When Nick Tyler graduates from Ocean County College later this month, he'll do so with a dual mission in mind: continue his computer science studies at Kean University, then use his programming skills to make life easier for those with disabilities.
Tyler, of Brick, relies on technology to help him navigate life on a daily basis to a much greater extent than most people. He was born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which has resulted in his having limited control of his arms and legs, as well as his voice.
"Since my muscles are affected, I have a difficult time being understood," he said, through a voice synthesizer much like the one often associated with physicist Stephen Hawking.
"The physical part of using the keyboard and mouse of a computer has always been a struggle, so finding appropriate assistive technology has always been a part of my life," said Tyler. "I can do a lot with the current technology, but much improvement still needs to be done and I want to be a part of that."
As a computer science major at OCC, Tyler has taken three classes with computer science professor Mary Burke, including courses in Java programming, data structures and database management. Many of the classes include working on projects in groups.
"I was concerned in the beginning because I had spoken to Nick and asked how he could participate, but we resolved that," said Burke. "He's very actively involved with the students, more so this semester than ever. I've seen him becoming more outgoing, talking to other students and having pizza parties with us."
Earlier this year, Burke nominated Tyler for the Terry O'Banion Student Technology Champion Award, a national honor open to community college students across the country. Tyler won the award in the Use of Technology category, which highlights students who use technology and are working to improve it.
On Wednesday, Tyler demonstrated his voice synthesizer device to a reporter, using his eyes to focus on an LCD monitor attached to his wheelchair and selecting options that allow him to speak and perform other tasks. The synthesizer, he said, comes equipped with an infrared sensor that can track eye movements and select options much like a traditional mouse.
But there's still room for improvement.
"In general, technology needs to keep moving forward in the area of helping physically disabled people live more independently," said Tyler. "I would like to be involved in the development of a device that would enable me to use my arms and hands more efficiently for every day tasks."
Tyler is on the right track, college staff members said.
"I think that Nick's success, and the way he works closely with his teachers really speaks for itself," said Lorett Cramer, a professor and counselor at the college who has worked with Tyler during his time there. "He's very hard working and very persistent, and his instructors have been very creative in arranging for accommodations. Nick has learned to be a really great self-advocate since the first time I met him."
His top grades have also made him a star in the computer science program.
"He has been an inspiration to my whole class, and me," said Burke.
Tyler will graduate with the rest of his class at OCC's commencement May 23. He is set to continue his studies at Kean University's campus on the OCC grounds in the fall.