Posts Tagged 'technology'

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.


That’s How Far Back I Go!

Last week, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, putting me in the oldest bracket in terms of traditional college students on campus. It was a fantastic birthday as usual. The main celebration happened a day early because I thought I would have to go to my night class on my real birthday. (I thought about skipping, but realized that since it only meets once a week and I had come so close to graduating, I would be a responsible student.) So the day before my birthday, my parents, brother, grandma and I sat down to steak, baked potatoes, a yummy salad kit with a southwest dressing, broccoli and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, topped with ice cream! (Did you know I love chocolate?) My grandma, keeping with tradition bought me clothes. My parents gave me another gardenia, my favorite fragrant flower. (I got a gardenia for my 20th birthday, but unbeknownst to me, my silly dad thought it wasn’t getting enough sun and put it outside in the hot sun which killed it. I guess he didn’t know that gardenias are fragile plants meant to be indoors. But I forgive him now). Along with the gardenia, I also got an official plastic pitcher with a long neck designed for watering plants. My sighted parents are able to water house plants with huge glass pitchers, or even just a drinking glass and not spill a drop. I have always found it difficult to get pitchers and glasses down in to the dirt by the root of the plant without spilling, so when I watered plants, I found it easier to re-fill one of those plastic, disposable water bottles which I can hold with one hand while figuring out where to pour it in to the pot with the other. I still spilled occasionally with these bottles because the necks of these bottles are short, so water would start coming out before I had fully aimed it in to the pot, but since the mouth of a water bottle is smaller, I felt like I didn’t spill as much. This water pitcher though is a genius invention, as the long neck allows me to get it lined up before water starts to pour, eliminating spills altogether. The only problem now is just remembering to water it since plants cannot follow me around and practically trip me when they want food or water like Gilbert and my cat Snickers do. With my last gardenia, I was good about watering it when it was in bloom, but when I could no longer smell it, I would forget about it and am ashamed to admit that my parents ended up pouring water in to it a lot when they saw it looking dry. But being that I am on the cusp of college graduation and a life where keeping a plant watered will be the least of my responsibilities, this is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf (get it!), and so far I have diligently watered my plant before bed every day except one day when Mom told me not to because it looked like it had too much water in it.

     My mom also ordered me a braille book on how to crochet, as well as some hooks and yarn. I have been thinking I would like to learn a craft to expand my life beyond reading and rambling on blogs like this. I have always been fascinated by the fact that the beautiful, intricate afghans and scarves I have gotten as gifts over the years were once just balls of yarn, so when I saw the braille book my mom ordered on the web site of Horizons for the Blind, it occurred to me that this natural fascination I already had for crochet would keep me motivated through the challenges that come with learning a new craft, making it a perfect option. Also, since my grandma on Mom’s side and one of my aunts is in to crochet, they could help me, making it the perfect female bonding opportunity. So far, my efforts to learn have been discouraging. I don’t know if it is because my hands just aren’t used to the new motor skills required for crochet yet or if I am just a dunce, but the written steps the author gives don’t make sense when I try to follow them. My mom wasn’t able to find a print version of the exact book I am using, but she has tried to show me hand-over-hand how her book illustrates it. But this doesn’t make any sense either. On several occasions, just when I think I have succeeded in making a slip loop, the foundation required for any crochet piece and then progressed to making chains, the slip loop falls off the hook in the process of making the first chain loop. I am not giving up. If my teachers, especially in middle school and high school had let me give up on difficult things like math, I would not have the foundation to be the ambitious, soon-to-be graduate that I am today, so I know that if I can continue this tradition of never giving up, even on hobbies like crochet, I will be capable of making beautiful afghans, scarves or even sweaters to give as Christmas gifts one day. So I have been trying to spend a few minutes each day practicing, but since it is a hobby not a requirement like Math was, I allow myself to walk away from it before I work myself in to tears of frustration. Once I graduate and have all the time in the world, at least until I get a job that is, I may consider looking in to face-to-face lessons with a crochet instructor to see if that helps.

     To my amazement however, we actually could have celebrated on my real birthday because I got an e-mail that afternoon from the teacher of my night class who said due to personal scheduling conflicts, she needed to cancel class! So instead of going to my night class, my parents and I had a second party with a Papa Murphy’s pizza and more chocolate cake. My mom even saved one more gift, an iTunes gift card for my real birthday. This professor for my night class is the kind of professor who believes that for the tuition we pay, she wants to give us our money’s worth and at the beginning of the semester, she basically said she would only cancel if the college shut down for a snow day. She also apologized profusely to students who planned their semester around the old schedule which now had to be modified. But I couldn’t resist telling her before the start of class this week “you don’t know it, but you gave me an awesome birthday present last week!” to which she laughed and responded “well, I’m glad it worked out for somebody.”

