Not that long ago…

… In a hospital room not all that far away, a young man laying excruciatingly still in a bed, awaited his shot at communicating with anyone outside the confines of his battered skull (being All Hallows Eve I couldn’t resist)…

But unlike most nightmarish Hallowe’en tales, I’m delighted to tell you (especially since that kid in that hospital bed was me), this one ended much better than it started out. Actually by January 1997, the time this story began, I was able to move my head slightly to the right by that point. And I could communicate. Again, through the blinking of my eyes. Once signifying yes. Twice for no.

Given this, in addition to my primary means of communication, being my blinking eyes, I was also using a translucent, textured plastic cutting board with black hand scribed letters (and numbers) on it as secondary communication aid. It was these characters, arranged vertically, in I’m guessing 5 or 6 columns — the letters were in order, from A to Z, A to E in the first column, F to J in the adjacent column, and so on, and the numbers from 0 to 9, if I’m not mistaken, resided in a single column on the far right of the board. So armed with that set up any person wishing to converse with me, and that conversation required more than a quick “yes” or “no” response from the likes of me, said individual would hold this “communication board” by it’s handle with one hand, and with the other hand, while pointing, skimmed (from right to left left to right) along the top of the board, and pausing on each of the columns for a brief moment.

And when the person facilitating our conversation reached a column containing the letter or number I needed to, I’d blink once indicating to the pointer to start moving down that particular column. And once the pointer, moving down and pausing in a similar fashion as they did when pointing at each column across the top, reached the letter or number I desired I’d blink once again. Thereby signifying my desire to chose that character. To which the pointer would write that letter down or remember what I’d chosen — depending on what we were discussing. From there the process of choosing the next letter began all over again. At the top of the first column.

The reason I brought all this up is that was essentially how I’d come to operate a computer. But instead of blinking my wishes to a third party, I operated a switch placed on my pillow, beside my head. And I’d tilt my head to the right, activating the switch, letting the computer know my intention.

It was this computer’s job to serve primarily as a more efficient and independent means of “saying” what needed to be said. Where I could potentially “type” out more than short 3 to 5 word phrases. To give my words some context on their own. Or, in a much more relevant context, to give me a “voice.”

This process, when referring to my interactions with a computer, is more broadly referred to as switch access scanning (or, more specifically, row column scanning). As strange as it may sound to some — remember the situation I was in and the limitations (being every) I had to deal with — was remarkably liberating. And in an effort to increase efficiency letters and numbers were grouped together to lessen the amount of time, or steps, I had to wait for the target to land on my desired character. (As adequately demonstrated by this video. although the “keyboard” layout seems very different to the one I used. Specifically I’m not sure the letters were arranged in the frequency-ordered alphabet. The clicking seems excessive — guess my “access method” was turned off. And I don’t recall some off those functions being present, or being where they were located in the video, at least.)

Not important. Now before I get all nostalgic regaling in the glory of what I did with this new found ability, to be fair to both the reader and myself — for matters of proper context — as I’ve stated before, time spent on the computer during this time in my rehabilitation was extremely limited (as a result of priority, meaning time on the computer wasn’t high on a list of things I needed to do, if at all). Honestly by mid April, I’d guess, I started to regain enough mobility in my left arm and hand to no longer require this form of access. Which “invariably” meant, because of a lack of exposure to the system, I was quite unable to give the solution a real try. And even if I had I’m not sure I’d have remembered.

For what I’ll assume are rather obvious reasons, being my brain injuries especially, my memory of  that time in my life isn’t the most reliable thing I have to look back on. Thankfully people, specifically a person who was there and provided me the gear I needed to make the process of accessing a computer possible, was able herself to, more reliably than I could have, recall the details of what I used. Which was fantastic, for the terminology, yes, but for the stuff I have no memory using. Many thanks Jutta!

Apparently, before moving from a single switch access to direct access (a.k.a. using a keyboard), I employed “several switches.” And part of the software aspect of the solution included word prediction. I vaguely recall this feature. It… wait for it… predicted what you are attempting to type in an effort to save time.

I just hope, for my sake especially, it was implemented a little less intrusively that the way Apple has employed it on iOS (though I can’t recall experiencing issues of  iOS writing stuff I didn’t say since upgrading to 5) and Lion. Now that’s creepy…

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