In the past month I’ve written quite a bit about the books I’ve been reading. Which has resulted in a few questions about how I actually engage with books.
When I first lost my sight I had no idea of how I might be able to read books. Reading had been a fundamental part of my life since I learned to make sense of the written word and I was seldom to be found without a book, or several books, within reach. So I was terrified I might never be able to read again now that I was blind.
Over time I learned how needless that fear was.
As a blind person I have several different options of how to read. I can listen to a book on audio, just as you might listen to a book from Audible. In fact, many visually-impaired people are avid Audible fans and enjoy listening to books being read by human narrators.
I can also listen to a book on my phone or laptop, using the electronic voice of my screen reader, the application that reads whatever appears on the screen of the device. While this may sound like the most foreign of my reading options to someone who is sighted, it is actually my first choice.
The digital screen reader voice is mostly neutral in tone. It adheres to some spoken norms– dropping the tone at the end of a sentence, or raising it to indicate a question.
To me, this gives the closest experience to reading by sight. All too often I find human narrators interpret the words they’re reading. Which means I am somewhat restricted by their interpretation. Reading with a digital voice gives me the freedom to interpret the text and the story using my own imagination, just as I used to do before I became blind.
I admit that I’m part of a very tiny minority of blind bookworms who choose to read this way. Most seem to prefer human narration. Or using braille.
Braille is also useful as a way to read books. Either a visually-impaired person can read a physical braille book, or they can read a book on a digital device using a braille display. While I’m not really a braille user, which means it would take me months to finish a book that would take me only a few hours on my phone or laptop, I’ll be the first to admit that braille is a great way to read a book without requiring the use of one’s ears. For many people, that can be an advantage. Or in some cases, especially for those who are deaf-blind, a necessity.
So there are several ways I could choose to read as a blind person. I want to stress that none of these choices are better or worse than the others. It is entirely a matter of personal preference.
Regardless of how I engage with books, the important thing is that I have several options as a reader who is blind. So I need never be without books, as I thought I would be when I first lost my sight, the memory of which still makes me shudder. And then reach for the comfort of my book reader to reassure myself that all is well with my book world.
It’s been a while since I updated you on Fiji’s book. And things are starting to move fast now!
Fiji and I have finished creating the content and the book has been proofread. Our next step is to add the photographs and to create a cover for the book… with Fiji on it, of course. Then we need to start shifting into the publishing and marketing phase. Which is going to be exciting for us both!
To my surprise, the book has turned out to be 27 000 words. Considering I anticipated it would be around 20 000 at a stretch, I was amazed to find it just continued to grow. Fiji and I kept adding stories. It’s been so much fun creating a book about Fiji’s perspective of the world. And those who have read it so far, including her puppy walkers, said they enjoyed it.
We can’t wait to share it with you! It will still be a while before it’s available. In the meantime, here is another short extract from the book. This time drawn from what happened when Fiji and I arrived home after being on guide dog training.
Here’s how Fiji remembers that experience:
“Mom and the man had a serious conversation on the trip to wherever we were going. I heard my name a few times but couldn’t figure out what it was about. I rather enjoyed snoozing contentedly at mom’s feet, curled up and occasionally resting my head and my front left paw on mom’s seat. Whatever they were talking about I knew I’d be fine.
The car eventually stopped and I lifted my head to stare curiously around me. The man got out of the car and closed the door, lowering his window to let in some cool air since mom and I were staying in the car. Then he opened the front door and three dogs bounded out and ran onto the grass.
I immediately wanted to go and join them and tried to climb through the open car window. Mom grabbed my collar and held me back and I started to whine and wriggle to get to the dogs. So mom opened her car door and I took a flying leap out of the car and went to introduce myself to my new siblings.
Introductions were quickly made, amidst much tail wagging and tentative play. Emily and I became friends right away – she was seven years old but was still happy to play with me. At fifteen years old, Calvin was already ancient by then and was a little grumpy, and mostly ignored me. But that was okay, because I had lots to explore and mom and Emily to play with. The third dog, Eccles, was mom’s retired guide dog and she seemed to be friendly as well, though she didn’t really want to play much either. She also tried lecturing me on how to look after mom best – as if I needed to be told! Still, I thought it would be disrespectful to ignore her so listened to what she had to say… before rushing off to explore some more.
