Category Archives: gadgets

Opal goes to Sunday school

Actually,  Universalist Unitarians call it RE or Religious Education.  There are no Bible studies and I don’t think there is anything particular religious about it.  UU kids learn about many things with the hope that it prepares them to become good human beings and citizens who care about others.  Today, Opal and I visited with the kids ‘upstairs’.  Our church is housed in a historic building. Originally, it had been two large, private homes with several staircases and many rooms of all sizes.  We had pre-arranged our visit with the RE teacher.  The number of kids in the RE class varies from week to week. Today, there were ten or so. They ranged in age between 2 and 10. Opal knew something was going to be different the minute we entered church.  She wanted to take me to ‘my seat’, but I coaxed her to the front row. We sat on the floor with the young ones during the ‘Story For All Ages’.  Then, when the congregation began to sing, “Go Now In Peace”, to usher the kids out of the room where the service is held,  I asked her to “follow”.  Up the multiple stairways that twist and turn we went  with a backpack full of ‘stuff’.  We often go to schools to talk to kids about Guide dog etiquette and also about vision loss and ‘blind stuff’.  The difference today, was the age spread of our audience.  It’s difficult to keep things simple enough for everyone to understand.  Still, I think it was a good learning experience for them.  The first question was, “what happens if Opal becomes blind”?    This, oddly enough, is not the first time I have been asked this or something similar. I was once asked, if Opal’s mom had been blind.   Other questions have included, “Does she take a bath with you?”, “Does she chase cats?”, and “Will she always be your dog?”.  Jordan (the one who asked about Opal going blind) was tenacious.  Her follow up question was, “Would she still be able to work if she was blind?”  Once we established how unlikely that would be to occur, we talked about Opal’s job and why she must be allowed to concentrate.  I must confess, I had an ulterior motive in planning to  visit the kids… I have noticed that several of them come up and pat and talk to Opal as we are walking through the crowded church entry area and fellowship room.  My solution?  Be proactive and chat them up and sort them out as a group.  I offered ourselves as guest speakers, and the RE teacher was delighted to plan for our visit. ( I do most of the talking. Opal is the silent type).  The culprits who pat her, may or may not have been present today,  but kids tend to share their information with each other.   I hope so.  It’s always surprising for kids (and adults) to learn that the approximate cost of putting a Guide dog into the hands of a blind person, is in excess of $35,000.00.  We also brought gadgets which usually interest kids.  The talking calculator drew some “Neat!”s. The Braille kids books were also interesting for some.  I pointed out that blind people do not all know Braille but I find it very useful.  Out came the Braille tags which are used to put on clothing, the labeler to create stick on labels, and examples of a Braille phone bill and bank statement.  They peered through the vision simulator cards I had brought. These are plastic cards with circles to peer through, with each circle providing a simulation of what things might l0ok like with diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, cataracts or glaucoma.  Opal, meanwhile had a power nap.  She woke up periodicaly to comfort the little guy (2 years old) who was in the care of a family friend today (not too happy to away from mom).  When the service downstairs could be heard wrapping up,  the kids began to collect their things. Opal and I  packed up and left to find one of the many twisty stairways down to the ground floor.  We ended up in the fellowship room where everyone usually gathers to shares tea and coffee after the service. At least three older ladies and one man asked to pet Opal.   I realized that our work was not done yet!  Finally, I decided to have EVERYONE who wanted, a chance to greet her…”Get it out of your system today” I suggested. The UU church dog lovers gave her a pat or two and thanked me.  They said they would be OK from now on. I’m not entirely convinced.  We may end up having a similar talk on Guide dog etiquette  with the grown ups some time. 


