Friday, October 1st 2010

Computer assessment

A little while ago I was listening to the soft melodious tones of flute music drifting into my room accompanied by the delicate voice of a young girl singing and playing to her unconscious mother in the room opposite mine – a deeply touching experience. I’ve heard it said that you’re hearing is the last thing to go so I do hope that this alternative attempt for a daughter to reach out to her mother is successful.

Now I’m sitting at my makeshift desk (basically an over bed table) in my room here at St Michaels Hospice with a feeling of contentment. The new air conditioning system is pumping out enough heat to make me feel like I’ve taken up residence inside an oven, whilst outside it is cold, dark and damp. I’ve just finished eating a rather large portion of delicious strawberry cheesecake which was washed down with a nice cuppa, and now I’m just casting my mind back over the day’s events before I settle down and watch some catch up TV documentaries courtesy of the BBC iPlayer.

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I had a meeting with Peter from AbilityNet this morning to discuss my ongoing difficulties with using a computer and to perform an assessment of needs. For the past couple of months or so my legs have been steadily growing weaker and even the simple act of using my feet to operate a trackball and mouse buttons can soon tire them out if I repeat these functions too frequently. In fact I have had a few situations where my feet become so tired that they simply paralyse and all I can do is look at them in frustration. This is indeed quite frightening and very stressful and so consequently the more stressed I get the more they refuse to cooperate. It’s a vicious circle.

Why use foot controls at all when I have speech recognition software you might ask? After all this post you are reading is being put together entirely using the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. Part of the answer is that I am an advanced computer user with more than 30 years experience and therefore my computer needs are greater than those of a casual user who may only need to write e-mails and surf the Web. If that’s all I wanted to do I too could probably get by using just speech recognition software. But that is not the case and in fact for me the computer is the gateway to many things and sadly speech recognition alone is never going to allow me to fully access and interact with the many different software packages and web applications that I use. For instance my version of Photoshop Elements which I use for all the pictures in this blog flatly refuses to even load if I am running Dragon. In other instances Dragon fails to identify various options, menus and text boxes which make up a program interface or webpage. This is where an alternative means of pointing to something becomes necessary and how I have arrived at a speech recognition/foot control hybrid solution to all my computing needs. To be effective and reasonably productive I rely heavily on both of these technologies but unfortunately one of them is now under threat and I’m starting to get worried about the consequences.

So before we reach crisis point I have asked AbilityNet to start thinking about the problem now whilst we still have a little bit of time left. I of course had already done a little bit of research myself on the Internet trying to find out what sort of hardware and software solutions were available. Now it was time to seek out the advice of the experts in the field of computing for the disabled in the hope that they can come up with some much better ideas than I have found.

So what’s out there? Well there are various tracking systems that use cameras. The simpler ones follow the movement of a dot placed on the forehead or a cap and then replicate that movement on-screen using the cursor. Mouse buttons are replaced by switches which can be ‘bumped’ with the head. Apparently they take some getting used to and not everybody likes them. The more advanced systems use eye tracking software in combination with the camera to monitor where you are looking on-screen which in turn tells the software where to place the mouse cursor. The systems are generally expensive.

Unfortunately I’ve come away from the meeting without learning anything I didn’t already know and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that when I am forced to move to the next level of technology my ability to interact with the computer in the many ways that I do now will be compromised. For someone who depends so heavily on computers it is a depressing thought. Fortunately the legibility of my voice remains good although volume at times isn’t what I would wish it to be, nevertheless it is good enough to use voice recognition software and so for the foreseeable future the blog (at least in a textual sense) is safe. Creating graphics and performing photo edits may eventually be beyond me and I think if that ever happens I will be an unhappy bunny. But it’s not the end of the world yet. Peter has left saying that he will talk with his colleagues and do some research on the Internet to see what other options are available.

Before I leave this subject let’s just open it up to the audience. Is there anyone out there reading this that has experience of or knows of someone using hardware or software to control the mouse cursor without using their limbs? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how effective the solutions you are using are. The comment field at the bottom of this post is waiting…

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Staying on the subject of technology, Bernie, the hospice’s very friendly and extremely helpful IT manager dropped by this afternoon to set up a new version of his high-tech call system. You may remember from my last visit to the hospice how Bernie came up with the idea of using my laptop computer to access a PowerPoint presentation on another laptop computer in the room where the nurses are based. The idea is that I can click on various icons to activate a variety of messages that I have recorded in my own voice. So for example if I became thirsty I could click on an icon that would say “Hello this is Mark in the Stratfield room, please may I have a drink?” Well I’m pleased to say it’s back up and running again although I did have to re-record all my messages as the originals got deleted. At least now I have a means of summoning help during the day when I work. One less thing to worry about.


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