Eccles and I had a polite conversation about who would get to sleep beside mom on the floor next to the bed. She felt she ought to retain that right. But I told her it was my spot now, since I was mom’s proper guide dog. The conversation went on for quite some time. And eventually we agreed to take it in turns – with whomever got there first winning the coveted spot. Which, of course, meant that I got to sleep nearest to mom most nights. Because I was so much younger and quicker than Eccles, and would race to the bed as soon as we’d had our night-time biscuits.”
We’ll let you know how to get hold of the book soon, I promise…
I’ve had a YouTube channel for years. But I’ve never really done much with it. Okay, I’ve used it to post videos of my speaking, of Fiji and I working, and a few fun videos of my beloved dogs. But very little beyond that.
In 2017 I uploaded a video of Fiji and I riding on an escalator. I thought the cutest part of the video was that Fiji is wagging her tail all the way down the escalator, clearly loving the work she’s doing.
And for years that video limped along, being viewed every now and then by a curious YouTuber. Until the last few months.
Suddenly I began getting a stream of notifications from YouTube telling me that people were watching the clip. These were interspersed with notifications that people were following my channel. And I began paying a lot more attention to what was happening on YouTube.
Over the space of two months my subscribers leapt from just over 100 to 615. And the number of views of that specific video clip rocketed from a few hundred to over 204 000.
It s made me realize the power that YouTube can have. And that I need to be more strategic about sharing videos, especially if they include my beautiful Guide Dog Fiji!
So, watch out – we’ve got lots more videos in our plans!
PS: Here’s the link to that particular video. Why not take a few seconds to watch it after all, more than 200K people must be on to something! https://youtube.com/shorts/exDSDDDrKWM
At a recent online presentation, I was asked to explain how I cook food. I explained a few of the techniques I use– how I chop vegetables, how I work with a hot saucepan without burning myself, how I know when food is cooked, and other simple techniques I use.
My explanation was greeted by various comments on how inspiring I am. Which bothered me.
I guess, as an inspirational speaker I should feel happy to be told I inspire people. And, if I’m talking about how I made the decision to move forward with my life after losing my sight, or strategies people can use to move past the challenges they encounter in their own lives, then I’m okay with being considered inspiring.
However, I don’t believe that talking about simple techniques I use to accomplish tasks in my life should be seen as inspirational. To me, it would be a bit like telling someone they are inspirational because they learned their six times table, or that they were able to tie their shoelaces.
We all learn new skills and techniques as we go through our lives. In my case, the techniques may differ from those a sighted person uses. But they are no more complicated… and no more inspirational.
Which is why I chose to write A Different Way of Seeing – to try and explain how simple many of the techniques I use to accomplish tasks are. And to explain why accomplishing those tasks should not be seen in any other light – they are simply techniques I’ve learned. ,
I know it may seem like I am being dismissive of the response I get from audiences when I speak. That definitely isn’t my intention – I appreciate that people may be moved by my story and the lessons I share to help them tackle their own challenges. I’d simply like people to understand that persons with disabilities do not feel comfortable being lauded for simply learning their six times table… or equivalent skills.
It was such an honour for me to be asked to participate in last month’s Shift Online art festival hosted by the Unmute Dance Co from Artscape Theatre. I’ve been impressed by the online performances shown on the YouTube channel throughout November. They have featured some talented artists from across Africa and the world and, of course, from here in South Africa. So it was really special for me to be asked to contribute to the festival.
There were two segments focusing on my work. The first was a mini-documentary that was premiered on Sunday, 29 November, which featured videos of me talking about my work as a singer/songwriter, author and motivational speaker.
Themba Mbuli, Creative Director of Unmute Dance Co, was responsible for putting the content together into a mini-documentary, and he did a really great job.
Here’s the link to the mini-documentary: https://youtu.be/l50KD6d8f5o
A second segment was released on the penultimate day of the festival, Wednesday, 2 December and featured me talking about how I wrote one of my songs – Here Be Dragons – and a little about how I play keyboard. Also featured in that segment was a solo performance from Lone Loh.
Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/f0CUpXmC0J0
I can’t even begin to think of how challenging it must have been to produce a month-long art festival online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Full respect to Themba Mbuli and his team at Unmute Dance Co for such an amazing show! And congratulations to all the artists for their creativity in adapting their art to an online space.
PS: Don’t think that the festival is aimed solely at persons with disabilities – we are artists first, sharing our art with you. Our disabilities are just a minor part of who we are.
PPS You can also hear the first paragraph of my audio book on the mini-documentary.
A few days after I was declared blind, I chatted on the phone with my grandmother. During the conversation she asked me if I’d seen an article in the newspaper. Then her voice tailed off into silence. I waited for her next words, wondering why she had suddenly gone quiet.
When she next spoke it was to apologise profusely for her thoughtlessness in using the word “seen”.
This has happened to me regularly since losing my sight. when talking to me, people try desperately to avoid any word that is related to sight. Because they feel it might be insensitive for them to use those terms considering my blindness.
In some ways it’s sweet of them to try so hard. But it often makes a conversation a lot more stilted than it would otherwise be.
And, in truth, I have absolutely no problem with words relating to sight. Few of the blind and visually-impaired people I know do. We use them all the time. And most of us are totally okay with others doing the same.
Most recently a few people who have read my book have mentioned they initially felt a little uncomfortable with how often I use terms relating to sight. And people occasionally also mention it when they hear me speaking at conferences and events. But gradually, as they become more familiar with my style, they come to understand that my view of sight is simply a little different from what they are used to.
For me sight includes insights I gain from my remaining senses. Which is the reason my book is titled Ä Different Way of Seeing”
Because in a way I do still see… just a little differently from how I used to.
To get hold of a copy of my book, hop onto Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Different-Way-Seeing-second-Extraordinary-ebook/dp/B08L1VFYS9
One of the best ways an author can introduce their books to new audiences is to talk on podcasts and media stations. I’ve had the opportunity to do so twice in the past few weeks.
The first interview was with one of my favourite podcasts, Blind Abilities. It was my third time being featured on the podcast – the first being back in 2017, and the second being a few months ago. This time the interview focused on the release of my book and a little of my background.
Jeff Thompson, from Blind Abilities, is a skillful interviewer and I have learned a lot about conducting interviews from listening to him. Which, in turn, makes me a better podcast interviewer… At least, I hope so!
You can listen to the interview at https://blindabilities.com/?p=6317
The second interview I did was with Accessible Media Inc – AMI for short – who are a cable station based in Canada. This one was a little more nerve-wracking as it was both a TV and radio interview. The team at AMI were fantastic in guiding me through what would be expected of me, even running a test call to check everything would work properly with the video and audio transmissions.
I am immensely grateful I’ve had the opportunity to become comfortable with platforms like Zoom and Skype in the last 3 years, so I was comfortable with the technology being used. It was just the concept of appearing on TV that made me anxious.
I hope you enjoy listening to the interviews –they gave me the chance to answer questions about the book that don’t often come up when I talk about it.
I’ve been asked to share a list of the apps I use on my iPhone. So here it is, divided into blindness-specific apps and those that you probably also use as a sighted person. I haven’t listed all the apps that come standard on an iPhone, only those that I’ve added to my phone.
But, be warned – it’s quite a long list!
- Aipoly Vision – though it has other functionality, I use this mostly for colour identification.
- Be My Eyes – connects me to a sighted volunteer to interpret visual items.
- Clew – indoor navigation app.
- iMove – GPS navigation app. Lazarillo – GPS navigation app.
- Seeing AI – image/text to speech converter; barcode reader, other functionality but these are the ones I use most.
- Voice Dream Reader – book and document reader of multiple formats.
- Voice Dream Scanner – image/text to voice converter
- Voice Dream Writer – document editor. Voice OCR – text to voice converter.
- Clever Clues – a word game.
- Currency – a currency converter.
- Downcast – my podcast player of choice.
- Dropbox Facebook
- Facebook Messenger
- Internet Banking app.
- Google Maps
- Load Shed CT – app to track scheduled power outages in Cape Town.
- Otter AI – a voice to text transcriber.
- SayHi – real-time language translator.
- Seven Little Words – a word game.
