Blindness

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Are You Helping or Harming?

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Date: 24 March 2020
Category: Disability Awareness, Audio,
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**Craig, not sure if the podcast link will provide us with an image; please let me know
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You’re walking down a road and see a person with a guide dog or a white cane approaching you. Do you offer to assist them? And if so, how?

One day, an elderly woman grabbed my arm and propelled me across a busy road. Then she walked off, no doubt feeling good for assisting the poor blind lady. Here’s the thing – I didn’t need to cross that road. But she didn’t give me the chance to say so.

The topic of how to engage with a visually impaired person and offer help became a hot topic on social media recently, due primarily to Dr Amy Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign. The campaign aims to change the way sighted people offer assistance to those of us in the VVI (blind and visually impaired) community.

In many ways I agree with the aims of the campaign. If I’m standing at the top of a flight of stairs figuring out the safest way to navigate them, I might get startled if someone suddenly reaches out and grabs my arm. It puts me at risk of losing my balance and falling down those stairs. So, #JustAskDontGrab has its place.

But truthfully, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What if there isn’t time to connect verbally before I put myself into danger? What if it’s a noisy or busy environment where I might not realize you’re talking to me? You need to consider what’s happening there and then.

But here’s the thing, most blind and visually impaired people who are out in the world are very capable of navigating our way around it. Almost all of the time. Except for the very rare occasion when we’re not. And we’ll usually ask if we need help.

Am I saying you should never offer assistance to a member of the VBI community? By no means. Because maybe it’s the one time we actually do need assistance. Just please, , rather than reaching out and grabbing our arm, or our guide dog, rather verbally ask if we need help. And, if you think we might not hear you, lightly touch our arm and then ask.

It sounds so simple, right? Yet, there’s so much happening in that moment that you reach out – metaphorically, of course – to offer assistance. And that’s the subject of a conversation Jeff Thompson, of the Blind Abilities Podcast Network, and I had a few weeks ago.

I’d love for you to listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. Whether you’re sighted or a member of the VBI community, I’m interested to know your thoughts.

Besides, you never know – it may help next time you’re walking down the road and see a person with a guide dog or white cane and try to figure out whether or not to offer assistance.

Here’s the link.

And Then the Lights Went Out!

The image shows a blonde Labrador Retriever grinning at the camera

Last week I told you about the Love Your Guide Dog event that Fiji and I attended in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. I promised to tell you a little more about the fun evening we had.

I knew it was going to be a great evening when we arrived to be met by several other guide dogs, service dogs and pups-in-training. I mean, how could it be anything but brilliant with so many four-paws around! Fiji and I had a chance to catch up with some old doggy friends and their owners, and also to meet some wonderful teams we hadn’t met in person… umm… in dog? And all the furry friends were very well behaved – I don’t think I heard any growling or snapping from anyone. Though one or two of the pups did decide to add their voices during the guest speaker’s presentation.

Talking about the guest speaker, we heard from Zelda Mycroft, mother of inimitable ability activist Chaeli Mycroft, from the Chaeli Campaign. Zelda spoke about what it’s like being a mother to a highly independent and enterprising child with a disability – a refreshingly different perspective.

And then the lights went out…As did the sound…

And no, it wasn’t load shedding. It was actually a fault in one of the sub-stations and it left the whole of the Fish Hoek area without power for the rest of the evening.

From our perspective, I don’t think it placed much of a dampener on the evening. The organisers were well prepared for any eventuality – they had gas heaters to keep the food warm, and there were candles on the tables. Of course, for those of us without sight, it was pretty much business as usual. But we did see some creative problem solving going on, with people using the flashlights on their mobile phones to enable the sign language interpreters to communicate with the hearing impaired attendees, the servers being quick on their feet navigating their way round the many dogs stretched out on the floor, and speakers who suddenly had to contend with no amplification in a venue that seats 150 people… quite a remarkable feat all round!

