assistive technology

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.

Be My Eyes – A Helping Eye for the Blind

Bme logo rgb lightSo, here we are at blog 200 – if anyone had told me back in June 2015 that I would surpass the 200 blog point I’d probably have laughed at them. I kind of thought blogging was something I’d do every now and then when I had something important to share. And maybe that’s still true. It’s just that I seem to have a fairly constant supply of important things to share with you.

Like the subject of today’s blog – an app called Be My Eyes. Here’s the description of the app taken from their website: “Be My Eyes is a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers. On the app, volunteers assist blind and low vision users through a live video connection and work together to tackle challenges and handle a wide range of tasks. The app harnesses the power of generosity , technology, and human connection to help blind and low vision people lead more independent lives. Be My Eyes is accessible in more than 150 countries worldwide and in over 180 languages. The app is free and available for both IOS and Android.”

You may be wondering how Be My Eyes benefits the lives of those with visual impairment. Well, here’s my response to that.

Even though it doesn’t happen often, there are times when having sight would simply make my life a little easier – finding something I’ve dropped on what suddenly feels like a huge expanse of open floor space, reading a document that isn’t in an accessible format, , or an actual print document. I’ve used Be My Eyes to find out what colour an item of clothing is – yes, sometimes I buy the same item in different colours because they’re just so comfortable. Or finding out the contents of a tin, without having to open it.

I agree totally with whomever it was who said that blindness is not about ability, it’s about access to information. And sometimes having a helping hand – or a helping eye – like Be My Eyes is what we need to access that information.

Here are some of my favourite things about Be My Eyes. Not only is the added access to information great, so is the range of languages spoken by the volunteers – including many of our Southern African languages. It’s quick and easy to get connected to a volunteer –there are about 15 times the number of volunteers as registered blind users. There’s no limit to the number or duration of data calls you make, though I’d think it’s only fair to tell the volunteer if you think it may be a long or complex task.

And here’s a personal story – a few weeks ago Be My Eyes was featured quite a lot on Facebook and several of my friends shared one of their videos on my wall. Another of my friends watched the video and signed up as a volunteer, though she told me she doubted she’d ever be called on to assist someone since there were so many volunteers already. Her first call came in a day or two later…

If you’re interested in finding out more about Be My Eyes, either to sign up as a visually impaired user, or as a volunteer, simply download the app from either of the app-stores find them on almost any social media platform, or take a look at their website – www.bemyeyes.com

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 02

In my last post I referred to a recent article from the Cape Argus newspaper. It’s relevant to this post as well – here’s a link to the article if you want to read it: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-argus/20180502/281814284483805

The Cape Argus article says that companies should have budget specifically for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. In the case of visual impairment this would tend to be technology to help us access information, like screen readers, and text or object recognition products. The perception is that these technologies are prohibitively expensive.

Here’s my thoughts on that perception…

I’m not going to argue that we don’t need these technologies – looking at how much time I spend on my laptop and smart phone with accessible software I find it hard to remember how we used to cope before. What I’m arguing is the perception – the assumption – that it’s expensive to provide these digital accommodations.

Sure, some commercial software solutions do carry a cost, but these are not the only solutions. And I think the decision of whether to pay for a commercial solution will depend on the perceived value. Certainly, in South Africa, the commercial solutions are out of reach of many individuals so, if the employer decides this is the way they want to go it would probably be at the employer’s expense.

Let’s look at some of the other options:

Over the past few years the assistive technology landscape has changed. Increasingly we’re seeing technology companies including in-built accessible software into their products – all Apple products now have in-build screen reader and magnifier software, Microsoft also has in-build accessible software, and the number of free or discretionary cost solutions are constantly growing. These options mean that more individuals are able to access assistive technology without breaking the bank.

What does that mean? Let’s say I was to consider applying for a position with a company, which I’m not right now, I could approach a job interview with all the assistive technology solutions already in place – hence no cost to the company unless they decided to use the more expensive commercial products. Using my existing software and various free apps on my iPhone I’m able to access almost any information I’m likely to need.

Are these free solutions as good? Certainly I find they enable me to do all I need to do, though at times I may need to hunt for the solution. I can’t say I’ve done an exhaustive comparison but certainly I Haven’t found anything I can’t do on my current screen reader that I could on the commercial equivalent.

And yet the perception persists that making reasonable accommodations will be expensive.

I suppose it’s logical – very few people with no lings to the disability world know what solutions are available, and you’re unlikely to be told about the free options if you ask a commercial vendor. So it’s up to us, as visually impaired people, to make other’s aware of what we can access.

I know the focus of my posts is on the issue of barriers to employment that exist for people with visual impairments, rather than all disabilities. This is the area I have direct personal experience in. However, I know the principles hold across the spectrum of other disabilities.

If you’d like more information on anything I’ve said in this post, please feel free to contact me – this is a subject very close to my heart… as is decreasing the barriers to employment so often faced by persons with disabilities.

PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

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

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.

My Second Cape Talk Interview – This Time In-Studio

Ten days ago I posted the audio recording of my first interview with Cape Talk 567 Radio during the week leading up to World Sight Day on 12 October 2017.

Here’s the second interview, this time with Pippa Hudson on her daily lifestyle show.

There were a few things that made this a memorable interview for me – first that Pippa invited Fiji and I into the studio which was a lot more fun than sitting on a phone and, second that the interview seemed to develop a life of its own – it seemed to flow seamlessly from one topic to the next.

And it appears I wasn’t the only one who felt it went well – from what I’ve been told, not only did Cape Talk replay the interview the following day, but it was also picked up by their sister station in Johannesburg, 702.

And, if that wasn’t enough, this was the interview that led to a journalist from YOU Magazine picking up on my story and contacting me to ask for an interview for their online magazine – but more on that in a future post!

I won’t be posting an article on 2 January – everyone needs a few days off to see in the new year – but look out for my next post on Friday, 5 January 2018.

Thank you for all your support over 2017 and I look forward to sharing more of my experiences and observations with you in 2018.

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.

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.

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