by Theresa R. Lupo

Fall 1998, Vol. 10 No. 1

I arrived in Manhattan and began my journey from the Port Authority bus terminal to the Upper West Side among a throng of New Yorkers indifferent to traffic signals. Several blocks of pretzel vendors, yellow cabs, smiling doormen and skyscrapers later, I arrived at the Levy family apartment. There, I met Chava, who was sitting at her desk in front of the computer eating lunch between sentences.

Chava Willig Levy is an author, lecturer, and communications consultant who uses a motorized wheelchair. "I basically do all kinds of writing and editorial work for my firm. At Lucidity Unlimited, communication with uncommon clarity is the goal," she explained. " People often have an important message, but they don't have the talent to make the words shine, so they come to me for resumes, brochures, speeches and manuscripts."

A Professional Writer and Lecturer

Sometimes jobs fall into Chava's lap. While attending the National Council on Independent Living's annual conference in Washington, D.C., she met an editor from the University of Kansas who needed someone to write a history of the independent living movement. "The assignment paid very little, " Chava recalled, "but I got to interview Ed Roberts, the 'father of the independent living movement.' He fought to attend Berkeley in an iron lung, founded the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, and later ran California's Division for Vocational Rehabilitation, an agency that had opposed his college education!" (For an excerpt from this piece, see

Chava's work has been featured in a number of magazines including Family Circle, Parents Magazine, Woman's Day and McCall's. In 1990, she won the EDI Media Award for an article she wrote about her quest for parenthood. For a taste of her work, you can visit her homepage at:

Chava enjoys lecturing on a variety of topics, including parenting, spiritual issues and disabilities. She recently returned from a speaking engagement in Atlanta. "Often the subject doesn't relate to disability, though even if it doesn't, somehow it shatters stereotypes." Chava has post-polio syndrome. Her husband, Michael, is blind.

Educational Challenges

From the time she was 9 years old, Chava was in and out of the hospital. She was then placed on a waiting list and eventually attended a segregated classroom. Students of mixed grades and academic levels spent the entire day in one room. "Even though the cafeteria was on the same floor as our classroom, we never mixed with the other children," she recalled. Chava attended a regular school for the first time in 9th grade.

Chava met with some resistance when she applied for college. Although she was accepted to the college of her choice, Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, the administration was concerned about how she would get around. She recalled, "They told me, 'There are steps here and it would be hard to get to class.' When I graduated summa cum laude, with a B.A. in French literature, the registrar confessed that their fears had been unfounded." Chava went on to attend graduate school at Columbia University, where she received her M.A. in rehabilitation counseling and pursued doctoral studies in counseling psychology.

Computer Technology and Adaptations for Writing

For writing, Chava uses WordPerfect on her Pentium 120. She explained that in order to type, she braces her right arm with her left hand and her muscles really get a workout. She also uses DragonDictate (Dragon Systems, Inc.), a speech recognition program, though not on a daily basis. "There are a few drawbacks," she explained, "If someone nearby is talking, like my kids, the computer thinks I'm talking and will type the weirdest things. Even a bang on the cabinet will produce a strange word. If I am writing something that I don't want everyone else to hear, that's a problem. If I want to work late at night when my husband is sleeping, it might disturb him." She continued, "I'm still getting the hang of it. To make a capital letter, you say, 'shift key,' then the next word should have a capital. If it is a name, it might make it a capital, though it might not recognize the name and type something else. It does have a word prediction program, and if you are lucky, the word you want is on that list. If not, you have to go into Spell Mode. In Spell Mode, each letter is represented by a word that represents the letter sound, for example, Alpha = A, Beta = B, and Charlie = C. Sometimes I forget the correct words and try other ones, which can be pretty funny."

Palmtop for Organizing

To keep track of her busy schedule, Chava uses a palmtop computer called a Psion (Psion PLC). The Psion is about the size of a checkbook and has a QWERTY keyboard with a fold-down screen. It contains an address book, a world map with an area code directory, a calculator and a spread sheet program. (It also has a map of the world on which you can enter any city and find the current time, as well as the time that the sun will rise and set that day and the distance between any two cities.) "It has a data base which I can search by simply typing 3 letters. For example, I'm really into music, so if I have an extra ticket to a concert, I can type 'm-u-s,' and I get my upstairs neighbor, who a music teacher, and a list of other music lovers. The Psion never leaves my side. If I get an idea at 2 a.m., it's right by my pillow and I can write it down.

Environmental Control System

The Levys also use an environmental control system called Plug'n'Power which is available from Radio Shack. The controls, which are about the size of bottle caps, are attached to light switches and outlets. "There is no fancy wiring. As long as no one else in the apartment building has one with the same numbers it is fine, although sometimes our lights go on and off mysteriously. You can also set the timer on the clock if you want something on or off at a certain time." Chava can turn lights, a fan, and a humidifer on and off at the touch of a button. "It's a God-send. I like to read late into the night. Fortunately, the light doesn't bother my husband, an early-to bed person. Before we got Plug'n'Power, I'd have to wake Michael to shut the lights when I was ready to call it a night. Now I don't have to."

