PHILADELPHIA - Scott Stoffel, who is majoring in electrical and computer engineering at Temple University, had no trouble coming up with a topic for his required senior design project.
He was studying engineering because he wanted to learn how to develop a small electronic communication device to help blind and deaf people who have trouble deciphering the tiny raised dots of Braille with their fingers.
People like him.
So Stoffel, 32, who is legally blind and deaf, invented what he calls a computer-automated palm Braille system to expand the communication options for the estimated 100,000 people in the United States who are deaf and blind. He said he believed that his instrument could be produced at a fraction of the cost of larger electronic Braille devices.
Although Stoffel has plans for a wireless version that could work with personal digital assistants such as Palm Pilots, his instrument now connects to the parallel port of a PC or laptop using a standard cable. The "palm" in the name of his invention refers to the part of the hand that users rest on the tool to feel the six large pins that are raised and lowered to represent the combination of dots that create Braille letters.
A prototype is being completed. The Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y., plans to test the device with its students this summer. And Stoffel is dreaming of improvements for the next version in hopes of selling the concept to a company that makes Braille devices.
"Communication is probably the single most important thing there is to a human being, aside from the basic necessities," Stoffel wrote in his senior project proposal. "We use our eyes and ears to absorb text and speech. But how would someone get along in the information-driven world of today if he/she could not see or hear effectively?"
Those who know him say Stoffel is the epitome of determination and grit. Reading is a laborious chore for him, yet he maintains a 3.7 grade-point average in a demanding major. He has written a fantasy novel, "The Last Days of Magic," which is scheduled to be published by Domhan Books in New York this spring, and he is a finalist to be a speaker at Temple's commencement next month.
"I can honestly say that he has changed my outlook on life," John J. Helferty, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department, wrote in nominating Stoffel to be a student commencement speaker. "His sense of humor in the face of monumental challenges and difficulties is something I will never forget."
Stoffel said he had been thinking about creating a communication device for years.
"I had the original idea around 1996 when I was working at the Helen Keller National Center in New York," Stoffel explained in an interview conducted at Temple's Ambler campus with Helferty's aid. The professor typed questions on the computer for Stoffel to read in a large font.
"I was talking to a colleague in the technology department [at the center] about the idea of a sort of 'large-print Braille' for people like me who have sensitivity problems and can't read regular Braille or for people who can't move their hands back and forth," Stoffel said. "How about a stationary kind of monitor that just scrolls in place so a person doesn't have to move?"
Stoffel has a degenerative neurological disorder. Although legally blind since the age of 4, he has some sight and can read large, boldface letters up close. His hearing deteriorated suddenly when he was 19. His disorder also causes a numbness in his fingers that makes it difficult for him to read Braille with his fingertips. The dots are too small and too close together for him to distinguish the patterns.
He has completed his classes at Temple by slowly reading text using a large font on his computer screen, and by e-mailing his professors and meeting with them individually. Sometimes interpreters attend classes with him to translate professors' remarks using tactile sign language, in which they press the signs against his hand.
Stoffel lives in an apartment in North Wales, Montgomery County, with his wife, Sandra, who is also deaf and visually impaired. He already had taken computer and writing courses at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., when he enrolled at Temple two years ago.
During a meeting with engineering department representatives, Stoffel explained how he gained access to information.
"I asked them: 'Seriously, do you guys think I possibly could do engineering?'" Stoffel recalled. "'I don't want to waste my time. This is not something I am doing just for the sake of getting a degree. I want it to be a practical career for me.'"
Helferty encouraged him to take advantage of Temple's new computer engineering option in the electrical engineering department.
"He can't physically go into a lab and wire things up," Helferty said. "But with most of your design at the engineering level, technicians go in and wire things up. All the design is done using computer-aided-design software."
Writing the program
Helferty helped Stoffel construct a mock-up and then build the prototype of his computer-automated Braille system. But it was Stoffel who wrote the software program that reads and writes Braille, and designed the hardware.
When a floppy disk with his Braille program is inserted into a computer, it moves the six pins in the proper sequence to create individual Braille letters.
The pins are push-type tubular solenoids.
In its reading mode, the program converts ASCII text files into Braille. The term stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Most books, including textbooks, are available in ASCII file format for DOS on disks. Although Stoffel plans to create a Windows version, he elected to start with DOS because many blind people have older, donated computers that rely on DOS. Plus, newer Windows machines can use DOS, too.
The software that Stoffel developed also displays Braille in a large format on the computer screen for those with some sight. Users can change the colors of the background and the dots. They also can control the speed of the device and the force exerted by the moving pins.
"It is very versatile," Stoffel said as he demonstrated the system. "It has 64 different colors. You just use the shift key and a letter to change it instantly."
The materials for the hardware cost him $213.67, and he said he believed that his system could be sold for less than $1,000 - including labor. Electronic Braille readers that attach to a PC for use by those who are able to read traditional Braille can cost $10,000.
James Belanich, adaptive technology coordinator at the Helen Keller Center, said existing electronic Braille readers were so expensive because they had rows for as many as 80 small Braille characters.
Stoffel's device handles one large letter at a time. Belanich said no similar product had been developed before because the market was so small.
"One great thing about this device is it gives an option to someone who has no other options," he said.
Stoffel recalled that while he was working as an instructor at the Helen Keller Center, he was in contact with a young deaf and blind woman in Kentucky with cerebral palsy.
"She couldn't move her hands to read Braille," he said. "She didn't have any way to access text except through Morse code using vibratory noise. She would feel buzzes - long versus short. It was extremely slow. That is all she had."
Stoffel said that, with his device, the young woman would be able to read Braille because a strap could hold her hand in place so she could feel the moving pins spelling out the Braille letters.
Former instructors and colleagues at the Helen Keller Center are not surprised that Stoffel has created his computer-automated Braille system and is obtaining his engineering degree.
"Engineering is a brutal field," said Anne Sedewitz, now admissions director at the Helen Keller Center, who was Stoffel's rehabilitation counselor. "But knowing him, I am not surprised that he did it. He is so brilliant. And he has the determination and the motivation to succeed."