Disability Awareness

What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know, by Leanne Hunt

I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to read and review an advance copy of fellow blind female South African author, Leann Hunt’s new book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know.

Leanne’s book is a practical guide on how to assist a visually impaired family member, friend or colleague who is struggling to grow from dependence to independence. She describes the psychological impact of blindness as well as the various stages she herself worked through in coming to terms with her disability and gaining independence. Leann’s is an inspiring story that is full of courage.

Though I personally did not experience anything near the same level of isolation and dependency that Leanne did when losing her sight, I could relate to her story. The book gave me reason to reconsider my own journey through blindness and I found myself gaining additional insights into my own life from both the similarities and the differences in our situations.

I will admit to having reservations about the word “every in the title, what Every Blind Person Needs You to Know, as I believe it is too simplistic to assume that the same process will apply to all blind people. However, there are certainly aspects of Leanne’s book that will be useful to each reader.

I would recommend Leanne Hunt’s book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know as a valuable resource for anyone supporting a blind or visually impaired person battling to discover how to increase their level of independence.

You can purchase What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know at www.blindyetfree.com/books

Louis on the Block, Bergvliet

Cds IMG 3086
It is really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what your preference in cuisine happens to be. I am constantly amazed at the number and variety of restaurants we have. But I sometimes wonder if finding a restaurant is as easy for someone living with a disability?

Disability access is a subject close to my heart. I’ve decided to write reviews of places that impress me – and those that horrify me – in terms of how accessible they are. I suppose my recent article about the SAB Newlands Brewery should technically be considered my first, but this is the first that will appear under the Accessibility Review category.

Recently Craig, Fiji and I had dinner at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet. Not only did we have a great, reasonably priced meal with good service, but I was impressed by how disability-friendly they were.

My guide dog, Fiji, was warmly welcomed into the restaurant and was offered not only a bowl of water but a snack as well, which Fiji was distraught that I refused on her behalf. Now, while it might sound very unfair that Craig and I got to eat while Fiji did not, the truth is that if she learns that she might get food when we do she will learn to beg – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant at a restaurant.

What really impressed me about Louis on the Block was that the restaurant was also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there were steps up to the main entrance, they had a wider door that was easily accessible to a wheelchair..

No, I didn’t happen to notice it. Nor did I ask (though I must do so when going to restaurants in the future). But at one point in the evening the restaurant’s owner and one of the wait staff crossed to the double door to assist a lady in a wheelchair to enter and join one of the tables having dinner.

The whole experience left me feeling very positive about the restaurant and enhanced my enjoyment of the evening.

Well done for going the extra mile, Louis on the Block!

Yes, I Know I Don’t Drink Beer, But…

Cds IMG 3080Considering I do not drink beer, a brewery tour might sound like an unusual way for me to spend an evening. But that’s exactly what I did two weeks ago. Craig, a few friends and I toured the SAB Newlands Brewery… and what an experience it was!

I’m not going to dwell on how the beer is made, nor how the Newland’s plant keeps the process environmentally and cost effective – if you want to know that, you should visit the Brewery yourself. This is purely about my experience of touring the plant as a blind person.

On arrival, Craig and I were given a comprehensive briefing on what we could expect during the tour and what potential risks we might encounter. I know the safety officers had to give special permission for me to take my white cane on the tour with me – this was one occasion that leaving Fiji at home was definitely the right thing to do! We also had to sign a disclaimer protecting SAB against any injury sustained on the tour, but so did everyone else, so it wasn’t just because I am blind.

Generally I found the tour fairly easy to navigate. We climbed up and down staircases and walked from one area of the plant to the next as the guide explained the beer-making process. At no time did I feel unsafe or overly rushed and our tour group accommodated the presence of a blind woman without difficulty.

Then we entered the bottling area. Huge machines were busy washing, filling and stacking bottles and there was so much noise we had to don our headphones, both to protect our ears and to allow us to hear our guide’s explanation of the process.

Considering that 2.2 million units of beer are produced by Newlands Brewery every day, (bearing in mind they still bring in extra beer to meet Cape Town’s daily consumption), I guess the noise was to be expected – they could hardly shut off the line while we walked through. But let me explain the experience from my perspective:

There I was standing on an elevated walkway without sight, with the pounding of the machines making my hearing useless, and the design of the walkway making it impossible for me to feel my way with my white stick… I felt totally isolated, totally powerless and totally unable to move. I just stood there frozen on that walkway.

My blind friend, Chris, compares that feeling as being like having a bag thrown over your head, your hands tied and then being tossed into the back of a steel van and being powerless to protect yourself as you are thrown from one side of the van to the other. That might sound a little extreme, but having no ability to use any of your senses is petrifying.

Thankfully Craig helped me by placing my clutching hands onto secure handholds and helping me find my way, step by step, over the walkway and down the steps on the other side… but it was a close call. Mind you, staying where I was was hardly an option – I had to either go forward or back, didn’t I?

