Grateful for Talking Books

A book is a device to ignite the imagination.

–Alan Bennett

I am always amazed when I download a book on my BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Downloads) Mobile app and can immediately start listening. I browse the expansive BARD library, search for specific book titles or authors, add books to my “Wish List,” and begin reading in minutes. It is like magic, this wonderful bit of technology at my fingertips and I am so grateful to have access to reading material in this format.

 

Recently, I read that The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) played an instrumental role in the development of the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), true to their mission to advocate for education and access to information for the visually impaired. This piqued my interest and I discovered a fascinating history of the NLS and the Talking Book Program. It can be found on the AFB website ( http://www.afb.org/info/75-years-of-afb-and-talking-books/2) and in the book “The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States” by Frances A. Koestler (available through the NLS and AFB).

 

AFB and Helen Keller lobbied in the early days when Congress was asked to help provide funds for the production and circulation of braille books for the blind. The Library of Congress was tasked with this important work by the Pratt-Smoot Act passed in March 1931. Thus began decades of research, development, and partnerships which brought the wonders of books to blind people in America. As Helen Keller said when she testified to the House of Representatives,

 

“ …Books are the eyes of the blind. They reveal to us the glories of the light-filled world, they keep us   in touch with what people are thinking and doing, they help us to forget our limitations. With our hands plunged into an interesting book, we feel independent and happy.”

 

This legislation enabled Braille books to be systematically printed and loaned through regional libraries, funded by the government. As the numbers of blind adults grew as a result of war, there was increased need to produce and circulate more reading material efficiently. This coincided with new technologies being developed to record spoken word. AFB partnered with engineers, commercial recording studios, the Library of Congress, Helen Keller, and American Printing House (APH) to bring to fruition the Tallking Book Program in 1934. Through determined effort, recorded books and play back machines were made available through regional libraries to the visually impaired community all over the United States, on free loan. AFB began recording Talking Books for the Library of Congress and among the first were the Four Gospels and the Psalms, the Declaration of Independence, and some works of Shakespeare.

 

AFB continued to participate in the mission of bringing literature, magazines and other reading materials to the blind even as new technologies evolved. In 1936, Talking Books were made on Vinylite LP records played on phonographs built by blind workers in one of Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) workshops run by AFB. By the 1950’s, alternative formats were being developed to record books on cassette tapes and reel-to-reel. Talking Books on cassette tapes with the accompanying machines, were the preferred format distributed by the 1980’s. Then in the 1990’s, digital technologies drove the AFB and the Library of Congress to launch a test program to introduce digitally recorded books and digital players. The conversion to a digital Talking Book system began in 2007. From there, we have BARD Mobile today; books downloadable on digital players and i-devices instantly at our fingertips. Isn’t it grand, to be able to enjoy a book with clear digital technology, easy navigation, and available on-demand? It always causes me to pause to consider what an amazing time we live in and to give thanks to all the tireless efforts of those who went before us, advocating for this access to printed word. Thank you AFB and Helen Keller! And now , I must get back to my Talking Book-“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett.

The old cassette player and newer digital player for Talking Books

The old cassette player and newer digital player for Talking Books

The Transportation Problem

Finding Rides When You Can’t Drive

Audrey on the side of the road with her thumb out and a sign that reads "Going My Way?"

Hitch Hiking is Always an Option!

One of the most difficult challenges for people with vision loss is finding reliable and affordable transportation. Whether you have had to give up your driver’s license or never had the chance to drive, it is an adjustment fraught with emotion and a sense of loss of independence. In this mobile, fast paced, car-loving society, who among us has not longed to get into a car and drive? Oh the joy of running errands on your own schedule or simply being able to spontaneously meet a friend for lunch. Those days are long gone for me; I lost my driver’s license 24 years ago due to vision loss. It was a real game-changer to be sure. However, life can be lived even after this happens. Life without a license to drive calls for innovation, networking, and advocating for yourself especially if you live in a community that does not offer public transportation.

Relocation For Greater Independence

At the time I lost my license, we lived in the cornfields of rural Indiana. My husband and I quickly realized this location was not going to work for us; we had three young children to raise and I had a career I wanted to pursue. So, we relocated to Georgia. We discovered Peachtree City which is in a rural county south of Atlanta. While it does not offer any forms of public transportation, it has 100 miles of golf cart paths and walking trails that connect the whole city. For years, I drove a golf cart to work, school, shopping, piano lessons, ball games and anywhere my busy life required. As my vision declined, my children were old enough to drive me and we survived a few more years on the golf cart paths. Then my kids got their drivers’ licenses and we bought a second car. They each took turns being my chauffer. Before long, they all left for college and I found myself looking for new transportation options. I got my first guide dog and began to walk to work and to the closest stores. But there are many places I cannot get to on foot and there are still no buses in town. So I had to get creative and assertive about finding rides.

