I have been feeling well and have accomplishing a lot lately; so when my birthday came around, I was reflecting on how much things have changed over the course of my life. Instead of being depressed because I lost most of my sight about fifteen years ago which turned everything upside down, I found myself thinking about how much more independent I feel now than I did then. I received a lot of support from Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., Vocational Services, and Helen Keller National Center for the DeafBlind. I learned Braille, tactile ASL, and other methods for independent living. I learned a lot and developed excellent cane skills along with an excellent working relationship with my guide, Little Joe. I had various means of communication and a means of navigating with sighted help, but I was still limited by not having enough help with transportation or people comfortable enough to use the methods of communication I had. I still spent a lot of time doing little but reading the occasional Braille book I could get from the Braille library a hundred miles away or just being guided along on trips to somewhere and standing or sitting while someone else did whatever we were there to do. I didn’t have a true way of participating. I wasn’t unhappy because I have joy and confidence in my Lord, but I didn’t feel independent or successfully productive.
Then things began to change with advances in technology and the ability to afford that technology. Things for accessibility had always been expensive and beyond most people’s reach including my own, but that was changing. Now, I am feeling productive again and more independent because of my favorite things. Let me tell you a bit about them.
My favorite things that allow me to be as near “normal”as possible:
Voice Over and Mac
I finally was able to get two Braille displays that can connect with Bluetooth to my computer, my phone, and my laptop. Some people have PC computers, so they have to pay a hefty additional price for a screen reader which is software that turns all of that digital data on your computer into straight text that a Braille display can read. In addition, the programs on the computer aren’t built to include access to a screen reader, so the screen reader developers have to make their screen reader do the accessing and to be compatible. Unfortunately, they can’t do that with all programs, so many programs aren’t accessible to a Braille display which hinders what a blind person can do.
Purchasing a screen reader isn’t a one-time price, either. You have to periodically upgrade the screenreader software at another hefty price even at an upgrade price whenever the computer’s operating system is upgraded significantly. I can’t afford that, so I was extremely pleased when Apple not only provided accessibility to their system, but also included their own screen reader that is completely integrated to all of their provided applications. Even better, Apple makes development of apps by third-party developers super easy when including accessibility. In fact, by just following Apple’s complete instructions, many apps turn out fairly accessible even when the app developer didn’t realize they were doing it. This makes developing a fully accessible app easy to do when you are actually working toward that goal.
This attention to detail makes Voice Over integrate throughout the entire operating system and not just a separate app that only works with a few things. Better yet, whenever Apple upgrades their operating system, Voice Over is upgraded with it at no additional cost, and Apple either has free operating system upgrades or upgrades less than a hundred dollars for large and significant upgrades. That means I stay up to date easily and affordably. No, Apple isn’t perfect. They can break things sometimes and make changes that hurt accessibility, but they usually fix it, and they are better than anything else out there right now. That makes Apple accessibility one of my favorite things.
I have written before about how my iPhone was the first phone I have been able to use since losing my sight. I can’t hear, so talking on the phone doesn’t work. When Apple made the iPhone Braille accessible, they connected me back to not only the world at large, but also my little world close at hand because I use my iPhone and Braille display for communication with my husband and anyone else who is near me. My iPhone isn’t just for text messages and Facebook and email to friends in distant places. It is my only way to talk to my family and friends in my own home. As I have written before, I cried when I was able to talk again to those around me for the first time in years when I tried the iPhone and my Braille display in the store. It gave me back a life. That is why it is one of my favorite things.
This is the best tactile watch I have ever had. I can easily feel the time. It looks cool, and it appeals to everyone because it is functional and unique. I can actually feel the time to the exact minute easily, and it is impossible to mess up the time. If I do, I just shake the wrist and the magnets pull the bearings back to the accurate time. It is very lightweight and durable being made of titanium. It doesn’t look cheap. I can set the time myself which I haven’t been able to do with some tactile watches. I love my iPhone which I can turn on and check the time on the lock screen with my Braille display, but I have to have both handy, and it takes about fifteen seconds to do all of that. Now, with the Bradley, I can check the time as quickly as a sighted person and do it discreetly anywhere and anytime. That is why the Bradley is one of my favorite things.
