On Independence

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 04: I Don’t Have Super-Abilities

The image shows Lois using her sense of touch to explore the Athens Museum

You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if my blindness has given me extra sensory abilities – whether I can hear, scent, and taste better than a sighted person, and have a more sensitive sense of touch.

My honest answer? I don’t think so.

I don’t believe my other senses have improved since losing my sight. But I do believe that I pay them more attention than I did when I was able to rely on my sight. Which means they may appear to be better than they were.

When I was sighted I relied most on my sense of sight to give me input. I believe most sighted people do the same thing. Since losing my sight, I have used the input I gain from my other senses to fill in the gap caused by my visual impairment. My ability to interpret the world around me is dependent on what I can feel, hear, and smell. So I pay far more attention to the input I gain from my other senses than I used to.

When I’m walking to our local train station I use my other senses to help me identify where on my route I am – whether it be the scent of a particular plant, or the sound of a specific dog who always barks at Fiji and myself as we pass. Whether it’s a patch of gravel that helps me realize I am approaching the station itself, or a dip in the road that identifies the spot where we need to turn and cross the road we’ve been travelling for the past 10 minutes. My other senses compensate for my lack of sight and help me navigate the world.

My lack of sight means I experience travel very differently. Of course I miss out on the sightseeing that a sighted tourist would be able to do. But I regularly pick up things that a sighted person, who relies primarily on their sense of sight, might miss. For me, travel is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates every sense I have at my disposal. Which gives me a vastly different, but no less rich, experience of a destination.

When was the last time you focused on the input you could gain from your other senses? Why not take a moment to notice what you hear? Smell? Touch? And see what an extra dimension your world gains. Now, imagine doing the same when you are next in a new city or country.

There is so much that I wasn’t aware of because I was able to use my eyes to interpret the world around me. I’m not saying that my other senses completely fill in what I used to be able to see, but they certainly give me an alternate way to explore the world.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 03: Don’t Assume I Need Help

Lois using a phone

One day a courier delivered a package to my home. This was back before the pandemic changed the way we live our lives. Back in the day when couriers expected you to actually sign for a delivery.

On this particular day, the courier handed me the parcel and started to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Don’t I have to sign for the parcel?”
“Don’t worry,” he said in all seriousness, Ï know you can’t write so I signed it for you”
And then he left. While I stood there, stupefied with shock.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. And usually I make a point of calling the courier back and showing him that I am quite capable of holding a pen and signing my name on the delivery papers. But this time it simply happened too fast.

In truth, I can almost certainly do more than people believe I can. I think it’s because they don’t understand the techniques I use to accomplish tasks, and automatically assume it’s not possible. Which is why so much of my work is about explaining the tools and techniques I have at my disposal as a blind person.

Even people who know me well sometimes struggle to understand what I can and cannot manage, and occasionally default to assuming that a task is not possible for me. A colleague who has known me for several years once offered to make tea when she visited me. Because she thought I couldn’t do it myself.

I understand that people are often just trying to help. My husband sometimes gets frustrated when he offers help because he sees me struggling with a task. And it’s true he could probably do it quicker and easier than me. That’s part of the reality of being blind – things just take longer.

So, why do I insist on struggling? Mostly it’s to prove that I can live an independent life, not only to the world, but also to myself. But it’s also because I have a nagging fear that if I fall into the trap of letting others do things for me, that it will undermine my confidence in my own abilities.

While that fear might sound groundless, it’s happened to me before.

After my previous guide dog, Eccles, retired, I spent two years without a guide. During that time I depended heavily on my family and friends to help me get around. And I became exceptionally good at obeying their verbal instructions – when they told me to step up, I would do so; when they tole me to turn right, I would do so. I became a perfect little robot!

What I didn’t realize was that I was slowly losing the ability of interpreting the world around me using my own senses. Until I was on training with Fiji, my new guide dog, and it became horribly clear how out of practise that skill had become. Happily, with a lot of support from the guide dog trainers and my beautiful young Fiji, I managed to rediscover those skills and everything worked out fine.

But that fear is still with me. And it’s one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable letting people help me.

SoObviously, there are some things that I can’t do because of my blindness. And, of course, it’s not always imperative for me to refuse help all the time. But it’s also unnecessary for me to spend every minute of every day proving that I can do things independently. But it’s difficult to find a balance.

What message do I want you to take from this article? There are two – first, to understand why I am sometimes stubborn about struggling to accomplish tasks on my own. And secondly, that I can almost certainly do more than you think I can, even despite my blindness.

Next time you feel compelled to reach out and do something for me, please rather just ask if I need help. Then it’s up to me whether I accept your help, or if I want to do it myself. Even if it looks like I’m struggling, respect my right to make the choice. Even better, ask me what tools and techniques I’m using, so you can understand my world a little better.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 02: We See Different Things

The image shows a close-up of Lois face.

When I first lost my sight I could see streaks of bright gold light when I was in direct sunlight. Over the years I’ve lost that ability.

Last week I wrote about the fact that blind people are not all the same – that we have individual strengths and preferences in how we accomplish tasks. The same can be said of our blindness – blindness is a spectrum that covers a range of degrees of visual impairment and partial sight.

Basically, I’m saying that we all see different things.

