You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Reader

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“I can’t imagine any visually impaired person would prefer reading books using a computer voice rather than a human voice!”

I’m probably misquoting the words but that was the sense of a comment I heard on one of the assistive technology podcasts I regularly listen to. My immediate response was to disagree vehemently… and then I paused and thought about it for a bit.

You see, I actually do prefer reading using a computerized voice. And I seriously doubt I’m the only blind person who does so. So I hopped onto Facebook and asked the question, tagging all the visually impaired people I’m connected with on that platform.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove me, though anyone who knows me will agree that I have a finely developed sense of curiosity. I also wanted to find out to help me reach more blind and visually impaired people with my own books.

It turns out that most of the people I asked preferred human voice books in the form of audio books or services like Audible.com. When chatting to a friend about this startling (to us both) fact he offered a few reasons why this might be so, but his rationale was fairly complicated and this is only meant to be an article, not a thesis!

When I first lost my sight I used to listen to audio books and found that my opinion of the book often depended on the quality of the reader and, in some cases, how well I felt the reader’s voice fitted the genre of the book. Of course, that was back in the days when my only source of books was the library service, Tape Aids for the Blind where the readers were all volunteers so the quality varied quite a bit. Thankfully there was only one instance that the reader was so bad that he totally killed the book for me! But I truly began to feel like I was juding the books, not by their covers but by their readers.

Then someone introduced me to reading on computer using a screen reader and my life was transformed. I loved the ability to scan any book I wanted and read it. I loved the ability to change the rate and pitch of the voice – if you try that with a human voice it often lands up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium which really isn’t pleasant. But most of all I loved that I was free to interpret the words in whatever way I chose to rather than having my impressions of the book determined by the reader– to me that was the closest I’d found to reading as I’d done when I still had sight.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to read when you’re visually impaired. The important thing is that we have the ability to read in whatever format we each prefer, whether it’s using human voice, computer voice, or braille.

But my investigations got me thinking that I really ought to do an audio version of my book, A Different Way of Seeing… Anyone interested in reading for me?

Anyone for Pizza?

NewImageOur first stop on the tour of guide dog-friendly places Fiji and I go to was our nearby Woolworths retail store. Today we’re walking just a few steps away from Woolworths and stopping for a cup of tea… or a delicious meal , if you’re feeling a little peckish.

In fact Sostanza, the coffee shop/restaurant we’re about to visit is so close to Woolworths that I usually instruct Fiji to find the counter in Woolworths and navigate my way from there – when we first learned our way to the coffee shop Fiji tried going straight there, stopping at each table to say hello to the people sitting there. It wasn’t long before I figured out that it was easier for me to navigate from Woolworths, so that’s what I taught her to do.

Over the years my guide dogs and I have had issues gaining entry into a fair number of restaurants – not a lot, but enough for me to call the instances easily to mind. But we’ve never had a problem at Sostanza– in fact, they’re welcoming to all dogs, though I think Fiji and her guide dog colleagues are the only ones allowed to sit inside; other dogs have to sit in the corridor.

We’ve had a number of funny experiences at Sostanza – like the 5-year old girl who was convinced Fiji was cold lying on the floor and sacrificed her own seat-cushion for my dog. And the day Fiji was pulling to get to the people at the table behind me and it was only after I’d chastised her that I realized we knew them. And last week a Jack Russel was whining piteously to be allowed to come and play with Fiji – and Fiji simply turned her back and went to sleep.

Sure, Fiji often has people coming across to pet her but I’ve never had to yell at a fellow patron for trying to slip her food, and it’s a great opportunity for me to tell people about the amazing work being done by the SA Guide-Dogs Association in training these remarkable animals.

Not only is Sostanza welcoming to guide dogs, they also serve amazing food – whether you’re looking for a tasty breakfast, a scrumptious lunch or just a slice of cake with your tea or coffee. As for the pizzas… Well, let’s just say that Sostanza makes what I consider to be the best pizzas in Cape Town and leave it at that!

I doubt you’d be interested to hear about the other places Fiji and I visit at the Old Bakery Centre – especially since one is the cash machine and the other we only went into by accident when the passage to Woolworths was temporarily blocked. So we’re going to go further afield on the next stages of our tour of guide dog-friendly places.

In the meantime, anyone feel like a pizza?

PSASA Cape Chapter President – A New Role

10Monday was the first meeting of the new Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa year, and my first as President of the Cape Chapter.

After years of volunteer leadership through Toastmasters International you’d think I’d be immune to the anxiety of leading a new team through our first event, but somehow that anxiety never goes away. I think it’s something to do with me wanting to ensure that all the attendees gain value from the event.

Of course, I should have known there was no need for me to feel nervous. On the one hand I couldn’t have asked for a more motivated, efficient and willing team, and on the other hand, the interactions I’d had with the main keynote presenter left me in no doubt that he would offer immense value.

And so it was – everyone on the team went over and above the call of duty to ensure the event ran smoothly and I firmly believe every attendee left with real techniques of how to focus their marketing to grow their brand.