Nor did the lack of illumination stop us from having a fantastic evening. Even if it wasn’t quite as we’d expected it to be.

If you’d like to find out more about the Love Your Guide Dog movement, here’s a link to their Facebook group.

Of course, you’ll probably fall in love with the many photos of beautiful pups-in-training. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Celebrating Four Years

A dark-haired woman sitting on the floor with a blond labrador

Today is a special day – Fiji and I met for the very first time exactly four years ago, on 28 February 2016. I can hardly believe my beautiful guide dog and I have been working for that long. In many ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we met. Yet I can’t deny that our bond has grown much stronger over that time.

I thought it might be fun for Fiji and I to reminisce on that meeting. Here’s a transcription of our conversation.

Lois: I wasn’t certain what to expect when we first met. And I was a little nervous because I could still remember how dismissive my previous guide dog, your sister, Eccles, had been when she and I met.

Fiji: Well, mom, I was also a bit nervous – at least you’d had a guide dog before so you kind of knew what to expect. For me it was all brand new. So, when Cheryl brought me into the room, I looked at you and didn’t know what to think. Especially when you sat on the floor and watched me sniff my way around the room. I really didn’t know what you expected of me. So I eventually wandered over, as if by accident, and sat down hear you. But not too near, just in case.

Lois: I remember that. I was curious to see what you’d do. And I was glad you decided to curl up close enough that I could reach out and pat you.

Fiji: Oh come on, did you really think I’d pass up the opportunity of getting patted? You know how much I love it!

Lois: Fair enough. But I didn’t know that back then. I also remember that the first time you made me laugh was later that night, when Cheryl and I came into the room and found you curled up on my bed, with your head on my pillow. It was just so cute! So completely naughty. But so cute!

Fiji: Would you believe me if I said I was actually just trying to warm the bed up for you, Mom? Besides, it’s not like you were using it right then.

Lois: True. I really shouldn’t have left you in the room when I went to chat to Cheryl. No wonder you decided to try your luck.

Fiji: Exactly (Fiji wags her tail)

Lois: After that we got on fairly well. And we seemed to work well together.

Fiji: Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that you were already quite well trained and that I’d just need to work on a few small things to get you back into top form. Even though you did seem a bit nervous at first. So I think I managed to train you quite fast, with the help of Cheryl and Joel.

Lois: Do you remember when I went home to visit your doggy sisters during training?

Fiji: Of course I remember. I was very cross with you… And very happy when you came back the next morning, though I didn’t want to let on. I leapt up and grabbed your arm to tell you I wasn’t going to let you get away with behaviour like that again – that you were my mom and that I was to be there to look after you. And then you hugged me and I forgave you.

Lois: I think we’ve had a pretty good last four years, don’t you?

Fiji: For the most part. We’ve had some fun adventures and have met some lovely dogs and people. We’ve gone to plenty interesting places. But I’ve also been worried about you a few times -like when you tripped over that step and hurt yourself. And when you went away for a week because you got sick. And when you left me with dad and went to do something in Ghana. I always miss you when you go away without me. Because I love working with you and want to be with you always.

Lois: I know sometimes I go places without you. I always want to take you, but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I always come home, don’t I?

Fiji: Yes, you do. And then I grab your arm again to remind you that your place is with me and my place is with you. And then you hug me and everything’s fine again.

Lois: So, Fiji, what’s going to happen in the next four years?

Fiji: I think you’re going to walk me three times a day every day. And you’re going to start feeding me lunch as well as breakfast and supper. And you’re going to actually let me chase the squirrels when we see them.

Lois: Umm, maybe not.

Fiji: Oh. Well, I had to ask…

Fiji and I also want to send out a huge thank you to those who have been part of her journey to this point – her puppy walkers, Jenny and Mike, Beata and Piotr, all the wonderful people at the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind, the hundreds of adults and children that Fiji and I have been privileged to talk to, and of course all our friends and family – human and canine!

