I’m Ok and Doing Well

In my last post a couple of years ago I was struggling with my eye pain and didn’t post again. Well I’m OK and actually a few weeks later things got better and I’ve been stable ever since. I’m using 300% magnification and that is working great for me. So I think of those 2/3 months, back in 2014, as a hiccup. Yet again I have my osteopath to thank for helping me improve my neck mobility which in turn has reduced my chronic pain to bearable levels where I can be productive at work.

I’ve been promoted since my last post to Software Architect and I  really am happy in my work and my life. The truth is that moving to screen magnification from a screenreader has made my life easier and allowed me to go further. It is easier to do my job, of that I have no doubt but I believe using a screenreader was critical to me reaching this level in my career.

The Screenreader Made Me the Man I Am Today

Yes using a screenreader is hard, yes there are limitations to what you can do but there are also positive side effects as a result.

I worked harder at being technically superior to my colleagues to compensate my weaknesses. I listened to technical podcasts and listened to technical books. Reading database scripts was easier than reading the entire code of applications so I decided to become a database expert. I listened to deeply technical books about the inner workings of databases, books on database performance and the SQL language. The funny thing was that I really didn’t have an opportunity to put all that knowledge to work in my small team but I carried on regardless.

After reaching a good level with databases I studied a wide range of other technical areas and never gave up. In the end I had totally outmatched the technical skills of my colleagues and was almost on par with them when it came to speed of work output. However due to my skills I was able to produce results that they were never capable of because they simply didn’t know the technologies like I did. In my current job there has been a huge need for database skills and it was those skills that gave me my first good publicity in the software development department.

Now that I am using a screen magnifier I haven’t stopped dedicating lots of time to learning and study and my technical knowledge and skills have continued to grow. Now three years after starting my current job I have moved from developer to technical lead to software architect and I put that technical success down to the dedication that using a screenreader forced into me. I just don’t think I would have had the stamina and will power if I was a normal sighted guy.

If I was still using a screenreader today I doubt I would be architect but I am pretty sure I would still be the most kick-ass database expert in the company and have had a vital role. The great thing about working at a large company is that there are more opportunities for specialists. I would have doubled down on databases and made sure that when people needed help on a difficult database problem they would reach out to me without even thinking.

New Blog

When I used a screenreader my visual impairment formed an integral part of my life and my daily thinking. Now my eyes have improved and I can use screen magnification and it is not the focus it once was. I will write new posts in the future when I start work, eventually, on my HTML diagrams project which I still really want to do. In fact if anyone out there wants to help, or may be contribute as part of a university project or something it will probably give me the boot up the arse that I need. Get in touch!

I have a new blog where I am writing about technology and teams, check it out at http://jack-vanlightly.com.

I have written a post about my set up using a screen magnifier and special sun glasses, check it out at http://jack-vanlightly.com/blog/2016/7/2/5-tricks-for-people-who-are-hyper-sensitive-to-computer-screens

Take care everyone!

Hanging on by a thread

I have had to put my Visio diagram project on hold as I have unfortunately had a flare up with my eye pain. I was working on it here and there after work until about 5-6 weeks ago. 6 Months ago my eye pain eased up a bit and it started to improve slowly and I was really hopeful that I was on the way to a miraculous recovery. However the improvement plateaued from about the beginning of February and then in late March it suddenly deteriorated. I tried to carry on working but after a couple of days I was forced to go on sick leave. After three weeks my doctor told me she wouldn’t sign me off any longer as no eye pain or headache lasted longer than 3 weeks in her opinion. I tried to explain that mine had lasted 8 years and that chronic pain that lasts years is real but she wouldn’t listen. I changed doctors and my new one, while a much better listener, told me that even though he believed I was telling the truth, the computer system would not allow him to extend my time off. It was logged as a headache as that was the only thing they could enter it as seeing as I have no diagnosis. Apparently there is a built in limit of 3 weeks for headaches in the Spanish health system.  So I have been forced back to work.

I thought I was going to last about an hour before the pain got to me but I have managed to struggle through each day for the last two weeks. The pain is so high that I can’t think straight and so my attempts to switch back to a screenreader have failed. I need a really clear head to keep track of the code I write when I code with a screenreader and in my current state I’m just not up to it. But my boss got me a massive new screen and I have put the magnifier up to 400% and with that I am just making it through each day.

So until my eyes settle down again which will be weeks or months based on previous flare ups, my Visio project is on hold. It is not dead though, and over the previous few weeks although I haven’t been coding I have been thinking about how I am going create the ability for blind people to draw diagrams.

So wish me luck, I’m down but I’m not out.

