This summer has inadvertently become the Summer of Apple. First, I got an iPhone, which changed my life. Next, I got an iPad, which I love as well. The other morning while eating breakfast, Goddess told me that the time had come to purchase a Mac. I started out on an Apple II/E, and bought a II/GS, but had to give them both up when PCs gained prevalence. The time had come to rejoin the Apple family.
The adventure started on Wednesday. I went with my Mom and a friend of the family and fellow Mac owner named Bob. I figured both of their presences would help with this major purchase. We arrived, and found it less crowded than last time, meaning we could carry on a mostly audible conversation. The first saleslady had a good attitude, but quickly admitted knowing nothing of VoiceOver, save its function. I expected this, and said I basically knew what I wanted. Instead, she ran off to find someone else who knew more.
The next saleslady arrived, and we went through what I had already said, that I wanted it for audio editing and whatever else. She customized a few settings, but we still couldn’t figure much out. I hadn’t read up much, so didn’t fully understand the concept of interacting with an area. At one point, she said: “Oh, here, let me adjust the speech rate.” It did seem rather slow to me. “It’s so fast!” she exclaimed. I laughed. “Oh, actually, I thought you were going to go turn it up. Faster!” “What? ReallY?” We continued bumbling around Safari and Text Edit, not accomplishing much. I said that I knew the blind could access the Mac, I just didn’t know how to work VoiceOver. It didn’t matter, as I knew I could learn, and as I had not heard complaints, I felt confident. Nevertheless, she didn’t want me to buy something I couldn’t use. The argument continued, I started getting hungry and cranky. I just wanted to buy the thing! As I reached for my wallet, she told me maybe I should wait and come back for a one-on-one shopping appointment. Mom and Bob agreed much to my chagrin, so I grudgingly agreed to come back the next day. “You can read up on it more.” Mom said. “That’s what I’ve been doing!” “Anyways, it will be interesting to see what they offer. We’ve gotten so used to getting nothing from companies, just buy it and get out. Let’s see what they do.” I saw her point, but did I really have to wait a day just to gather some data in this experiment we call life? I told Mom that they wouldn’t know anything, and we would just end up buying exactly what I had picked out – an iMac, long keyboard, and magic trackpad, and that nothing would change. Of course, I predicted correctly…mostly. My enthusiasm had waned but I knew I still had to do the right thing. I satisfied myself by upgrading my iPhone and iPad to the latest versions of iOS, which itself has some excellent improvements to VoiceOver.
The next day arrived, and we made our way back to the store. We found it more crowded than the previous day, meaning we had to speak at close range to carry on a reasonably audible conversation. I gave my name and said I had a one-on-one shopping appointment. When she came back, I also pointed out that they said they had someone trained in accessibility. “Yes,” she said, “but he’s out to lunch right now.” I tried to remain calm as I explained the story. A miscommunication must have occurred, as they had not noted the special circumstance. When I called before even going for the first time, the person on the phone said I didn’t need an appointment, and to just come on in. Then I came back yesterday and wanted to buy an iMac, but they told me to come back today to meet with someone trained in VoiceOver. “Yes, but he’s out to lunch for an hour. Could you maybe come back?” My rage built. I just wanted to buy the thing!
I started talking to some salespeople, making basic conversation, talking about audio, etc. Everyone said the same thing: that they knew about VoiceOver, but they didn’t actually know how to use it, exactly as I said they would. At one point, I met the manager, the oldest guy there by his own admission. It occurred to me that when I told these people that I started on an Apple II/E, that they probably didn’t even know what I meant. This guy did, and almost wept when musing on the beauty of Apple’s products. He also told me something interesting, that the accessibility improvements began when Steve Jobs returned to the company. We had a good chat, but he had to go, so introduced me to another salesman.
“Wait, before we start, what do you think this is?” he asked. He held up a thing that looked like some sort of powerful wrench. It would come in handy for smashing problematic hardware, and I wondered why someone would wield such a device in an Apple store. I felt up the wrench, however, and felt it join with his arm. I figured he must hold the other end, and didn’t want to impose, so stopped feeling the thing in question. “Um, some kind of wrench? Or pliers or something?” I guessed. “Naw man! That’s my hand!” “Wow.” “I have an artificial hand. I only have one arm.” After getting over the slight shock of what I had just felt, we fell into a friendly conversation about using computers with a disability. “One-handed people are the most overlooked disabled group, because everyone figures that we can just do everything since we have a hand, but we can’t.” He said typing with one hand pissed him off, and I wondered about some kind of one-handed keyboard. Haven’t they invented something? Also, I swore I read an article about a prosthetic hand controlled by neural impulses. He controlled his “like the brakes on a bicycle” by pushing and pulling. I inquired about getting a job training others in VoiceOver, and he said that obviously they have no problem employing disabled people. Right on! What a trip. You just never know what life will throw at you.
