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Blind Computing

INTRODUCTION: This is a description of my personal experience of working with microcomputers as a legally blind person, and the progression that followed as I became totally blind. The technology for personal computers developed in parallel to the decline of my eyesight from the late 1970's, and that worked well to my advantage to be able to develop my computer skills gradually.

Beginning With Low Vision

This is a description of my progressive experience into more extensive use of computers as my eyesight declined from being just legally blind to having only light perception. In 1974 I personally purchased my first VisualTek CCTV low vision aid, and especially needed the reverse image, not just magnification. The speech access computer systems available in the late 1970's were over $2,000 and at that time, tape or records for recorded material, and use of low vision aids seemed a more reasonable expense for my particular situation. As microcomputers continued to develop more widespread beyond the game stage, some of my staff at the Springfield Wastewater Treatment Plant wanted to see how we could apply them to storage/calculations/retrieval of our laboratory and operations numerical data. Our first plant computer was a Model I, TRS80 with cassette tape storage, and it was used by laboratory personnel.

I had personally purchased a second VisualTek for use in my office, and as well as reviewing our standard records, I now began to explore some of the computer commands and syntax in the documentation. My first home computer purchase late in 1980 for about $300, was a Texas Instruments TI99-4/A with a terminal emulator cartridge, and cassette tape storage. I read the print documentation using my home VisualTek, and began to write simple programs in TI BASIC, since Texas Instruments had no programs designed specifically for the visually impaired. The manuals and reference cards were readable with my VisualTek, and I taught myself how to integrate the various commands and functions by trial and error sending commands to the terminal emulator cartridge for speech output. I could not read any standard display on the computer screen because of the small font size and poor contrast.

By 1981 I had written a rudimentary word processor (TexTyp) in TI BASIC, and continued to use the VisualTek viewer. I exchanged programs on cassette tape with other blind TI 99/4A computer users: upgrades of my TexTyp, and a basic check register program. Within a year I purchased the Texas Instruments peripheral expansion box and graduated to using 5.25" floppy disks and continued refining my BASIC word processor. In the early to mid 1980's we were using green-screen (I still couldn't read this screen) TRS-80 Radio Shack Model 4 computers at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and I gradually improved my TexTyp and converted it to TRSDOS, and used it in my office with an Echo GP external speech synthesizer.

After a few years, my next computer in the office was a Tandy SL, IBM compatible computer, and I converted my TexTyp program to GW BASIC and continued to use it with the Echo GP, but could not access the standard office software. I kept notes, prepared drafts of memos and other documents, and my secretary produced the finished copy.

Exclusive Use of Screen Reading Software

Sometime after that I started using Flipper screen reading software with the Echo GP speech synthesizer, and this allowed me to use the Professional Write and other software being used in the office. This was a positive step in allowing me to keep step with the software applications learning curve for the work setting. By the late 1980's my eyesight had dropped to the level of light perception, and I no longer used low vision aids. In 1991 I purchased my first IBM compatible computer for home, and used Flipper screen reading software and an Echo GP speech synthesizer to access the "Eight-in-One" software that came with the computer. I purchased a modestly priced spreadsheet program called AsEasyAs for home use, to have some compatibility with the Lotus software which was then being used at the plant. This allowed me to learn more about spreadsheet mechanisms and functions at home, so as not to lose too much work production time in the office.

When we installed our first simple 4-node LAN at the plant, I began to study DOS BATCH files and wrote a number of them for simplifying file transfers across the LAN and for backup tasks, and to develop custom menu screens in the DOS environment, so I could post electronic memos and provide a simpler interface for my Operations staff in the pre-Windows era. With Lotus and AsEasyAs, I started exploring various formulae and functions, and macros for the spreadsheets. Sometime in the late 1990's I transitioned to the Windows environment and used JAWS as my screen reading software. The City of Springfield purchased the Jaws software, and continued with upgrades until my retirement.

In the Windows environment, many new options opened up for software access as the City had converted to Word and Excel, Email and Internet access, and terminal function for access to mini-frame computer programs. The City had also purchased page scanning equipment for my use in the office, but gradually much of my document transfer was done by Email attachments, so I could skip the scanning step. When I left my office at the end of 2003, information accessibility had never been better for me as a blind manager. At home, I used other software such as the Online Bible for study, Windows Media Player for radio and CD's, and FrontPage for web site development.

As I develop my next career, access continues to improve. Excel workbooks with multiple sheets, range names, formulae, search features, and other functions make them ideal for many types of records and reference files for home or small business. Email and Internet provides a great platform for communications and research which is very accessible with screen reading software. Managing a web site and exploring the world of HTML and related mechanisms can be very interesting and satisfying. Podcasts, RSS feeds, blogs, and Email discussion groups are other developing trends accessible to the blind.

Our home computer system now includes two desktops, one laptop, a portal for DSL access and two wireless remote units to allow all three computers to have DSL access. We have three printers, one being a combination unit that will also scan, fax, and copy. Carolyn uses her computer for her home school teaching, often going to the Internet for audio/visual materials used real-time in the classroom. She had some exposure to our TI 99/4A with certain modules, but mainly stayed very close to limited applications use. Carolyn is not visually impaired, but she sometimes uses me as her technical advisor, and she is valuable to me for on-screen evaluations. We have "his" and "hers" computers, Email to each other, and as her general knowledge continues to increase, she sometimes now gives me tips! -- Mike Justice

Published revision 27 January 2006