Posts Tagged 'braille'

Back in the Game

Well hello readers! Long time no see, I know! But it has been an eventful three months. First, there were the Christmas festivities, and the gift of an iPhone. It was such a thrill to be able to send my first text messages and give Siri voice commands that I forgot all about blogging. Then on New Year’s Day, I came down with a nasty virus that required my parents to call 911 because of underlying medical issues. It knocked me down for almost a week. But as soon as I was well, Mom caught it too. She didn’t have to go to the hospital since she doesn’t have other medical issues like me, but it still packed a punch for her too, so I did the dishes and nursed to her. But the largest contributor to the delay was my braille notetaker. Ever since the cable company came out to our house and installed an updated modem so we would have more reliable internet access with our iPhones, my braille notetaker wouldn’t connect to the internet. The network was detected when I scanned for it, and I triple checked to make sure I typed the password correctly and in the right field, but when I would try to connect to the internet, it would say “not connected.” So I contacted my local vendor and when I mentioned that I had never successfully upgraded the computer, (see Trusty Rusty post about that frustration), I was told that I needed the upgraded version to connect to the internet. So I hung up the phone, got brave and figured out how to download the upgrade installation files on my desktop computer and transfer them to a thumb drive which is compatible with the braille notetaker, as the vendor suspected that my braille notetaker couldn’t handle downloading such large files. Nope, still didn’t work! So I called the vendor back and he suggested getting the files from a different site as they could be corrupted. When this didn’t work either, I was so frustrated I threw in the towel and on January 17, shipped the braille notetaker back to the vendor via the UPS store. I figured it was probably a simple procedural thing I was doing wrong, and the vendor would install the upgrade in a snap with an exasperated sigh and mail it back before I even missed it. The good news was I wasn’t incompetent after all! Somehow my flash disk had become corrupted and he couldn’t install the upgrade either. It was shipped off to Humanware headquarters right away for more extensive repairs, but because my DVR counselor was swamped with cases, it took two weeks for the purchase order to be authorized. I admit I was getting pretty restless and bored toward the end of this time, but I actually coped with the absence of my favorite piece of technology better than I thought I would. Working in my favor was the fact that I am no longer in school. If I had to read textbooks using synthetic speech or haul a Perkins brailler to class for notetaking, I probably would have lost my mind. But in this current transitional time of my life, the braillenote is more of a luxury than a necessity. In fact, my vendor offered to loan me another notetaker until mine was fixed, and I almost accepted the offer. But a second later, my conscience prevailed as it occurred to me that the vendor probably only had a limited number of units, and I think he serves the whole state. It would be unethical for me to take a unit just to goof off when someone who is actually contributing to society through their job, or pursuing an education may need their unit repaired and would need the loaned unit more. So I decided I could do without, especially given that I had plenty of other technology alternatives to keep me occupied.

     So how did I stay occupied in the absence of my best friend, technology speaking? Well, I guess you could say I got better acquainted with other friends, figuratively and literally. Early on, I entertained myself by listening to audio books. In October, I met with a friend from middle school who said she listens to books on tape while she drives, and she gave me a book she had finished listening to called Forgive Me. It was a really good book about a journalist who couldn’t wait to leave her boring hometown near Nan Tucket and tragic childhood behind. Her mother died of cancer when she was six years old and her father coped by burying himself in his job. She thought she loved traveling the world and covering horrible stories like apartheid in South Africa, but as she grew older, she realized she longed to spend the rest of her life with a doctor she fell in love with and live a simple life back in Nan Tucket. I had forgotten about this book since I usually just default to downloading books from Bookshare. Before Bookshare, I had listened to books on tape frequently, but since then I have forgotten about the power a good reader has to bring a story to life. I also listened to Monday Mornings, a novel written by Dr. Sanje Gupta about the lives of doctors and nurses, and coping with medical mistakes.