Talking the Walk: Audible Navigation for the Blind

There is no shortage of ‘tech’ stuff for the Blind.  The idea of having a portable talking GPS system as a mobility aid for people who are Blind or partially sighted, appeals to many.  It certainly has peaked my interest.  I like the idea that I could explore new routes or areas with greater ease. Having a portable device that would announce “Mumford road …10 meters” or be programable to advise me of my specific targets or obstacles, like “bus shelter #3” or “building dumpster”, is a tempting notion.   There are drawbacks to all this new gadgetry. First, is cost.  These items are coming down in price, however, their costs are so high that they remain out of reach for most people who want them.  I also think there is no replacement for good mobility skills with a cane or Guide dog.  I don’t like to depend on a device that can potentially fail.  Call me fatalistic, but the ‘what if it breaks?’ consideration is what goes through my mind. Personally, I enjoy all the quiet I can get.  There seem to be plenty of ‘talking’ gadgets in my life as it is now, with my computer, calculator, glucometer, and bank note reader yaking up a storm daily. Would I accept a free trial?  Sure.  As with all technology, audible GPS systems for the Blind will improve in design in time.  They have the potential of being a valuable tool in the arsenal of the Blind.  If anyone is interested in learning more about what is available, I suggest going to the websites of the major producers. They include:  Humanware, TalkNav,  and Sendero’s Group.  I have nothing to recommend. It’s all a big, expensive high tech mystery to me. Links will be on the blogroll for a while.  They will remain on this blog entry–they are: 

When Someone You Know “Goes Blind”

Vision loss is no picnic for the person who is experiencing it.  Rarely do people “go blind” over night.  Most experience a gradual decline and have up and down periods. Some people retain useful  RV (residual vision).  Eye conditions create many types of abilities and restrictions. Macular Degeneration causes loss of central vision needed to see detail.  Glaucoma can cause tunnel vision,and  reduced night vision.  Diabetic Retinopathy causes reduced vision, especially at night, and sensitivity to glare.   It’s a bleak day at the opthamologist’s office, when a declaration of ‘Legal Blindness’ is made.  A journey of change  and adjustment begins.   Feelings of depression and anger are common. New skills must be learned.  Everything seems difficult.  Me?  I thought my head would explode trying to remember everything.  I learned that multi tasking is best left to sighted people.  Patience with yourself is critical. It takes more time to do everything, it seems, when you are doing it with less sight. It frustrated me to ‘think’ about everything I was doing. I resented spending 20 minutes on a task that I once performed in 5 minutes.  Emotional support is very important for people experience vision loss.  Peer support groups can make all the difference.  Being able to share the daily frustrations with others ‘in the same boat’,  is very helpful.  I joined such a group many years ago. I continue to ‘chair’ this motley crew today.  People come together every second friday of the month. For some, it is one of the few social outings they will have that month.  Everyone relaxes and has a chance to share whatever is on their minds.  It’s a lot easier to laugh about an experience related to blindness outside of the ‘sighted’ circle of support.  For example, people roared when I admitted that I had accidentally washed my hair with Vim (tub cleaner) instead of shampoo that morning.  OK, it was a few years ago and I tend not to do that kind of thing anymore, but it is the type of thing that is best shared with people who ‘understand’.  