By Marjorie Wertz
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, July 8, 2002

Jack Petroy chose not to quit working when macular degeneration and angioid streaks destroyed his retinas and robbed him of peripheral and central vision 10 years ago.

Instead, the Greensburg resident took advantage of the services available through the Westmoreland County Blind Association.

The association sent Petroy to Pittsburgh Vision Services, where he was taught how to use a specially-programmed computer. Petroy also learned basic Braille and practiced getting around on the streets of Latrobe, Greensburg and Jeannette.

"Vision Services taught me the QWERTY system on the computer," said Petroy, who had to retire after 26 years as a pressman at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg. "When you hit a key, the computer reads it back to you. This system enabled me to complete college."

QWERTY uses audiotapes with step-by-step instructions that come with the software package. Petroy practiced the system at home.

"You have to adapt to it," he said. "You have to want to succeed at it. If it weren't for programs like QWERTY and what the Blind Association has to offer, I wouldn't be here."

Here is the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging where Petroy has worked as a case aide for four years. It is a job he loves and one he couldn't do without computer systems designed specifically for the visually impaired.

Because he cannot read black on white, his Spectrum CCTV enables him to change the computer screen's background color and text color and size. The system features a sliding table on which Petroy places a client's chart. The table can be moved in any direction to enable him to read the text that is transferred onto the CCTV screen.

"Whenever my eyes start hurting, I can switch to another color background or change the color of the letters," he said. "I make the letters 2 to 3 inches high. This enables me to read anything and to write. When I write, I look at the screen, not at the chart."

He also uses a software package called ZoomText Extra that enlarges type once he gets into a Windows program. His computer keyboard is set up alphabetically and has large keys. The top row of keys is the numbers. The second keyboard row starts with the letter A to J; the third row, from K to T; and the bottom row has the letters U though Z.

"It's just a matter of learning it," said Petroy. "This keyboard setup is easier for me to memorize and because I have to be about a foot away from the screen, the software package allows me to see the type and what I write. It would be impossible for me to do this job without this equipment."

According to Tim Miller, director of services at the Blind Association, there are about 1,500 people in Westmoreland County who have 20/200 vision and are considered legally blind.

"The majority of our clients are elderly so there is not a whole lot of computer usage," said Miller. "If you have someone who isn't totally blind, they'll give the computer a whirl."

The association has speech software and enlargement software available for its clients.

"We have people come down and use the training tapes to see if it will work well for them," Miller added. "You have to have some computer and keyboard skills. There is very little computer mouse usage. It's more keyboard functions."

The 47 members of Visually Impaired Pittsburgh Area Computer Enthusiasts, or VIPACE, meet once a month to discuss new computer technology.

"Whenever there is a new piece of hardware or software that works with computers, we give demonstrations," said Mike Gravitt, of Dormont, the secretary for the organization. "We've also had some company representatives show us the latest in speech recognition software."

Gravitt, a 26-year-old who has been blind since birth, has 20/400 vision with contact lenses. He has a 10-degree field of vision and can only see straight ahead. He has been involved with VIPACE for four years. The organization was formed by Sabina Bilder and Willie Wilson at the University of Pittsburgh in 1988.

"It's a good way to be aware of the technology that's out there for the blind community," Gravitt said. "It's nice to get together and share information and point out flaws to Web designers."

VIPACE members want Internet Web designers to make their pages accessible to screen readers that read aloud the information displayed on a computer monitor screen.

"If you have a very graphic Web page without any way of getting that information without seeing the pictures, those sites are missing out on a whole community of people," said Gravitt. "It's very important for Web designers to make their sites available to screen readers."

The visually impaired can log on to Internet service providers through the use of text-based communications software such as QMODEM and KERMIT. A text-based Hypertext viewer like Lynx enables the visually impaired to look at Web pages by reproducing the text onto the viewer without any change in content.

Gravitt is employed by Bender Consulting Services in Pittsburgh as an applications and software developer. He uses a screen magnification software package that increases text and icons 16 times larger than normal.

"I have trouble reading black text on a white background," said Gravitt. "My personal preference is a black screen with white text."

Although software packages for the visually impaired can be expensive, there are ways to get funding to help pay for the equipment.

"The software is very difficult to get to function properly with the computer, so there's a lot of work that has to go into development," Gravitt said. "You can get loans or subsidies for equipment for work and through vocational rehabilitation, you can get state funding for school or job-related equipment."

There are also applications that use a flatbed scanner and software called Optical Character Recognition for inputting printed hard copy information into the computer to be read aloud and/or magnified using screen readers and screen magnification devices.

For more information on services available from the Westmoreland County Blind Association, call 724-837-1250. To contact VIPACE, e-mail Mike Gravitt at vipace@vipace.org, or call 412-344-2313.

Marjorie Wertz can be reached at mwertz@tribweb.com or (724) 522-2904.