Assistive Technology Levels the Playing Field

Posted by Stella Broster on Sep 24, 2019 12:08:12 PM

Colin PhelanAs the Owner Operator of a Management Consultancy across the UK and Ireland, Colin Phelan has spent a successful and uninterrupted 35 years in business.

We asked him about his career and the part that Assistive Technology, specifically Dolphin Supernova, has played.

How long have you used Dolphin Supernova?

It became apparent in the mid 90’s that as my eyesight was deteriorating, alongside the introduction of desktop computers in the workplace, I was going to have to find a long-term solution to enable me to continue to develop my career.

When I was successful in securing new employment in 1998, I made an Access to Work application. As a combination of screen magnification and speech was the optimum solution for me at that stage, Dolphin Supernova Version 2.01 was recommended as the most integrated product in the marketplace.

I have continued to use Dolphin Supernova as my primary assistive technology throughout the intervening 21 years.

What do you require screen reader/magnification software to do in your role?

At least 80% of my role involves reviewing and producing electronic documentation. Without the access that is provided by screen reader/magnification software this would not be possible. As a result I would not be able to do my job.

How large a part does your computer play in your job?

My computer is responsible for at least 80% of my job - in fact possibly more, as even the parts of my role that do not directly involve my computer (like running workshops and attending meetings), require computer access to prepare and record information.

Can you tell me something about your eye condition?

I have an inherited eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which was diagnosed at a very early stage as an older brother and sister of mine also have the condition. It has resulted in a gradual regression of my eyesight from birth until now, aged 51. While I have always been severely visually impaired, I consider myself fortunate to make it through my education and twenties doing the vast majority of things that my fully sighted friends were doing.

My residual remaining sight is now 2 or 3%, which means I am fully reliant on the screen reader facility within Dolphin Supernova and my guide dog for mobility. Onwards and Upwards!

You’ve invested time into researching computer solutions and become an expert – what do you advise people to consider when choosing their own solution?

I would not call myself an expert in accessible computer solutions, however I am an expert on what works for me. I have always considered technology as a ‘means to an end’ as opposed to being ‘the end’. As I have gone through my career, my reliance on different aspects of technology has increased, including Dolphin Supernova.

My advice would be to be clear as to the issues you are having, define them, engage with people in the sector who can put forward the available options and try them out for yourself.

It is truly important to maintain control of the process of identifying and implementing your solution, otherwise you are likely to end up with a solution that does not meet your needs.

Why did you choose SuperNova? Which SuperNova features do you find most useful?

When I first entered the market of screen readers and magnification software, I felt it extremely useful to have the option for both screen reader and magnification to use in parallel.

There are a number of screen reader options on the market, in addition to magnification options. However, the only software that offered fully integrated screen reader and magnification was Dolphin Supernova.

This allowed me to seamlessly switch between both functions and/or use them simultaneously. Even with especially poor vision, the magnification functionality is extremely useful for orientation and contextualising the screen which cannot be underestimated.

A USP that I regularly use as a sales technique, is my ability to physically listen to the entirety of a document (rather than reading it), which studies show results in many words being missed and people reading what they would like it to say, rather than what it does say.

My professional role involves writing and reviewing tender and marketing documents, often up to dozens of pages in length. The ability to review through listening to the text, allows forensic review of the ‘story being told’ and hence creating compelling narrative.

How do they help you do your job?

Without screen reader/magnification software, I would not be able to do my job. I do consider how fortunate I am to be severely visually impaired in 2019 rather than 50 years previous.

Your employers have been genuinely supportive; what key advice would you give to other employers when they consider computer accommodations for their staff?

As I reflect back on my career, I can identify numerous more occasions when employers have not been prepared to 'take a chance’ on employing a severely visually impaired member of staff, than occasions when they have done so.

In no small way, that reticence is why I left large corporate employment, firstly to join a team of 10, thereafter to start my own company.

As a generalisation, people who work in large corporate or public sector organisations are not there because they like taking risks in the workplace. They are there for the apparent security and this is unlikely to change. So what needs to change is the belief that employing someone who is severely visually impaired is any more of a risk than employing a fully able person. A challenge as we ‘form our first impression in 7 seconds’!

Exposure to and experience of the unknown removes fear and this is the ‘difference that will make the difference’ and facilitate more severely visually impaired people into the workplace.

On reflection, each employer that took a chance on me had their own personal reasons for taking that chance, which became apparent as I got to know them. I am now retrospectively confident that no employer had to contribute more to me than I contributed to them and their business during my employment.

We all have unique skills and talents; focus on the ‘flip side’ - what can be done and how presenting issues will be addressed proactively through the use of technology and other strategies. We are employed to take problems away from our employer, not bring problems to them and this is not going to change, so we must.

Is it worth it, to support your employee to achieve all of his/her potential?

Supporting all employees to create an environment where they have ‘access to their talent’ is the role of all leaders. This is no different when employing fully abled staff or differently abled staff.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying SuperNova for the first time?

First, consider what functionality you require and become proficient operating these functions to the extent that you can concentrate on doing the job, not concerning yourself with the assistive technology.

Thereafter, make time after the working day to gain greater understanding of the breadth of functionality that Dolphin offer. Choose a topic and self-teach yourself using Manuals and Tutorials on the Dolphin website to provide additional tools that will then be at your disposal.

With regard to the screen reader, find the voice that works best for you. Many people including myself, find the synthetic voices work better for consuming large quantities of text at high speed. If you gradually speed up the voice, you will quickly find listening efficiency greatly increased and I suggest this may be on a par with fully sighted colleagues in the review of documents.

Finally, what developments would you like to see in the future? What would you find useful?

It is a constant challenge for Dolphin to keep up with developments in the mainstream operating system and software market. If there was a way of assistive technology with the range of functionality of Supernova, being closer integrated with evolving mainstream software - including social media - this would be particularly beneficial.

The current situation with all assistive software seems to result in ‘clashes’, with systems freezing and crashing. This is frustrating and inefficient in a world where we are constantly striving to demonstrate no loss of efficiency.

At the speed that technological advances are moving, I think that the future of assistive technology for visually impaired members of society will be very positive.

About Colin

I am the Director and founder of Acumental Limited and have a wealth of knowledge and experience which has been established over a period of some 30 years. By fully utilizing both my qualifications and experience in Building Engineering and Facilities Management along with Leadership Management & Executive Coaching skills, I have made significant improvements and developments within both the public and private sectors in a range of markets. I have established a significant client base within both public & private sectors delivering real and measurable transition and change solutions for contractors and end users.

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Topics: Organisation, SightLoss, SuperNova, Employment

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