Accessibility

My Greek Odyssey

Cds 23231385 10155208443898391 2090805830442771670 nOkay, so perhaps I didn’t go island hopping for 10 years like Odysseus did on his way home from the trojan War as described in Homer’s The Odyssey, but I felt my recent trip to Greece was no less of an an epic adventure than that great work!

Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some of my experiences from my trip, but I thought I would start off with a very brief overview of what I loved most about my extraordinary experience of being a blind tourist in Greece.

As someone who studied ancient history at university I’ve always been drawn to Greece because of it’s depth of history and myth. This time around I had the opportunity of visiting a number of ancient sites both in the Peloponnese and in Athens itself. The impression that remains with me is of how closely intertwined ancient and modern are in Greece – you can be driving down a modern highway and suddenly find a 5th or 6th century BCE (before common era) stone bridge right alongside the highway… or you can be following (fairly vague) signs to an ancient tomb and find yourself walking through a commercial farmer’s orange grove. At times it feels a little surreal – as if you’ve time travelled between one step and the next. But it’s also great that the sites are so accessible to those who are interested in taking the time to see them – and I’m not using the term accessible with reference to my blindness here.

Having said that, I found Greece very good generally from the perspective of disability accessibility. In all but one ancient site both Craig and I were admitted free of charge, in the archeological museum in Athens I was given a very special tour (more about that in a future post), and I was impressed to see that there was a well-constructed and easily accessible wheelchair ramp at the Temple of Poseidon (more on that in future as well).

I also loved the Greek culture. I found the people friendly and gregarious and felt very much at home with their way of life that is so outdoors based – food is often eaten outdoors or on balconies. And, talking of the food – wow! As a fussy vegetarian I sometimes struggle to find local culinary fare that I’ll eat… at times I’ve had to resort to hot chips or a plain cheese and tomato sandwich if I wanted to survive on an overseas trip… but not in Greece – there is an amazing array of delicious food, both meat and vegetarian, for any Greek visitor to choose from. In fact, there were times that my problems stemmed more from the overwhelming number of scrumptious options arrayed before me and my inability to settle on just one or two!

I’ll be sharing a lot more detail in the next few weeks, but hope this has given you just a taste of what an amazing experience my trip to Greece turned out to be… “stay tuned” for more photographs and stories of my trip!

A Wonderful Side effect

2017 10 22 18 42 13One of the most amazing, unexpected consequences of my recent publicity is that people have been reaching out to me for advice to help them or family members who are losing their sight – one wonderful gentleman even tracked me down after a radio interview in a feat of investigative work that would have done any private investigator proud!

I love the range of questions I’m asked, from a lady whose husband is struggling to accept the reality of her sight loss, to specific questions about what assistive technology is available to help with particular tasks. I also occasionally get questions about writing and publishing books, which are equally great.

I’ve always been fortunate to have people around me who have helped me to find answers to the questions I’ve had. As such, I consider it a privilege to be able to help others in my turn.

If you, or someone in your family or circle of friends, is losing their sight please feel free to contact me through my website www.loisstrachan.com or on any of the social media channels where I’m active.

You Have to be Kidding – Me Doing Tech?

The other day I was finishing off editing a recording I’d made of one of my presentations when I stopped dead in my tracks and realized what I was doing. Now, that may not be a shocking statement to you, but try to see it from my perspective. I… was editing…. A recording…. I had made – me, the woman who revealed in her book, “A Different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an ‘Ordinary’ Life in an Extraordinary Way”, that she had a love-hate relationship with technology and was secretly terrified of breaking the internet… editing a voice recording of a speech totally without sighted help – wow!

I’m not saying I’ve suddenly become a total wizard at technology. Nor am I claiming to have the (to me) remarkable skills that some of my blind friends who are web developers, podcasters, musicians, and assistive technology trainers do… but I feel justified in feeling a little bit proud of my ability to keep learning and growing my skills.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of my recordings with you – a few of my speeches and a few radio interviews. Some of those I’ll share will be ones I’ve edited and others will come from other sources.

I hope you enjoy them!

A Wagging Fantastic Event – the SA Guide-Dogs Gala Dinner

NewImageDon’t you think this is an amazing event? My mom and I will be the main speakers at this year’s annual SA Guide-Dog fundraising dinner in Cape Town. Okay, admittedly mom will be the one doing the speaking, but you can bet I’ll be the proudest, waggiest guide dog at the event!

In fact, I’m sure there will be lots of guide dogs and guide and service dogs-in-training there so, not only will mom get a chance to hobnob with some movers and shakers of Cape Town society… but there’ll be plenty canine moving and shaking going on as well – it’s going to be sooooo much fun!

What’s more, the dinner will be a fundraising event to help raise money to train and support more guide-dogs for visually impaired people like mom in and around Cape Town, so it’s definitely for a very good cause.

