Assistive technologies for the disabled (or differently abled, if you prefer) continue to improve. Back in the 1990s, I used to volunteer at a place in northern Virginia called Telecommunications Exchange For the Deaf, Inc., or TEDI. Deaf callers would reach us using acoustic modem TTYs (short for “text telephones” or “teletypewriters”), little laptop-sized machines with a single line display of blue LED text, an interface pretty close to Speak & Spell. We volunteers would then read the messages out loud over the phone to their target. Or we’d do the reverse, typing messages from phone callers into the TTY. About 80% of the calls we relayed came from Gallaudet University students ordering pizza.

I’m sure SMSing and Dominos’ high-tech website have rendered TEDI obsolete for the deaf. But what about the blind? Computers are still visually oriented. So today I did a cursory investigation into assistive writing technology for the blind.

A TTY. The ears on the top are a cradle for an acoustic modem. Note the non-sucky keyboard (see my previous article).

The actual reason I started wondering about such technology is that I woke up yesterday with a scratched cornea. It feels like someone took a stapler to my left eyeball, it’s red and nasty and painful. Bright light makes it hurt even more, so I’m spending the day inside with the shades drawn like Howard Hughes. (I learned after writing the original draft of this post that it’s an actual eye infection, which is, like, super gross.)

Aside from having difficulties reading what I’m typing in general, I have to set the screen to a very dim setting. I managed to squint and read some information online suggesting it will heal, but other information claimed the infected scratch could render me blind in one eye in under 24 hours. There’s also a history of macular degeneration in my family, although I’m still years away from the typical onset. On top of that, my grandfather lost an eye playing polo while he was a West Point cadet, and spent the rest of his life with a glass eye, but I don’t play polo, and Lamarckian evolution has been disproven, so I’ll probably be okay.

In any case, this brief bout of hopefully short-term visual troubles led me to wonder: could I write if I actually went blind?

The answer to that question is, of course, yes. For one thing, there have been numerous blind writers, Jorge Luis Borges being my favorite. I’d get to wear an eyepatch like James Joyce, seen above. And if I could still pick out clothes, maybe I could pull off that look he’s got: Pirate Colonel Sanders.

But Joyce and Borges didn’t own computers; they had assistants. I’m guessing Nora Barnacle in Joyce’s case (one of history’s great names), but I’m not of a mind to read too many web pages right now to answer for sure. Nowadays, you might not need an itinerant stenographer but you’d still need some help, e.g. a patient editor. And you’d probably need a skilled technical assistant, in the beginning if not later, to get you set up. Because otherwise, how do you find the speech recognition software in the first place? How do you click the download link? There are answers to these questions. Computers for the Blind is maybe the eye-disability version of TEDI. But… at some stage of the process, someone’s going to have to help a user out.

Speech recognition software has come a long way, as many cell phone users can attest. And if your phone can do it, your computer can do it even better. (I should note, there are other solutions for users with visual problems short of complete blindness; screen magnifiers and high-contrast colors, for example. There are also non-speech ways for the blind to write and even code software, as I learned at my high school in the late 1990s–but I can’t say much about them from experience.)

So I looked into transcriber software. I use Linux and I only found one that would work on my version of Ubuntu. It’s called Speechpad. Overall I was fairly impressed. It’s not too good at guessing where sentences end–in fact, it apparently doesn’t even try. That’s probably a good thing for a writer since we may spend a few seconds on each word. That’s less important when you’re sexting. Nobody under 35 punctuates SMS messages anyway. But writers still have to. Insert e e cummings joke here (regarding punctuation, not sexting).

You can find instructions on the Speechpad website for setting it up in Windows and Linux. Under Linux, you need a browser extension for Chrome, a single bit of software installed locally, plus a few steps on the website including clicking the “Start Recording” button whenever you use it. There’s also a two-day free trial, and then you can license it for $2.50 for a month or $16/year. If you think you’re going to go blind, and you’re not too blind yet that you can’t fill in the form and click a couple checkboxes, then it’s probably worth $16/year. My gut feeling tells me that the Linux steps create a security hole, although I’m not entirely sure what it is–maybe an enterprising hacker could get you to play a sound file that opens a terminal and attaches all your SSH keys to an e-mail, but for the time being I’m not worried. Blindness itself creates substantially bigger security issues.

