For several years, Ted O'Brien's world consisted of three
television channels, the bed he lay in and little contact
with the outside world. Not much more than the four walls
"My English was deteriorating, I was losing contact with
my friends, and I was becoming very myopic about the world
around me," says O'Brien, a quadriplegic.
to ACT director Karen Anderson,the Center looks at
individuals with disabilities and matches them with
whatever it takes to allow them to access their environments.
O'Brien now says he owes his life to a University of Memphis
resource that is broadening horizons for people across the
region. The Mid-South Access Center for Technology (ACT) is
helping people with disabilities learn how to use devices
that will enhance their lives.
ACT found a way for O'Brien to delve into the world of computers
and the Internet with voice-activation software. The 40-year-old
former cotton broker can surf the Internet, trade e-mails
and send and receive scanned pictures through his computer,
all with voice commands.
"You can imagine what my world was like," says O'Brien. "Here
I am in a nursing home, with no input from the outside world,
other than what I had on television."
The one-time outdoor enthusiast has been confined to the
King's Daughters and Sons Nursing Home in Memphis with a broken
neck suffered during an accident on a business trip to Australia
10 years ago.
"ACT put meaning back into my life," he says. "I am writing
letters to my friends and I can read books on the Internet.
Friends who I had not heard from in years would see my name
pop up on someone else's e-mail, and soon I would hear from
"There are so many places I can visit. I found a site with
an overhead picture of a spot where I used to fish in Belize.
I am even in a fantasy football league with about 10 other
When ACT was first notified of O'Brien, the center evaluated
what software and hardware would help him navigate the Internet
and get the most use of his computer. ACT studied and installed
the system. The center then trained O'Brien to use it.
"It was by no means a simplistic effort on their part,"
O'Brien notes. "Their lack of selfishness with their time,
and their bedside manner made it happen. I get frustrated
very easily and they saw that immediately and worked right
What ACT did for O'Brien is typical of what the new center
is doing for people with disabilities in the region.
"We look at individuals with disabilities and match them
with whatever it takes that allows them to access their environment,"
says ACT director Karen Anderson. "It might be as simple as
a modification to a spoon, or it might be training them to
use a remote control device."
For Terry and Janeene Barnett, ACT is dramatically changing
the life of their son Adam, who has cerebral palsy and who
is also an amputee.
"To me, ACT is a miracle place," says Janeene. "The things
they are doing are life-changing; the person will take this
stuff with them for the rest of their lives."
Before going to ACT, Adam was having difficulty writing and
his reading level was behind. The center introduced him to
a computer and software that allows him to write. His reading
level went from a first-grade level to a third-grade level
in eight weeks.
"Adam has the IQ to be employable and that is the goal here,
to get his reading level up and to get him using the computer
consistently where he can do data entry for somebody," Janeene
says. "Most importantly, his self esteem has gone through
the roof. He is doing things he has never been able to do
The center's $500 fee includes an initial evaluation, recommendation
and training. The center does not purchase any of the equipment,
but does have a hands-on laboratory of resources where clients
may first try software and hardware to see if it is functional
in their lives before they purchase it. Though it is a fee-for-service
center, ACT has a policy of rejecting no one. "If someone
can't pay for the services, we look at other means," says
Anderson says ACT is a "big coup" for The U of M. "There
are only 48 centers like this.ours is the only center directly
affiliated with a university," she says. "We are getting calls
daily for evaluations. The closest center to us-one in Jackson,
Tenn.-annually takes in $2 million in income providing a variety
of assistive technology services in West Tennessee. With the
huge population here in Memphis and with this being a major
medical center, you can see the potential here."
The idea started with a $15,000 Technology Access Fee grant
several years ago. Students at The U of M pay a technology
access fee at registration with a portion going to help professors
integrate technology into their curricula. Dr. Tom Buggey,
an associate professor of instruction and curriculum leadership,
used the grant to create "Buggey's Buggy, a mobile computer
lab that helps education students, teachers and parents learn
about assistive technology such as scanning boards, touch-screens
and communication switches. "Many teachers aren't aware of
the devices available to help kids who have physical disabilities,"
The College of Education expanded Buggey's program by establishing
a center in 1998 designed for caregivers, students, individuals
with disabilities and teachers who need assistive technology
information or services. ACT just moved into expanded office
and laboratory space on the bottom floor of Ball Hall on campus.
"We are growing faster than we can keep up with, staff-wise,"
says Anderson. Besides herself, Anderson has two full-time
staff members, a co-director who is a volunteer, four part-time
employees and two graduate assistants.
ACT's clients have included individuals with Down syndrome,
muscular dystrophy, visual and hearing impairments, and babies
with severe physical impairments stemming from brain hemorrhages.
Many clients are school children who need help in finding
technology that will allow them to function in classrooms.
"We see everything from mild to severe impairments," she says.
"And from age 0 to 99."
ACT, a member of the national Alliance for Technology Access,
has been contracted by Tipton and Fayette county school systems
to train their teachers in the use of assistive technology
in the classroom. Pre-service teachers in The U of M's Department
of Education also are given instruction in the use of assistive
Anderson says the ultimate dream for ACT is to have an abandoned
building the size of a Wal-Mart with space for offices, training
and evaluation rooms, a computer lab and a warehouse to store
equipment. "The need is that great," she says.
For O'Brien, ACT helped tear down the four walls he faced
on a daily basis, and has helped bring his family back into
his life. "My children live in Mississippi, and I only see
them about once every three months," says O'Brien. "Talking
to them on the phone, it is hard to detect their growth, but
now I get pictures of them every week or so through my computer.
What ACT has done for me has been unbelievable."