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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 3

Interview

Who's Using the FreedomBox?

When Melinda (Mindy) Abraham lost her sight in 1994, that was really the least of her problems. Diagnosed with nephritis at age 8 and receiving her first kidney transplant at age 17, Abraham has had a virtual lifetime of adjusting to changes and loss and finding work-arounds and adaptations. With the new kidney, she managed to go to college, get a master's degree, and teach elementary-age schoolchildren with speech and hearing disabilities for about 13 years. Meanwhile, her kidney disease and all its immune system destroyers and systems attackers, plundering areas from the circulatory to the sensory, continued their relentless campaign. When her kidney finally failed--after an amazing 15-year success--her immune system could no longer tolerate the risk of another transplant. She began thrice-weekly dialysis treatments--a regimen that she expects to continue throughout her life--and various infections and calcium deposits waged battles throughout her body.

By the end of 1995, Abraham was completely deaf in one ear and had a hearing aid boosting the severely impaired hearing in the other ear. Her right hand had been amputated, as well as all but her thumb and little finger on her left hand. She was using a walker alternately with a wheelchair for movement within her own home or beyond, and, almost incidentally, the ravages of the disease and its effects had rendered her totally blind.

When one talks to her today, 10 years after such extraordinary losses, one finds an engaging, upbeat, intelligent, and social person, who loves life and the people in it and who is not hesitant to count her blessings. The first blessing, she is quick to point out, is her 17-year marriage with Tim, the love of her life, whom she first encountered at age 10 when she was a camper and he was a counselor at a camp for children with disabilities in her home state of New York. Although she no longer participates in work at the camp, she moved from the role of camper to counselor and eventually director of the camp for 7 years and developed her passion for helping and teaching children with special needs. Since she has become a person with severe disabilities herself, Abraham said, she is grateful for a husband and home health aide who help her accomplish household chores and personal care. And then there is a piece of technology, the FreedomBox, which she says dramatically improved the quality of her life.

Before she lost her fingers and sight and much of her mobility, Abraham loved to read and write letters. An all-around lover of language, she enjoyed writing long letters by hand to family members and friends. When she could no longer see or hold a pencil, that pleasure seemed out of reach.

A Fan Is Born

A local association for people who are blind tried to find technology that could help. Screen readers could read a computer screen to her, but navigation and entry required typing on a conventional computer keyboard, which she could not do. Then, a teacher discovered Serotek's FreedomBox and introduced Abraham to it, and a fan was born.

The original FreedomBox was driven almost entirely by voice activation. No stranger to computers (Abraham had used Apple computers daily in her classroom), she was launching the system and sending and receiving e-mail messages within minutes of installing the unit in her home. In its earliest form, the only key that she needed to press was the Control key, in order to talk. With a standard headset and microphone, she now sends e-mail messages in her own voice and has FreedomBox read aloud to her the often-lengthy and always treasured responses. Almost instantly, she shifted from the isolation of being home alone every day to communicating with friends and family members--some of whom are hundreds of miles away--on a regular basis. And occasionally, Abraham noted, she enters the FreedomBox chat room, where she was initially delighted to be warmly welcomed by name.

"And I just love all the news and entertainment in the FreedomBox network," Abraham said. "I wish I had time to listen to every one of the movies." She was referring to the multiple layers and easily navigated lists of Internet links that are already assembled for users of the FreedomBox Network. In addition to scores of news sources, entertainment sites, weather, shopping, and more, the entertainment section provides one link to some 500 movies consisting of the sound track only, accompanied by a descriptive narrative. (See "The Liberty to Use a Computer: A Review of the FreedomBox" in this issue of AccessWorld for more details about its features and capabilities.)

As the FreedomBox product line has expanded and the products' capabilities vastly increased to appeal to experienced and savvy computer users who are blind or have low vision, a bit more keyboard input has become necessary. While Abraham was daunted by this input at first, she has been overwhelmed by the ongoing support she has received from the company's customer service representative.

"Once I called and asked him how I could possibly read a drop-down list," she recalled. The service representative told her, with no small amount of exasperation, simply to press the Alt-Down-arrow combination. When Abraham explained that she had only two digits--a thumb and little finger--additional support was immediate. Later, she learned about the "sticky keys" feature in Microsoft's Accessibility options and has found the feature especially useful.

