When Pete Denman, at age 20, broke his neck in a diving accident that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he knew the event would alter the course of his life. But he couldn’t have imagined that his new trajectory would eventually lead him to a collaboration with one of the most brilliant scientific minds of a generation. And he couldn’t have foreseen that his efforts to improve Stephen Hawking’s quality of life would be just one of his many contributions to making the world a better place—both through his work at Intel and with organizations that help people with disabilities.
Pete’s involvement with Stephen Hawking began in 2011, when Hawking contacted Intel to ask if the company could help him improve his communication speed. By then, Intel had already been working with Hawking and providing him with specialized computer equipment for several years. When then-CTO Justin Rattner, who was tapped to lead the effort, assembled a team, he reached out to Pete. “It was no mystery why I was put on that particular project,” says Pete. “Because I have a level of empathy for Stephen that no one else can match. I know what it feels like to be in a seated position and what it means not to have the ability to do, and interact with, and experience things in the same way that an able-bodied person would be able to.”
Pete’s ability to identify with Stephen at a deeper level allowed him to pick up on subtle cues others might have missed—and to offer simple solutions based on his own personal experiences. “One of the first things I noticed when watching videos of Stephen was that he would sometimes strain his eyes to the left and the right,” Pete recalls. “When he was doing that, I could see reflections or indications that somebody was walking behind him. And I began to realize that he wanted to see what was going on or maybe communicate with whoever was there. So on one of my first visits with him, I gave him one of those little mirrors that people have in their cubicles, and I stuck it on the corner of his monitor, and that changed everything for him. If you see him now, he always has that—and backups in case they break.”
The team’s primary objective was to increase the ease and speed of Hawking’s interactions with his computer by updating the user interface to be simpler and more intuitive. So they designed a more contextual and predictive interface that offers up the most likely choices for Hawking to make at any given moment, including next word prediction for speaking or writing. The redesigned interface reduces the number of steps Hawking needs to take to complete various tasks—including communicating—using his computer, thereby increasing his speed and efficiency.
On the difference his work has made to Stephen, Pete says “I certainly hope and believe it has improved his quality of life. One thing that’s common to many people with disabilities is that we don’t adapt very easily from technologies we’ve gotten used to—and come to depend on—to newer technologies, even if they’re better in many ways. So Stephen didn’t have to use his new system—all of his old software is still there. And for a long while, he’d continue switching back and forth between the two. But he now uses the newer software as his primary system most of the time, and I think that’s our strongest signal that he’s really come to value it.”
But the project’s value doesn’t end with Stephen Hawking. “We’ve open-sourced the software we created and given it to the world,” Pete explains. “So it’s out there and available for anybody to use and to modify for their specific needs. This is something that we did purely to help people with disabilities.”
The project also led to another unanticipated benefit. It’s given Pete an unprecedented opportunity to correct misperceptions about another one of his distinguishing characteristics—dyslexia. “Being dyslexic is one of the most powerful things I have going for me,” says Pete. “A lot of people see it as a problem; I don’t. I see it as something that helps me in a lot of ways to get the results that I get. It’s a difference in thinking, a difference in the way you process thought or put your ideas together. So I want to change the way people view dyslexia. I had to overcome a lot of stigma and self-doubt, and a lot of those things pushed me into the career path that I’m in. But I think the way that my brain works allows me to process ideas in a different way than the average person does. And so that helps me in labs tremendously. I can come at an idea or project from angles far and wide and be able to see it in a way that no one else has really thought about. And I know dyslexia has helped me to do that.”
Pete appreciates that his work with Stephen Hawking has given him a platform from which to advocate for people with disabilities—and he’s determined to make the most of it. “I’ve worked with UNESCO on disability-related initiatives. I’m on the board of directors for QUAD Inc., which helps people with disabilities live independently. I work with the National Center on Learning Disabilities, the Christopher Reeve foundation, and many others. And the reason I’m in the room is because I worked with Stephen Hawking.”
“The project with Stephen Hawking has given me opportunities to branch out and talk about dyslexia and other hidden learning disabilities. The fact that I’m dyslexic and I helped change the life of one of the smartest, most gifted, and influential people of our time has given me credibility to talk about these issues and change perceptions. And once you change the perception, you change the game.”
Changing the game is something Pete has done many times in his career at Intel—working on devices like the Intel Reader and Intel Health Guide to some very exciting Lab research projects that will be coming out in the near future. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to work on projects that have been both challenging and meaningful,” says Pete. “Intel has given me many opportunities to use my talents to make a real impact—both within the company and far beyond.”
Watch Pete Denman discuss his amazing opportunities and accomplishments in the new movie Roadtrip Nation: Being You, which premiered on Public Television stations throughout the US on May 8, 2016.