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The fight to see my PC

Posted on 14 Jun 2012 at 09:20

Davey Winder explains how he adapted his PC to cope with a sudden deterioration of his eyesight

The month before I started writing this feature, I had pretty good eyesight for a man knocking on the door of 50. My last eye test was only three months ago and, apart from the lazy left eye that’s required me to wear glasses for close work since I was a boy, all was well. That was before I woke up one morning and the world hadn’t only gone blurry, but strangely distorted.

At first I thought the cold I’d developed was the reason that everything was out of focus, but after a week of my sight continuing to deteriorate, with straight lines becoming curved and close objects seemingly being viewed through a goldfish bowl, I decided to see the optician again.

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To cut a long story short, I found myself at the local hospital under the care of a specialist retina consultant who discovered I had wet macular degeneration (wet MD) – in my “good” eye!

This progressive disease strikes very quickly, and by the time I had the first injection of a stabilising drug directly into my eyeball – I wish I was joking – the central vision of my right eye had worsened to the point where people’s faces had turned into a grey smudge. The closer the object and the finer the detail, the less I could see. Between the rapidly degenerating vision in my right eye and the poor state of my lazy left eye, continuing to work as a writer seemed rather unlikely – impossible even.

Suddenly, I found that my choice of screen, word processor, even my web browser, was unworkable. But technology triumphs over all. I’ve found ways to combat my failing vision, as different degrees of impairment and different medical conditions will pose different obstacles for the sufferer. However, I hope that my first-hand experiences as an IT professional will be of some use to those readers with failing eyesight, who are finding it harder to do the everyday computing tasks that they’ve always taken for granted.

Software choices

As a freelance journalist and author, not to mention small-business IT consultant, I spend much of my time sat in front of Microsoft Word. Or at least I did, until I discovered that black text against a white background wasn’t a good combination for me, and the alternative blue background/white text option had been discontinued since Word 2007.

I could still set the page colour to blue using the page layout options, which automatically turned the text white, but this left some text in black, and highlighted text changed to black against very nearly black, which clearly isn’t… clear. With no apparent way to properly customise the text display colours, I started to look elsewhere. I soon found the answer was already installed on my PC, in the shape of my coding text editor of choice.

Touchscreen

I now use NoteTab Pro with bright yellow text against a dark blue background, since this provides the best contrast for my eyes to comfortably cope with. This particular editor allows me to also quickly increase the size of the text to something easily visible (which for me is 20pt or more) without any of these display-only factors impacting upon the printed document or actual file copy. It doesn’t have Word’s broad set of features, but when all you really need to do is put words on a page, NoteTab Pro hits the spot with a spellchecker, word count and, most importantly, the ability to let me decide how it displays the document.

Email is another vital part of my business and my previously preferred method of viewing as many items from the inbox as possible – combining small fonts and closely formatted subject lines – soon became impossible. Thankfully, for now at least, I don’t have to discard my email client of choice, Gmail. I delved into the configuration options and discovered that the mail display density could be set to “comfortable”, which spaces each item further apart within a set of ruled lines, and is therefore perfect for both the larger monitor and smaller visual accuracy I now have.

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User comments

Thanks for sharing your experiences

Sorry to read about your wet MD. I have an Aunt with the same condition. She doesn't use computers but has been for the same injection treatment. It helped a little so hopefully after a few treatments you may notice an improvement or at least it will give your remaining sight a little longer.

Thank you for being open and sharing your experiences and valuable information on what measures you have taken to carry on with writing and using the PC in general. A lot of people would have just tried to hide the fact from everyone as long as they could through pride or vanity. It will no doubt prove invaluable and even if it helps just one person it was worth it.

By mr_chips on 14 Jun 2012

Positive

I've been reading your stuff for a lot of years, Davey, and appreciate the positive attitude which this piece shows you have. It can't be easy to maintain in these circumstances.
There's a Will Self piece here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/21/will-s
elf-blood-disease which you may find interesting.
Thanks for letting us know how it is with you.

By c_webb31 on 14 Jun 2012

Windows 8 Metro?

Hi Davey,

Have you tried using Windows 8 and the Metro interface? With its big, brash colours I wondered whether that helped someone in your situation

My thoughts and prayers are with you. Thanks for the update

C

By Chatan on 14 Jun 2012

Thank you...

... for a most informative & helpful article Davey. Good on you for taking the bull by the horns, really fighting it and coming out determined to succeed!! You deserve every success with such positivity!

Just out of interest, as you mentioned using the iPhone and iPad - what have their options for making the screens easier to read been like? And if you use a Mac as well, what are the OS & applications like in terms of giving you this flexibility? Is it better (or worse) than Windows?

