Archive for September, 2011

I Won! I Won!

Well readers, several years ago, Mom told me about a newspaper article she read about a couple women who have a hobby of simply entering contests. I don’t remember the details of this article anymore, but I am guessing they didn’t win often enough to make a living out of this hobby, but I seem to remember that they won a fair amount of the time. This article has stuck with me, and rubbed off on me. I love entering contests! I have entered the adult Braille Readers are Leaders contest my sophomore and junior year, and plan to enter again despite the fact that it falls during the school year when I don’t have the time to read and thus never win. (I do plenty of school reading, but according to the contest rules, only pleasure reading can be counted). In high school, I entered a couple of writing contests, including one sponsored by Scholastic where you sent an essay on why you love the Harry Potter books, and the writer of the best essay won a trip to London for the release of a Harry Potter book that summer! (I think it was the fifth book that year). I didn’t win that contest, but a couple years later, I took third place in a contest hosted by the American Printing House for the Blind to celebrate their 150th anniversary, which won me a T-shirt. And of course, I buy lottery tickets every now and then. I know you have better odds of getting struck by lightning than winning the lottery, but somebody has to win! That person could be me someday!

     This summer, I got wind of two contests to enter. The first was hosted by Humanware, the maker of my BrailleNote. All I had to do was write a story about how the brailleNote has made a difference in my life, an easy task since I love it so much and spend many of my waking hours using it. The top stories would be used on their web site to promote the product and the writer of the winning story could win a Trekker Breeze, a GPS device that I have heard other blind people rave about. I was hoping to win one to try it out. If I liked it, it would be an awesome thing to have to keep this self-confessed geographically challenged person from getting lost when I am living on my own, and I could buy a replacement when it wore out. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be out any money. Unfortunately, I didn’t win, and I haven’t even seen the winning story on their web site yet. But in my objective opinion, I wrote an awesome and I think creative story, so even though it didn’t win, I thought I would share it here.

     Way back in the day when I started school, I had to do all of my assignments and take all the notes in class on a manual Perkins brailler. If you made a mistake, you either scratched it out with your fingernail and typed over it, or crossed it out by punching out full braille cells over the top of the mistake. Both of these options looked so sloppy to me that often I would just take out the paper and start over. Then when I was done with each assignment, my teacher’s aid had to transcribe what I had written in to print for the teacher. In addition, you had to punch the keys hard and as a result, it was loud! I will never forget how one day when I was in first or second grade, my teacher’s aid decided to take it in to the cafeteria to braille a worksheet for me during the lunch hour, and even over the deafening din of 200 chattering kids, I could hear her typing on it. While it was good for weight lifting and building arm strength, the heaviness of this machine wasn’t appealing either when I had to carry it to another room.

     I dreaded the occasions when I would have to use a regular computer to type papers or do research. I learned how to type using a computer, but couldn’t type nearly as fast as I could with the braille code. Editing what I had written using the arrow keys or finding the information I needed on a web page was tedious. And don’t get me started on how annoying the screen reader voice was or how difficult it was to understand sometimes!

     All of the handouts the teachers used in class had to be brailled for me, and since braille is embossed on thicker paper and takes up more space than print, I had to have a larger desk with shelves that could store thick binders while the other kids had light paper folders. By fourth grade, a normal backpack no longer fit all the homework I had to take home, so my teacher got me a suitcase on wheels. When I got to middle school and all of my classes were in different rooms, I had so much gear to carry between binders, the braillewriter and any textbooks I needed that I was given a cart to pull behind me through the halls.

     To hear me talk about these primitive conditions, I probably sound like an old person, but actually, I am only 21 years old. Yet I feel as though I went from the dinosaur age to the modern age in an instant when I received my first BrailleNote my freshman year of high school. All at once, I was able to type a paper just as fast as a sighted person, erase a character with a simple backspace, even go back and quickly change a word or even delete a whole sentence with the cursor edit buttons above the braille display. I could sit in a regular desk and take notes in class typing no louder than a sighted person typing on a regular computer, and (shhh, don’t tell my teachers this, but if it was a boring class, the braillenote also made it a lot easier to be naughty and “stare at the clock” on my braille display without anyone noticing.) When class was over, I could put all of my things in to a normal backpack and hoist it effortlessly on to my back because all those handouts that once had to be on paper could be sent to me electronically and most of the books I needed could be downloaded from bookshare.org or scanned and sent to me via e-mail. Often times, I could turn in assignments via e-mail too or else simply hook the braillenote up to a regular printer and print them.

     On the internet, I could find things just as quickly and efficiently as a sighted person with the braillenote’s more straight-forward key commands and read articles in peaceful silence.

     Even my sighted parents noticed how quickly I took to the braillenote and loved it. I will be entering my senior year of college in the fall, and I still love it and have never attempted a day of class or an evening of homework without it.

     I loved the Braillenote Classic that I had through my senior year of high school and the Mpower I had my first two years of college. But I have to say, the braillenote Apex I have now is the best yet with its light weight and built-in wireless internet connection so that I can access the internet from anywhere.

     I plan to be a loyal life-long braillenote user because given how much this invention has changed my life in just the past eight years, I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for this technology, technology that in my opinion is the best technology ever invented for the blind.

     The other contest I entered was the Bookshare Everywhere Summer Contest, hosted by, you guessed it, bookshare.org. The grand prize was an iPad, another product I have been wanting to play with, but don’t want to pay for in case I don’t like it. This grand prize went to the person who could guess the total number of books that would be downloaded from Bookshare over the course of the contest without going over. I just want to kick myself for missing this prize by a mere three books! Would you believe that my guess was 1,000, the official total was 1,007 and the winner guessed 1,002! But there were ways to win other smaller but still nice prizes.

     Another way to win was to have the most creative entry for how each book made your summer fun. I only submitted two of these entries. I read a total of four books during the contest period. One of these books was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I wanted to re-read after seeing the movie with my dad because I forgot what happened in the book. This book is available on bookshare, but I felt like reading the old fashioned paper version, so I couldn’t count it. The other book was Jaycee Dugard’s book “A Stolen Life”, and given the disturbing things she went through, I felt like it would have been disrespectful to use it for this kind of a silly contest. And of course, it did not make my summer fun. It gave me chills and nightmares.

     The books I submitted entries for were the last two books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series and my entries were not very creative. I forget what I wrote for the first book, but for the second book I wrote that it made my summer fun by giving me a deeper appreciation for how fortunate I am. At the time I read this book, I was doing my internship, which involved sitting in an air conditioned office for just four hours a day. When I got home, I had a huge lunch prepared with food bought at the grocery store and then could spend the rest of the afternoon on pleasure, quite the contrast to the hard work of the farm life Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts.

     The final category was the most interesting place you took your bookshare book, and I couldn’t believe my fingers when I read the announcement of the contest winners yesterday and discovered I took the prize for this category! The first book I submitted, I had read during breaks at the governor’s office where I did my internship! For taking the prize in this category, I won an MP3 player, which will be mailed to me soon!

     My dad likes to joke that we are destined to be losers because when we buy lottery tickets, it is rare that we have even one matching number. To win any money, I think you have to have three matching numbers. But when I told my mom that I had won this prize in the Bookshare contest, we both agreed that we have to buy a lottery ticket today!

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Happy Labor Day Working Dogs!