     But all of this birthday recounting isn’t even what I had planned to be the main point of my entry. For that, let’s go back to my statement toward the beginning of this entry that my 22nd birthday put me in the oldest bracket of traditional college students. This reminded me of a conversation with a classmate the day after my birthday that really got me thinking. I had arrived to my Communication Conflict class early and was waiting for class to start when one of my friends who saw that I had my birthday the day before on Facebook wished me a happy birthday.

     “Yesterday was your birthday?” a girl whom I enjoy chatting with but is not on Facebook chimed in. “Well happy birthday! And how old are you?”

     “Twenty-two!” I said with that strange sense of excitement and disbelief that comes with saying your new age for the first time, almost akin to saying the new year for the first time January 1.

     “Wow! You’re old!” she said playfully. That started a fun conversation in which we both talked about how we feel so old when we see little children, to which the professor added, “wait until you have children of your own. Then you’ll really feel old!” Usually my brain would have moved on from such a casual conversation, but instead I have found myself thinking back to it all week. Of course I know I’m not really old. In fact, I am still in that wonderful phase of life when getting older brings new opportunities, not new ailments and according to political pundits, I will be classified as a young voter until I am 35. And then, speaking of people who really are old, conversations with my grandma and even my parents about how much things have changed over the course of their lives came to mind.

     Sometimes when I complain about how difficult it is to find information on the internet for college research projects, Mom will regale me with stories of how many hours she spent in the musty, dusty “stacks” of the college library pouring over actual books, and then having to write her papers on a typewriter. My parents both remember taking road trips in which they didn’t bother with seat belts. In fact, it was even acceptable for babies to ride unrestrained on the giant window ledges of cars back then.

     “You want to know how far back I go?” Grandma said once, “I remember watching silent films outdoors on a projector that hung from a tree! That’s how far back I go!”

     Remembering these conversations, it occurred to me that even in my relatively short lifetime, there has been a staggering amount of change that was so gradual I took it for granted when it was happening which makes me feel old in a strange way. So to celebrate my 22nd birthday, a milestone that really hammered home the realization that I am sort of a senior citizen now, at least on my college campus, I thought you readers, which I hope will one day include my children and grandchildren, might enjoy a reflection on how far back I go.

     I remember a time when our family did not own a computer. Our very first computer was delivered on Christmas eve 1995 when I was in kindergarten. Being as young as I was, I don’t think I understood what computers were all about, but I will never forget just the buzz of excitement that filled the house as my older siblings played with it every waking moment. But when I look back and remember my siblings doing hand-written reports in middle school and then fast-forward to my middle school experience, by which time every assignment rubric said “your paper must be typed”, I realize that our first computer was more revolutionary of an event than I ever could have imagined.

     Keeping with computers, I also remember when there was no such thing as high-speed broadband. The internet was accessed through a dial-up connection. To accommodate this, I remember when for several years, our house had two phone lines, one for talking on the phone and one for the internet. Otherwise, no one could reach us on the phone if someone was using the internet.

     I remember being with my parents one Saturday afternoon when I was eight years old as they bought their first cell phone. It was nothing like the cell phones nowadays. In fact, that reminds me of a hilarious prank that my dad tried to pull on my sister before heading off to college, just four years after the purchase of that first phone.

     Approaching my sister all somber and serious, he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but while we would like you to have a cell phone for college, money is tight right now and we just cannot afford to buy you a new one. So Mom and I hope you don’t mind using an old one.” With that, he handed her the very first cell phone, which my parents had saved. She almost burst in to tears at this, until she looked at my dad who couldn’t keep a straight face, and they all burst out laughing.

I wasn’t there for this prank but when my parents told me about it, I remember asking, “what’s so bad about the old phone?” When Mom pulled it out for me to feel, I instantly understood why it would have been a source of embarrassment at college for my sister. It was bulky and gigantic! I am sure I held that phone at the time when it was new, but phones were updated and replaced so quickly I took for granted how small they had evolved. My sister did get a modern phone, but what was considered a modern phone then would be ancient by today’s standards. It was a sleek flip phone, but it could only make phone calls. Those iPhones which we all take for granted now that can surf the internet, take pictures and shoot videos hadn’t yet been invented!

     Anyway, as soon as we got in the car to drive home from that store with our first cell phone, my mom phoned home and with giddy excitement in her voice proclaimed to my older brother that she was calling from the car. Given how frequently I stand on the sidewalk after class and flip open my phone to arrange where Mom should pick me up after class, it baffles me to realize that even in my lifetime, this wasn’t always possible.

     I remember when in June of my fourth grade year, my parents purchased cable television. I think cable channels had been around for awhile even then, but my parents were frugal and didn’t think we needed it. But when my brother, a teenager at the time begged and pleaded for months, arguing that “we are the only ones I know who don’t have cable,” my dad made a deal with him that if he earned all A’s that semester, we could get cable. Even I, a person who wasn’t as fond of television as my other sibling was enthralled with the diversity of shows available now. I grew especially fond of Animal Planet and spent many beautiful afternoons watching Emergency Vets and A Pet Story.

