Speech Reaches the Stars

Speech recognition’s contribution to assistive technology was in part responsible for one of the most important breakthroughs in theoretical physics since Einstein.

By allowing Dr. Stephen Hawking to continue his work after the brilliant scientist was crippled by ALS, speech recognition made a major contribution to expanding what we know of the universe.

Hawking suffers from ALS, known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By 1974 the disease had progressed to a point where Hawking’s speech was slurred and his mobility limited. In 1985, he caught pneumonia and nearly died. To save his life, doctors gave him a tracheostomy to enable breathing, but the operation destroyed his ability to speak. He was spelling out his thoughts using a spelling card, raising an eyebrow when the correct letter was pointed to, until Walt Woltosz heard of his plight.

Woltosz, the president of Words Plus of Palmdale, Ca., sent Dr. Hawking a computer program called Equalizer, which allowed him to set up sentences from a screen menu and send them to a speech synthesizer.

David Mason of Cambridge Adaptive Communication, mounted a small PC and a speech synthesizer on Dr. Hawking’s wheelchair. The synthesizer was made by Speech Plus, now Centigram Communications.

In 1987, Hawking wrote in his best seller A Brief History of Time, “The system made all the difference. In fact, I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice.”

A Brief History of Time catapulted Hawking to international fame, selling well over a million copies, and being listed as a New York Times best seller for nearly two years, despite the complexity of its subject matter.

Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of our era, he is noted for bringing the implications of Einstein’s work to a new level, and discovering that black holes aren’t 100% black, as well as many other scientific achievements. Following A Brief History, he also wrote the book Black Holes and Baby Universes.


Today, Words Plus, Inc. provides state-of-the-art communication and computer access. Products include Pegasus integrated system, System 2000, pictographic and text based communication software for Windows, voice synthesizers, wheelchair mounts, eye or sound activated switches, environmental controls, the MessageMate and Finger Fonix.

Cambridge Adaptive Communication was set up in 1987 to market a comprehensive range of communication aids and computer access products for people with a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities. The business has grown out of the work done since 1985 on the development of the wheelchair mounted IBM-PC compatible computer systems for disabled users.

In 1994 the firm launched a major design project to produce a new integrated system, the Cameleon, an integrated communication system that combines augmentative communication, environmental control and computer access in one small unit.

This year the firm released Cameleon II, their most powerful system yet. It is an IBM-compatible computer, with a color monitor and a built in 16-bit synthesizer with multiple access methods all integrated into a small versatile unit.

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