Visio diagram to HTML project

I’ve been in my new job just over four months and it is going really well. A few weeks ago I got promoted to technical leader of a small team of programmers which was a big surprise and I’m loving the new role. I’ve been working some really long hours the last few weeks as I have inherited a large project that is coming to an end and the deadline is near. So I got a surprise when a lady from Canada emailed me about my post about diagrams and the challenges of dealing with them at work. She is a project manager and so diagrams are part of the corporate world in which she works.
My solution in my last job was the create HTML diagrams specifically structured for my screenreader. I would get some help of a colleague to explain the diagram and then I would write the HTML by hand. Then because writing HTML is tedious I designed a short hand which was quick to write and wrote some software to generate HTML from that. This was OK for me but for most non technical people it isn’t a great solution. I got good feedback on the HTML diagram itself though, it is just the method of creating it that needs some work. Luckily, I have worked on two projects in my last job where I had to build software to read and write Microsoft Excel and Word files. It isn’t too difficult and I wondered if I could build software to read Visio diagram files. It turns out that it isn’t that hard. And so a project is born.
I am now working on a website where you can create an account, upload Visio diagram files and use your screenreader to navigate the diagrams using headings and links. Boxes will be headings, lines will be links, box text will be paragraphs and any type of grouping of boxes will be described too.
Later versions might read other diagram file formats and even be able to auto-generate diagram files for you. That last one is a lot more complex however so will be a possible feature farther ahead.
So far I have only been researching the file format and have not written any code yet but I hope to start very soon. My job is very demanding on my time plus I have a young family so time is short.
If this site would be useful to anyone then please do contact me and may be you could help me with things like testing, designing better HTML structures, provide real-world example diagrams, or even give this project a name. As always you can contact me as thebanqui@gmail.com

A big thank you to my osteopath, Katy McConkey

As I said in my last post my eye pain is easing after 7 long years and in this post I want to thank the person who is behind this miraculous recovery. My osteopath is Katy McConkey who has her own practice called Osteopatia del Mar here in Barcelona. I have seen many osteopaths in my search for a cure for both my eye pain and my neck pain and none has made any impact but her. I have gone the alternative therapy route many times, often in desperation at the lack of understanding and lack of interest I have received from the nation health systems of either the UK or Spain. I would say that I am now a connoisseur of treatment methods such as chiropractory, shiatsu, acupuncture, acupressure, nutrition and osteopathy. I have always found osteopathy to be the most effective for my neck though nothing ever touched my eye pain.
I want to talk a little about my treatments but I need to point out I am a computer programmer and not a trained osteopath myself so everything I say is just my perception of how things went.
Katy’s methods were very different to other osteopaths. I had gotten used to the usual methods of spinal manipulations, cranial massage and deep muscle massage. But I found myself in a new world with Katy and received treatments I had never had before. From the first visit and all vists since then she has taken a much more systemic approach, looking at the body as a complex system, interconnected. When she hasn’t been able to relieve tension in one part of my body she starts working on another part which she says is linked. Like occasions that I have had tightness in my back that she couldn’t touch then she would work on my chest, shoulders and relieve it from there.
She designed a six treatment series for me where we concentrated on neck and upper body flexibility and stretching out my quite rigid fascial tissues of my neck, arms and chest. All my previous osteopaths were strong men who could manipulate any part of my spine with ease and focused heavily on that. However Katy, with me at least, focused more on tissue quality, flexibility and looked my localised pain from a more systemic view point. She also set me stretching exercises as homework which I religiously followed. In the first 4 weeks I was spending about 2-3 hours doing stretching every day. I think this played a large role as Katy knew which stretches were right for each period of the treatment and I did it all and then some.
In total I have had seven treatments and am now only seeing her every 4-6 weeks. Everyday my eye pain eases a little more. Two weeks ago I was taking a painkiller every evening after work because 10 hours of eye focusing was hurting. This week I am not taking painkillers after work and I am even typing out this blog post without my screenreader. I still have the magnifier at 300% with colours inverted but I have reduced the magnification at work to 250%. Compare that to 3 months ago, back then I would have had more pain after 60 seconds of eye focusing than 10 hours now.
So thank you Katy. You have changed my life. If you need a great osteopath and you are passing through Barcelona then please check her website for details.


Have I found the cure for my eye pain at last?