Meeting The Challenge

I rode to work for a while with a neighbor who worked at the same place I did. Then her job changed and she moved. I then recruited college students from a local campus and several individuals as drivers for pay. We would discuss the price up front, which I based on mileage reimbursement plus an hourly wage. To find drivers or rides, I advertised my need for transportation in the neighborhood newsletter. Also, I contacted the local Lion’s Club to explore options with their volunteers. Often, I can get errands done with friends who do not accept payment and I buy their lunch in return. When my children were young, I arranged carpools and rides for them in exchange for my babysitting services. It is important to plan your rides in advance, communicate clearly with your drivers, and organize your outings to make the most of the trip.

Tips on Getting Around

Here are a few more tips to address the transportation dilemma:

  1. Some people keep their vehicle and hire a personal driver. You may want to advertise locally, interview candidates carefully, do a background check, ask about their driving record, negotiate fees, and secure appropriate insurance coverage. This option involves other expenses such as car maintenance, registration and tags, insurance, and gas.
  2. If relocation is an option, consider areas where there is public transportation; fixed route buses, paratransit, and public transit. Look up the Walk Score (www.walkscore.com) of areas that may interest you to find the “walkability” of the community. Consult a realtor about the rising number of “live- work-play” communities (http://plannersweb.com/2013/09/a-place-to-live-work-and-play/)   that offer the conveniences of city life with less stress, decreased need for driving, and a healthier walking lifestyle.
  3. Some communities offer a “voucher transportation program” through the senior services or community services center. These programs are subsidized by federal and local agencies to provide transportation for seniors and disabled adults. The rider buys a book of vouchers at a low cost and exchanges them with a certified driver at the time of service. The driver then cashes in the vouchers for a subsidized amount.
  4. Some local churches or community groups may have “volunteer” transportation programs that provide rides free of charge to qualified people.
  5. Local taxi companies may be willing to negotiate discounts for disabled passengers who frequently use their services.
  6. There are new “rideshare” services cropping up such as Uber (www.uber.com) and Lyft (www.lyft.com) in most major cities nationally. These services offer rides on demand within minutes in private vehicles, as taxi alternatives. They have mobile apps used to request the ride and handle fees electronically.
  7. Expect to pay for rides and budget accordingly. If you owned a car and drove, you would have a myriad of expenses to maintain your own transportation.

Accessible and affordable transportation is in short supply in many communities. Federal and local governments struggle to maintain programs and find resources to meet the needs of low income, senior, and disabled citizens. Shortfalls in funding have resulted in cutbacks in services and routes, and even the folding of paratransit programs in some communities. People need rides to maintain employment, good health and quality of life, and engagement in the community. It is imperative for the visually impaired community to be pro-active in managing their transportation needs. Lack of transportation can lead to isolation, unemployment, loss of independence and even depression. We must take charge, self-advocate and be creative when it comes to addressing this area of our life.

The Summer Camp Experience for the Blind and Visually Impaired

When I was ten years old, I went to summer camp with my best friend. To this day, that week is memorialized as one of the best weeks of my life. The camp offered a variety of sports, games, talent shows, arts and crafts, swimming lessons and wilderness experiences. There was so much to try for the first time. I was beyond myself with excitement and enthusiasm. Besides the fun activities, every meal in the mess hall and bedtime in the bunks was a time of laughter, songs, pranks and socializing with new friends. Oh and let’s not forget the “cool” counselors who shepherded us through the week’s program; we watched them and wanted to be like them! The summer camp experience can be life-changing.

Some years ago, I was the camp nurse for Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind. I was struggling with my own vision loss at the time, but still working as a school nurse. I spent 7 weeks caring for campers of all ages from preschoolers to seniors. It was an inspiring and empowering experience not only for the campers, but for me. I learned so much from observing the campers and playing alongside of them. They had such exuberance and eagerness to try new things like climbing the rock wall and horseback riding. One six year old boy who was totally blind since birth conquered the climbing wall while his mother and camp staff looked on through misty eyes. When he reached the top and rang the bell, he was giddy with accomplishment and exclaimed “Look at me! I’m so high up!” For many campers, it is their first time to be away from home and the watchful eyes of parents. It is the first exposure to many new experiences like canoeing, camp-outs, adapted sports like beep ball and goalball, and tactile arts and crafts. They quickly become a part of “the group” and feel included and accepted, while learning from each other. It is a place where their disability does not make them different. The growth and learning that takes place in a camp setting is invaluable and cannot be replicated. There is often a sort of magical transformation that takes place in a camper. And they leave with powerful memories of being included, succeeding at new activities, tasting independence, and making new friends which can change them forever.