Hello readers, it’s Gilbert here. Mom just realized that while she has talked a lot about me in her entries this summer, she forgot to give me the chance to speak for myself. “What better day is there than Labor Day to let the working dog speak for himself!” she told me. I agree! But don’t worry. I’m not going to go on strike because I’ve got a good life and except for a couple days when she took me for walks and didn’t realize how hot it was, she hasn’t made me work too hard. I am a little perturbed that one of these times was August 4, my three-year anniversary with her. We were in Cincinnati for her grandma’s 80th birthday and after my grandma and her grandma had been doing sight-seeing from the car for awhile and Mom was getting bored and cranky, Grandma tried to console her with a walk on a park trail. I was quite content sleeping in the air conditioned car, but since we dogs cannot talk, humans always get their way in these disputes and I found myself being harnessed up and forced to walk in the heat and humidity. It wasn’t long before I was panting for mercy. But fortunately, my mom started sweating not long after so it wasn’t a very long walk and when we got back to the car Mom and I both drank lots of water and Mom finally came around and appreciated the simple contentment of sitting in an air conditioned car.

     But the overwhelming majority of the summer, I didn’t have to go out in the many days of heat and humidity because Mom didn’t like to be out in it either since she has a medical condition that makes her miserable the rest of the day if out in the heat too long. If it wasn’t hot, Grandpa, Mom and I would go for walks, but there were many days when it was so hot that once I had guided her down the steps of her internship building and found the car, my work day was done.

     Occasionally, I had to work weekends, but Mom tried to keep these to a minimum because she prefers to be home on weekends too. On May 14 and 15, we took a trip to visit the church that Mom raved about back in March, the church that she heard was the site of an apparition of the blessed mother and where she has heard miracles have occurred. I am relieved to report that she did not experience a miracle at this church because if she had gotten her sight back, she might have been ethically obligated to give me back to the program that trained me which would have been a sad occasion for both of us. I didn’t get to partake in the full tour of an outdoor area of this chapel because some dog in the neighborhood came over and was following me around trying to talk to me. I wanted to socialize with him so badly that Grandpa had to put me in the car. (It was a cool rainy day so I didn’t get overheated and we were about ready to leave anyway). About a month and a half later was the trip to Wisconsin Dells that Mom told you all about in the “There’s No Place Like Home” post. Then on August 13, Mom attempted the state fair with me again. As she mentioned, that didn’t go so well as I’m getting too old to handle all those big scary cows up close. And when we got home, Grandma and Grandpa said I was filthy and needed a bath before I could set foot in the house, but it was after dark and kind of chilly outside. I know I was trained to be good during grooming, but given these circumstances I couldn’t help crying when I was sprayed with the hose. The whole family felt bad about this and gave me extra love the next day. But two weeks later, I had to go through the same thing after a day at the Bristol Renaissance Fair, a silly event out in a country area with unique things like jousting, silly sword fights and whip cracking shows. The fair itself was much more enjoyable for me since it wasn’t crowded and I didn’t see any animals. But when we got home, I had to have another bath. (If this cruel treatment keeps up, maybe I will go on strike). But my mom told me that since we may be living on our own next summer, life will be crazy enough between keeping up an apartment, getting herself to work, buying her own groceries and cooking her own meals that she won’t feel like going to the fair. If she does, she promised she would insist that Grandma and Grandpa only take her for a couple hours rather than making it an all-day event so that I can stay home.

     Speaking of the possibility of living at home, Grandma, Mom and I took a tour of an apartment building last Wednesday that is specially designed for visually impaired people. I will let Mom speak for herself about her opinion of the place, but I’m not sure I liked it. Part of it was that I could sense my mom’s excitement about the place which made me nervous and excited. Some loud construction we had to pass to get to the building only added to my nervousness so that when we got in to the building, I was walking too fast, sniffing everything and not listening to commands, which Mom feared was giving our tour guide and potential landlord a very bad impression of us when I don’t usually behave like that. When we passed a stuffed dog, I even barked at it, resulting in an uncharacteristically fierce leash correction from Mom. This settled me down a little bit, but I still wasn’t quite the mellow dog I usually am. The landlord was very understanding and even told Mom to let me sniff the stuffed dog so I could see that it wasn’t real. But once we were back in the car, Mom told me if she did decide to live there, I would need to take a huge chill pill. But let’s not worry about that right now. Mom says she doesn’t think she could handle living on her own until after graduation which is still a full eight months away.

