Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Sept/Oct 1997

Electric Edge

"This software types exactly what you say," reads a newspaper ad for IBM's VoiceType SimplySpeaking software for Windows '95. It's voice-input software: talk to your computer; it types in what you say. But it's not being hyped to disabled customers who can't type with their hands. No, the hype is to lure the busy executive who could type, but doesn't want to.

Voice input and voice output software are cool today. Voice output -- speaking -- is being touted for everything from subway announcements to automobile navigation systems.

Lost in most of the computer-industry hype is the story of voice input and voice output as it's marketed to folks who need it because of disabilities.

As the American Voice Input/Output Society meets this September to discuss (among other things) voice input and output on the information highway, writer Sally Rosenthal lets us in on a secret: when it's "special" "for the disabled," it's not at the local computer store.

And that's just the start of it.

Adrift On The
Information Highway:

Confessions Of A Wannabe Computer Nerd

by Sally Rosenthal

"You will find that there are two types of blind computer users: Those who become completely engrossed in their computers and those who just want to know enough to write a letter," a visually impaired friend cautioned me many years ago when I was beginning to lose my vision. Always one to throw myself into new adventures with boundless enthusiasm, I was sure I would fall into the former category. I didn't realize at the time how naive that optimism was.

We were discussing adapted computers . over coffee -- computers that neither of us could afford as single working women. My friend was lucky, I thought, to have a computer provided by our state agency for the blind. It must make her job as a social worker so much easier, I mused, imagining the ease with which reports could be typed, read, and corrected with an adapted computer. No more typewriters and readers. Although I was still able to read standard print through the use of a magnifier at that point and the hospital in which I worked as an occupational therapist was not yet online, I reasoned that someday, in the far, far future, I, too, could keep working through the wonders of technology. In retrospect from the not so distant future from the day that conversation took place, I now know I was not only naive but dead wrong.

Like most sighted people (and I still counted myself among their numbers back in the mid-1980s), I had a vague notion that technology could enable people with disabilities to perform any task the rest of us could do. OK, it might take a little longer, but using a computer with a speech output program was my ideal solution to anyone's blindness and my own possible blindness in particular. Like anyone else not born into the age of technology and not congenitally blind, I viewed the advances in computer systems for visually impaired users as the answers to most, if not all, of life's problems. I had to do so; I had a vested interest in remaining independent.

So, I spent a few years of relatively stable vision silently thanking the gods of technology for the computer revolution they had wrought. At the same time, my ears perked up whenever anyone mentioned adapted computers. A librarian in my fully sighted days, I still harbored a librarian's tendency to file information away for future use. Just in case, I reasoned. The information I squirreled away came to me sporadically, often through serendipity. A nagging suspicion told me that I should seek out more organized knowledge; after all, I was almost certain that there had to be a clearinghouse for adapted computer material. Perhaps a call to the same agency that had supplied my friend with her computer would tell me everything I needed to know about computers for visually impaired people. I was still naive, but, oddly enough, this time, I was right on target.

In the late 1980s, I called a caseworker at the agency. He had briefly worked with me when I had gone through the agency's vocational rehabilitation program several years before. After a differing opinion on the appropriate career path for a college librarian who was losing her vision (the agency preferred counter work at a national donut chain; I opted for retraining as a psychiatric occupational therapist), it only took several months, many nasty letters, and a few appeals to clear up the matter.) the caseworker was rather wary when he heard my voice on the phone.

He seemed relieved to hear me ask about computers. Did I want one for work? he inquired. It sounded too easy to be true to me, but I decided to play along. I really just wanted some information about what was available, I explained. He countered by offering me a laptop 286 PC, printer, and a speech synthesizer. Like a bank officer processing same-day mortgage applications over the phone, he pulled my file, asked me what I was making on a monthly basis, and, after pushing a few buttons on his calculator, told me I could have the whole package for $120.00.

Although I was not used to such rapid, positive movement on the part of this agency, I agreed, after telling the caseworker that my hospital was not yet online but that I did publish quite a bit in professional journals. I hung up, still somewhat dazed, and thought that the money I would have to pay for my portion of the computer was far less than typing fees I was paying a local mail processing and copy center on an annual basis to type my manuscripts. The tide had turned, I reasoned, in my war with the agency. Having called for information, I had come away with a promised computer.

Eight months later (by which time I was very glad that I had not been waiting to use it on a daily basis at work), the computer (a desk model, not the anticipated laptop) arrived via UPS. I came home to find several boxes sitting in the middle of my apartment living room floor. While my fiancee confirmed from the return address that the boxes did indeed contain the long-awaited computer equipment, I had a flashback to a previous shipment from the agency, remembering why I had once only half-jokingly referred to them as the "box people." Besides the metaphorical box they had placed me in as a middle-aged woman with low vision when I first applied for services, the only help (other than partial tuition payments) I had received from them had also arrived in a box via UPS. After months of trying to convince a different caseworker that I would need readers in the college library, I received a CCTV reading system the day before my classes began. With no instruction provided or time to adjust to using the CCTV before plunging into studies, I called the agency to inquire what had happened to my requested reader services. The caseworker seemed mystified, explaining that the CCTV was portable. It weighed ninety pounds to my one hundred ten. Go figure.

As we stood in the living room regarding the computer, I realized that the box syndrome had struck again. This time, however, instructions of a sort had been included: a print copy of a word processing program workbook. Since my fiancee and I were completely computer illiterate, I decided that a phone call to the agency was in order -- just a friendly little inquiry into how to use said computer.

