developed by Blosser and Eulenberg, has already garnered $100,000 in
royalties for MSU.


“Alexander
Graham Bell worked on voice synthesis,” Eulenberg said. “His wife and
mother were deaf. The telephone started out as a hearing aid.”
(Eulenberg gets a kick out of the coincidence that his father’s name is
Alexander and his mother’s name is Belle.)


Blosser
cited computer engineering genius Ray Kurzweil, whose many inventions
include the flatbed scanner, first used in the mid-1970s to read print
out loud to the blind.


“That
invention has enabled libraries to scan their books,” Blosser said.
“Now we have Google, where you can search these materials and get
answers instantly. We have people with disabilities to thank for these
things.”


Many
homebuyers have already encountered the term “universal design,” in
which wheelchair-friendly doorways, lift bars and other aids become
standard equipment for the nation’s aging population. Blosser is
working these principles into MSU’s basic engineering design class.


The implication of “universal design” is that any of us, perhaps most of us, will eventually need assistive technology of some kind. It’s
a civilized echo of the combative civil rights politics of the 1960s,
when handicapper advocates pointedly used the term “TAB,” or
temporarily able-bodied, for people without handicaps.


Another
speaker at Saturday’s pizza party, Michelle Luedman, offered a
variation on this theme. Two years ago, Luedman was about to undergo
an operation on her spine that could have taken away her voice.


She
worked with Eulenberg to “bank” her voice by recording thousands of
words and sentences, “including some swear words,” she admitted.


Film critic Roger Ebert, who lost his jaw to cancer surgery, unveiled a similar custom voice last month.


“Sandra Bullock made a da-a-zzling comeback,” Ebert gushed in classic form while offering his 2009 Oscar picks on “Oprah.”


The difference is that Michelle didn’t have hundreds of hours of high quality film reviews recorded on TV,” Eulenberg said.


As
it happened, Luedman didn’t lose her voice, but voice banking will
soon be a regular feature of the MSU lab. Eulenb
erg told the pizza
partiers Saturday he had just gotten a grant from the National
Institute of Health to participate in the national
ModelTalker program, dispersed over six universities around the
country to pick up six different regional accents. MSU will represent
for the Midwest.


Finally, the room hushed for the night’s big ritual: viewing the tape of the historic 1974 phone call.


The pizza theme is classic Eulenberg. Fundamental
rights are his bottom line. And what’s more fundamental to the pursuit
of happiness than picking up the phone and ordering a 16-inch with
pepperoni and mushrooms, ham and sausage?


Sherman’s
first two calls, to Domino’s, ended in hangups. Poor Domino’s has been
making up for it ever since, dutifully catering several Artificial
Language Lab events. The first two calls to Mr. Mike’s in East Lansing ended the same way.


Finally,
on the fifth try in all, Sherman reached James Kenny, assistant manager
at Mr. Mike’s. Here is what followed, word for word. Eat lunar dust,
Neil Armstrong. This is history with garlic sauce.


“Mr. Mike’s, may I help you?”


“I am YOO-sing a special de-VICE to help me to com-MYOO-nicate.”


[Eulenberg
programmed this phrase into the device after the first calls failed.]


“Oh, sorry, we didn’t understand what was going on,” Kenny said.


“PLEASE be PA-tient while I pre-PARE my re-SPON-ses.”


“O.K.,
we didn’t understand what was going on here, it’s just-”


“I’d LIKE to
OR-der a PEE-tza.”


“O.K.” [Sound of Sherman tapping.] “O.K., it’s all
right, we’ll take-”


“A LARGE pizza please.”


“O.K., 16-inch?” [tap, tap,
tap.] “16-inch?”


“Yes.”


“O.K., what would you like on it?”


“Pepper
-OH-ni and mushrooms.”


“O.K., pepperoni and mushrooms. Anything else?”


“And some HAMMM! And SAWW-sage too.”


“Ham
and sausage. Anything else?”


“No thank you.”


“This is for pickup or
delivery?”


“Would you please phrase that question so that I can answer
it with yes or no?” [That’s another pre-programmed phrase.]


“O.K., is
this for a delivery?”


“Yes.”


“Where should we deliver it to?”


“The MSU
Computer Center.”


“Where in the Computer Center, what room?”


“Room
405.”


“I need a name on this. A person to deliver it to.”


“The
Computer Center is just east of the Administration Building.” [Also
pre-programmed.]


“We need to know — just a moment.”


“This is Donald
Sherman.”


“Could you spell that?”


“Yes.”


“Would you spell it?”


“S-H-E-R-M-A-N.”


“S-H-E-R-M-A-N, O.K. Could I have a phone number
please, where we can reach you?


“353-5399.”


“353-5399?”


“Yes.”


“O.K., the total on that pizza is $6.25.


Delivery
time is between a half hour and 45 minutes and we accept no personal
checks and we will call you back immediately to confirm the order.
O.K.?”


“Yes.”


“O.K., thank you.”


[Click, click, click.]


“Good-bye.”


On
tape, in 1974, and in person, in 2010, two rooms of hopeful spectators
broke into spontaneous applause, like NASA technicians after a
splashdown.

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