The most commonly voiced sadness and frustration with new group members, comes as a result of loss of a drivers license or car.  The family members and friends of the person who has lost most of their vision,  must also go through a period of adjustment.  I often hear people who are new to vision loss, particularly older individuals,  expressing that they “feel like a burden” to their family members.  Sometimes, an entire circle of friends seem to drift away out of the life of a man or woman who is experiencing significant vision loss.  There are professionals etc. who can elaborate on the whole ‘psychosocial dynamics of blindness’, but here’s my wise advice:  Do not smother your loved one who has lost their vision.  It is far more helpful to facilitate good skills and O & M (orientation and mobility) training with a service providing agency (like CNIB in Canada) than to adopt a “let me do that for you” attitude.  However, realize that this is a difficult time. Some people learn faster than others.  Some skills are just too difficult for some to master. There is the element of safety to consider.  It’s nice to believe that your brother or mother who has lost their vision, can ‘do it just like anyone’, but things like using a stove, chopping, navigating through a noisy, busy mall with a cane, are not safe to attempt, without good skills.  Every human being has a comfort zone and it is not fair to force someone into a situation where they are thrown out of it. I think there are unrealistic expectations for many people who lose their vision, made unknowingly by friends and family members.  I learned Braille. But only 15 to 20% of all blind adults ever learn it.  I have a Guide dog (Opal) who has changed my life.  Back in the ‘planning stage’ when I was applying to go to Guide dog school,  one of my peer group members reported that a family member had commented to them, “you should get one too, mom”.  The mom in question, did not know how to walk down the road with a white cane, did not go to any location without assistance, did not particularly like dogs, did not like going out on rainy or snowy days… My point? it made no sense.  It can be helpful to someone who is experiencing vision loss, for family members to help reorganize the home environment.  A big factor in feeling comfortable is the accessibilility of the home.  Whether the person with vision loss is living alone, or with others, reorganizing the environment is necessary. Simple things, like specific placement of household items (so they can be found), using colour contrast schemes (paint or non-skid tape on stair risers, coloured handrails, floor material),  installing good lighting (mostly incandescent) and  ‘attach’ lights on underside of cabinets. Get rid of dangerous scatter rugs and keeping cupboard and closet doors closed, and keep shoes etc. out of the footpath.  It’s easier and more pleasant to get on with life, when your home is safe and comfortable.  I have friends in my peer group who have told me that their friends or family members are often more ‘distressed’ than they are about their vision loss.  This is an unfortunate and common occurrence. I’m not sure if it involves fear (of their own potential vision loss), misconceptions of blindness, social stigma of blindness, or feelings of inadequacy (“I don’t know how to help”).  All of this stems from lack of general public awareness, and total absence of knowledge of the facts.  If you have a family member or friend who is “going blind”, express your feelings (of inadequacy  or whatever),  get your supports in place (books, internet, organizations, service providers), but  for goodness sake, GET OVER YOURSELF!  The world has not ended for you, or your loved one. 