By mrmmm on 14 Jun 2012

All the best

I heard of your problem a short while back and thought it may be similar to mine where I developed cataracts. I've now had them removed and the change is dramatic. Obviously your condition is very different to mine, but during eye testing, pinhole or stenopeic glasses were used. Would they help you? A simple test of a hole in a piece of card would give you some idea whether it would or not. I was really sorry to hear of your problem as I know first hand how it feels. All the best to you. Steve

By Binder on 14 Jun 2012

Best wishes

I've had the pleasure of reading your columns since issue 1 in 1994. Hope you manage to overcome this, latest, health challenge and continue to challenge, educate and illuminate for another 18 years.
Bets wishes
Patrick

By Minou on 14 Jun 2012

You might want to have a look at this blog:

http://welshwallaceblog.wordpress.com/
Seven years ago Wallace lost her sight completely as the result of a bomb in Afghanistan. She seems to have the tech solution to total sight loss very well sorted.

Shes on Twitter as, surprise, @WelshWallace

By rickansell on 14 Jun 2012

You might want to have a look at this blog:

http://welshwallaceblog.wordpress.com/
Seven years ago Wallace lost her sight completely as the result of a bomb in Afghanistan. She seems to have the tech solution to total sight loss very well sorted.

Shes on Twitter as, surprise, @WelshWallace

By rickansell on 14 Jun 2012

Thanks for this

I have noticed that for my right eye straight lines have seemed somewhat distorted for a couple of months now (I had put that down to floaters in the eye which I have long had a problem with). It had not occurred to me that this might be due to Wet MD. I always thought that was something that affected the elderly. By a stroke of good luck I have an optician's appointment tomorrow where I can raise this matter. Thanks for writing this article. You may just have helped preserve my sight.

By Akazarian on 14 Jun 2012

Commiserations

I still have my eyesight, but my other medical conditions mean that I can't take it for granted, so your article was of personal as well as technological interest to me.

I remember that some years ago you needed to manage without the usual I/O options. At that time you experimented with voice recognition. I noticed that you mentioned screen narrators, but very much in passing.

Do either of these feature in your plans?

By Philippa on 15 Jun 2012

Web design notes

I wonder if you (or others with similar restrictions to their vision) share my problem with animated advertisements?

I have some cognitive problems which mean that I'm very easy to distract with background noise or movement in the periphery of my vision. This mean that animated gifs, or similar, on the edge of my screen can make it almost impossible for me read some pages. I'd like web designers who are access-savvy to see if these things can be removed. I've no objection to ad as such, it's the movement which is a problem.

For unwanted swf, there's Firefox + Flashblock. What I wanted to share was an unexpectedly useful little trick, which I nearly always need on the PCPro site to make it possible for me to read the text.

This useful little tool is Irfan View. Set the background colour to white (or whatever is easiest for you) and the Options to "Always on top". Now re-size the thing to cover that areas of the screen where the offending items usually appear, and you have a "blanker".

I often take a look at what's underneath after I've read the main article, to see if there's anything interesting there, but most of the time what I want to see is elsewhere on the screen.

You could try telling your advertisers that an older generation now read IT sites and are not as comfortable with the "70 things in a juggling competition for you attention" that younger eyes (or less shrunken brains) can cope with.

Keep fighting - and keep telling us how it goes. Your reports on this front are going to relevant to increasing numbers of us.

By Philippa on 15 Jun 2012

Fonts

I was thinking about your problem, and remembered some information given by a friend who has to help people with dyslexia.

One of the problems with partial vision - and also with using a magnifying "glass" - is keeping your eye following a single line of text. With dyslexics the answer is to use a sans serif font, to keep the letters distinct but to keep everything in 1.5 line spacing (at a minimum) to keep lines together.

Contrariwise, "Schoolbook" fonts were designed in the belief that pupils would find it easier to keep words together if they had exaggerated serifs.

You might want to find out if your word processing program will handle font variations like that.

By Philippa on 15 Jun 2012

Best wishes#2

Very sorry to hear about your disease, but thanks for the piece and particularly for the positive tone.

Like 'minou' I have been a reader since issue 1 and I can add nothing to the Best Wishes he offers above.

Peter

By wittgenfrog on 15 Jun 2012

Thanks

Apologies for the delay in replying, but I've been away on holiday without any Internet access (no mobile connectivity at all in fact - bliss). Thanks for all the kind wishes, much appreciated.

Picking up on a few points:

I have set my iPhone/iPad up so that three clicks of the 'home button' changes the colour/contrast to white text on a black background, which I use for email and SMS in conjunction with the three-finger double-tap to zoom the screen if needed, and larger text settings for my calendar, mail, messages and contacts. Settings are available in General/Accessibility for those wanting to take a look. Oh, and if I get really stuck, I can get the iPhone to speak selected text out loud.

At this point in time I am managing with screen readers or voice interfaces. I am finding that by removing the distorting eye from the visual equation by way of an eye patch, and combining this with a new and rather powerful contact lens plus magnifying readers, I can manage to continue working with my adapted tech approach as is.