Again, the caseworker seemed mystified. Hadn't the agency enclosed a workbook? He gave me the phone number of the company from whom they'd purchased the equipment and software (an Artic Technologies Business Vision speech synthesizer, Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS, etc.), telling me to call them. That company was, of course, located in another state and did not have a toll-free number. An employee seemed equally mystified when I talked to him on my lunch hour a few days later: The company had loaded all the software, he explained, and had installed the speech synthesizer. When I asked him if he had any idea how I could set it up and learn to use it, he suggested I call the agency which had purchased it. I hung up, feeling caught in a loop.

The computer remained in boxes in the corner of that living room for a few months as we planned a wedding, purchased a house, and acquired a few cats. Occasionally, as I came across the boxes while cleaning or helping a kitten find a missing catnip mouse, I thought wistfully of using it.

A little over a year after finding the computer in my living room, I got a call from the agency. They had some extra money to use by the end of the fiscal year. Would I like some computer lessons at a local training center? After arranging to work through lunch and leave early (this was before the ADA, folks), I found myself at the training center at 4:30 on a workday. At last, I was sitting in front of a computer, eager to learn. I had even unpacked my own at home. Soon, I reasoned, I would be typing away with ease on it. I was here to learn the secrets of the computer gods.

Well, maybe. My training consisted of an instructor who handed me a pair of headphones and a six-hour instruction tape about the speech program. He told me that we would start with Tape One. Incredibly, he sat down, put on a pair of headphones, too, and turned on his own Tape One. More incredibly, he did not turn on the computer. I took off my headphones and inquired if we weren't going to turn on the computer. "No," he replied, "the tapes will be fine." Midway through, I, after having gotten up at five a.m. for a train and subway commute to a full day of work, fell asleep to the drone of the tape. Next week brought more of the same. I never returned.

Another call to the agency hooked me up with four hours of instruction at a private agency for the blind. After another grudging approval from my supervisor, I found myself sitting at another computer training session. This one began with more promise; the instructor turned the computer on when she entered the room. "We'll begin with headers and footers," she explained. Headers? Footers?

I countered that I had a computer at home that I barely knew how to turn on, let alone use. I needed basics, not headers and footers. I got nowhere, but I figured that I was at least getting some instruction. I went home and unearthed the print instruction manual. I read it with a magnifier as I typed manuscripts. It was a slow, laborious, nauseating process, but I learned what I needed to know, after a fashion.

Things continued in this vein. When I needed to learn something, I looked it up in the manual with a magnifier. I knew only one other blind computer user, and she had a different speech program. At least I was able to write letters and articles. After I left clinical practice and began to work as a freelance writer, I acquired more piecemeal knowledge. Things were OK until the Internet explosion.

I wanted email; I wanted Internet access, I wanted my God-given right, just like any other American, to become lost in cyberspace. Unfortunately, I discovered, I needed another speech program. A friend who works as a librarian at a library for the blind recommended Lynx and even sent me information on how to download it. I didn't understand it, and my husband's first comment upon reading it was a mumbled, "Oh, my God ... "

Before we became too confused, however, a newspaper article told of a new Internet link for visually impaired computer users: pwWebspeak, available to blind users for a minimal annual fee. As I write this, I am looking into getting it. I'm a hopeful cynic.

Admittedly, there are many blind computer users who are both more proficient and resourceful than I am. Having lost my vision in midlife, I have been quick to idolize them for their knowledge and berate myself for my lack of it. I realized that I had bought into the idea that technology would solve my problems and be instantly accessible to me as I lost my sight. What I did learn of it came not from agencies, doctors, or low vision centers. It came from a haphazard search for scattered information during a time of adjusting to constantly deteriorating vision and career changes. Unlike most other wannabe computer nerds, I couldn't walk into my local computer store and check out a selection of speech programs. Even if my superstore did carry them, I would have to pay a large extra pricetag for them. Unlike the average computer user, my needs are "special" (read "expensive"). No one except me and others in my situation seem to consider this strange or unfair.

So, I sit before my expensive (all new upgrades and programs are out-of-pocket) computer and await Internet access. Access that others have had for years. Will I, too, soon be on the information highway? I'm hopeful, but I'll believe it when I hear it.

Will Sally Rosenthal finally get on the Internet ? Stay tuned!

Sally Rosenthal is a freelance writer.


When I wrote as a fully sighted person, my tools were simple: a legal pad, a pen, and a cup of coffee. Now, the pen and paper are useless, and I've made a solemn vow not to have spillable liquid within two miles of my computer. Without said computer, the words stay in my head; without the java, well ... something's gotta give, so I turn on the computer and wait for that familiar artificial voice to pipe up that my speech program is being loaded.

Perfect. Now, I begin to type, receiving aural feedback for each key struck. I move along, occasionally deleting words or letters, again receiving feedback: a combination of key commands allows me to know what I'm deleting and rewriting.

Without caffeine, I occasionally forget what I've just written. No matter; another set of key commands tells me my last word, line, paragraph, or page. Other key commands keep me apprised of the status line, document name, and other visual things on the screen I can no longer see. At the end, a quick run through spell-check with the computer letting me know what word is being checked before spelling out alternatives or alerting me to double words, etc. cleans up the errors I didn't know existed. A final command gives me a complete reading of the entire document before I print it. Not bad.

Now, if only I could find a computer that wrote the articles while I stayed in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee ...

-- SR

Ragged Edge Readers who want information on pwWebspeak
can call Productivity Works at 609-984-8044.


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