Monday, 25 November 2013

My Experience with Temporary Blindness

How it Happened

For those who don't know me personally, I wear some rather strong glasses. I have a natural focal length of something like 13cm (That is to say, anything beyond 13 centimeters is just a blur) without my glasses. In recent years, I've switched to contact lenses, continuous wear ones to be specific. These allow me to lead a life which is reasonably free of glasses, to engage in certain sports that were just prohibitively difficult before.

Fast forwards to 12th of November, and I take my lenses out because I had some pain in my eye. The next morning, at around 0530, I work up with an unexpectedly painful eye. It had swelled shut. So bad was the pain that my other half took me to the accident and emergency department to get it looked at.

I was told that I had a serious infection of the cornea, or an ulcer, and was at risk of losing the eye. I was given muscle relaxant eye drops, antibiotic eye drops, local anesthetic at the hospital and discharged. The basic effects of the (what was confirmed at a later appointment) infection was that any movement of the eye was quite painful, including the movement of my iris (hence the muscle relaxant). Any movement, as triggered by my "good" eye will also cause me a lot of pain, so using either eye is right out.

So I was essentially stuck in a position where my least painful route for the day was to wear a blindfold, take my medications at the allocated times and take normal, over-the-counter painkillers. This was my state for two days. I could not see at all.

I took the time off work, predictably, since I ride my bike into work, this could've ended badly!

My Life, Blind

I work at the local university as a researcher, this actually sounds far more impressive than it is -- I normally just end up writing Java on a Linux box. At home, I rely on Linux Mint 14.

Overall,  the experience was patchy. I asked my other half to do a quick google to find out what the screen reading software for Linux Mint 14 was, and the result was something called "Orca". I used my limited knowledge of keyboard shortcuts to get to a terminal, run aptitude install orca, logout and in, and start Orca.

The terminal worked mostly well, except for the fact that I use zsh, which lead it to reading out a lot of superflourous stuff that you tend just filter out when reading it, but only read when you need. This is not the case with a screen reader -- everything (including my verbose prompt) is read at you all the time, after every command. At first it is very overwhelming.

I tried to use Miro to get some podcasts to pass the time,. and while using aptitude to install it was easy, using Miro was anything but. I ended up switching to my usual media player which was Banshee. Banshee required a restart to get it to pick up the fact that I was using a screen reader. It however worked ok after this. It was easy enough to navigate, however, it was very difficult to select a specific podcast episode (I could select things like, favourite songs, podcasts, all items, new items, various podcast "channels" that I'd subscribed to.

So far I've been getting through the Haskell Cast episodes  that I have wanted to listen to for a while. I plan to listen to a few more podcasts in my suddenly spare time.

Moving around my flat has actually been perfectly ok, it just took me a little longer. I mostly walked around my flat with my hands stuck out or a hand on  a wall. I could still do everything in the bathroom, but I was disbarred from my own kitchen. I didn't have to leave my house yet, except for going to the hospital, for which I had a guide.

The evening after I got back from hospital, I had a friend round to visit. luckily, she knew about my predicament and brought round a board game. It would seem counter-intuitive that a board game would be any good, but she brought round Tokyo Monster Something=or-other. It actually worked really well with my other half telling me what I had rolled, and who was currently in Tokyo and other information. I can't imagine any of my boardgames being even slightly accessible, and we definitely couldn't have played Xbox or watched something on Netflix.  But that's somewhat ok, since  haven't exactly tailored my living room for that.

Even Pidgin worked really well -- I use Google Talk at work, DukGo's XMPP server for comms with my friends, so I was well served by Pidgin and it worked flawlessly with the screen reader. In terms of accessibility, it's ease of use excelled even that of the preferences panels of Orca!


This did not stop me getting quite isolated. I couldn't pass the time on my Xbox, or watching TV, since I don't think Netflix offers audio description on it's offerings.

I couldn't use my kindle, I've noticed now that there aren't even headphones on the thing, so I couldn't read any of my books that I've bought.

Worse than this, however, was the things which did not work with a screen reader. The main culprit on Linux Mint 14 was FireFox (Fx).

I could alt-tab through windows, and have the title of each item read to me perfectly, and when I switched to Fx, I was greeted with the most deafening silence of the whole experience. I tried as much as I could remember of getting to the preferences panel blind, but I think I just probably set some obscure settings.

I ended up using Links in the terminal. If you think this is painful when sighted, try it with Orca! Some websites "worked", but it did mean sitting through a huge list of navigation (or worse, adverts) on every page load. A few pages offered a "Skip to Content" link (I think /. was one of them), which was met with absolute glee.

Sites like reddit were quite unusable, mostly for the list of subreddits over the top, and HackerNews worked; I could read headlines after waiting through an amount of navigation that was almost (but not quite) unbearable. The links that I followed were a mixed bag, and actually working Links can be a bit hit and miss, especially when you're disorientated, and you're not sure if you've managed to exit the terminal window all together or something else entirely.

When there's a lot of navigation on a page, it becomes hard to stop yourself just zoning our whilst it is read at you, and then you realise that you're in the middle of the content, and you need to backup some how.

For reference, I also tried to install Chromium, and was met with substantially the same problems -- silence.

Even making notes for this blog were not a walk in the park. I ended up using GEdit. Actually writing the document was reasonably easy. It was more difficult to save it. After Hitting Ctrl-S, I was a little overwhelmed and confused by the amount of things it said to me, but I ended up navigating via tab (Also worth noting "push button" is very difficult to discern when said by a screen reader).


I would say that prior to this issue, I was still sensitive to accessibility issues, having a sight problem means that I often end up zooming pages when my eyes are tied, or I have to wear my glasses at work. But nothing could've prepared me for how incredibly disorientating it is to be blind at a modern computer.

Overall, computers seem somewhat usable if you're not used to not having sight, and are dumped into having to learn how to use a screen reader, but if you're unfortunate, you'll be stuck cut-off from the web. This should not be possible with a distribution  like Linux Mint and a modern web browser like Firefox. I'm glad that I was able to get around, and that with some help I was able to get my podcasts playing, and write notes about my experiences,but it shows that it is overly difficult to get things to just work when you really need it.