The Doctor is IN!

Gratitude for my sight and hearing

A while back, I was grousing about our late-March snowstorm (10-20 inches predicted) and various other annoyances in my life.

Then I picked up a colleague to take her to a professional STC (Society for Technical Communication) networking event. My colleague is both blind and deaf (her own description); she speaks very clearly, however. It was the first time I had met her, and I was apprehensive (well, actually,  terrified) of my ability to communicate with her.

Immediately,  I became aware of how many of my communication channels I take for granted. There were other startling awarenesses:

  1. I could spell words on her palm (when I wasn’t driving, of course). I quickly learned how to shorten my messages using the telegraphic style.
  2. It’s so weird to sit in a car with another human and not chatter (no point in discussing the weather, traffic, or other drivers!)
  3. It’s also exhausting not being able to communicate. Is this how people feel in countries where speech is severely restricted?

The meeting was a success because the technical communicators stepped right up, writing their communication in my colleague’s palm.

I dropped my new friend off after the event and breathed my gratitudes all the way home. What irritations  in my life could match the challenges I had just witnessed?

(My friend sent me this amazing description of the assistive technology that she uses:

Assistive Technology Summary
This brief summarizes the assistive technology I own to access a typical workstation.  It characterizes the software and the hardware that applies it.  It also describes customized stand-alone devices that supplement the computing environment.  It illustrates how any office situation can be adapted to my unique situation.

Windows operating systems allow the user to run any number of applications to perform routine communications tasks, such as e-mail, desktop publishing, and researching on the Internet.  Similarly, the screen reader technology I use to access the applications runs as an application installed in the Windows environment. I currently operate a Dell Precision 380 PC using windows XP Pro and Office 2003 under an Office 2007 license.  I access the programs with the screen reader JAWS 8.0 (Jaws for Windows Version 8.0), produced by Freedom Scientific.  First level support installs and maintains the screen reader releases just as it would for the applications in an MS Office suite.

The screen reader technology uses software “hooks” that can latch into the other applications on an operating system and read out the information from a graphical user interface onto a refreshable Braille display.  Thus, I can access e-mail, process documents in MS Word, or browse with Internet Explorer and have all the data displayed in an understandable format.

I operate a Focus 80 Refreshable Braille display produced by Freedom Scientific.  Its two-year warranty includes consultations with a local technical support representative.  The standard vendor contract requires only first level support services to train on new releases and maintain throughout the system life.

Combined, the Windows operating system and the screen reader allow me regular telephone access using a CapTel (captioned telephone).  CapTell allows the deaf who speak clearly to receive written captions on a telephone screen as the caller on the other end of the telephone line speaks; the readout is much like closed-captioning used on television. A captionist listens to the caller, and then speaks to a computer that is programmed for speech recognition to the specific captionist.  The message is then digitized, transmitted over regular telephone systems, and readout to the CapTel integrated console.

CapTel began as a stand alone system with its own telephone console for readout, then adapted to the computing environment using a USB and LVD port configuration.  The computer enhancement allows me to run CapTel as yet another application on the desktop.  When the CapTel application is opened, it can be read as standard video by a sighted person; or by the screen reader in the same way Outlook or MS Word is read.  Thus, I receive captions on the Focus 80 Refreshable Braille display.  I answer by voice.

The CapTel telephone console and its USB/LVD software that interface to the Dell PC and Windows operating system are a commercially available telephone handset distributed by Ultratec, Inc. It operates as a direct dialing number on two telephone lines: either a digital line and standard data line; or two standard data lines.  It requires minimal training for first level support to install and maintain; and routine vendor servicing agreements to repair.

Training for JAWS and the Focus 80 Refreshable Braille display are provided by Freedom Scientific or independent consultants.  A typical course covers two days of 8 hour sessions at an hourly rate for a consultant.  First level support and I have participated in such courses for three different refreshable Braille displays running JAWS since 2001.  A standard software maintenance agreement can be purchased.  JAWS software upgrades are almost simultaneous with new releases of Windows and Office suites.  Hardware upgrades occur less often and vary with each manufacturer.  Standard warranties are available.

Outside the computing environment, I use specialized, stand-alone tools.  The Optacon (OPtical to TACtile CONverter) provides immediate access to print material and replicates all visual images in a tactile array felt by one hand.  The Optacon is particularly useful in specialized formats, such as tables and graphs, to represent the visual presentation in true facsimile.  Maintenance of the hardware is provided by a specialized electronics firm through standard vendor agreements.

To acquire auditory cues in the office, I use the AlertMaster 60 and its remote sensors.  The system includes a vibrating pager to notify me of: telephone rings, fire alarm sirens, or e-mail ring announcers.  It is commercially available through Ameriphone, Inc and carries a routine service agreement.  Little or no training is required to deploy and maintain it.


My friend is looking for work as a technical writer; her communication skills rival those of all my colleagues!