Wednesday, December 11, 1996
Thiefs steals a voice
Computer let girl with cerebral palsy talk to her family


BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nikki
Nikki Johnston, 10, hasn't been able to to talk to her mother, Toni Grothaus, or Jeff Chandler since someone stole the special computer she used as her voice.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
Somebody stole Nikki Johnston's voice.

She's asked Santa to bring it for Christmas. But that's unlikely.

Nikki's been speechless for seven weeks. It happened after the 11-year-old came down with the flu at school.

Her dad left work to take her home. When they reached their Cheviot apartment, he knew it would take two trips to get inside. One for Nikki, one for her gear from school.

To save time, Nikki's dad laid her school stuff by the curb next to the car. Cradling Nikki in his arms, he carried her inside.

He hurried back for the gear. But it was gone.

In the space of about three minutes, someone had taken Nikki's Power Rangers book bag and her voice.

Nikki's voice is a highly specialized, 30-pound computer. It comes in a black carrying case with a spiral-bound instruction manual. Open the case, turn on the computer and its monitor glows. Touch the picture keys on the screen and it talks in a soft, little girl's voice.

''Hello.''

''I'm Nicole.''

The machine speaks for Nikki because she can't.

Nikki has cerebral palsy. First the disease stole her voice. Now some low-life has done it again.

The book bag has been replaced. But replacing Nikki's DynaVox voice computer won't be so easy.

The DynaVox costs $10,000. The family obtained it six years ago through Medicare. But Nikki no longer qualifies for such government support.

Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for any household. At Nikki's house, her mom, Toni, is a file clerk at Christ Hospital. Her dad, Jeff, is a maintenance man.

Worse, Nikki's voice wasn't insured. Jeff tried. But no company ''would touch it because it was always back and forth from the house to school. It was always on the go.''

Now, it's just gone.

And Nikki is sad.

Every day, when she gets home from school, she searches for her computer. She crawls across the floor before Jeff can set up her wheelchair.

She goes to the spot in the living room where she would sit on the floor and work her computer. When Nikki finds the place is empty, tears spill from her dark, chocolate-brown eyes.

''She'd talk with us,'' her mother says. Toni's words come out with a soft sense of wonder. She's talking about a miracle.

''You can't image what that felt like,'' she says, wiping her eyes. ''When I had her, the doctors told me she might never talk.

''But she was good on that computer. She was learning her colors and her numbers and some math. The next step was putting sentences together.''

Nikki knows how old she was when she got her voice. She holds up five fingers.

For six years, Nikki used that computer to send her thoughts into the outside world. Her voice could tell her mom:

''I'm hungry.''

''I want a snack.''

''I love you.''

Now, she communicates with sign language and nodding or shaking her head to simple ''yes'' and ''no'' questions.

No questions would be asked if the computer returned. It's of no use to anyone else. It's special. It's Nikki's voice.

Nikki's mom holds out little hope of ever seeing it again. For weeks, she's handed out fliers throughout the city. No one has called the police or the apartment complex office at 661-4905 with any information.

The girl they'd be calling to help is like many 11-year-olds. She has her favorite Disney video, and she likes to talk about it.

She does this now with the only page she has left from her computer's manual. It was at home the day of the robbery. The page shows the picture keys as they appear on the screen.

Nikki grabs the page and scoots over to a stack of video cassettes. Spotting her favorite, she presses a key on the page.

The printing on the key reads: ''I love Pocahontas.''

She points to the TV. Then her left index finger lightly taps the page. This key reads: ''I love to watch Power Rangers.''

When it's time to go, Nikki crawls back to her spot on the sofa. She grabs the page and touches the spot marked: ''Glad to meet you.''

She gives a wave. She gently places her left hand on one last key.

''Goodbye.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.