Now, at age 47, after 10 years of medical complications and mobility and sensory losses, Abraham wants to work. Her hope is to tutor young children--particularly in reading and language--and she expects to accomplish her goal with the aid of FreedomBox.

Mike Calvo, the founder and CEO of Serotek Corporation, which distributes the FreedomBox, did not know Abraham or her situation when the notion of FreedomBox first started percolating in his brain. He did know that a growing number of people were losing their sight as adults and might not have the inclination or patience to learn a complicated screen reader. Still, he knew, many of those people would have been computer users while sighted and would be eager for access to e-mail and the Internet. Thus, when the FreedomBox concept was launched in early 2002, the primary audience in Calvo's mind were new adventitiously blind adults, who would be most likely to tackle technology if it was easy.

"Technologically Challenged"

Arthur Schreiber, a 78-year-old former international news correspondent, is another FreedomBox user. Blind since 1982, when surgery that was intended to improve his vision failed dramatically, Schreiber described himself as technologically challenged. "It doesn't have anything to do with my blindness," he was quick to point out. "When I was a sighted correspondent in broadcast traveling with U.S. presidents and world leaders, I was technically challenged by a small tape recorder! I just don't have the time or inclination . . . [and so didn't have] hours to spend learning a complicated screen reader like Window-Eyes or JAWS."

Photo of Arthur Schreiber.

Caption: Arthur Schreiber.

Schreiber is arguably busier than many people who are decades younger. He is president of the New Mexico Federation of the Blind, chairman of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, president of his homeowners' association, and host of a two-hour weekly radio broadcast on a local AM station and has a laundry list of other commitments. Carrying out his responsibilities in his various leadership roles involves scores of e-mail correspondences. The FreedomBox, as Schreiber put it, makes it easy to do all the things he needs to do with a computer "without being a computer whiz."

In addition to e-mail, Schreiber particularly enjoys using the many links that are provided in the FreedomBox Network for listening to news and is a frequent user of the weather channel whenever he is preparing to travel. "Everything is just so convenient with the FreedomBox," he said.

Schreiber's first unit was the original FreedomBox--a stand-alone machine that was designed primarily for e-mail and for using the FreedomBox Network. Schreiber now has the latest version of the stand-alone FreedomBox, which is a full-blown computer in the FreedomBox packaging (about the size of a PC keyboard.)

Exactly What He Wanted

Joe Nikodem used computers daily on his job as a maintenance supervisor. Daily tasks like scheduling, purchasing, keeping attendance records, and performing other management routines involved daily interactions with the computer. But when Nikodem, as a fully sighted person, emerged from his April 2004 back surgery as a person who was totally blind, computing was but one of the countless daily routines that were abruptly interrupted.

Photo of Joe Nikodem at a computer displaying the "FreedomBox Desktop."

Caption: Joe Nikodem.

Within a year, Nikodem, now 58, had received orientation and mobility training, personal adjustment training, and the general regimen of skills that are needed to be an independent blind person. The computer training, however, was an exercise in frustration. A trainer came to his house, installed Window-Eyes, gave him a few pointers, and left. "I didn't have a clue what to do," Nikodem noted with exasperation. "And I didn't want to spend hours and weeks just to learn the basics." He knew there must be a simpler way.

When he learned about FreedomBox, he knew it was exactly what he wanted. When the package arrived, he recalled, "I opened the box; took it out; set it up; and within 45 minutes, I was sending e-mails to friends and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn't talked to in years. It was great!"

In addition to e-mail, Nikodem uses the FreedomBox to surf the web every day, looking for interesting information. While he does a little shopping online and some general informational reading, his primary Internet pursuit is the quest for medical information that may someday reverse his blindness. Nikodem explained that during back surgery, his optic nerve was "choked" in such a way that it was deprived of oxygen, and blindness resulted. "I keep looking for new treatments," he said, "because I just know there's something out there that can help me."

