Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Episode 1: It has Gotten Easier for the Blind and Vision Impaired to Train Their Dragons



A long time ago in a faraway land, I learned about two dragons.  One was named Dragon Naturally Speaking, and the other one was named Dragon Dictate.  These dragons are real and the answer to my latest medical detour, a hand injury.

I have lived with open angle glaucoma for almost 70 years and cataracts for the past 25.  During the past seven decades, the eye diseases, low vision, and legal blindness required giving up activities such as driving and learning new skills such as downloading Talking Books.  I've embraced and welcomed adaptive technology, programs, and services that allowed me to continue working and living independently.  Now, it is not the eye diseases but old age and the ailments that come with it that threaten my progress.  The hand injury and mild arthritis in my hands is limiting the number of minutes I can spend at the computer keyboard without experiencing pain.

Thanks to the time I’ve spent as a librarian and researcher, I quickly look for a solution as soon as a problem arises.  Remembering that there were products like Dragon Dictate and Dragon Naturally Speaking was easy.  Finding anyone who is using them, who could recommend them, or who could direct me to their manufacturer or distributors were not.  The information I found online was hopeful but not helpful.  I kept running into walls when I contacted colleagues who are blind and sight impaired.  My breakthrough came when I contacted the rehabilitation counselor at The University of Michigan Services for Students with Disabilities where I completed core classes in library studies the year before the university changed its library program to Information Studies.  He and a colleague who manages the adaptive technology lab at the U of M provided the names, phone numbers, and websites of distributors I needed.  The information came with one caveat:  “The products are outrageously expensive.”

All adaptive technology seems outrageously expensive.  Most have two price tags, one for individuals and one for sales to libraries, agencies, nonprofits, and businesses.  The high prices are required, say the sales force, because the money goes back into research.  Every time a computer or phone has an upgrade or comes out with a new model, the adaptive software used by people with disabilities also needs an upgrade or new version.  It sometimes takes months or even years for the adaptive technology to catch up.  This, and not the price, is the major reason blind and vision impaired students and employees cannot always keep up with their sighted peers and have such a high unemployment rate.

Since I am a writer and in that category labeled “starving artist” (see the warning to young writers in The Writer Magazine, September 2016, “From the Editor,” page 4), I will need to use all of my creativity to figure out how I will pay for Dragon Naturally Speaking and its companion that must be used by the sight impaired, J-say.  They will cost somewhere around $1200 give or take a couple hundred depending on the versions.  HOWEVER, the distributor told me that all of my adaptive technology (JAWS, Kurzweil, Dragon, and J-say) will work faster on a newer computer that is loaded with memory.  In her book, Women and Money, Suze Orman refers to this type of debt as Good Debt because it is an investment in yourself and your work.  While there are numerous agencies and websites such as Go Fund Me (www.gofundme.com) that seem like possibilities to the novice; the underserved blind and vision impaired population rarely receives information (forget about funding) if they are out of school, not receiving services from an agency, have had their case closed by an agency, have received one set of adaptive technology, or are senior citizens who are unemployed.  In addition, the only stereotype that needs to be broken more than the “starving artist” stereotype is the “blind beggar” stereotype.  For this reason, most people who are blind or vision impaired want to fund independently.  If the manufacturers or distributors would create loan or credit card programs as most furniture stores and auto dealers have done, purchasing adaptive technology would not only be easier for the consumer but also more profitable for the manufacturers because they would have more customers.

For information about Dragon Naturally Speaking, contact Ralph Samek at Woodlake Technology (312-733-9800).  For j-say, contact Brian Hartgen (www.hartgen.org/j-say or call their US phone number 415-871-0262).  The new version of j-say comes out September 19, but it only works completely with version 13 of Dragon Naturally Speaking, whose newest version 15 was just released.  Only the Corporate version 13 is still available in limited numbers (more than $500 compared to the latest version that is $300).

There was a time when training the Dragons was very difficult and required reading lengthy amounts of text into the dictation microphone.  Now, I am told, the set-up takes seconds as the program adapts to your voice and background noise.  The instruction manual is provided as a WORD document that can be read by screen-readers.

When I hear people who are living with blindness and low vision say that they are no longer reading or writing or need someone who is fully sighted in order to perform a task, I turn into a fire-breathing dragon.  Although I know I won’t be sitting around a coffee house or other public place and writing as J. K. Rowling did when she was a “starving artist” and require more time to complete a task, I know that with a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, my work will get done.  That makes breathing a whole lot easier for me and can for a lot more people.  Check out the online demonstrations of all of the adaptive products referenced in this blog and post.  Many doctors, lawyers, and people who just can’t type are training their Dragons.  With j-say, the blind and sight impaired can train their Dragons too.

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