Friday, December 02, 2005

A Blind Woman's Break Down Over A Failure Of Technology.

(ID Charistics have been changed to protect privacy.)

After many years of ignoring other blind and low vision folks, I decided it was time to come to terms with who and what I am. I see very poorly. 20/200 or less without glasses. This is called 'legally' blind. The world of the truly non-seeing blind is a maze of frustration and unmet expectations. Remember when we all thought computers were the next 'magic bullet' for the office? The blind were led to believe that all things were now going to be possible...

Paula, uses a screen reading program called JAWS. It is a stand-alone program the user has to purchase, on top of a serious computer, printer and scanner (with the scanner software). I looked on the website of The National Federation of The Blind where they tally up a total cost, to the blind computer user, of roughly $5,000. This is in order to have all one needs to use the computer at all! My friend was working for a government agency which refused to upgrade to the newest JAWS version, because it was around $800 / user multiplied by 10 computers in her office.

Try and wrap your mind around the following pressure cooker of a problem. You are a customer service person. When a call comes in, your computer opens up six windows on your screen, along with library reference data. Depending on the nature of the call, you select the correct information, and / or data entry window. Paula could only 'read' three of these windows with JAWS, the reference library she needed wasn't available AND she never knew which particular three-out-six windows would be unreadable while dealing with an incoming call! What finally broke her spirit was the time limit she was required to work under. She was ideally supposed to complete a call within three minutes! Paula was always over this limit and management was 'talking' to her. She called me in hysterics one afternoon. This event changed the entire direction of my life.

I had discussed the problems of her job with Paula and was not totally surprised when she called me, sobbing, that she'd resigned her position. Would I please meet her at a local eatery? I have very low vision, and for me to perceive what I saw meant that Paula was in a dangerous physical condition. Her face appeared to be grey. She had no color of pink at all. I've seen pale people. I've seen rosy-cheeked drunk people, but she looked something like, the color of a wet newspaper. She ate, but was very shaky. Her body was shuddering and her balance was really awful. Thankfully, Paula wanted me to come with her for an emergency therapy session. She knew she was in some kind of trouble. I prayed as we talked and made the mental commitment to go with her to the hospital, if she needed to be admitted. I was sure she was very close to needing to be hospitalized.

The psychiatrist's office was in a converted home in Fremont, it was a long trip, but she trusted her doctor. The office had no sound proofing. You could here very faint muted conversations from the office that was next to the waiting room. When we got into the waiting room, Paula disintegrated in front of me. She gasped that she was having a panic attack, fell into my arms sobbing and then she made a noise I'd never heard before. It was a cross between a dog's cry of agony and a human being moaning. I think she was wailing. I was praying as hard as I could and when her therapist came out, Paula could barely speak between her sobs and moans.

The waiting room was right next to her doctor's office. For the next ninety minutes I heard noises of human suffering I didn't think were possible. I have seen a lot, and been through a lot, but what I heard that day embedded itself in my brain. I made a decision and commitment. I told God that if He'd help me, I'd try and invent a screen reading device that would retail for at most $100, be truly computer friendly, (Microsoft, Apple, or whatever). Hopefully my reader would be able to handle the constantly expanding file systems problem, by going under the file architecture. So avoiding the need to upgrade, with every new file format.

I know this is a lot to ask. I have no electronics background and scant current computer know-how for something of this scope. I just am not Okay with what I saw and heard in that office on that terrible afternoon. It is not acceptable to me that a person be driven to a total mental collapse because of the failure of technology. I also hate the expense of 'disability' aids.

If you want a shock, google 'disability aids'. You will discover tables made for wheelchair users, operating a computer at $3,000! This is just for the table that holds the computer! If I search for 'low vision aids' I discover magnifying devices starting at $70 and topping out at $5,000 for the top-of-the-line portable closed-circuit TV magnifying system. Many hand magnifiers are around $50.

If, on the other hand, I google 'magnifiers'. I am exposed to specialty equipment for scientists and jewelers. I was shocked to discover higher magnifying strengths, better manufacturing and prices averaging around $20! Things like this keep my fire burning to attempt to solve a really serious problem.

So, blessed with blissful ignorance, I hit the education trail to learn the new languages for the now common desk top, with-a-mouse, computer. After a year of futile, and I do mean futile, struggle with something called Java, I ran into some extremely helpful information from a friend. When you know nothing about modern computing, try a language designed to TEACH you about modern computing as well as programming, for example, Real Basic.

After a year of floundering around in Java - getting nowhere. I would bog down at the same spot, all the time. I read and re-read what might as well have been Chinese! After six hours with Real Basic I'd made a tiny, but actual working program that did things! I am still learning, in fits and starts, but there is measurable progress.

There are now several new screen reading systems available. Apple provides Voice Over, with their standard operating System, Tiger. I watch computer discussion groups thrash out getting things done with Voice Over. It works, sort of. Again, since I don't have experience using a screen reader, I figured it would be easy to learn. Oh, my no, it isn't easy to learn at all. We sighted folks: see it, point at it and click on it. Those who are really BLIND endure something like this:

Voice Over, has three items one must keep track of in order to have something 'read' from the screen.

  1. The physical mouse cursor on the screen.
  2. Voice Over's internal pointer - where it actually begins 'reading' information from the screen.
  3. Location where the keyboard thinks it is 'pointing' in relation to the actual mouse cursor and the Voice Over pointer.

All of the above is easy to access. Hit three function keys, and the program tells you where your three pointers are. By the time I've gotten that far, I've totally forgotten what I was attempting to 'read' in the first place! Friends, there must be a better answer!

Something else which I'm now running into, which is terrifying. A friend just put in a totally new modern kitchen. I can only successfully operate the faucet on the sink! The microwave, dishwasher, stove and over all have flat screen no-button keypads. I can't get physically close enough to the controls to read them! The totally blind have had this issue for years. Also, close your eyes and try accessing screen data from your cell phone, or in some cases, your desk phone at work! The good news is: a company has successfully developed a small program for use with cell phones. It's exclusive to their brand and therefore not universal.

I just can't leave this problem alone. I don't care about anything as much as never having to hear of another person having a break down over these issues. For the first time in my life I've found a cause that is specific and a continuous nagging. I now have many blind friends . They share their horror stories and battles with accessibility. The inaccessible laptop, wi-fi, email and unreadable web pages. What good is when once you fight through finding an item, you are physically unable to 'click' to tell them you want that item in your shopping cart? For the sighted, amazon is a three column information treasure trove. For a screen reader there are no columns, the data is read through in a continuous stream! Shopping like this, isn't worth the effort. Thanks to all the spam bots around, sites, including this one, have the 'read the characters in the box' task. This procedure is not accessible for the screen readers of today.

So this is my ultimate Project. I first tackle the programming basics, some physics, as I suspect some of my 'new way' is buried somewhere in the bizarre world of quantum physics. Once I've begun actual software coding, I have to investigate something called venture capitol and the hardware side of my device. I hope to stir up budding creators everywhere, to take any of this and run with it. The totally blind can only physically perform (assuming the correct assistive technology) about 3.5% of available jobs. Statistically between 75% to 85% of totally blind people within the working age range are unemployed. This is a lot of wasted potential and sidetracked lives. I am grateful to the working tax-paying Americans whose money sustains me, however, I'm at or below, the poverty line. I personally know of two totally blind individuals with dual BS, not BA, but BS degrees who are languishing in unemployment.

I dedicate my life and future business venture(s) to finding ways of decreasing the technology gap between those with some kind of 'reading' vision and the totally blind.

1 comment:

MacPhilly said...

You go girlfriend!