The gamut of ever changing ability

I’ve been away from here for quite sometime attending to a whole host of issues. So in an effort to get back into gear I’ll continue my series of posts describing my computing career. This is the second post in what will be three relating the story of what brought me here. Be sure to see my post the origins of interest for the first bit of my story…

… So by April of ’97, soon after transferring to a third “rehab” hospital (which was everything but a rehabilitation facility, hence the quotes), I was no longer “locked-in” — which as I understand it calls into question my original diagnosis, seeing how it wasn’t permanent (semantics, eh?). I started to regain enough mobility in my right arm and hand to be able to use a keyboard to type and use mouse keys.

Ahhh, mouse keys. I should probably provide you some context. Picture the ways in which any computer pointing device, like a mouse, can move. Limitless, right (speaking 2 dimensionally of course)? Forward, left, right and back. Plus every direction in between. Now imagine the representation of those basic movements on a flat surface, on a keyboard say, and using the numeric keypad to represent 8 directions that device can move. The number “2” key, when pressed, moved the mouse cursor up on the screen. Number “4” moved it left. Number “6” moved it right. And number “8” moved it down. Then the number “1” key moved the cursor up and left diagonally on the screen. Number “3” moved it up and right diagonally. The “7” key down and left diagonally. And “9” down and right diagonally. The number “5” key is the mouse button. Honestly what the rest of the buttons did is pretty fuzzy. Rather than guess I should simply refer you to the Wikipedia entry concerning mouse keys for more accurate context.

And that solution served me remarkably well for probably close to, if not exceeding, two years. Mouse keys are still simple to understand and most importantly easy to use. And it got completely out of the way and let me “master” elements where mouse keys reached their limit and other solutions picked up the slack — keep in mind I’m speaking wholly as a differently-abled creative individual whose primary creative canvas has been a computer monitor for well over a decade. It’s just the nature of the beast. 8 linear directions will only get you so far. It’s much like an Etch A Sketch™, in theory, as it’s movement is rigid and limited. And must like said Etch A Sketch™ there are ways around it’s operation.

Now I’m not faulting mouse keys for having their limits. Quite the opposite. I’m praising their limits. Which may sound odd but bear with me. Where one accessibility solution understandably fell short, much more valuable opportunities presented themselves. Like learning Photoshop’s Bezier Pen Tool? Not to suggest I made brilliant use of said tool, or that I have since, but my exposure to a whole host — the Pen Tool being the most significant — of design tools began under the mandate of mouse keys. It was a needed step in my development as a creative computer user. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That’s precisely where I got my chops.

Why was learning the Pen Tool so significant? Because of the freedom — where I imagine an “ablebodied” reader would envision restriction, try to imagine it from my perspective, having just “obtained” this new found ability — it provided me the means to connect two points together, then 3, then 4. Eventually allowing me to form a shape. But what is most worthy of mention here is I could “bend” the lines between any two points at will (I’m not saying I learned how to during my mouse keys stint, but the potential was there, even if I didn’t know how to yet). It was then that I was able to convert that shape into a selection. And arguably if one becomes adequate in selecting in Photoshop you’ve got the program figured out (that’s not as true today as it once was).

Photoshop has come a long way since version 4, the version that introduced the Pen Tool, and having that option at my disposal was incredibly liberating. And mouse keys were extremely instrumental in that liberation. On account of it’s limits. Difficulty ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Getting back to it, I spent the next nearly 5 months in the most recognized rehabilitation institution in Canada, at the time. Which meant I had access to a whole slew of professional expertise and knowledge concerning many things I’m well sure you couldn’t imagine or that I could possibly remember concerning my new life. However what’s most relevant here is my access to professionals working in the computer accessibility field.

At this point I should say while I alluded to the “rehab” hospital earlier as being everything but a “rehab” hospital, their computer accessibility program wasn’t why. The program and the way I was engaged by the people running it was by far the best experience of my time spent there. That said, this is where my view concerning users having to adapt to any device as much as said device must accommodate it’s users stems. I recall using that departments resources rather extensively when I first arrived. To be fair my movement in all my limbs was never constant at that point. Meaning it was always changing, even if very slowly, during my entire stay. (Not that it’s constant now, it’s still very much dependent of a bunch of things. Namely how hard I’m exercising, my concentration and my fatigue levels.) Which also meant any solution I was presented with to aid in making my computer access better, if one was used (I’m pretty sure one was not), was short lived.

And in August of that year I was discharged from the hospital as an inpatient and enrolled as an outpatient at my 4th hospital just 3 days short of a full year since my accident. I was finally home. While my days were spent at the hospital engaged in therapy, my evenings and nights were spent learning and training myself how to make productive use of a computer. Through the keyboard. Armed with the two features mouse keys and sticky keys (which I still use rather extensively), I began to refine my behaviour toward the way which I still happen to use a computer.

It was then that I also began my formal computer education. With the help of the Assisstive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), again, at the University of Toronto. Every Saturday afternoon 1 of 3 students affiliated with the ATRC would trek out to my parents house, a 45 minute drive (though I’m told the GO Bus took significantly longer) West of Toronto to teach me various computer applications and languages. Mainly Photoshop and Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML). So for the next year I learned all I could having to do with graphic design on the computer.

In June of ’98 I’d finished the out patient program at the last of my hospital stays, when I began transitioning myself from using mouse keys full-time to using a traditional mouse part-time, all in preparation for college that fall. So in September I started school. Johnny goes to College. And aside from a few hiccups concerning logistics, mainly classroom related issues — I’m a rather large man who uses a rather large wheelchair and computer tables aren’t the easiest things for me to get my legs under so I could use a computer, but I musn’t forget the hassle my school had getting mouse keys to work on UNIX machines. But it all got sorted out, eventually. My days using mouse keys were numbered by that point.

I began my studies with the specific intention of obtaining a certificate in Web Development, and while I did just that, I also earned two more in Digital Publishing certificates, as well (where I truly learned how to use the Pen Tool). And in the fall of ’02 I graduated college.

I think that’s enough for today. But before I wrap this up I’d much rather avoid misrepresenting my views toward device accessibility. These are my experiences, and my experiences alone. I’m positive what I have said and what I will say in the future about this subject won’t translate to everyone, equally. Nothing ever does. But I do maintain there is power in my words. As my accessibility has never remained constant. As devices change, and the software that runs them change (my recent experiences with OSX Lion as an example), my ability to access them, on top of any additional technology that helps me of course, will evolve.

I cannot be alone in this. I’d be willing to bet, no matter how small a difference there may be  from any two moments in time, everyone’s ability to access technology is in a state of flux. That’s what’s constant. And I think that is most worthy of consideration. We are not only working towards making technology accessible to disability we’re working towards making it accessible to ability. And that’s essentially the reason why I believe so strongly in what I have to say concerning these issues. My ability to access content has evolved right along side of these technological improvements. And I don’t ever see it stopping. Even if my ability regresses. It’s still changing.

Nothing in life is, or ever will remain, static. Least of all the gamut of ever changing ability to access technology.

To be continued…

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