Will you be one of the millions in Atari and walkie takie heaven this weekend as Stranger Things nostalgia-fest returns to Netflix for a second series? As it happens, I've been looking back at 80s (and 90s) tech for a presentation I'm doing next week on how technology has changed through my education and working life. From getting excited about Tetris and my Amstrad (and being able to type in bold!) to reminiscing about when I got my Alphasmart, which I still use to this day.
Just to set the scene, I have a rare condition called Mobius Syndrome and tech has been a key feature in getting through college and work, perhaps more for me than some of my peers. One of the characteristics of my condition is missing fingers. I am down by six fingers, so doing anything manual is, let’s face it, a bit of a challenge for me. Especially anything that claims “Easy Open”!
When I started school in the eighties, it soon became apparent that a handsplint with a pen attached wouldn't make my handwriting easier to read and so I progressed through a range of manual and electric typewriters. Excitingly I could type in two colours back then - black and red. Yay! But the keys were clunky and it was easy to hit two at once resulting in various issues.
Canon Typestar 110 word processor
Things got a lot better, ironically, when I moved from 'special school' to mainstream school. There, I was presented with a Canon Typestar 110. word processor. For the first time I could write and edit a whole sentence and see it on an LED screen in front of me before the Typestar actually typed it on the page. I could now write great essays, hurray! Looking back, it was very basic, but it meant that for the first time I could get work down easily and independently without an assistant helping me.
The home economics department even made me a smart blue bag for the word processor. It was very heavy. I mean really heavy. My parents also bought me a super awesome BBC B computer. It was powerful back then with 32K of RAM and and had some very useful word processing software built in. It also enabled you to do basic programming. I loved experimenting with that computer so much. Even though it was annoying to try to load software by cassette tape, I could programme things like basic shapes on screen! It was really simple to use and a nice way to get into computing.
There were more tech advancements in time for college. Well by 1980s' standards. I had a Liberator. Not the spaceship from Blake’s 7 but a very neat little word processor made by Thorn EMI. It was the first mass produced laptop on the market and was originally designed for civil servants. The idea was that it would help them produce work more quickly, without having to send it off to something called the 'typing pool'. It enabled me to produce work for my GCSEs much more efficiently because the screen allowed you to see a whole essay and save it to edit later. A revolution! What's more, it was lighter and more portable than the Typestar.
Amazingly I passed my GCSEs and then for my GCEs things ramped up a little bit with the Amstrad NC100 word processor. This piece of kit allowed me to now store quite a load of documents and do fancy things like 'Bold' and 'Underline' text. It also, as I remember, had a Tetris style game which I became quite good at and used to beat my fellow students hands down. I used it until around 1995 and it was very portable, running on AA batteries for up to 20 hours. For the first time I had a machine which also had extras such as a calculator, address book and diary.
I also used, and actually still have a device called an Alphasmart, which I used for my open studies course. I still think this kit is really underrated. It's a simple word processor and it includes word prediction too. I remember thinking they were fairly cheap and quite durable so if you dropped them, it wasn't the end of the world. One of the great things about these devices is that it has one function so you can't get distracted by running other software on it. So for people who had ADHD or learning difficulties, it helps with focus.
Retro tech: basic but brilliant
Looking back, these pieces of technology were basic. But I didn’t care. They enabled me to keep up with my peers. They might be retro now but at the time, this was cutting edge technology. Meanwhile, I can now, wonderfully, talk to my computer at the AbilityNet office (or my phone) and get it to do things. In fact, you've been able to since the 90s, but not a lot of people know that. Being able to talk to our phones and other devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, in my opinion, has changed and is changing the way people with disabilities can control their technology and ultimately enables people to work with a bit more ease. Now technology that was once considered adaptive is mainstream and built in to the operating system.
All of this has happened in the past 30 or so years. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going to happen in the next 30, but I’m fascinated by the new tech discoveries to come, even if I am hanging on to my Alphasmart! It's still great for note taking, and is less likely to get nicked than a laptop!
How can AbilityNet help you get the most out of tech?
AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people with technology and communications.
Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.
If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.
Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.
We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about computers and vision impairment useful
My Computer My Way is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.