     Each day, I also enjoyed keeping up with friends on Facebook using my iPhone, although I don’t miss the iPhone Facebook app at all! Voiceover would sometimes pronounce words really weird, so I would have to use the arrows to read statuses letter by letter. I also had to think carefully before writing anything, be it a Facebook status, a comment or an e-mail because without cursor buttons, it was very tedious to go back and change a word or sentence! And as if that weren’t enough, an “upgrade” to the app ended up being a downgrade for the blind because instead of the traditional text box to write what’s on your mind, they changed it to a system that voiceover doesn’t interact as well with. I could read what I wrote as a whole, but not letter by letter as I typed. After typing very carefully for a few days, it occurred to me that I could e-mail my status to Facebook, which I did for the duration of my braillenote’s absence. But all of this tedium and frustration renewed my appreciation of how beautiful braille really is, and I said as much on Facebook as soon as my braillenote arrived!

     But best (or maybe worst) of all, I became addicted to Hanging with Friends, a delightfully accessible virtual version of the classic Hangman, with really cute sound effects. When I get a word right, there is happy music, and when I have used up all my strikes and get a word wrong, there is what I think of as “aw, bummer!” music which is followed by the sound of one of my balloons being popped. These sound effects are built in to the game, so they are the same ones sighted people hear. The iPhone’s voiceover reads blank spaces in my opponent’s word as question marks and when I select a letter by scrolling to it on my keyboard and then double tapping the phone, voiceover will say “strike” meaning it’s wrong, or “played” meaning it’s right. The game also makes a happy “ding” when a letter is played, and does a faint drum roll when I only need one more letter to solve the word. When it is my turn to make a word, voiceover reads all the letters randomly assigned to me, tells me how many points each letter is worth, and indicates clearly which slot is a double letter, triple letter, double word or triple word. Unlike Words with Friends which is not accessible to totally blind folks like me because you have to drag the letter to the appropriate square with your finger, Hanging with Friends automatically puts the first letter I tap in the first slot, the second letter in the second slot and so on. I apologize if I am boring blind readers who are familiar with this game, but I wanted sighted readers who stumbled on this blog to understand it.

     Each player starts out with five balloons and the objective is to pop all of your opponent’s balloons by stumping them with tricky words. When I got my first braillenote in high school and discovered it had text adventure games, I was thrilled. I had always wondered what it was like to play a computer game, and I guess it was kind of fun navigating fictional worlds and encountering virtual danger. But despite hours of effort, I never fully figured out how to play these games because the objective often wasn’t clear, at least not to me. Maybe it was crystal clear to people whose minds like adventure and I was meant to be a wordsmith instead. I think Hanging with Friends is also more fun because it is a mainstream game I can play with sighted friends, whereas Text Adventure games are designed to be single player games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if only blind people have heard of them. Anyway, the point is, I quickly fell in love with this game and six weeks later, the addiction is still strong! In fact, even with my braillenote back, I find myself playing that game more than I am using my braillenote!

I’ve gotten good too! In the beginning, I was getting every word an opponent threw my way wrong, but with practice, I have figured out a strategy and use logic to my advantage! I probably shouldn’t reveal trade secrets, but I guess if readers want to use them to fool me, that’s alright because then I can develop new strategies, sharpen my brain and become even better! So when I get a word, I first see how long it is, and see which vowel is already filled in for me. Then, you know how at the end of Wheel of Fortune when there is a bonus round and the host reminds contestants of “r, s, t, l, n and e” the most commonly used letters in words? Well I would use up all my strikes if I tested all those letters, but through experience, I figured out that the words opponents send me almost always have an r, an s or a t, or occasionally all three! So I always test those letters right off the bat. After that, I just carefully analyze the length of the word, which letters are filled in, which spaces are still blank, and sift through my brain and think about letter sequences that would make sense. For example, if an e is in the second slot, I always test A next because there are a tun of ea words in the english language. If e is the second to last slot and the last slot is blank, there is a strong chance that the last slot will be a d because there are a tun of ed words. In this way, I gradually piece together the word. Of course, I get words wrong, especially when tricky opponents send me words I have never heard of before. I have lost games, but I have won a lot too! I have also gotten more creative about making sure to utilize the double and triple word and letter slots to accumulate points faster too. For every 200 points you score by creating words, you earn 20 coins which can be spent on lifelines or items in the virtual shop like fancier balloons for your character, or they can be saved. When I reached 400 coins, I bought or should I say “unlocked” fancier balloons, but I started over after that and plan to save them because I think once you reach 5,000 coins, you advance to a more challenging level, which sounds exciting! Wow, I really need a job, don’t I!

