My computer is my access to the outside world

Northumberland-based Belinda Sidebotham was shown how to use her voice to control her computer by an AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteer. She now uses her technology to keep in touch with family and friends.

Belinda at her desk with assistive technology and her computer in front of her"My ITCanHelp volunteer really appreciates that my computer access is my link to the outside world.”

Northumberland-based Belinda Sidebotham is a tetraplegic – the result of a motorbike accident 35 years ago when she was only 17 years old. She is paralysed from the chest down, uses an electric wheelchair and has very limited use of her arms. When she first met Fred Godfrey, her ITCanHelp volunteer, she was using her computer courtesy of a stick attached to her hand with a Velcro band – a device which had been created for her years ago in the Spinal Unit. Typing a short email could take up to half an hour and was not only difficult but also uncomfortable.

Fred introduced Belinda to voice recognition technology via Dragon Naturally Speaking software and she has never looked back. After a couple of months of familiarisation, she was practically a ‘digital native’ and now spends up to eight hours a day on the computer. She has achieved full computer access and control of all inputs and outputs through speech alone.

“Fred was absolutely brilliant – a true professional in every way and an expert in everything. His patience was endless, even though teaching me how to use the new system must have been very frustrating at times."

“Whenever I had a problem or the computer crashed he was there to help and he truly appreciates that computer access is my link to the outside world, my independence and a key contributor to my psychological and emotional wellbeing.”

Now Belinda is an experienced user Fred is a less frequent caller in person, although Belinda still consults him remotely by email or phone on occasions: “It’s wonderful knowing that he’s there to advise whenever I have an IT-related challenge. I cannot imagine life without my Dragon software and I know that Fred truly understands what a vital role it performs for me.”

Some seventeen years ago Belinda completed a BSc in Social Sciences with the Open University – a feat which took her six years of part-time study. Each month she laboriously tapped out a 2000 word essay with her improvised stick and Velcro typing tool. “If I’d been aware of AbilityNet's volunteer services, and had had the benefit of voice recognition technology at that time, it would have saved me hours and hours. Not to mention all the discomfort it inevitably caused as well!”

Now turning on the computer is Belinda’s first task of the day before checking her email, calendar and busy diary. A committed social networker, Belinda is active on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as contributing to several disability forums and groups including the Spinal Injuries Association where she is a continual source of inspiration to others.

A seasoned traveller, Belinda also researches holiday destinations and books flights online. It’s important to ensure that her chosen location is thoroughly wheelchair friendly and Belinda has become something of an expert at investigating access arrangements. As a result, Belinda has travelled all over Europe and further afield to the Canary Islands, Tunisia, Egypt and even West Africa.

Belinda shops, banks and listens to music online; in addition to reading her favourite newspapers and magazines. She is also a frequent visitor to online auction eBay and Amazon - where she buys all her books and then reads them on her computer courtesy of her Kindle device. A keen texter, Belinda even uses a computer-based texting tool called Textmagic. 

In her spare time Belinda pursues several other interests, particularly genealogy: “I have been researching my family tree for the past ten years. With the internet, I can examine census information and other online archive materials easily and quickly in the comfort of my own home – an invaluable tool.”

Technological innovation, in the form of an environmental control system, also gives Belinda the ability to operate the telephone, the heating, her TV and lighting autonomously. “Digital technology gives me a degree of freedom that cannot be underestimated and was unimaginable when I was first facing my future as a disabled person. It’s fantastic being able to decide what I want to do and when I want to do it, rather than relying on other people all the time!”

Belinda is married to Stan and gave birth to her son, Harry (28) in 1985. “My rollercoaster ride of a life has presented me with many challenges and struggles to overcome in order to achieve the things I have set myself as goals. Having a positive outlook and being determined is essential - nothing can be done without hope. But I’m also lucky to have a great husband who gives me strength and to have met some fantastic, caring and inspirational people who have helped me along the way and have become good friends too. Fred, my ITCanHelp volunteer, is definitely one of them.”

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