Sincere thanks to Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman for demonstrating some simple yet effective techniques to use on our websites and marketing materials, to our MC Bradley Day, and to our 5-minute speaker Chris Adlam for the value they offered our members and attendees. And to the PSASA Cape Chapter team – Hani du Toit, Ian Hatton, Sisanda Dlakavu and Chris Adlam – for all their hard work in preparation for the meeting.

And, of course, Fiji was more than happy to walk me up to the speaking area and back to my seat like the great guide dog she is… though I suspect the treats I promised her also helped. I was amused when she flatly refused to find the door out of the room so we could go to the main entrance to let in a latecomer, But after an attendee graciously helped me through the doorway, Fiji’s fine training clicked back into place and she assisted me perfectly I guess she was just reluctant to miss any of what Waldo was sharing with us!

Do I think Monday will mean I won’t be anxious for future meetings? Probably not entirely. But I will have the confidence of having had a successful inaugural event, and the certainty that I have an amazing team working with me.

Oh, and many thanks to Charlotte Kemp for presenting me with a bottle of wine on behalf of the Past Chapter Presidents to wish me a successful year at the helm of the Cape Chapter – the gesture was very much appreciated!

Proposed New Accessibility Emoji

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I love using emoji – sometimes they so exactly capture what you’re trying to convey, where you’d need a whole bunch of words.

So I was intrigued when I listened to a recent episode of the Assistive Technology Update podcast and heard an article about some new emoji that are being considered – including emoji of guide and service dogs, people in wheelchairs, people with white mobility canes, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs.

I was interested to note that it is Apple who have put these new emoji forward for consideration – well done, Apple!

Here’s a link to the article about the new emoji from the Assistive Technology Update podcast show-notes. Why not take a look and tell me what you think.

http://bit.ly/2IQaIoq

Starting the Tour of Local Places Fiji and I Are Welcome

NewImageA little while back I said I wanted to start a series of articles recognizing places that were welcoming to my guide dog. Here’s the first of those articles.

I live in Lakeside, in Cape Town. Our closest shopping area is the Old Bakery Centre, so named because it used to be a bakery. When we first moved into the house I would regularly wake to the scent of freshly baking bread – Mmmm…

So I want to take you on a tour of some of the local shops and restaurants who not only accommodate, but go out of their way to welcome my guide dog and I – and the Old Bakery Woolworths is going to be our first stop.

Fiji has been trained to walk straight to the counter where the tills are located in Woolworths. Whenever we enter, the employees greet me and either offer assistance immediately or politely ask me to wait for a minute or two while they finish up with their current customer. Then they assist by collecting the items I need and bringing them so I can look at them before I pay. Admittedly it’s a small Woolworths and my needs aren’t overly complex – besides which, I keep my shopping list short since I’ll have to carry everything home in a backpack.

On occasion I accompany the assistant to select the items I need, especially if I’m buying fresh produce, but usually I stand out of the way and let the assistant manage the process. Yes, I am aware that there are several apps and other assistive technology devices that would let me shop pretty much on my own and maybe one day I’ll do so. For now I just find it easier to shop this way and the assistants are amazingly efficient in how they help me. And it makes a huge difference to me.

I’ve heard of so many cases where a visually impaired person has been refused entry into a shop because they have a working animal with them. We’ve even had a few instances where it’s happened to Fiji and me, even once in a different Woolworths. So I’m truly appreciative of the amazing service I receive at the Old Bakery Woolworths in Lakeside.

The next stop on our tour of local places where my guide dog is welcome isn’t far away. In fact, next time I want to tell you about the coffee shop/pizzeria right next to Woolworths, who also look after Fiji and me as if we’re royalty.

But that’ll have to wait for another day…

Paws for Thought – An Announcement from Fiji

Cds DSCF5922I’m wagging so hard right now that I think my tail might just fly off! You won’t believe what’s happening!

Mom and I are going to write a book together… In fact, I’m going to write the book and mom will just co-write it with me. Don’t you think that will be exciting?

We’re only in the planning stages right now but we often have long conversations about what we think should and shouldn’t go into the book. I still disagree with mom that we should include stories of me being naughty – she says it will make me more human (I think she means canine). But ultimately I’ve never written a book before and mom’s written five, so maybe I ought to listen to her.

What I really wanted to say is that if you have any ideas about what you’d like to see in the book, you must just let mom and I know… I promise we’ll consider them!

And we’ll most definitely let you know how we’re getting on as our plans develop and we start putting paw to paper.But no pre-orders yet, please – it’s a little early for that.

Wow… me, a published author… wag wag wag wag wag wag

A Lady of Leisure

Cds IMG 1394 2Yesterday was an extra special day in the Strachan household – my beautiful retired guide dog, Eccles, turned 14 years old… and that’s not 14 doggy years, it’s 14 human years.

Back when I decided to embark on a career as a writer and speaker working in the disability field Eccles took the opportunity of retiring herself. I think she secretly enjoyed the engineering talk that she was exposed to when we worked at the marine engineering firm. Maybe she just didn’t feel that an artistic career was the right one for her.

