‘Talking computer’ leads to friendship


John Eulenberg, Don Sherman and J. J. Jackson can recall every detail of the day they met 39 years ago .

“It was love at first sight — even though I couldn’t see them,” said Jackson, a blind former Artificial Language Lab scientist, as he reached over to touch Sherman’s arm jokingly.

Dec. 4, 1974, just two weeks after their meeting, Eulenberg and Jackson decided to help Sherman perform a simple task — ordering a pizza via telephone.

Adam Toolin / The State News

Because Sherman has Moebius syndrome, which leaves his face mostly paralyzed, this mundane task was something he had never done before.

Little did they know, the team of now-best friends opened the floodgates for MSU’s speech pathology program that night.

“I think we all feel it was our destiny to work in this area and to remain committed to it,” Jackson said. “We still honor, love and treasure the link we established in 1974.”

The video recording of the event recently went viral, giving the roughly 50,000 viewers a glimpse into the MSU Artificial Language Laboratory’s work to provide voices to those with limited speech.

More than three decades later, the men still get together each year on the anniversary of Sherman’s computer-aided phone call.

Although MSU’s laboratory has since been downsized, MSU still is involved with communicative disorder research.

Back in the day

By typing the letters “ID” into a computer terminal — connected to MSU’s only on-campus computer that took up two rooms in the Computer Center — it spoke the words “I’d like a pizza” loud and clear to the unsuspecting Domino’s employee on the other line.

Sherman said when he was using the machine for the first time, he felt stressed because he did not know what the reception in the pizza parlor would be.

“We had no prior knowledge (as) to how beneficial this could be,” Sherman said through minimal movements in his jaw. “Up until that point, I never thought about me using a computer.”

A year later, the men traveled to Washington, D.C. to show their technology to the Civil Services Commission. Jackson’s longtime friend, singer Stevie Wonder, paid for the trip.

They didn’t expect the result of their trip to involve saving the jobs of 250 blind IRS employees, whose positions were threatened when they no longer could use braille technology.

Years later, Eulenberg, Jackson and Sherman served as a rescue team — armed with talking computers — to distribute to special education programs throughout the state.

Their travels even took them to Israel, where they equipped the first ever speech-free bar mitzvah.

“I don’t think at the time when you’re involved in it, you’re really grasping the impact that it has on people’s lives,” Jackson said.

Old friends, new department

Since Eulenberg retired last May, the Artificial Language Lab has dissolved somewhat, but remains alive in different departments across campus.

While Eulenberg’s focused mostly on providing voices for those whose disabilities leave them without one, the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, or CSD, now primarily assesses speech pathology from a research standpoint.

The CSD’s focus lies in researching how speech disorders develop and looking for patterns in both young and old patients before the disorders make themselves known, department chair Rahul Shrivastav said.

Recent research the CSD released included early detection of Parkinson’s disease in adults and neurological research about stuttering in children.

Another focus of the program is providing students with a hand’s-on experience in clinics, which CSD graduate student Shaina Selbig said gave her more insight than she expected.

“I thought it was an interesting field, and the more I learned about it, the more I saw they do more than what you think of when you think of a speech therapist,” Selbig said. “It gives you the chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

No matter the decade, the speech pathology program seems to hit closer to the heart than many others on campus, with both Eulenberg and Shrivastav having family members with limited speech, which played a role in their choice of profession. Eulenberg’s father spent his last days without a voice.

Jackson and Sherman each spent much of their lives with conditions that impaired their speech.

Jackson recalled a memory with a friend they had equipped with a speech device he could move with his foot.

“We were driving through the foothills near San Francisco … and I’ll never forget … when he comes out with his voice and says, how beautiful the foothills are,” Jackson said. “Not being able to see them myself, but to have him with his communication device be able to describe it for me, that was such a beautiful moment.”

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