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Monday, August 20, 2007

technology musings

Recently, I found out that I was approved for services through our local Department of Voc Rehab. So now the questions are: What do I want my plan to look like? And: What technology do I need?

With regard to technology, it is difficult to know what to ask for. Technology changes so fast now a-days, that I'm certain once I make a choice, something amazing will hit the market the following week. In addition, many things look really cool, but I have to consider what I will actually use on a daily basis, and what I will truly benefit from. For instance, I have a bill reader, and while it's super cool and helpful, it's not something I carry with me all the time. If we could just get our act together, and follow the Europeans' idea of different sized bills, bill readers would be virtually unnecessary. But who needs accessible money, right?

Sometimes, the ideas behind a piece of technology are wonderful, but the execution is poor. Then one winds up with a gadget that is supposed to work in theory, but in practice is completely impractical (either because the interface is so poor that it becomes inefficient to use it, or because it proves unreliable). I noticed this with my Plextor. While the idea of recording lecture notes onto CD is great on paper, in practice, I found that my recordings did not always turn out the way I wanted them to. I definitely have my eye on one of those Olympus recorders. They look useful and fun to work with at the same time.

Another issue with technology is that sometimes the available options seem less than appealing. I'm thinking particularly of screen readers. I could get the latest JFW upgrade, and subject myself to the continually deteriorating product quality and customer service that seem to be F.S.' default of late, or I could purchase Window-Eyes. In the latter case, I'd have to learn a whole new screen reader from scratch, although I have heard enough good things from W.E. users to make that prospect seem worthwhile. System Access would be the other possibility, but my recent experiences with it have been frustrating at best. Something has definitely broken in MS Word 2003, and now I'm not even receiving audio feedback when I press the BACKSPACE key. While it's still a great program on the Internet, I do need something that allows me to perform word processing-related tasks, and I'd rather not have to purchase MS Office 2007 to do it.

This whole problem with breaking old things when implementing new features seems common in many facets of assistive technology, and is particularly frustrating to me, given that so many of we blind folk cannot upgrade with the speed of sighted consumers. When upgrading to the latest and greatest, it's not just a matter of purchasing the mainstream software--it's also a matter of finding the $1000 + required to purchase the latest screen reader or whatever.

I'm also still struggling with the notetaker versus laptop debate. While I love using a laptop most of the time, and enjoy it's versatility, there are some definite pluses to a notetaker like the Braille Note or Braille Wave. I like the "instant-on" functionality--especially when I'm in a hurry and it seems to take forever to boot up my computer. I also like the long battery life on the notetakers--being able to use my notetaker through an entire coast to coast flight. The final thing I like about notetakers, is that I sometimes want to be able to read and take notes with no voice output. Sometimes, just having the braille in front of me is the best option--depending on the scenario. For instance, when giving a presentation, or having to take notes in a situation when I don't want one of my ears taken up with the nattering of digitized speech. Also, as a writer, I sometimes find that the sound of a screen reader muddles my thoughts. However, there's no denying that many of the notetakers on the market are prohibitively expensive without funding assistance. I understand that that is largely because of the cost of manufacturing braille cells, but it is still a reality that poses a huge stumbling block for many of us. I know notetakers are available without braille displays, but in my case, that eliminates many of the things I like most about using such a device.

Anyway, enough of my technology quandries for today.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Aaron Smith said...

I just wanted to take a second to shill for Window-Eyes. We do offer a JAWS keyboard layout for people who aren't familiar with Window-Eyes hot keys. In other words, you get powerful Window-Eyes functionality while using familiar keystrokes. Second, we also provide two payment plan solutions to offset the high cost of screen readers. One plan is $100 a month, the other $39 a month.

So if the only things keeping you from switching to the new leader in screen reading technology are keystrokes and price, we've got you covered.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous assistive technology said...

Even when accessibility isn't a problem it would seem that the ever-changing nature of technology scares many people. I wonder if there are companies for people to simply troubleshoot accessibility equipment, like they have with computers. You pointed out (rightly) that a lot of the time when the technology is given it's assumed that that's all that will be required.

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I am currently debating which screen reader to install at my new place of employment. I'm told that at least a few of their computers are running Windows VISTA, and I have not yet tried out VISTA. I am leaning towards either System Access or Non-Visual Desktop Access, since NVDA is totally free and requires no log-in or registration or any of that jazz. The last time I checked with FS, it was not possible to install a single copy of JFW on more than one computer at a time. One of you JFW users out there please correct me if I'm wrong. JFW is the one screen reader which I've had the longest, and consequently it is what I'm most comfortable with. From all the comments I've read it doesn't seem like JFW has very good support for Windows VISTA. However, I am flexible and would be more than happy to learn another screen reader. I have tried both NVDA and SA with Windows XP, and these both seem to perform extremely well. I think Thunder is out of the question at least for right now, because even though it is free, it just doesn't seem far enough along in the development stages. My employer says they're open to anything. I might try running SA to Go on a work computer and just see how it performs. Same with NVDA. Plus, I want to familiarize myself with Windows VISTA.

1:51 PM  

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