You'd think Walt Weisel would be one proud and happy guy right about now. The $26-million industrial automation company he heads, Prab Robots Inc., recently announced the first voice-controlled robotic workstation to be sold to quadriplegics. Using Prab's technology, people with severe disabilities can do everything from answering phones to loading and running IBM-compatible software, simply by talking to their machines. "It's just beautiful for teaching a person CAD or programming or telemarketing," says Rich Walsh, a test user who is executive director of Seattle's Resource Center for the Handicapped. "There's nothing [else] I know of that's this comprehensive.'
So what's the catch? Just ask Wayne "Skip" Dinger, Prab's first quadriplegic employee. Dinger joined the Kalamazoo, Mich., company in June to demonstrate the system, prompting a story in a local newspaper. Shortly thereafter, Dinger found that his government-sponsored medical services were being denied -- because he had a job.
As it turns out, many of Prab's potential customers could face similar problems. According to Robert Brabham, executive director of the National Rehabilitation Association, quadriplegics who earn above a certain threshold often stand to lose not only medical assistance but also such benefits as health insurance and subsidized housing, which are linked to Medicaid in many states. "In effect, [people with disabilities are] discouraged from and financially unable to afford going to work," Brabham says.
This is hardly good news for Prab, but Weisel is unfazed. He plans to market his systems, which sell for up to $49,000, to government rehabilitation centers and insurance companies, figuring that they have both deep pockets and the incentive to get quadriplegics jobs. As for Dinger, he has kept his job at Prab and is now trying to raise enough money so that he can afford to work full-time. "Fighting this bureaucratic system is quite a challenge -- it's a full-time job," he says. "And I've already got a part-time job."
-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf