The power of voice

PETE DENMAN never would have guessed that he would one day help redesign the speech system that would enable world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to communicate with the world.

At age 20, Denman broke his neck in a diving accident and was left quadriplegic. He spent several years recovering – “mostly watching TV,” he said -- until his mother encouraged him to audit an art history course at Portland Community College.

Denman had never done well in school and had been diagnosed with dyslexia in seventh grade, but he earned an A in his class. This experience sparked a startling revelation: “I wasn’t stupid. I could actually learn.”

After several years of college-prep work at PCC, he continued his education at Portland State University where he studied graphic design.

In 2005, Denman was hired as a visual designer at Intel, where he worked in a succession of departments. Given his expertise with visual and interactive communication, he was asked to join a team working on a new means of communication for Stephen Hawking.

When the Intel team first met Hawking, Denman recalled, it took Hawking 20 minutes to type 10 words of greeting. He communicated with a single cheek muscle, which triggers a speech-generating machine, but the process of forming and transmitting words had become achingly slow.

Denman spent most of his time with Hawking watching him work, and asking him questions. “It was no mystery to me that they chose me,” says Denman. “Though I don’t have a degenerative disease, I am sitting in a wheelchair.”

Since completing the project with Hawking, Intel has made the system they ultimately devised, Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit (ACAT), freely available as open-source software, in the hope that other developers will continue to expand it.

Denman says that two things have been crucial to his extraordinary success: his family and the organization Quadriplegics United Against Dependency. “The biggest thing to help anyone with a disability is your support network. You can’t get along without it.”