I just can’t wait to see my doggy and human friends from the SA Guide-Dog Association this weekend… and would also love to see you there – details on how to book your tickets in the advert

Umm, did I mention there will be supper, too? I wonder if they’re going to cater for all us dogs as well?

Such an Amazing Gift!

Sometimes it’s easy to criticize organisations that aren’t accessible to a person with a disability. Today I want to highlight a company that is going over and above the call of duty to make their products available to those of us who are visually impaired.

As many of you know I’m a prolific reader. Okay that may not be as true now as it was a few years ago, when I had lots more time on my hands – nowadays I seem to have very few precious hours to curl up with a good book and simply lose myself in a story. But I still love reading and appreciate any access to books that I can access without having to spend ages standing mindlessly flipping pages as the desktop scanner converts a book into a format I can read.

Unlike many of my blind friends overseas I don’t have access to libraries like Bookshare and others that provide e-books to us… nor do I have the funds to buy as many books as I’d like to have to feed my insatiable book craving.

Enter Baen Books…

Baen Booksare a publishing house who specialise in several of my favourite genres of book – fantasy, alternative history and science fiction. Some time ago, Jim Baen, founder of the publishing house, decided to make the titles available at no cost to blind and visually impaired people who register with the site.

I’ve been registered with Baen Books for a few years now and love the ease of simply logging on to the website, skimming through the authors and books that are available and downloading what I choose. It’s also simple to navigate through the process of searching for books and downloading them. I try not to abuse the privilege… but there are just some authors that I can’t resist!

Of course, their books are also available for sale online through their website. So, if you enjoy reading these genres, please consider supporting Baen Books and the wonderful gift they offer to those of us who are blind and visually impaired.

Here’s where you can find them: http://www.baenebooks.com/

Hmm… which reminds me, it’s about time I popped onto the website to download the next in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series…

Can the C-Pen Reader Help the Visually Impaired?

I recently had the opportunity to test-drive a C-Pen Reader. For those who have never heard of the C-Pen, it’s a portable device designed to assist persons with reading and language-related learning barriers to access print material in an audio format.

It looks a little like a highlighter pen and the basic idea is that when you run the “nib” of the pen across a line of text it will immediately read it using either the small speaker on the pen itself or headphones.

When I read about the C-Pen Reader I wondered if I could use it to access print materials as someone who is blind, although it’s generally not marketed for this purpose. So that’s what I set out to discover…

I found the C-Pen Reader fairly easy to use. While I couldn’t run the pen across the page very fast, I didn’t find the optimal speed uncomfortably slow. I didn’t have to wait too long for the audio feedback, and I felt the speech quality and accuracy was fairly good.

Personally I found it hard to keep a straight line across the page and to move from one line to the next with any degree of accuracy. I’m sure there are any number of ways to resolve both these problems and I’d find a way to do this if using the C-Pen Reader on a regular basis.

While switching the C-Pen on and off was simple, I couldn’t find a way to get audio access to the menu system so would only be able to use the full features of the C-Pen Reader with sighted help or by remembering the patterns to access each function.

My husband, who is sighted, noted that the C-Pen is designed for people who are right-handed. He said while he would be able to use the device as a left-handed person, that it was not entirely comfortable to do so.

My conclusion was that, while the C-Pen Reader is undoubtedly a useful tool for it’s stated purpose of assisting individuals encountering reading and language barriers, there are easier ways for me to access print materials as a totally blind person. I think the device might be useful for an individual who have sufficient sight to make out the location of the printed words, but for whom the audio would be a benefit.

Overall I feel the C-Pen Reader is an interesting little device that I urge you to investigate if you feel it might be of use to you.

With thanks to Edit Microsystems for letting me test-drive the C-Pen Reader – find out about their products on www.editmicro.co.za

Insights on Digital Accessibility for the Blind

Recently I was invited to present to the Old Mutual Digital Garage on the subject of how assistive technology enables me to live a productive life as a blind person in a mostly sighted virtual world. Those of you who have read my book, A Different Way of Seeing, and know about my (somewhat ambivalent) attitude to technology will understand why I was a little… shall we say anxious… about speaking to a largely tech-oriented group. At least I could reassure myself that I probably knew more about the topic than any of my audience did.

Here is a link to the video of my presentation at Old Mutual:

I didn’t expect to capture the interest of the 100 or so attendees as completely as I did. Sure, I realized some of them would be curious about how I engage with technology and the impact it’s had on my life – they’re techies, after all. But the interest clearly went deeper than that, as was indicated by the questions I was asked afterwards.

Often we hear stories of how oblivious companies are when it comes to the question of accessibility, and website accessibility in particular. My experience of speaking to the Digital Garage was rather that people don’t know enough about how we navigate websites without sight and that they would be willing to incorporate accessible design on their sites once being made aware that it can be a challenge for us.

