User Profile: Enabling the Disabled with the HP Palmtop

A woman with Parkinson's disease, who has difficulty moving and speaking, uses the HP Palmtop to communicate with the world.

By Jonathan Graham

My wife has Parkinson's disease. Although her mind is fine, she has poor control of the muscles needed to speak and write. Thus, communication (oral or written) is a major problem for her. This is one of the most frustrating effects of Parkinson's disease you're ability to think is not impaired, but you're cut off from social interaction.

The first way we dealt with her decreased ability to write was to use a good old electric typewriter. This solution worked well until her motor movements slowed down further. At this point the repeat function of the typewriter became a problem. It is set up so that when you hold a key down, the typewriter generates the same letter over and over again. (The same function is found in computers.) Because she could no longer pull her fingers off the keys fast enough, she had to deal with an enormous number of corrections.

Although there are utility programs that disable the repeat function on computers, the size of a desktop typewriter or computer made its use as a means of communication difficult. For one thing, it tied my wife down to where the machine was located. And since her physical immobility affects her entire body, just getting to the typewriter (or desktop computer) is a major production. Also, because these devices are so big, using the keyboards was difficult and frustrating.

A Palmtop portable communications device

I was already using an HP 200LX in my business, mostly as a portable replacement for my notebook computer and to send and receive E-mail via the CompuServe Information Service. The Palmtops small size made it an ideal candidate for a portable communications device that my wife could take with her wherever she went. I set out to customize it to suit her needs.

Creating a "no repeat" keyboard on the Palmtop

As you remember, the problem with any computer, including the Palmtop, is that if you hold a key down too long, the computer types out a long string of the character associated with that key (i.e. hold down (z) and you get zzzzzzzzz). People with impaired motor control tend to make a lot of these kinds of typing mistakes.

The HP Palmtop has its own CompuServe Forum (type GO HP-HAND), so I e-mailed the members of that Forum, asking them if a no repeat program was available to disable this feature. The next day I was quickly sent a small program (NOREP ) written for persons with mobility problems using DOS based computers. I transferred this little 195 byte program to my HP 200LX and placed the command line in my AUTOEXEC .BAT. When I pressed (CTRL)-(ALT)-(DEL) to reboot, it was loaded.

NOREP fixed the problem. Suddenly she could type again. The best part is that because she carries the Palmtop with her, she can type out messages and write letters whether she is sitting outside, on the sofa, in bed, or waiting in the doctors office.

QUICK-LX finishes your sentences for you

As my wife's speech degenerated, it became obvious that the HP 200LX had to be used to communicate on a daily level. Thus in conversation, I would speak and she would type out her end of the conversation on the Palmtop. Because of her very limited finger mobility, her typing is slow. This didn't matter when writing correspondence, but slowed conversations down quite a bit. We had to somehow speed this process up. I found another special program (designed for the HP 200LX only) that enabled her to type out complete ideas and sentences with fewer keystrokes.

QUICK-LX is a commercial program from Shier Systems & Software that remembers the words you type most often. When you start to type that word again, QUICK-LX pops a box up on the Palmtop display suggesting how you might finish the word. For example, lets say you've typed in the word sophisticated before. When you start typing in sop a box pops up, displaying "histicated."

Quick-LX Aids in Typing: Graphic

 Press the RightArrow key and QUICK-LX finishes the word for you. If the suggestion is wrong you can keep typing to finish the word. Here are some QUICK-LX features:

  1. 1. QUICK-LX learns automatically, storing in its dictionary words that are typed more than 3 times in any document. When you then type the first 3 letters of the word (it can be programmed for more or less than 3 letters), the word pops up and you can use it or not.
  2. 2. You can set QUICK-LX up to recognize acronyms. Go into the QUICK.DAT dictionary file. Start a new line, for example: asap= as soon as possible This tells QUICK-LX that asap means as soon as possible. Then, whenever you type asap, QUICK-LX will key in the complete phrase. A more practical example for our situation was to define iwat as I would like a glass of water, please. The ability to use these acronyms is wonderful. I use it for business and my wife uses it for daily communication.
  3. 3. A unique feature of this program is that it actually can keep 2 separate dictionaries. My wife is bilingual and must write in 2 languages English and Swedish. QUICK-LX automatically determines which language you are writing in and uses the appropriate dictionary library. Very clever and practical for her use. (Actually she writes in 3 languages, but we just combine the Swedish and Finnish in the same dictionary.)



