Computers have caused a total revamping of education and employment. While you should never allow yourself to become so dependent on technology that you are incapable of completing a task successfully without it, it would be a big mistake to ignore its significance in affording blind and visually impaired students and employees better job opportunities, added efficiency and leveling of the playing field for persons who are disabled.
Whether you become acquainted with computers in school, train yourself, or receive training through a rehabilitation agency, you should take full advantage of everything your equipment has to offer. For example, if you have a braille or speech-driven notetaker, do not simply learn to use it as a notetaking device. Many notetakers can be used with an ink or braille printer, in conjunction with other computers as a voice synthesizer, and/or for transferring information or to access the Internet.
Get everything you can from your technology. Adaptive technology is costly, and you are unlikely to have all of the equipment that would be optimal for the work you need to do. . . . This article deals only with helping you to become a wise consumer.
Generally, the first two things sighted people do before purchasing a computer is talk with knowledgeable computer users and shop around for the most efficient system at the lowest cost. Unfortunately, it is not particularly easy to chat with blind and visually impaired people about the wide variety of speech, refreshable braille and magnification equipment available for computers unless you are already on the Internet, in which case you probably aren't reading this article. Nearly everyone I know who uses adaptive technology swears by it. People usually do rave about what is working for them or they justify bad personal or rehab agency choices with rave technology reviews. Regardless of the reasons, what is wonderful for one person may be useless for another.
If you are able to visit national centers where technology equipment is regularly used, plan to do so. Agencies and organizations that can demonstrate many adaptive pieces of equipment are: American Foundation for the Blind; American Council of the Blind, Washington, DC; and the International Braille and Technology Center, Baltimore, Md. Agencies to contact in your state would be the state Commission for the Blind or other services for the blind agencies, the state school for the blind, or an independent living center. You will be able to talk with adaptive technology experts and view the various products firsthand, listen to different speech synthesizers, test braille quality of braille displays and braille printers, and try different screen readers with the software you will be using.
Another option is to call some of the major manufacturers in the field and ask whether they have local trainers or distributors who will provide demonstrations. You might also consider attending one of the annual conventions of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) or American Council of the Blind (ACB) to take advantage of the available vendors. A visit, or at least a phone call or two, to one of the technology centers is preferable since you will receive objective information and no hard sells.
What will you need your computer to do? Where will you be using it? Will its use distract others in a meeting or classroom? If the computer you particularly like is ideal except for being noisy, is there a way to minimize the noise? Or is there perhaps technology out there that you do not know about that is quieter?
Will the optical character recognition software or stand-alone reading machine read the material you will be using most often? Can you navigate the screen easily? Does the screen-reading software give you all the information you need in a usable format in order to complete your tasks? Is it too heavy to be truly portable?
One of the most overlooked aspects of adaptive technology is the company from whom you purchase your equipment. There are companies with terrible reputations--poor service, exorbitant pricing--and there are others that truly put the consumer first. Before you settle on particular equipment, speak to the manufacturer's customer service personnel several times. Ask about service contracts, replacement if your equipment is stolen or requires repairs, and what type of technical support is available over the phone.
In addition to efficiently fulfilling your needs in completing work and having reliable service, working with your equipment should be physically comfortable. Can you type and access information comfortably for extended periods of time? Is the touch required for typing too strenuous on your wrists? Is the arrangement of your devices in your work area conducive to easy manipulation?
You should obtain some basic computer knowledge before embarking on your technology search. A discussion with a computer science instructor in conjunction with consultation with one of the previously mentioned technology centers might enable you to make optimal choices.
If your technology needs are going to change when you begin college or enter the workforce after graduation, be sure to become well acquainted with the new devices and software "before" the semester or job begins. It is stressful enough settling into a college career or new employment situation without the extra hassles of learning the wonders--and weaknesses--of new hardware and software.
There is something for you in the adaptive technology market. You may sometimes feel you have to acquire it all. Focus on what you actually need. Choose deliberately and carefully. Good luck!
This article by Christine Faltz from The Student Advocate 17 (Winter 1999) originally appeared in Dialogue magazine and is reprinted with special permission from the publisher. Dialogue magazine is published in braille, large print and 4-track cassette.