On Independence

Be My Eyes in the Workplace

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Those of you following this series of articles about tools to help a blind person be independently productive in the workplace may be asking how we engage with paper documents and physical objects we need to operate.

The answer is quite simple – there’s an app for that! It’s called Be My Eyes, is free to download onto a mobile phone and is available on both IOS and Android phones.

Here’s how it works: I open the app on my smart phone and hit the “Call Next Available Volunteer” button. My data call gets picked up by one of the volunteers, who are able to use the phone camera so I can borrow their eyesight to identify objects, read printed material or a computer screen (or even handwriting). The volunteers can also help me find dropped objects or help me navigate around places.

Can you see how this would help someone who is blind in the workplace?

It can help me do anything from reading print material to using the coffee machine in the workplace. As a blind person, one of my greatest challenges is access to printed information. With an app like Be My Eyes that’s no longer such a problem.

With more than 2 million volunteers around the world, speaking more than 190 languages, and less than 200 000 visually impaired users so far, I’m sure you’ll realize I won’t be waiting long for my call to be picked up. The calls are free, and you can call as often as you need to.

Imagine how an app like Be My Eyes can empower someone who’s blind, not only in the home, but in the workplace as well.

You can find out more about Be My Eyes on their website: www.bemyeyes.com or on social media.

Of course, Be My Eyes is only one of the tools we ca use in the workplace to access information – next time I’ll be looking at some of the multitude of apps using artificial intelligence to help us access the information we need to be productive in a job.
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An Introduction to Screen Readers: A Way to Use a Computer without Sight

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Back in the dim and distant past when I became blind, using a computer was a very different process from what it is now. Back then I had to use a special computer that barely resembled the computers my friends were using, and the amount I could do with it was limited.

Nowadays I, and many other blind people, use a standard laptop or desktop together with a software application called a screen reader. With a screen reader we’re able to accomplish almost anything that a sighted person can. Which means that we should be able to fulfil the requirements of most of the many jobs requiring the use of a computer.

Essentially, a screen reader is a programme that allows us to interact with a computer using audio. We have the option to either type or dictate to create documents, e-mails, spreadsheets or other text-based programmes. We can access menus, online content and documents created by others using the audio functionality. And there are ways we can access the content in images, graphs and diagrams.

So why then do so many people have difficulty in believing that a blind person could be successful in a job?

Maybe they believe that the software to allow a blind person to use a computer is expensive. And, certainly some of the screen readers do have a cost associated with them – as do many other software programmes used in business. But there are many different types of screen readers available nowadays, at a range of price points.

In fact, screen readers are in-built into several operating systems at no extra cost – IOS/Mac, Android, Microsoft are a few that spring to mind. That’s not to mention the many other applications that are out there – JAWS, Supernova, NVDA to name but a few.

And sure, each of these differ in what they offer and what they cost. But, for the purposes of this article, that’s detail and would depend on the preferences of the individual, the needs of the organisation, and the tasks required.

My point remains the same – with so many jobs being accessible to someone who is blind, why aren’t there more blind people being employed?

If you want to learn more about how I use a computer in my work life, please feel free to contact me through my website: www.loisstrachan.com and let’s chat about what I can and cannot do using a computer… I’m almost willing to bet you’d be amazed!

In my next article in this series I’m going to be talking about an app that helps the blind community to access print material and other physical objects more easily – or, maybe I should say one of the ways, since there are a few that I’ll be talking about in this series.

On Independence – You’re Never Too Old to Learn

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I’ll admit I was a tiny bit nervous when accepting Afsana’s offer to accompany me to Makhanda so I could perform in the Blind Date Show at the National Arts Festival.

I wasn’t nervous about Afsana accompanying me – I knew she’d be a great travelling companion and that I’d be in safe hands. Rather, it was the unfamiliarity of travelling with someone other than Craig that gave me pause. While I’ve known Afsana for several years, we’ve never really spent much time together and I wasn’t certain how well she understood the challenges of travelling with someone who’s not only blind but is also a Type 1 diabetic. Oh, not to mention her occasionally boisterous guide dog, Fiji!

Yet, what a great traveling companion Afsana turned out to be! We spent hours chatting – on the flight to Port Elizabeth, on the two-hour bus journey to Makhanda, and over several meals before meeting the others who were performing in the show. And Afsana connected with Fiji as well, even teaching her a new command (“Reverse, Fiji”).

