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Technology Assists Physically Impaired Veterans

Bobbie O'Brien
WUSF Public Media

Have you ever taken a photograph and the camera flash turned the person’s eyes into red or white dots? That bane of amateur photographers is becoming a useful tool for physically impaired veterans.

Rick Archer, an assisted technology therapist at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center, has  a typical laptop computer in front of him. Attached to it is a black device, the size of a toothbrush case, called Eyegaze.

“You’re getting infrared  light coming out and it’s turning the pupil white because that’s what it reads. And once I get myself in place, it says go ahead and type,” Archer said. “You really don’t have to be able to move anything other than your eyes to run it.”

That’s because your reflective pupil acts like a mouse cursor or fingers on a keyboard. A camera captures the reflection and turns it into computer commands.

“I can do Facebook, email, Skype, calendars, music. Anything I want to do with the computer, I can basically do just by looking at it,” Archer said.

He estimates the Eyegaze device costs about $1,900. Paired with a laptop the total cost is about $3,000 to help a physically limited veteran regain quality of life, he said.

The Eyegaze is just one of several devices being used in the Haley VA Assistive Technology department. In the last six months, 134 veterans have been helped by the high-tech devices supplied by the VA when they're deemed medically needed.


Electrical impulses are all that's needed to operate another computer-controlled device, said Ursula Draper, an occupational therapist on the Haley VA assisted technology team.

“What I’m demonstrating here is an EMG controlled computer which means the electrical impulses from your nerves. So, on my hand I have an electrode. This is all wireless,” Draper said.


Motion is not needed to operate the computer, making the device ideal for patients who have ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, she said.

“All we need is a little muscle twitch for them to be able to communicate. And they can do anything on this computer that anyone can do they can get to the mail. They can go to the internet,” Draper said. “So, this gives them a way they can reach out to others.”

And there's technology for veterans who are less impaired, but may have memory trouble, such as a smart-pen and digital notebook that writes, records and backs up notes at the same time.

“It is going to record as you’re writing your notes. So whatever you’re writing, it’s recording at the same time,” speech pathologist Tilena Caudill said.


And if you have a lot of notes, you can use the smart-pen to point to a specific place in your notes on an iPad, and it will replay the recording without having to fast-forward or rewind, she said.

While a lot of this technology is available to the general public, it's an important symbol to injured veterans and service members, said Steven Scott, director of the new $52-million Tampa VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

“This is sort of a promise that we’ve given those who have served our country. If you ever get injured, you’re going to be able to come to a place that America offers or the VA and we’re going to give you the best  rehabilitation care you can ever get,” Scott said.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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