My Tech Experience, 1987-1997

I had written an entry like this in my previous blog, but it got sucked down the drain in the great Spam attack of mid-February. Ugh. So, I shall try again. Also, this’ll be more comprehensive. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll make at least two and perhaps three entries out of this, so as not to go entirely too long. Plus, it’ll give me some days and topics in this challenge.
Now, this topic is going to be more of interest to the sighted people who may know little or nothing about the kinds of soft and hardware that blind folks are able to use. I’m writing it specifically because someone I came across in the #31WriteNow challenge asked questions about this, and hey what am I if not a divulger of information? So, why don’t we start from what I think is the beginning.
My first interactions with technology came about in approximately my third grade year. This means 1987-88.
I’m not savvy enough to know which kind of computer we were using, other than that it was one of those big, clunky Apple machines with attached monitor and on which you had to flip a switch on the back of the unit to power up.
Remember those loud six-inch floppy disk hard drives? One had to insert a disk in order for the system to work, and if you popped it out prematurely it sounded as if an electric shock was being delivered! Even though that sound terrified me I couldn’t get enough of it, having to be admonished repeatedly by my teachers to “cut that out!”
Attached to our unit was a specialized external synthesizer that we could adjust and turn off and on independently of the computer itself. I believe at first, the synthetic speech may have been generated by whichever program ran on the disks we used, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, by today’s standards the voice was rather annoying. I wonder how I even understood it.
We primarily used the computer at this time for gameplay. My favorites were Space Invaders, one that asked you to listen to an ascending tone and whack the space bar whenever the tone matched where you were on the screen, supposingly causing you to hit the invading alien ships. This tone would get faster and faster until eventually you misfired. I could spend hours with that one.
Another favorite was the Math Olympics, a fun, multiplayer game that had a series of problems to solve in order to take home the medal. Each player selected a country to play under, and the winner would have its national anthem played. Ah, the sneaky ways to educate children without them even being aware of it.
Most of my typing skills were actually acquired on a typewriter, though. We had a big, electrical thing, and I loved feeling like an officeworker as I struck the keys rapidly, enjoying that sound and making no doubt countless errors. In 1992, I used that thing to nervously hammer out a Valentine’s note to one of my first crushes.
By about that year, technology took a considerable leap forward for blind individuals. I think it had existed in some form prior to that period, but that was the first year my school system got access to what were called Braille ‘n Speak machines made by the company that would eventually become Freedom Scientific but was then known as Blazie Engineering. These things were amazing to us, because for the first time we had a really portable device on which we could write Braille quickly and efficiently. They also had somewhat boring synthetic speech voices by comparison to today’s technology, but my cousin, a number of friends and I never tired of playing with the speech rate and pitch and doing such silly things as making it read a long string of A’s, variably punctuated sentences, and any other thing that would make the voice react oddly.
I have a synthesizer on my machine called eSpeak as part of another software application that I will profile in a later entry. While not exact, the uninflected eSpeak voice nearly approaches that of the Braille ‘n Speak. Listen to a short sample.
From my technological point of view, not much really changed up through 1997. They did eventually create a better version of the Braille ‘n Speak, called a Braille Lite, that had a refreshable Braille display. This is a device that uses little pens to simulate the dots one would feel on a Braille page. Some, like the Braille Lite’s, are built entirely into the machine, although it is more common for the units to be detachable these days. They are fantastic pieces of equipment, however the price of these is prohibitive for most would-be users.
This had sadly been the case for most all blindness-specific technology, but fortunately those old barriers are being bulldozed. In subsequent entries, I will detail how some of this has occurred. From 1997-2007, the rise and proliferation of the personal computer, still dominated by two or three screen-reading products. From 2007-present, the introduction of cheaper, effective screen-readers, and the rapid accessibility gains made with smartphones.

3 Responses to My Tech Experience, 1987-1997

  1. Pingback: How a voice changes everything | hismastersreview

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