Remarks at a White House Ceremony for Participants in the National Initiative on Technology and the Disabled

December 3, 1985

Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It's a pleasure to be able to welcome participants in the National Initiative on Technology and the Disabled -- men and women who've given so much to their fellow Americans.

This is an age of marvels, technological marvels. And today we have calculators the size of playing cards and computers that can fit inside a suitcase -- or a briefcase -- boil it down a little. We have home entertainment centers that put the great music and literature of the ages at a family's fingertips. And we have dazzling communications. Indeed, I remember my disbelief -- and I still have trouble with this -- when I was told one day of a satellite that could transmit the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in 3 seconds.

Perhaps the central marvel of our age is space travel. It was less than three decades ago that the first U.S. satellite was launched and less than two decades ago that man first walked on the Moon. And yet today the dream of regular space travel is already becoming a reality, a working part of our everyday lives. It seems like yesterday when Nancy and I watched the space shuttle Columbia glide to a magnificent landing in the California desert, 1 of 23 space shuttle missions so far. I think my greatest surprise was, out there in Edwards Air Force Base, to be told to get up on the platform, that it was on its approach. And I said, ``Where is it now?'' And they said, ``Just over Honolulu.'' [Laughter] And it was on its approach. I have to tell you, it was the biggest thrill I'd felt since hearing that Lindbergh had landed in France. [Laughter]

But reflecting on the new technology, and in particular on aerospace technology, Secretary [of Health and Human Services] Heckler and others began to wonder about its wider applications. They thought that maybe technology could be applied not just out in space but here on Earth. If we could give astronauts jetpacks, couldn't we give the disabled better wheelchairs? And if we could enable a spacecraft orbiting the Earth to talk to Houston control, couldn't we help those with speech impairments? And so it was that an exciting new partnership between the Government and the private sector was born, the National Initiative on Technology and the Disabled. Already, the initiative is hard at work, encouraging the development of dramatic new technologies.

Our one new device is called Compu-talk and is designed for people incapable of intelligent speech -- intelligible speech, I should say. The person simply types the phrase he wants to pronounce, then a computer synthesizes the sound. And the whole unit -- that's the one that fits inside a suitcase -- it can bring to an end the misery of those who can think clearly but cannot make themselves understood. Another new device is called the blink writer, and this is designed to help persons, like stroke victims, who are completely paralyzed and can neither speak nor write. Imagine the frustration they encounter when trying to communicate. But with the blink writer a paralyzed person can look at a television screen and construct phrases simply by blinking. In a very real sense, the blink writer is a device of liberation, an instrument which sets free men and women who would otherwise be trapped in the isolation of their own minds.

Other new high-tech medical instruments and techniques are being developed every day. There are motorized wheelchairs made of strong, lightweight metal alloys. There are the artificial heart, the pacemaker, and a handheld x-ray device called the Lixi- scope. There's an implantable device called the human tissue stimulator which shows great promise for controlling chronic pain, like that associated with arthritis, rheumatism, and cancer. And there's a remarkable arrangement called the programmable implantable medication system or, for short, PIMS. Although still in the testing stages, it's hoped that PIMS can actually be inserted into the patient's body and used to deliver specified doses of medication to particular parts of the body at carefully chosen times. It holds out enormous hope for people who must receive periodic injections, people like diabetics or patients with inoperable tumors.

To help make certain that these technologies reach the people who need them, you of the National Initiative on Technology and the Disabled are assembling Tech-Net, a national information network that can be consulted by physicians and disabled citizens alike. You're also working on Tech-Team, a network of local technological professionals who are applying their skills, knowledge, and talents to the problems encountered by the disabled. And day in and day out, you're hard at work raising the money to make all these efforts possible. In the last year alone, I understand the Initiative has raised more than $2 million. What it all comes down to is remarkable American know-how being used to help the American people.

Tom Cusworth, on the dais with us today, understands. Five years ago at the age of 19, Tom suffered a swimming accident which left him a paraplegic. But Tom went to a high-technology rehabilitation center in Seattle and overcame his handicap so well that he even learned computer programming. And I have to tell you, Tom, that's a subject we didn't have when I was your age. [Laughter] Today, Tom is a computer analyst in Tech-Net. And, Tom, I know I speak for everyone here when I give you my heartfelt congratulations.

Susan Yim is also with us today. She is also someone who understands. While a graduate student in biology at Duke University, Susan suffered a severe brain stem stroke which left her a quadraplegic. She was unable to speak and unable to move any part of her body except her thumbs. But Susan's mind was sound. For months she struggled to communicate, always dependent on others to decipher her thoughts. Then nothing less than a miracle took place. Jim Jaklitsch, a brilliant engineer who's also with us today, designed a computer that could be operated by Susan's thumb movements, and Susan became able to communicate on her own. And today she has retained a large measure of the freedom that she thought was gone forever. And, Susan, you're what it's all about and you make us very proud.

On behalf of Susan and all of the disabled Americans, I want to thank Secretary Margaret Heckler, the Department of Defense, and NASA for bringing the National Initiative on Technology and the Disabled into being. And I know that each of us wants to express his deep gratitude to Robert Kirk, the head of the Initiative's executive committee. But the Initiative would be nothing without its many participants and so it is that I want to thank you, the men and women who have given this Initiative its drive and substance.

Yes, technology can lift hopes and dreams. And so, really, I can say it all -- I just want to thank you all for what you're doing, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:34 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.