Thinking about the first day I met Fiji makes me realize how much independence she’s given me and how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the time we’ve been working together. She is a generous-natured and loving dog with a number of unique quirks – some of them totally endearing… some not so much. As I write this, she’s lying curled up by my feet, enjoying the cool air from the ceiling fan. With one eye and ear open, just in case I need her to do something.

You’ll be able to read more about our adventures together when the updated version of A Different Way of Seeing 2.0 gets released shortly – as an ebook and as an audio book. There’s plenty of Fiji stories in the book, I promise!

Happy anniversary to us, Fiji – and many more wonderful years of working and playing together!

Speaking at The Adventure Kids Club

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It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.

This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.

My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.

As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:

https://www.facebook.com/cdstrachan/videos/10158090119251468/

Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!

Normandy-The Normandy Airborne Museum

Airborne Museum

I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.

Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.

What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?

I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.

Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.

The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.

But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.

Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.

The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.

Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.

A Fear of Train Stations

Normandy map

After a week in Paris our next destination was a town called Bayeux, in Normandy. Before I tell you all about it, I’d like to tell you a little about how we got there.

By far the most logical way to make the journey was by train. Except, you see, I’m terrified of train travel. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m fine once I’m on the train. What I’m actually scared of is navigating through noisy, busy train stations.

Navigating through a train station with trains screaming past me as they fly in and out of platforms, with the noise masking the sounds I would normally use to help me find my way, makes me extremely anxious. Even when I’m accompanied by a sighted guide who will prevent me from doing something crazy like hopping onto the wrong train, or falling off the platform,

On this trip, my anxiety was worse because we had two suitcases with us. Which Craig had to manage as we navigated our way from our Paris apartment, through two metro stations, a shopping centre, a train station, another train station, and finally to our apartment in Bayeux. All the time having to keep an eye on his nerve-wracked, blind wife, to make sure she didn’t do something stupid.

There were two things that helped me keep the anxiety under control. The first was to focus on just the next step of the trip, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire journey. That helped a lot, since I only had to deal with what was happening in the immediate future and then catch my breath before tackling the next stage. The other factor that made it easier was that I was more confident in how to use my white cane to help me get around, thanks to the mobility lessons I’d taken earlier in the year. And that made Craig’s task a little easier, since I was able to move around a lot more independently.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become totally comfortable navigating noisy train stations. But at least I know in future I’ll be able to manage my anxiety with my increased cane skills and by taking it one step at a time.

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.

A Video of a Working Guide Dog

Do you know how hard it is to video Fiji guiding me across a road? It should be easy, right? But maybe not so much when you have one hand on the guide dog harness and the other hand providing dog treats at each step of the process. Because that leaves no hands to hold the phone to record the whole thing.

So, when a friend asked if she could video Fiji working as part of a lesson for one of the schools she works with, I jumped at the chance. Even better, she asked if Fiji and I could speak to the learners as well, which I’m always happy to do. Okay, I got to speak to the learners. Fiji only had to look cute- which she does very well!

Shani gave me the video – so here it is!

Craig, please add link here.

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.

Makhanda: And what About the Books?

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I was preparing for our first Blind Date Show when my phone pinged to let me know I had a voice message. It was from Paul, a Capetonian colleague, who told me he’d just seen my books in an art exhibition in Makhanda.

And yes, while all the excitement of the Blind Date Concert was happening, my books weren’t forgotten. They were having an adventure of their own!

I’ve mentioned before that the Blind Date Show was part of the 100th year celebration of the SA Library for the Blind. Apart from the show, they also decided to put on an exhibition of creative art works created by blind and visually impaired artists from South Africa. And I was honoured to have been asked to allow my books to be part of that exhibition.

Here’s a photo of the exhibit where my books were displayed – both A Different Way of Seeing and The Adventures of Missy Mouse.

With thanks to Craig Strachan for the photograph, and to Francois Hendrikz of SA Library for the Blind and Catherine Baron, of Inkanyezi Events, for inviting me to be part of both the show and the exhibition.
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