Laura Meyers Creates Software That Talks Friendly to Help Disabled Kids Find Their Voices

updated 12/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1989 01:00AM

Sandy Papazian was about ready to give up hope that her son Joey ever would communicate. Born with both cerebral palsy and a rare form of epilepsy, Joey often had seizures that lasted more than an hour, and, says the Los Angeles mother, 44, "He spent the first few years of his life just screaming through the day. He was really no more than a vegetable." As he grew, Joey slowly gained some control of his limbs but, despite years in special-ed classes, he never spoke more than a word or two. Then, two years ago, Sandy placed Joey with Laura Meyers, a child-language-development specialist who employs a specialized computer program, which she invented, called Keytalk.

Today, Joey, 12, is a changed boy. "He can communicate with his family and the world around him," says Meyers, who has been called Dollie from childhood. "When we started, he was considered retarded and below kindergarten level. But at our first session, I could see he really wanted to learn. Now he can talk in short phrases and write in sentences. One of his first was, 'Joey is cool.' "

"With Dollie, something just clicked for him," says Joey's mother, who is married to TV producer Robert Papazian (Inherit the Wind, The Day After), 47, and has three other children. "We're amazed at the conversations we have. One day I was worrying about his schedule, and Joey said, 'Hold on, Mom. I'll figure it out.' And he did. He sorted out who was going to pick him up, when, and where they were going to take him. It's so exciting. We can't believe how smart and clever he is. He's now in regular school in an orthopedically handicapped sixth-grade class."

Since she created Keytalk in 1984, Meyers, 46, has used computers to help 150 language-disabled kids aged 3 to 19. Many have Down syndrome. Some are visually impaired, and some have cerebral palsy. Two grants from the Easter Seal Research Foundation have helped finance her work, and Meyers is now using her program in Santa Monica elementary schools. "It's a wonderful teaching tool for kids with no disabilities, too," says Meyers, whose Keytalk soft ware is marketed by an associate to teachers, therapists and parents. It has also been used with stroke victims and adult illiterates.

Keytalk is deceptively simple. Used on a computer with a voice synthesizer, it simultaneously displays and says each letter, then each word and sentence, as the child types on the keyboard. When the child is through, the computer reads the whole composition. Meyers, however, is a major component in the program's effectiveness. "She gives kids credit for being full human beings," says Donna Dutton, director of a Santa Monica computer-resource center, "and for having worthwhile thoughts that need to be expressed." De Anna Horstmeier, a language specialist at Ohio State University, feels that Meyers is making "an innovative contribution," although she emphasizes that no computer can "fix everything."

Meyers believes that many children with language problems have difficulty processing such simple words as the and is. "They grow up speaking telegraphically, in single-and two-word utterances," she says. "When they realize that few people can understand them, they feel ashamed and withdraw." Her approach is based on encouragement and instruction. "Meaning comes first," Meyers emphasizes. "What I say is, 'Who are you and what would you like to say?' At first the kids laugh. They think I'm crazy. They expect to be given the same drill and practice junk—find the A, find the K—they've been given before. That doesn't help them express themselves."

When Elliot Orenski, a second grader with Down syndrome, wanted to describe his birthday party, he told Meyers, "Kids. Hat." By questioning him, she found out the kids had hats. "So I said, 'Okay, if that's what you want to say, then you will need these other words,' and I pronounced them and showed how to spell them out on the computer. The children see the thought printed. They hear it repeated, and it becomes psychologically real to them because they did it themselves. By itself, the computer can do nothing. Human interaction is essential."

The daughter of a Los Angeles doctor, Meyers graduated from UCLA and in 1976 earned her Ph.D. in linguistics there. She began her computer research in UCLA's Department of Pediatrics, and is now an assistant research linguist. A brief teenage marriage produced her only child, Enrique, 29, who works in the health food business in L.A. A second marriage ended in divorce 11 years ago.

Today, Meyers regards the kids she has worked with as her extended family. In five years of intensive teaching, she has helped several dozen children produce small books on subjects they strongly care about. One 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome wrote, "I like God's finest whispers." A 16-year-old boy, whose father had died of a heart attack, could only say, "Dad. Down. Boom." He later wrote of his memories, "My father and I went to his office. We would eat lunch and drink diet 7-Up. I love you, Dad."

As Sandy Papazian can attest, Dollie Meyers has a uniquely winning way with kids who are locked in developmental-isolation wards. "She has infinite patience," says Sandy. "Joey can't see enough of her." Meyers can't get enough of her students, either. "I tell people, 'We don't have razzle-dazzle software, we have razzle-dazzle kids,' " she says. "I want the child to think that the most wonderful thing that has happened to him is that he produced something, not that the computer did something.

"We don't know what these kids can do," she adds. "Nobody knows."

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