Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My own ableism and thoughts about assistive technologies and productivity

The reality of the need to rely on voice recognition software is setting in. My hands and wrists are going south fast from rheumatoid arthritis. I had a flare-up last week that caused me so much pain that by the end of the day I was literally crying at my desk. It was difficult to drive home because gripping the steering wheel was nearly impossible. I had to sleep in wrist and thumb wraps...when I could sleep at all.

Since I have a job that relies on using a computer and the vast majority of my essential job functions rely on keyboarding (and mousing) and computer multi-tasking, it's a necessity that is forcing me to evaluate just how reliant I am on my physical capabilities to accomplish essential job functions.

It's a good thing in many ways to be humbled by the challenges of losing the abilities that you take for granted in many ways, to embark on more than an intellectual exercise in this area to understand the world from a yet another point of view. So as I think these things out in this digital space, dear readers, I apologize in advance for inadvertent stepping on toes as I confront my own ableist biases "aloud."

Tip-toeing into Voice Recognition Software

Fortunately Chrome and the Android OS allow for easy implementation of it w/o the OS-resource sucking Dragon Naturally Speaking. Configuring my tablet/PC/phone took just a few setting changes. Aside from some web apps, most basic functions are accommodated.

Saying that it saves you from any keyboarding is ludicrous, unless numerous typos and lack of advanced formatting are acceptable in a business context. Correcting is tiresome and tedious.

That speed trade off is huge. It is no surprise that it unfortunately doesn't match up to being able to physically touch type 80 wpm on the fly. Dragon has better accuracy than built-in voice rec, but it has a steep teaching/learning curve. I'm just trying out the built-in functionality and I'm beginning to see the huge productivity hit that will result in real-world circumstances (for me).


The more I fiddle with basic voice rec, the more I wonder how those who have limited ability to manually type (or lose it altogether) can use a computer without compromising a lot of former speed and accuracy.

[Of course, if you never had that physical capability to begin with, there isn't that that personal frame of reference to contend with, but there is the comparison to performance expectations in the abled world.]

Efforts that I depended on manual dexterity and speed for - such as moving between apps and windows, copying and pasting, text formatting, etc. are so far a no-go w/o Dragon. Of course my brain is quite biased by personal history. It has been well-trained over the years to execute such tasks effortlessly from thought to my hands to the keyboard to the computer. Now that this "communication chain" is broken, learning to do the same tasks using different tools is daunting.

It would good to see if there are studies/tests to evaluate one's voice rec performance to multi-task, multi-app keyboarding and navigation, not just the metric of straight dictation.

For instance, doing Facebook or Twitter updates using native voice recognition software (OS and Chrome; not Dragon) on my tablet or desktop is impossible to do without some keystroking or manual intervention. Most of my devices do best with straight dictation only. My Samsung phone is best at the latter.

I guess that my main focus now is figuring out how to think about voice recognition software and its place as an assistive technology. Is its primary purpose to simply make certain functions possible? Beyond the possible, what is the expectation regarding performance itself - is the assistive technology's purpose to help that person achieve the same performance levels that exist in the able-biased world as well?

The latter seems like a lofty goal, but being able to accomplish a function is not the same as accomplishing that same function at the same rate of speed as you did before. A logical question then is how expectation of rate of speed of performance falls into the category of essential functions of a job.


There are plenty of practical considerations of course; take a read through the voluminous Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA ) site and the Job Accommodation Network (the Dept of Labor site). They are not really bedtime reading, but interesting resources to peruse if you have the time. You realize what a herculean accomplishment it was to pass such a landmark law (1990) given the amount of ableism that existed then and continues to exist today. For instance:
"Under the ADA, when an individual with a disability is qualified to perform the essential functions of a job except for functions that cannot be performed because of related limitations and existing job barriers, an employer must try to find a reasonable accommodation that would enable this person to perform these functions. The reasonable accommodation should reduce or eliminate unnecessary barriers between the individual's abilities and the requirements for performing the essential job functions."
There's a lot packed in the above that has been life-changing for those working with disabilities. The ADA has ensured that they can bring their considerable personal and professional skills to bear to contribute to the economy by giving them access to opportunity.

The wrinkle of course is unless the reasonable ADA accommodation causes an "undue hardship." What constitutes "undue hardship" for an employer in this matter? It has to be:
"Excessively costly, extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business."
Yeah, it's complicated and there's a lot of ink dedicated to unpacking that statement. Just do the bedtime reading, if you are so inclined...

Some history -- the ADA would not have passed without the advocacy of Senator Bob Dole (R-Kansas), whose presence on the Hill among colleagues made a crucial difference.
Senator Dole was a fitting advocate for people with disabilities. In an interview with ABILITY Magazine, Senator Dole described the effect of his war injury: 
"Experiencing a disability yourself, you could almost walk around with a blindfold and pick out the other people with disabilities…. Having a disability changes your whole life, not just your attitude." 
...On July 16, 1990, more than 3,000 people attended the signing ceremony on the White House lawn. As he signed the bill, President George H. W. Bush said: 
"Every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom… We will not tolerate discrimination in America." (Read President Bush’s Full Remarks at ADA Signing) 
Bob Dole added: "This historic civil rights legislation seeks to end the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life… the ADA is fair and balanced legislation that carefully blends the rights of people with disabilities… with the legitimate needs of the American business community."

BTW, this post took forever using voice rec. In the end I typed about half of it, and corrected a boatload of the input. And the formatting had to be done via keyboard. With that said, it could be done over time and at my own pace. That's certainly not the same as the pressure of composing something on a deadline for work.

* Life changes -- RA drives me onto the professional off-ramp

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