The Shallow End of the Pool

When the idea of FreedomBox was born in 2001, it was certainly people like Joe Nikodem, Arthur Schreiber, and Mindy Abraham that Mike Calvo had in mind--people who did not have the time, the inclination, or the physical ability to use a keyboard and master the myriad complexities of any of the popular screen readers employed by blind computer users. He introduced the product to educators, assistive technology trainers, and program administrators--individuals who were in a position to bring awareness of FreedomBox into the lives of the blind people who needed straightforward, simple solutions to computing.

Calvo used an analogy of the blindness community and a swimming pool. Assistive technology to date, he said, has targeted the deep end of the pool--people who are experienced in blindness techniques, have technological capabilities and interests, and are willing and able to master complex screen-reading programs. "But no one was thinking about the people at the shallow end of the pool," he said. "There are a growing number of people who are new to blindness and new to assistive technology, and they just want technology." This group of consumers, he explained, just wants an approach that is as simple as what sighted people enjoy--plug it in, turn it on, send e-mail, and go shopping online.

The original FreedomBox provided that set of solutions and could be activated either by voice commands or by keyboard input. As more and more sophisticated users of assistive technology explored the FreedomBox Network, however, there was an increased demand for more sophisticated features in the program. With, first, the introduction of the FreedomBox Passkey and Key to Freedom, however, and, more recently, the addition of the FreedomBox System Access, the most savvy users of assistive technology are joining the ranks of FreedomBox aficionados.

Myrna Votta, an assistive technology instructor and consultant in New York, said that her first interest in the FreedomBox was as an answer to the many telephone calls that she receives from family members of older adults who have become blind. "They ask me if there's something voice activated or simple to use that would let Mom or Dad or another older person get online," she stated. The FreedomBox provides a solution for older adults who are new to blindness who just want to send and receive e-mail messages.

"But the FreedomBox Network is just great!" Votta said enthusiastically. "Since they came out with 2.0, I love it for myself." Like others, Votta is particularly enthralled with the richness of content provided by the FreedomBox Network. The browser, she noted, is easier to use than Internet Explorer, and the wealth of news and entertainment content is amazing. "When you've gone to some web sites, such as Amazon.com," she said, "that have been labeled by CSAW [Community Supported Accessible Web, a FreedomBox feature], you'll never want to go there any other way." (See "The Liberty to Use a Computer: A Review of the FreedomBox" in this issue of AccessWorld for more information about CSAW.) Votta also praised the bookmarks feature in FreedomBox, a feature that allows any FreedomBox user to make his or her bookmarked web sites available for public viewing. Especially for people who are just beginning to surf the web, Votta believes, having the ability to view lists of bookmarked sites that are provided by other people who are blind is a great place to begin.

"And now that they've added System Access and the USB Key to Freedom," Votta said, "I'd recommend it to anyone." The FreedomBox Passkey is a credit card-sized device that, when placed in a CD drive, turns any standard computer into a FreedomBox. The Key to Freedom, similarly, is a USB drive that not only enables the user to run FreedomBox and thus access any computer, but has storage space for downloading files.

Learning to Swim

For Matt Roberts, a Florida computer technician who is blind, the Passkey and Key to Freedom make the FreedomBox an all-around perfect computing solution. Roberts has FreedomBox installed on both his desktop and laptop computers and carries the USB Key to Freedom wherever he goes. With the Key to Freedom, he said, he has accessed computers in libraries and other offices and has set up a computer for a sighted novice with only the Key to Freedom for screen access. He particularly appreciates the ability to remote control his home server from anywhere via FreedomBox. "I have monthly logs that I need to keep right now," he cited as example. "If I'm away from my home server and updating those logs on my laptop, I can log on to FreedomBox, gain remote control of my home server, and either download files from my desktop or upload the new files from my laptop to the desktop."

And as the product grows in sophistication sufficient to attract the most technically inclined among people who are blind or have low vision, has CEO Calvo abandoned his original mission? "Not at all," he reassured me. "We're offering a product that is as easy for the newcomer to computers as sighted people have always enjoyed but adding the bells and whistles to appeal to savvy blind computer users." Returning to his favorite metaphor, he said, "It's like a swimming pool. You can dive in at the deep end. . . . Or you can start at the shallow end and gradually work your way deeper as you learn to swim."

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Copyright © 2006 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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