While I enjoyed talking to everyone, I really wanted to just buy my beautiful iMac and get it home to start playing with it. I started asking questions about Audio and everyone told me i had to talk to Mike. You have to talk to Mike. Oh yes, Mike knows his audio. You have to talk to Mike. I think I did for a few minutes, but he had another appointment, and he introduced me to another guy. As we talked about MIDI controllers, I couldn’t help but notice the distinct smell of freshly smoked cannabis upon his breath. Perfect! I ended up adding an M-Audio Pro-Keys keyboard to my purchase, a cute little number with 24 keys, pads, equalizers, USB and MIDI. It just plugs right in. When it came time to find the obligatory next salesperson who might know something, even my Mom said: “You know, I think he just wants to buy it.” “Yes. yes yes yesyesyeyseyseyseyseyseys.”
The dude with one arm remained through this, and we walked and talked on the way to the front of the store. I again mentioned my enthusiasm for Apple’s commitment to accessibility, and said I wanted to get involved somehow. He gave me a helpful tip: take the one-on-one training just to meet the managers and other people, get your foot in the door that way. That sort of networking stuff doesn’t come naturally to me, so I welcomed the suggestion. We said our good byes, and finally, finally, finally I had purchased my iMac, Apple Care, one-on-one training, a long keyboard, magic trackpad, and MIDI keyboard. I felt satisfied.
Mom dropped Bob off and drove me home. She insisted on dusting off my desk before placing the new equipment on it, but that didn’t take long since I have good cleaning people now, and I quickly unpacked. Within minutes I had it set up. When Mom bought me an Apple II/E way back in 1984, it took her and another friend hours to get speech working. They had to assemble the card, insert it, connect some jumpers, and who knows what else. I believe beer may have also played a part. I just remember encouraging them. “You can do it, come on you can do it.” They finally did after a hard afternoon’s work. This time, I just hit command-option-f8 and on came VoiceOver. “That was sure a lot easier than the last time you had to get speech working on an Apple, eh?” I asked. Mom couldn’t talk. It had brought her to tears.
Today, I had a sudden childhood memory. I LOVED my Apple II/E. I bought the II/GS and felt amazed at its capabilities, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily program them. My II/E still worked as it still does, and I had purchased my first PC. I knew I had started using it more and my Apples less, especially my beloved. Some programs still would only work on the II/E, such as older programs which used sound. I had a program which would play a number of songs. By this, I mean single-tone melodies, nothing like today. Just beep-beep-beep, even the II/GS could do better. One song had the title “Tears on my Apple.” I played it, and listening to the simple song, suddenly felt sad. “Are there tears on my Apple since I don’t use it as much?” I wondered. For the first time in my life, I realized that things come and go, and that PCs had come and the Apple II had gone, and that very shortly I would have to leave the Apple family forever to use the PC. Very shortly thereafter I did.
I used MSDOS and customized it to its absolute fullest. By the end i had a full Internet setup with TCP/IP over dialup, and a very heavily modified shell with Unix-flavored commands and all. I then unfortunately got into WIndows. After it drove me to a white rage one weekend, I knew that had to stop. Eliminating sources of stress in one’s life does wonders for health, and I knew WIndows had to go, so I dove right into Linux.
I love Linux, I still do. It serves as a monument to the achievement of what people can do for free. For servers and automated things, you can’t beat it. It hasn’t caught on commercially because it has a somewhat ahem different philosophy towards user interfaces. It lets you choose. For the techie this seems like a blessing, but the average harmless end user may think otherwise.
Here, Apple has always come through, sporting a consistent interface for years on the Mac. Artists, musicians, and academics love them. Douglas Adams loved his. They lacked a satisfactory screen reading solution for a long time, though some tried they never really became popular. I never knew of any blind person using a Mac before recent times. You just didn’t hear of it. VoiceOver has changed all that.
I feel brimming with enthusiasm! While i have had some initial stumbling blocks, I already feel more confident within the first day. Has only a day past? Despite everyone’s concern, I’ve learned things well enough to write this article. The Apple has excellent speech, the best software speech I’ve heard. Alex has the most emotion of any synthesizer. He even breathes. I’ve cracked up several times at his intonation while reading funny parts of this text. Apple deserves nothing but praise for their efforts. Learning how to use my Magic Trackpad to navigate the current application’s window just as I would on my iPhone or iPad has me falling in love. This represents the cutting edge of accessible technology for the blind. It cuts! I joyfully look forward to the day when blind people finally catch on and realize that for $700, HALF the cost of JAWS for Windows, the most popular software used or rather pushed on the blind, they can get a fully functional computer that delivers a superior experience and comes with a superior screen reader with superior speech. May the Mac relegate Windows to the recycle bin, where it properly belongs. Don’t worry, they’ll still have their corporate clients. This probably means that we can expect crappier services from these companies, but who cares, WE will have all switched to Macs by then.
I feel so glad to have fully become part of the Apple family once again. I feel like one cast out unfairly for twenty years because of bad relations or something, then suddenly everything changes and the family can welcome me back. I look forward to exploring this beautiful machine to its full potential. The fact that it runs on top of BSD, another flavor of Unix and one very similar to Slackware and Arch Linux has me feeling very hopeful. I also look forward to finally making audio and music with a professional suite of tools rightly suited to my work. One last note to my long-time friends: does the idea of a computer based around a consistent user interface running on top of a flavor of Unix remind you of something someone may have said ten or so years ago? Just saying.
I feel wide-eyed and amazed like a child. No more tears on my Apple!