For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing what little I could to assist a friend of mine going blind from Macular Degeneration. He managed to obtain some help from the Veterans Administration, so it’s not as if we are wrestling dragons. They gave him a computer loaded with lots of assistive software costing way more than average folks could ever afford. In the process, I have been exposed to some issues for which I frankly have no talent. As long as he can see some of what displays on his huge HDTV monitor, we can get by working together. When that, too, slips away from him, I’m not sure I can do much for him except simply do it all for him by running it hands-on.
The experience has caused me to explore Linux for the Blind, or “Blinux.” This more than just screen readers and magnification. I took the time to play with the version of Orca bundled with CentOS 5 and it’s quite disappointing when compared to the expensive ZoomText my friend uses. Those who are completely blind have long had better resources, taking advantage of the superiority of Linux on the commandline. If there is ever a real “Brotherhood of the Commandline” it would surely be blind Linux users. Apparently their number one tool is Emacspeak. Having sampled some of the Emacs world, and hating it entirely, I realize I won’t be getting too familiar with Emacspeak. There are other tools, and new ones appear every year, it seems.
There is something about this whole issue which is burned into my soul: Awareness of a disability is most of the answer. With my friend, it’s a challenge for him to embrace what is happening to him. He is so used to operating visually, and frankly pretty lazy at that, he struggles to develop any sort of habits based on non-visual cues in his environment. Because of the peculiar collection of experiences in my life, I have a pretty strong awareness of such things, and have done my best to explain those habits to him. It doesn’t help he feels he is losing mental acuity because of his age, past 80 years. I suspect he surrenders too easily, but I surely understand where that comes from.
If your choices are limited, and you possess enough character to fight for some things, I’m sure you’ll do what you have to do to get what you really want. Each of us has to find our own peace with the tension between how bad we really want something and whether the costs are worth it. Without writing a book on the details, I assert from experience I have more interest in helping my friend than is matched by real abilities. It’s not just Adult ADD, but that’s a big part of it. I don’t shortcut a learning experience for him because it’s easier for me; I do that when I can’t find a path for him to learn. I’m not his coach, and he hasn’t ceded to me any particular responsibility for making him do things he doesn’t want to do. I’m just a friend, so I suggest things I understand. If that doesn’t interest him, then I offer to simply do the work for him. Even if some were to allege he’s not fully competent, I would violate my own convictions to press harder than that. I have my own peace of mind, peace with God, to consider.
One thing stands out in my mind: I can surely appreciate the Linux commandline, and the lack of interest in graphics. More and more I run across websites consisting of one huge multimedia plugin presentation. It makes me downright angry, and few things in my life trigger that response. The awareness of how that frustrates my friend burns brightly, and I know it affects many others. Philosophically, I accept the notion of letting webmasters do what they please, as long as it doesn’t affect my computer. I turn off functions in my browser which hand over too much control to others. Indeed, I usually prefer to view the Net through a plain-text browser. This is how I reduce things to match my limitations. Frustration is hardly strong enough to describe what it feels like when the website in question is the portal to something critical in my life. I have a very hard time believing things have come this far without site developers being aware of blind computer users, and others who experience troubles using those technologies which serve to exclude them. However, I reserve the greatest anger for those webmasters who react ungraciously when contacted on this issue. It makes me long for a stronger community for supporting standards, which would deny such people access to the Net for their servers, because it strikes me personally.
I’m not sure I can do much directly to help the blind Linux users community. At the same time, I feel as if I’m almost a part of it.