Breaking Ground 97 - Getting a Life Back with Technology

by Mike Harrell

Mike Harrell is a respiratory therapist who lives in Ooltewah, TN with his wife, Sharon, and guide dog, Honor. He is also the father of Council staff member Jolene Sharp.

In 1980, I was 27, with a wife and 13-month-old little daughter. We had just moved to Florida from Washington, D.C. so that I could start my new job as a respiratory therapist there. Bike riding was my favorite way of getting around. On my way home from work, three short months after the move, I was struck by a car and landed headfirst on the windshield. Thirteen weeks later, I was sent home from the hospital, blind and with no resources.

I was filled with fear as I was discharged from the hospital. How was I, a newly blinded respiratory therapist, going to support my family? Certain that God did not intend for me to sit around collecting a disability check each month, I went to work to find some way of getting back on the job in the profession in which I had just completed a Bachelor’s degree.

Sight for me now for me is only limited light perception, but at that time, I could see print if magnified to about eight inches tall. I searched the phone directory for magnification devices I could use. (Search engines for the Internet were not exactly in vogue back then.) Somehow during that search, I was directed to the Florida Division of Blind Services. This was the door opening up all sorts of possibilities in my life.

To get me back to work, I was provided a CCTV - a closed circuit TV magnification system. Along with the help of a supportive workplace, this put be back on my professional path. Voice synthesized computer access was an up-and-coming thing, and working closely with the company making our lung function testing equipment, I began performing lung function tests using this brand new technology. Back in those days, the computer voice sounded very synthesized, so it was interesting to note the patient’s reactions to the mechanical chatter going on as I performed their lung testing!

It was not long until the department manager left, and I became the hospital respiratory department manager. I served in that capacity for 25 years. Computer access technology kept on advancing, and added significantly to my ability to perform my job successfully.

To learn to skillfully use the screen reading computer technology, I completed training provided at the Florida Division of Blind Services training center in Daytona Beach. The original training session meant a month-long stay away from home, with extra trips back to Daytona Beach as computer systems changed through the years. Not only did I learn computer access technology at the center, but I also learned skills to help me in my daily life.

They also had an excellent library of recorded books. As I love to read, the tremendous library provided to blind individuals through the national Library Services for the Blind has been a powerful contribution to my learning and life experience. Thousands of books, on a wide range of topics, are available at no cost to blind and visually impaired people. When I first began using this service, I received books recorded on cassette tapes in the mail. All those books are now in digital format and accessible for downloading from the National Library Services web site.

In 2005, I moved with my family to the great state of Tennessee, working as the Director of Clinical Education for a medical device company based out of California. I stay connected to the California offices via computer, which makes screen reader software key to my work function. I also travel and speak. For my presentations, I use PowerPoint, which I access through the screen reader program JAWS, which stands for Job Access with Speech. Since moving to Tennessee, I have received some very helpful personalized in-home training in the use of screen reader access to specialized applications.

At home, I use a variety of technologies to help make my life productive and meaningful. Aside from access to e-mail using the screen reader, I use the accessibility functions on my iPhone and Apple Watch, with all of their functions available to me as a blind person.

Baking bread is a real joy for me, but it has been challenging in the past to get five similarly sized loaves made out of one big ball of dough. Now I have a kitchen scale which “tells” me how much each loaf weighs as I cut it from the one giant ball. It is very rewarding to have five beautifully formed loaves of bread come out of the oven, hot and smelling delicious!

Alexa is present in three rooms in the house, helping me with all sorts of day-to-day functions. At work, I need to match future dates with days of the week, and Alexa is great at keeping this straight for me. Not knowing for sure if the lights are on or off, it is very convenient just to tell Alexa to “turn off the living room lights” and know that the lights won’t stay on all night.  I even keep track of my weight by using a talking scale.

At fifty, I developed type I diabetes. It is important to consistently check my blood sugar to keep this under control, and to know how much insulin to inject for each meal. For several years, I have used a talking glucometer which tells me what my blood sugar is when I place a small blood sample on the test strip. Now I use a continuous blood sugar monitor, which is a small device attached to my abdomen that sends my blood sugar readings to my cell phone. I then simply use my accessible cell phone to check my blood sugar whenever I need or want to know.

Both in my personal life and my work, technology has been a significant part of my productivity and feeling of personal value. This has made every bit of effort I have spent to find and learn this technology more than worthwhile.

a gentleman with white hair and a beard is wearing a striped button up shirt and nice pants, sitting in a chair; next to him on the ground is a golden dog wearing a service dog vest
Mike Harrell with his service dog, Honor.