Blindness

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Berlin: A Disconcerting Experience

Cds IMG 1076One of the most unexpected sites we visited in Berlin was the headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security, a building of which has been converted into the Stasi Museum. The museum has exhibitions showing how the Stasi, the secret police, controlled almost all aspects of life in the DDR, the German Democratic Republic.

It wasn’t the museum itself that was unexpected. It was my response to the exhibits in the museum. I’ve been reflecting on why I reacted so strongly against what was on display.

As we moved around from one room to another, one floor to another, we were surrounded by examples of the repressive nature of the Stasi – with extreme propaganda, devices that were used to spy on people, mechanical and electronic bugging devices, and room after room of notes and files on people who had been under this extreme “supervision”. In reality, almost everyone was spied on by the Stasi in every aspect of their lives. You never knew when you were being watched – even your own neighbours might turn out to be Stasi informers, as we read time and time again in the files.

I found my discomfort and resistance growing as we walked from one room to the next with Craig explaining each item and reading me the information boards in each room. My discomfort got so bad that I eventually asked Craig to stop reading the boards and refused to touch any of the interactive displays – I simply couldn’t do it!

I found myself coming back to the same thought time and time again, “This could have happened in South Africa during apartheid.

And that’s where my discomfort came from – it was just a little too close to home in reminding me of the terrible environment that so dominated our country when I was growing up in South Africa.

And yet, perhaps my extreme response to the Stasi Museum is also important as a reminder of how much South Africa has changed since the overthrow of apartheid. Granted, we still have a long and hard road ahead before we truly move beyond apartheid, but we have achieved a significant amount as we move towards inclusion, diversity and equality in our beautiful land.

So, despite the discomfort I experienced, I should be grateful to the Stasi Museum. In fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, because of the discomfort I felt, I should be grateful to the museum. Because we should never forget the tyranny of living in a society that believes it has the right to tell its citizenry how to feel, how to act and, most importantly, seek to divide one group and set them up to spy on others.

Berlin: Another Great Accessible Travel Experience

Cds IMG 0069The Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most well-known sites. It’s synonymous with a whole lot of history, having been the seat of German government from 1894 until it was seriously damaged in a mysterious fire in 1933, an act that has historically been linked to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. Following the split of Berlin into East and West, both governments moved their location – I grew up with Bonn being the centre of West Germany’s government. It was only after the reunification of Germany took place in 1990 that the building was completely restored and from 1999 its once again housed the German government.

With all this history in mind it was obvious that we would try to explore the Reichstag. Incidentally, while they do offer tours, you have to pre-book and may have your reservation cancelled at any time. That happened to us when we first booked, but thankfully our second attempt was successful.

What I didn’t expect when I visited the Reichstag was how accessible the tour would be for me as a blind tourist. We were met at the door, escorted through security and guided directly to an elevator that’s used by people working in the building, rather than the tourist elevators that go directly to the famous Reichstag dome.

When we reached the glorious glass dome overlooking Berlin I was offered an audio guide and a set of tactile images of many of Berlin’s best known sites that can be seen from the dome. I was even asked if I’d like to take the tactile representations with me on the tour but since the box was bulky, not to mention heavy, I declined with a smile and thanks. But I did take the audio guide.

From there the tour follows a set route around the inside of the dome. I was able to trace my way round using the handrail and the audio guide automatically triggered at specific points – if you stop, so does the audio recording. I thought this was a great approach since we all walk at different speeds and you don’t have to fumble with the unit to get it to play when you stop.

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The tour gives you a bird’s eye view of Berlin, which again was a different perspective from that I’d seen before. It also gives you the opportunity to look down into the chamber where the government sits, which is interesting in its own way. And yes, I’m totally aware how odd both of those statements sound coming from a blind person.

It’s not only visually impaired tourists whose needs are catered for at the Reichstag. There were no steps in the route we used to access the dome, and the entire tour of the dome is done using ramps. Not only does this make it accessible for people with mobility impairments but it also keeps people moving smoothly without bottlenecks – no fast-moving people getting frustrated by those who take time climbing stairs!

We often hear references to German efficiency and, having toured the Reichstag, I can certainly attest to that national trait! My only disappointment was that I still don’t have a definitive answer to who set that mysterious fire in 1933!

