Category Archives: Assistive Devices for the Blind

Take it all the way to the Bank

Sometimes, it pays to persevere. For years, I and other individuals have requested, pleaded with, and even demanded that the Halifax Shopping Center branch of  RBC (formerly known as Royal Bank of Canada) install an audible  banking machine. This branch has gone through several managers over the years, and all were less than responsive to the suggestion that accessibility  in banking would be “a good thing” (to borrow a line from Martha Stewart). The branch  went through a major retrofit last year, (INCLUDING INSTALLATION OF A NEW BANKING MACHINE), and despite reminders to the deadheads in charge of the dough (AKA the last manager) to order and include an audible machine, the branch ended up putting in a new, regular INACCESSIBLE machine. People who can’t see the keypad and display, cannot use it for quick, everyday banking, like other bank patrons. Instead, our options included going to the stand-up tellers while trying to juggle papers, guide dogs and privacy, or the grim death march-like wait with the ‘seniors’ at the sit-down service. The latter is the default choice of most blind people who bank alone.  Many a time, I have sat…and sat, and waited for my turn to come. It  irritated me beyond belief to wait endlessly for the privilege of depositing money into the coffers of an already obscenely profitable bank. Tic-toc! My time is valuable too! And to boot, any blind person in need of cash or depositing funds to cover bills etc after banking hours? was screwed! So one day, as I sat vacantly at  the ‘sit down’ service,  eavesdropping on some old geek’s long winded  financial and personal history (in excruciating minutia) , the new branch manager came over to introduce herself. A big sigh went off  in my head, but a cordial greeting coming out my mouth…and within  two minutes, I redirected the conversation. I asked her if  we might open  the dialogue about accessibility problems with this RBC branch one more time.   Result?  Darlene, the new manager, just telephoned  to announce  (a mere three weeks or so after  I sent her a detailed e-mail  about  accessibility, Accommodation, rights and obligations blah, blah, blah), that the RBC Halifax Shopping Center branch will, by April, install AT LEAST THREE AUDIBLE BANKING MACHINES AT THE BRANCH ITSELF AND WITHIN THE MALL!

Now, I can  look forward to cruising  over to the mall at any time,  and being able to go the bank machine (the audible ones) , slip on my headphones, plug in, and listen to ‘bank guy’s’ voice croon his instructions to me, thereby allowing me to conduct transactions quickly….such as depositing my money…. into the coffers of an obscenely profitable bank. Nice going, though,  RBC. 

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

It doesn’t take much to excite me. My compadre , Troy (a blind guy) made the mother of all discoveries this week, after much finagling and phoning to the Yellow Pages folks in search of a free, searchable,  information phone service for the Yellow Pages. He found a wonderful, little known tool and shared it with me. Now, we are sharing it with EVERYONE.  This is free!!! What makes it particularly exciting, is that, now I can ‘browse’ the Yellow Pages, just like the sighted folk. It’s accessed through a toll free number here in Nova Scotia. You call the number, (you can opt for a short tutorial), and say, for example, “Halifax, Nova Scotia”. Then say, “pizza”, if you are hankering for a pie. The ‘automated attendant’ or voice menu will ask you if you want, “Pizza Restaurant, delivery, or any pizzeria”. I chose “delivery”. Then, the clever interactive voice offered me 10 choices.  I didn’t really want a pizza, but hey, if I had… Then, I tried “photographers”, “shoes”,  “plumbers”, “banks” and more.  When searching  for shoe store options, I was asked if I wanted to “search by neighbourhood, near a landmark, near an intersection or city wide “….and so on.  I listened to  a list, and could choose to “connect, get the address, or get the number”. 

This is a minor miracle for me and other blind people who spend many an hour fritzzing around with the regular 411 service in search of numbers for stores or businesses. The only business or store umbers we can get from 411, are ones WHICH WE KNOW THE NAME AND LOCATION OF!!! So, for Nova Scotians, the toll free number is: 1-877-310-9356. Blind people! Program it onto your speed dial!! Let your fingers do the walking.  For  most of the rest of Canada, the number is even simpler: 310-0411. This works for land lines or mobile phones. The web site, is there too, of course for the computer geeks (www.yellowpages.ca). My only caution is, to speak clearly, ’cause sometimes the ‘automated attendant’ says, “I don’t  understand you”…story of my life.