     Then the next day, September 1, was our last first day of school. I can already tell it’s going to be a wonderful year. For one thing, although I think the campus community always thought we were the coolest kids on campus, this unofficial designation has special meaning this year since we are seniors. And, the fact that we are seniors also meant that Mom got first pick of classes at registration last year, a privilege which she used to our advantage so that our first class isn’t until noon each day! Needless to say, we haven’t had any difficulty getting used to sleeping in and taking our time getting ready in the morning. And come November and December when it starts getting cold, we won’t suffer as much because the sun is higher in the sky at noon than it is at 8:00 in the morning when we used to have classes.

     Anyway, it was so wonderful to see all of our friends and favorite teachers again and we both got complements for loosing weight over the summer. I was delighted to learn we have the same English teacher as last semester because while all the professors love me, this professor REALLY loves me, and always gives me pets before she starts class. I was a little sad that one girl who loved me so much she gave Mom a bag of home-made peanut butter dog treats for me wasn’t in this English class, but maybe we will see her around campus.

     I got corrected in Interpersonal Communication for trying to sneak off and sit with one of Mom’s friends instead of staying by her feet, but other than that, she said I did a great job, especially when walking the route from Main Hall back to the campus center, a route which I hadn’t done all summer. (I took her to the crosswalk on this route when she prefers to use the beeping light, but that was her fault, and she admitted as much, because she was rusty on her directions and didn’t tell me where she wanted to go).

     Then at 4:00, we went to a barbecue exclusively for seniors where there was information about special activities for seniors and of course lots of food. As usual, Mom wouldn’t give me any of her burger, but as usual, I found plenty of food on the floor. Thursday was also a hot humid day and Mom noticed I was panting even just lying down in the grass under the picnic table. But it was worth it because I got lots of pets from old friends from choir and Statistics. I wish Mom would shave off my coat for these brutal summers, but Mom says I might regret not having my coat if it didn’t grow back in time for winter and I guess she is right. Winter is so much longer than summer where we live too.

     The school year will really get underway tomorrow but before life got crazy again, a relative on Grandpa’s side of the family wanted to have an end-of-summer family reunion/party at her house near Chicago. At first, Mom wasn’t sure if she could go because she had a lot of reading to do. It was so funny to watch her read in the car because she could barely keep her eyes open. She told me it was pages and pages of philosophical rambling about an essayist named Montaigne and his views on “the self” and “the other” and how man’s idea of nature and customs is different based on the society they were raised in. I don’t get why humans have to study stuff like that and make life more complicated than it needs to be. When will we dogs ever convince you humans that life is about living in the moment, melting the hearts of anyone who gives attention and/or treats and sleeping the hours away in blissful ignorance about the problems in the world? (Actually, I think Mom secretly agrees with me, but as usual, she is in that phase where she is refreshed from summer and determined that this will be the year she actually completely reads everything she is supposed to read. But it won’t be long before my influence rubs off on her and she’ll be back to quickly skimming these ramblings right before class).

     But anyway, yesterday she decided it was too beautiful a day to stay home alone and she wanted me to have the chance to meet and possibly play with this relative’s big dog named Otis. I’m so glad she came to her senses because we both had a wonderful time. Well, Otis wasn’t happy about another male dog invading his turf and getting all the attention. While he sniffed me a little bit, he mostly barked his displeasure from the house, especially when Mom let his owner give me one of his Purina Frosty Paws, a cup of ice cream specially made for dogs! It was so good I was in denial for several minutes after the relative took the empty cup away that it was really gone! Mom says she had never heard of them, but if I’m good, she’ll look for them in our stores and let me have one every now and then. They would be perfect for next summer if it is anything like this summer was! But I digress. Usually I go crazy with excitement about the prospect of playing with another dog, but since Otis wasn’t happy about my presence, I was respectful, getting in my submissive pose and letting him have his space. But since this house has a fenced in yard, I did get to run off-leash a bit, the perfect way to celebrate the end of the dog days of summer and the start of our senior year.

