What Does a Writer Need?


Hello, and thank you for inviting me here today.How many of you have heard of the author John Milton?Have any of you read his most famous work, a poem called Paradise Lost?Did you know that he wrote it several years after he had lost his sight to Glaucoma?That was nearly 400 years ago, long before any kind of assistive technology existed.Milton had to write his poems and stories by hand and by candlelight.Today things are very different.


My name is Robert Bennett.I am a freelance writer.And, as you can see, I am also a wheelchair user.I have been a freelance writer for the past 14 years.I write about everything from sports to politics, but, one of my favorite topics is technology.


Over the course of my career Iíve had the opportunity to meet and speak with people with a wide variety of disabilities.Each of these people has used technology to help make their lives easier and, in some cases, more fun.There are adaptive eating utensils, adaptations to automobiles and adaptive sports equipment.Iíve written about all of these.But, what I am going to talk to you today about is how technology can help a writer who has a disability.


First, let me tell you that writing is a great way to communicate with people, not just people in your family or neighborhood but also with people all over the world.Writing opens up a whole new world for you.New friends and intelligent conversations can be a product of what youíve written.If you have something to say, write about it.If youíre having a bad day, write about it.If something really special happened to you, write about it.My point is that just because you have a disability you donít have to hide away and be shunned by the world.Take those experiences that you think are particular to you and write about them.Youíll find that you arenít alone.There are many who share your ideas, hopes, dreams, and experiences.But you probably wonít know about that unless you write about it.


Recently I met someone over the Internet.Heís a quadriplegic who lives in China.I found out about him through a story he had written and posted on the Internet.In the story he talked about how the Internet had expanded his world.Since discovering how to access the Internet he now has friends all over the world.And, he has started a writing career using the Internet and other technologies to help him spread his ideas around the world.


You can do the same thing.Talk about your experiences.Find other people whose experiences are similar to yours.Learn about ways to cope with situations you werenít sure how to deal with.


One of my clients, an ASL performance artist named Trix Bruce, was in a college class some years ago.She had to do a group project and she didnít want anyone in the class to know she was deaf.So, she asked her instructor for the email addresses of her groupmates.Then she asked them if they would mind doing the project by email.She didnít explain why but they all agreed.It wasnít until after the class had handed in their project, and gotten an ďAĒ, that they realized that Trix was deaf.Using the technologies of the Internet and email Trix was able to better do the classwork she had been assigned and didnít need to worry about special considerations because she was deaf.


Experiences like this are available to you once you begin using the Internet.


As a wheelchair-using paraplegic I havenít had much need for technological adaptations to help me in my career, but if I did there would be many options open to me.If you write the old fashioned way there are tools to help you hold a pen or pencil.If you write electronically you can adapt your keyboard, your mouse, and your monitor.You can have your computer talk to you and you can talk to it, though make sure thereís no one around when you talk to any inanimate object as it might land you in a nicely padded room wearing a white coat with very long sleeves.The idea is to get done whatever you need to do with whatever help you might need.Iíll talk about all these tools, and give you some examples.Iíll also be talking about how I found a way to bring a real-life piece of technology into the world of fiction.


Go into any computer store and youíre faced with clones, standard computers with standard keyboards and mice.The industry caters to the standard, the average user.In truth it makes financial sense to do that.But what about us, the 54 million people with disabilities in the United States alone?Many of us can not use industry standard equipment.Fortunately there are companies who are willing to think outside the box to meet our needs.If you can only type with one hand a standard keyboard can be a problem.A bunch of years ago I wrote a product review for something called the Magic Wand keyboard.This thing is great, whether you have limited strength or no movement in your hands.Itís basically a metal plate that you touch with a wand thatís attached to the board with a wire.There are no raised keys to press.Itís kind of like the pointing device you use when youíre playing the game ďOperation.ĒBut unlike the game the nice thing about this is that it doesnít make an annoying buzz sound if you touch the wrong thing.There are other one-handed devices.Most of them allow users to press several keys at once in order to type a multitude of combinations.Then, if you canít use your hands or turn your head you can always use your eyes to type.On-screen keyboards are a modern marvel.They allow you to just look at the image of a key on the screen and that letter is typed into your document.It may be a bit slow but it gets the job done.If none of those options work for you there is a wide variety of voice recognition software.


