People with Low Vision Can "Dress for Success" with Accessible Technology
By Ellen Kampel
I have a friend with a chronic weight problem whose clothing size fluctuates between 6 and 16. She maintains a wardrobe with clothing in every size she may need.
As someone who has lived with multiple sclerosis for over 25 years, I too have learned to keep a "contingency wardrobe," a virtual closet full of accessible technology that helps me manage the fluctuating effects of MS. During a flare of optic neuritis, my vision can slide from fully sighted to legally blind and back again, all in a two-month period. There is no way to predict how much of my vision will return until the flare is over. However, thanks to accessible technology, I can use my computer all the time.
I have worked in the information technology industry for more than 20 years, despite my unpredictable and ever-changing eyesight. My job requires me to use the computer daily, and I have tools that I can adjust to meet my changing visual needs.
During my initial experiences with optic neuritis, I began each day with a damage assessment by creating a homespun version of an eye chart exam. When I awoke I would focus on the same spot every day — the wall clock — and ask myself: Could I see the arms on the clock? What about the numbers? The rim? Sometimes, I found that if I looked to the right or the left of the clock I saw it in my peripheral vision, but it disappeared when I looked directly at it. The results helped me determine when my sight had "bottomed out," and to establish whether the flare was either in the exacerbation or recovery phase.
At the peak of a flare, when I could barely see the clock, driving was, of course, out of the question. Then, I relied on my friends and family for transportation. However, given the right tools, I believed I could still be independent and productive at work, even when my vision was at its worst.
I wanted to keep my job at Microsoft, partially because it was comforting to keep my routine, but also because I needed to support my family and didn't want to take disability leave unless I exhausted all alternatives. Before I discovered the power of accessible technology, I purchased a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass that I held in front of the computer monitor, so I could read and respond to e-mails. Now I know better.
Each day after consulting the wall clock, I select a complement of technologies that can help me work. In the early phase of a flare up, I make simple, no cost adjustments to the settings in the Windows operating system. This helps me see important screen elements such as the mouse pointer, cursor, icons, text and pictures. With the Zoom feature in Microsoft Office, I can expand the size of the text until it is legible.
At its worst, when I can't even see the clock at all, the computer screen is a complete blur, much like my car windshield in a heavy rain before I turn on the wipers. At that point, I use a screen magnification program, such as ZoomText, SuperNova or Magic to enlarge the screen text, so that as few as four bold, giant words fill the screen. Microsoft purchases these tools for their employees who need them. These products offer options for high contrast settings, and can read the text aloud. Optional large font keyboards are also available to help me see while typing. What I like best is how easily these applications adapt as my vision changes from one day to the next, or even during the course of a single day.
I learned from my colleagues who also have decreased vision about other types of devices to help me watch presentations, read a grocery store label, remove a splinter from my daughter's foot, or read the text in a foreign film. Many of these devices are portable, but they can be connected to a computer.
Now that I am on a regular regimen of disease modifying therapy, the severity and frequency of my flares has diminished markedly, although I still have some symptoms that necessitate the use of accessible technology. For example, whenever I work out and get overheated, I experience a temporary visual loss. It can take some time for my vision to return to normal, so if I need to use the Internet before my vision normalizes, I activate a handy Zoom feature in Internet Explorer by selecting the Control and Plus keys simultaneously. This action expands the font size until I can read the text. I can achieve identical results by using the Control Key and the mouse scroll, after clicking any place on the Internet page I want to view.
I've been on the vision roller coaster from sighted to blind and back three times in my life now, and I live with the uncertainly of when or whether it will recur. However, it is a great comfort knowing that I have a wardrobe of visual electronic tools that enable me to keep my job, remain productive, and stay connected.
John M. Williams edited this column. Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft.