Disabled 'left as vegetables for lack of health service cash': Leading scientist Stephen Hawking makes a plea for voice synthesisers on the NHS. Susan Watts reports

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The Independent Online
Stephen Hawking took a break from theoretical physics and film appearances yesterday to speak up for disabled people passed over as 'vegetables' by a health system that cannot find a few thousand pounds.

Opening a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, Professor Hawking made plain his views on health funding for people like himself who rely on modern technology to communicate with others.

He called for voice synthesisers to be available on the National Health Service. At about pounds 5,000, their price pales beside drugs bills that can reach a pounds 1,000 a week for some patients. 'They are not very expensive, but there's no public provision,' he said. 'People get them only if some charity can raise the cash. That is not good enough. People should not be condemned to be vegetables.'

Professor Hawking is the author of the bestseller A Brief History of Time. He is Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, is wheelchair-bound with motor neurone disease, and communicates via a computer system which lets him pick a word or phrase from a screen in front of him at a rate of about 15 words a minute.

The exhibition, which opens today, includes innovations in communications devices such as the 'Speaking Hand'. This converts the traditional deaf/blind language, which relies on knowledge of a touch alphabet, into synthesised speech.

Professor Hawking's sentiments struck a chord with Anthony Robertson, 21, who has cerebral palsy. He is an 'ambassador' for Liberator, the company that sells the most widely used voice synthesiser in Britain. It uses a board of hieroglyphic-style pictures activated by an infra-red beam strapped to a headband.

Visitors were warned yesterday not to be put off if exhibits seemed puzzling. Some have been designed for use from a wheelchair, so able-bodied people may be too tall to appreciate them without bending.

(Photograph omitted)

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