Father helps quadriplegic son communicate and hold jobs using specialized interface

December 27, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Doug Brookens, left, helped design a computer system that allows his physically challenged son, Bob, to communicate, surf the Internet and hold down two paying jobs. By Tom Corrigan

Once his father switches it on, Issaquah resident Bob Brookens, who just turned 40, instantly starts operating the MacBook Air attached to his wheelchair. The cursor moves rapidly and the screen flickers and changes rapidly as well.

Through the computer, Brookens makes a personal comment to his father, Doug Brookens. Bob is then ready and willing to demonstrate how he completes his job for a call center provider.

Bob is a quadriplegic who has cerebral palsy and cannot communicate verbally. He’s not able to use a keyboard or a joystick. But in the early 1980s, working with the University of Washington, Doug was able to rig up a computer interface his son could use.

“For the first time, he could communicate more than ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Doug said, adding that with email and the Internet, Bob’s world eventually got a whole lot bigger. That interface, which has been through plenty of refinement over the years, now allows Bob to hold down not one, but two part-time paying jobs.

The call center job really is a long-distance, Internet position. The Bellevue office of AtWork! has even set up a space for Bob to complete his assigned tasks, said Lisa Fox, director of employment services for AtWork!

AtWork! is a nonprofit organization helping challenged people throughout the area.

Bob’s computer interface works by way of head movements transmitted to the computer via a sort of collar near Bob’s neck. When Bob taps his head on the collar, the computer’s cursor moves and he can click on various instructions on the screen.

“He’s always been interested in computers,” said Doug, who added he spent years programming and refining the interface and the commands Bob uses.

Doug, a retired psychologist, has no formal computer training. Bob’s brother and a grandfather also helped with the programming.

For the call center firm, Direct Interactions, Bob evaluates call center operators by listening to recorded, incoming consumer calls and then answering a long series of questions, Doug said. The questions all deal with the operator’s attitude, helpfulness and so on.

Bob also works with the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. For FISH, he has produced a database of group speaking engagements and is keeping track of the inventory in the hatchery’s still new gift shop.

When Bob is not working, Doug said his son’s computer usually still is being put to use.

“He loves the weather,” Doug said.

Through his computer, Bob sends various weather-related reports to the Everett Parks and Recreation Department. He looks at tide reports provided by a Sequim resident. Bob even sends weather news to a friend of his family whose son is on a mission trip in Russia.

Bob got used to the idea of literally using his head when he was very young, Doug said. At about age 3, Bob learned to operate an electric train set using special controls set up by his father.

“He quickly got the idea that some kind of movement resulted in something happening,” Doug said.

Besides the special interface, Bob has also had the use of what was described by his father as a kind of beefed-up wheelchair. With it, Bob was able to go along on various family outings. Nowadays, with the help of a caregiver, Bob lives on his own during the week in an Issaquah Highlands condo.

Overall, Doug described his son as a determined, happy man.

“He’s just the kind of guy who loves life,” Doug said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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4 Responses to “Father helps quadriplegic son communicate and hold jobs using specialized interface”

  1. Michael J. Workman PT on January 11th, 2012 5:53 am

    Just goes to show the amazing things that people can do when you give them the access they need. Well done guys, keep it up!!

  2. Matt Storey on January 18th, 2012 2:06 pm

    Thanks for a great article, Bob and Doug are inspiring!

  3. Peter Groves on January 18th, 2012 2:53 pm

    I think it’s fabulous that companies such as Direct Interactions and AtWork have developed programs and resources to employ the handicapp.

  4. Stephen Bailey on December 6th, 2013 5:16 pm

    I am an old friend of Bob’s from Issaquah High School in 1990. Would love to have him email me. We worked together one semester; hung out at Sammamish Lake park a little bit. I think of him often in my assistive technology work, and Googled him today to find this! Sweet memories. Man, he looks good at age 40. Please share my email with him if you can.
    -Stephen Bailey

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