After the tour we sampled a few of the SAB beers produced by the Newlands Brewery and had a chance to chat to the other people on tour with us, which rounded the evening off well.

There is no way that anyone with mobility challenges could take the tour – the number of staircases and the elevated walkway would be insurmountable for someone in a wheelchair. However, the tour is not problematic for someone who is blind and, if all the guides are as knowledgeable as ours was, there will be sufficient detailed information to make sense of the process being described. Definitely an interesting experience, even for someone who does not drink beer… and yes, I still don’t drink beer!

Paying Tribute to the Wonderful Women in my Family

CurryWith today being Women’s Day I felt it was appropriate to pay tribute to two women who played a significant role in shaping my thinking when I lost my sight.
Though each of these women surely deserve far more than just a few words, today I want to focus on what I learned from their extraordinary courage.

My mother, Cynthia Lois Agar Gowans (18 April, 1940 – 14 November 1993) was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) shortly after we moved to South Africa from England. MS is a degenerative condition that affects the immune system and causes muscular weakness and increasingly impaired mobility and balance amongst other symptoms.

I remember my mom having to steady herself with a walking stick when collecting me from junior school, needing special adjustments to enable her to drive her motor car when I was in middle school and catching the bus home from school when I was in high school because my mom could no longer drive. By the time I lost my sight, my mom was bedridden and I recall spending long hours with her chatting and watching television while she lay propped up in bed.

Yes, my mom had a strong support system and wonderful caregivers but I still find myself pondering how she endured the inevitable weakening of her body with such fortitude. I’m not saying she didn’t ever complain, but only on rare occasions did she give in and rail against the hand that life had dealt her.

My mom passed away just under two years after I lost my sight. , I can only hope that I live up to the example she gave me with the incredible courage and fortitude with which she withstood her MS.

My grandmother, Sylvia Jessie Agar Simpson (22 May 1909 – 8 October 2002) was a wonderful hostess whose reputation was founded on her engaging conversation, her interest in people and the world around her, her intelligence and wit, and in her ability as a captivating storyteller, (and of course, her delicious food!).

I have vivid memories of my gran sitting in her favourite comfy chair in the corner of the lounge with all us grandchildren gathered at her feet listening spellbound as she related a story from her childhood. And not just us kids – all the adults would stop what they were doing to catch the fascinating stories of people and times gone past.

What we didn’t realize was that this was one of the creative ways my gran coped with her increasing hearing loss. By telling the stories, gran remained in control of the conversation and didn’t have to struggle to make out what others were saying to her. Additionally, it was likely that questions that were directed to her were about the story, and that helped her work out what people were asking. It was such a simple, yet effective, way of managing her hearing loss.

My gran was also a great correspondent and wrote a vast number of letters to friends and family round the world until shortly before her death at the age of 92. Even gran’s blind granddaughter received letters on a regular basis, because gran knew that Craig would read them to me. On one memorable occasion she posted me a curry recipe because I wanted to make a curry for Craig but had no idea how to do so (back before I could find recipes online) So, while telephone conversations with my gran grew increasingly hard, she found a way to communicate with everyone without difficulty, always with her characteristic humour, wit and intelligence, and of course, her enthralling stories… reading gran’s letters almost felt like I was in the room listening to her speak!

So today I want to pay tribute to my mom and my gran: to my mom for teaching me courage and the determination not to let my disability conquer me, and to my gran for giving me the gift of stories and the understanding that even challenges can be overcome if you can find creative ways to do so. Both these women had a profound influence on my life and played a huge role in me becoming the woman I am today.

Eventually… A Sub-Title!

For some time I have been puzzling over what to sub-title my book, A Different Way of seeing.

Initially I had “My Life Without Sight”, but it didn’t really work for me because the book is not a biography, or a memoir – it’s a combination of how I accomplish everyday tasks and some anecdotes illustrating what I’m saying.

Eventually, after a whole lot of discarded non-possibilities, I decided to get input from another writer friend, Christopher Venter, who runs the Blind Scooter Guy blog that I referred to in a previous article (see my post on 10 June 2016). Chris and I threw around a few ideas and eventually I found something that resonated with me.

So, as I continue to work towards publishing my book, the full title will be

A different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an “Ordinary” Life in an Extraordinary Way

What do you think? Does the sub-title work for you?

Illustrations Bringing My stories to Life

Somewhere along the way on the journey of writing my book, A different Way of Seeing, I came up with the idea of having an illustration at the start of each chapter. And that idea stuck.

So I did what any other author would do in the same situation – I phoned a friend. Well, actually, I spoke to a friend, who happens to be a professional animator, when I saw him at a Toastmasters meeting.

We chatted. I sent him the book. He read it. And then he started drawing…

Gertan Agenbach did an amazing job of bringing my stories to life with his quirky drawings – they are going to be a real asset to my book!

As a sneak peek, here is one of the drawings…

6 Earning my keep

Blind New World

A while back I was listening to a podcast (yes, another one!). This was the Assistive Technology Update, a podcast that focusses on technology for those with special needs.

