Let knowledge serve ingenuity

Helping Stephen Hawking speak

When Pete Denman was growing up, he struggled in his classes and was continually reprimanded for “not trying hard enough.” In seventh grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, but by then he had given up on school. “Sometimes schools can be just warehouses to keep kids out of trouble,” he says. “I was putting in my time, but I skipped more classes than I attended in my senior year in high school.”

Neither Denman nor anyone else would have guessed that he would one day help redesign the speech system that enabled world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to communicate with the world.

At the age of 20, Denman broke his neck in a diving accident and was left quadriplegic. He spent several years recovering--“mostly watching TV,” he says--until his mother encouraged him to audit an art history course that she was taking at Portland Community College. He decided to take the final exam, and because he was quadriplegic, he was given extra consideration, including more time for the test and someone to write his answers -- exactly the assistance that a dyslexic needed most. He got an A and a startling revelation: “I wasn’t stupid. I could actually learn.”

He felt as though he had found himself, and for the first time, he understood how powerful education could be. After four years of remedial and college-prep work at PCC, he transferred to Portland State University to study graphic design.

As he progressed in his studies and work, he found that dyslexia was not a detriment after all, but a huge benefit. “Dyslexics tend to be a lot more social than other people, and they look at things holistically,” he says. Because of that, when they find a solution to a problem, it’s often completely different from the way a person who doesn’t have dyslexia might do it.

In 2005, Denman was hired as a visual designer at Intel, where he worked in a succession of departments. He started out polishing PowerPoint presentations, but migrated into more challenging assignments, combining visual and interactive design, and he began to draw attention inside and outside of Intel. He was just starting in the research and development department when he was asked to be part of a team that was working on a new means of communication for Stephen Hawking. The physicist had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative disease that had paralyzed him and rendered him unable to speak. He was able to communicate with a single cheek muscle, which triggered a speech-generating machine, but the process of forming and transmitting words had become achingly slow for him. When the Intel team first met him, Denman recalls, it took Hawking 20 minutes to type 10 words of greeting.

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.”

Most people with ALS die within three to five years; Hawking has had it for 50. “We worked with Stephen on this project for longer than most people live with ALS,” said Denman. “You don’t get this length of time to work on a project that’s going to impact a community this way.”

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.”

At Portland State University, we believe knowledge works best when it serves the community.