Slate and stylus
A slate and stylus is a way for me to write Braille by hand when a Brailler (like a typewriter) isn’t feasible. These come in different sizes for different purposes allowing me to take notes, to label student folders, to write a letter anywhere, and more. I can still write in print, but I can’t read that print, so I need a way to write quickly to jot down phone numbers, names, and short notes to remember them and often in places a big typewriter-type device won’t work. A slate and stylus fit the bill perfectly, so it helps me to be more like anyone else which is why these devices are some of my favorite things, too.
I like a slate and stylus and can use them fine, but the fingers and wrist get tired easily. With a Perkins Brailler, I can type a letter just about as fast as I can do it with a QWERTY keyboard on the computer, but what I get out of it, I can read by myself or send it to another friend who reads Braille. There is still nothing like getting a letter in the mail from someone you like and being able to read it by yourself, so that’s why a Perkins Brailler is one of my favorite things.
Integrated Alerts System
This fancy name is just a silly name for the complicated and awesome system my husband created just for me to identify particular visitors like friends, school staff, and students, so I am aware of who is here and why and decide for whom I should open the door. It involves a mini-computer attached to the area around the door (only so he can read the display when he is home easier), motion sensors on the porches and in the various rooms of the house, cameras around the house, computerized connections on light switches and certain electrical plugs around the house, driveway alert and mailbox alert hardware with all of that connected to the mini-computer which gets the signals and controls the signals and the devices to some degree in cases like the lights, motion sensors, electrical plugs, cameras. The alerts are sent as text messages and emails to both me and my husband, so we always know who arrives, who steps on the porches. My husband can look at the cameras around the house if he needs to for my safety.
The lights and certain electrical outlets are programmable, so we can turn off and on by app or at set times of the day or even periods of the year like Christmas lights. I can get notice of who is here by name if they are staff members or friends with an RFID card. They use the card to put near a certain spot on my door. The RFID reader inside can read the card through the door and then send me a text and email of what the card says something like, “So and So is here, 2.38 pm.”
The reason this is so amazing to me is because early on, after losing so much sight at once, I had a visitor. I was expecting a parent and student at that time. They were only a couple of minutes early, or so I thought. I opened the door with my four dogs around me as usual, two labs and one rat terrier and one pomeranian. The door immediately pushed hard into my left side of my body and face. I immediately knew I had been wrong. Fear gripped me as I tried to push the door closed on whoever meant something more than a friendly visit. My dogs immediately barked, growled, and lunged trying to get past me. The door suddenly went forward very easily, closing, and flinging me into the door and wall. I barely could stand as I fumbled to lock the door again. Now I was afraid to be alone even in my own home. My dogs saved me, and I love them for it. I did manage to live with my fears and uneasiness.
You have to or go insane. Where there is a will; there is a way, and my husband did what he does best. Simple gadgets combined with awesome programming by love gave me back security and peace in my Dark Silence. That love is the best reason this invented system is really at the top of my list of favorite things.
This is another of my husband’s wonderful creations for me. My husband uses his Linux computer, a TV capture card, and a TV line in to record TV shows I like and pull the text lines of Closed Captioning from the TV signal storing it in a file that is accessed by my computer, screen reader, and Braille display. I can actually access the file as it is being created to read the Closed Captioning at my own Braille reading speed or save the file for later viewing. I love that I can keep up with TV shows I like, old and new, and my favorite Bible teachers. People find it strange and funny that I have heard of “wardrobe malfunctions”, Michele Duggar’s 19th miracle, or the strangeness of Abbie Lee Miller. I don’t watch everything because there is a lot of bad with the good, but I am aware of them enough to know what is happening in this crazy culture of ours. That makes me feel a little more normal, I guess, or at least, that I am not living under a rock. That and because, again, love made it possible, my Braille TV is probably second on my list of favorite things.
Cal-tac Braille Caravan®
This is a great tool for teaching Braille reading and writing at any age. It is great for smaller hands without developed dexterity and for teaching the switch from front to back that must be done in Braille writing. It trains the mind before working with a Braille and stylus or even a Brailler.
