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Dealing with obsolete adaptive technology

August 8, 2011
by Kathleen Mears
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Computers have been a godsend for me. As a quadriplegic, I can do some typing, but a normal keyboard is too large for me to reach all the keys. Holding down two or three keys at a time is also impossible. Therefore, my first computer was a laptop adapted with switches so I could lock keys down to perform functions.

Having that laptop adapted did not cost anything extra. It did, however, take time and waiting made me leery of doing anything like that again.

State vocational rehabilitation purchased a desktop for me in 1995. They tried several different adaptive devices and software programs to see what would work best for me. I was trained to use voice-activated software, but I was not given a program to keep. I learned later that voice recognition technology was too shaky at that time.

When I moved to a nursing home later in life, I again contacted state vocational rehabilitation. They sent a rehab engineer to help me with my workstation. She brought a small membrane keyboard with a 7" x 3" working area that I could easily use. The only bad thing was that typing on a flat surface made my fingers sore. But ultimately the keyboard worked fine and allowed me to type faster.

I have continued to use that same keyboard since I cannot find anything similar to replace it. Most adaptive keyboards are much larger than my mini keyboard, and many quadriplegics use voice activation software to input on their computers. I also use that software to dictate when I write. But I think like a typist, so a keyboard is critical for me.

I was shocked to find out earlier this year that my mini keyboard is no longer on the market. The Canadian developer considers it to be obsolete. I have tried to encourage him to update it. I think it is a great product and could still assist people like me to more easily type. For a while, a similar keyboard cost more than $1,000. My mini was $475.

I have seen very few membrane keyboards online. There is also no way for me to try one out before purchasing it. I have sent each of my minis back to the developer to be checked out and to have keyboard stickers applied. One is still in Canada. So when my mini keyboard stopped working a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was the death knell. What would I do without my keyboard?

I adapted with my software's onscreen keyboard and my voice activation software. But the process of inputting information was much slower.

I was glad when a computer tech told me the problem was merely a bad dual keyboard connector. When he offered a cheaper connector, I agreed quickly, trying to save money. I found the cheaper connector does work—until I need to restart my computer. Then, my mini locks up. To get the mini to work again, I have to get someone to unplug the connector, reconnect it and restart my computer. So I went online and ordered the same dual connector that burned out. I am hoping it will allow my mini keyboard to work consistently.

It is not as though I want to use old technology. But some adaptive keyboards are very technical. Maybe I will buy the smaller keyboard I saw a couple of weeks ago. It is not made for someone with my disability, but it is smaller and only costs $39.95, not the $475 I paid for this mini.

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As a high-level quadriplegic with chronic pain that has worsened over time I have been forced to operate my entire PC workstation using voice recognition software specifically Dragon Naturally Speaking. In my opinion, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the best on the market today.

For the longest time I refused to stop using what little movement I have in my right arm and my right fist and would hunt and peck to type entire e-mails or documents. But after my chronic pain got much much worse I was forced to and/or learned NOT to "think like a typist" and, now, actually get my work done faster using voice recognition software.

This does not work for ALL programs however. One of the many things I love to do is to go through our many digital photographs. We have thousands and thousands of them while adding more quite frequently. When using our PC photo viewer (ACDC) I have to use my right fist to click or to be able to go through our many many photographs. I thought for sure that Dragon NaturallySpeaking would work with our photo viewer whereby I could just SAY "page up" or "page down" but I tried it recently, albeit briefly, to find out it doesn't work. Microsoft Windows also comes with voice recognition software and perhaps that might work but as long as I am still able to use my fist to hit certain keys for certain programs without causing myself extra or unnecessary pain... I will continue to do so.

In sum, I have been using voice recognition software for at least 7 full years now (of my 32 years as a quadriplegic) and once you get used to it like almost anything it becomes "natural" almost like breathing.

Sometimes there is a point whereby "trying to go back to what once was" is just self defeating. Technology is moving too fast and I many good ways. I take advantage of this simply because of my severe disability.

I am more than thankful to have access to my own computers and the latest technology... including voice recognition software of which I am using right now. :-) I am also spoiled with a husband who is a software engineer and computer guru so we always have the latest of the latest with any program and plenty of programs! Both of us have multi-interests so we have a large number of programs on our main PC. If I need ANYTHING adapted all I have to do is say the word and my husband makes it work for me. I am beyond fortunate to be blessed with such a kind husband in many more ways that I can begin to mention here!

Kathleen Mears

www.ltlmagazine.com/blog/kathleen-mears

Kathleen Mears has been a nursing home resident in Ohio for 20 years. She is an incomplete...