University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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UW-Eau Claire Outreach Effort
Nominated for National Award

 MAILED:  July 18, 2003

EAU CLAIRE - An outreach effort conceived 10 years ago by two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty/staff members - the Morse 2000 Worldwide Outreach - was recently nominated for a national award - the New Freedom Award.

This is the first year the New Freedom Awards Project, organized by the Jim Mullen Foundation, headquartered in Chicago, will present the awards to individuals, organizations and corporations in the United States that have contributed significantly to the creation of new freedoms for people with disabilities. To be presented at a gala event at Chicago's Navy Pier on July 22, the awards are named for the New Freedom Initiative launched by President George W. Bush in 2001 to "help Americans with disabilities by increasing access to assistive technologies, expanding educational opportunities, increasing the ability of Americans with disabilities to integrate into the workforce, and promoting increased access into daily community life."

Key supporters and sponsoring agencies of the awards include corporations such as IBM and Microsoft, as well as non-profit organizations such as the American Association for People with Disabilities, Arc of the United States, Easter Seals, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and many others.

Dr. Thomas W. King, professor of communication disorders, and Debra R. King, outreach program manager for continuing education at UW-Eau Claire, have been disseminating research in and information about Morse code use in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for the past 10 years through the Morse 2000 Worldwide Outreach. They are joined in this effort by many active participants in the United States and around the world.

The Kings, who besides being faculty also are UW-Eau Claire alumni, had not been aware of the New Freedom Awards project before being nominated. Both said they were pleased to have their efforts recognized in a way that might help them reach and benefit more people.

"We and other professionals who are part of the Morse 2000 Worldwide Outreach view Morse code as just one of many tools and methods that people with complex communication needs may find helpful in gaining adapted access to computers for writing and telecommunications," said Dr. King. "It is not the only such tool, but it is an often-overlooked and highly effective one that works well for many people with severe disabilities."

Although most people probably think of the 160-year-old Morse code system as a thing of the past, associated with telegraph and other communication systems that have been replaced by more modern technologies, the Kings are enthusiastic in their praise for the system's ease of use and its adaptability to various technologies that allow people who cannot speak, or who have very limited movement capabilities, to communicate.

According to Dr. King, the Morse 2000 outreach has influenced the AAC industry in many ways, assisting several manufacturers to develop Morse-input communication programs and devices for use by people with disabilities. Through peripheral devices, computers can be adapted so that almost any small movements a person is capable of - from moving the eyes or moving or blowing with the lips to pushing or tapping with a single finger - can produce Morse code. Dr. King tells about working with one man who had the most freedom of movement in his hips, so they worked out a way to allow him to enter Morse code into his computer by moving his hips from side to side.

The adapted computer systems also include devices which translate the traditional Morse codes into the letters and numbers they represent, which then appear on the computer screen. The computers can then speak what has been entered through Morse code.

The Kings point out that as various software programs have been developed to work with these devices, there has been a tendency for each software company to come up with its own codes for computer commands that did not exist in the original Morse code system, such as "control," "alt," "backspace" or "delete." Working toward standardization of these commands has also been a part of the outreach effort, and Dr. King's now widely used textbook, "Modern Morse Code in Rehabilitation and Education," published in 2000 by Allyn and Bacon, Boston, includes an appendix comparing the Morse code characters and extensions of several AAC devices on the market.

The idea for the outreach effort came from an international conference, held more than ten years ago, where the Kings were talking with colleagues from John Hopkins University and the UW-Madison Trace Research and Development Center about increasing possibilities for the use of Morse code for AAC. They agreed there was a need for an information clearinghouse where people from around the world could go to find research and to communicate with others about the latest developments in the field. As an outreach program manager, Debra King said she knew that UW-Eau Claire Continuing Education had the resources and technical know-how to support such an effort, so she volunteered to take on the task of organizing the outreach she now administers, which received initial encouragement and support through grants from a number of different sources, including UW-Eau Claire. The Kings, both FCC-licensed ham radio operators (WF9I and N9GLG), were especially pleased when the project received a generous start-up grant from the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Connecticut.

Now a collaborative effort of UW-Eau Claire Continuing Education, the School of Human Sciences and Services, and the department of communication disorders through the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Clinic supervised by Dr. King, the outreach currently includes MORSELS print and on-line newsletters; clinical and technical consultations by telecommunications and mail; a Morse 2000 list server for online discussions; a master repository of Morse-related research and resources; and evolving, comprehensive bibliographies for Morse sources and references.

In 1997, Morse 2000 hosted the first world conference on Morse code research and uses in rehabilitation and education in Minneapolis, which drew 31 professionals from rehabilitation and special education fields in eight countries. Through their Web site, e-mail, and telephone, the Kings and other members of the outreach continue to have contact with people from many different countries, and they hope to host another world conference in 2005.

Dr. King is especially proud of the fact that the Morse 2000 outreach was contacted by and has assisted the U.S. Army Special Forces - the Green Berets - in making their Morse code training more efficient and cost-effective.

The Kings don't know who brought their work to the attention of the Jim Mullen Foundation, but they were told they received a number of nominations, so they assume the nominations came from some of the people that have benefited from their outreach effort.

The Jim Mullen Foundation is named for the Chicago police officer who was shot in the face in 1996, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Mullen is president and CEO of the non-profit foundation, which works to "enable the world" by distributing free computer systems to people with special needs. The New Freedom Awards project, which the Foundation unveiled in October 2002, reportedly received more than 250 nominations in eighteen different categories. Twenty awards will be given at the awards ceremony later this month.

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Updated: July 18, 2003