Here’s what was actually transcribed by Speechpad, in a sort of draft version of what I wrote above. Naturally I didn’t read the instructions in advance, because that would be boring, so you’ll see me figure out a few things during the transcription. It got a few things stunningly wrong, probably due to my own lack of enunciation, and once or twice it missed an entire phrase (perhaps because I am not working in a totally quiet environment). After I discovered I could say “newline” to create a double line break, it heard “bee line” and “blue line” once each.  Saying “exclamation mark” also gets you that. Clearly, it would be very hard to write an article about punctuation. Maybe there is a way of escaping that literalism but I didn’t try. (I’m using “escape” in the programming sense.) The text has not been modified and I suggest skimming it if you’re reading it at all.

yesterday I woke up with a scratched cornea the trouble that I discovered with having a scratched cornea is that my eye is very painful on one side and exposure to light is extremely difficult so I’m actually using my monitor very dim and I am currently experimenting with writing tools that do not require you to be able to say some very famous writers were blind the only example I can think of off the top of my head is Jorge Luis orfusnow I’m looking at the text that is actually being transcribed and as is the case with most cellphone transcription product it’s totally inaccurate but it’s not terrible and a lot of people could that have an editor come in fix the Punctuation correct a few mistakes and get the thing going correctly it’s actually interesting to write this way because I’m unused to thinking out loud in paragraphs that I don’t then immediately modify a million times before moving on to another sentence don’t with a little bit of effort you can install a Chrome extension and register for a website activate OS integration and then you can dictate text through the websites recording feature that will appear in your operating system in another application right now I’m dictating directly into WordPress but I could be dictating into OpenOffice the only catch is that there is no punctuation as far as I can tell. I just learned that by saying. I can make a period happen unfortunately that using the word. I may wind up with periods that I don’t wish to happen. I’m curious if I can also say! Yes saying! Actually works except that I can’t use the phrase!Paragraph break return return enter enter one break so if I’d actually read the instructions I could probably figure out how to hit the enter key beeline

So it turns out that’s actually gets you out of line I’m noticing because I’m not actually blind but a lot of what I’m typing is not quite correct excuse me what I’m saying is not quite correct. Of a better solution this is actually pretty good way to write there’s also integration available for Windows and I presume if you can do it in Linux you can usually do it on a Mac so this is actually not the worst thing I’ve ever seen

I wonder if if I were to do this long enough I will be able to actually dictate sentences, sentences which resemble what I actually type when I write normally I just learned that you can add a comment by saying, oh well the microphone does seem to have a little bit of trouble with my particular voice which is fairly deep but I think I can learn to speak as clearly as I possibly can should I actually go bloomed all of that having been said I don’t think that I would like to write short stories or a novel this way Blue Line

As Gregor samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious Summer by this sun of York.

Four score and seven years ago I forget the rest of the Gettysburg Address.

It was the best of times it was the worst of times.

It even knew “sun of York” instead of “son of York.” Overall, not bad. Not flawless, but it could be a lot worse. Still, I’m hoping I don’t go blind. Even if I could feel certain that the transcriber got everything right, I might need some help finding the Save button.

There’s also the matter of reading the text back to you. We already know from GPSes and Siri and Alexa and lots of other chatty robots that it’s possible–that’s the easy part. There are also screen readers like the NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access) Reader, but that only runs under Windows. NVDA can be used with speakers or with a Braille display. That’s all good news for anyone who’s vision impaired and finds this article, although they’d probably know more about this stuff than I do already.

A Braille Display. This device converts text into bumps that can be interpreted by trained fingers.

Speaking of which, I hope I haven’t trivialized eyesight difficulties or disabilities in any way with my casual examination here. My attitude, as with most things, is to be prepared for the worst, and it’s good to step into another person’s shoes once in a while. I can’t really even claim to have done that. I am still able to read and write (with a dollop of pain, is all). I’m certainly not blind. Like the bacteria who’ve been partying in my eyeball for the last day-and-a-half, I’ve only scratched the surface.

In conclusion I’m touch-typing this final paragraph with my eyes closed and won’t be making any edits to it. (I’ve already written an essay about keyboards.) There are many different types of blindness so it’s a near certainty that people who wind up with eyesight problems later in life might be able to touch-type and skip the dictation elenent altogether, whereas someone blind from an a preliterate age would be challenged in another way. Of course, I can tell I’ve made a few mistakes, but I think my outcome here is probably still above the dictation software’s–unless, that is, I’m on the wrong line of the keyboard from the get-go and this entire paragraph will turn out to be an unintelliglble cryptogram. I am fortunate that when I’m done I typing I’ll actually be able to know for sure.

For my next column, I’ll find out what happens if you use a scratched cornea on a biometric retina scanner…

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