Handicapped and working. Kirby L. Morgan.
Handicapped and Working
Perhaps I am not so unusual. After all, in this emerging age of personal computers, many people are starting to work from their homes. In one respect, however, I am different from most of these other "homeworkers'; I have no other choice. You see, I am handicapped.
I have had rheumatoid arthritis since the age of eight--almost thirty years now. As it does for many people, my arthritis started out as a small ache and stiffness in my joints but as the years went by, my condition slowly worsened.
In high school, I started using crutches. By my senior year in college, I had to use a wheelchair and was confined to my home. That year I had to do all of my coursework by correspondence --no easy feat, since I live in Michigan and the college was in Florida. Nevertheless, I graduated with highest honors.
For my graduate studies, I chose a school closer to home, Michigan State University. Still, I had to do all of the work at home. My perseverance paid off, however, and I obtained my master's degree in physics in 1972.
By that time, I was completely bedridden, unable to move any of my joints except for my right hand and arm. So while other physics graduates were moving on to their careers, my job prospects appeared dim. Apparently, none of the companies I contacted could even conceive of a physicist working independently at home.
Finally, unable to find regular employment, I started working parttime for Michigan State developing physics instructional materials. This was how I first became involved with microcomputers.
The project that I was working for was starting to use microcomputers to edit the text for self-paced physics lessons. If I could get a micro, the project director said, it would help me a great deal in my work and also enhance my job prospects.
Armed with that information, I contacted the Michigan Bureau of Rehabilitation in the fall of 1978, to see if they could help me purchase a microcomputer. Despite their reluctance to make such a large expenditure, the computer was eventually purchased for me, about a year later.
Finally, in February of 1980, the computer was delivered to my home. It consisted of a keyboard, a video monitor, two 8 double density disk drives, and special high-resolution videographics boards. I also got a 300 baud modem so I could communicate with other computers over the phone.
The software that I received included CP/M 1.4, Microsoft Basic and Fortran. Also included was special software to display scientific text.
Although I had had over a year to read about operating and programming a microcomputer, it was not until I actually got my hands on one that I really started to understand the intricacies of programming.
Being unable to use the computer physically was the first obstacle to be overcome. Since I can't move by myself, I have to be on a special bed that can be rotated so that I can lie on my stomach part of the time. The mattress of my bed is about 3 1/2" above the floor--much too high to allow me to use a computer mounted on a cart of standard height.
This problem was solved by rehabilitation engineers connected with Michigan State. Their solution was to mount the video monitor and keyboard on metal brackets attached to the cart. The disk drives and mainframe of the computer were set on the top of the cart, with the metal brackets straddling them. The brackets held the keyboard and monitor high enough for me to see and reach. Then whenever I wanted to use the computer, the cart could be moved into position.
Learning to use the computer involved much trial and error on my part and a few calls to the computer store and M.S.U. for help. After about a week, however, I started to get the hang of things and was able to use the editor well enough to start writing a physics lesson on geometrical optics.
I immediately appreciated the benefits of writing with a computer. There was no more shuffling of papers. No longer did I have to mark up what I had written. I could change words, sentences, and paragraphs as I liked, and mistakes were very easy to correct. Now I could have neat looking text all of the time--a real pleasure for a finicky writer like me.
I didn't get a printer initially with my system. So in order to get my text file printed out. I had to send to M.S.U. I did this using my modem and a terminal program that allowed me to transfer my file over the phone to another microcomputer in the physics department.
One of the other reasons that I got the microcomputer was to learn how to program. I started with Basic, although there were a few times in the first few weeks that I found I needed to know assembly language to correct a few minor bugs in the software that had come with the high-resolution videographics boards.
During the first six months, I programmed mostly in Basic but also did some experimenting with Fortran and 8080 assembly language. I wrote an address book program, several games, and a program for drawing graphics.
By the fall of 1980, I was ready to move on to something else. Arrangements were made for me to take the computer programming course at Michigan's State Technical Institute and Rehabilitation Center (STIRC) in Plainwell, MI. Since I was unable to go to classes, a phone line was installed between my home in Charlotte (near Lansing) and Kalamazoo, where the host computer was located.
The course that I took through STIRC helped me a great deal. It gave me an opportunity to work on a larger computer (a DEC PDP10), using my micro as a remote terminal. I eventually learned how to create and edit my programs on my computer and then transfer them to the large computer.
From the STIRC course, I learned to program in Cobol. More important, I learned more about sequential, random access, and indexed sequential files. And I was introduced to structured programming, which helped me a great deal as I began to write longer programs.
One of the strengths of the STIRC program is the strong relationship of the Center with all types of businesses in southwest Michigan. These businesses send representatives to form a committee whose members also serve on special committees such as curriculum and placement.
In the spring of 1981, one of the corporations that is very active with STIRC, Herman Miller, Inc., offered me some contract work.
Herman Miller is an office furniture manufacturer whose main headquarters are located near Grand Rapids. One of the things that they wanted to do was to be able to draw office layouts, using a microcomputer and a plotter/printer.
My job was to write several programs in Basic to create and plot the layouts. In addition, programs were needed to edit layouts after they were created and to list information about the components in each layout.
I originally wrote the programs for the TRS-80 Model III. After a few months, though, it was decided that it would be better to do it on the Model II, due to its greater disk capacity.
Because of economic conditions, Herman Miller was unable to provide me with much work beyond the plotting programs. We did have a contract, however, which paid me a small monthly fee in return for which I evaluated new software packages for them.
Herman Miller was also interested in designing special carts which could be used to hold computers for handicapped people. Using conventional shelving components attached to a main panel mounted on wheels, they were able to create a movable workstation for me. These workstations and the carts designed for me by the rehabilitation people have been very useful, allowing me to work on different computers as the need arises.
Herman Miller and Michigan State University are not the only organizations which have been helpful in providing me with employment.
The Homework Program
Before I even got my first computer, in 1980, Control Data Corporation in Minneapolis contacted me about working, through their Homework program. CDC has been in the forefront of the movement to employ the homebound disabled, and Homework has been used successfully to rehabilitate disabled CDC employees and other fortunate handicapped people.
Over the next two and one-half years, I had several discussions with Control Data, over the phone and in person, about going to work for them. Finally, in the fall of 1982, we signed a one-year contract.
CDC provided me with one of their newest terminals and installed a phone line to Lansing. This allowed me to access the Control Data Network and thereby be in contact with my coworkers in Minneapolis and other parts of the country.
Plato, which is the name of the system used to deliver computer assisted instruction, is particularly useful to the homebound handicapped. Users can exchange personal notes (or even "talk' back and forth over their terminals) with others on Plato. In addition, general notes files, which allow groups of people to share their views in areas of common interest, are available.
My first assignment on Plato was to write a series of physics lessons dealing with oscillatory motion. I was to design them, and students at the University of Arizona were to program them.
Plato physics lessons contain graphic illustrations of physical phenomena. Students are asked a series of questions to test and reinforce their understanding of concepts, and appropriate feedback is given. Help sequences are provided when necessary, and the student is allowed to go back and review material if he wants. When finished with a lesson, the student takes a test on what he has learned.
Besides being a place to go to work, Plato has provided me with the opportunity to meet new friends. It also has given me the chance to communicate daily with people who have interests similar to mine--science educators, handicapped people, and microcomputer aficionados.
Although there are still many barriers to the employment of the homebound, they are primarily psychological and not due to any lack of technology. In the future, as more and more people work from their homes, it is important that the handicapped not be excluded just because they have been left out in the past. To do so would not only be unfair, it would be a terrible waste of one of our nation's greatest untapped resources.