Mouse Hacks, Magnifiers, and Being Your Own System Integrator

In this post, we look for ways to reduce the costs of our computing environment as we deal with vision loss. Magnifiers are helpful, sometimes essential, and, we show, can be very low-cost with additional benefits.

Assistive Technology (abbreviated AT) software comes in several cost categories: built-in, $0, $50, $500, and $1000. The “big AT” vendors sell to individuals, of course, but the main market is the IT and A.D.A. support organizations of government agencies and employers, i.e. the “budgets”. I claim that an independent Vision Loser can save by becoming a System Integrator of sorts avoiding not only costs of acquiring “Big AT”, but also reducing complexity of installation, maintenance, and training.

Here’s a little case study in System Integration, First, some caveats: I am neither a trained rehab/AT specialist nor an experienced System Integrator. But I did go to conference with these types and have assembled a library of podcasts and web articles with excellent advice.

What we are calling a “System Integrator” is someone who looks at how components work individually and composes a new “system” where the components work together to achieve a goal. With the uncertainty of progressive vision loss, a worthy goal is frequently a kind of testbed to experiment with techniques that compensate for vision deficiencies and offer a measure of comfortable use. Experimental results may lead to identification of a suitable product or provide experience for evaluating more costly alternatives.

Here’s our goal: low-cost magnification capabilities for a Windows XP computing system. The underlying problem is for this Vision Loser to have available screen magnification when needed to complement self-voicing and screen reading software (a future post). I really want to know both what is (1) necessary and (2) sufficient to meet my vision needs, keeping mind that needs will change as vision changes. Change is as much daily, even hourly, variation as slower deterioration.

Well, how about that! Microsoft accessibility software includes a simple stationary magnifier with several levels of magnification and inversion of screen colors. Stationary means it doesn’t follow the mouse and it can be docked at one of the borders so it doesn’t move around. Indeed, I found I liked a stationary magnifier set to level 2, inverted, and docked at the top. The down-side is vertigo from the magnifier tracking the mouse. So, Only time and trial would show its sufficiency.

Enter the “{mouse”. and yes, we were talking about magnifiers, not pointers, or vermin! On a trip to a computer store, I decided to pick up a new wrist rest and a more comfortable mouse. By sheer luck, my niece shopper assistant pointed out a mouse with a magnifier. At home, I discovered that this little guy really is useful. It provides a “tracking” magnifier to complement the stationary Windows lens, again within levels of magnification and resize of the tracking box. Now, with a flick of an extra side button on the mouse, up came a magnifier aimed at the text I want to read. The product model is called a Microsoft Laser Mouse 5000, but these names and model numbers may have changed.

But, wait, what about the extra button capabilities that come with the mouse. Only the right side button, an extra sliver, is being used, to pop up the tracking magnifier. Wow, I have these other tools that read to me when I copy text to the clipboard (see previous post). I wonder if I can link these two. Indeed, the left side mouse button can be assigned to Select All and the Wheel button to Copy. Now with two clicks, I can hear a window of text. Cool! This save fumbling around the keyboard for Control-A then Control-C or a couple of trips down a context menu.

This is what computing folk call a “hack”, a clever way to get a job done, maybe not obvious or elegant but definitely effective. Indeed” OReilly Press has raised “hack” to a publishing genre, with piles of books that collect, explain, and propagate hacks for Amazon, Google, podcasting, even mental productivity.

There are always trade-offs in any system design. The first is that a solution only works if you remember to use it! That use must become part of your reflex repertoire But then you’re in trouble on a different computing system at a friend’s office or on a consulting gig. I forgot my mouse on a recent trip and walked over to a Staples to get a replacement, a smaller notebook mouse with a single side button magnifier. It worked right out of the box, but getting the thing released from its hard plastic covering required 2 hotel clerks and some dangerous instruments. Then, I really noticed the loss of select-copy functionality as I struggled under fluorescent lights and a nasty wireless security system. Further, to make my hack work, the Windows security system had to permit copy to clipboard, which many IT departments like to over-ride.

What if I want or need more magnification? Software like ZoomText is widely used (I hear from podcasts) and is designed especially for partially sighted people. A trial use early in my vision loss showed how many ways graphics could be adjusted to achieve magnification and contrast effects, with the primary benefit crisper text at higher levels of magnification Indeed, vision is so complicated – is it color, contrast, glare, font, or other factors that are most crippling to a particular Vision Loser? And, my vision changes so much, with lighting conditions, time of day, cumulative exposure, and who knows what other factors. In any case, the $500+ price tag was out of my budget at the time of trial.

What is the System Integration lesson? In “computational thinking” terms, we look for abstract interfaces of components, primarily their inputs and outputs. We don’t worry about the buttons or the user interface or menus but focus on the generic capability. In this example, the system clipboard is a (hidden) input to TextAloud (or similar tool that monitors the clipboard) and our MS Laser Mouse has a (hidden) output to copy selected text to the clipboard. Well, duh, the clipboard pervades Windows applications, but now we have endowed it with text-to-speech reading capabilities. We’ve wrapped a different way of thinking about the united capabilities of two separate components – a text reader application and a mouse.

When you put yourself in System Integrator mode, you ask: what’s my inventory of components? what are their abstract interfaces? how can I connect these applications together? How much complexity is added to my system by now having inter-linked components, e.g. when one is upgraded? What forms of training are now required, including getting used to, learning the foibles of, and gaining reflex control over the new capability? How do my solutions compare with each other and what are the trade-offs? Is there a show-stopper against or in favor of a particular solution?

One of the most serious lessons of the Software Engineering field, where I formerly taught, is the importance of getting the requirements right early on. That usually is not possible in our Vision Loser world, but rather we need to set up an experimental testbed where we can try out different ways of compensating for vision loss. Necessary and sufficient are always concerns, e.g. an expensive solution may be sufficient but not necessary while a low-cost solution may be necessary for some uses but insufficient for others.

Readers of this posting might be wondering: why not ask an expert? Well, I don’t have one handy, have never had computer rehab support from an employer or agency, and, frankly, have already had some unsatisfactory experiences with consumer low vision businesses. But really the experts are out there, telling me much good advice on podcasts and in accessibility publications. Thanks to them.

helpful podcasts and articles:

Access World comparison of magnification products
http://www.afb.org Search (upper corner) for “Zoomtext, MAGIC, magnifiers”

Barrier-Free IT Tips and Tricks podcast on the Windows Accessibility Wizard

Literacy Questions for Magnification, Karen McCall from Carlin Communications
(link to be found)

OReilly “Hacks” Series http://www.hackszine.com

Microsoft Laser Mouse search for “Microsoft Laser Mouse” and “on screen magnifiers”

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