ASL/Braille/Print Flash Cards, Raised Letter/Number/ Braille Sheets, and Braille Alphabet Tray
I love using these to teach with because I prefer teaching all my students not only Braille, but the notion that there are words in different forms: tactile, visual, print, and on the hands. No one form is better than another. They all exist to provide language to everyone in a form they can access. My blind and DeafBlind students learn to recognize raised print letters as well as Braille because at times raised letters are all there are on a piece of equipment. The knowledge can help them gain information about a small piece of the world at a moment, but it can also give them information about the world in general that they can apply to better understanding the big world beyond them and their limitations.
Just understanding that they read in Braille, another reads words with the eyes on a page, or another reads, at times, with the eyes, words on the hands gives them a greater understanding of people and language. This can be applied to later learning about cultures and foreign languages, be it in Braille or sign language. I know that these children, like their sense-typical peers, have the ability to learn more and have that knowledge as foundations for even bigger concepts as they climb the steps to intelligent thinking and interacting. I don’t want to leave it to chance that they will get it later and still understand it. I open the doors for them now, so they will be familiar with it later and better ready to grasp it and use it then.
I also use many things in different ways. For example, I use the Braille Alphabet Tray which has cursive and print letters above and below each corresponding Braille letter and the print number above the Braille number as a communication board with people who don’t know sign and don’t feel comfortable with Print-on Palm which is a method for writing block letters with the finger on the palm of a DeafBlind person. Using the tray, they point to a letter, I feel the Braille letter under their finger. I use anything available that can teach in some way, provide a new clue about the world, or help me communicate in some way. Because these help me teach or communicate, these are all my favorite things.
Range App and temperature sensors
Range has developed temperature sensors for cooking that uses an app for my iPhone/iPad. This started as a Kickstarter (website for entrepreneurial investing on an individual level) that my husband and I backed. We were able to contact them directly during development about accessibility needs. The company listened! The app is now Braille accessible and being improved all the time by consumer suggestions. The final product is color-coded, but it will also have a tactile or Braille symbol on it for blind users. I can cook and know the exact temperature in Braille of my meats, candies, etc. and know when they are ready by a Braille alert notification. Yes, if you have read my column before you know I hate to cook, so a cooking tool doesn’t seem like it would be on my list. I do have to cook sometimes, though, and this product and app really make the task easier and the fact that I was a part of the testing and development make the Range a definite fit on my list of favorite things.
The Pebble was another Kickstarter success product that is now a successful retail product. It is a digital watch with a computer screen with vibration alerts. It connects with Bluetooth to my iPhone to give me vibration alerts for texts, messages, emails, weather alerts, and anything else on my iPhone. I can’t have my phone in my pocket all the time, especially when I am sleeping; and in my pocket the fabric often dampens the vibration to the point that I can’t feel it even with my extreme sensitivity. I look funny wearing two watches, but I know for sure when someone comes to my door, delivers my mail, sends me an email or text, or if a tornado or bad storm is heading my way because the Pebble vibrates on my arm a different pulse for each and then I can decide if I want to read the details on my Braille display.
Sighted people can read it all including the time and weather information on the watch screen itself, but I can’t. It is still extremely useful to me because it vibrates, and my husband can program it and write apps that are useful to me tactually. That gives me easy access to more knowledge about what is happening around me making me more confident and independent. That alone makes it one of my favorite things.
My list will probably grow longer as time goes by and technology advances even more, but my list of my favorite things shows that there are plenty of devices available to give me knowledge in the Dark Silence that is my world. Armed with that knowledge and the confidence the knowledge provides, I am finding it easier to take care of myself, connect with family and friends, and teach to contribute for good in this corner of my world. I still have problems with transportation and communication with strangers who feel uncomfortable, so I stay home most of the time. The difference is that I have plenty to do now that I have access to the wireless world and ways to communicate with people and methods and resources to teach. And those wireless connections and the confidence derived from love have led me to step outside of my comfort zone from time to time to explore this world which led to adventures I have shared and you might have read. With my growing list of favorite things, I’m sure there will be more adventures to come.