I have always been a bit of an internet junkie. I learned about computers from the internet, after I had gotten a laptop for high school graduation. I still remember my first computer; it was a tiny little Mac that worked well enough for word processing and games, but that was before the internet. I remember my Mom playing Kino on one of those old paperweights with the green screen, and printing grocery lists on the old dot matrix printer. My how times have changed!
As I got older, I got more into trying to build websites, and I discovered chatrooms. I’m still friends with a guy I met back in 1997 I think was the year. We would lose touch and then find one another again. Over the years I found new internet haunts and have lost count of all the people I became friends with.
In 2004, I was in the pits of an alcoholic depression, and I found a mental health website, a full scale community of forums and a chatroom. I used to sit in the chatroom and drink. What a life! After I sobered up in 2005, I kept visiting the site, and in 2006 when I was diagnosed with MS, I spent even more time there, and was made a moderator.
Imagine the shock of going blind and suddenly having that all ripped away. Gone were the chats, gone was my internet friend, gone was Google when interested in something. My boyfriend posted to the forums and several people called me during that first month of the blindness, then it was down to 2 people who kept in touch, and kept the forums apprised of my situation.
In November, a friend asked me if I had an iPod, and I did not. He said he had one, with tons of stuff on it, music, books, speakers. He asked if I wanted it and I told him I didn’t know how on earth I could work it. He insisted on bringing it over, and he handed this huge iPod to me and showed me where the wheel was. He said I could just memorize the clicks to navigate it. While I was very touched by this gesture, I was thinking this thing was next to impossible. he could sense my uncertainty, and that was when he said, “Just kidding!”
He then handed me a tiny little thing a little bigger than a stick of gum. He said, this is actually your iPod. He hooked it in to small speakers and moved his hand over the wheel. What I heard took my breath away.
A voice came out of the speakers, saying things like “iPod music, playlists, books and spoken” etc. I don’t think I moved. Then he played music, all of it coming from the tiny little speakers. He handed me the iPod, an iPod Nano, and I started playing with the wheel. Every single menu was spoken, every artist, every album. I could pick what I wanted to hear. I could skip and pause. I was mesmerized.
I had a talking watch at that point. My Grandma had gotten it from Saavi, before I was a client there. I knew there were talking gadgets. But this…this was an actual piece of technology, my kind of technology, that I could use. I knew about screen readers for computers, and was on a waiting list at Saavi to get training on one called Jaws, for Windows. I had been a Windows user since that first little Mac computer I had once owned. It was going to take forever to get the training, and get it funded. Jaws is expensive. They have funding for people to be able to get it.
After a few days playing with the iPod, I took it back to my friend’s to put more music on it and burn my cds onto it. Something was wrong with his cd drive though, so we were unsuccessful. He held on to my cds for awhile but we never went any further with it. One day I got to thinking. If Apple made this iPod accessible to the blind, what else might they have? I called them up and the sales guy didn’t know of anything. he put me on hold to ask another, but they still didn’t know. I was disappointed, and was telling him my ideas for a computer when he said, “Let me transfer you to an engineer and you can tell him your ideas”. So I spoke with an Apple engineer and he said, “Well, all our computers come standard with a screen reader.” I was like, what?? “Yeah, its called Voiceover.” And it’ll access websites? “Yeah it’ll do all that. Go to the Apple store and give it a test drive”. Wow, ok, thank you, I will. I called the friend who had gotten the iPod and told him what they had said. He was more than happy to go. He had thoroughly enjoyed playing the joke on me haha; he’s a good guy.
He had called the Apple store and set up a personal shopping appointment, so when we got there, the salesman had a computer all ready for me, with Voiceover turned on. He showed me the basics and when I heard the computer talk, I was floored. It was loud in there, but I could still hear it. I managed to get to my old website, log in, post, and then “look” at my post. I was sold. I was lucky enough to have just enough money to buy the cheapest laptop. He showed me the laptop and I called and left myself a voicemail at home with the commands I would need to get started, in case I forgot. My friend and I brought it home and he helped me set it up. I had him bring up the forums before he left, because I wasn’t sure i could do it alone.
I left those forums up for a week, and was afraid to turn the computer off. What if I shut it down and then couldn’t work it again? Working with a screen reader is so different than pointing and clicking. I don’t use a mouse. I use Voiceover command keys, or VO keys, in combination with the arrow keys, to get around. The computer reads everything the VO cursor encounters, and when there’s a link, it says “link”. I read the forums and posted a lot, and learned the keyboard again in my posts. At first I couldn’t find the exclamation point, so when I was enthusiastic in a post, I actually wrote, exclamation point haha!! I started finding keys and marking them with little pieces of tape, with my boyfriend’s help, which has since been replaced with bump dots. Eventually I ventured away from the forums after being confident I could get back. Somehow in my searching around, I found a page dedicated to web accessibility, and joined an email list of web developers and screen reader users. From there, I found a Google group of blind apple users and it was there where I learned just about everything I know about my Apple.
They told me to forget everything I knew about Windows. After all, not only was I learning how to navigate with a screen reader, I was learning a brand new operating system! Its been since December that I started learning this computer. I’ve since mastered web browsing, learned all the VO keys with the help of the keyboard help feature on the computer, mastered iTunes for the most part, uploaded all my cds, found podcasts on Voiceover, eventually figured out how to add to my iPod without losing what my friend had put on it, started a blog and found out everything I could about Guide Dogs for the Blind. I guess the blog comes right after that hehe.
Now I download audio books, music, movies, keep in touch with friends, email, oh and I’m back in touch with my internet friend of 12 or so years.
Shortly after I got the computer, we took our trip to West Virginia. After returning home, I discovered the American Council of the Blind, or ACB. I couldn’t find an email list in my area, so I joined the West Virginia list. Those people are some of the first blind people I started talking to, and they helped me so much on my journey. I’m still a part of the web accessibility list, and sometimes even get to look at websites and tell them how Voiceover handles them. THAT is sooo cool. I’d love some kind of career in web accessibility.
I’m still on the waiting list to learn Jaws. Can you imagine if I hadn’t found the Apple, how long it would be? The really awesome thing about Apple is, Voiceover is on every Apple computer of the later versions., as well as speaking menus on the Nanos and above. I can go to any Apple computer, hit cmd F5 or cmd fn F5 on a laptop, and it will talk to me. I can also save my VO settings to a flashdrive and import them onto any Apple in the world. And, since it comes standard, when the OS upgrades, VO is included. With Windows, when the OS upgrades, you must wait months for the new version of Jaws, and then you have to buy it separately. I’ll be upgrading my OS soon, for only 39 bucks, compared to whatever Windows upgrades cost, plus the additional screen reading software.
And Apple’s voice, Alex, was designed to sound as human as possible. He even breathes at natural pauses!
I’ve since upgraded my cell phone and installed a screen reader on it too. Its a Windows phone, and man does it not even compare to Alex. Not to mention, the phone has all the quirks and tendency to freeze, just like Windows. About a month after I got it, I found out that the iPhone is accessible. Yep, a touch screen, accessible to the blind. I didn’t believe it until I read the article, and its even got Alex! Oh well, maybe someday I’ll switch, though i don’t like AT & T 😉
So, it all started with an iPod. Everything technological I do these days started with the little red iPod Nano, and a practical joke.