Voting Day Blues

I have been very hyped about this election. Why?  I have chomped at the bit in anticipation of dramatically and meaningfully casting my inaccessible ballot at the polling station. Let me remind you about the core elements of a democratic vote; secret, independent and verifiable. I have gone on and on, to EVERYONE who will listen and to some who won’t, about the importance of these elements, the sanctity of the electoral process, and how I am denied this right by virtue of inaction on the part of Elections Canada. I am blind, as are hundreds of thousands of other voters. We do not have electronic voting in Canada. We do not have telephone voting. We do not have voting machines at the polls. We do not have Braille ballots. I thought that today I would be pumped and ready to let loose my schpeel at the Presbyterian church where I would be voting. I ran through my dialogue, my diatribe, my kvetching complaint, like a Shakespearean actor preparing for Stratford.

Here’s what really happened. I made it to the church, and found myself outside with a woman in a wheelchair attempting to open a monstrously large door (no automatic opener). I opened it for her, but it was not wide enough. A worker from the poll came and helped to open another door. I commented wryly about Elections Canada and their accessible voting sites. She commiserated. By this point, I had, for some reason, already lost my oomph.  Maybe it’s the time of year, or ‘my time of the month’.  Some one came over as Opal and I walked into the large church basement. The usual useless pointing and “over there” was followed by an arm-grab which I yanked away.  Someone else gave sensible directions to the table I needed.  My ID was requested and checked.  I did NOT give a long-winded lecture on the difficulty blind people have in meeting ID requirements, given that we don’t have driver’s license and many of us have no passport. Some of us choose not to have or use a charitable ID (CNIB) for reasons which are too numerous and complicated for this blog.  I provided my stunning photo ID cards which have a photo of Opal and me posing together (CGDB and the Attorney General of Ontario), but my Guide dog ID cards do not have my address on them, so I added a phone bill. I had considered bringing a Braille bill, but I did not want to be turned away. At this point, the DRO asked if I wanted a Braille template. My interest peaked, as I thought I had discussed this ad nauseum with Silvestre from elections Canada and had confirmed there would be no Braille on the ballot, and to expect the usual flaky template. Now I had no idea what they were offering me.  I asked (just to confuse them) if it was contracted or uncontracted Braille. The had no clue, so I let them off the hook and told them that I knew both, so it did’nt matter.  The DRO put the ballot into the ‘Braille template’ and then came the offer to “come into the voting area with you”. I said I would pass, given that I had this allegedly accessible Braille template in my hand.  Opal and I parked ourselves behind the privacy screen at a little table. I started to read the template. Numbers. Just numbers! I called out, “um, there’s no names here, just numbers”.  The old lady who had grabbed me when I came in, offered to read the names to me. I said that would not do. The DRO guy came over and offered to read them “as they appear in sequence. then you pick the braille number”, he said with full expectation that somehow this would be acceptable to me. I had PLANNED to make a big ‘to-do’, maybe proclaim myself the Rosa Parks of the voting blind, given that I am repeatedly told that blind people ‘have found this acceptable for years’. Instead, I told him “no thanks”, and ” if I can’t read it for myself”…( in a country where government material must be provided in alternate formats by law),  “I’ll have to  spoil my ballot”. He apologised (as everyone always does). I scrawled multiple X’s in allthe holes in my template and ballot and handed it to the old lady. She wisely did not attempt to go into the  insufferably patronizing routine of allowing me to put it in the box, but quickly disposed of it, stuffing it into the ballot box herself.   I walked out, declining someone’s eager offer for me to use the elevator, saying, “my legs are fine, we’ll use the stairs”. I left deflated.   I did not call the media, or my party delegate, or the PM (who doesn’t give a flying f…k anyway), or the queen, or Silvestre at Elections Canada (who I’m guessing was pretty busy today). Instead, I went for my routine blood work and called it a day. I wish I was one of those clever musicians, ’cause I’d be writing a tune tonight…’Voting Day Blues’.

