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Pioneer for Disability and Computers

Adrian McPherson one of the newer occupational therapists to join TalkLink,  interviewed TalkLink’s first occupational therapist, Jim Palmer about his long association with assistive technology:

Few people in the world will know more about using technology to help people with disabilities to communicate than Jim Palmer.

In 1968, Jim left a steady career in electronics and in the infancy of the computer industry made the radical move to work with IBM.

Then for another big move, Jim came to New Zealand in 1973 with his family where he picked up another position with IBM in Auckland then Wellington.

After another 10 years working in information technology, he moved into managing a hardware store.  But that position ended after two years.

“Unemployed and at 47, I was too old to get back into the computer industry.  I sat down and worked out what I was good at and what I like doing to match it up with job adverts.  There were quite a few occupational therapy jobs,” he says.

Jim met with the staff at Central Institute of Technology OT School who recommended he apply for the course.  He finished his studies there in 1986.

In his first OT job at a special school in Melbourne, Australia, Jim had a lean towards using his computer knowledge to help the children.

“My most vivid memory is working with a boy with cerebral palsy who couldn’t speak.  We had an Apple 2E computer – the one with the green screen – and he tried and tried to use the keyboard.  I set it up with a switch adaptor, and the first thing he got it to write was, ‘mummy I love you’.”

Enthusiastic about using IT in the disability sector, Jim contacted Computers for the Handicapped and Technology (CHAT) in 1990 about starting work in New Zealand.  The Ministry of Health later agreed to fund the Trust to run a one year pilot study in 1991 which became the TalkLink Trust.

There was only one OT and three people working on administration but Jim quickly realised the need for more clinical input, and got approval for a speech language therapist.  Ann Smaill filled that role for one day a week, increasing to two days a week then full-time.

Other prominent memories include setting up one of the first voice recognition laptops for a university student in 1992 costing $25,000.  And in 1993 when Dame Catherine Tizard officially opened TalkLink a former Board member with cerebral palsy, Margaret Thomson, gave a speech using her laptop and a program EZ Keys.

All work has been highly rewarding for Jim but he has a passion working with people who have terminal illnesses, setting them up to communicate as best as possible to maximise their dignity.

Now in his seventies, Jim is as dedicated as ever about his work in IT and disability.  Jim continues to work with TalkLink part-time to pass on his wealth of knowledge and experience including writing up protocols and policies to support management.

Jim is quick to say he isn’t ready to retire yet.  TalkLink is privileged to have him continue sharing his 45 years’ experience and knowledge.



Jim at the opeing of TalkLink in 1993

Opening TalkLink: Margaret Thomson gives a speech on her laptop using EZ Keys with Jim Palmer and Dame Catherine Tizard in 1993.

retirement function receiving card

Jim Palmer: not quite retired






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Ann Smaill

Ann Smaill

General Manager, Speech Language Therapist at The Talklink Trust
I am the General Manager of the TalkLink Trust, and also a speech-language therapist. I have been working with people who have complex communication needs for many years.
Ann Smaill

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