The origins of interest

When I began this post my intentions were to relate my entire computing career — to give you a little background in where I’m coming from, why I’m so interested in web accessibility, and hopefully give you some insight as to why I believe it’s so important. But that quickly proved to be a much more involved task than I first thought. So plans have changed, if only slightly. I figure a few posts should be enough to cover what I’d originally hoped to write in this single article. Here’s number one…

I never really had much interest in computer’s growing up. My family, most fortunately, had one. An “old” “IBM clone” from my Father’s office, that we had one helluva time outfitting with a mouse. Do you even remember using a computer without a mouse? I barely do. That’s precisely why I recall, because of the effort and frustration we went through getting that mouse to work, which never really did work, in the end. But I digress.

I’d much prefer to avoid dwelling on my back story with computer’s. Honestly aside from a a rather hardcore 8 month stint playing Might & Magic as an awkward pre-teen, a sole grade 10 introduction into computer programming and “using” a computer to “poke out” (much like I still happen to “type”) essay’s in high-school, there isn’t much to tell. I wouldn’t dare bore you with what are sure to be rather inconsequential details of a relatively non-existent experience. I’d much rather concentrate, for you and me both, on the aspects that give me and this site its relevant context.

And with that said my interest started to change in 1996 — mostly because it had to.

But first let’s back up a bit. In the fall of ’95 I enrolled, part-time, at a University in Toronto, pursuing my interest in Photography. What is obvious now, but wasn’t so obvious back then, was digital photography. Granted digital photography — meaning capturing images without film — itself needed a number of years further to mature before the future could be adequately realized, but it was a computer program named Photoshop, and the ability to manipulate images in the digital realm specifically, that really caught my eye and initially piqued the interest I now have in computers.

So in January of ’96 I signed up for my first, of many, Photoshop courses. And instantly fell in love, as I knew I would. It didn’t hurt that my first real exposure to Photoshop was version 3. When Adobe first introduced “layers” — which essentially meant you could add, non-destructively and without having to commit to any changes (not really), to any image. It seemed truly limitless. (Not that the PCs — you read my right, we were using PCs not Mac’s in that class — were powerful enough to do anything with said feature. But the potential started to form. At least in my head it did.)

Then limit came knocking. In August of that year, as I’ve written previously, I was involved in a catastrophic automobile accident. My need for a computer has never been greater. Both to that point in my life and ever since, quite honestly. Upon waking from the coma I was in following my accident, what’s most worthy of mention is, I was also locked-in. Long story short I needed a computer to communicate. Not so much with the outside world, via the internet (which did come), but I needed all the help I could get communicating, period. With the world outside of the confines of my skull. Blinking my eyes, once for yes, twice for no, only goes so far.

So in January ’97 I was outfitted with my first real modern PC, complete with many features I could have only dreamed of having access to  only 6 month’s previous. Like a flatbed scanner and a large format monitor — my eyes weren’t the best, functionally speaking, for a couple of years post accident, but they were still dreamy. The large screen did serve a purpose, unlike the scanner — at least, at that point. I had only one problem. How was I going to use all this equipment? It was all inaccessible to a person lying in a hospital bed, completely locked inside his own body.

Now I’m not to sure if both the computer and my means to access it arrived on the same day, I seem to recall looking at it, idle, sitting beside my bed for some time. Keep in mind what I just wrote doesn’t mean too much — when I was in said condition one hour could have felt like days, whereas days often felt like hours. Doesn’t matter.

But somehow my case manager got in touch with the University of Toronto’s Assisstive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) — who are now at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), re-branded as the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) — who came to my bedside in the hospital and fit me with my first significant means to communication. Speaking post-accident of course.

I can’t really recall the specifics of said solution very well — as I didn’t really get that much use out of it, being so early on in my recovery I had more pressing priorities. But I do recall having an onscreen keyboard that had a cursor, or a white box, which cycled through each letter until the letter, or number, I wanted, was highlighted. When I’d select that character, via a head switch, I think, to “write” what I wanted to say in a word processor.

Crude? I wouldn’t argue it wasn’t. Slow? Sure was. It was after all in the somewhat early days of the computer accessibility industry. But I’d really rather avoid making it sound like I’m being critical of the technology I use(d) for my access to a computer. That isn’t my intent. And I’m not, at all. In fact it’s quite the opposite. I’m very thankful for what I had and have. I’m merely trying to convey what a seemingly simple solution meant to an individual who was completely cut off — oops, I forgot to mention I had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and I was in complete medical isolation — from the outside world. Everything outside of his own mind, that is. I couldn’t do it justice with words right now. In fact I’m not sure I ever could.

And that’s why these issues remain so important to me. As it most definitely is for anyone who may find themselves without access, not only to a computer, but to anything they wish to be part of. Forgetting that feeling is the worst thing I could do. And actively working towards helping people realize why these issues are so very important is the least I could do.

Getting back to it, I’ll try to get more details on the solution I used, like I wrote earlier, my head was pretty foggy and my memory of that time in my life isn’t the most reliable, but I am still very much in contact with one of the people who set me up that day, I’ll see if I can dig some technical detail up. Leave it with me.

But I couldn’t resist writing “shit,” as my first word, with my new access, to my new computer screen. And as ironic as some probably thought I was being, I assure you now, I wasn’t. I thought, and still think, with so many people standing around watching, it was funny. Though looking back now I could have wrote a few other, more choice, words. Oh well.

To be continued…

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