I don’t often get to go anywhere or do much besides sit at my computer in the classroom. I have lots to keep me busy – writing articles for Homeschool Mosaics and Good Cheer (Magazine for DeafBlind People), teaching lessons via the internet and grading students’ papers, handling business for the school, and raising money for equipment and DeafBlind awareness through DeafBlind Hope. I also get up and walk an hour a day, do other exercises for thirty minutes to an hour a day, clean house, and wash clothes. I do everything but cook now days. Yes, I can cook, and I can cook being DeafBlind, but I don’t like cooking, so now I have the perfect excuse. (Yes, I know it goes against my principles I shared with you in the past, but this is cooking. It doesn’t count in that. Smirk.)
Despite my “busyness”, I seldom get out of the house except for the hour or so that we go to the little country cooking restaurant , Jeneane’s, that is very close to my home. I am quite content most of the time; but, occasionally, I want to go and do something. That is hard to do, though, because it is hard to enjoy much if you don’t know what is going on around you. Recently, I found the perfect place. We, along with some friends from California that we hadn’t seen in years, took a day trip to Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium. I had so much fun that I just have to share.
I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I had researched on the web about the facility and was pleasantly surprised that they worked so hard for disabilities other than wheelchair access. Most people only think about wheelchair access when they think about handicapped accessibility and the American Disabilities Act (ADA). I can tell you that there are a lot more disabilities than that. Deafness (requires access to most hearing venues), blindness, autism, and of course, DeafBlindness are just some that need special modifications at times and is covered by the ADA. So, again, I say, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw listed on their website for accessibility. They covered all of those mentioned specifically except for the DeafBlind. However, I could see how easy it would be for them to cover my needs, too. They mentioned iPod audio tours for the blind and written scripts of the tour for the deaf. I called them using relay first to ask more specific questions.
(Don’t let me get ahead of myself here. I emailed them first as suggested on the site. I got the automated reply that was rather humorous about the staff being busy feeding the fish, so they would respond within twenty-four hours. Well, two weeks later they still hadn’t responded. It is another one of those places that says, “Email us” and has a prominent “Contact Us” email address, but the staff never check the email if they even know how to check it, since most web sites are actually created by a third-party web design company. That is a pet peeve of mine, by the way. If you have an email address you give out, check your email sometime, at least. Anyway, hence the need for the relay phone call.)
I set about to make the relay call. I can’t do it like the Deaf whether by Video Relay Service or the old TTY Relay Service. Most Deaf now use VRS as it is called because they can use ASL through a video connection to an interpreter who then speaks to the hearing caller. I would like to do that because it would help speed up a very slow process, but I am blind as well as deaf, as you know. I can’t see the interpreter sign back to me. It would work if the interpreter could type to me what the hearing caller says, but that is actually a discussion for another day. Let me just briefly say that I connect to a hearing caller by using the internet. I use a chat program called Google Talk to connect to a calling center operated by Sprint IP Relay Service. I type on a QWERTY or braille keyboard through chat to an operator who reads what I type to a hearing caller. When the hearing caller responds, the operator types that to me. It is slow and even slower with me because I have to read in braille, but it will and does work. There are all kinds of problems with this, though.
I won’t go into that here as again that is best for another topic, but let me tell you what happened with the Georgia Aquarium, and you will get a gist of how things can be for me. I connected to the aquarium through the relay operator. Usually, the operator tries to explain what the call is and that I am deaf and how to handle the conversation. And as usual, before the operator could finish, the aquarium staff hung up. We called three times. The staff hung up. Now if I wasn’t persistent, I would never get anything done, so we kept on trying. On the fourth try, another person answered. The person tried to say they don’t accept these calls probably thinking it was a telemarketer or a spammer (there are people who will use the deaf relay to spam people because it is harder to track these kinds of calls. It makes us who are legitimately using the service look bad). I quickly typed that I had questions about the aquarium for a visit. The operator stopped explaining and gave my information to the caller who realized this call might be legitimate, so he listened. The operator finished explaining how relay calls work, and I asked my question. I wanted to know if there was a Word file or Adobe .pdf of the audio script that could be downloaded to my iPhone. If so, I could read the script before and during the visit in braille with my portable braille display. There are already files on the website for download to prepare for your visit including a very nice one to help prepare an autistic person for the experiences. I was told there wasn’t, but they had a braille copy of the transcript available at the front desk. I was shocked and a bit wary. I asked if they were sure of that because braille is very expensive. The man replied, “Yes, I am very sure. Just ask for it at the Visitor’s Desk.” Ok. Great! I was extremely excited. We made plans to visit when our friends from California were here.
(Now before we go on, let me tell you that with my chat program and with most TTY’s, a printed transcript or transcript file is available for every call. The transcript is very explicit about the date, time, and dialog of the call. In fact, it is so explicit and accurate; the transcripts are usable in a court of law. Keep that in mind as we go on with this tale.)
As I said before, I was so excited the night before that I could barely sleep. We awoke early. Scott had seen our friends at lunch the day before, but I hadn’t seen them in fifteen years (when I could still see for the most part). I was nervous because they have a son I had met before who is thirteen and a little girl I had never met who is four. Children are often afraid of me because I am so different. I needn’t have worried. The parents are awesome and have a heart for teaching their children to respect others and be understanding of others’ needs. The day would have been awesome just from being with them even if there had been no fish!
As directed, when we finally arrived, we went to the Visitor’s Desk and asked for a braille transcript of the audio tour. The lady stared at us in total confusion. She replied, “We don’t have anything in braille. I’m sorry.” I gave her the information from my phone call. She said, “Wait just a minute, please,” as she scampered off on a mission. After a few minutes, another lady came up and introduced herself as Head of Visitor Relations or something close. She was very apologetic and concerned for my needs during my visit. She passed me and my entire group along to an interpreter for the aquarium. This wasn’t a sign language interpreter. Her job was to interpret to the visitors about the wonders of the aquarium. This lady took me to the large room that held the beluga whales, sharks, sting rays, manta ray, and various kinds of fish. I was taken to the front side where another woman took my hand. She couldn’t sign, so she spoke. I didn’t understand the speech, but she placed a rubbery thing in my hand. I moved my hands across it to discover it had to be a whale. Now mind you, I was able to see clearly in the middle of my vision, at least, just a few years ago. I have seen a whale before. However, it took a moment for me to figure out what I was holding. I almost instantly knew it was a fish, but what kind? I then found that huge mouth. I said, “Whale!” Guess what? I was wrong. She gave me another rubbery model. I found the mouth. It had a sharp-nose above and the mouth had teeth in it. I felt the top fin. “Oh, it is a shark,” I declared with a smile. Then she put the other model back into my other hand and put them close together. Instantly, I remembered a long-forgotten science text picture. I jumped with delight and yelped, “A whale shark, right?” “Yes,” she replied which made me giggle like the four-year old standing beside me. Thus began my first experience of an aquarium with only touch as my guide.
But like a television mini-series cutting at the cliff hanger moment, I am going to stop here and fill you in on the adventure at the aquarium next month. I hope you will stop back by to find out how I managed to see fish in a great big tank and explore those exciting exhibits from the Dark Silence. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Until next time…