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Personal computers and the disabled
McWilliams P., Doubleday, New York, NY, 1984. Type: Book (9789780385196857)
Date Reviewed: Aug 1 1985

This is an important step forward in disseminating information to the rehabilitation community, society at large, and to computer professionals. The book is a broad overview from the point of view of McWilliams, who is admittedly not a computer professional. He is a nationally syndicated columnist on peronal computers who writes from the point of view of the layman who is interested in the ways in which computers can help the handicapped.

The book comprises 13 chapters. The first three are an elementary introduction to microcomputers which I believe were pulled from his other work. Chapters 4 through 8 are chapters specific to the disability types he includes. Chapters 9 through 12 are pulled from his other books with only the slightest (word processor generated) changes in form (and none in substance). Chapter 12 comprises a 134-page “Brand Name Buying Guide” which is nearly one-third of the book and did not, in all probability, even need to be typeset again for inclusion in the book.

The first two chapters are an elementary introduction to microcomputers with nearly no substance whatsoever. The purpose is to alleviate computer phobia in those people who have had little or no contact with computers. The style is familiar and overly cute, but basically correct. The facts, definitions, and historical perspective are given the depth possible in a total of about 3000 words.

Chapter 3 is a transition to the subject matter of the book. McWilliams describes in a few pages the work of a few people who are applying computers to the disabled. It is an elementary story which the general public needs to hear.

The “meat” of the book resides in part in Chapters 4 through 8. It is clear that McWilliams started tabula rasa, and he does not hide it. His technique is to find someone with a disability, talk with them, and then report on it to the reader. This naive approach to a complex field produces almost no principles, addresses no body of knowledge, and is hopeless as a piece of scholarship. If McWilliams were a graduate student, it would be his final act as a student. He is, however, in the business of writing.

In an atmosphere which is half comic book and half the logical equivalent of the Gong Show, McWilliams intersperses serious conversations with pictures of gargoyles, spittoons, etc., all with silly captions. The fact remains, however, that the chapters are entertaining and the general public will read them.

There are between three and four pages devoted to each of five disabilities: hearing impaired, speech impaired, learning disabled (here he includes the mentally retarded), motor impaired, and visually impaired. In each case, one or two points are entertainingly explicated in a way that the layman will not find difficult. It is a quick glossing over in each case, but a point is made which may stick in each case.

Chapters 11 and 12 are directions for buying a microcomputer and a buying guide. It is clear, simple, down-home advice from someone who has lots of common sense and a moderate amount of experience. There is almost nothing wrong with the material and it is readable. Everyone could do much worse.

Most of McWilliams’ opinions and judgements about personal computers are well thought out and correct. In my opinion, one need do almost nothing but follow his advice if you have similar needs. He has remarkable insight and clarity of thought for one with so little experience. Perhaps (in experts) too much knowledge obfuscates outcome variables in a great mass of facts about chips, systems, languages, and devices.

McWilliams has appended a number of computer-related devices for the handicapped to his buying guide. The format takes a sudden turn. Rather than exercising his judgement and mind, he merely parrots product literature. If he had taken a little time to find a disabled person and have him or her use the devices, McWilliams could have produced a book with substance for the disabled.

McWilliams’ strong point is that he makes the effort to try many microcomputers in a systematic manner with outcomes clearly in mind. It is lamentable that he did not use a similar approach to the devices presented. A great many disabled persons see computers as embodying an unfulfilled promise. Testing and disseminating of information would have been a great contribution.

The last 100 pages of the book comprise listings of associations, publications, and other lists of information relating to the disabled. It is a little out of date, but moderately well done.

I talked with Peter McWilliams and told him that my first impressions of the book were unfavorable. He accepted and seemed to understand my criticisms. After a few phone conversations, I have modified my opinions. I have decided that the book is an important first step in the popular dissemination of information. It is not a great book; it is not even a good book. It is, however, “better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”

In summary Personal computers and the disabled has many faults and a few points of excellence, but it is not a good work of science. The question is: Who needs a good work of science? We need the people to know what is out there, so that if they have a handicapped relative (as one in ten people do) they have somewhere to begin. This book is the only popularly written work anywhere. It is the only thing that is likely ever to be read by nonprofessionals. I hope that every bookstore in the country carries it and that people who know someone disabled (that is 28,000,000 people) will run out and buy it. If you have a family member who is disabled, you should immediately drop what you are doing and go get a copy of this book. If you don’t know what is in it, read and memorize the information presented. If you know everything in it, give the book away as a present, because someone needs it.

Reviewer:  R. W. Lambert Review #: CR108947
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