As many of you know, we have been back in the States for a couple months now and have taken some time to spend with family, ministry supporters, and even investigate some possibilities for our next steps of ministry.  One thing that has stood out to me like a sore thumb (after living outside the US when my eyesight has deteriorated  to not very useful) is the amazing access to things for the blind here.  Braille signs on most bathrooms, identifiable and labeled crosswalks, great GPS apps to identify cross streets, good sidewalks. . . I could go on and on.  I know I have made a video or two in the past regarding my blindness but I’d like to list some of the cool gadgets/technology that have allowed me obtain independence over the last few years.

 

1.      White Cane – I have a long white cane that is 5 feet long and comes up  to my chin.  I have a few of these actually  which help in different settings.  The cane identifies me as someone who can’t see for others and also gives me tactile clues in navigating.  I can tell if I’m on a sidewalk, going towards the grass, have reached the road or crosswalk, as well as identifying objects in my path.  The long white cane that I carry which does not fold is my preferred travelling companion.  The folding canes that I have are convenient when going into crowds and places where I’m not sure how congested they will be but I have found my folding canes to be pretty limited in giving me the information and feedback I need compared with the long white cane.  It took a lot of humility to get to where I am in carrying the white cane, but if I leave the house (even 10 feet outside without it, I feel sort of naked.  It is an extension of who I am at this point and has caused my confidence to soar.

2.      Talking Computer – A few years ago I was trained on a software called JAWS for Windows which will read anything on my computer screen back to me.  I do not use a mouse and every function is done by keyboard commands.  Often you will use one letter to do something important; this is known as first letter navigation.  Typing the letter “h” for heading, “e” for edit box, “g” for graphic, “shift F7 for a list of links. . . you basically navigate all over the internet and use all your computer applications with the keyboard.  WehnI type my computer will read back to me every single letter.  As I press the spacebar at the end of the word, my computer reads the whole word back to me.  It is pretty technical but it helps tremendously.  Other computer systems such as Mac have similar products.

3.      IPhone Voiceover – Every IPhone comes with accessibility functions built into it.  You should go into your IPad or IPhone settings and check them out sometime.  The voiceover feature functions much like the JAWS for Windows thing I just described.  The primary difference is that the IPhone doesn’t have a tactile keyboard and special gestures are used with the fingers to get around on the IPhone.  By swiping once to the left or right Voiceover will read back each icon.  Once it reads/finds the app or icon you want, you simply double tap to open.  You do this with email, internet searches, Facebook, and many other things.  Again, I cannot go into detail but several gestures help you get around and there is virtually nothing I cannot do on the IPhone  that you can do.  I often hook up a wireless keyboard to the IPhone and use it to type emails (again reading each letter and word back to me much like JAWS does).  Hands down, the IPhone is the most useful piece of equipment that I have and it is likely the most inexpensive (other than the cane).  Check out your voiceover setting sometime. . . speed it up to 100% rate of speech and you can hear it as I use it.

4.      Braille Edge Refreshable Display – This machine is a small display about the size of a laptop battery that allows me to read articles, books, and many other things in braille.  I can either hook this up to my computer and do everything in braille or hook it up wirelessly through Bluetooth to my IPhone.  Basically, there are 40 cells with 6 dots that are built into this machine and tiny metal pins pop up at the bottom of my display giving me the braille text of what is currently on my computer screen or on my IPhone.  Once you get to the end of a line, you scroll down and the machine refreshes and gives you the next line of braille text.  All books that are available on Kindle or IBooks,PDF files, email – all that is available in braille through this display.  I often read my Bible this way.  Long gone are the days of having huge volumes of paper braille and having no place to store them.

5.      Slate and stylus – I still use the traditional slate and stylus that blind people have used for years.  This is basically pen and paper for the blind.  There is a slate with cells in them and you punch out dots with a small pen with a sharp metal needle type object at the end of it.  You learn to write right to left as your dots will appear  opposite on the other side.  It sounds complicated but after learning to write this way from the beginning it is super easy.  I jot phone numbers, security passwords, and post-it sorts of things down with the slate and stylus.  Recently, I have gotten some special paper where I can peel the back off and make my own braille labels to label food products and things in the kitchen.  You still need pen and paper these days.

6.      Book Scanner and Reader – I also have a piece of equipment called the Open Book with Pearl camera.  Basically, this looks like a traditional lamp type scanner and can be folded up and put in a small pouch about half the size  of an aluminum foil container.  It is probably about twice as thick as an aluminum foil container but half as long.  You hook this scanner up through a USB port on your computer and you can scan anything in print – letters that come in the mail, hard copy books, and receipts.  All these things can be scanned and read back to you and you can save the information to come back to later.  Though this is one of the coolest devices, I do not use this on a regular basis.  Think about how often you read a hard cover book or get non-junk mail.  I just don’t have a ton of need to read things that are non-electronic but I certainly get good use out of it.

 

These are technologies that I use very regularly and help me on a personal level.  This does not come close to explaining all the services and accommodations that are made for the blind in the US.  I’ll name a few:

a.      Braille menus at restaurants

b.      Talking ATMs where you can insert earphones to do bank transactions

c.      ATMs at checkouts at most stores where the clerk will scan your card for you.  This eliminates having to deal with cash and identifying the proper bill.

d.      GPS apps and technology allowing for safety and orientation in travel

e.      Curb cuts on sidewalks which often have bumps at the end to identify the end of a city block

f.       Braille on most restrooms in public places

g.      Audio descriptions on movies to describe things like where people are walking, action scenes, etc.

h.      Customer services at stores – I can walk into pretty much any store alone, ask for assistance to shop, and someone will walk with me to grab my stuff and then I can go on my way.

i.       Flight travel assistance – If you inform any airline that you need assistance, they will see that you get to the proper gate and see you to your seat.  I haven’t utilized this as I almost always travel with Charity but this will be something I use more and more as our boy grows up and we won’t all travel together.

j.       Bus service and accessibility – in most cities, buses are made to be accessible for the blind by calling out street names, announcing it over an automated loud speaker, or having the driver point out your stop for you

k.      Elevators that talk – often elevators will speak which floor you are on and whetehr or not the elevator is going up or coming down.  They almost always have braille buttons on them.

 

I could go on and on, but all these technologies make life relatively smooth for folks like me.  I have enjoyed getting back in the groove here in the US and even as I have been doing research on Pittsburgh, demographics, the Bhutanese-Nepali community, etc., most of these technologies are being put to use.  We live in a country that is 2nd to none in terms of blind accessibility and for that I am so grateful.  I hope somebody found this helpful or you can pass it along to someone as they face sight loss.

 

 

 

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