Come and Join Us – Women’s Day Lunch for SA Guide-Dogs Association

I’ve lost count of the organisations, schools, community groups, and events that Fiji and I have spoken at on behalf of the South African Guide-Dogs Association since we started working together. Each event is special in its own way – from the pre-schoolers who will make a semblance of listening politely while desperately curbing their excitement till they can play with Fiji, to the recent 60th birthday party where the guests were asked to make a contribution to Guide-Dogs in lieu of birthday gifts. But I think the most memorable Guide-Dogs Association event I’ve been asked to speak at has to be the annual World Sight Day fundraising dinner in October last year. It was a glittering event and Fiji and I were proud that we were able to play a small role in helping to raise R800 000 for this amazing cause.

I suspect the Women’s Day lunch on 18 August will be another such glittering event. And, since Fiji and I will be sharing the stage with a woman whose work I really admire – Abigail K, The Confidence Crusader – I can only imagine what a fun and inspiring day it’s going to be. Avril, who’s organizing the event tells me there will be some exciting raffle and spot prizes and, from the few she’s mentioned, I agree they’re pretty awesome!

Details for the event are in the attached flyer.

I really hope you’ll be able to take a break from your busy schedules and join us for a relaxed and uplifting ladies luncheon for an amazing cause.

And, if that’s not reason enough, I’m sure there will be plenty guide dogs and guide dogs in training in attendance to make the whole experience just that little bit more special – I know for sure that Fiji will be there!

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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

A Sign of a Great Leader

NewImageI believe one of the characteristics of a great leader is the ability to make people feel seen, heard and acknowledged. This was a skill that the late Nelson Mandela demonstrated regularly, as can be seen from the numerous stories of the way he engaged with people from all walks of life.

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the birth of the great Madiba and I’d like to mark the occasion by sharing the stories of the times I was privileged to meet the great man himself.

My first chance encounter with Mr. Mandela took place in the Student Union at the University of KwaZulu-Natal shortly before I lost my sight. At the time I was still able to walk around without a mobility aid, as long as I was careful where I put my feet – I could still see everything but everything was blurred, as if I was looking at the world through a thick pane of frosted glass. As I navigated my way down a short flight of stairs I realized that I had very nearly placed my boot-clad foot down on someone’s shoe.

I looked up with an apology poised on my lips – and found myself staring into the face of the great man himself. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m seldom speechless but the words of the glib apology I’d been about to utter simply vanished from my mind.

Mr. Mandela smiled and softly murmured “Bless you, my child,” and then entered the hall where throngs of students had gathered to hear him speak. ,

Two years later Mr. Mandela capped me when I graduated. By then I was totally blind and needed sighted assistance as I crossed the vast stage, was capped by Madiba and then moved to collect my degree to thunderous applause. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, friends told me later that there had been two standing ovations at that graduation ceremony – one when we were addressed by Madiba and one when I was capped. And yes, I did manage to avoid standing on his toes that time!

What I remember best about those two chance meetings was the sense of calm and serenity that surrounded Madiba, and the way he made me feel like I had his complete attention with just the power of his presence, his focus, and a few simple yet genuine words. On both occasions I was merely one person amongst hundreds of others, yet he made me feel seen and acknowledged – a lesson that each of us in a position of leadership can learn and strive to emulate.

I still find it amazing what a strong impression those two brief encounters had on me – a lesson in the power of true and genuine leadership and the importance of truly being able to see, hear and acknowledge the people with whom we come into contact, no matter in how trivial a way.

Next time I’ll start sharing some experiences from my recent travels to Germany and Poland – it’s been a month since I returned so it’s high time I let you into some of my adventures!

From in the Air to On Air

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Okay, so technically I’m still on leave. In fact, I’m probably jetting into Cape Town International Airport right about now. But I wanted to let you know about an exciting event that’ll be happening next week.

I’ve been invited to share some of my experiences of travelling the world without sight on the Travel Show on Hashtag Radio with Marlize Stander and Patrycja Oosthuizen.

The show will take place on Thursday, 28 June from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM and I’ll be explaining how I’m able to build a picture of places I visit using my remaining senses, and sharing some of my stories of the extraordinary places I’ve been and experiences I’ve been privileged to have.

