Person of the Week: Richard Ellenson

July 28, 2006 — -- Cerebral palsy left Thomas Ellenson on course academically with his fellow third graders, yet he remained verbally limited. He was trained to use a traditional speaking device, but it was tedious for him to express thoughts one word at a time, and he gave it up.

His dad, a successful advertising man, thought he had a better idea and began developing a computerized device to help his son communicate more easily.

"There's so much going on in his head. Thomas sees everything. He observes everything," said Richard Ellenson. "He's aware of everything."

Ellenson watched his son saying the words "yes" and "no" while struggling to say much more.

"It became important to me to try to come up with ways for kids to communicate quickly," he said. "To quickly tell you what they're interested in. … They are happy, they are unhappy."

Automated Whines and Whispers

To help his son communicate, Richard Ellenson devoted his energies to creating a kid-friendly form of speech technology he named Tango. The gadget prerecords a wide variety of colorful pictures and symbols depicting commonly used actions, questions and emotions.

His son, Thomas, can use the device to quickly select a thought and the little computer speaks for him, in a voice much like his own that expresses emotions with phrases like "It's embarrassing, Dad!"

"He can go into a mode with one push of a button and change that from a regular voice to a whine or shout or a whisper," explained his mother, Lora Ellenson.

And she said they'll adjust the phrases as he gets older, adding typical teen retorts like "I hate you, Mom."

"We've already added 'Dad, you're bugging me,' which is one he loves to hit," Lora said.

The computerized device can also be adapted for specific occasions, so before a baseball game, they downloaded the sound of cheers for their team so at the stadium their son could be one of the guys hollering for them.

Tango will reach the public market this summer, and the Ellenson's hope it will give a new voice to the 300,000 Americans who rely on communications devices.

"If there's one thing I want to change in the world, it's to assume someone in a wheelchair has a headline over their head which does not say 'my life is difficult' but which says 'my life is interesting. My life is fun. And in some cases, my life is triumphant,'" Richard Ellenson said.