Lessons From My Friend James

Tech companies and organizations must do more to make products accessible to everyone

As someone who interacts mostly with IT professionals and with large IT shops, I dont get many chances to see how the rest of the world uses technology.

However, as I expect many of you are, I am asked by friends to set up their systems, install software or trouble-shoot problems. Id like to use this column to let my friend James Hunsberger—whom I have helped from time to time with his PC—tell part of his story.

"In 1944, I was born with a significant physical disability, called cerebral palsy," James, of Waterloo, Ontario, wrote to me in an e-mail.

"From day one, I accepted life as a challenge, and Ive always tried to find ways to keep up with the norm. In 1988, I came to believe that my future employability and marketability required that I become computer-literate. In order to compete and to see myself as being productive as possible, I needed the assistance of a computer.

"With the help of a few courses such as: Basic Computer Literacy, WordPerfect 5.0, Fundamentals of DOS and Periphery Hardware, and a trusty 40 megabyte 286 AT, I found myself at a new level of self-sufficiency and independence.

"For the first time, I saw myself as being able to coordinate and to administer programs without the assistance of a secretary, in spite of my disability. I enjoyed writing macros and finding all possible time-saving methods for making myself as efficient and as productive as possible. I appreciated WordPerfects reveal code feature, which helped me to edit macros, and to see the logic in them.

"I found myself resisting Bill Gates and his Windows operating system. Because of my poor hand coordination, the mouse was both intimidating and frustrating, and I tried to avoid it. I wanted to persist in my own ways, but I feared that, by not making the transition, I would be left behind.

"It was not until 1999 that I began to think of re-integrating a computer (along with Windows) back into my life. I began to schedule my attendant care requirements and community activities on the computer.

"Instead of using the computer to overcome my disability, I became open to using the computer to better accept and to embrace my disability. Voice recognition programs caught my interest. The use of a trackball made the mouse and Windows more manageable for me. The computer now has become a very realistic means for me to accept my limitations for what they are, and to make the very best in life.

"The Internet and e-mail has allowed me to be involved in my church and community to a fair degree. E-mail makes it easy to read and file correspondence from various committees and boards. I dont know how to keep my desk free of paper clutter without the use of a computer. I still prefer programs that allow me to use only my right hand (a finger and thumb) and a keyboard rather than a mouse or a trackball.

"I was introduced to the computer at a time when it was reasonable to believe that one could compensate for limitations and become competitively employable through the use of a computer. However, as time went along, and everyone began to have computers, my competitiveness decreased.

"Today, I would caution anybody with a disability from thinking that a computer itself will bring about full competitiveness in employment field. Its a step in the right direction, but not the complete answer. For me, the computer has become a real companion in learning how to be realistic with myself, participate fully in society, and to celebrate the completeness of life.

"The computer is not going to make me a different person; the computer is going to empower who I am. You cannot think the computer will make you more motivated than you are. You have to work with the computer to do that, not expect that the computer will do something externally and magically for you. You have to accommodate your weakness and say, Look computer, this is my weakness; were going to work on this together. No matter where you go youre the same person."

I upgraded James system from Windows ME to Windows XP this summer, and it was a big improvement for him: "My experience with ME was I would rather consistently have a computer that would lock up on me. When I was using my computer to any extent at all, I could expect ME to lock up maybe four to seven times a week. Since Ive had XP Ive been free of that. Its a lot more stable than ME was. Thats the biggest difference. Ive only had XP for a short time now, I think since June, but in the time that Ive had it, its been very good to me."

Now that system stability isnt such a problem, I asked James what else would make his computer easier for him to use.

"I would like to see Microsoft incorporate a sound feature for the keyboard so when a key is activated you can hear a little click. Im quite sure that would help a lot of people that are one-handed, or maybe visually challenged people would find that helpful. When you do everything with one hand, its really hard to look at the screen and the keyboard at the same time."

When James mentioned this to me, I went hunting on various shareware sites and found Noisy Keyboard, a free utility which looks like it may do the job. Ill set it up for James and he can let me know if it helps.

He also added that making programs dependent on a mouse made his life more difficult.

"Its very nice to have programs that I can completely use with my hands and keyboard and not have to reach over and use the trackball. Now there are some programs that just wont let me do that. Just the other day I think it was [Microsoft] Publisher that would not allow me to do everything with a keyboard. I know the odd time I have to give in and use the trackball. There just doesnt seem to be a way around it."

Its easy for those immersed in the computer industry to forget the hundreds of millions of people who just want to use a computer to make their lives a little bit easier. James has more barriers in front of him than most, and thats why I find his determination to learn and to succeed so inspiring. I hope the computer industry can do an even better job in 2003 of helping every member of our society gain access to and take advantage of technology that makes all of our lives better.

West Coast Technical Director Timothy Dyck can be reached at timothy_dyck@ziffdavis.com.