I haven’t posted for 10 weeks and a lot has happened. In the weeks after my fiasco with the false start where I last 5 hours in the job I was quite depressed and even fatalistic about my future. My eye pain levels were high and the trend was towards having ever more pain hyper sensitivity to light and eye focusing. I kept thinking that things would deteriorate until I would have to give up all notions of a career.
Then two things happened. First I got a job, this time one that was compatible with my disability. It is a good job working as a programmer for a transport company. Then after about 2 weeks in the job my eye pain started to ease. In the second week I realised I had been looking at my screen for about 3 hours each day. Usually I can manage about 5 minutes over a day before the pain gets too much. In the third week I was looking at the screen for most of the day and by the fourth week, this week, I have not used my screenreader once at work. It really is incredible. I wear sunglasses and have the Windows magnifier on at 300% with colours inverted. I am using a mouse for the first time in years.
At first I didn’t tell anyone, not even my wife as I was afraid that if I told anyone about it that it would somehow be taken away from me again. But three weeks into this recovery I am feeling more confident and beginning to think that this might be permanent. There is no way I could have looked at the screen for more than a couple of minutes in a row, with sunglasses and magnifier and all, just 4 weeks ago. Each week it is a little less painful. I still get pain but it is tolerable and I make sure I stop doing screen work when I finish work. I am writing this post using my screenreader as my eyes are feeling sore and tired from the day’s work. But tomorrow they will be rested and ready for another day’s screen work.
This beginning of a recovery pretty much confirms the cause of my eye troubles. The pain started 7 years ago, 3 months after a neck injury. The neck injury never healed and I have had neck pain and stiffness ever since. I have always thought they were connected but my doctors were never interested in the connection. Three months ago I decided to see another osteopath to help ease my neck pain. I had seen osteopaths before but without significant improvement. This time however the osteopath treated me very differently and focused on improving my neck mobility which was quite restricted in movement. I saw Katy every two weeks and did all my stretching homework she gave me. I have been spending every evening stretching for about 2-3 hours. Although much of the neck pain persists it had eased and my neck mobility is better than your average person now. After a few minutes of stretching I can almost touch my ears to my shoulder. Now just as the pain appeared after my neck injury, my eye pain is slowly easing now that I have made significant progress with my neck.
I am planning a break from my blog while I am in this weird but wonderful period. My wife says it is like a cloud has lifted and that she sees the old me before the pain got really bad. I desperately hope this recovery holds and continues to improve. I’ll update the blog with news soon.
I also have a project that started over a year ago which I put aside when the pain got really bad. It is a website for hosting screenreader tutorials and I have a bunch of tutorials that I have written. It needs some work but I would like to start working on that again sometime in the future. So more news on my recovery, my job and my project soon.
Take care.

Triumphs and failures

It has been a few weeks since my last post and a lot has happened. Things have been quite hard and I am flipping between being on tops of things and feeling like I am sinking.

The good news is that I received a job offer. I accepted it but unfortunately there was miscommunication at the interview stage and it turns out the company didn’t understand how restrictive my disability was. On my first day it was obvious after only a few hours that I couldn’t do the job I was hired for. The job was helping develop some complicated industrial automation software. I could do the programming work but part of the day to day work was operating the software in order to test the new code. The software was totally inaccessible so I couldn’t perform testing which is a critical part of the job. So I lasted 4 and a half hours which officially my shortest job.

Although this experience was a bit humiliating and frustrating it has showed me that jobs are out there and although this one didn’t work out there will be another one out there for me in the near future. I have also learned the lesson that not everyone understands the capabilities of a screenreader. I don’t think I explained how I work in enough detail and it happened that the interviewers made some assumptions without me realising. I guess I also felt that hammering in that I can’t do certain things would just put them off so I didn’t explain in enough detail exactly what kind of things would not be possible. I wanted to focus on what I could do and what my strengths are, not my weaknesses but this experience has taught me that the interviewer needs the full story, both the good and the bad. I definitely don’t want to go through a false start like this again.

But this has been hard for me to deal with the last few weeks, in fact this experience was today and I already have gotten over the shock and surprise. What has been getting me down the last few weeks and what the cause of my brief hiatus is my pain level. Over the last 3 months I have gone through another deterioration. So far I have experienced about 4 major pain level shifts. I am in a plateau most of the time then every few months I experience an escalation and enter another plateau at this new pain level. I haven’t been wanting to think about it but I have been forced to recognise that my condition seems to be progressive, I seem to on a downward trajectory and this is really starting to worry me. The pain is quite bad all the time now and is extremely sensitive to the trigger action, focusing my eyes, and I wonder how long till the next deterioration. Coupled with extra pain is an accompanying deterioration in my logic thinking powers. Each time the pain worsens my head gets a little more foggy. This was having an impact on my performance in my last job, being finally honest with myself. So now I don’t know that I am even capable of being a programmer. May be I can still do it now but will I still have enough logic thinking left to be a programmer in 2 years time? I don’t know and this has been making me pretty depressed. So I am flipping between bouts of depression and feelings of optimism.