     Well, I better get going because Grandpa is cooking barbecue ribs and he might need my help. In honor of Labor Day, I hope working dogs everywhere are helping their cooks out too!

A Rant on JAWS–or Should I Say, the Lack Thereof

Well friends, since many of you are also blind like me, you are aware of the special accommodations we need, especially in school and the feeling of isolation that these accommodations sometimes require. For example, in elementary and middle school, I had to have a bigger desk to accommodate my braille writer and the fact that braille takes up more space and requires thicker paper than print meant that all my binders and folders were ten times fatter than those of my sighted peers. Accommodating this larger desk often required me to sit off in a corner, separate from the class. In high school, I started using a BrailleNote which, as you probably know, is a lot more compact than a Perkins braille writer and can store all of my files electronically. This finally allowed me to sit in a regular desk and feel like a part of the class. But the BrailleNote wasn’t practical for math because so much of math involves graphs and diagrams which cannot be depicted on a braille display and my math textbooks were always so large that they required me to have my own room in the library instead of a locker like my peers. And of course, for assignments that required use of a regular computer, I had to use a separate room where my special laptop equipped with screen reading software could be plugged in. But when I came to college, this feeling of separateness, of “being different” no longer existed. (I still had to take tests separately, but that was it!) This can be attributed to the fact that I only had to take one semester of math, so other than that, all of my textbooks can be stored electronically. I still use a BrailleNote, so I don’t have to be separated from the class. But most delightful of all was that when I had to do research, I no longer had to sit at my separate special computer because almost all of the computers on campus had JAWS on them. There were only a couple computers that didn’t have it, like the little cubicles in the library where you can use a computer to see if a book is available. But all 52 computers in the main computer lab in the basement had JAWS, as well as all of the computers in the classroom labs, the big computer lab in the library, even the communication building which is technically off campus. I never appreciated how awesome this unfettered access to JAWS has been until this year when I just found out I won’t have it anymore.
So on Tuesday, shortly after posting my exciting writing news, I got an e-mail from the director of Disability Services. She said that the director of client services in the technology center wanted to know my class schedule and the computer lab I frequent so that he could make sure that JAWS would be available on a computer. On “a computer?” I didn’t like that wording at all, but was in such a state of shock that I just sent a reply with the times I was planning on using a computer lab and mentioned that I generally use the main lab in the campus center since the smaller classroom labs are often occupied by classes. On Wednesday, I didn’t want to get myself in a bad mood before an exciting morning of apartment touring (the subject of a post in the near future), but when we got home at about 1:30, I called this client services director to try and ask if this was going to be a permanent thing or if it was just temporary while they did upgrades or something. I got his voice mail, so I left him a message but did not hear back from him that afternoon. Thursday was my first day of school and I didn’t have class until noon. But when he still didn’t call back in the morning and my 2:00 english class got out early, instead of making my way to a barbecue for the senior class, I decided to go to the campus center and try to get an “ambush interview” as journalists say. It worked! He was there and said he had time to talk, even helping me find a chair in his office. But when I asked him if this was going to be a permanent thing, he said “yes.” And do you want to know why? “We did some upgrading of the computers and had a hard deadline for when things had to get done. JAWS wasn’t working, so we just had to go ahead and do the upgrade without JAWS.” He said he was having a meeting with disability services the next day to discuss which computer would be easiest for Gilbert and me to navigate to and that they would put a sign by that computer saying “reserved for JAWS users between such-and-such times.” Normally, this kind of reassurance would be enough to assuage my frustration, but not this time. You don’t know how much I wanted to rail in to him about how much this unfettered access to JAWS my first three years at this college meant to me, how it allowed me to do research alongside my peers as opposed to being off in a corner somewhere, how much it meant to me to be able to use any computer any time I wanted like my sighted peers instead of having to reserve times, how there were times when a computer would randomly freeze or crash as computers do but how this never escalated to tears or panic because I could just switch to another