If you want to find out more about the show, here’s the link: http://hashtagradio.co.za/members/marlize/

And if you want to tune in and listen, you can stream the show from here: www.hashtagradio.co.za

This won’t be my first time at Hashtag Radio – a few months ago I was interviewed by Cindy Pivacic about my book, A Different Way of Seeing, which is when the photo was taken.

And, just like last time, Fiji will be joining us in studio and maybe she’ll get to participate in the conversation… you just never know!

Paws for Thought – But not When I’m Running!

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I’m really missing mom right now. I miss having her around… and I definitely miss working with her and guiding her to where she needs to go. I’m sure she’s having a wonderful time in Germany – wherever that is – and that she’ll be home soon.

But I miss her and can’t wait for her to come home.

I also really miss dad… and being able to take him on a run every now and then. So that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

There are huge differences in working with mom and running with dad. When I work with mom I watch out for her every step, checking what’s happening in front, beside and above me as well as what’s happening right at my paws. With mom I know to stop at steps and how to tell her if we need to step off the pavement to avoid an obstacle. I also have special techniques for helping mom cross roads, go up and down flights of stairs, find strategic route markers so she knows where we are and go round cars that are parked by the side of the road (we often have to walk on the side of the road where we live). And I know how to find escalators, which might just be my favourite part of my job. And mom rewards my good behavior by giving me small treats – which I definitely deserve.

With dad we mostly just run. Sure, there are places we stop (like at the train crossing and main road) but generally we don’t stop running for other things. It does mean I have to be super-aware of looking to see if any evil squirrels are around, but we’re usually running too fast for me to pay them much attention anyway. With dad I don’t stop for steps or find strategic poles since he doesn’t seem to use his sense of touch to help him discover where we are. And when I’m running with dad I can simply be a dog, rather than a guide dog.

The only problem is that dad doesn’t give me treats…. Which I’m sure I could teach him to do if I really tried hard.

Oh, I wanted to tell you that the photograph shows me proudly wearing the race medal I got for completing the 5 km Day of Races with mom last year, which is the only medal I’ve been given despite all the running I do…and I got it for walking with mom, rather than running with dad.

Which only goes to show that humans really don’t make sense.

Pro’s and Con’s of Travel: My Personal Perspective

Cds 2016 11 26 08 38 08As I sit considering what clothing to pack for my imminent adventure in Germany and Poland I find myself idly constructing a list of the pro’s and con’s of travel from my own particular perspective.

the pro’s are fairly easy. I love experiencing new places and using my remaining senses to build a picture of the place we’re visiting. I know it’s a very different way to see the world. People often say they don’t understand why I travel, let alone how. For me there’s something special about experiencing a place using my senses of hearing, taste, scent and touch. And, of course, discovering the stories that surround the cities and sites we visit so I can use my (rather over-active) imagination to imagine myself into the lives of the people living there.

I also learn more about my own life and skills when I travel. Somehow, leaving my usual routine gives me new insight into what I’m able to do and often gives me a more objective way of seeing my own life.

Travel also teaches me about different cultures. While I’m privileged to live in a wonderfully diverse country, travelling makes it easier to observe diversity since we’re actively trying to experience the reality of a different place and people.

For me, those are a few of the pro’s of travel. So what are the con’s?

Let’s be honest, most of us love our home comforts – knowing where everything is in our kitchen, being able to arrange our clothing the way we like, and especially the comfort of our own bed. We don’t have any of those familiar comforts when we travel. For many that’s a decided disadvantage. And I’m no different – I like my own space and the way I’ve adapted it to serve my needs.

For me there’s also the challenge of leaving my beloved guide dog behind and being dependent on a sighted guide. Okay, I know that sighted guide is my husband and that he really doesn’t mind assisting me and describing what’s around me. But still, its hard to leave behind the glorious sense of independence that working with Fiji gives me. Besides, she’s so attentive and loving (and occasionally demanding) that it’s hard knowing I can’t simply reach down and feel her curled up next to me. I miss that when we travel.

These are the thoughts buzzing round my head as I prepare for my trip. And, while I can’t wait to head off on my latest adventure, there’s a small part of me that’s already looking forward to coming home.

I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes… Umm, My Ears!