When Craig joined us at the end of our second day in Makhanda I made a discovery that’s given me lots to think through. When Afsana and I were navigating our way round Makhanda I did so with a greater level of independence than normal. And certainly a greater level of independence than when Craig joined us.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Craig deprives me of my independence. He doesn’t. But, when I’m with him I fall into the habit of letting him do most of the work when he’s guiding me. It’s just so much easier since I don’t have to concentrate as much on what’s happening around me.

Whereas, since Afsana left it to me to tell her when I might need guidance, I tended to work it out on my own.

What I need to figure out is whether or not I should break the habit of letting Craig do more of the work, or if it’s okay since I manage on my own the rest of the time. In reality, I guess the answer is somewhere between the two. Regardless, understanding how I manage my own independence has taught me that I’m never too old to gain insights into how I live my life. Which is valuable to me.

And, having the opportunity of getting to know Afsana better remains one of the highlights of a truly unforgettable time in Makhanda. I’m so glad I accepted her offer to come with me on the trip.

The photo was taken by Afsana and shows Fiji and me sitting at the back of the bus travelling between Port Elizabeth and Makhanda.
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Putting My Skills to Good Use

You might remember that I started lessons on using a white cane shortly before I left for my trip to India. I shared a few articles on what I was learning just before I left. Today I want to let you know how I put those lessons to good use during my trip.

I spent five days working in the hotel. During the day I was on my own, except when I encountered people from housekeeping who came to clean the room or bring bottled water for those oh-so-necessary cups of tea. I didn’t mind the solitude. It gave me a chance to catch up on a project that’s been awaiting my attention for far too long – turning my book into an audio version.

But here’s the thing you might not have realized – being on my own meant I’d have to navigate my way round the hotel independently if I wanted to leave the room for any reason. And, since my trusty guide dog was back in Cape Town, I’d need to use my white cane to do it.

I know it sounds insane, but I’ve never navigated a hotel on my own. Not once despite having visited 21 different countries since losing my sight. I’ve always had a sighted guide to assist me.

The first time I walked to the bank of elevators on my own I was a little nervous. Even though there was no way I could get lost. Then I had to get to the restaurant level and find my way there from the elevator. Luckily, the restaurant played music so I listened closely as I stepped out of the elevator and used the sound as a beacon to guide me. Before I knew it, I was in the restaurant ordering lunch.

Buoyed by my success I decided to find my way down to the lobby to meet Craig when he returned from his day of meetings. And, to my joy, that also worked.

You may be wondering what made this trip different – why I felt comfortable navigating the hotel independently where I’d never done so before.

Part of the answer is that I felt more comfortable navigating independently. Even though I’d only had a few lessons, simply using my cane gave me the confidence to push my boundaries. And another part is that I had a really good incentive– to be able to get to the restaurant. Sure, I could have ordered room service, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay the room service prices when I could just walk down to the restaurant instead. If I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and used my white stick.

Now that I’m back in Cape Town I’ve restarted my mobility training. By the time you read this article I’ll have been taught how to navigate one of our local shopping malls on my own. Who knows what I’ll be willing to try next?

The video shows me navigating my way down the hotel corridor towards the elevators using my white cane.

On Independence 03 – It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

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Many years ago I met an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his sight. His family were trying to find ways to help him begin picking up some of the things he’d loved doing before. Yet, each time I offered him an idea of some of the tools he might be able to use, his response was
“I won’t be able to use it because I’m blind.”

There’s an old saying that it’s a poor workman who blames their tools. And with the remarkable range of tools that are available to help us access information and navigate the world in which we live, I don’t believe we, as visually impaired people, can in all honesty claim that a lack of usable tools stops us from living independent lives.

Whether I’m using my guide dog Fiji to help me navigate from one place to another, a screen reader to help me access applications on my laptop or iPhone, using image conversion apps to access written information, or using a simple coffee mug to help me measure out rice for a risotto meal, tools are an essential part of my daily life – and they’re pretty much everywhere I look.

But being able to access a tool isn’t enough on its own. Even having the knowledge of how to use the tool isn’t sufficient. Because a tool is only as good as the person who’s using it. And it’s only when we use a tool to help us accomplish a task that it increases our independence.

