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My temporary disability and how I coped with it

I tell you about the period I couldn’t use my arm, and how I used technology to work. But seriously, I should have rested.

On 24 November 2022, I came out an operating room and reported to my husband that the doctor said everything went fine. I only needed six weeks of complete rest. Non-negotiable. Just like John McClane1, we had plans, and initially thought the timing could have been overestimated. It wasn’t.

The surgery

I had a small, non-threatening mole on my left breast that was growing erratically: it had to go. The incision was smaller than I thought, but happened to be on the pectoral muscle. Of course, I’m left-handed.

The next day

Remember what the doctor said? Complete rest. So, I worked. I was consulting remotely on accessibility, and didn’t need to design. I did have to type, which brought me a great deal of pain. It’s amazing how many little tasks we accomplish thanks to the pectoral muscles.

How I managed

Luckily, I had every possible help from my husband and my parents. I used the left hand and arm as little as possible, and had to learn how to use fork and spoon with my right hand. I suspect watching me eating felt like watching Bambi taking his first steps.

Taking time off work was not an option, so I set up macOS’ Voice Control. I was advantaged because I normally use the mouse with the right hand, a plus that helped me greatly for reasons I’m going to explain.

The setup

Because of my job, I knew the Voice Control functionality. However, being forced to use it is a different thing. Having a few doubts on how it could work for me, I searched the internet. As it turns out, there aren’t many resources available – a fact I previously learned through work.

Two YouTube2 channels3 have been very useful. Thanks to one in particular, I discovered that Voice Control works better with Siri because the latter processes commands that the former would take more steps to complete.

My desktop with the on-screen microphone
The Voice Control on-screen microphone. It’s set up to listen, in English.

Integration and functioning

Voice Control is seamlessly integrated with the Apple ecosystem. Over the years and for many reasons, I diversified the programs I use. My default browser for example, is not Safari. What does it entail?

Take a web page with a button that reads “Next”. On Safari, I can spell “Next” and trigger whatever action the button performs. On Firefox, I will need to bring up the grid and get as close as possible until I can say “Click + [the number on the grid]”. If the button is very small, the operation can take several steps.

Take for example the following image: it’s a screenshot of my desktop. To open the folder named “Current”, I’d say 7. Then a new grid will appear within the rectangle 7. At this point, I could say “Right click 9” to open the folder.

My screen is divided in rectangles which I’ll use to pinpoint what I’m looking for
How the grid divides the screen

Another very useful way to navigate is by using the handy numbers each navigation and interface item gets. This feature is available to any program. For example, in Sublime Text, I can bring up the numbers and be able to tell Voice Control to close, minimise o enter full screen.

With Mail and Siri it gets even easier. It’s a matter of asking to create a new mail, for a specific person, with a specific subject.

My needs

I was working with an Italian agency, for an Italian client. You got it, work happened in Italian. By contrast, my macOS and keyboard layout are set to British English. I can‘t manage otherwise.

I needed to be able to switch languages, so that the output of my speech showed the correct text. Voice Control allows multiple languages. The downside is that, as far as I know, they need to be switched manually.

That’s when being able to use the mouse with the right hand helped. I would switch the language and start talking. Simple, right?

Not so simple

At least once a day, Siri would freeze and Voice Control would stop working too. So I had to restart the computer. I can’t count the times Voice Control misinterpreted me, both in English and in Italian. My solution often was to use the mouse to delete the incorrect text and start over. Something that not everyone can do.

Another challenge is making Voice Control work in your enviroment. Even in my case, working from home in a relatively quiet house, there have been a few fun and annoying situations. Leave the microphone active, with the cursor on text, and you’ll find everything you said written down. This is also annoying because then you’ll have to delete the text.

Speak in Italian while the English language was selected – and vice versa – and you’ll have something fun to show your friends. Unless you’re working, then the restarting and deleting can become cumbersome.

Temporary abled

We’re all just temporarily abled, said Cindy Li in a keynote4. She was right. Are you over forty-five? Soon you’re going to need reading glasses. Small surgery? Broken arm? You’re going to need help from people around you and technology. Never take you abilities for granted.

If you happen to work on digital products, make them accessibile! There are no excuses not to.

Rest, finally

During the sixth week, I was finally able to take a holiday and rest properly. All I did was reading on my Kobo, and texting a few friends. I wish I did it sooner: it’s exactly what the doctor prescribed, with good reason.

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