     I think I was in fifth grade when I first heard about a DVD Player, and it seemed like from that instant forward, VHS tapes were obsolete. In fact, I remember when my elementary school would film special events like the class play in first and second grade, my graduation from DARE and the school band, orchestra and choir concerts. If we wanted a copy of the video, we were asked to bring a blank VHS tape to school and the video would be copied on to it for us. But at least for the time being, I cannot watch those videos because our VCR doesn’t work and since the VCR is considered ancient now, my parents aren’t sure how to fix it. My parents have talked about looking in to services that convert VHS videos to DVDs but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

     Also related to VHS tapes, I remember a time when there was no such thing as DVR. So if one family member wasn’t going to be home and wanted to record a show, someone had to put a VHS tape in the VCR at the proper time for the show. If no one was home to man the VCR or the person forgot about this duty, you were out of luck. And there was no such features as pause or start over, so there were no bathroom breaks until the commercials and absolutely no talking was allowed during shows. The funny thing is that since our family didn’t get DVR until I was in high school, even today, I am not used to it and still find myself biting people’s heads off for talking during a show, so Mom has to remind me, “you know, we can pause the show nowadays.” Oh yeah, we can!

     The advent of the DVD transformed the classroom experience too. Because a VCR took up so much space, individual classrooms did not have one of their own, so when a teacher wanted to watch a video in class, they had to coordinate this in advance with the media room in the library and then pick up the phone and call down when they were ready for the video to be cued up. By middle school, each classroom had its own DVD player and now in college, DVDs are placed in a slot on the classroom computer and I think shown on the same projection screen as the powerpoint presentations. That reminds me, I never heard of powerpoint until middle school and remember a time when teachers taught with chalkboards and fragile overhead transparencies that I think had to be written out by hand using a special marker.

     I remember a time when files had to be saved on giant square floppy disks to be transferred to another computer. Now everyone uses thumb drives so tiny you could easily swallow it or suck it up with the vacuum cleaner if you aren’t careful. Or, if you have Apple products, you don’t even need thumb drives at all, as files can be backed up on the iCloud and synchronized automatically with other computers.

     Facebook has become such an ingrained part of life for my generation, I was shocked to learn a few months ago when the movie Social Network was released, that Facebook only came on the scene in 2005. I remember a time when my sibling lamented losing touch with friends over summer, a time when talking with friends or arranging a party meant long hours on the phone. Seemingly in an instant, Facebook almost replaced the phone and allowed my siblings and I to stay in touch with friends and family spread all over the country.

     I remember a time when one medicine I need to take for a medical condition had to be measured in a tube and another person had to blow it up my nose! If I had a cold, or even if my parents stuck the tube too far in my nose causing a tickle, I would sneeze it out. My parents couldn’t re-do it because it is one of those medicines where going without it isn’t life-threatening, merely inconvenient. But an overdose would be extremely dangerous and there was no way to know how much was ingested before the sneeze. So much of these early childhood years were spent consuming remarkable volumes of water and camping out near the bathroom until it was safe to try again with the next dose. What a glorious day it was at my appointment in October of my freshman year of high school when the doctor said this medicine was available in pill form which is so much more consistent and reliable!

     In terms of advancements in technology for the blind, I remember a time when braille could only be produced on paper. Since braille has to be embossed on thicker paper and since braille takes up twice the space as print text, I remember hauling around giant 4-inch binders, bursting at the seams with my braille assignments. In elementary school, all of this extra stuff required me to use a larger desk in the back of the room, and by fourth grade, I had to haul my homework home in an adapted suitcase on wheels because regular backpacks just couldn’t accommodate everything I needed, at least not without risking back injuries.

     I first experienced the joys of a computer with a refreshable braille display in seventh grade when I was given a Braille Lite. But while this computer was lighter and made a lot less noise than the old fashioned metal Perkins Brailler, it didn’t have much memory, so I still depended a lot on hard copy braille. Also, if you wanted to make changes, you had to go to a special insert mode which was very prone to having glitches, at least on my computer. What a joy it was when my freshman year of high school, I got my first BrailleNote which had enough memory for everything, had cursor edit buttons above the braille display that allowed editing to be done with the efficiency of a sighted person and an e-mail interface so teachers could e-mail files to me and I could e-mail homework to them! By high school, math, with its graphs and figures, was the only subject that still required the Perkins Brailler and hard copy materials. This reduced the volume of stuff I had to handle so much that I could sit in a regular desk for every class but math and carry my homework home in a normal backpack! The BrailleNote has made a difference at home too. The house is no longer overrun with giant braille books for my summer vacation pleasure reading because I can download books on to my BrailleNote instantly from Bookshare.

     So grandchildren, that’s how far back I go! And given how fast things have changed just in my short lifetime, I cannot even imagine how much more will have changed by the time I am a grandmother. Readers, especially those born around 1990, feel free to comment if you think of any innovations I forgot about.

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 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, 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!