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Body Sense

The Magic Years?

Born to Talk

A Change of Mind

Speaking For Herself
in the classroom

IT'S A KID'S WORLD: Speaking For Herself

Born with cerebral palsy, twelve-year-old Kara Johansen has never spoken a word. For most of her life, she has used an alphabet board to communicate with her friends and family. Now it's time to try a new approach. Engineers at a Massachusetts company were challenged to design a device that would enable Kara to utilize computer technology to communicate. Frontiers is on the scene to film a very important event -- the first time Kara will "talk" with her sister on the phone.

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: Eye Talk
Activity 2: Computer-Generated Speech
Contest Idea!: Design a Desk For the Differently-abled



brain, cerebellum,
movement, nervous system

cerebral palsy,
muscles, nerves

eye-hand coordination

artificial intelligence, computers,
keyboarding, materials science,
voice synthesis


For most of her life, Kara Johansen has used a plastic alphabet board to communicate. To see just how challenging this way of "speaking" can be, make an alphabet board and use it to conduct a conversation or answer questions in class. First, practice with a board containing just a few letters until you get the knack of eyeing letters to spell words. Then make a more complicated board that will allow you to spell out complete sentences.

  • clear Lucite board about one-foot square (or, plastic sheets or report covers; these will work better if held in a firm frame)

  • letters with adhesive backs (if letters are not available, write the letters with crayon or wax marking pencil)

Note: Lucite scratches easily. Remove pencil marks with a soft cloth dampened with a mild cleaning solution.


Work with a partner in this activity.
  1. Apply the letters A, T, C, K, I and S anywhere on the board. Separate each letter by 5cm or more.

  2. One of you should take the role of sender and the other person, receiver.

  3. The sender should stand about two meters from the receiver. The receiver holds the board at arm's length. Watch Frontiers to see how Kara and her mother use the board.

  4. To spell a word, the sender looks at a letter. As the sender keeps looking at the letter, the receiver moves the board so that his/her sight is directly in line with the sender's gaze. The letter falling directly in the middle of the sight line is called out.

  5. The sender acknowledges that the letter is correct. If so, the sender continues spelling the word. If not, sender and receiver need to try again. Using the first board with just a few letters, you can spell many three- and four-letter words.

  1. Designing the Communication Board.
    When you make a board with more letters, how will you position them? Will you place vowels next to each other or separate them with consonants? Should you include numbers or symbols? Will your board follow the layout of a computer keyboard, or will you place the letters in alphabetical order? Try your new design. When your board is complete and you've tested it with your partner, enter it into a classroom challenge to find out which board design is most efficient.

  2. The Keyboard Connection.
    Examine a computer or typewriter and you'll see that the keyboard is not laid out in alphabetical order. Instead, letter positions reflect a logical layout based on frequency of use. Do you think the QWERTY layout is the best design? How might you rearrange the letters to produce a more efficient design?

  3. Communicating Chemistry.
    Suppose you needed a board to communicate chemical formulae and structures. Would the board look exactly like the other communication board you built? How would its layout and symbols be different? Design a board for chemistry (or math or another science) and use it during one class period.


Twelve-year-old Kara Johansen, born with cerebral palsy, and physicist Stephen Hawking have one thing in common: neither can speak without the use of computerized speech synthesizers. As you see on Frontiers, engineers have designed a device that will translate Kara's eye movements into speech. Hawking, a brilliant mathematical physicist, has a degenerative disease of the nervous system known as Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis); a speech synthesizer is attached to his wheelchair.


Technology is helping Kara, Hawking and millions of other people with disabilities communicate by using devices like computerized speech synthesizers. When a computer synthesizes human speech, it translates text entered on a keyboard into a phonetic spelling file. This file is transferred to the computer's sound generator, where the code is changed into audible sounds that come out of the computer's speaker.

For example, here is a phrase translated by a speech synthesis program: WEHLKAHM TUW SAYEHNTIHFIHK AEMERHRIHKAEN FRAHNTIYERZ. Translated into written English, this phrase reads, "Welcome to Scientific American Frontiers."

Here's your assignment. Imagine you are working in rehabilitation medicine. Your job is to design speech synthesis files for people with communication disabilities. Compose ten phrases each person might need. Begin by figuring out the ten most common phrases you would use. What phrases might Kara Johansen want on her speech device? What would a scientist or another professional want? (Right now, the device Kara is using does not have much more than letters and some words; eventually, artificial intelligence would be added to the computer that would incorporate frequently used phrases into conversation.)

Use a dictionary to translate the phrases into phonetic files. Exchange files with other students and translate the different phrases. As a class, work to create a library of phrases a person would want to have built into a speech synthesizer.


As a student, you spend many hours at your desk. You move in and out of your desk in much the same frequency as many adults move in and out of cars each day. But not everyone is so fortunate as to have a fully functioning body. Some people are confined to a wheelchair; for them, movement is difficult. Other people have difficulty seeing or hearing; or they might have injuries or other problems that make the traditional student desk difficult to use. All the things you take for granted become more challenging for people with different disabilities.

  • Using your experience and observations, design a desk of the future. You can make your design specifically for someone with a disability or perhaps you would just like to draft a design for the ideal study station for use by all students. As you engineer your desk design, be aware of your friends' or your own physical limitations. Adapt the seat or the writing surface to accommodate different kinds of body sizes.

  • Try depicting the desk you design from three views: top, side and front. Better yet, build a model. Use clay to mold a figure like the crash dummies used by auto engineers. Or find an old action figure, stuffed animal or doll to complete your presentation and help you demonstrate all the capabilities and advantages of your design.


Some inexpensive and freeware speech synthesis programs already are available for the IBM and Macintosh platforms. You can download these easy-to-use programs from an online service such as America Online, if your computer has sound capabilities. To access programs on AOL, go to the "Computing" area and then to the "Software Center" and search the file libraries for programs (keywords: talk, speak, speech synthesis).


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.