By Quentin Cruse GW3BV
Amateur radio is a hobby and for some an obsession that can be enjoyed by almost anyone. Many people with disabilities enjoy amateur radio as it enables them to communicate with the outside world, gives them a sense of community and brings satisfaction through self education. However what if your health problems mean that you suffer with pain and fatigue? Would this mean that amateur radio is not for you? From personal experience I believe the answer is no.
First of all I must say that as a disabled person you already know that any task or enterprise you undertake, whether its trying to go shopping, having a shower or using your radio will take more energy, time and probably pain than most people will experience. However you endure such difficulties because you are alive and life is worth living. Therefore some of what I describe will take some effort to setup and get started. However the effort will be worth it!
Let’s say that you suffer with a lot of pain, perhaps including headaches. How can you enjoy and contribute towards amateur radio? One of the main issues I have with amateur radio is the noise. I know this may seem an obstacle with a hobby that appears to require you to use your ears, but its not as much of a problem as you may think. When using FM, perhaps on VHF/UHF, static and other QRM/QRN is going to be negligible and you may be able to engage in QSO’s with little difficulty. What though if you want to chase some DX or simply work further afield than your own locality?
To begin with I take the view that if I can only spend 10 or 15 minutes a day tuning across a couple of bands and having just one QSO with someone in a foreign country, I have had a good day. I have indulged my hobby, taken time for myself and learnt a little more about amateur radio and the world around me. However there are ways to do more and for me this mainly involves digital modes.
Digital modes can be found on all of the amateur bands and it is reasonably simple to get started. Most relatively modern rigs going back to the 1990’s will have the necessary ports on the back of the rig to enable connection to a computer. (It is possible to connect an older radio using the headphone socket and PTT line) An interface between the computer and radio will be required but these are available for as little as £30 or less. You will then need to install a suitable program on your computer to decode and transmit digital signals. There are many different ones available. I won’t describe how to set all this up as there are plenty of other guides available online.
The reason digital modes are so useful is that they do not require you to hear or listen to anything. They are primarily a visual mode. The software decodes the signal on your computer screen, normally using what is called a “waterfall” display. This gives a graphical view of the signals available. Clicking your mouse on a signal will cause the software to decode that particular signal. You will then see what the other amateur is sending as text. You can just “listen” or “watch”, reply to a CQ call or put out a call of your own.
I have found PSK31 to be probably the best and most popular digital mode available. It is straightforward to use and you can quickly make a few contacts. There is no need to deal with harsh static and the additional pain and fatigue this can bring. Most software will provide you with macro buttons. These are preprogrammed mini text files that are sent with a click of the mouse which give your details such as QTH, name, equipment etc. All of which should help to make the experience less tiring. In fact it is possible to have a QSO and only need to use the mouse. Most software will enable you to auto-fill the other stations callsign, name etc. into your macros. Additionally most of the software will incorporate a logbook to store your contacts. Some will also link to qrz.com giving you more information about the other amateur.
Another digital mode which I find very rewarding is the WSPR system. This is slightly different in that you do not make QSO’s in the traditional sense. Using WSPR your computer will transmit and receive very low power signals. The WSPR online database is updated by all users in real time. If your signal is heard in VK then the database will let you know. By the same method other amateurs will know if their signal has been heard by you. This system is very much automated, so once setup can be left to transmit and receive whilst you do something else. In my personal case I have often left WSPR running whilst I have a rest. I can then return to the shack after an hour or two and see who has heard my signal and who I have heard. I find it very rewarding and fascinating to track the changes in propagation across different bands over the months. To my mind WSPR is an excellent way to be involved in amateur radio and learning about propagation and aerials even though I am unable to be sat hunched over the radio for hours on end. Again there is a WSPR community which can enhance your enjoyment of this mode.
Of course these digital modes can be enjoyed by non licensed radio enthusiasts. They are also primarily low power modes, especially WSPR, so can provide a level playing field for those with foundation licenses.
So does pain and exhaustion have to be a barrier to enjoying the world of amateur radio? I don’t believe so. Most people with disabilities make adjustments to enable them to do different activities. For some it is using a wheelchair to play basketball, for others it will be playing bowls using adapted balls, for those of us in front of a radio it is no different. We simply have to do things in a way which we can manage and yet will still bring pleasure and satisfaction.