STOP PRESS!!! Megan Leslie, newbie NDP canditate and personal acquaiantance declared winner of Halifax riding! Go get em in Ottawa, kid…and remember your roots…and your blind friends…

In Preparation For ‘Blindness’

No, I’m not referring to preparation for loss of sight. I’m not referring to the skills-learning that someone “going blind”  might undertake…the hours of O&M (orientation & mobility) training with a qualified instructor where someone learns techniques in  the use of a white cane (example: streamline caning, tapping method, sweeping method) and use of sound reflection to determine position and location as well as learning to judge traffic flow etc., thereby allowing a blind person to travel independently. No, I don’t mean the time spent learning about, and purchasing adaptive devices which allow a blind person to read, cook, write, do math, tell time etc such as talking clocks, tape recorders, tactile measuring cups, talking book players, water level indicator, talking calculators etc… I’m not thinking of the exchange of information and tips with others who are blind which provide one with helpful ideas to make a home  safe (removing scatter rugs, and repositioning furniture …) and allows one to  perform the same tasks as they did before they couldn’t see, only differently (cleaning floors by using a grid system,  marking appliances with bump dots to facilitate cooking and cleaning, using elastic bands and large print labels to distinguish containers….) I don’t mean the hours some people (15%) spend learning Braille, first uncontracted or Grade 1 Braille, then contracted or Grade 2 Braille, so that books, documents bank statements, telephone bills become accessible when available, as well as providing a means of ‘writing’ on the go with a slate and stylus,  or reading storybooks to their children..No, I’m not referring to the assistive technology (Jaws, Guide, Window Eyes and other  screenreading software, Kurswell scanning software and other scan- to-speech programs)  that are available which enable blind people (who can afford or otherwise obtain them)  access to the Internet,  e-mail, document writing and reading etc as well as potentially  obtaining education and employment in a more equatable manner so that they earn a living, raise families…essentially the usual happy story, except maybe there’s no station wagon in their driveway.  Nor am I talking about joining blind sports and recreational organization for the usual reasons one joins them, like  getting  exercise and playing  cribbage. I’m not referring to any of the stuff that a blind person learns over time that provides the skills so that they can lead independent, full, happy normal lives.

What am I’m talking about? I’m talking about preparation to attend a screening of the Canadian co-production of the movie, ‘Blindness’, based on the book of the same name by Jose Saramago. This involves researching the plot summary (very disturbing, depicting a world gripped by a blindness epidemic….trouble is, all the blind people are portrayed as helpless, altered and desperate…), linking to articles on the Net, listening to the BBC production available ’till October 8th on Sendspace, following the protest in the USA by the NFB, sending out a media release to local media and responding to those who have requested interviews following the screening tomorrow, and preparing a statement in anticipation that this movie’s buzz (as one which portrays blind people in a vile and unacceptable manner) is accurate.  The  statement would likely ask the people of Halifax and beyond to give it a MISS altogether, NOT support the  filmmaker and theatre by paying for admission to see it, to look beyond Mr. Saramago’s comment that this is a  “allegorical” film and his dismissal of the blind community (who are widely protesting it) as “ridiculous”, and send a message that this film is NOT OK with the blind community…I’m just preparing for ‘Blindness’, ’cause this movie is sending the wrong message about real blindness, and frankly I don’t care if  Mr. Saramago’s literary soul is crushed in the process. Metaphor shmetaphor!

Opal Goes to High School (again)