As for treatments, unfortunately the hugely expensive Lucentis injections into the eyeball are not working (I've had four now, and the abnormal blood vessel growth continues) so am now waiting to go in for some Photo Dynamic Therapy in a couple of weeks where cold lasers blast the blood vessels after a drug which makes me super-photo-sensitive is injected. Downside is having to keep out of sunlight and fluorescent light for a couple of days after or I will sunburn and could damage my eyes further. Fingers crossed it helps, if not then my consultant reckons there is nowhere else to go as far as the right eye is concerned at any rate.

By happygeek on 18 Jun 2012

Screens

If the built in colour changes aren't what you need, you can get software that puts a coloured tint (or more than one) over the screen. I think these were designed for dyslexics, but as someone with cataracts and proliferative diabetic retinopathy, I find it essential, as I am very photophobic, but need things quite bright. The software (I use Claro at home and Supernova at work) allows me to 'tweak' the colour to what my eyes need on any particular day.

By HitherandYon on 18 Jun 2012

Dont wait to see a doctor

One important point not mentioned is that, if your sight alters in any way you should see a doctor immediately - or go to a hospital eye clinic. If the problem had been a detached retina, a week would have turned a relatively easily fixed problem into one that required painful but not very successful treatment. It happened to a friend of mine! I too admire Davey's determination.

By RichardKeys on 20 Jun 2012

Richard, you are absolutely right. If I had gone to an optician and been referred immediately to the eye clinic on the day that I first noticed the change to my vision then the rather unpleasant treatments I am currently undergoing may well have been successful in preventing further sight loss. Unfortunately, I think it is all too easy to fall into the 'it's just a cold' or 'it will get better tomorrow' trap when you aren't aware of the various and many problems that will quite happily prove you wrong. In my case, having a cold at the same time as noticing some blurred vision (my eye was very runny at the time) didn't help. I only realised there was something seriously wrong when the cold went away but the blurred vision remained and became very distorted as well.

By happygeek on 21 Jun 2012

Paging Akazarian

Hey Akazarian, how did your optician appointment go?

By happygeek on 21 Jun 2012

Good Luck Davey

Many people have disabilities that the able bodied do not cater for. It is only when a person is positioned in that aspect, they have empathy with disabled persons.

I am especially pleased to read your article that you would like to begin an accessibility campaign. A person need not have very poor eyesight to have difficulty reading the CAPTCHA. When the print is small [not tiny] I have difficulty in discerning the characters from the inverse or smudges.

If a persons hearing is also impaired, as is the case for many elderly persons, accessing websites can be very frustrating and difficult.

All the best

By lenmontieth on 26 Jun 2012

CAPTCHAS are like a web roadblock to me. Sometimes I manage to get through them with the help of the Windows Magnifier, but just as often it's a lost cause due to insufficient contrast.

By happygeek on 27 Jun 2012

Thank You

Thank you for an excellent article which I read in the emergency eye clinic after a worsening of my degenerative macular condition. It has given me good pointers to strategies for coping with increasingly bad sight and I have emailed it to someone I know who has very bad sight. At least I now have an excuse to wear eccentric hats with brims!

By siskris2 on 2 Jul 2012

I'm truly happy that my article has been of some help to you, makes it worth writing. I need no excuse to wear eccentric clothing, or indeed eccentric beards :)

By happygeek on 3 Jul 2012

don't use a mouse!

One thing that's not been mentioned is that websites should allow you to navigate without using a mouse. TAB will move you from link to link. Used in conjunction with a screenreader such as JAWS allows for very rapid navigation.
I worked with the RNIB on one of their internal sites, very humbling to have a conference call with a visually impaired user on the other end navigating through your work without a mouse.
Perhaps you should also have a chat with some of your colleagues about Flash design - not good for Visually Impaired users.

By AndrewBaines1 on 8 Jul 2012

Help for users and their tutors

We are a no-cast major provider of inclusion technology advice for students and staff with disabilities. You may find information and resources from our site useful.
http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/
Note a recent 'toolbox' project for end users here: http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/tbx/needs-vi and other tutor resources here http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/techdis/userneeds/pra
gmaticapproach/understandingneeds
Finally, we point to lots of free vi resources too eg. http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/techdis/investinyours
elf/freeresources/downloads
Users who find value here please use #techdis in your tweets and blogs
Thx

By terrymc on 13 Jul 2012

Dave Winder article June 2012

Hi Dave,
I friend sent me a link to your article about your wetMD problem. This proved very helpful as I am trying to help another friend who has MD to get better use from her computer. I have managed to track down the Dell monitor you recomended but it lookes like we will have to upgrade her old PC. Do you think we should go for Windows 8 to support the Dell touchscreen or stick to buying Windows 7 ?
I hope you are managing to keep positive and thank you for the article.
Brian

By brimay on 19 Mar 2013

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