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Pinball scores with disabled

Monday, March 26, 2007


The next pinball wizard to come out of North Jersey may not be able to use his hands. Heck, he won't even need hands to master the pinball machines that U Can Do Inc. makes. A player like Richard, a 51-year-old who operates a wheelchair with his head because he has limited use of his hands, can trigger the flippers by moving his head to the left or right and depressing buttons.  Others can play the machine by pressing oversized buttons or even blowing into a straw. Richard and other residents at the Eastern Christian Children's Retreat, a Wyckoff group home for people with various developmental disabilities, got their first crack at pinball recently when U Can Do co-founder Ron Kochel delivered a NASCAR-themed machine donated by Horseless Carriage Carriers of Paterson. As Kochel, who also owns an auto glass store in Passaic, rolled the machine into one of the retreat's lodges, the wordless residents wore broad smiles. They've never been able to play pinball -- with its flashing lights and revving engines -- and they were excited, lodge director Janet Nicastro said. "You could just look at their faces and tell," she said. Kochel started making adaptive machines in 2000 after a chance meeting with some children who had cerebral palsy. They were watching him install a windshield at A-1 Auto Glass in Passaic and they told him it looked like fun. "If I had my choice I'd be home playing pinball," Kochel recalled saying. "And they just said to me, 'We can't do anything like that.' "Kochel was shocked that the pastime wasn't available to them so he and his business partner, Gene Gulich, adapted a standard pinball machine for people with varying disabilities.  After showing his product at the Abilities Expo in Edison in 2002, the two men contacted Melrose Park, Ill.-based Stern Pinball. Stern, which claims to be the world's only coin-operated pinball manufacturer, helped Kochel and Gulich modify the software and saved them the painstaking labor of hand-wiring the machines. Kochel and Gulich's company, U Can Do, has sold 80 pinball machines. The NASCAR game cost Horseless Carriage $6,500 -- about $1,300 more than the retail cost of a standard machine. But it's far better than a standard machine, said Jayne Press, executive director of the Eastern Christian Children's Retreat. "Most of the time [the games] are too high or the switches aren't adapted for them," Press said. "The fact that we can have a pinball machine ... that allows people of various abilities to use it is just great." Not everyone was an instant pro at the game. Tony, a 38-year-old with developmental disabilities, had some trouble mastering the buttons. But at least he had the chance to play.


Pinball combines glee and therapy, Passaic auto glass installers customize machines' wiring and controls for use by disabled
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Star-Ledger Staff

Christine Russell did something amazing yesterday: She played pinball.
At 37, the student of Matheny School and Hospital in Peapack-Gladstone can't speak and has limited mobility of her arms and legs. But there she was, making all the bells and whistles and lights of the Monopoly-brand pinball machine light up by bumping the back of her head against purple plastic buttons attached to the headrest of her wheelchair.

"Yeah! Pinball wizard," someone yelled, as Russell scored at the game many able-bodied people find hard to maneuver.
The customized machine was developed by a couple of automobile glass installers from Passaic who call themselves U Can Do Inc. Their creation is believed to be the only one of its kind and is set to be distributed to specialized institutions across the country and overseas.
"It is great," Russell said via a laptop computer that "speaks" for her as she points to images using a stylus. "I always wanted to play."
The machine itself is manufactured by Stern Pinball of Melrose Park, Ill.
But the conversion happens one machine at a time at the A-1 Auto Glass shop in Passaic, operated by Ron Kochel and Gene Gulich, who created the special wiring system that allows users to bypass the usual right and left flipper buttons and use various types of switches instead.
"Look at these people here," Kochel said while watching the Matheny crowd taking a shine to his invention. "The smiles come on, the screams of glee ..."
Players can use one hand or two. One foot or two. A head. An elbow. There's even a device that allows the user to manipulate the game via the "sip and puff" method, by blowing air into or sucking air out of a straw.
Yesterday at Matheny, Dion Alston, 24, played by punching a button attached to her wheelchair lap tray. And Melvin Rhett, 23, who has full use of his arms, operated the game while lying face down on a gurney.
"It's a wonderful thing, both therapeutically and in a recreational sense," said Linda Silvia, director of therapy at Matheny. "One of the nice features of this is a student, no matter what level of ability they're at, can access it independently."
While the machine has so far been distributed to several rehabilitation centers and specialized hospitals throughout the Garden State -- the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, Mountainside Hospital and Hunterdon Developmental Center among them -- the most recent delivery came courtesy of the Friends of Matheny, whose members discovered a newspaper article featuring the game, hunted down its creators and paid $6,000 to buy it.
"The Friends organization likes to do friendly things and provide things that are not in the school budget," said Linda Horton of Peapack, a member of Matheny's board of trustees and co-manager of the Second Chance Shop, the Friends' thrift shop, which operates out of a local church.
Kochel said the seed for the idea came in 1997, when A-1 Auto Glass consultant Jim Miller came over to check out the pinball machine collection. He could admire the machines but couldn't play because a case of childhood polio had rendered his left hand unusable.
Not long after, Kochel was working on a car parked across the street from the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy High School when a couple of kids steered their wheelchairs over to him. One asked if Kochel was enjoying what he was doing, and he replied by saying he'd rather be playing pinball.
"We can't do that," one of the teens told him.
Then, after months of research, and trial and error, the first converted pinball machine was delivered to the disabled high school kids by the 2000 holiday season.
"I was George Bailey. I was the richest man in Bedford Falls. The rewards in life that we get from this are incalculable," Kochel said.
Principals at Stern Pinball, a company founded in the 1970s that manufactures some 7,000 pinball machines per year, said the customized version is a first in the industry, but one whose time is due.
"We want everyone to be able to play pinball, regardless of their ability," Shelley Sax, assistant to company president Gary Stern, said.
For Miller, who has become vice president of marketing at U Can Do, the game proves how far therapeutic recreation has come. Diagnosed with polio shortly after his birth in 1931, Miller recalls a childhood of rehabilitation exercises that included spinning an old ship's wheel attached to the wall.
"I get a personal satisfaction now being in a position to see a person with any disability be able to use their body and mental capacity to get something accomplished," such as playing a game of pinball, Miller said.
And while only handicapped-friendly games have been distributed and the operation still runs out of the auto glass warehouse, Adam Hasemite, director of international sales and the dean of educational services at the Royal Academy of Science in Hackensack, said the future looks big and bright.
"We will distribute to thousands on the international level. I have a feeling for this," he said.

