Tag Archives: technology

Rising to the Challenge

I am flying solo this week. Louise my assistant, who provides my academic support, is as I write Stateside and hopefully having a good and well deserved holiday in the sun.

It has been an interesting week all round in terms of my support needs as my parents, the usual provider of my daily support, have been on a trip to Italy. My Auntie Sue and my mum’s friend Maureen stepped in to fill the gap. With all of the absences, I decided to take the opportunity and set myself a little challenge; this blog post is brought to you via voice recognition technology which is something I have dipped in and out of over the years, with varying levels of success. I put on the headset, stare at the screen and many times my head goes blank. I think this has more than a little to do with my school experiences, allowing me to dictate work was considered somehow as giving in and allowing me to be lazy. For my generation of people with disabilities, aids in whatever form were to be used as a matter of last resort, and something to aspire to be without.

I have found that it is a completely different experience compiling something in your head and dictating it onto the page, than it is to type manually. I always feel somehow disconnected from the process; it never seems to flow as well. I like the tactile element of crafting something and if that gets lost, I end up having to concentrate so much on the act of talking that I lose the thread of what I am trying to say.

I have casual conversations in person quite easily, but if I have to think hard, or repeat myself, my body and brain get all scrambled and a word will suddenly decide to stay in the “no mans land” that exists between my brain and my mouth. This gets very interesting when having a conversation with my Dad who has a significant level of hearing loss and misses part of what I say to him. At some points it feels like I am in the middle of a neurological war of attrition, with Dad’s responses usually along the lines of, “What, what did you say?”, “Can you repeat that?”, “Say again.”

The whole process of dictating also feels far more public. I used to have a horror of doing my university exams in this way. I remember on one occasion as always, I was separated from the other students. Myself, my support worker and the Invigilator were in a room, a grand looking affair with an oak table. As I took my place next to my support worker scribe, the Invigilator remarked that I looked pregnant with thought. What was really going through my head was, “Oh My God! He is going to hear my answer and judge its worth and mine by default.” a pressure my pen- wielding peers didn’t have, they got a pass or a fail in private.

For me, disability means that concepts like privacy, independence and personal choice are a negotiated, sometimes “grey” area. I get exited about software that promises this freedom, however nothing has been created that gives me this autonomy so far. The IPad has proven to be the biggest leap forward so far. I can access ebooks, talking books, notes and papers on something I can carry around in a small bag.

Like most writers, the things I write about come out of my own life experience, the difference is I never get to write alone in a cafe, in one of those moleskin notebooks so beloved of my writing friends. Well, I could give it a go but there is a good chance that when I came to look at it again, I wouldn’t be able to work out what I had been trying to say! Sometimes I wonder if in the future my notebooks will be unearthed by a social historian, or end up on some kind of documentary like the ones you see on BBC2 about the evolution of the written word. I never complete the process of writing alone, in fact in my case the act of writing can give me a story to tell.

A few months ago while planning an art journal page I came across the quote by the author Neil Marcus, “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.” For me, this sums up my own views of my life as a disabled person.

 

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The Big Red Button

The last ten to twenty years have seen an increasing reliance on technology within daily life; today most people will have a mobile phone, personal computer or digital music player. Trips to the library and the supermarket are now increasingly dominated by technological encounters, self-checkouts seem to be conspicuously replacing human contact and last year I even came across an article about the idea of a machine that replaced the family doctor, a step too far in my opinion. I only have to look at some of the errors made by my voice recognition software to see the possible pitfalls of this idea, it frequently offers up bizarre approximations of what it thinks I have said leaving me to wonder about booking it a session with a psychoanalyst.

Disabled people are often the guinea pigs for, and recipients of, technological innovation such as alarms to summon help or remote communication devices to keep us safe. These are intended to be cost effective to allow for an increasingly strapped public purse and many are now an established part of the social landscape. In reality I have found that technological reliance produces some interesting and sometimes funny results.

Many people unfamiliar with disability assume that we disabled people live in specially adapted environments away from the problems and stresses of general life, that we are monitored and kept safe from harm. I started my adult life in one such sheltered environment, a block of flats purpose built for us wheelies. The place had an alarm system, in the form of a red button on a string around my neck that I could press for summoning help should I fall or become unwell. An alarm would sound after pressing the button and a microphone in a box next to my bed would allow me to talk to someone to arrange assistance.

I had lived in the flat for some years and never had to use the alarm for anything. To be honest, I always found that keeping a mobile phone with me worked just as well. However, early one Wednesday morning I was catapulted from sleep by a very loud noise. In my drowsy state I pressed the button on my alarm clock, but the noise was still there! I opened my eyes, squinted at the clock and realised it was only 5am. As my mental capacity, was somewhat fogged by interrupted sleep, it was a few minutes before it dawned on me that I had no mains power at all, and that the noise was the back-up panic-alarm battery kicking in. Did we have a power cut on the complex? I took stock of the situation. I was in the pitch black, lying in a bed that required electricity to raise me up and allow me to get out of it. Was this one of those emergency situations the button round my neck was meant for? I decided it probably was.

“Hello Miss Baddeley. Can we help you?”

I explained the situation to the disembodied voice on the other end of the intercom system. The response came, ” Have you paid your bill, or put enough money in the meter?” I explained that I have a quarterly bill, no meter and that I thought it was only a trip switch that had been activated, not a complete loss of supply.

The operator seemed not to grasp my situation, so I changed tactics and asked if someone would be able to come out to me? They said they were only able to give me a phone number, that I would have to reset the power myself and work out which of my appliances was causing the problem. At this point I was losing the will to live. I, like a lot of people, had assumed that the operators at the call centre would have been aware of my disability and situation, as every six months or so I had filled in their form, but it seemed that this not the case. I told the operator it was sorted, gave up and phoned the fourth emergency service, otherwise known as “Dad”.

I was left wondering what the point of the alert system actually was? If the idea is to safeguard people, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect anything resembling the Milk Tray advert, with a bloke parachuting out of the sky, or another similarly exotic entrance, but I was expecting some useful suggestions for the situation I was in. This was a service I was paying to have access to. As it was I was left literally blundering about in the dark.