     Anyway, while I was getting addicted to this game, Humanware made my old braillenote seem shiny and new again. When Humanware received my braillenote, they also discovered that the braille display and keys were dirty. In fact the braille display was so dirty according to the report from my vendor, that it had to be cleaned twice! I couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he was just stating the facts like an objective reporter, or if he thinks I’m a slob, but that’s alright. However my mom, who knows I’m a slob in other areas (like my blanket that I always find neatly folded on the couch in the morning when it was tossed aside in a heap on the couch before bed the night before) but loves me anyway, laughed. In my defense, I tried cleaning the braille display with what I thought was a soft damp cloth once as the manual instructs, but the cloth was either too rough or too damp and one of the braille dots never worked again, so I decided from then on that cleaning such an expensive unit is better left to the professionals! At the time I attempted to clean the display, Mom had a very demanding job, so Dad and I tried as much as possible not to trouble her with trivial matters like the most appropriate cloth to use in cleaning braille displays and since this happened during my internship in the governor’s office, I couldn’t afford to be without my braillenote. Since the damage to the braille cell was caused by my own hand, I decided I could live with the consequences. When I was reading and a word didn’t make sense, I was able to just fill in the missing dot in my mind and eventually pretty much forgot it was missing at all, so I could have accepted it if Humanware only fixed the corrupt flash drive, which I don’t think I caused, and left my braille display as is. But it is such a joy to have all the dots crisp and clear and in working order that I am treating the braille display like a baby, being extra diligent about making sure my hands are clean and sliding my fingers as lightly as possible. But when I told Mom about the mishap just recently, she informed me that there are special cloths designed specifically for cleaning electronic equipment, so when the braille display needs to be cleaned, I should not be afraid!

     A couple of other exciting events took place in my braillenote’s absence, but this entry is getting long, and since they relate to a different subject entirely, I should talk about them in a future entry. So for now I just want to say that while I didn’t mind listening to audio books or learning a new game, it feels good to be back in the braille reading and blogging game again.

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011: Raising Awareness about an Inaccessible Information Age

This post was originally written with the intention of using it for Blogging Against Disablism Day on May 1, an annual event since 2006, where people all over the world blog about something related to disabilities whether it be access, discrimination or negative perceptions of people with disabilities. The name of the blog that hosts this event is Diary of a Goldfish. Here is the link to the blog if you would like to read about this event or check out other blogs that participated in the event: http://blobolobolob.blogspot.com.

     Unfortunately, due to a lack of inspiration on May 1, I wasn’t able to submit this entry on time, but it was indicated that people who couldn’t blog that day would still be included in the archives, so I will e-mail the host with the link to this entry as soon as it is posted. As my fourth grade teacher liked to say, “better late than never.”

     On the release day for each of the Harry Potter books, my dad would stand in line at the bookstore early in the morning to buy a copy, which he presented to my brother as soon as he woke up. Then instead of watching cartoons or playing video games after breakfast, he would join in the Harry Potter hysteria, reading the book practically nonstop until it was finished.

     I would get my book a month later. As ruthlessly as my brother teased me about my blindness in other ways, like randomly poking me on long car rides and getting away before I could prove it was him, to his credit, he never spoiled the Harry Potter books for me. Even he saw how unfair this long wait was.

