Speaking From Experience

by Calendar Hacksaw

Iím gonna go down in the trenches for this first column of the new century, folks, so youíll have to bear with me, as you have for the past four years, thank you. Iíll try to make it meaningful, and not take up too much of your time.

Itís December 27th as I write this; Christmas as we knew it in the 20th Century has come and gone, as has the Fence Postís December 23rd deadline. The Zanuttos sure are tolerant.

For some strange reason, during the past few months my mind has occasionally wandered toward a family my folks befriended way back when I was just a kid.

I donít recall their names, except for one, but they were typical of a lot of folks I came to know back then; Okies or Arkies hard on their luck; this group harder than most, and with a lot less luck.

My mother, God bless her, was a magnet for the poor, and I swear my dad drug these souls home so mom would have something to do while counting her own blessings. She was a master at assembling hand-me-downs, but her greatest talent was that of listening. When folks thought all hope was lost, my mom restored their hope, gave them dignity, gave them a voice and at least temporary respite from their worries.

Anyway, this family lived up in the poor part of town. The father was an equipment mechanic, worked with my dad, but didnít get as much work. They were from Arkansas; hadnít been in California for long, and were so broke they not only didnít have indoor plumbing, they didnít have outdoor plumbing either. Not even so much as an outhouse. You were expected to just grab a shovel and dig yourself a hole. No kidding.

Theyíd come out to our house to visit, and always bring along their oldest son, Jimmy, who was 6í2", 250 pounds, about 24-years old, and with a speech impediment so severe only his mother could understand him.

Jimmy was a fine fellow, as I recall, pleasant nature, but his mother cried for his welfare and his inability to communicate with his fellow man.

"Jimmy," she would say, in her Arkansas drawl, using five syllables where two would do, "He cries to me at night because no one can understand him. His brothers understand him better than me, but his poppa donít understand him at all."

Well, she reckoned right; as a 12-year old, I couldnít understand a damned thing Jimmy said.

It must be understood that back then, programs to help people like Jimmy were virtually non-existent. No school would have him. No employer would give him a chance to prove his worth. Out of love and devotion, Jimmy couldnít be left alone, lest an emergency create an immediate need for communication. For all intents and purposes, Jimmy was born in jail and served a life sentence without a trial.

Now, in retrospect, I know that Jimmy was of average or above-average intelligence. All of his faculties, save one, were intact. There was nothing at all wrong with Jimmy except his speech. And a world that didnít possess enough technological know-how to accommodate his needs.

If Jimmy was alive today, and I doubt he is, he would be about 65-years old.

* * *

I was down at this 5-star restaurant enjoying a short stack of flapjacks whipped up by Devon (okay, it was TOGS; I lied), and sittiní at the table next to me was a pair of locals; hired hands, I guess. One of them was literally speechless, didnít say a word, but used hand signs to convey to his partner what he wanted to eat and drink. Their gestures didnít appear to be American Sign Language, but rather something theyíd worked out between the two of them. It worked just fine, and in short order his short order was conveyed to the short order cook, as well it should. Fine for Twin Oaks, but perhaps not beyond. Being a splendid judge of character, I could tell that the fella who was relying on sign language was not only of above average intelligence, but also a damned fine fellow and a hard worker to boot. The kinda guy Iíd wanna have marry into my family (Percy: take note).

That got me to thinking about where technology is taking us in the 21st Century. I read up on this quite a bit, so trust me. The "space age" is only 40 years old, or so. Hell, we donít even listen to financial advice from someone that young. And believe me, itís brought us more than just Corningware. I get tired of hearing people say weíre throwing away good money exploring space. Heck, even when some budget-riddled, unmanned probe slams into Mars, we learn something from it. Likewise, I still hear people slamming the value of computers, with that "who needs Ďem?" attitude that can be as infectious as, well, a computer virus.

But it was the vast frontier of space that gave us computers, and computers that took us into space. They form a symbiosis which canít be ignored. What we learn from one, we apply to the other. And now we are quickly discovering that when we invent a new tool for use by the disabled, it is just as quickly adopted for Ďmainstreamí use as well. A voice synthesizer created to give the gift of speech to someone like Jimmy can also be used to broadcast automated weather warnings. The robotics used in an amputeeís bionic legs can be modified to control movements of the Mars Rover. There are literally thousands of "EADLs" or "electronic aids for daily living," all powered by computers. Speech recognition technology, one-handed keyboards, augmentative communications devices, all promise to erase our current perception of the disabled. A Pennsylvania disc jockey, who just happens to be blind, uses a program called SCANACAN to bar code everything from his clothing to his CDs, and says the technology has changed his whole life. A 10-year old Sacramento boy, who was rendered mute and quadriplegic by illness as an infant, now uses a computer system called IntelliKeys to communicate with his family.

What the 21st Century means to me is the convergence of science, medicine and technology, in thousands of new ways. Our present concepts and perceptions of blindness, speech impairment, hearing loss, and other such maladies will no longer exist by the end of this century--or sooner--rendered obsolete by technology.

Jimmy was just born too soon, surrounded by a people and culture so blissfully ignorant they equated technological progress with witchcraft and sorcery. And yet look what Jimmy accomplished: he inspired me to write this column, and hopefully he inspired a few of you as well. Have a nice century, folks, and donít sell anyone short.

Calendar Hacksaw hangs out at http://www.calendarhacksaw.com, and meeting the Fence Postís unrelenting deadlines has become so difficult heís decided to sell his name and registered Internet domain for the first $2 million bid, or will trade for suitable real estate near Twin Oaks. Hereís your chance to own a dot-com!

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