I’ve been highly amused to observe that Eccles has started being naughty over the past few months – it’s almost like she’s rediscovered her inner naughty puppy. it’s not unusual to find her sniffing around in the kitchen for any possible overlooked scraps of food (you know, the ones her eagle-eyed doggy sister Emily might somehow have missed). Eccles also seems to get a real kick out of pushing Fiji away from her water bowl and having a long, leisurely drink while poor Fiji has to stand around and wait. I’ve even found Eccles trying to scratch at the packet of dog crumbles that we keep under the shelf in the kitchen. I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do!

I also suspect Eccles had a temporary return to her engineering side – when Craig was installing our grey water system at home, Eccles could usually be found supervising his work.

I know Eccles is getting older and is almost entirely deaf. But she’s healthy, happy and remains a joy to us all in her own, newly-mischievous way.

Happy birthday, my Ecce-wekkie-waggy-woo – may we celebrate many more years with you.

Explaining the Realities of Blindness to Architects

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 34“So, how would you navigate your way round a large public space in a shopping centre? What technology would help you do that?”

Those were two of the questions I was asked when Fiji and I spoke at an architectural company who specialize ? in designing shopping centres, school and university campuses and large apartment buildings. It was one of those sessions where I really got to test my own knowledge and skills in trying to offer the architects suggestions on how to make their designs more friendly to blind and visually impaired people, both those of us who work with a guide dog and those who prefer using a white mobility cane.

More importantly, it got me thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past two years – if someone had started asking me things like that when I first sat down to write A Different Way of Seeing, or when I first started working with Fiji I probably would have been lost for words… or at least lost for ideas to put into words. Yet, when I was standing in front of the team of architects I found myself not only able to answer the questions but to offer a few thoughts on emerging technologies that may really help architects to design large public spaces that are accessible to those of us without sight.

Of course, I had the added advantage that Fiji was being her usual beautiful and talented self, so I could probably have got away with it even if I hadn’t been able to answer the questions posed by the architects… but I could, so her being beautiful and talented was merely an added bonus!

I really enjoy doing this kind of work, and Fiji loves doing any kind of work, so it was a wonderfully stimulating day for us both.

Appreciating My Reality

Cds IMG 0065It won’t surprise you to know I have a fairly extensive global network of blind and visually impaired people on social media. I also listen to several podcasts by and about people who are visually impaired. Recently I’ve been amazed how often I’ve heard stories of people being refused access to places and services because they have guide dogs.

Which got me thinking – Fiji and I have been working together for just over 2 years. Add that to the years I worked with my previous guide dogs, Leila and Eccles, and you land up with a scarily large number.

In all that time I’ve really never had a major problem accessing places and services with my dogs. Sure, there have been times that I’ve been challenged about bringing a dog into ashop or restaurant, but we’ve always managed to resolve the problem then and there.

And yes, there have been times I’ve become frustrated at the increasing amount of bureaucracy that’s required when travelling by air with Fiji but, believe me, the administrative hoops Fiji and I have to jump through are minor compared to what some of our international colleagues have to.

I’ve also heard horror stories from friends in other cities in South Africa, so maybe Cape Town is just a really special place. To be fair, I haven’t experienced problems in Johannesburg but Fiji and I haven’t really travelled much together outside of Cape Town– at least, not yet!

Fiji and I regularly go to new places and make use of services and are usually welcomed and treated with respect. So I want to start acknowledging some of the places she and I go and acknowledge their fantastic service to us. .

Why not suggest a few places you feel we ought to try – if we can get there, we’d be happy to do so and share about our great experiences. And we’d love the opportunity to show the rest of the world what a great place Cape Town is to work with a guide dog

Sticks and Stones –The Emotional Baggage Associated with Disability Terminology

Cds Lois Formal 2It’s no secret that people often become nervous when using words that reference disability, and I get that. They don’t want to upset us, or make us feel in any way diminished by the term they use. And I get that too. In fact, I’m not even sure I know what term I should use to describe my own lack of sight.

I don’t really like the word disability because I don’t consider myself unable or incapable. I’m also not wild about the term visually impaired since I really don’t think I’m broken or damaged. Nor does the term differently abled resonate with me – I promise you my abilities are no different from yours; it’s only my methods that differ.

I guess it’s not the actual terminology that I struggle with. It’s the implications that each term carries. And when it comes right down to it, I have the choice of whether or not to take on the emotional implications of the terms

And neither do you.

“What?” I hear you ask, “What on earth do you mean by that?”

Well, you’d be amazed how often I’ll be talking to someone who gets completely tongue-tied when they need to refer to my blindness. They stammer, turn almost audibly red, and then mutter the dreaded “b”, “v” or “d” word as if it’s something heinous.

it doesn’t really matter to me what words you use – I don’t have to take on any of the emotional baggage that most of the terms carry. For me blindness is a reality, not a problem and, while I may be labelled disabled, it certainly doesn’t mean I’m in any way disempowered.

So use whatever term you’re most comfortable with… just don’t mumble it as if it’s something unmentionable.

PS: I feel I ought to warn you that not all visually impaired people share my view and have strong preferences of the terms you use – as a piece of advice I’d suggest you ask them what works for them!

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