This particular issue included an interview with Jerry Berrier of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Perkins School have launched a new website initiative called blind New World which seeks to change the way people view blindness – encouraging inclusion and demystifying blindness for those who may be uncomfortable around a blind person or unaware of the capabilities of those who are blind.

And if you think that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s pretty much the purpose behind my new book, A Different Way of Seeing. So it’s no wonder that I reached out to Jerry Barrier and started a conversation to see what synergy we could create between their initiative and the work I’m doing as a speaker and author.

As a consequence of our conversations I will be contributing an article to the Blind New World blog later this month and I’m hoping that Jerry or one of the other Blind New World team will endorse my book.

Why not take a look at www.blindnewworld.org to find out more… and who knows, you may even see my article there!

Yay! International Media Exposure!

IMG 20160611 WA0001Whoever would have thought that they would get international media for simply doing what they love? Well, maybe some people might, but I certainly wouldn’t number myself amongst them! And yet, that is what happened…

And what wonderful exposure it was – an article about me in the toastmasters International magazine, that goes to 325000 Toastmasters in 135 countries around the globe.

This story starts many months ago. Back in January I was asked if I could be interviewed for the Southern African toastmasters website. I was honoured and excited to be asked –especially since the article was being written by Zoya Mabuto, the southern African speech champion for 2015/16

I had the opportunity of meeting Zoya just before she was announced as the Southern African champion and was immediately struck by her energy and passion.

Through the article I enjoyed getting to know Zoya a little better. She is passionate about our beautiful country and our diversity of people, and her message is often one of hope, which strongly resonates with me. I guess it’s no wonder that our half hour Skype interview lasted far longer than we had anticipated– we had sooo much to talk about! The article Zoya crafted captured exactly what I would have wished.

Both Zoya and I were excited when one of the Southern African PR Editorial Team suggested submitting the article to the toastmasters International magazine – and it was accepted. The article was published in the June 2016 issue of the Toastmasters magazine.

Here’s a link to the article. Member Achievements.pdf

And a link to Zoya’s “Zoya Speaks” Facebook page

The Worst Thing about the Common Cold

Most of us are laid flat by the common cold every now and then. In Cape Town it seems like everyone has either just got over it, or is currently suffering. And we are no exception –Craig and I are thankfully now over the worst.

Most of us experience a degree of impairment of our other senses when we have a cold – our ears are blocked so we can’t hear so well, our nose is clogged so our sense of smell and taste are also hit. And that is mildly irritating, right?

Imagine how much worse that sensory impairment is for a blind person…

In the past few weeks, when my cold was at its worst, I could not differentiate one tea from another, so if the ginger tea (which I do not drink) and the cranberry/apple tea (which I do) are accidentally put in the wrong place I cannot tell which tea I’m landing up with until I have tasted it… and sometimes not even then… … which is annoying, but not a train smash.

Even now, almost 3 weeks since I contracted the cold, I find it difficult to hear traffic, which is more serious because it puts me and Fiji in danger when crossing roads. More specifically, while louder noise still dominate my sense of hearing, there is a greater risk that a passing train might obscure the sound of a car… or a noisy bus on Main Rd (are there such things as quiet busses?) may hide the sound of a car idling on a side street waiting to pull into traffic. Those drivers will probably be focussing on seizing any gap to turn into Main Rd, not on the woman and guide dog waiting to cross the side road. While normally I would simply wait for the side road to clear before crossing, if I can’t hear that idling car, I don’t know it’s there.

So, for me the worst thing about the common cold is not the sniffing, the sneezing, the coughing, the body ache… it is the reality of the heightened risk Fiji and I are in when we take to the roads.

Sometimes the universe Insists

A few days ago I was chatting to Christopher Venter, a fellow blind Capetonian and blogger, about the technology he uses and his reasons for selecting the equipment he does. Chris believes that dedicated screen reader applications like JAS are being made redundant by products like the iPad and iPhone with their in-built voiceover functionality.

My instinctive response was to question this. After all, I’ve been using JAWS on a Windows-based computer for almost 20 years.

And then I started thinking about the ever increasing amount of time I find myself spending on my iPhone (and not on my laptop): listening to podcasts, communicating with people on Facebook, FB messenger, WhatsApp, and even (finally) accessing websites on my iPhone… so maybe it’s not such an unbelievable idea.

That got me thinking.

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, the universe decided to reinforce the message.

That afternoon I listened to one of my regular podcasts, Accessibility technology Update, in which RJ cooper, one of the first people in the world to design computer solutions to enable those with special needs to accomplish tasks, repeated Chris’s message almost verbatim.

So, now I’m wondering about what this will mean for me and the way I accomplish tasks – maybe not tomorrow, but certainly sometime in the near future. My head is spinning with all the possible implications.

Only one thing is certain: the universe is insisting I get the message that change is going to happen.

To read Chris’s fascinating blog: https://blindscooterguy.wordpress.com
To listen to the Accessibility Technology Update podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/za/podcast/assistive-technology-update/id442159129?mt=2&i=369472010

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