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Originally published November 6, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified November 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM

PC changed world of man with cerebral palsy

Viewing a tablet computer, Kevin Berg watches himself struggling to complete a home-therapy exercise. As his eyes begin to tear up at thevideo from his childhood, he laughs.

Seattle Times business reporter

Kevin Berg

Company: Founder of CompuPane

Age: 37

Education: Bachelor's degrees in computer science and communication from Seattle Pacific University

Background: Began working with computers at age 8 as a hobby and to help better communicate while living with cerebral palsy. Has been fixing computers since high school. Worked as a computer programmer before the dot-com bubble burst, after which he started the computer repair business with his wife, Melinda.

Company growth: September best month yet. Plans to hire 20 employees within 10 years.

Company environment: Children Gabbie, 7; Zach, 14; and service dog, Evris, are all part of this home-based business.

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Viewing a tablet computer, Kevin Berg watches himself struggling to complete a home-therapy exercise. As his eyes begin to tear up at the video from his childhood, he laughs.

"I've seen it a million times; I know the ending," his wife, Melinda Berg, translates as the video finishes with the child succeeding.

Kevin Berg lives with cerebral palsy, and the video shows him doing exercises as part of the therapy program. But it's the machine he plays it on that has recently changed his life.

"I have 10 minutes to fix this computer," he says apologetically before using his power chair to head to a laptop at his work station across the room.

Since 2006, the 37-year-old Auburn man has run a computer-repair business with his wife from their home. He began fixing computers during high school, and when people began insisting on paying him, it turned into a company, now called CompuPane.

"I think I'm going to tell her that it needs a tune up, because it's really slow," he says, as he uses a homemade head-wand to work on the client's machine.

The Bergs estimate CompuPane has about 50 regular customers, not including those who need occasional help.

Most of the customers have home or small offices, with some of the computers he fixes as far away as Japan and Australia. The couple said September was their best month yet.

Berg lives with a combination of spastic and athetoid cerebral palsy, which causes involuntary and exaggerated body movement and some stiff or permanently contracted muscles.

The severity of cerebral palsy varies case by case; some individuals with the condition have almost complete motor control, while others have little control over their movements.

A combination of technology and support from his wife help Berg accommodate these symptoms to run CompuPane.

Melinda Berg helps with some of the physical hardware repairs through her husband's instruction, and he does most of his work remotely, operating the tablet with his head-wand. Both these devices have made a difference they call night and day.

Before this, Berg operated a trackball with his chin, a slow and labor-intensive process. Each time he moved the mouse he would have to check its location on the monitor before continuing to work.

The head-wand, combined with touch-screen technology, now lets him view the screen while operating the machine, though he also uses the head gear to type on manual keyboards.

Berg alternates between his tablet and a touch-screen PC to make his repairs, occasionally working with customers' computers for tasks that can't be done remotely.

The tablet allows him to work in his living room while spending time with his children, Gabbie, 7, and Zach, 14.

Communication tool

The technology has evolved from the computer his parents got him at age 8 as a hobby and to help him communicate. Berg operated that computer by typing with his nose, and as he began doing more and more with the machine, it showed signs of becoming a possible career path.

"It literally changed his life," said his father, Don Berg. "For him, computers were the future."

Kevin Berg received a more complex machine in high school and has been teaching himself about the mechanics of computers ever since. He reads technology news daily to keep up to date, something he says he does more than the average computer repairman.

He received degrees in computer science and communication from Seattle Pacific University, and was known as "The Computer Doctor" during his college years for fixing other students' machines.

After graduation he was employed as a computer programmer for several years at N2H2, an Internet-filtering company, before he was laid off when the dot-com bubble burst, putting him on the job market.

Job searching had been complicated by what Berg said were his nerves during in-person interviews, which tightened his body and made his disability more evident during the meetings.

"I don't think they meant to discriminate, they just didn't know," Melinda Berg said.

He did schedule an interview for a job with SPU, but realized the distance and nature of the job would place incredible demands on his family. His wife would have to help him on campus throughout the day, and the job would have limited time with their children.

"Our whole life would be that job," Melinda Berg said.

Ultimately, Kevin Berg canceled the interview with SPU and created the business that later became CompuPane.

Sense of humor

The way Kevin Berg sees it, his abilities coincided almost perfectly with his disability to lead him to a career in computer repair.

"You don't want me being your brain surgeon," he said, laughing.

It's that sense of humor and his professionalism that won over client Kirsten O'Malley, whose office computers Berg set up so that she can run her private school and tutoring business remotely, at one point from Bolivia.

She met the Bergs about two years ago, and said she initially was apprehensive about hiring them to support her business.

"I wondered, 'How will we communicate and how will he do his job?' " O'Malley said.

When Kevin Berg took only five minutes to respond to an email, O'Malley's perceptions changed. That's how she learned about his head-wand and other modes of communication.

She said her reaction was, "I'll never go anywhere else."

At times a hurdle

Communication seems to be the backbone of the Bergs' business, but it's also an initial hurdle that they have to overcome.

The Bergs use primarily word-of-mouth advertising to build their customer base. They said other methods have led to confusion if Kevin Berg answers the phone, but when people realize he has cerebral palsy, it isn't a problem.

Their goals for their business include hiring employees; they hope about 20 within the next 10 years. They'd also like to be able to devote more time to motivational speaking, including developing a presentation on how to run a successful business.

Right now, Kevin Berg is on call 20 hours a day.

"That's how you know you picked the right job," he said. "You go to work and you don't feel like you're working."

The to-do list includes taking a family vacation, maybe a monthlong RV trip around the U.S., though Melinda Berg jokes that she's skeptical her husband will take that much time off.

Their daughter, Gabbie, would like a return visit to Disneyland, which her parents hope they can take in a few years.

"It's kind of a fine line if we work all the time, but they [the kids] understand that means in a few years we won't need to," Kevin Berg said.

But an objective for his company that Berg identifies is one his wife and clients say he achieves every day.

"One of my main hidden goals with the business is to show people what someone with a disability can do," he said.

Alexis Krell: 206-464-3263 or akrell@seattletimes.com

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