- Shazam Skype Speedtest – wi-fi speech checker.
- Woven Words – a word game.
- Yr – my weather app of choice.
Of course, I also use many of the in-built apps that come with an iPhone. Just because I haven’t listed them doesn’t mean they are not accessible for me to use – they are. At least, for the most part.
You may see that I often have more than one app that does the same or similar things. Mostly that is so I can double-check the information that is being generated by an app using AI. Because I prefer for different apps to give me the same information as a process of double verification. Just to be sure.
If you’d like to know more about how I use the various apps and how I’m able to access them on my iPhone, please drop me a mail or leave a comment
I also talk a lot about the way in which apps help me accomplish tasks in my book A Different Way of Seeing, which is being published on Amazon on 28 October.
I was walking to the shops on Main Road in Plumstead. Suddenly, an elderly lady grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. She very kindly told me that the traffic was heavy and that she would guide me across the road. Which she proceeded to do, despite my repeated protestations.
You see, I hadn’t needed to cross the road at all.
But there was no way for me to disentangle myself from her grip without possibly hurting her.
When we reached the other side of Main Road, I smiled and thanked her. Then I waited for her to go on her way and crossed back to where I’d originally been. And continued on my way.
Why is it that people feel it’s perfectly okay to reach out and grab me? Even worse, why do they feel it is a good idea to grab my guide dog’s harness and pull her – and me – in whatever direction they think we need to go?
For one thing, grabbing us and pulling us around is dangerous – it disrupts our balance since we are unable to control what is happening. For another thing, few people are trained in how to safely guide a blind person and guide dog. And those who are trained would know better than to grab us and pull us. And let’s not even get into the topic of how on earth you know where we do and do not need to go without actually asking us.
An effective guideline when engaging with a blind or visually impaired person is #JustAskDontGrab.
This is a phrase that was first used in social media by UK blindness activist Dr Amy Kavanagh and quickly spread around the globe.
What this means is that if you see Fiji and I walking around and feel we may need help, #JustAskDontGrab. If we’re navigating our way round a room and you think we might need help finding the doorway or anything else, #JustAskDontGrab. And if you think we may be wanting to cross a road and may like assistance – please, please #JustAskDontGrab!
Because the reality is that we probably don’t need any help at all. But, if we do, then we’ll really appreciate your asking if we’re okay.
Many years ago, shortly after I lost my sight, my friend Johan invited me to lunch. He hoped that buying me lunch might soften the blow that he had lost a guitar I had lent him.
While Johan was ordering drinks at the bar counter a man approached him and started telling him how remarkable he was “for taking the blind girl to lunch”. He insisted on buying Johan a beer, presumably as a reward for the service he was doing by spending time with me.
On a number of occasions the same thing has happened when I’m out with my husband, Craig. Total strangers have walked up and told him that he is an amazing man because he is married to me.
It’s almost as if people think that being married to a blind woman must be a huge burden, or that I should consider myself unbelievably lucky to have a husband who is willing to put up with the onerous work that being married to a blind woman must bring.
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe that anyone is doing me a favour by spending time with me.
My blindness is merely one aspect of who I am. It doesn’t mean I am any less competent, less fun, less independent.
I’d like to think I am able to hold my own in most conversations, that I am independent enough not to have to impose on those who are with me, that I have a good sense of humour, and am interested in what is happening in the world around me.
Sure, I may need a little assistance every now and then. But I’d be mortified to think that I was a burden on those who choose to spend time with me.
If all this is true, spending time with me should be just like spending time with anyone else. Not a favour.
Thankfully, Craig is more than happy to take the time to put the matter straight and explain a little about the realities of living with a blind person. And the total stranger walks away a little more knowledgeable than they were.
But when Johan returned to the table and told me what had just happened, he was totally confused that I was upset. I mean, hey, he’d just scored a free beer!
Here’s what it comes down to for me – if you think you’re doing me a favour by hanging out with me, I’d really rather you don’t bother. I’d far rather spend my time with someone who values me for my own sake and for what I have to offer as a person.
If you’d like to understand a little more about the reality of living as a blind person, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book, which will be released in October – I’ll tell you all about it as we get closer to the launch date!