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Blind woman's computer is her window to the world

With help from special software and an instructor, she cherishes her independence despite a host of medical problems.

By MEREDITH LARSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 31, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Linda Marcotte lost her eyesight to diabetes when she was 30. But a few years ago she discovered a new way to connect with the world: her computer.

The 45-year-old St. Petersburg resident e-mails jokes to friends, composes Christmas letters and prints envelopes from her computerized address book -- all without using any visual cues.

Instead, Marcotte guides herself with talking software, a visiting computer instructor and her own homemade invention.

The software, JAWS for Windows, converts computer text to speech, reading Marcotte's e-mails out loud as she writes them. Created by a Tampa engineer blinded in a car accident, JAWS is manufactured and shipped from group headquarters in St. Petersburg, said Scott Meyers, marketing director of Freedom Scientific's Blind/Low Vision Group.

Marcotte came up with her own system for finding her way on the keyboard. She uses bits of felt glued to various commands and keys.

When she runs into a glitch, she calls computer instructor Bob Abbott. He stops by her house about once a month to change the printer cartridge and help Marcotte learn new skills.

The computer "has helped my life evolve," said Marcotte, who lives with her mother, Katherine Weber. "It's an independence thing, and I'm really independent."

Marcotte relies on her mom to cook, lay out her clothes and organize her pills. But the computer is Marcotte's territory. Her 86-year-old mom has no desire to use it.

The computer also gives Marcotte a means of artistic expression. Before losing her vision, Marcotte sewed and painted.

"When the blindness hit, I had to find another outlet for that," she said, showing one of her landscapes that hang in the hall. Fifteen years have passed since she has seen the canvas, but she still can describe the shade of its sky, the brown of the mountains and the slant of a staircase.

"God showed me how to put that talent into words."

Marcotte, a born-again Christian, writes for the newspaper at her church, Gateway Christian Center at 3900 Fifth Ave. N. She also collects "clean jokes" to send to friends who need cheering up.

Marcotte enjoys a good joke. A vibrant woman with a quick wit and deep chuckle, she makes cracks about "a computer with attitude," her own chattiness and her ability to outlive the predictions of doctors.

"They had me dead at age 32," said Marcotte, who turns 46 in December. But "God knows a little more than doctors do."

Marcotte lives with a host of medical problems. She needs daily insulin shots. She takes medicine for high blood pressure, poor circulation and arthritis. She also undergoes dialysis three times a week, a 31/2-half hour procedure in which her blood is drained, cleansed and then pumped back into her body.

Yet her teacher Abbott says Marcotte's positive attitude is infectious.

"When I go there, all my troubles disappear," said Abbott, 56, who charges Marcotte $39 for two hours for on-site assistance. "I almost feel like I should be paying her, I feel so good when I leave."

Marcotte soaks up computer lessons "like a sponge," Abbott said. "If I show her how to do something once, she knows how to do it."

Marcotte, for example, copies and pastes with an ease that eludes several of Abbott's sighted clients. Marcotte chalks up her knack for learning to God and her "bullhead" nature.

"I'll find out how to do it if I have to stay up all night. I'm so stubborn. I'm going to whoop this thing," she said.

Marcotte doesn't let the increasing numbness in her fingers stop her, either.

"With my fingers getting stiff from the dialysis, I can still do things. It just takes me longer," she said.

The screen-reading software used by Marcotte is pricey. The standard version of JAWS runs $795, and the NT2000 professional edition costs $1,195.

But the software comes with technical support. A dozen technicians, 10 of whom are blind, field questions from the group's headquarters at 11800 31st Court N. As the best-selling screen-reading software, JAWS boasts more than 60,000 users, according to the company's Web site at freedomscientific.com.

Marcotte does not regret her investment. Access to a computer "is a lot of freedom," she said.

Now that Marcotte has waded into the Internet, her next step is learning to surf.

"There are more and more things I can do on the computer," she said.

"There are more and more things that Bob can teach me."

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