Adaptive Technology SpreadThis is the story of how friendship and the right tools came to help one person climb out of the darkness

by Joe Lazzaro

When I lost my sight over twenty years ago, I firmly believed that the chance for anything resembling a normal life was over, kaput, finished! Like most snap judgements, I slowly, painfully, and eventually discovered that I was dead wrong. But it took me almost ten years to come to that realization. I freely admit here that I was dragged kicking and screaming towards this maturation, and may not have discovered it were it not for my family and friends. If left to my own devices, I would have been more than happy to collapse into a very thick and hard shell at the time. My wife Cindy has been my personal inspiration, and I don’t think I would have made it without her help. Indeed, she is the one doing the dragging, while I was doing all of the kicking. She helped give me back the courage to pursue my ambition, which was to become a writer.

When I lost my sight, my passion to write did not die, but I couldn’t see a way to do it independently. I didn’t read braille, so that was not an option at the time. I tried using a tape recorder, but this didn’t work for me. I was much too self conscious trying to speak out my stories. I took a course on touch-typing at the Carroll Center for the Blind, and next tried using an electric typewriter.

I was a good typist, and the typewriter seemed like it was going to work out. It had a cartridge ribbon that I could replace without assistance, and I was getting to be a fairly fast typist. I remember pulling an all-nighter to write a short story, and how excited I was that night, convinced that I had a masterpiece in the making. At that time, my stories were brimming with simplistic themes: space armadas, rampaging dinosaurs, giant insects, time travel, stuff right out of the Fifties B movies.

The next day, I proudly showed the story to my father, asking him if he would mind reading it aloud for me onto my tape recorder so that I could make corrections later. That was my method for writing anything at that time. I’d type the first draft, and have someone read it onto tape. Then I’d play the tape, and type the second draft. Then I’d repeat the process over and over until I was satisfied with the finished product. But this laborious procedure required so much energy that I had little left over for the creative process.

When my father looked at the pages, he paused, and sounded confused. “The pages are blank,” He said, probably wondering why I’d asked him to look at a dozen empty pages. my heart sank as realization set in at what must have happened. I had typed the whole damn thing on the correction ribbon setting without knowing it.

I put writing on the back burner for a while until I went to college. The University of Massachusetts was a turning point for me. It is where I met many of my lifelong friends, and it is where I met my wife Cindy. Cindy is the type of woman with a whimsical spirit, full of life and fun, but with a heart of solid pure gold. She did algebra for fun, and also read and enjoyed science fiction. We were made for each other! She also had and has the ability to deliver some of the swiftest and most well deserved kicks to the behind when necessary. I’m afraid that most times they are richly deserved.

MouseI was sitting in the Disabled Student Center at the University, thinking of what I was going to have for lunch when Cindy plunked down on the bench beside me. I heard her unfold a newspaper, and she started reading me an article about a man named Carl Foley, the proprietor of Foley’s Low vision Aids, a company that sold talking computers. At the end of the story, an address was given where you could write for a free demonstration tape. The tape showed in undeniable clarity how a blind person could use a talking Apple computer to write letters, file addresses and phone numbers, and even play games. There was real joy in Carl Foley’s voice as he tapped at the keys of that computer. I simply had to have one of those for myself!

My parents weren’t rich, but they gave me the $2500.00 for an Apple computer, Echo II speech synthesizer, and an adapted word processing program called Braille edit. The computer helped me more than I can describe. It allowed me to devote my efforts to the work at hand, and not waste time compensating for my blindness. The Apple allowed me to raise my grades significantly, and to expand my horizons exponentially. For the first time, I could work independently, and write stories without having to type them over and over and over without end.

The Apple helped me make my first professional sale to a computer magazine. My first article was published in the December 1984 issue of Byte Magazine as The Search for Speech. That article was a comparative review of five speech synthesizers for the Apple computer, and gave me the confidence to start doing consulting for schools and other organizations. The director of academic computing at the University ran across my article, and hired me to work as a consultant in the computer science lab. Cindy helped by reading manuals, offering encouragement, forcing me to stop wearing dungarees and t-shirts (to dress for success), and to keep writing!

Thanks to computers, adaptive technology, and Cindy, I have become a professional writer. But Steven King or Harry Potter have little to fear at the moment. I currently write mostly non-fiction, and have published three books that describe how to adapt computers for people with disabilities. I dabble in science fiction, and so far, have published two short stories in Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine. My first story, coauthored with my good friend Peter L. Manly, was Ben Franklin’s Spaceship, which was nominated for a Hugo honorable mention the year after it was published in 1995.

My first book was published by the American Library Association and is titled Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments. The second edition of Adaptive Technologies was published in both soft cover print and on CD-ROM. The CD-ROM is accessible for persons with disabilities, and can be read using any browser. The book explains how to adapt Windows, Macintosh, and Unix based personal computers for persons with disabilities. The text covers over 250 adaptive hardware and software products, and includes links to hundreds of adaptive hardware and software vendors, as well as information on built-in accessibility utilities and keyboard shortcuts. The text shows you how to control the computer using the keyboard, mouse, alternative keyboards, or even spoken commands. The book is aimed at computer users with physical, sensory, speech, and learning disabilities, and is a guide to facilitate accessible learning, working, and independent living. How to select the most appropriate solution, how to implement the solution once chosen, and how to provide vital training and technical support is the backbone of the text. A dedicated chapter is devoted to public and private sector funding sources, and extensive appendices are packed with resources to help you locate agencies and organizations that empower persons with disabilities. New to this edition are entire chapters on keyboard commands, and built-in accessibility utilities. A detailed chapter uncovers the secrets of pc hardware, software, and peripherals, showing you the basics that you’ll need to know in order to work with many different forms of adaptive equipment. This chapter alone could serve as a primer for a basic computer course covering PC hardware.

The text reveals many types of adaptive systems: screen readers, screen magnification software, braille printers, braille displays, scanners, voice recognition and dictation systems, alternative input systems, Ttys, on screen keyboards, alternative communication systems, word predictors, productivity software, note-takers, and other solutions.

The following excerpt is chapter two of Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments.

Driving the Computer from the Keyboard

Personal computers provide a platform of independence for users with disabilities, and built-in keyboard commands and accessibility utilities increase that self-reliance. The personal computer employs output devices for displaying data and input devices for entering commands and information. The two basic input devices are the keyboard and the mouse. The keyboard lets you enter data and issue commands. The mouse, in conjunction with the keyboard, lets you point to objects on the screen and select or run them on demand. For persons with disabilities, the keyboard and mouse can prove to be significant barriers, but accessibility utilities and keyboard shortcuts can help to overcome them.

A key focus of adaptive technology is the ability to control a computer directly from the keyboard without having to use a mouse. In place of the physical mouse, a user employs keyboard shortcut commands to move the mouse pointer, explore the user interface, and activate or select objects. This chapter describes how to run Microsoft Windows, the Apple Macintosh, and the Unix environment from the keyboard, without having to use the mouse. The built-in accessibility utilities for these operating systems are also discussed. Given the dominance of Microsoft Windows and given the great range of adaptive technology that is compatible with Windows, we will focus on that platform. However, the discussion will remain general whenever possible to demonstrate commands and methodologies that are common to all operating systems. This, it is hoped, will serve the greatest number of readers.



More stories from Kirk Douglas issue:

Kirk Douglas Interview

Stroke; Are You at Risk?

Royal Caribbean; New Wave of Accessibility

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