July 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 4

Trainers' Corner

How to Get the Most Out of Assistive Technology Training

I have been training people who are blind or visually impaired to use computers and assistive technology since the early 1990s. During that time, it has been common to arrive at clients' homes or workplaces and find that the technology on which I was hired to train them is not working in some capacity. We then typically spend some or all of the time allocated for training attempting to make the technology work.

What can be done about this situation? In this article, I will describe the steps that computer users should take before the trainer ever arrives, to optimize the training time available. In a future article, I will explore some issues and options that may help clarify the roles of different technology support people and how consumers can best have their needs met and protect themselves from lost time, money, and the attendant frustration that can be so common.

Choosing Equipment

If you don't have a computer system yet, you have a process to go through before you can sit down for training. You may decide to research the products you need first, purchase them separately, and hire someone to help you put the system together. Or you may decide to find a company that can help you choose a system and set it up for you. I have included a list of tips for choosing such a system vendor later in this article. In either case, you will want to get in writing what the vendors promise to do, what your recourse is if the system does not meet those specifications, and what kind of follow-up support the vendors offer.

Setting Up Your Computer System

If you are a computer novice, you may save yourself a lot of grief by buying a computer from a specialized system vendor who will set up the system for you, including installing and configuring your access technology. Alternatively, you would do well to hire someone to set up the system for you. If you are going to do it yourself with help from friends, make sure the friends have the necessary skills and will apply the same standards to the finished product as you would expect from a professional.

In the following list of suggestions, I have borrowed some of the recommendations from an article entitled "Finding a Reputable Computer Reseller" on the Better Business Bureau's web site http://www.bbb.org. I have greatly modified the suggestions to address specific issues facing access technology users and the companies that provide specialized services to us.

Tips for Buying

  • When shopping for a system vendor or technical support service, be sure to record the salesperson's name and the date of your conversation in case a discrepancy arises later concerning the equipment and service you had expected to receive.
  • Check references. Your best resource may be recommendations from people you know who are happily using the systems they purchased from the system vendor or had set up by the technical support person in question. If you don't have this resource, ask for a list of satisfied customers to contact.
  • Find out how much experience the vendor has working with blindness and low vision technology. If you are going to get the vendor's assistance in choosing access products, ask: Do the staff have the sort of knowledge necessary to make these recommendations? For example, if you are purchasing screen-enlarging software, does the vendor have someone on staff with expertise in low vision who understands the issues that affect different people with different eye conditions? If they are recommending braille displays, does anyone there actually use that technology?
  • Beware of conflicts of interest. If you need help choosing a system, make sure the system vendor or technical support person is not a vendor for only one product in each category, or you will be more likely to get those products, rather than the ones that are best for you. If there is a conflict of interest, you may decide to use a particular vendor for purchasing and setting up the system but to seek your recommendations for which products to buy elsewhere.
  • Find out what is included in system set-up: Will the vendor install your application software, screen reader or screen enlarging software, and configure them so that everything works together? Will the vendor install peripherals such as printers and scanners? If you obtain an Internet service provider ahead of time, will the vendor set that up also? Will he or she provide a list of what was done to the system—in an accessible format?
  • Find out if the company offers postsales support. If you purchase a system set up for you, will the vendor actually set the system up in your home if he or she is local? Will you receive help configuring Internet access or other applications if you purchase them later?
  • For nonlocal vendors, find out if they will talk you through your end of putting the system together over the phone and provide instructions in a format that is accessible to you.
  • Ask about technical support. If you use a vendor who puts together complete systems, will the vendor support the system with in-house personnel or outside sources, and what is the cost of that support?
  • Ask what recourse you have if there is a problem with the system. Will the vendor fix or replace parts that don't work together for whatever reason? Will the vendor provide a loaner system while yours is being worked on or come to you to fix the problems during hours you are available?
  • Find out if the company offers extended warranties on the entire system.

Before the Trainer Arrives

Once you have your system in place, there are some things you should check on before the trainer arrives. First of all, you should be able to turn on the computer and hear a spoken message, get words, even if they are meaningless on your braille display, or see the enlarged view on your monitor. You need to be able to plug in your computer and all its parts and turn them on. It is reasonable to expect whoever sets the system up to show you how to do this. If it comes to you set up but in separate boxes by mail, you should expect the company you bought it from to either include good instructions (in an accessible format) for how to put it all together or to talk you through the cabling, plugging in, and turning on over the phone. If you wait for the trainer, you miss a chance to troubleshoot ahead of time.

You will also need to get the key sequence for shutting down the computer. In Windows this involves about four keystrokes, but there is nothing intuitive about it. Write it down and be sure you can do it before letting the support person off the phone. There can be consequences if you don't do it right.

If your system does not provide speech, braille, or magnification output as needed, it doesn't necessarily mean that the computer is not working. Tell the person who sets up the computer about whatever accessible output you need.

The next best thing you can do is to start working through the manual or tutorials that come with your access software. They all have something. Screen readers all have tape manuals. Yes, you are about to pay for a trainer to come teach you all this, but just the process of pressing some of the keys and making sure the right thing happens may help you identify whether there is a problem that can be solved before the trainer comes.

Put together a list of all the products you are now using, both hardware and software. The list should have model numbers, serial numbers, and the contact and technical support numbers for the manufacturers. This list could be requested from whomever set up your system, but if it wasn't, do your best to get someone to help you compile it yourself. If your trainer does need to call someone about a problem, that person will probably want the serial number of the product in question, and having this information readily available will save considerable time. If neither you nor the trainer have the sight to get the information, you may really be stuck without this list, especially if the problem is that your computer isn't talking. It will also be a valuable document if your system is stolen.

Register all products that require registration. Usually, if you have the phone number you can get the company to register the product over the phone, even if it means explaining you are blind and therefore cannot fill out the accompanying post cards. Many software products have online registration forms that pop up during installation. This would be another good thing to get the person doing the set up to take care of.

Drop That Mouse!

Don't let anyone else on your system between the time it is set up and the time the trainer arrives. The most extreme story about what can happen came from a colleague of mine whose son used the computer to download viruses for a collection he was starting. She spent the training time cleaning 19 viruses off the computer. More commonly, a friend comes over who says he or she can download some great new upgrade to your Internet web browser or e-mail program. The person then proceeds to inadvertently drag something out of the way using the mouse. Later, your screen reader can't find the moved item, or the upgrade is less accessible to a screen reader than the previous version was. From a trainer's perspective, it is better to spend time downloading an upgrade than to spend more time fixing the problems caused by someone else's download.

Now you are ready for training! The next issue of AccessWorld will give you tips about how to best use the trainer's time and expertise once he or she arrives.

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