Last summer I had a problem with bursitis in my right arm and shoulder.The pain went down from my shoulder to my lower arm, and was so great at times that I could not get into a comfortable position to type.It would have been great to have had a left hand only keyboard.Fortunately I did have a voice recognition program installed.This software solves many problems.Itís easy to install on any computer.And, it is easy to train.The program I use, from Dragon Systems, takes about an hour to train.You answer a few questions, read a few short passages of text, and youíre done.The program starts out at about 90% accuracy but as you use it more it learns and adapts better to your way of speaking.The program I used was trained for my voice alone, which made it much more accurate, but it meant only I could use it.Some of the programs are speaker independent, which means that anyone can use your computer.


Ok, now that we know we can get our ideas into the computer how do we know that what we input is what we want it to be?For most people thatís easy.They just look at the screenÖbut what if you canít?For someone who has a visual impairment a screen is useless.You may be able to input information using a Braille keyboard, but you canít read Braille off a monitor.Thatís where screen readers come into our story.A screen reader uses a synthesized voice to tell you what youíve typed.There are many programs that do this, and many of them can be programmed to sound however you like.Some people like a strong male voice others may want a sexy woman reading to them.Personally I have my computer set up to read things using the voice of the starship Enterpriseís computer voice.What can I say, I like the sound of Majel Barretís voice!


There is a problem with screen readers though.They arenít always very accurate.When youíre using a foreign language or a strange character the program may not be able to recognize it.According to a friend of mine, a professor of geography at the University of California, screen readers like the "Reading Edge" text reader can be very helpful for reading all sorts of things, but they can also be very frustrating.He tells me that at times his screen reader software reads him a line of garbage instead of reading the line of text.


Ok, so youíre probably saying to yourself, ďHey, I have a disability.What can I do if I want to be a writer?Where does all this technology fit in?ĒWell, aside from using the technology Iíve just talked about to do things like email and chatting and even homework, there are at least two career possibilities.You can be a journalist, like Iíve been for the past 14 years.You can write about what you see, feel and hear in the world around you.If you become a journalist you can help a lot of people.You can tell them about things they donít know.You can introduce them to ideas and technologies.You can even tell them about great places to visit.The second possibility is that you can write a book.In that book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, you can talk about life experiences.You can let your characters tell the world about what it is like to have to meet the kind of challenges people face every day.In my book, Blind Traveler Down a Dark River, I tell the story of a blind man in the future who uses technology to get around his world.I wrote the book a few years after writing an article about a piece of computerized technology that allows a blind person to easily identify and navigate around a world full of obstacles.You can do the same thing.Find a story that you want to tell and tell it using whatever adaptive technology you need.


Before I go, let me give you some useful tips, some low-tech hints to help with your writing.


Use a tape recorder. Some people talk clearly about their ideas but get stuck the moment they face their computer screen. If you have this problem, try talking through your idea, and tape it. When you play back the tape, you may find that the ideas and even the structure for your paper really are "all there." Transcribe what you've recorded, and work with your draft from there.


Read your paper out loud, or have someone read it to you. Some people don't have problems with freezing up in front of the computer screen. They write a good deal. The problem is that what they write doesn't seem to hold together. Often reading their papers out loud helps these students to "hear" where their papers have gone wrong. If this method doesn't work for you, have a friend read your paper aloud to you. You will be able to hear in her voice where she stumbles, or grows confused.


Use note cards. LOTS of note cards, especially the colored kind. Colored note cards are a good idea, too. You can put each point you want to make onto a note card and then spread the note cards out and try to arrange them in an order that works.Group related ideas by using similar colored cards.


Use colored markers. If you've drafted a story that seems muddled, get some colored highlighters and try to trace the evolution of each idea through your paper. Assign each point of your argument a color, and then go through the entire paper and "color" each sentence according to which idea it belongs to. You are likely to find that, for example, you began a paragraph talking about point A, shifted suddenly to point B, went on to point C, back to B, and so on.Colored markers can help you to see where and how your ideas went astray.


Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.I hope youíve enjoyed my presentation and I hope it has shown you one more way to use adaptive technology to make a career that you will love.