What I learned from the whole experience is that people are curious about how I accomplish the tasks I do without sight. More importantly, they realize that the information I share with them can have business implications that could make their products/services more accessible to a market group they had inadvertently been excluding.

That realization has given me a new sense of purpose to continue the work I’m doing.

How Effectively Does Your Company Engage with Disabled Customers?

Lois uberI’m often surprised at how unaware customer service agents are when assisting people with disabilities. They often make assumptions about what I can and cannot do – like assuming that, because I can’t see, that I can’t sign my own name… or create an invoice for work that I’ve done for them, or type in my credit card code to approve a payment. Come on, people – I’m only blind!

I guess that’s a little unfair of me – after all, is it fair to expect them to know what is and is not possible for someone who’s blind, especially since we’re all different and have different strengths and abilities. So, yes, I guess it’s hard for a customer service agent to make a call on what assistance to offer.

On the other hand, surely it makes sense for organisations to provide at least some basic training for their employees who may come into contact with customers who live with a disability? Because it appears to me that a frighteningly small number of companies in South Africa do so.

Over the past few months I’ve been involved in customer service training projects for two large organisations, Vodacom and Uber. In each case the aim of the project was to develop a training video to demonstrate how to engage with a blind person with a guide dog. Neither video segment was long or complex. However, I’d be willing to bet that both will provide a valuable tool for customer service training in the future.

Of course, one has to ask the question of whether there is a need to train staff in how to engage with the disabled community – after all, how many disabled people are they likely to come into contact with? A recent article in Disabled World lists the number of people in Africa living with a disability at around 10%. Isn’t it in the interests of every company to provide basic training to their employees on how to engage effectively with these potential customers?

The image shows my guide dog Fiji and I with the team responsible for shooting the Uber Assist video.

Contact me to find out more about how your company could make their customer service agents more effective when engaging with blind and visually impaired customers. Let’s start the conversation…

Wagging All the Way Down

People are often nervous about using an escalator when they’re with me in case something happens. I thought it might be useful to create a video showing how Fiji and I navigate an escalator so you can see how easy it actually is.

Here’s what you’re seeing: Fiji and I approach the escalator and Fiji stops with her head facing the pole that prevents people taking trolleys onto the escalator. I reach forward and touch the left-hand handrail of the escalator. Incidentally, usually I would find the pole by feeling where Fiji’s head was – I just happened to find the handrail first so I chose to navigate from there instead… after all, they say a change is as good as a holiday!

From there it’s simply a case of finding the right-hand arm rail, checking that Fiji’s leash is clear of the pole and stepping onto the top step, simultaneously giving Fiji the instruction to go forward. As the steps drop away I check we are positioned safely and then simply ride down the escalator. Fiji stands and waits patiently for me to give her the instruction to jump off. My first guide dog, Leila, used to sit down with her rear end on one step and her front paws on the step below and sit like that the whole way down, which caused much amusement amongst people who saw her!

Maybe you’re wondering how I know when we’re getting near to the end of the escalator? It’s quite simple – both the steps and the handrails begin to flatten out and it’s simply a case of putting one foot forward and waiting to feel the ridge where the floor starts. As soon as I feel that I tell Fiji to move forward and step off myself… and off we go.

And that’s what you’re seeing on the video…

PS Did you see how Fiji wagged her tail the whole way down the escalator? My dog truly loves to work!

Testing My new technology Breaking Point

Anyone who’s read my book, “A Different Way of Seeing” will know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with technology. I love the freedom that technology gives me to do the things that I want, but I’m frequently frustrated when the tech “doesn’t work”! And yes, I’m even willing to admit that in many instances “not working” is caused by my lack of knowledge, lack of skill or simple user error.

As it turns out, today I’m testing my new technology breaking point to the outer limit – I’ve just bought a brand new laptop with Windows 10… which means I’m going to have to learn not only a new operating system but also a new screen reader since the (very old) one I’ve been using will just roll over and expire if I try to use it on the new system.

As you can imagine I’m just a teensy little bit stressed right now.

  • Will I overcome the challenge of having two significant learning curves taking place at the same time?
  • Will I become so stressed out and unpleasant that my friends and family avoid seeing me till I’m through this phase?
  • Will even my beloved guide dog Fiji pack her bags and beg to go on an extended doggy vacation till I figure Windows 10 and NVD Reader out?
  • Or will I totally lose it and wind up gibbering in a corner with the new laptop grinning evilly down at me?

At this stage I don’t have an answer to those questions… but I seriously hope none of them will become a reality.

I’ll let you know what happens… At least, I will if I’m able to do so

Wish me luck… till we “speak” again!

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