Novelist/columnist/journalist/bon vivant Russell Smith has suffered detachment of one retina, then the other, over the past two years. He’s written about it before, where he proved incapable of helping himself in using a computer during his period of visual impairment. Fundamentally, his choice to use Windows ensured that, when he lost his sight, he would be instantly unable to operate his computer. I told him to switch to a Mac.
If he even bothered to read my advice, he ignored it. But now, if Smith’s confessional feature article in the April 2012 Toronto Life is any indication, not only has he learned nothing from his experience, he refuses to learn. (I again refer solely to using a computer.)
I went back to reading the computer screen, very close up, with one eye.
Use screen magnification and you can sit at a normal distance. (This much, at least, is built into Windows.)
A friend installed a computer program that translated dictation to text. He installed it for me, but learning how to use it required a half-day of close concentration on a screen.
Smith can still type; text entry isn’t remotely the problem. He’s temporarily blind, not a quadriplegic.
People gave me hard drives full of NPR podcasts and comedy recordings. How was I supposed to open them if I couldn’t click on tiny incandescent boxes of text?
By having prepared for this outcome the first time it happened and switching to a platform that is accessible at the press of a key.
Some friends even sent me solicitous E-mails asking me to report – via E-mail – on how I was doing. They were, as I had been, completely unaware of what they were asking, unable to see their immersion in the textual
Here Smith betrays a learned helplessness that makes his wilful ignorance all the more infuriating. Smith’s error is assuming that one needs to see in order to read and write. One does not. One needs to be using a platform that enables nonvisual reading and writing without any hassle. Windows is not that platform.
I’m going to say this again for Russell Smith’s benefit. He is, by his and his doctors’ admission, at high risk for recurrence of retinal detachment. He is quite likely to become visually impaired, probably for a limited period, at some point in the future. He will still want to read and write (i.e., work) during that time. If he ditches his inaccessible Sony Vaio laptop right now, buys a Mac, and learns a very few extra keystrokes up front, the day it happens he can keep on going as if nothing had happened. It won’t be as convenient and it’ll be a lot slower, but it’s perfectly doable.
I have an even better idea. If he buys an iPad and uses a Bluetooth external keyboard, he can very easily read, write (and type), surf the Web, and use apps with little or no vision and no fundamental retraining in computer use. Because an iPad in this context isn’t a computer and involves learning a new way of doing things in the first place. (Nonvisual use of an iPad is easier than nonvisual use of any computer with a keyboard and mouse.)
Temporarily losing your vision isn’t a dealbreaker and won’t cut you off from immersion in text if you’re using the right platform and if you do some homework first. It will do all those things if you act in wilful ignorance and dramatically bemoan how your literary career is on the rocks the minute you can’t see the screen on your shitbox Wintel laptop.