Eleanor Barrett works in the Somerset County bureau. She can be reached at or (908) 429-9925.

When Pinball Lights The Eyes of the Player
JERSEY/NEIL GENZLINGER The New York Times April 21,2002

You should have seen the eyes lighting up last weekend at Ron Kochel’s booth at the Abilities Expo in Edison. Youngsters and adults alike, most of them in wheelchairs, were smiling and squealing because Mr. Kochel and his partner, Gene Gulich, have figured out a way for them to do something that may have seemed literally and figuratively out of reach: play a simple game of pinball.
Scores of merchants and manufacturers were exhibiting products for people with disabilities at the Expo, held at the New Jersey Convention Center, but none could match the buzz being generated by the adaptive pinball machines. The familiar flipper controls are overridden with large circular switches — something like those domed lights that go on and off with a slap. Players can use one hand or two. For people who don’t have use of their hands, the switches can be tapped with the feet. For those who don’t have use of anything below the neck, they can be tapped with a twitch of the head.
Everyone who came by wanted to try the two machines the men had set up. Mr. Kochel and Mr. Gulich in fact seemed a bit overwhelmed by the response, and who can blame them? They’re just two guys with an auto-glass replacement business in Passaic, and until quite recently the universe of the disabled was as invisible to them as it is to practically everyone else.
“It was Ron’s idea, and I made it work,” Mr. Gulich said, telling the story of how the pinball machines came to be. The men run A-1 Auto Glass and a related radiator business. A few years ago one of their salesmen, a man with limited use of his left hand as a result of polio, was staying with Mr. Kochel, who as a hobby collects old pinball machines. Mr. Kochel invited the guest to play a few games and was taken aback when the man said he was physically unable.
“Ron didn’t want to believe him because, well, everybody can play pinball,” Mr. Gulich recalled. “Ron just felt that that wasn’t right.”
So Mr. Gulich helped Mr. Kochel rig a pinball machine to operate off switches. It’s harder than it looks, Mr. Kochel said. Pinball machines these days are highly computerized, so it’s not just a matter of substituting a switch for a flipper; you have to get the computer codes from the manufacturer.
There are other games available to the disabled, but many are passive, solitary, two-dimensional things — touch a felt board in the right spot and a recorded voice says ‘good job’; aim a head-pointing device just so and a cartoon character runs across the computer screen. Such activities may entertain, but they also scream out, “You can’t play the games other people play.”
With their pinball machines, Mr. Kochel and Mr. Gulich smashed several barriers, not only expanding entertainment from two dimensions to three, but also creating a game that a disabled player and an able-bodied player can share on equal terms, one that promotes social interaction rather than separation. They didn’t realize how revolutionary this was at first. Then, two Christmases ago, they brought a machine to the local cerebral palsy center.
“We really didn’t quite understand what the impact would be,” Mr. Gulich said. “There were tears in their eyes.”
People began telling the men that they simply had to form a business, and so they did: U Can Do Inc. Mr. Gulich said that, after selling both machines on display, they now have 15 out in the world, at schools and institutions and residences.
Mr. Kochel, though, acknowledged that the small breakthrough comes at a big cost: machines go for $6,000. And that, in a microcosm, is the story of the Expo. The convention center was full of wonderful things to ease life for the disabled — motorized lift harnesses to get people in and out of bed or bath, wheelchairs as powerful as tanks. But all come with staggering price tags.
“A lot of the equipment is very expensive, and it is not always covered under your insurance,” said Rick Ringhof of the Assistive Technology Advocacy Center in Trenton, which helps people find both assistive devices and ways to pay for them.
The advocacy center, too, had a booth at the Expo, but compared with U Can Do its wares were drab: booklets on “How to Obtain Funding for Assistive Technology Through Medicare,’ “How to Obtain Funding for Assistive Technology Through Private Insurance,” and so on.
Yet that, really, is the heart of the matter: it’s not just what can be done for the disabled, but at what cost, and using what measure of value. A $6,000 game of pinball? Sounds absurd. But you should have seen those eyes lighting up.