Low/No Vision Survival Tips

I am a big fan of organizational skills. It really saddens me to think of some of my friends who have experienced  recent vision loss, who struggle because of poor coping strategies. I have three friends in mind…Not one owns a pocket recorder, not one has used their stove in over a year, not one has cleaned their apartment or living space themselves in recent memory. It is no wonder that they are depressed! If I had no reliable means of keeping phone numbers and vital information at my fingertips….if I ate frozo dinners every day…if I had to pay strangers to clean up the place…I would be a mess too!  Perhaps you or a family member needs to re-organize your day to day means of surviving?  Here are a few ideas to pass on.

  •  There are several ways to keep track of telephone numbers. Create a Large Print list if your RV (residual vision) permits.  Or, have a handy micro cassette or regular cassette tape recorder nearby at all times. Create your alphabetical phone listings on one tape. Make a copy and store it…just in case the original is damaged, or you accidentaly tape over your listings. I have numerous recorders, but use one for phone work.  I like to travel with a micro cassette recorder. You never know when someone is going to spontaneously spout off the recipe you’ve been longing to have for that tofu frittata. Someone might want to give you an address, or directions, or appointment details.  Braille is a good option too, but don’t expect to learn it overnight. I use it for labeling. I also cary a slate and stylus (a portable system for Brailling notes). 
  • People who can make use of magnifyiers should have one with them ‘on the outside’. This might help with labels in a store or restaurant menus.
  • In the kitchen?  Use Large Print or Braille labels for your spice jars. (Braille label making machines are available) Use different sized or shaped jars to store things like dry legumes and flour and grains. Labeling extends to medication, CD’s etc.
  • To be able to identify two similar jars or bottles, like milk and cream, or jams, put an elastic band around one of them. Be consistent with the use of elastics, or else the whole idea is futile.
  • To mark numbers or settings on a microwave, put stick-on plastic ‘bump dots’. You can get a cheap version of  these at your local hardware store or ‘dollar store’ in the hardware section. Look for ‘surface guards’ or similar items. These will also work to mark stove and washing machine settings.
  • Most telephone keypads, including pay phones, come with a  raised tactile dot on the number five (5). You can also use large and contrasting inlays to mark telephone keypads and computer keyboards, Debit machines also should have a raised mark on the 5. If your bank does not, complain to the manager.
  • Some banks offer ‘audible banking’ machines. You just use any headphone set, plug in and receive voice instructions for some of those tricky transactions. 
  • Bills, like telephone and power are (or should be) available in Large Print or Braille. Bank statements and tax statements and other government information, definitely are.
  • Cleaning ‘schedules’ will keep you organized and almost guarantee that nothing creepy is growing or festering in the corner of your living room.
  • Vacuuming and floor washing is best done using a grid system. Start in one corner of the room and work methodically, cleaning a one square meter area at a time.
  • Buy similarly-coloured and textured socks. That way, it’s no big deal to match them up. 
  • Make cardboard tags in different geometric shapes, and use Large Print to mark clothing details: ‘Blue with white checks’. Punch a hole in the card and slip it over the hanger neck. Metal Braille tags are available to sew onto clothing (colour identification). Liquid tactile marking stuff is available in tubes which come in a variety of colours and are very handy (and cheap) for all sorts of things. Squeeze a bead onto a surface or material and it hardens to form a raised tactile dot. Kids can make maps and other things with them.
  • Pour liquids, especially hot ones, over the sink. 
  • If you have some vision, make use of contrast. Use white plates (no patterns) for dark food and the reverse for light ones. You can put a contrasting-coloured throw over that chair you run into all the time. Place your furniture sensibly, so it suits your needs. 
  • Put your ‘stuff’ in the same place all the time. I can’t tell you how often people say, “I can’t find it”. Sure, it happens to the most organized person on occasion, but a good attempt to house things in the same location, will keep your frustration level down, and waste less of your time.
  • Make rules for visitors: Don’t move my stuff! Don’t leave your stuff in my footpath! Don’t leave cupboard doors open! It’s your place and there’s nothing wrong with insisting on respect for your survival techniques.
  • Lots of keys? Use rubber key head grips (all colours) to differentiate them. A couple of small pieces of tape can mark anything too, so that you know what it is.
  • Your telephone company probably offers 411 (directory information) free (up to 100 per  month) to anyone who is registered by an organization for the Blind as ‘legally blind’.
  • Baskets are your friend! group similar items in containers or baskets.
  • Learn to fold paper bills (money) in different ways for each denomination (twenty lengthwise, fives in half…). audible bank note readers are available. 
  • Stick your shap cutting knife blade  under the chopping board when you leave it temporarily to do something else.
  • Use a ‘straight edge’ as a signature guide.  Put the guide under the place where you want to sign. This could be a ruler, credit card or other ID card.
  • Keep small items together in a pillow case or mesh bag for laundering  in the washer.
  • Libraries for the Blind have audio books available. It can be set up through the direct service organization for the blind in your area. Public Libraries also have audio books. Many bookshops carry them. Audio books can be downloaded from a variety of sites.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of ‘gadgets’ for the use of people who are Blind or have low vision. Some are very useful, others are silly. You can find talking calculators, watches, clocks, thermometers, pedometers, colour detectors, light detectors, thermostats, bathroom scale, blood pressure monitors, glucometers,TV remotes, …just about every possible item. There are beeping water level indicators, computer software, Braille and large print versions of playing cards and games like, Monopoly. In fact, if you HAVE the money, and CHOOSE to spend it, you can turn your home into a talking, beeping extravaganza. Personally, I think it’s more of a nightmare. I like to keep the sound assault down to a minimum. There are many more tips and suggestions that I will reveal in the future. Organizations (direct service) for the Blind and catalogue stores that sell products for independant living are useful resources.