Hardware

Reminders of how little I know, and how much I take for granted

There are amazing tools on the market that can make that which seems impossible a reality. Software can read aloud the text on screen, or convert it to a Braille display. Computers can take dictation and respond to voice commands. They're amazing. But these tools certainly aren't easy to learn to use.

There's a stereotype of a know-it-all computer support guy that has gotten some traction in the media (cf. The Office and Saturday Night Live). The personal style of these characters can be variable—taped glasses and an abrasive nerdiness or sarcastic stoicism paired with a fetish for sci-fi in-jokes—but universally they're depicted as believing that the people who need their help are beneath them, or in some way pathetic.

The growing prevalence of this image irks me, not simply because it paints support techs as less than professional, but because it makes light of a vocation that's about helping people. I imagine that nurses and nuns in the U.S. feel a similar sort of annoyance around Halloween when their professions are parodied by trashy costumes.

Even more than being an annoyance, though, the characterization of help desk techs as being full of their own knowledge is just plain wrong.

Sure, I'm only human, and I may start to roll my eyes every time I have to remind someone that they need to unseal their toner cartridge before it will work in their printer. The really memorable trouble tickets though, are the ones that prompt me to scratch my head and hit the books (or the Google), rather than the trivial problems that might inflate my ego. I think technology support is a dangerous place for those drunk on their own expertise, since invariably a situation will arise about which one knows doodley-squat.

One area that I have to educate myself about right now is the field of assistive technologies, those that aid people experiencing physical impairment to use computers. An acquaintance is facing adult-onset blindness as a side effect of cancer treatment, and I am hoping that I can provide some help finding add-on software and components that might allow him to continue his work as a college professor. I've had to pursue a similar inquiry once before, when a woman in my office was dealing with a crippling repetitive stress injury in her wrists and hands.

There are amazing tools on the market that can make that which seems impossible a reality. Software can read aloud the text on screen, or convert it to a Braille display. Computers can take dictation and respond to voice commands. They're amazing. But these tools certainly aren't easy to learn to use.

After my colleague's doctor told her that she wouldn't be able to type or use a computer mouse, I tracked down a software package that would allow her to dictate to the machine and use oral commands to interact with Windows. I set up the software for her, ran her through its initial training procedure, and showed her how to use it. The program was pretty inaccurate at first, mishearing commands and words, especially some pieces of jargon specific to this researcher's field. The software learned her voice and vocabulary over time, though, and now it works for her about as well as we can expect. The software documentation claims that with proper setup and a chance to learn, it's accuracy could be as high as ninety-seven or ninety-eight percent. Until you're living with it every day, though, with no other means to use your computer, it's impossible to understand how much frustration that two or three percent can hold.

Helping someone to learn an entirely new way of doing things is difficult (I say this in no way intending to trivialize the challenges these two people face). It's hard to imagine not being able to see the mouse pointer on the screen, or not being able to type. Putting myself in the shoes of these two individuals has been the most difficult thing I've encountered while doing technology support. Researching the technologies available was simple, but there is no possible way for me to completely understand the challenges of situations like these. If I can find some solutions for this man who's lost his sight, I'll spend time making sure that they ‘function', but only he will be able to determine if they really work.

Every time I solve a simple problem and start to get full of myself like those on-screen support guys, cases like these make me think of the things I don't know—can't know. And that just makes me glad I can provide a little help. No matter what the problem might be.

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