When You Share Your World, the World Shares You

Christopher HillsChristopher Hills has something to share:

“I recently made a video called One Switch. One Head. The World. This has inspired me to make some videos on how I interact with my computer and the Internet.”

At first glance that may not sound like much; plenty of people make videos about technology and post them online for the world to enjoy. Yet Christopher Hills is a young man living with a physical disability that makes it impossible for him to use his hands. Fortunately, the use of assistive software and hardware enable Hills to use his Macintosh. One of the tools Mr. Hills primarily uses is Discover Envoy:

“I discovered I could control the mouse with Discover and I started playing around with the settings and the look. That opened up a whole new world for me.”

In case you’re wondering, Mr. Hills has cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is currently described by Wikipedia as “an umbrella term encompassing a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement.” Not only is Mr. Hills deprived of the use of his hands, but he cannot walk nor communicate in a practical way orally. Yet Hills uses his computer to communicate through chat and social media platforms such as Google+. I was made aware of Christopher Hills when Chris Pirillo shared the video Hills had posted to YouTube a couple of weeks ago:

I asked Mr. Hills about his interest in technology, and he told me he currently uses Macs exclusively, but has some interest in Windows systems. When Windows Vista came out he recalls “being absolutely obsessed with the new look.” He loved Windows Aero (the graphical user interface introduced with Vista), but ultimately found the operating system lacking. “Vista was not so great after all,” he told me:

“We had to upgrade Discover Switch to run on Vista. That was Discover Pro 2.3. I came across MS Flight Simulator at this time which I could control in a basic way with my switch, using the mouse as a yoke and I loved it. I used to fly every day. I finally upgraded to Windows 7 which was very hard on my poor old tower.”

Christopher Hills' setup)Many people whine and groan about various aspects of operating systems: this one has a poor interface; this one doesn’t come with the software I wish it had; this one’s startup sound annoys me… Tell Mr. Hills about poor interfaces. This young man has overcome far greater obstacles than switching between Windows 8’s Aero and Metro views. He’s learned how to manipulate Final Cut Pro using nothing more than his head. Literally. (See video.)

In case you haven’t yet watched the video (or haven’t watched it until the end yet), Christopher Hills conceived, directed, and edited the entire video by pressing his head against a switch connected to his computer. The switch works in conjunction with software which enables Chris to operate his computer using a computer mouse-like emulator. Producing videos is not easy, especially of the quality this young man has delivered.

Christopher Hills' setupAfter watching one of Hills’ recent videos, fellow LockerGnome contributor Matt Ryan told me that “anyone who tackles technical work despite being dealt a rough hand is a hero and an inspiration. We have more than a few in our community, and it’s a testament to the idea that you’re only limited by your imagination in this technologically advanced world we live in today.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Matt. I can barely manage to get myself to transfer a few video files from my Flip camcorder and upload them to YouTube. My problem is not so much a disability as it is laziness (though you might call the sour moods that feed my laziness a disability). Despite (or perhaps due to) his condition, Christopher Hills seems to have been blessed with an immeasurable amount of patience. One of the common symptoms of cerebral palsy is fatigue, so it takes an extra amount of effort for this young man to perform many common tasks — much less direct, edit, and distribute a video project.

Christopher Hills' setupI’ve long lived with a palsy of unknown origin myself, driving many to wonder why I shake so. I often find it frustrating to explain to people that I have no idea why I shake — perhaps it is a neurological disorder, but I’ve been too afraid to undergo a proper examination — but unlike Mr. Hills, I tend to use my condition as an excuse for being lazy most days. I’m feeling exceptionally shaky today, I tell myself, I can’t get my work (or studies, or just about any exercise) done in the state I’m in.

Christopher Hills faces far greater obstacles than I do and overcomes them every single day of his life. Unlike many of us distressed by one condition or another, Hills focuses his energy on improving his life in the ways that he can — rather than allowing obstacles to run his life. In fact, Hills has ingeniously redirected his disability, employing it to reach out to others through his videos. His latest video project, titled Intersection: Where Technology and Disability Meet, is one in which he intends to further demonstrate the ways he interacts with his computer and the Internet:

In the process of producing these videos, he has not only inspired a great many of us who admire his courage and candidness, but he has made those of us interested in technology more tangibly aware of accessibility issues. He is also sharing his experience with others who may be interested in similar assistive solutions for their own needs. Christopher Hills is an ambitious young man, and though he may find it extremely challenging to accomplish everything he would like to do at this point in time, I believe this young man will one day be able to do anything he can imagine. He is not simply interested in editing video but has managed to develop a method for preparing for an IT certification:

A normal career in IT would be a bit tricky for me because I cannot use my hands and do any physical work, but I’m interested in maybe starting a website dedicated to disability and technology. One day I might travel around Australia reviewing disability access in hotels and public areas and publish my observations on a website/blog and maybe make it into a TV special.

As technology catches up to Hills’ imagination, more people living with cerebral palsy and other disabling conditions will find themselves less “disabled” and more “enabled”; perhaps one day cerebral palsy will be far less of an obstacle than it is today.

In the meantime, Mr. Hills does have one obstacle that he needs help in overcoming: the company that makes the assistive technology that enables the young man to interact with the world has stated it will no longer be upgrading the Mac version of its product. Mr. Hills is already unable to upgrade his Mac to the latest version of Apple’s operating system because the product is outdated and unable to run on the latest generation of Macs:

“One of the main problems with my setup is that Discover Envoy is a Rosetta application, which means I can only use it on Mac OS 10.6. I would love to upgrade to Mac OS 10.7 Lion and in the future keep upgrading, but I can’t because AbleNet, who I have written to, are not planning to upgrade Discover Envoy.”

Hills has looked into a similar solution offered by another vendor, but its design and features do not match the quality of Discover Envoy.

Since AbleNet doesn’t seem to want to step up to the plate, this is a prime opportunity for another company or an entrepreneur to step in to provide a solution for computer users in situations similar to that of Mr. Hills. In fact, Christopher Hills would make an ideal consultant for any group or individual seeking to develop assistive technologies — not only does Hills have firsthand experience with these types of tools, but he obviously is willing to share his views about them.

The question is, how does Christopher Hills share his experiences with those who can help? Mr. Hills has already got the ball rolling with his videos — perhaps we can help him continue to share his experiences by sharing his story. Watch his videos, and share them with everyone you know. I know I’m going to.

I encourage everyone to share suggestions, questions, concerns, and thoughts about this article — particularly if you have any interest in assistive technologies or accessibility in computing. Most of all, please share this article and share Christopher Hills’ videos!

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