In 2006 I was doing my social service in a school for handicapped. During my time there I fixed a talk computer so that he could became the narrator of a fairytale performance. While sounding very romantic, this story often reminds me why I am doing what I do.
In Germany, young men had to chose to go to the army or do a replacement service in a social institution. I decided for the latter and applied at a school for handicapped kids. For one year I was responsible for a boy with spasticity, who couldn’t speak, walk and eat by his own. He was clever and most important for him was to take part in society. Technology helped him in doing so: an electric wheelchair to move, a talker to speak, a laptop to work.
Back then he had just received a new talk computer, a unbelievably expensive device. It looked like a thick iPad in a plastic shell. A transparent display overlay with small openings helped to choose the right option. Using the thumb one could navigate and add single words to sentences. The device spoke out loud when pressed a large area on the top. The technology was worth its price.
But yet, it was not adapted to the boy’s condition. The top area was so large that the boy fired it often accidentally. As a consequence, he spoke out the sentence before finished. He tried hard not to touch the area (his ergotherapist always told him to train more), but his handicap was in the way. In my position as his assistant I noticed how frustrated and sad he became after a few weeks of usage. He withdrew from social contact and began to talk less with others.
I wanted to help him. I made a plastic mask with a small opening for the top area making the access as small as for the other buttons. I measured, sketched, bought materials, and constructed the mask and attached it to the device. It it worked very well.
It worked so well that at the end of the year, the boy wasn't only speaking much more, but became the narrator of the school’s yearly fairytale performance.
After my social service I went to the Netherlands to study psychology. I soon began to steer my courses to cognition and human-machine interaction. When I look back at these days, I perceive them as the starting point of what I am doing now.