Even those of us who are totally blind may have different experiences of how that appears to us. For me, as an example, I “see” a blank background colour that differs (I think) as a result of the level of light in my immediate surroundings. It can be any base colour from a rose pink to a dark gray. But that’s not all I “see”

My vision is filled with a constant flickering of pure white, gold, green, red, and blue pinpricks of colour that flash on an off as I watch them. I often refer to them as being like visible pins and needles. They are very pretty and are constant – whether my eyes are open or closed.

But most of my friends who are totally blind “see” something different.

Looking beyond those of us who are totally blind, I have friends who have various degrees of residual vision. Some can still see a computer screen, though they need to use a screen magnifier to be able to read what is showing. Some can see blurred outlines of objects around them, but only if there is a significant contrast between the colour of the object and the environment around it. Some have a little usable vision during the day but are night-blind. And some people have eye conditions that mean their levels of vision varies from day to day.

There are almost countless variations on what we can each see as a member of the blindness and visually impaired community. Which is another reason why the tools and techniques we use may differ from one person to another – why some of us use mobility aids like white canes and guide dogs to navigate, where others may seem to be able to navigate around without difficulty in some circumstances and struggle in others. Why some of us have smart phones and computers that talk to us, and why some of us use screen magnifiers. And why on some days a particular person may see something that they may not see on another day.

In truth, visual impairment is a continuum that ranges through a wide variety of visual experiences. And that impacts on the way each individual member of the blind and visually impaired community engages with the world.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 01: We’re Not All the Same

the images show hands tracing across a braille bookI’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like people to know about my life as a blind person – things that I wish were more commonly known that would foster greater inclusion of the visually impaired community into society and the workplace. Because they would help people to understand my world a little better.

I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I wish people knew about blindness in general, and my blindness in particular. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’m going to do just that.

The first thing I’d like you to know is that we are not all the same.

I understand how tempting it is to assume that all blind people are the same – that we all use the same techniques, can do the same things, and have the same preferences. But it is just not true. We are all different. While we may have blindness in common, we are individual people with individual strengths, skills, likes and dislikes. And we may use different techniques to accomplish a task. I have blind friends who can do things that I cannot. And visa versa.

Let me give you a few examples.

I am a guide dog user. I love having the ability of navigating the world around me with my beautiful Fiji walking beside me. Many of my visually impaired friends prefer to use a white cane. Both are effective ways of getting around. Neither is better than the other. They are simply different.

the images show Lois sitting at a computerI am not a braille user. I know how to read braille, but prefer accessing information on my computer using a screen reader, which is an audio programme that reads what is on the screen. That’s just my preference. Yet I know of many blind and visually impaired people who prefer using braille to access information. They have a braille display for their computer, read books in braille, and use a braille keyboard on their smart phone. Others may use a combination of audio and braille. It depends on each person’s preference.

A few months ago, my husband and I went to our local Mugg & Bean. I was presented with a braille menu. Which would probably have taken me a month to read – while I know the alphabet, my braille reading skills are almost non-existent. At the same time, I think it is commendable that the Mugg & Bean chain have braille menus for those who need them. Because many visually impaired customers will appreciate them.

I feel I ought to repeat the point of this article – to show that each individual blind or visually impaired person is unique. Some of my visually impaired friends will probably disagree with some of the articles I write in this series. And some will agree. Because we are not all the same.

So, while I would love for you to join me for this whole series of articles, please don’t fall into the assumption that what is true for me is also true for any other blind person you encounter. Chances are that they will feel much as I do – but it’s always better to take a little time to ask them about their own experiences and preferences.

Any idea what I’m going to write about next? Why not join me next week and find out…

Blindness in the Workplace: Apps to access Print

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We continue the series about tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace – this time looking at apps that use artificial intelligence (AI) to convert text and images into an audio format.

There are many such apps on the market, ranging in price from free to approximately R1500. The apps usually take a photograph of the text or image to be recognized and transmit it to the cloud for conversion. The process is usually fast and fairly accurate, though this may depend from product to product. The apps I usually use are Seeing AI, developed by Microsoft and available on the Apple app store at no cost, and Voice OCR Document Reader, developed by Shalin Shah, which costs around R80 at the time of writing.

I’ve also recently been looking at an app called Voice Dream Scanner, which I like since it does the conversion on the phone itself and so doesn’t need an internet connection – an asset considering the issue of confidentiality of information. It retails for around R100 on the app store and I’ve heard great reports on how well it works.

Of course, the far more important question is how apps like these could be used in the workplace.

The answer is pretty much anywhere where an employee who is blind wants or needs to access print material or even get help reading a computer screen, if for some reason the screen reader has stopped working.

Though more and more offices are becoming paperless nowadays, apps like these can still mean an employee who is blind would be able to access print documents like meting minutes and agendas, industry magazines and books, printed reports and some handwritten notes. though I fear we’re still a long way from an app that would be able to decipher my illegible scrawl!

I’m going to be stepping away from this series on tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace for a few weeks while I share some information on one of my other passions – travel, with a special focus on travel for persons with disabilities.

But I’m far from done on this topic – there are still a lot more tools I’d like to share with you to help raise awareness of the reality that blindness shouldn’t be a barrier to employment with all the tools that are available to us.

Be My Eyes in the Workplace

JPG  Be My Eyes logo

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.

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

Bus

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.

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