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The most exciting exhibits at this spring's Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago were a dozen or so showing how personal computers are solving the special needs of the handicapped.

The product that most intrigued us is a computer that responds almost flawlessly to normal speech. Dragon Systems of Newton, Mass., designed it for people who can't push keyboard keys. IBM is marketing it. We'll bet it's on the wish list of a lot of non-handicapped readers.Called IBM VoiceType, the software now allows your voice to control any IBM PS/2 that has Micro Channel Architecture. Your voice literally runs the computer.

If you could use the keyboard, you'd select a program either by moving the cursor to the desired line and tapping the enter key, or by hitting the key indicated in the menu. With VoiceType, you simply speak the desired command among the ones you find listed on-screen.

It uses what is known as a "discrete sound". You can't rattle off words as quickly as you do on the phone. You must leave a small pause between words. Once you learn how much space VoiceType expects, the system works incredibly well.

The program works by translating spoken sound into the same electronic beeps as your keyboard issues. It works with most popular programs including all the word processors and Lotus 1-2-3.

Order it to `wake up' and the VoiceType menu system appears on screen. You can then give commands that load programs, select menu items and input words, numbers and anything else you can do from a keyboard.

We saw VoiceType at work in the WordPerfect word processing program. It wrote sentences as paragraphs as quickly as we could write them touch-typing. VoiceType is very smart. When it hears a homonym, it flashes a menu on-screen that lists choices (such as TO, TWO, TOO and 2) and asks you to pick the one you mean.

It's so clever, it normally puts TO at the top of the choice list since that spelling is most common. But if you just typed `three," it knows enough to suggest `two.' And if you typed the numeral 3, it tries 2 first.

IBM VoiceType is what's called an expert system. It learns how you pronounce words. Learning to spell a new word takes a minute or two. To help it learn, it finds sound-alikes already in its vocabulary.

Once it's in tune with your voice, it can zip along at 50 to 100 words a minute.

The program will be available at the end of the summer for the more powerful IBM PS/2 computers with 386 chips. Later in the year there'll be a version that runs on non-PS/2 IBM compatibles. Current price is $370 for an IBM sound circuit board and $3,185 for the software. (You can get more information from Dragon Systems, 617-9655200, or IBM, 800-426-2133.)

Several products from the Prentke Romich Company create keyboards that people with motor skill limitations can use. One put all the standard keys on a flat panel so large, each key is over one inch square. Another puts all the keys on a membrane the size of a notepad. The membrane responds to taps with a stylus. Both work with nearly any IBM, compatible, or Mac computer.

The cleverest product is the simplest: a thick Lucite plastic covering that attaches securely with magnets over any standard IBM PC type keyboard. It has a finger-sized hole above each key. The holes keep trembling fingers from slipping and missing the correct key.

For people with speech difficulties, we saw two notebook-sized computers that turn keyboard input into speech. With both, you can put a word or phrase on each of eight to 128 keys. TOUCH TALKER speaks a word when you touch its key. LIGHT TALKER speaks when a key is `hit' by a beam from a light strapped towhatever the user controls best, hand, head or even toe.

Both talkers arrive with built-in vocabularies. The keys contain standard symbols that activate words and phrases. You can customize the vocabularies in both computers to accommodate people with nearly any need. For more information on the three alternate keyboards and the two talkers, phone 1-800-262-1990.

In the same exhibit area, Prentke Romich showed its Environmental Control Systems for special households. They adapt popular off-the-shelf X-10 and Radio Shack computerized home control systems to the needs of the handicapped.

They switch lights and appliances on and off, adjust electrical hospital beds, dial and answer the phone and more. For most uses, you don't have to own a computer.

A host of products we saw on display are designed to assist the visually impaired. Some run on IBM compatibles (including some laptop portables). Others run on the Mac. There's even a product for Commodore 64s and 128s.

For instance, there's a printer that prints Braille characters on heavy or lightweight `disposable' Braille paper. The Braille Blazer comes with its own software that speaks. It even alerts you by voice if the printer runs out of paper. (For information, phone 301-452-5752.) Several products convert ordinary display type on IBM and compatible computers into big, sharp type for people with some vision.

ArticFOCUS, which even supports Windows, can make on-screen type eight times larger and print it ten times as large. Another product reads aloud what's shown on-screen, including commands as well as text.

There are special phone numbers, by computer type, for requesting information on these products for the visually impaired: For the Commodore, phone 1-800-421-7668. For IBM compatibles, call 313-588-7370. For Mac products, phone 313-477-6720.

Nearly as exciting to us as the products themselves is the fact that the exhibit areas were sponsored by industry giant IBM and the Electronics Industry Foundation. The latter organization was started by visionaries within the Electronics Industry Association.

Congratulations, IBM and EIA. Nice work!