Technology Blazes a Trail Out of the Wilderness

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by Rick Jobus |

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“Keep off the path,

Beware of the gate,

Watch out for signs that say ‘hidden driveways.’

Don’t let the chlorine in your eyes,

Blind you to the awful surprise,

That’s waitin’ for you at,

The bottom of the bottomless,

Blue, blue, blue pool,

You’re livin’ in your own private Idaho.”

The B-52s song “Private Idaho” is an apt descriptor of my trepidatious initial forays into vision-led navigation of the internet. It is also what I experienced as I gained whatever command, or lack thereof, I have of office productivity tools.

The tune was not a parody of the state. Per band member Fred Schneider, “Idaho is pretty mysterious to all of us.” Those were my thoughts as I began to feel my way around my new Tobii Dynavox assistive communications unit, and Microsoft Office decades before that.

Using word processing applications, it was days before I accidentally hit “enter” and discovered how to separate paragraphs. At first, I utilized a calculator to manually tally the sum of rows and columns while running a spreadsheet software analysis. And I was the wizard of tab usage as a novice PowerPoint presentation developer. It was all trial and error.

The difference between my experience with eye gaze directed speech and web exploration was that this time, I had the benefit of an expert tutor. Even with that huge advantage, I still, while flying solo, occasionally ended up in my own “Private Idaho.”

As in the song, there are paths to be avoided and gates to be wary of. Many the instructor apprised me of some I had already found on my own. Of course, given the device is operated by optics, your eyes must be clear — which means no sleep residue, and much less “chlorine.” And the equivalent of a bottomless pool exists, in the fashion of a frozen screen, which I’ve nervously treaded water over several times.

It took four lessons, but I am finally out of the Idahoan wilderness. Now, at my discretion, I can even figuratively spend online time at the capital city of Boise.

The first tutorial taught me how to calibrate my eyes. That function consists of fixing one’s eyes on nine points appearing in the center, and along the perimeter of the screen. After that, I was shown the basics of speech generation. This was sufficient for me to engage in a real conversation later that night.

During my second session, I practiced talking and was introduced to the utility of using pre-generated phrases. After that, the internet was connected, applications added, and I was guided through the basics of web browsing. At the end of two hours, I was able to find websites and view content.

Building upon the initial classes, which fostered the development of necessary user skills, the third tutorial was geared to my specific usage objectives. I wanted to write this column solely with my eyes. Pursuant to that goal, I was schooled in creating hyperlinks, copying and pasting, and managing multiple open windows. Armed with those skills, I was able to author 80% of last week’s column hands-free.

In what might have been my final training appointment, we focused on the obstacles preventing me from completing an entire piece, without having to strike a single key. That entailed boning up on some “disaster recovery” techniques, and gaining the wherewithal to add the icons of frequently visited sites to my desktop page on this device.

This, then, is my maiden attempt at crafting a column 100% eye-to-paper. So far, so good. But I’d be remiss if I claimed it as a triumph of my own doing. The gratitude should be liberally spread around.

First, there are the folks whose willingness to engage in conversation as I used an electronic intermediary accelerated the establishment of my comfort level. The acquisition never would’ve happened without ALS advocacy organization “Team Gleason” covering the insurance copay. And if not for the dedication of my superlative trainer and now friend Gabby, the entire adventure would have turned out to be a failure, and the device would be destined to be a dust foundation.

And I must indirectly thank the sovereign state of Idaho.

Idaho’s official nickname is the “gem state.” Although derived from the false claim that the word “idaho” was a Shoshonean term meaning “gem of the mountain,” the moniker stuck. Fittingly, Idaho is the most prolific silver mining state in the union, and its rich soil yields a “gem” of a potato.

The average American eats 117 pounds of potatoes each year. Given my ALS-prompted inclusion of readily chewable and swallowable foods in my diet, I supplement nearly every evening meal with an ample portion of a mashed variation of Idaho’s finest. That must mean that I am at the upper end of that statistic.

Thank you, Idaho, for the nourishment and inspiration.

Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.


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