Reinventing the wheelchair

When Toby Churchill was disabled by illness, he invented a machine to allow him - and many others - to communicate. Sarah Edghill reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Toby Churchill sits in a restaurant in Cambridge and laughs. He laughs and laughs, his body hunched up with mirth, until tears gather in his eyes and he looks as if he might be about to keel over. All around him fellow diners look uneasy and keep their eyes studiously on the plates in front of them. It is probably not the fact that Toby is a paraplegic that disturbs them. Rather that he is obviously having a damn good time. What on earth could such a massively disabled man have to laugh about?

Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Toby Churchill is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair; he is unable to speak properly and needs help with most basic physical functions. But he is also an extremely successful businessman, whose communication aids company turned over pounds 2m last year, and has twice won the Queen's Award for Export. He is married to Sheila, an attractive and intelligent American, who left her first husband and travelled halfway round the world to be with him. The two of them also have a beautiful three-year-old daughter.

Although Toby has the sharpest of minds, it has been his sense of humour that helped him get where he is today - especially since doctors predicted his life was virtually over at the age of 21. In 1968 he was an engineering student, spending the summer bolidays on a placement with a French company. After swimming in a polluted river he contracted viral encephalitis which left him completely paralysed. "He was flown home to England on Charles de Gaulle's private jet," says Sheila. "They thought he was one of the important Churchills, rather than just a run-of-the-mill one."

Back at Addenbrooke's Hospital, the only thing Toby could do was blink. To enable him to communicate his needs to the outside world, his mother devised an alphabet board system, whereby she could point to each letter in turn and he would blink his eyes at the right one to make words and sentences. During five months at Addenbrooke's and a year at Stoke Mandeville, physical rehabilitation gave him back the limited use of his left arm, but speech therapy couldn't help him to regain his voice. When he came out of hospital his parents had the ground floor of their house adapted, and his mother, Ruth, undertook to care for him.

For most people this would have been the end of the story. But not for Toby. He soon got bored sitting around twiddling his thumbs, so he decided to finish his mechanical engineering degree, bashing out his thesis one- handed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. After graduating he then set about designing and building a joystick-style car control so that he could drive his Mini.

Although Sheila Churchill provides most of the detail about her husband's past, Toby is perfectly capable of pitching in now and again, thanks to the extraordinary communication aid he developed in the early Seventies. This is the Lightwriter, a machine which his company now produces in large numbers, and which has not only transformed his own life, but has also made conversation possible for thousands of disabled people throughout the world.

After graduating, Toby - still reliant on a manual typewriter - decided there must be a more efficicient way of communicating with other people. When he couldn't find such a machine, he decided to make one himself. With the help of three university colleagues - an electronic engineer, a laboratory technician and a fellow mechanical engineer - he designed and produced the first Lightwriter, a mini-computer into which words could be typed, then displayed on a screen for others to read.

Over the next couple of years Toby started making models for other people as well as refitting the design. Most early business came through word of mouth, and when his parents took him on holiday to camps for disabled people, his machine provoked interest from others with similar speech difficulties. "Everyone asked: Where? How? Who? How much?" he types.

Initially production was on a small scale: "We have a picture of Toby using a soldering iron at his bench at home, actually making them himself," says Sheila. "He was about 25 at the time, with really long, greasy hair and a beard. He looks like a mad hippie scientist."

Toby started marketing the Lightwriter in 1974, and a couple of years later was selling the machines abroad through distribution agents. In the Eighties a software programme was written to give the machine a voice, with speech synthesised from the words typed into the keyboard. The latest Lightwriter is now smaller than most portable computers - about the size of a box of chocolates. It has extensive memory facilities and two displays (one for the user, one for the person being spoken to), and there are nine different voice personalities - male and female - which can speak in a number of foreign languages as well as in English.

As well as making communication possible for thousands of disabled people, the Lightwriter also brought Toby and Sheila together. She is a lively, likeable woman in her mid-thirties, who was working as a components buyer for Toby's American distributor in Portland, Oregon. While her boss was on holiday, in 1991, Toby needed help sourcing some components, and faxed an urgent plea for help. Sheila hadn't dealt directly with him before, but duly faxed back the information.

"He wrote the a note saying thank you, and had this really witty style of writing that immediately attracted me," she says. "We started writing back and forth to each other, faxing several times a day, and it quickly turned into more than just fun. We became friends and got to know each other intensely.'

Over the next three months Toby and Sheila wrote nearly a quarter of a million words to each other, and the pile of their faxes - which Sheila has kept - is several inches high. Matters were complicated somewhat by the fact that she was already married, but in August 1991 she told her husband she was going away on business, and came to England to meet Toby. "I stayed with him for a week and before the end of that time he had proposed to me," she says.

"People don't understand how things could happen so quickly, but by the time I went back to Portland I had realised that I wanted to be here with Toby and had to somehow sort everything out at home. We talked about what I would do and when I would come, and I was just full of being in love with him. It was wonderful and romantic, but it was also really scary."

After talking to her husband, who took the news surprisingly well in the circumstances, Sheila applied for a divorce. Without the lengthy time restrictions of our legal system, she was a single woman again by 8 November. She handed in her notice at work, packed her bags and told her parents she was off to live with a disabled Englishman.

In February 1992 Toby and Sheila were married, and in June 1993 their daughter Lucy was born. "It's a bit of a non-traditional marriage," she admits. "But it works well." All three of them now live in Cambridge with Ruth and Oliver, Toby's parents, and the business is run from various outbuildings in the garden, as well as from a small industrial unit about three miles away. While Toby works on the design and development of the Lightwriter, Sheila now runs the administrative side, and Toby's younger brother Simon organises sales and marketing from his home in Winchester.

Although not surprised that people find his personal story fascinating, Toby is more delighted by the fact that his endeavours have improved the lives of so many other people. But be doesn't see that as something to glory in. "Not proud, just glad to help," he types.

It isn't hard to see why Sheila fell for Toby. He is quick-witted, extremely funny, and a real charmer. To save time he often types incomplete sentences into his Lightwriter, but although conversations with him move at a slightly slower pace, his choice of words is always appropriate, and invariably amusing. Waiting to see your reaction to something he has just typed, his eyes positively crinkle with enjoyment.

"When we won our second Queen's Award for Export, earlier this year, we threw a big party and invited lots of customers as well as friends," says Sheila. "Several of those who came were young girls in their twenties who have Lightwriters. At the party Toby was holding court at the end of this long table with the girls all gathered around asking him questions. They just adore him. If he wasn't into Lightwriters he could probably be one of those really dangerous cult leaders - he just has that kind of personality."

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