Nineteen years ago I found myself in the spinal cord unit of a hospital after breaking my neck in a freak accident, only 11 seconds into my first Boston University hockey game. After two months in the ICU and then another month of weaning off the ventilator that kept me alive, I finally began the process of rehabilitation. Then paralyzed from the neck down, one of the key components to my occupational therapy was learning how to use Dragon, which at the time was a one… word… at… a… time… technology. Nonetheless, it was cutting-edge, so cutting-edge that my occupational therapist had never used it before. I learned this fact quickly as I found myself swearing into the microphone when the program did not respond to my dictation. Had my OT only known to give me the command “Wake Up,” it would have saved an hour of frustration. It’s safe to say my relationship with Dragon was a slow start, but it didn’t take long before I realized how vital the software would be to my ability to find areas of independence, which would lead to huge personal successes. Thanks in large part to Dragon, I graduated from Boston University in 4 years; founded the Travis Roy Foundation which to date has raised over $5 million for people with spinal cord injuries; and I’ve been able to build a lucrative career traveling all corners of the country as a motivational speaker. It is not an overstatement to say that Dragon is one of the most critical resources I have that enables me to live a full and productive life.
It has also been fascinating to witness firsthand how speech software has permeated so many aspects of society. I remember when my dorm mates from Boston University would come into my room to see and hear me speak to my computer, and then have my words magically appear on the screen. My friends would be wide-eyed as they watched and listened in disbelief (and jealousy) at what I could do. We were all short-sighted in thinking that Dragon would only be used by the disabled. Now the software is in our smart phones, our cars, our homes, and I imagine it won’t be long before every person on this planet benefits from the technology.
Dragon not only created opportunities for me to go back to school and make a living, it has literally given me a life. I’ve also witnessed firsthand the lives that Dragon has given other people through the work of the Travis Roy Foundation. One of the most difficult and gut-wrenching aspects of my work with the Travis Roy Foundation is receiving applications from young men and women who have been relegated to living in a nursing home because there is no one else to care for them. It is upsetting to imagine a 23-year-old spinal cord injured survivor living in a nursing home for the rest of his/her life. When we provide these applicants with computers with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, it not only stimulates their minds, but they can also virtually leave their room and explore the world. You just can’t put a price tag on what that does for someone.
And given that it is National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, my hope is that people will become more aware of the Abilities of people with spinal cord injuries, thanks in large part to improved technologies that have made us all equally capable, if not more capable in some areas, than able-bodied people. I realize that may sound like a stretch to some, but technology truly has come that far.
I want to thank those who have been responsible over the years for the evolving speech recognition that Nuance has produced. As cliché as it may sound, I cannot imagine what my life would have been, or would be, without it.