Coping with Vision Loss

My vision loss was a slow process with occasional spikes of sudden decrease. After each spike I experienced a period of coping with the loss. I remember with the first spike I could no longer read normal print. I had previously relied on The Boston Globe for my daily diet of news during the morning commute and had to give up this pleasure. I could have used magnifying glasses, but that caused me more pain than pleasure. I had to resort to reading large-print books, and although it was a reasonably good substitution for my long commute, there was a dearth of it. Pretty soon I changed jobs to a different place in the suburbs and my rides were short. However, I continued to read large print books at bedtimes. By then I had also begun listening to books on CDs borrowed from the library via those portable CD players. I loved those CD players and allowed myself the luxury of buying more than two of those devices. I think I used them even after they went passé with the advent of the Apple iPod.

Then came another spike in my vision loss. I couldn’t read anymore, period. This was a huge loss for me. At that time, the CD players were my best friends. I also decided to try out the iPods. The Shuffle met my needs: simple to operate without reading anything, enough capacity to hold a normal-sized book and extremely portable. To this day, I use the Shuffle. The later generations of it can hold much more than a book and are compatible with VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reading technology. I also started using ZoomText for screen magnification and a visual magnifier for reading my hard-copy documents. These technologies helped fill the void I felt, being unable to read print. As time went by and my eyes continued going through gentle spikes of loss, my magnification rate increased in sync.

I started preparing myself for the inevitable. I had read about Apple’s huge investment into accessibility, and the Mac piqued my interest. A colleague at the workplace – a serious Mac fan – gave me a demonstration. He showed me some cool accessibility features which blew my mind, as they didn’t even require any third-party software. Most importantly, everything was intuitive. It was love at first sight for me, and I requested my manager to order a Mac for me. That was how my transition to the world of Macs began.

On the Mac, the Zoom accessibility feature replaced the Zoomtext software I had been using earlier. Although some purists will argue that Zoomtext did a better job than this feature, it was fine by me. There were other nifty accessibility features, like announcements of warning pop-ups, time of day, mouse cursor size etc. With these, I was sailing on calm waters for a while. I knew, however, that it wouldn’t be too long before I met some kind of obstacle.

Enter VoiceOver, the Mac’s screen reader technology. I started to wet my feet in it, soon realizing it was going to be my savior. I read a lot of buzz on this technology from blind forums, blogs and of course, the slick Apple marketing machinery. I lapped it all up and began preparing myself for the inevitable. I was so enthused that I even gave a couple of evangelical seminars at The Carroll Center for the Blind. I remember taking my Mac-mini to these seminars and demonstrating VoiceOver with a flourish. Blame it on human nature, but I still hung on to the Zoom feature for magnification and relied on its ability for my tunnel vision. This meant that all I had learned on VoiceOver soon dissipated into a handful of commands. It is only recently, after the magnification became some kind of joke, that I picked up VoiceOver again. This time I decided to make her my guardian angel, unless…

During all this time, I struggled with mobile phones. The earlier, bulkier ones served better as paperweights than phones. I went through several of them and none deserve special mention. I remember one phone where I could not access the address book and had to rely on speed dial for the nine most frequently used phone numbers! I have to admit that my memory was at its peak performance during that time. There were voice-activated phones, but those simply refused to understand my accent.

The iPhone from Apple was making its rounds during that time, but the earlier versions did not spark my interest. It definitely looked cooler than those kludgy ones I had befriended, but that wasn’t enough to make me to switch camps. It was only when Siri, the ground-breaking voice activation, know-it-all software appeared on the iPhone 4, that my interests were piqued. At the Apple Store, I was dismayed by the demo. It did not understand me, and my hearing loss did not help the situation. The Apple sales rep did say that Siri would learn my accent over time, but I decided to pass it up and wait for something better to floor me.

About a year and a half ago, my good, old friend – who happens to be completely blind – was flaunting an iPhone 4, and using it with dexterity. And Siri was nowhere to be seen. I gingerly asked him if VoiceOver was good enough and he replied that he could do almost anything on the iPhone using VoiceOver. I kicked myself hard on the back, but managed to wrangle a few free lessons from him as soon as I was eligible for a new phone. I promised Apple I would worship her forever.

Mani prefers to work in a dimly lit office, to maximize his eyesight

Mani prefers to work in a dimly lit office, to maximize his eyesight.

This post was written by Mani Iyer

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About Mani Iyer

Mani was born in Mumbai India, although he grew up knowing it as Bombay. He earned a graduate degree in computer science from the University of Bombay and has been a software engineer all his life. Mani volunteers with the Coalition for Usher Syndrome Research, and he was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for poetry. Mani lives in Needham with his wife, and dog, Lily.

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