I know for myself that I’ll only start using a new tool if I can see the value in doing so. If a tool will help me accomplish a task faster, or more efficiently, or if it’ll help me achieve a goal. In other words if it’s adds to my life.

I currently have a few apps on my iPhone that I’ve never used. I downloaded them because they sounded interesting. But I’ve never needed to use them so I haven’t even opened them. Eventually I guess I’ll either find a use for them… or I’ll simply delete them and move on.

Tools can be an important factor in helping a blind or visually impaired person to achieve greater levels of independence, but only if we are empowered with the knowledge of how to use them effectively and if we can see the value they’ll add to our lives. I am truly grateful for all the tools I have at my disposal – with them I can do almost anything I want or need to do.

PS: Fiji asked me to assure you that she‘s far more than just a tool – she’s a companion, a source of hours of enjoyment and entertainment and a great exercise partner for me as well.

The photo shows me and my favourite tool walking down a road.

On Independence 02 – The Eternal Fight Between Pride and Productivity

LoisWhen is it okay to ask for help if you’re disabled, and when isn’t it? That’s today’s $60 million question.

A few weeks ago I needed to extract information from 50 business cards. Yes, it would have been quicker, and easier, and more effective for me to ask a sighted person to help me. Instead I chose to do it on my own. And I managed, with the help of a clever little app called Braigo, which converted the text into a form I could access. But here’s the thing: that task took me 3 full days; three full days when I had other tasks waiting for me.

Every day I face the same dilemma. Should I ask my husband/a friend/a family member/a random stranger walking down the road to help me do something. Or should I insist on proving to myself and others that I am able to do it despite being blind. Sadly, even though I know it’ll take me a lot longer to do it myself, that’s usually the choice I make.

So, today I’m asking myself why I do it?

Perhaps it’s a question of pride, of not wanting to feel like I’m always asking for help. Perhaps it’s my inherent stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge that my blindness means that some tasks are harder for me, or will take me longer. And yes, there is an immense sense of satisfaction of doing the things I can. But when faced with a mountain of items on my To Do List and a molehill of time in which to do them, even I have to admit that my insistence on doing things for myself isn’t always the most productive use of my time and energy.

Many of the blindness training centres around the world stress the need for independence in all aspects of life. And I understand why they do so –they want us to learn the crucial skill of figuring out how to do things on our own rather than taking the easy way out and asking our support system. Being forced to be independent teaches us that we can do far More than we believed possible. But I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder if the focus on doing things for ourselves might make us feel we’re failing if we reach out for assistance.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stop doing things for myself. Nor am I going to stop learning new skills and techniques to make me more independent. Or constantly testing out new devices and apps to help me do so.

But maybe I should recognize that asking for help isn’t always taboo. That sometimes getting a sighted person to help me with a task will make me more productive and allow me to cross a few more items off my ever-growing To Do List. And that efficiency may be more important than pride and stubbornness.

Because, let’s face it, even sighted people have to ask for help sometimes, don’t they?

The photo show me working at my computer with a pile of business cards. Thanks to Craig Strachan for the photo.

On Independence 01: How Could He Have Missed It?

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I was chatting to a professional photographer while waiting to soundcheck for my set at the Inclusive Arts Festival at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town last weekend. You can imagine my reaction when he said with utter conviction that he wouldn’t cope if he were disabled since he couldn’t bear being totally dependent on others.

Naturally this engaged the inner coach in me – I started asking questions about the assumptions he was making about disability, independence and dependence and ability. And it turned into a short but fascinating conversation about how many people view disability.

I’ve found that conversation spinning in my brain for the past few days and it’s given rise to several thoughts on the topic.
I suspect it’s going to take me a few articles to think through all the aspects of this question that have been percolating in my mind, so be warned… this is the first of a series that’ll look into what I believe independence means to someone with a disability, the concept of independence as a continuum rather than an absolute, some of the tools that give us greater independence, and why so often a disabled person feels that asking for help constitutes a failure on their part.

Finally, I find myself feeling intensely frustrated… saddened… surprised that someone who had spent a week immersed in the world of performers with disabilities could be so blind to the talent, skill and, above all, the independence they showed. How could he have missed it – it was right in front of his eyes…

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