How Do Blind People Use Computers? With Gusto

My first memory of using a computer was playing Oregon Trail in the third grade. I don’t think that was the first time I used a computer, but I remember it vividly because a classmate made fun of me when my character died from a snakebite. The whole class joined the taunting, and the stress and absurdity of the situation caused me to cry. At that point I realized I was far too sensitive and visually impaired to ever use a computer again.

Perhaps you read that with last line with confusion or amusement. Clearly I wrote and published this using a computer. But to many the idea that blind people can use computers is right next to “cats skateboarding” on the impossible things scale. Almost any time you see a blind person in a public internet forum someone will ask, “How can you use a computer if you’re blind?” Sighted people even pop into forums for the blind to pose this question (pro tip: try reading some of the posts and your question will likely be answered).

I would like to think this is a matter of simple curiosity, but some internet warriors seem honestly baffled by the concept of a blind person being competent in any way. A few years ago I encountered a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) post from a blind teenager (this was back when AMA posts were from boring everyday people instead of Dave Coulier and President Obama). I was immediately suspicious because the young man said his sister was typing for him (later he edited the post saying he was using the computer himself). The best-case scenario was that he was lying; the worst was that his school system and community had horribly failed him. However, no one else seemed surprised or perturbed by a blind teenager who was not able to use a computer. And, yes, the post was a fake.

I understand what everyone is thinking: don’t people need to, you know, see to be able use a computer? How can someone with limited or no vision use a computer? Probably better than half the people you know.

Nowadays children are born with computers everywhere: a small computer is probably one of the first things they see as someone snaps a first photo with a smart phone. However, the few prior generations had to make some decisions—conscious or unconscious—about how much they wanted to interact with computers. For me there was not much choice. My counselors from the Connecticut Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind (BESB) drilled into me the idea that I had to become proficient with computers or spend my life as an unemployable sack of crap. Those probably weren’t their exact words, but you get the idea.

While the other kids in my fifth-grade class were at recess, I was indoors learning to type with Mavis Beacon. That may sound somewhat cruel, but I hated both other children and being outdoors, so I wasn’t bothered. Writing by hand is a slow process for me, so I was glad to learn to type. It meant I could not do my homework even faster than before.

Computer proficiency was pushed so hard for us blind kids that we even had computer camp. I went during the summers of 1996 and 1997. The day consisted of four hours of computer class each morning, following by various activities including—but not limited to—the girls’ bunk all faking menstrual cramps because we didn’t want to go to the beach. I really enjoyed being there, even when they made us go to the beach. I had never before spent time with other blind kids my age. It was liberating not having to explain my visual impairment.

At this point you may be thinking, “Diana, you’re supposed to be explaining how you and the other blindos managed to use computers. You’re just telling us about your mundane childhood like you do in every other post.” Well, even way back in the ‘90s we used screen magnifiers and screen readers. Before you picture a large, rectangular magnifying glass (yes, someone once asked me for this when she heard I had a screen magnifier) or some teenaged guy’s sister reading Reddit to him, let me explain that these are both types of adaptive software. The names are pretty self-explanatory: a screen magnifier magnifies your screen display, and a screen reader reads everything on your screen (including icons, menus, and dialogue boxes) out loud. Both types of software can be purchased on their own—JAWS is a popular screen reader, and ZoomText is a popular screen magnifier—but they are also built into most modern operating systems, albeit with less functionality. What was available back in the computer camp days was fairly rudimentary (I don’t believe any screen readers worked in web browsers back then), but we still enjoyed typing inappropriate words for a computer voice to read. I mean, uh, learning to be productive members of society, Right.

It's hard for me to recall how I functioned using a computer without any sort of adaptation. I think I just put my face really, really close to the monitor. Right now my display is at around 2x magnification.

I think it may surprise some people that most of the kids at camp had less vision than I, yet most of them were better with computers. I didn’t have a computer at home until I was in high school, so up to that point my experience had been limited to Mavis and Oregon Trail (the latter of which I had convinced my teacher to let me stay behind to play while the rest of the class had “extra gym” [yes, extra gym was a thing for some reason]). I imagine most of them are still better with a computer than I am, because I kind of suck—my cat messed up the dock on my Mac weeks ago, and I just deal with it instead of figuring out how to fix it. But clearly that’s because I’m lazy, not because I’m blind.

What I’d like anyone reading to take away from this not only that blind people can use computers—and use them well—but also that my counselors were absolutely right: computer skills are essential for the blind and visually impaired. People assume it must be very difficult for a blind person to use a computer, but using a computer is probably one of the easiest things I do every day. I shake my head every time someone says technology is making our lives worse, because that technology is helping me to read, shop, do homework (finally), navigate, and work. I can decide which lipsticks to buy even though I can’t see colors. I can find phone numbers in seconds instead of combing through a phone book (why do they keep sending out those things?). Netflix even added descriptive audio to its show, Daredevil, so I don’t have to make my boyfriend read the subtitles outloud if I want to watch the episodes again.

I would not say I was lucky to be born blind, but I certainly was lucky to be born at a time when computers were evolving so rapidly. If you are losing vision and you’ve never used a computer, then you aren’t reading this right now. Sorry—that must be rough. Or perhaps someone printed this out for you, in which case you should ask that person to show you how to use a computer so you can stop wasting paper.