I'm thinking of The Music Man as I walk through the laboratory of the Silverthorn Group. "You got trouble, my friends, right here in Brinklow, Maryland. Trouble with a capital T, which rhymes with P, and that stands for...."
Medical rehabilitation professionals describe the game as "a therapeutic tool for the cognitive, physical, emotional, social and recreational domain areas." It's pinball, all right.
Other therapists describe it as a "highly motivating, stimulating, non-threatening, and self-esteem reinforcing platform for teaching motor and progressive task-oriented skills." It's still pinball.
As I approach a Gottlieb pinball game, I notice that it sits lower to the floor than most such machines. Moving still closer, I reach for the plunger to launch a ball. A mistake. Nothing there but a touch-sensitive panel. As I look on in surprise, Silverthorn president Dan Goodman, whose company specializes in the design of electronic devices to assist people with disabilities, puffs hard into a small tube connected to a remote-control black box. The pinball, fired by Goodman's breath, ricochets around inside the machine while he alternately sips and puffs gently on the tube in his mouth, working the left and right flippers at the proper instants.
This machine has been modified for players with a wide variety of physical disabilities, from spinal cord and brain injuries to multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Lowering the machine makes it wheelchair-accessible. A disabled player might not be able to curl his fingers around or pull a ball plunger, so it's designed to be worked either by using the touch-sensitive panel or exhaling into the air tube.
Goodman says, "Whatever works, we can use. Even if it's only your third toe that can move enough to open and close one switch, we can make the thing go."
The idea for ArcadeAccess, as the company's modified-pinball line is called, came from Charles Butler, supervisor of therapeutic recreation in the Pediatric Research Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. Butler, who has worked with the disabled for 20 years, says, "A large number of quadriplegics are young men between age 15 and 25. Often they're daring men, who get into a lot of different kinds of things."
Butler's son, Dennis, 26, is a quadriplegic, the result of a skiing accident. "One of my son's favorite things, before he got hurt, was playing pinball machines," Butler says. From professional experience the supervisor knew that "particularly for someone who has no movement from the neck down, there is little recreational activity available."
Butler knew Goodman because the latter has supplied the NIH with machines for more than a decade. He suggested that Goodman, a lifelong pinball fanatic, try to develop a pinball game for the disabled.
"What really intrigued me was that pinball machines use actual motion," Goodman says. "People with severe motor impairments have games on computers or TV screens, but very little to play with in a three-dimensional world. Our machines give these people, who have hardly any chance to influence their physical environment, an ability to move things around."
"You're actually hitting the ball," Charles Butler says. "You're dealing with spatial concepts. It's much more rewarding than looking at the Pac-Man running around on a flat screen."
For people with many options, pinball may seem like a harmless diversion, even a waste of time. But to a disabled person in a wheelchair, Butler says, the game can provide something special "in terms of overall rehabilitation. When people become injured like that, a lot of them feel their life is over. Pinball allows people one way to continue doing things, to take some physical control over their own lives. It's great."
The first ball finally has gone between the middle flippers and out of play. I look over at Goodman and ask, "Is it possible to tilt this thing?"
The pinball wizard smiles. "We're working on that," he says.
Goodman checks out Dennis Butler's prowess at a specially adapted pinball game.
Richard Sassaman is a free-lance writer who lives in Bar Harbor, Maine.