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Isn’t life unbelievable? Mere weeks after I posted a lament that I couldn’t find an accessible word search, I found one, and a whole lot more great word and trivia games – all in one place!

It happened like this: a blind friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was looking for a word game she could play on her iPhone using Voice Over (the in-build screen reader app on IOS products). Of course I replied with a suggestion to try Seven Little Words, a word builder game I’ve been enjoying for some time. Someone else mentioned something called Huboodle and I couldn’t resist downloading the app to take a look….

Huboodle is a game pack designed by AppA11y Inc. , which currently includes 8 different games, though more could be added in the future. It’s a free app with some in-app purchases but these are in no way necessary for you to play any of the games. It’s available in several languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish and is completely accessible using Voice Over. But don’t be misled into thinking the games are only for people who are visually impaired. There are many sighted people who also enjoy playing – the accessibility is just an added bonus.

Amongst those 8 games are two accessible word search games. I was so surprised when I saw that I almost fell off my chair. Then I almost jumped to my feet and danced with joy.

Strangely enough I’ve only played one word search so far. I’ve been enjoying some of the other games, Word Builder and Trivia Trail.

Word Builder is a game where you build as many words as you can from a selection of letters you’re given. Each level has different letter groups and a different target of words to find. You also gain extra points for finding words that aren’t on the list they give you, so it’s a great game for anyone with a fair vocabulary. I must admit I get particular pleasure every time I find those bonus words.

The other game I’m really enjoying is Trivia Trail. The goal is to work your way through 10 multichoice trivia questions within a limited amount of time. I’ve heard the time limit is 50 seconds but it feels a lot longer when I’m actually playing. The added trick is that you go back to the start of the level if you get a question wrong which takes extra time.

Sure, Huboodle also has some games of chance and I’ve dabbled with poker, blackjack and the wheel of fortune but none of them have really grabbed me. I guess I’m just not a gambler by nature. Other games I haven’t tried so far are a memory game, Simon Says, a multiplayer Ludo board game called Ludo Palooza and, of course, there are the two word search games which attracted me in the first place.

Okay, enough time writing… I’ve got some more words to build!

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 03

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I’d love to know how many blind and visually impaired people have been unsuccessful in a job application because of barriers in the hiring process – both physical barriers and the more insidious barriers of unconscious bias. Want to know what on earth I’m talking about? Well, read on…

Sometimes the systems used in the application process disqualify us automatically – like when a driver’s license is a requirement for a job. Granted, there are some jobs that a driver’s license is needed, but for many it’s more about being able to get around independently. Here’s the thing, having an absolute requirement for a driver’s license automatically excludes a number of people, including anyone whose visual impairment is significant enough to prevent them from driving.

Sometimes an applicant may need to complete a range of aptitude tests, which may be conducted on computer. While some of these systems are designed with the needs of visually impaired candidates in mind, many of them are not.

I’m not saying that employers deliberately try to exclude visually impaired candidates. I really don’t believe that’s the case. What I’m saying is that perhaps these systems need to be reviewed to ensure they are inclusive of those with special needs.

Another potential barrier to employment are the unconscious assumptions that may affect the way people see disability. I’m startled when friends I’ve known for some time ask questions that reveal they don’t know what I can and can’t do. If people who know me struggle to understand my abilities and skills, how much more difficult must it be for someone in a hiring position who doesn’t engage with a visually impaired person on a regular basis.

Sadly, though we may try to deny it, the usual assumption made by people is that disability means inability, and that’s simply not true. Our abilities are no different – all that differs is the way we access information and accomplish tasks.

How often in job interviews are disabled candidates confronted with questions about how they accomplish the most basic tasks – How do you dress yourself? How do you cook a meal?– which have absolutely nothing to do with the job. The frightening thing is that if those conducting an interview can’t imagine how a visually impaired candidate can accomplish the fundamentals of independent living, how on earth will they be able to conceive of the same person carrying out the requirements of a job?

My plea to companies is that they relook at the systems they use to invite and assess candidates to make sure they aren’t inadvertently excluding those with a disability. I know of at least one company who specialize in this field and would be happy to refer them. Likewise, if I can assist organisations in my capacity as a consultant raising awareness of how we accomplish tasks and challenge the assumptions people make about disability and inability, I’d be more than happy to chat to you.

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!

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