Camps that are designed for special needs can accommodate campers in unique ways. The Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind is a visually impaired friendly environment. They use rope lines to help guide the campers to different areas. In the buildings, the wood work is painted in high contrast for better visibility. The pathways are straight, flat and uncluttered. The staff receives training in vision rehabilitation techniques and many are interns or professionals in the field of vision rehabilitation therapy. The program integrates recreation, education, rehabilitation and social development, with a hefty component of play therapy. Have you ever played in a huge mountain of bubbles spewed from a bubble making machine? It was a highlight at camp. In other words, the environment is safe and the staff is trained and knowledgeable. It is an ideal opportunity and atmosphere for campers to explore interests, discover special talents, and stretch personal limits in a physically and emotionally safe environment.

So, what did I learn from my experience at the Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind? Well, I came away with a new “can do” attitude after watching campers conquer new tasks. I learned to try to do things in a new way. I enjoyed being part of the community of visually impaired, realizing I was one of them for the first time which helped me accept my disability. I came away empowered to learn new skills to live with my blindness. Somehow, the kids instilled in me a new-found courage to move forward by watching their fearless approach to activities. I learned to play again and have fun in bubbles, water and mud. I played beep ball (adapted baseball for the blind) and loved it. I learned at the talent show that we ALL have talents. We celebrated and shared our unique talents and “abilities,” while our disability faded into the background. I was truly inspired by campers’ attitudes and accomplishments as well as the staff’s dedication to serve this population. My time at the Lions camp rivals my summer camp experience as a child. It was most memorable and life-changing.

There are summer camp programs for the blind and visually impaired of all ages. Many schools of the blind have summer camps such as Perkins and Colorado School for the Blind. Leader Dogs for the Blind offers a summer camp program for teens which is free, including airfare. Lions Clubs International has special needs camps throughout the world. Everyone should experience summer camp at least once in their life. And you are never too old to go to camp. Who knows, you may come away with new confidence, courage, independence, playfulness, friendships and a spirit of adventure.

For more information go to:

http://www.blindcamp.com/   National Camps for the Blind

http://www.lionsclubs.org/EN/our-work/sight-programs/sight-services/camps-for-the-blind-and-visually-impaired.php    Lions Camps for the Blind/Visually Impaired

http://www.perkins.org/resources/scout/recreation/summer-camps.html  Perkins School Summer Camps

http://www.leaderdog.org/clients/programs/summer-experience-camp   Summer Experience Camp

 

smiling camp staff

Nurse Audrey with girls’ counselors

group of people dancing in a mountain of bubbles

Bubble Fun at Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind

Why I LOVE My iPhone!

I was the last one in my family to have an iPhone. I resisted it for some time, feeling intimidated by the technology. Eventually, I got one for Christmas at my husband’s prodding. My adult kids were all home and spent time teaching me how to use it, setting the accessibility features and downloading helpful apps. They encouraged me to “just start looking around and using it and you will learn what it can do.” Every day, I learned new functions and began to enjoy this wonder of technology. There are user manuals and tutorials that also helped me learn the iPhone. To my surprise and delight, it did not blow up in my hands or anything!
I have Retinitis Pigmentosa and am able to see a little in a narrow field. I use my magnification eyeglasses to read the screen and also use the vision accessibility features. I have inverted the color scheme, white bold letters on a black background for increased contrast and decreased glare. I enlarge the font and can zoom in when needed. As I lose more vision, I will be able to transition to the voiceover option, where the screen is read out loud to me.
It was important to me to be able to maintain communication with my children and family. Now I am able to text, email, message on Facebook, and take photos and send them to stay connected. I use the Siri feature and dictate texts, emails and messages so I do not have to struggle to type them on a small keyboard. Siri works beautifully and there is auto correct spelling too. I can even ask Siri, the personal assistant questions and she can answer them.

 

The iPhone has so many built-in features and apps that it eliminates the need for many other devices. It has GPS, stores your personal music like an iPod, radio, timer and alarm clock, and voice recorder to take down information. It has a high quality camera and stores and organizes your photos. The calendar can keep your schedule straight for you. There are many apps for the visually impaired such as a flashlight, video magnifier, money reader, color ID and descriptive video reader for movies. Kindle and Nook apps can be used for electronic book downloads. My favorite app is the BARD app from the NLS, which allows me to instantly choose a book from the library, download it and begin to listen immediately. There are even some fun and educational games like Words with Friends and Scramble that I can access. Most of the apps I use are free and I have everything I need in one handy, amazing device.

 

My iPhone has truly allowed me to be more independent with communications, web searches, finding businesses and services, and managing my time and schedule. I am still discovering new capabilities and having fun with it. Once you get over the intimidation of the technology and begin to use it, it becomes more intuitive and you will wonder how you ever lived without an iPhone.