A few weeks ago I was at a king of breaking point and I declared that I was done with computers for a while and vowed not to touch it. I needed a rest from my worries about job, computer use and thoughts of the future. So I put my laptop away and didn’t touch it for weeks. I have to say that I didn’t miss it in all that time. I have been spending all my evenings exercising, stretching and listening to books. I have totally put work, the future and my disability out of my head and focused on life itself, spending time with my wife and kids, getting my body healthy again after putting it through so much stress. I have picked up my computer now to write this post but then I think I might take another week without using the computer and spend a little more time getting my head straight. The pain has not gotten any better and I am no closer to working out what my future is but I have lost the sense of sinking and the feeling of deep anxiety.

I still can hardly believe that I started a new job today and I am already unemployed again. I am sure I will find the right job though, and even if I only have another 2 years of programming in me that at least gives me time to move into a less logically intensive career. Who knows, the doctors might even find out what is wrong with me and cure me.

The main takeaway I have from today is brutal truth during the interview. Not everyone knows what screenreaders are. What tricks interviewers with me is that I look totally normal, I see my surroundings fine and there is no indication that I have a visual impairment. So I need to be more explicit so they realise the extent of my limitations.

Promising interview

Yesterday I got a call from one of the recruiters who interviewed me to say that their client wanted to meet me. That interview was today.

Overall I think the interview went well and at the very least I think I am a strong contender. They have already interviewed a few applicants but haven’t found what they are looking for. I am in the second round of their searching and there are two other applicants being considered. I’ll know in a few days whether I got the job or not, or if there is a second interview to attend.

I do think this role fits me well, it matches my personality and much of my experience is relevant. I think that is half the reason for feeling that the interview went well. The other 50% is that my preparation the night before and on the morning of the interview ended up helping me massively. So I wanted to share the preparation activities as I think it might be useful to someone. None of it is ground breaking or original but I don’t think everyone always does this.

So here goes:

  1. I spent a few hours researching the company. That means its history, the market it is in, where that market is heading, how the company fits into the market and where it is positioning itself and who its main competitors are. I also spent a lot of time learning the main key acronyms and terms of that industry.
  2. I looked at the technology solutions the company produces; these are the technologies I would be working on if I got the job. I called a couple of contacts in the software industry who I thought might be able to help me understand this technology space a little better, from a high level. Kind of understand the most pressing design concerns, best practices and so on.
  3. My wife decided to investigate the key company people based in the office where I was due to have the interview. She was able to find out some super interesting nuggets from LinkedIn. From her research I found that my interviewer had some similar interests to me regarding team process and as soon as she showed me what she had learned I knew I was in a stronger position.
  4. My wife looked up on Google a list of interview questions for the role that I was being interviewed for. Then we practised these interview questions over and over again. We critiqued and developed my answers repeatedly until we were happy with the content and tone. In the end we had to stop as my throat was getting sore and we didn’t want me to lose my voice the night before the interview.
  5. On the morning of the interview I downloaded and listened to a couple of podcasts that I thought were highly relevant to the position I was going for and listened all the way to their office.

Of the above I would have thought all was pretty obvious except for researching the background on key managers in that office of the company. At that point we only knew the name of one interviewer but knew there would be more than one.

In the end there were two interviewers and both were among the people my wife had researched. I had the information in notes in my pocket and had memorised it all on the trip to their office. This helped me a lot as I was able to tailor my answers to them a bit more. I didn’t exaggerate anything, but I did emphasise some things that I might have left out entirely.

In the end I suspect that the interviewers got many of their interview questions from the same list as I did. Many of my best answers were ones that I had already honed with my wife the night before while others related to things that my phone calls with software developer contacts had covered.

Without this preparation the interview wouldn’t have gone nearly as well and now that I know more about the role I am so happy that I spent an entire day preparing. I really really want this job.

Just got to cross my fingers now and wait.

Finally, I wanted to say how my visual impairment affected things. As I have said before, my visual impairment is not obvious unless I am actually using a computer when you see me. I was so engrossed in the interview and the discussions I almost forgot to disclose my disability. Unfortunately this was right at the end as we were about to stand up and leave the meeting room. I told them about the disability and how I have been working productively with it for a few years now. Their reaction wasn’t positive or negative. They seemed to weigh it up and then we wrapped the interview. I don’t know what that means but I do know that I wish I had disclosed a little earlier. I didn’t want the last words of the interview to be about a disability but about my experience or about the job I was going for. So I have learned that lesson and will try and find an opportune moment to disclose a little earlier next time.

I just hope that this is my last interview, crossing fingers and toes.