OPENING WINDOW ON WORLD Computer bulletin board puts wealth of information at fingertips of the disabled


When Stephen Wolfe was 18, finished with high school and looking for a career, a vocational counselor tested him and told him he wouldn't be good with computers.

"I wanted to prove her wrong," he says now.

Consider it proven. Ten years later, Mr. Wolfe is not only one semester away from an A.A. degree in computer science from Catonsville Community College, he's also a "sysop," or system operator, for a computer bulletin board he set up to allow other disabled individuals to share information, find new computer programs, even play games.

An extraordinarily tenacious young man, Steve Wolfe was born with a condition called "arthrogryposis multiplex congenita," which affects the joints, muscles and nervous system. But for him, as for others with disabilities, physical limitations are almost irrelevant where computers are concerned; and computer bulletin boards, he's found, open the world a little further.

They put a world of information at the fingertips of the housebound; they bring people with speech and hearing limitations into a communicative round table; they allow those with limited use of their hands to create, correct and revise messages they send to others. They can do all this whenever they want, from wherever they are.

For Mr. Wolfe, these days, that means working his home computer from an awkward perch on the motorized scooter he's using as a temporary substitute for his broken wheelchair. It does not fit under his desk, so he sits sideways at his desk as he punches up the program for his bulletin board.

The BBS works like this: Your computer modem calls Mr. Wolfe's modem. The first time you call, you log on with your name, address, phone number, birth date, and whatever password you choose. After that, you get a set of menus, with directions for calling up what you want.

If you want to learn about new products or programs for the disabled, you scan the electronic messages. If you want to share what you know, type it in. If you're a youngster, you can go right to the Kids Korner, for messages appropriate to your age.

It is not, however, focused completely on disability, nor does it yet have a large enough user base to provide a major information RTC exchange. On-line since April, it's got 142 users, Mr. Wolfe says, "and I could support a couple thousand."

Even so, it's often hard to get through. Joel Myerberg, former chairman of the Maryland Advisory Council for Individuals with -- Disabilities, tried, periodically, for more than a day before he finally got past the busy signal Tuesday night, and then "found one small portion that concerns disability" in his first scan of the board.

Nevertheless, he said, "It's better than boards that don't deal with disability at all."

For Mr. Wolfe, the board is more than just an exercise in altruism -- although it is certainly that: The expenses have so far come out of his own pocket, and maintenance of the board eats into his free time.

But it's also a way to keep his own skills sharp; if you're having trouble with the board, or anything else involving your computer, you message him and he calls you back by regular phone to talk you through it. Neither the board nor the sysop will ask you about your disability. "A lot of people," he's found, "have a hang-up or two about it."

Mr. Wolfe's own handicaps are so severe that he spent 11 years at the Maryland School for the Blind, in a residential program for sighted children with multiple disabilities.

After high school there, he went to the Maryland Rehabilitation Center for vocational evaluation; it was there, he says, that he was told he should be trained in business administration.

But he wanted a college education and a career in computers, and enrolled at Catonsville Community College instead. "The first couple of years, since I had to do everything without a network of friends, it was too strenuous," he says. "I was there from 6 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night."

Without formally withdrawing, he had a period of academic probation, then tried again with more success: "I'm an A student," he says.

He is also a student aide who trouble-shoots for other computer students. "He is really good," says Douglas Frantz, manager of the CCC computer labs and supervisor of aides. "He knows all kinds of software, and he's like a barracuda when there's a problem: Once he sinks his teeth into it, he won't let go. He'll stay up all night and work on it at home."

Mr. Wolfe has had a more recent evaluation at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center, where computers have become a major focus. "We're able to provide a person with disabilities with a computer interface that was not available 10 years ago," says Fred Neil, MRC spokesman. "When they've got the mind intact, we can teach them to access the computer with many tools, from head sticks to laser pencils. We're training quadriplegics to be draftsmen."

For Steve Wolfe, the "interface" he requires is a lot less sophisticated -- merely a shelf-like device that will allow him to operate his keyboard more comfortably from his wheelchair. Delivery time is six months in the future, he says.

The improvements he wants for his BBS are somewhere in the future too: He's almost out of disc space, but can't afford to expand the system. He'd like more phone lines, but can't afford them either. The BBS itself, known as "Spitfire," is a "shareware" product, he explains, which means he's using it on a trial basis while he tries to raise the $85 to pay for it.

On this board, as on many others, there's an appeal for donations to pay for upgrades and maintenance.

There's also a very special statement of intent: What Mr. Wolfe is trying to do, the message says, is "to promote awareness that people with physical, emotional and mental challenges are real people, too, but with much more severity, that's all."

Getting on board

The phone number for Stephen Wolfe's bulletin board -- DICE for Disability Information Communication Exchange -- is (301) 747-4521. Your modem manual should tell you how to set up communications parameters: Use your highest speed, up to 2,400 bauds, with eight data bits, one stop, no (or none) parity. If you've got a re-dial feature in your system, it will keep calling the board, automatically, until you get through.

You'll get 40 minutes the first time you use the board, more in subsequent sessions. The system operator may call you afterwards, by voice phone, to verify your name, address and phone number.

For more information about computer bulletin boards, check a library or bookstore: one useful manual is "Using Computer Bulletin Boards," by John V. Hedtke (Management Information Source, Inc., 1990).

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