"We really don't have all that much sophisticated technology, " Chava added. "We have a hydraulic lift to get me in and out of the tub. We have a remote control for the TV and VCR, like 99% of the American population. On the microwave we have raised dots on the keypad to allow Michael to use it."

As we spoke, Chava called her husband at work to discuss dinner plans. Using the speaker phone, she simply said, "Abba," (the Hebrew word for Daddy) and Voice Dial, available for a small monthly fee from Bell Atlantic, placed the call. A similar feature, Talk Dial is available for Bell Atlantic cell phones.

Navigating in New York City

Chava's husband, Michael, is the Director of Travel Training at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York City. Through outreach, training, literature, and special projects, he promotes bus and subway use by people with disabilities. Chava remarked, "The city provides autonomy that you just can't get in the suburbs. Neither I nor my husband can drive, so the bus has changed things dramatically. Almost all buses have wheelchair lifts in back. There is a bus stop right outside my door so I can go anywhere - cross town, down town. Some subway stations are accessible too, though most are not."

Computer Adaptations in an Office Environment

Michael, who is blind, uses a Dell 286 computer for his writing, particularly his diary, word processing, poetry, e-mail, and stories for his children. He also uses it for memos, flyers and other documents at work. "It is a real gift. I grew up on a manual typewriter, and if I lost my place, I had to bother someone to tell me where I left off," he explained. He uses a Braillemate (Blazie Engineering) for typing notes.

He continued, "Something has to be said about the essential nature of my technology, which would probably be true in any office position. I will give you an example by describing what I did today during a half-day of work:"

"I am having a regional travel training workshop on November 6 for transit properties from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. My boss, who is sighted, wanted the agenda finished today. She came over to my desk, and I turned on the screen so she could see the agenda. We started moving things around on the page, to get it centered and spaced properly. Then since we didn't have any correspondence from one company in response to our invitation to this workshop, I checked my September file on my computer and was able to follow up with a phone call."

"Then, I received a fax from California." Mr. Levy uses a scanner with OsCaR, optical character recognition software (TeleSensory Systems, Inc.) to read printed material. He also uses a Vert Plus (TeleSensory Systems, Inc) speech synthesized screen reader. "Unfortunately, I bought a unit to run off a laptop, rather than buying one of those self-contained 'reading machines.' My office decided that the laptop could easily 'walk away' and locked it in a filing cabinet, so every time I want to use the scanner, I have to reconnect all the components. This is not a complaint. It is meant to show that technology always comes with strings attached, i.e., with a human interface and an environmental interface."

"The best device for reading printed material is still a human being, a reader. The Lighthouse, Inc. has off-site reader services. Translated to English, this means a nice lady named Marie comes to my office once a week and reads for a couple of hours. Together, we can 'skim,' which is something no machine will ever be able to do. I can say to her, 'look at this periodical, and see if there are any articles that mention travel training, or disability."

"Next, I have three bus demonstrations coming up in November. I had to speak with both the Department of Buses and the special education teacher who is coordinating the demonstrations. I checked my general file for certain details (dates, locations, number of students) about the upcoming demonstrations. Without a computer, I would have to maintain cumbersome hard-copy files, and would certainly not have a 'search' feature to find key words that would bring me right to the information I needed. With computer files, I resemble my sighted co-workers. On the other hand, I don't have the luxury of looking in their files if I need information, so I have to be careful to keep on my computer any bits of information I need."

"One of my successes on the job is networking with professionals. I have a list of 250 agencies and over 500 contacts developed over my four years on the job. How is the list modified and updated? Through a computer file, of course. My intern's job this summer was to call every agency on the list and get updated information."

Take a Cautious and Informed Approach

Michael added, "In my zeal concerning technology, it is tempting to say that knowledge of adaptive equipment is as vital as knowledge of the effects of a particular disability. You also have to know how to play the 'vendor game,' so that you don't get ripped off by people who call themselves experts but are just trying to sell you products. So you see, it isn't just technology. It's educators like you getting it into the hands of students when and where they need it. Ensuring compatibility with existing technology used in schools and at work is a whole other chapter, in which the end-user has to take an active part." For More Information:

Dragon Systems, Inc.
(800)talk-typ or (617)965-5200

Psion PLC

Plug 'n' Power
Radio Shack

Voice Dial Talk Dial
Bell Atlantic
(800)427-9977 (residential NJ)
(800)755-1068 (residential non-NJ)

replaced by Braille Lite 2000 or
Braille Lite 40
Blazie Engineering

replaced by Reading AdvantEdge

Vert Plus - no longer available
recommended replacement:
Jaws for Windows

Theresa R. Lupo is an alumna of the graduate program in Special Education at The College of New Jersey.

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