computer. And what if something came up, like say, a class gets canceled and I would like to use the time to get some work done, but find that my special computer is being used by another student who would understandably say “but I’m not using it during the reserved times.” I am not looking forward to the potentially awkward task of asking a student if they would be so kind as to move to another computer as this is the only one I can use. In general, my college is a friendly community, but if the person at that computer happens to be that one jerk who won’t move to another computer, I’m out of luck. And on the reverse side, I might not need to use a computer during the reserved time but if I don’t need it, it will sit empty which isn’t fair to my sighted peers. Or what if next semester, I have a class that meets in one of the classroom labs. JAWS would have to get set up on one of those computers so I could participate in class. I’m sure they would be willing to set up another computer in this case, but it would fall under the category of a “special accommodation” instead of something I could just take for granted, and I would probably want to come to campus over Christmas break to make sure it has been set up and is working properly so that I am not at a disadvantage the first day of class. But given that I was too frustrated to address these concerns in a calm, respectful manner and didn’t want to sully my reputation on campus as the happy easy-to-get-along-with girl with the positive attitude, I decided to just say thank you and end the meeting there. Yesterday, since I happened to be going to the Disability Services Office to take a comprehensive test for my Capstone course, I voiced my concerns to the administrative assistant who was attending the meeting. (That reminds me, unbeknownst to even the administrative assistant, the computer that I used to take tests on didn’t have JAWS either. Fortunately, she was able to procure a laptop that had JAWS so I was able to take the test. I don’t like laptops as well but made do with it). After talking out my frustration with Mom on the way home Thursday, I was able to think rationally and she helped me with how I should word my concerns. We came to an agreement that since the computer lab is first-come-first-served, it would make the most sense for the sign to say something like “this computer is reserved for JAWS users unless there are no other open computers.” (It is extremely rare to have to wait for a computer, although I have heard of it happening in the last weeks of classes when exams and projects are due). If there are no computers open and someone is using the JAWS computer, then of course it is fair for me to wait like anyone else. But it is not fair or practical to only reserve JAWS for certain times. The administrative assistant said she would bring up these concerns. But even though I calmed down enough to make the best of this new reality and voice my concerns in a respectful manner, I still feel sort of as if I have been betrayed. “We couldn’t get JAWS to work by the deadline, but oh well. We’ll go ahead with the upgrade anyway,” is essentially what he said. What do you readers think? Am I justified in being upset about this, or am I making mountains out of anthills? Did any of you enjoy such unfettered access when you were in college, or have I been spoiled and need a “welcome back to the real world” speech?
When I expressed my frustration to my dad, he compared this situation to the limited handicapped parking spots. I didn’t tell him this, but to me, these two situations are very different. While I can empathize with the frustration of people who are honestly handicapped when all the handicapped spots are taken, often by people who are not handicapped, the reality is that it is impossible to have all parking spots close to the door. But it is possible to have all computers in a campus network equipped with JAWS. It had been done until this year.
It isn’t characteristic of me to rant like this, and I apologize if this is starting to sound like a pity party. I can kind of understand where the technology people were coming from. When you’ve got three thousand plus students on campus, only one of whom needs JAWS (that I know of), I suppose it would be unreasonable to slow down an upgrade for the whole campus. At the same time however, did they really have to have that upgrade? Would it really have been the end of the world if heaven forbid, the campus had to use microsoft version 2007 instead of version 2011 for one more year until they could get JAWS working properly? Am I justified in feeling as though the rest of the campus is taking a step forward as I take a step backwards?
Alright, I will stop ranting now, but I do have one more question. Should I take this displeasure at what I perceive as a lack of consideration for myself and future blind students that may choose my college to the powers that be, or is this just a reality of life that I should just shut up about because there is nothing I can do about it, so it’s not worth the fight?
Thank you so much for reading this rant on a beautiful Saturday. I just really needed to get this off my chest and I look forward to hearing any advice you might have or if you have had similar experiences.