     I am not sure if I had to wait because the publisher wouldn’t give National Braille Press access to the book until it was released because of the whole secrecy thing that authors are obsessed with, or if the publisher did give them the book in advance but not enough in advance to get it brailled before the release day. But as a child, I didn’t care about the reason. I was just furious that a publisher would release such a huge sensation of a book before EVERYONE could access it. I am not sure whether or not getting the book on tape would have allowed me to read it on the release day, but I never liked listening to books on tape because there is something special about reading the same way sighted people do, with the silent experience of reclining on the patio or on the sofa, turning pages and reading the words for yourself. But when the mail man rang the doorbell to deliver the giant box, or two or three that was my book, and I got to bust them open and hold each volume in my hand, feel its newness and turn those crisp never-been-read pages feeling just like my brother did on the day of the book’s release, the wait was well worth it. (For the release of the final book, to my complete joy, I found out that National Braille Press was able to arrange for the book to be delivered on the day of its release! But why couldn’t these arrangements be made all along?)

     Unfortunately however, my reading frustration has effected educational reading as well. In elementary school, many of my textbooks were only available on tape, and this actually would have been fine with me. Textbooks, unlike Harry Potter aren’t meant for pleasure reading. School books on tape were fine when reading a book cover to cover, but of course with textbooks, teachers assign specific pages. In high school, I was finally given a special CD player where you could just type the page you were looking for on a keypad and skip right to it, but in elementary and middle school, my educational experience was marred by the good old fashion portable four-track player that did not have this feature. Each book would come with a braille sheet that would say for example “cassette 1 side 1: pages 1-30.” But of course, the teachers had to assign pages 10-25, so I had the choice of either just listening to the first nine pages, or playing a tedious game of rewind, fast forward, listen for a minute, rewind fast forward listen for a minute, until I found, or got close enough to, the correct page. Neither of these choices were appealing to a kid who, like everyone else, just wants to flip right to the page, get the reading done and move on to better things. So although my teachers caught on and weren’t happy about it, I would often just ask my parents to read my textbooks to me, which they were happy to do because they didn’t think all the time spent just trying to find the page was fair either.

     Even for Math, the one subject where my teachers recognized that the textbook had to be in braille, problems getting the book were not uncommon. One year, I think it was seventh grade, my parents and I came home from running an errand, to find a voicemail from my vision teacher who was in charge of ordering textbooks.

     “I found the textbook Allison will need for Math next year. But do you know how much it is going to cost? Five thousand dollars!” she said in a tone of utter shock and disbelief.

     Now of course, a braille book is going to be more expensive because braille is such a specialized code that the producers of these books have to get trained in which costs money, not to mention the fact that braille just takes up a lot more space than print. (For sighted visitors to this journal who may be unfamiliar with braille, one page of print can require as many as four pages in braille). In addition, math also requires the duplication of graphs and diagrams. But still, my parents, teachers and I were astounded by this price. I still remember my mom saying as a joke, “are the pages trimmed in gold or something?” Fortunately, I live in an affluent school district, but in many districts, ordering such a pricey math book would not have been possible, preventing the student from participating fully in class. But actually, I have not always been able to participate fully in class myself because often times I had to use an older addition of the same book because the newest addition the regular class used was not available in braille. I was still learning the same concepts, but I had to be assigned different homework problems than the rest of the class and thus didn’t benefit as much from the regular teacher’s lecture, which was based on the problems the other student had done.

