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Getting The Most From Technology

During nearly eight years at the Royal National Institute of the Blind, I have been contacted by many blind and partially sighted people who are extremely frustrated by their experience of technology. In most of these cases, some forward thinking and a realistic attitude could have prevented this frustration. Here are my top ten tips to pass on to users.

  1. To buy or not to buy--that should be the question. Before buying any equipment, users should be clear about what they want it to do and what skills they will need to use it. Rehabilitation professionals and organizations such as RNIB get many calls from people who have bought equipment and then try to work out how to use it. This is equivalent to buying a car and expecting to be able to drive it. Training and support need to be considered before making any purchase. Computers are not suitable for, or of interest to, everybody. Sometimes another product may be more suitable--such as a stand-alone reading machine, which uses computer technology but has a simple interface.

  2. Training is just as important as equipment. For someone new to computers, getting the right training is at least as important as what equipment they choose. This is one of the things that demonstrates the importance of early support for people who develop sight {loss}. It is absolutely true that not everyone will have specialist provision on his or her doorstep, but blind and partially sighted people should not be deterred from going to their local college of further education. Although the experience of people with sight {loss} in mainstream education is mixed, it is by no means all bad. Training in the home is generally expensive, although there are some schemes such as You Can Do IT that provide low-cost training. But in many areas, the only practical option will be the local college.

  3. Keep the manuals. It is important to look after things like disks and manuals that come with computer equipment. Even if the user has no intention of changing anything on the system, the disks may still be vital if there are problems later on. It is also worthwhile keeping packaging so the product can be returned if the worst comes to the worst. A printed manual that a blind user cannot read could be vital for a volunteer who comes to help with a problem. It is surprising how often people simply throw away the disk that licences software worth hundreds of pounds.

  4. Help technical support staff to help you. If users do experience problems, it is important that they make a note of what they are, so that technical support staff can work out what is going wrong. When calling the supplier's technical support staff, they can then be ready with these details of the problem and relevant information, such as the version number of software they are using. General statements like "it's not working" do not give support staff enough information to help.

  5. The best way of learning about equipment is to use it. Trying to read manuals from cover to cover starting at the first page is not generally the best way to learn to use a new piece of equipment or software. It is better to use it. Ben Hockliffe, who is partially sighted, uses computers at work, of necessity, and at home to access the internet and record and play music. But he regards computers as a tool that he uses with some reluctance and boasts of being a technophobe. He says, "When I need to learn a new computer program, I just click on everything to see what it does. I never read manuals."

  6. Glare and headaches. People with sight {loss} quite often ask about glare and possible eye damage, and report headaches when using computers. There is no general risk in using monitors, although it is worth heeding advice to take regular breaks. The Health and Safety Executive publish a leaflet giving information on this. If individuals still have concerns, they should consult their doctor or specialist. Problems with glare can generally be most effectively tackled by turning down the brightness of the monitor, changing the displays settings (reversing the contrast, for example), and eliminating ambient glare from windows or overhead lights. Glare filters are available from computer and office suppliers, but few people find them effective and they make the image less distinct, as well as darker.

  7. Use volunteers. RNIB has computer volunteers who can help with problems such as installing hardware and software and setting up equipment. Volunteers are also available from other sources such as IT (Information Technology) Can Help and some local societies. Reg says his volunteer is "always efficient, has lots of empathy and sorts all problems out quickly". Another service user said that the volunteers had "saved her life" by getting her copy of JAWS updated after she had been struggling for a long time to do this herself.

  8. Free software can be valuable. There is software, including access software, that can be downloaded from the internet free of charge to everybody. This is known as "freeware". Other software is free in some circumstances, and is known as "shareware". Thunders is a shareware screen reader that can be downloaded free for use by blind and partially sighted individuals. iZoom is a free magnification program. Other free software is available that may be of interest to individuals with sight {loss}, including text editing programs and audio software of various sorts, as well as scanning software. This is another example of a situation where training and knowledge can save significant amounts of money. Free software is by definition not supported, so you need some computer experience to take advantage of these products.

  9. Get the most out of the telephone. Most, or perhaps all, phone companies offer a free directory service to customers not able to access the print directory. With BT (British Telephones), this can be contacted by dialling 192--users need to register and prove they have a disability. BT will connect callers directly who are not able to write down numbers. Phone Anything gives access to the internet over the telephone, with web pages read by artificial voice. This means that blind and partially sighted people who do not have a computer can listen to web pages and navigate web links, using any landline or mobile phone.

  10. Be realistic. Two of the things that professionals are most often asked about are the cost and complexity of computer equipment. I have suggested ways of alleviating this, but in the end it is perhaps as well to accept that technology, like most things in life, has bad points as well as good.

References

HSE (Health and Safety Executive) advice on working with VDUs: {http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg36.pdf}

IT Can Help: {http://www.itcanhelp.org.uk}

IZoom: {http://www.issist.com}

Phone Anything: {http://www.phoneanything.com}

Thunder: {http://www.screenreader.net}

U Can Do IT: http://www.ucandoit.org.uk}

Reprinted from NB, the magazine for sight loss and eye health professionals, published by RNIB, London, England, March 2007. ? NB Magazine, RNIB.