Focusing with high-tech help

May 18, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

With the touch of a button on a computer mouse, the letters on the computer screen get bigger and bigger. Sylvia Gregory can sit back and see her work, go home without muscle cramps, and stop thinking about early retirement from her job at Harbor Hospital Center.

It took some doing, but a problem created by technology was also solved by technology.

When the computer age dawned at the hospital two years ago, it was bad news for Gregory, who lives in Pasadena. She is legally blind: completely blind in the right eye and severely nearsighted in the left. The new computer screen was all a blur.

She'd lean into the terminal, nearly touching the screen with her nose, and go home week after week with neck muscle pain and headaches.

"I thought I'd have to retire, I really did," said Gregory, who wears a contact lens in her left eye. When the computer system was installed at the hospital, Gregory was only 46 years old and had been working there for 23 years.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to get a job where you do any reading," Gregory said. "I never thought of myself as handicapped until the computers came out. Then it was brought to my attention."

As a unit secretary, Gregory records orders for such things as medication, laboratory tests and X-rays and keeps patient records up to date. When the work was all on paper she could bring it up close and read it. The computer screen seemed an insurmountable obstacle.

The people from the information systems department stepped in to help. Their first try at a simple solution didn't work. A magnifying glass placed in front of the screen made the letters and numbers bigger, but it also distorted their shape and made them difficult to read.

So something had to be done to make the letters bigger on the computer screen itself. But the screens of the hospital's MEDITECH computers could not be adapted to do this. That meant hooking a separate personal computer into the hospital system. That presented another problem, as the MEDITECH software was not compatible with personal computers.

As the technical people wrestled with all this, Gregory continued to struggle on the job. "I was getting really frustrated," she said.

"I give Sylvia a lot of credit," said Doug Borowy, manager of information services. "What she had to do was horrible. Her face practically touched the screen."

Borowy's department bought an IBM personal computer for $2,000 and used a software package the hospital already had paid for to act as translator between the PC and the MEDITECH system. The PC was then fitted with a $2,500 circuit board to magnify the letters on the screen. Getting the whole thing to work took about nine months, said Borowy, who gave much of the credit for this to Heather Haebler, whose job is to act as liaison between the computer wizards and the employees.

"It was extremely complicated, getting [the components] to talk to one another. That's what Heather did," he said.

Gregory has been using her new system since April with no problem, usually working with the letters magnified to about a half-inch tall. She hopes her story serves to encourage other disabled people.

"Even if you're visually impaired, it doesn't mean you can't work," she said.

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