Yesterday, Opal and I went back to Citadel High school in Halifax. Our purpose this time was to introduce the 2008  Writing contest which AEBC Halifax (Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians) is hosting with 100 grade 10 students. The last time we visited Citadel, it was final exam time in June. There wasn’t much of anything going on then, except that a handful of kids,  bleary-eyed from all-night studying were getting bummed out about their exams.   A few others were in a tizzy because Security had  hacked off their locks and cleaned out their lockers.  Yesterday was a totally different scenario. In a word, CHAOS!  We handily found our way to the familiar ‘office’. The staff were helpful and made photocopies of some handouts for me. We sat next to a funked-out kid in trouble waiting to see one of the vice-principals.  Opal and I listened to the bedlam in the halls.  Announcements (both for students and teachers) are constantly being cranked out.  Each one is preceded by an alarming ‘alert’ tone, which is reminisant of something you would hear on a submarine …or in a prison. Maybe it was the added destinations in the announcements…”…meeting in ‘D’  block”  that made me think of this.  I ate my tuna sandwich and took in the conversations students were having with the staff…”I DID bring a note signed by a parent, so why am I marked missing?”  “My class is supposed to be in room 208 in ‘D’ block, but they’re not there!”   Today, we were back to meet Marjorie, an English teacher who asked me to introduce the Writing Contest and speak to her class about blindness. She seemed her usual harried self when she arrived.  As we gathered my photocopies, I noticed someone had stopped to pat and talk to Opal. “Don’t touch my dog please, she’s working”, I said automatically. They continued,  oblivious to my words.  I said, “Hey, don’t touch my dog”.  This is when Marjorie introduced me to the offender, Kam the principal of Citadel High. I grinned but  offered no appology. Instead I gave her one of the handouts on Guide dogs. Marjorie and I found our way to the staff lunch room on the 2nd floor where I was to wait for “the kids to settle down from lunch”.  A teacher walked in and screamed, apparently terrified at the sight of Opal. This happens occasionally.  Five  minutes later, we bumped into the same teacher as we entered  a doorway into a lunchroom alcove. He screamed again. This time, I grinned. Opal shrugged off his scream, disregarded him and guided me, as she is supposed to. Our visit with the kids was great. The contest will have them writing about what they think their world would be like without sight.  We talked about blindness too. Questions?  Sure. “How do audible traffic signals work?” When I mentioned blind sports, the restless, surly  kid in the front (I’m guessing Marjorie parks him there to keep an eye on him) blurted out his question, “Is there blind basketball?”.   I told him I didn’t know, but that Goal ball is a huge blind sport,  even a Para Olympic sport. We talked about accessible technology and devices.  I asked them to take out their cell phones. Most of these 36 kids have one and were eager to break the ‘no cell phone in class’ rule.  I urged them to resist actually dialing, but to imagine trying to use it to text message or call, if they could not see. “I can’t feel the keypad or see the display”, some girl complained. “That’s my point”,  I said. Most of the hundreds of models of cell phones,  MP3 players etc are totally impossible to use if you are blind.  As always, the majority of questions were about guide dogs.  Time flew by and soon Marjorie was giving me the hook. We got a round of applause and then Opal and I were escorted out before the buzzer and the ensuing stampede of kids by a pair of girls (teenage girls always travel in pairs, even in 2008). Opal and I managed to get home without causing anyone else to scream.

Don’t Sit On the Cat! and Other Advice For Blind People

People ask me all sorts of questions about how I manage to do this,  that and the other thing. Here’s a sample: “How do you cook without burning yourself?”   “How do you know when your period has started?”   “How do you know if the lights are on or off?”  “Do you ever step/sit on the cat?”  “How do you know if the food in your ‘fridge is still good?”   “How do you know what bus to get on?” Sigh.  Frankly, I worry about the people that ask these questions. For their benefit, and that of those people with vision loss out there who haven’t quite ‘got it together’ yet, here are a few more tips.  Cooking is fun for me. Sure, it is a bit of a different process. I do not attempt to multi-task when cooking for safety reasons. It is one thing for a sighted person to roam away from a stove-top full of pots to make a phone call or balance their check book, but I like to stick with the task at hand. It is safer to be by the stove and avoid potential a disaster…like setting the kitchen ablaze and ruining dinner in the process. I use larger pots and pans than sighted people might.  This helps avoid overflow when things boil. I use fewer pots, preferring to make many recipes that can be made with one or two pots instead. I prepare ingredients beforehand so that they are ready to add when I need them. My experience as a chef comes in handy some days. I cook effortlessly for the most part. I seem to have an internal guidance system which helps me time things right; set water to boil in huge pot, chop garlic and vegies while waiting, cook pasta (keep lid off and metal spoon to stick in pot  handy to prevent ‘pasta eruptus’ on the stove), drain pasta (into large colander IN sink), put pot back on burner (no need to wash it), add olive oil and garlic (inhale deeply), add vegies in order of ‘cookability’.  OK, I just invented a word, so sue me. I refer to the vegies that take longer to cook, like carrots, celery, turnip… then  stir the cast iron pot (prevents any sticking and cooks evenly), add other vegies (like green beans, zucchini and tomatoes), add spices and minimal vegetable stock.  I  let it simmer for a while. When that’s cooked, I put the multigrain pasta into the mix and stir it up. Voila! I have a big honking pot of tasty, healthy pasta and vegies without need for fuss and 5 hours at the stove. I listen to my talking book or radio while I cook and clean up as I go. If I drop food on the floor,  two things happen; I immediately say “Leave It!” for Opal’s benefit, and then pick it up and toss. Some people find that long oven mitts helpful to avoid burns. I don’t bother, but then I have years of experience. You can buy them through assistive aids sites (like Maxi Aids.com). If I am chopping and need to set down my knife, I slip the blade under the cutting board, so when I come to look for it, there will be no gashed fingers to deal with. I also NEVER put knives or glass items in the sink. These are set aside or washed and put away immediately (Hey! I take blood thinners  and don’t want to spend my day at the ER).  About the funky food in the fridge (FFF). I keep a close ‘eye’ on the contents of my fridge, checking and using items regularly. Like with all my ‘stuff’, I keep items in assigned places in the fridge. I label containers of leftovers with a date, though normally, they are eaten within a couple of days or frozen for future use. When in doubt, I enlist someone with sight to scope out the quality of food (usually around the same time they look at my clothing for stains). 

