From his room at Miller Dwan's physical rehabilitation center, Jim Krocka can frequently be heard having a conversation with Bert. But Bert is not a visitor. Bert is a computer that takes care of lots of things that Jim hasn't been able to take care of on his own since early June, when, in a freak accident, he dislocated his neck.

Straight out of the science fiction movies, Miller Dwan's voice-activated computer can turn on the lights, change the television channel and adjust the bed, just by telling it to. "It allows anyone that has a physical impairment to be able to activate the computer through their voice," Annette Walsh, programs manager for the rehabilitation center, said.

Patients with many different disabilities would find this computer helpful. People with Parkinson's disease, stroke, brain injury, multiple sclerosis or any number of impairments can use the voice-activated computer to add freedom to their life.

"I think it really positively affects a person's state of mind when they can do activities independently, whether it be turning on a light, being able to control opening their door at home or not opening their door," occupational therapist Janelle Fresvik said.

"You can control any kind of entertainment equipment, the TV, the VCR, so they're not always having to depend on another person to do those activities. I really think it gives a person a great sense of freedom."

Now in a wheelchair with limited use of his arms, Krocka, 40, agrees that the computer which he has affectionately named Bert, helps him live more independently.

"It's kind of nice to be able to make phone calls when you want to, and change the channel when you want to," Krocka said.

"Otherwise, you always gotta beep the nurses. And if you want to reposition the bed or turn the radio on, you can. Anything you can do yourself is a plus. You've got freedom."

Krocka gets the attention of the computer by calling its name.

"Bert," Krocka says.

"Yes," says Bert.

"Bed. Head up."

Krocka waits after each word while Bert repeats it and the bed adjusts, without any button being pushed. The lights, the fan, the telephone, practically anything electric can be programmed into the computer and run with voice commands.

The All-In-One Environmental Control Unit costs in the range of $5,000. It can be set up for home use, too, which is why Miller Dwan has one. "We use it to show people what they can do once they leave here," Fresvik said "It's very easy to learn. It takes 15 minutes to an hour to learn the commands you have to use."

"It takes a little bit of figuring out what the system wants, the quirks of it," Krocka said. "But it's not hard to do. It's going to be missed when I go home. I don't know what I'd be doing if I didn't have it here."

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