Nic shares how the experience of injuring his hand brings up a lot that relates to our work in web accessibility. From learning and working with assistive technology to the emotional impact of dealing with an impairment, his experience shines a light on the human side of our work.

I broke my scaphoid bone a couple weeks ago. It’s having a serious impact in my ability to do everyday things. It’s temporary, true, but quite disabling. I’m finding ways to do things, and I’m adapting—but it’s not easy. Let me tell you about it.

The diagnosis

Photo of Nic's left hand in a cast, his thumb completely immobilized.The scaphoid bone is one of the carpal bones in the wrist. It lives at the base of the thumb and is typically injured when someone falls with their hands outstretched. Apparently, it’s the most common carpal bone fracture. It can also be quite difficult to heal. Because I’m not supposed to rotate my hand very much at all, the doctor put me in a cast that immobilizes my wrist and my thumb. I’ll be in a cast a minimum of three months, and if I’m lucky, I’ll avoid having a screw put in my bone to hold it in place.

The impact

This tiny bone is affecting all areas of my life. Showering is a logistical puzzle. Cooking is significantly slower. Getting dressed is tricky, and gaming on my Xbox is just not possible. There’s also the fact that I’m a wheelchair user. Pushing a manual wheelchair with one-and-a-half hands is neither effective nor graceful! I’m frustrated and I feel helpless. I can’t type my usual eighty words per minute. In fact, I can’t use my left hand at all to type. Considering I make a living using a computer all day, every day, this has really slowed me down.

The great thing about humans is, we adapt. Living with this impairment, even though temporary, is an ongoing adaptation for me. I’m learning new techniques and new-to-me tools. It can be frustrating and learning takes time. Nonetheless, I’m adjusting.

Image of two Xbox controllers, one for two-handed use, one for single-handed use.For example, I really wanted to be able to continue playing Skyrim during the twelve weeks I’ll be in this cast. I looked for, and found, a one handed Xbox controller. It’s very clever. But it costs more than $300, and it wouldn’t be delivered for six weeks. So, timing-wise and cost-wise, it’s not going to work for me. This may seem silly, but the inability to game is having an impact.

Impairments and disability are sometimes most deeply felt in the so-called “little silly things.”

A lot of the impact of my injury, though, is neither silly nor little. Relying on one hand to use the computer, especially when you’re so comfortable using both hands, is no joke for a web professional. I’m relieved I didn’t injure my dominant hand. At least I can still use a mouse or trackpad without having to adapt or relearn that.

But, reaching all the keys on the keyboard isn’t possible the same way I’m used to. One of the problems one-handed typing presents is being unable to use modifier keys such as the command key, the option key, the control key, or the shift key. You normally use two hands for those. Sometimes, you can use one hand if you have a really wide reach between fingers—I occasionally do this reflexively with my casted hand and wow. It hurts! (Bad for healing, too.)

Touch typing is also impossible. I’m back to hunting and pecking the keys with my right hand. This slows things down and increases the risk of typos. I have no doubt that eventually I’d adapt and develop a one-handed typing technique that would work flawlessly. But this kind of re-learning takes time.

To ease that, I’ve turned to two main things.

The solutions

One of the first accessibility features I enabled was sticky keys. I knew about this feature but had never really used it myself. It’s available in both Windows and OS X, and it allows you to type modifier keys and make them “stick.” So you can type the shift key and then the letter R, for example, and the letter will be capitalized. Using sticky keys had a bit of a learning curve, but it wasn’t that bad. It’s been a godsend.

The other thing I started using is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Dragon is a speech to text software: I talk and it types. It also allows command and control, so I can control all functions of the operating system and applications. I can start software, navigate through the menus, surf the web, all by voice. Catch is, there’s a steep learning curve to Dragon. For me the dictation was easier for having used Siri on my iPhone before, but it requires another way of thinking about text creation than I’m used to. Incidentally, the first draft of this post was 95% written using Dragon.

I’m developing a hybrid technique for myself: a mixture of one-handed typing, sticky keys, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Perhaps by the time I’m out of this cast, I’ll be a pro.

The insights

Beyond the physical adjustments, there have been emotional ones as well.

This process of re-adaptation is interesting to me. I know this is temporary. But, it’ll last long enough that it has an impact. I’m also uncertain about how well I will heal. Will there be residual impairment? There’s simply no way to know at this point. I feel worry, and also grief. It doesn’t matter that I went through a similar process before, when I moved to full-time wheelchair use.

Previous experience with adapting to a new situation or impairment doesn’t immunize you against the emotions that come up if you have to do it again.

At Simply Accessible, we work to make the web more accessible to people with disabilities. This includes people who, like me, acquire a temporary condition. My injury serves as a reminder that there are different implications to temporary impairments than to permanent ones.

When you’ve been living with a condition for years, you’ve learned to adapt. You’ve developed tools and techniques—you’ve mastered your workarounds. But, with a temporary or new condition, you’re still in the process of finding your way. You fumble and fail. And, you can be dealing with an emotional struggle that shouldn’t be underestimated. Once again, accessibility isn’t about a condition, or a disability, but a person trying to work it all out.

What are your experiences adjusting to temporary impairments? If you’re a web accessibility professional, did these adaptations give you insights about how you do your work? Share your experiences in the comments below.