In hospital for 16 years, the first 7 in an iron lung, then in 1971 John married Maggie and for the next 35 years and until he passed away in 2006, his home was Breeze Cottage.
You Know How to Whistle Don't You?
Profile of John Prestwich
"You know how to whistle don't you? Just
put your lips together and blow." Few user manuals could be
condensed into this single if much abused line from a Bogart movie.
But for John Prestwich, a well-timed whistle is all he needs to
direct his Possum. This is just one example of his innovative
approach to using environmental control and other aids to living
such as voice-input word processing. But then, what else would one
expect from someone acclaimed "Man of the Year" in 1991. John
contracted polio in 1955 at the age of 17. As a result of this he is
paralysed below the level of his chin. Conventional methods for
using computers are not available to him. Even those means which
have been especially designed for people with physical disabilities,
such as light pointers or single switch operation, are not
If asked which technological development would make the greatest
impact on his life John unhesitatingly replies "voice controlled
robotics". Yet, for John, both whistling and speaking must be
synchronised to the imposed rhythm of his artificial respirator.
John relies upon the negative pressure respirator for his breathing.
John's chest is encased in a rigid shell with a gap for chest
expansion. The machine creates and releases a partial vacuum by
which means his lungs are forced to inspire and expire air (315
million times and increasing: one of the reasons for his
long-standing entry in the Guinness Book of Records).
Over the years John has so adapted himself to this regimen that his
sense of timing is impeccable. He rarely misses a menu selection nor
is he interrupted even mid sentence by lack of breath.
The few occasions on which this control breaks down are due to
respiratory infections or indigestion! Many of us will have eaten
injudiciously over the recent holiday season, and unfastened our
waistbands to accommodate the temporary swelling. John has no
diaphragm; if his stomach bloats and pushes upwards, then the gap
for chest expansion decreases, reducing the volume and efficiency of
his breathing. This adversely affects his capacity for whistling and
speaking, and disrupts his timing. There are some computer-human
interface problems in the real world which are never dreamed of in
Although he favours using a whistle to control the Possum (because
he finds there is less interference from TV or CD) John is an
enthusiastic user of speech-recognition technology. John has good
voice quality but because he is softly-spoken, the initialisation of
his system was more extensive and tiring than it might be for other
users. It took him 3-5 repetitions of each item and command word to
train the system to his voice. John employs voice control for
information access and word-processing amongst other uses.
Whereas previously John might have asked his wife Maggie to locate
and dial a telephone number for him, or to take a letter from his
dictation, he now has independent access to these facilities.
If John wishes to contact somebody, he selects his on-line telephone
directory from a menu screen, and when the directory is open, uses
the phonetic alphabet to indicate the appropriate subset, saying
"tango" to display the list of names beginning with `t' for
instance. When the names are listed he says the appropriate
name, and the number he requested is printed on-screen in large
John has to switch from the voice controlled PC to the
whistle-obedient Possum to dial his call. Selecting the dialler from
the Possum, John is presented with a menu of commands and numbers
from 0 to 9. The menu items are sequentially scanned, and John
whistle toggles as the appropriate number lights up. In this way he
builds up the telephone number and then whistles the command to
Observing this roundabout procedure, the casual visitor may be
tempted to shortcut this by offering to place the call, but to John,
his independence in such matters is "a big thing" : In John's
observation and experience, misplaced `kindness' can exacerbate the
isolation of some disabled people, excluding them from active
management of their own affairs. He says that the real danger
arising from this is that the only means of contact such people have
with others is to make a request prefaced with "Could you".
John is determined to limit his requests to only those things which
he absolutely can not do for himself, and as it is, he is working on
those. Having glimpsed some of the campaigning letters he has
composed, one can only assume that John's family motto is "No
quarter asked nor given". In words reminiscent of Carlyle's classic
phrase "Little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy
Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence", John makes full use of his
speech-to-text facilities to lambaste bureaucratic
short-sightedness, and to express his robust opinions.
John says that his quality of living received a inestimable boost
with his marriage to Maggie in 1971 _ When assessing the
contribution that technology has made to his life, John reports it
thus: "When I first became disabled there was nothing to .assist me.
I couldn't even switch an alarm bell on. I had no movement at all.
Now, technology has caught up with my disability and I'm able to
have full control of my environment, and to speak to the world with
out help from anyone." Anybody who has met John is tempted to follow
the word "disability" with "and rugged determination". Yet there is
no hint of complacency or satisfaction with the technical status
quo. The much prophesied telecommunications revolution will bring
more information and power to John than ever before-the next few
years can only be interesting.