Our cat, little Lucy is a chatty cat most of the time. That’s very helpful for us both. She learned very quickly when she came to live with me, that I can’t see her, and she needs to STAY OUT OF MY WAY!!  Once in a while, she goes incognito and silent (sheesh). You can put a bell on your pet’s collar. I always check the seat which my big butt is about to occupy. This is a good habit for blind people to get into. That way, you avoid sitting on your cat, dog, hairbrush, basket, aunt Mim etc. 

Independent living for a blind person is good and admirable. However, my wise advice? Don’t be an idiot! If you NEED help, ASK for it. Don’t waste your time and elevate your frustration level by worrying about stuff. If you are lost, listen for footsteps and ask the person attached to the legs where you are, or if they can get you  to a point you are familiar with. If you don’ know which bus has pulled up or when to get off it,  ask. If you need to find a washroom anywhere or want a clerk to find something in a store for you…ASK.   Ask with a strong voice, not like a timid mouse. Ask politely but with conviction. It’s OK. 

Lights on or off? check the switches routinely. Or, if you’re feeling wealthy, you can buy a talking light detector. And knowing if your period has arrived? Mercifully, I’m menopausal, but I do remember a time when I used my nose efficiently to detect the distinct odour of blood.

Accessible Voting–I’ll Vote For That!

The electoral process is still held in high regard by most of society. The right to participate in the democratic process has been hard fought by many groups. It continues to be fought in countries such as Zimbabwe.  Some Canadians take for granted the opportunity to participate FULLY in the democratic voting process.  This includes seeking nomination as a candidate, participating in candidate meetings, informing oneself about the party platforms, voting in secret, and being able to independently verify how one voted.   My parents instilled in me a healthy sense of responsibility about my ‘duty’ to vote. I have done so, at all levels of government, since I reached the age of majority. I have voted by proxy when I was out of the country. I have struggled to the polls on crutches.  There are three components that are essential to voting: 

  1. Secrecy: privacy
  2. Independent: without assistance from another person to choose and mark your choice.
  3. Verification: being able to check how you voted after you have marked it.

Voting has become more accessible for people who are disabled, however, it remains unacceptably inaccessible for most people who are blind, deaf-blind, or partially sighted.  Most often, a template is offered, but this offers no means of verification. Blind people usually must depend on voting with another person to set up the template etc.. Braille ballots are sometimes available, but Braille is not used by over 80% of adult people who are blind.  Some jurisdictions are attempting alternative means of voting for the blind. These include using on-site computers with audio, tactile, sip and puff interfaces which make it possible for people who are blind or quadriplegic to vote independently. Electronic (Internet) voting is also being tried (Halifax’s next municipal election will allow people to vote over the Net or with a cell phone and a pin number which they will receive in the mail). Intelivote Systems of Dartmouth NS is working to convince cities in Canada that electronic voting will increase voting stats, particularly with younger voters.  It also has environmental appeal. Me? I prefer the on-site buzz at the polls. BUT, I want to see the next provincial election here, to be fully accessible to me and others who have vision loss. I want the candidates to provide me and others who are partially sighted with their platform and  ‘pitch’ in alternate formats. I want to go to the polls and be given an accessible list of candidates names on the ballot (in Braille, audio electronic or large print) and I want to vote ALONE, and to CHECK MY CHOICE on my ballot MYSELF before I put it in the box. Tomorrow, I meet with my MLA, Graham Steele and a representative from the Elections Nova Scotia. Hmm.