     And then came college, where I was ultimately responsible for having the textbooks I needed, not my vision teacher. Fortunately, I have gotten better at coordinating with the Disability Services Office at my college, thanks to my dad who assured me it is not rude to put a little pressure on them and tell them I really need my textbooks on time. We even start checking the bookstore as soon as one semester ends, buy the books as soon as the bookstore receives them, and take them to the Disability Services Office right away for scanning. But the first year of college was rough. First semester, despite getting the books to them in July, I found out on the first day of class that they had barely started scanning them. By the time chapters did start trickling in to my inbox, the teacher had often assigned them the week before. If it weren’t for the fact that I lived close to home and am blessed with dedicated parents who read my textbooks aloud for me, I almost certainly would not have received the excellent grades that I did. Second semester, my parents and I thought we would try scanning the books ourselves since the state gave me a scanner and Kurzweil software that allows scanned pages to be read by a screen reader like JAWS. I couldn’t put up with this plan any longer than one semester though because I don’t know if it was the way the print textbooks were formatted, or if I didn’t have the highest quality scanner, but whatever the reason, it wasn’t uncommon to have large sections of illegible garble. In the time it took my mom to help me edit the garbled sections, I swear I could have done the assigned reading five times! Fortunately by sophomore year, I was much more comfortable advocating for myself at the college level, politely speaking up when I needed a particular chapter that hadn’t been sent to me yet. But another problem still drives me crazy. I have yet to do a research paper where I don’t have to deal with at least one PDF file that is a scanned page so that my screen reader cannot read the text, or one book that I would really like to peruse but which I cannot access. With the unreadable PDF files, I e-mail them to the disability services office which has been great about cleaning them up and sending them back to me, usually by the next day. With books, I have not had as much luck and thus have resigned myself to the fact that if it is not available on bookshare.org, (a site where people who are blind or dyslexic can register to download electronic books for an annual $50 subscription), I might as well not waste my time trying to find it anywhere else. Case and point? For a research paper I had to write this semester for a Public Policy course regarding the FCC’s regulation of indecency and profanity on television, I saw an awesome editorial, at the end of which it was indicated that the author of this editorial wrote a book called “The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture.”

     Since this short editorial had such excellent arguments, I thought it would be cool to peruse the book and see if I could use it to expand on the arguments in the editorial. So I checked Bookshare. It wasn’t there. I checked Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. A totally unrelated book by the same author was there, but not the book I needed. It wasn’t available on any mainstream audio book company sites and it wasn’t available at all from my local library. It wasn’t even available as an electronic file on Google books or Amazon. I thought that was a pretty in-depth search, but when I saw a contact form on the web site of the book’s publisher, I thought I would fill it out and explain my situation. My hopes was that they would direct me to a company I may not have heard where I could get the book directly. Instead, I received a reply a few days later saying that I could contact the disability services office who could contact the publisher for an electronic copy. Now, I am very aware of the Disability Services office doing this every semester for my textbooks, and based on how long it took for the books to be sent in the past, I think there is a lot of red tape. Then, when the books arrive, they often have to be cleaned up or converted to word files so that I can read them. Don’t you think that is a lot to ask of the Disability Services people for a book that I only wanted to peruse, that I might not even use in my research paper at all? Needless to say, I just cut my losses with that book and found another less awesome sounding but adequate book on Bookshare.

     I think what I am trying to say with these experiences is that I wish mainstream companies from education to recreation would stop and think a little more about how much equal access means to people with disabilities. Alright, I recognize there does need to be a little give and take. In an ideal world, it would have been cool to wait in line and get Harry Potter in braille, direct from the bookstore. But that would be a lot to ask since as I mentioned earlier, braille takes up a lot of shelf space! But in the 21st century, isn’t it a bit outrageous that it takes a month from the time the book is released in print until it is available in braille? I have heard four-track players are pretty much obsolete now, thank God! But again, why on Earth does a math book cost $5,000, and why haven’t publishers thought about the fact that releasing a new print addition before it can be brailled puts blind students at a disadvantage? In this the internet age, why aren’t all books available electronically so that blind people can purchase them directly like everyone else? In the 21st century, is it too much to ask to want to just be able to open any file and start reading, with no garble or scanned pages that screen readers cannot recognize? In other words, with all of our technological advancement in so many other areas, shouldn’t blind people be able to access a book or file just as easily and efficiently as anyone else?

     It is not generally my nature to gripe like this, and I really don’t think these access difficulties are intentional. I’m sure the publisher that created the scanned PDF pages wasn’t thinking “I hate blind people. I am going to scan this in such a way that they will have a harder time reading it.” I think the problem is simply that because blind people are a minority, there is not a lot of awareness or education regarding our needs in mainstream society. Without education or awareness, it would make sense that there is not a lot of thought given to these issues. So I hope that sighted people, especially those in the field of publishing educational materials, will stumble upon this entry and at least start thinking about these issues. Being the young optimist that I am, I have faith that with a little awareness, society would be more than willing to put these thoughts in to action, making the world a little more accessible for all.