Buddy saves more keystrokes

Buddy 2.0 is a utility for the HP 100/200LX that adds many useful features that save quite a lot of keystrokes. Here are some Buddy features that my wife finds particularly useful.

Vertical Reader makes holding a book and turning pages easier

My wife's limited mobility also made it difficult for her to turn book pages to read. VR (vertical reader) helped solve that problem.

VR was developed for the HP Palmtop to enable the user to read E-texts from Project Gutenberg (see article, Vol.3, No.5, Pg.14). Project Gutenberg is a non-profit organization staffed by volunteers. It takes written material, mostly copyright free, transfers it to electronic format and makes it available free of charge to readers around the world.

VR displays the text of any ASCII document vertically on the Palmtop screen. You simply turn the HP 200LX on its side (like a paperback book) and the text is sideways in a column. It is just like a single newspaper column. Reading is at least 3 times faster and easier. To turn the page, just hit the space bar.

Entire books and libraries can be downloaded and read as easily as a book. In addition, VR can be programmed to read e-mail messages and threads with intelligent formatting...what an easy way to read through 50-100 messages! So now my wife can read books, articles and CompuServe messages more easily, anywhere, anytime.

acCIS simplifies communication via CompuServe

One way my wife stays in contact with the world is via CompuServe. She uses it instead of the telephone to keep in daily contact with family and friends.

I do most of the actual uploading and downloading of messages using acCIS on my HP 200LX. Although its possible to connect up to CompuServe and compose messages on line, this approach is expensive. CompuServe charges you a fee based on the time you are logged into a forum. acCIS cuts these connect charges by allowing my wife and I to compose all of our messages off line (i.e., while we are not connected to CompuServe). I then connect my Palmtop to a phone line via my PCMCIA modem card, log on to CompuServe using acCIS, and quickly upload all the messages we've composed. acCIS then downloads any e-mail messages waiting for us and disconnects from CompuServe. acCIS is designed for the HP 100/ 200LX, but may be used on any PC compatible computer.

After I download messages from CompuServe Ill give my wife my Palmtop to read her messages. She types out brief responses on my Palmtop and gives the Palmtop back to me to send them. If she wants to take her time writing a longer message, she types it up on her 200LX in Memo. I then transfer it to my unit via our IR ports or memory card, and e-mail it out for her.

Often I will download disability-related threads and move them to her Palmtop so she can read them with the Vertical Reader program described above.

Flexibility and features

One simple feature that turns out to be important to my wife is the fact that you can turn a Palmtop off without closing any application. The advantage of this is very real to a disabled person who can accidentally turn off the unit or move between applications. Another advantage about the programs I have discussed is that they are System compliant in the HP 100/200LX. This means you can cut and paste between these applications and the built-in programs. More time and keystrokes saved.

The HP 200LX was not specifically designed for the disabled, but its the one we chose to use. We tried other palmtop computers. Some had better displays and less complex operation. However, their keyboards did not have the HPs positive feedback and they lacked the ability to be customized. Because the Palmtop is a DOS computer, there are countless programs that can be used with it to customize it for new and unusual purposes. That customizability along with the built-in applications, the serial port, infrared port, and PCMCIA slot, add up to a very flexible computer that fits in your pocket, purse, or tucked into the side of a wheelchair.

The HP Palmtop has made a world of difference to my disabled wife's ability to communicate and interact to the world around her. ***