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Freedom comes with a blink of an eye
It could be a scene from a horror movie — you wake up after an accident, unable to move of speak. Few people can imagine what it is like, but the huge public profile of scientist Stephen Hawking has brought the issue into focus.
Because of a progressive disease, Hawking uses a computer to translate his eye movements to an artificial voice — now so popular it has featured in episodes of The Simpsons and Star Trek.
Mick Donaghan was inspired to set up the Oxfordshire charity SpecialEffect after seeing the frustration of young disabled people at the Ace Centre in Headington, who were not able to use computers like their friends.
His colleague, Mark Saville, said: “Dr Donaghan is one of the UK's foremost experts on ‘eye-gaze’ technology, where you control a computer using your eyes.
“At the Ace Centre, we set up an online database of accessible computer games, so that disabled youngsters could play like any other teenagers.
“He realised that there was a huge unmet need — that there were thousands of young people who were not able to join in.
“It is not just a leisure activity. You are looking at people with no movement at all, and having access to a computer can change their lives and allow them to communicate.
“It is not about hardcore gamers — it can enable a disabled child to play Scrabble with a grandparent on a laptop, for example, which has a profound effect on learning and quality of life."
Those helped include a paralysed four-year-old who enjoys creating music.
SpecialEffect spokesman Alison Hilborne said: “Although he cannot smile, he was so absorbed in the activities that he did not want to stop. His parents were utterly delighted at seeing their son achieve independent control for the first time in his life.”
At the other end of the spectrum, SpecialEffect helped a man paralysed by a stroke to search the Internet, control his DVD player and talk to his family by using his eyes alone.
An eye-control computer can cost up to £20,000. SpecialEffect visits people at home to find the right technology, then lends it until the family raises the funds to buy their own — or the local authority can be persuaded to fund one.
Ms Hilborne said: “Almost always, the people we help feel trapped in their own bodies. Whilst their minds are very active, their bodies do not allow them to do the things most of us take for granted.
“We help give more and more disabled people at least some freedom and an element of control — not to mention fun.
“To be able to play — or create a piece of art/music — for themselves, when they feel like it, without having to rely on someone else to do it, has a profoundly positive impact on their mental wellbeing and overall quality of life. Just to be able to join in and regain a little bit of independence.”
Last year, SpecialEffect’s games room in Charlbury was opened by Prime Minister David Cameron. Ms Hilborne said: “He has been really supportive. He had a disabled child of his own so he appreciates the issues.”
As well as developing the technology and running the games room and loan library, the charity also offers roadshows in places such as Helen and Douglas House, the hospice for children and young people in East Oxford, and in Stoke Mandeville and Great Ormond Street Hospital, offering its services some of the UK's most profoundly disabled young people.
With two full-time staff and eight part-timers, the charity needs £750,000 each year to keep going. It can only continue thanks to donations from trusts and fundraising efforts from a wide variety of sources.
The computer games industry has raised thousands from an annual sponsored run, and SpecialEffect is hoping to encourage more Oxfordshire businesses to join the fundraising.
Local businessman Brendon Cross, of Witney-based STL Communications, is a vice-president, and his company is putting a team in the SpecialEffect Fire and Glass Walk in Witney on March 29.
As winner of the charity and community category of the 2011 Oxfordshire Business Awards, SpecialEffect will benefit from a collection at this year's gala ceremony at the Four Pillars hotel, Sandford on June 15.
Andrew Smith, business editor of The Oxford Times, which sponsors the charity and community award, said: “SpecialEffect was a worthy winner and I am confident that the money we raise at the dinner will make a tremendous impact on the lives of some of the country’s most profoundly disabled people.
n Entries are open for the 2012 Oxfordshire Business Awards. The closing date is March 2, 2012. Visit the website www.oxfordshirebusinessawards.co.uk to discover how to enter and for details of all the categories