Do it.

Can’t see it? Just do it. Stuff for the blind and everyone else.

How the blind use Instagram

As you can probably tell by my many micro-blog updates lately, I’ve recently joined Instagram. Before my Instagram days let’s call it the dark ages—no pun intended), every time I took a photo, I’d have to open my Facebook app and post on my personal page, then open the Pages app to post on my fan page, then open Twitter to post to one of my three handles. What ended up happening was, nothing got posted. Simply because I got too lazy since it was all too tedious. My techie husband has been urging me forever to get on Instagram, explaining that he could use IFTTT to automate (like a trigger) where the photo posts from Instagram via the hash tags I use. How cool is that? And if you’re wondering how we blind people go about navigating Instagram, take a look at this video where Tommy Edison gives us a rundown on how the blind use Instagram on the iPhone. We can do just bout anything a sighted person does—just differently. Follow me on Instagram, and see how well/poorly a blind girl takes photos!

Garlic, anchovies, cilantro: Why I got it, what it means, and how it went

As soon as I’d finished taping the third season of “MasterChef” last year, I immediately knew I wanted to commemorate the whole experience with a tattoo. I recently unveiled a photo of my tattoo to the public via my Twitter and Facebook page, and many fans loved it, a few hated it, some wondered why I got such a huge tattoo for it being my first.

The truth is, it is not my first tattoo. My first tattoo was a Chinese character meaning “luck” which my good friend in high school paid for on my eighteenth birthday. Not because he wanted to give me something special, mind you, but because he thought it’d be worth paying $60 to see me cry out of pain. Unfortunately for him, I was smiling through most of it and even said I kind of liked the pain. In the end, he was left $60 lighter in the pocket and glumly disappointed by my non-tears.

While that tattoo was my first, it was indeed small (about the size of a half dollar). Fifteen years had passed since I was initiated into the inked club, and there were occasions when I wanted to get additional tattoos. My cousin and I were thinking of getting our last names tattooed on us in a Chinese character. But there really wasn’t anything outstanding or outlandish enough in my life for me to go get another one. I really didn’t think I’d be going under the needle ever again.

And then the show happened. And I became the MasterChef in the U.S. For 2012. And to be honest, even if I hadn’t taken home the title, I’d probably still get a tattoo simply because it was a life-changing experience. Tattoos, I believe, are not to be taken lightly. They’re permanent, for one. So it better not be something you’ll regret ten years down the road when your buddy asks you, “What’s the story behind the Hello Kitty on your bicep?” (Not to knock Hello Kitty—I think she’s cute. I just wouldn’t get her tattooed on me.)

So, yes, “MasterChef” was a life-changer. And as we wrapped filming, in the last couple of days we were all in L.A. Together, I was bouncing ideas off the others, asking whether: (a) I should get a tattoo, and (b) what should it even be of? Stacey, of course, gave me a resounding YES. And that it should be of the MC logo. (She ended up getting this tattoo herself.) Felix and Cindy said yes. Some said no way. And then there were two that said yes, but not of the logo. Which made me think and eventually agree.

So what should I get? After much thought, I decided to get a tattoo of a few of my favorite ingredients: garlic, anchovies (which represent fish sauce), and cilantro. In addition to being some of my favorite things to eat and with which to cook, they were food items I used quite frequently during the many MC challenges and thus served me well.

I also love the aesthetics of Japanese art and so knew I wanted these three key ingredients flowing together in some sort of Japanese print. How it would look exactly and how it would flow together would be left up to the artist because I, for one, had not a clue.

Since this was going to be permanent, I wanted to find a tattoo artist who was highly skilled with Japanese art. I considered flying to L.A. (Where there is a larger Japanese population than in Houston) to get it done. I even thought about waiting until my Japan trip to get it done overseas by a true Japanese artist. But everyone told me what I was thinking of getting would take multiple sessions, and in the end, I simply did not find it practical to take multiple trips on a plane to get a tattoo—it was already going to be expensive; I didn’t need to add several hundred bucks on top of that.

With the help of a few people I trust, I went from reputable studio to studio in Houston inquiring about the artists whom I’d heard could do Japanese art. I ended up choosing an artist named Tracy from Scorpion Studios in Houston. He was referred to me by John’s coworker, and after perusing his portfolio, my friend agreed he would be good for the job. As with most superb artists, Tracy was booked for months in advance (which I took as a good sign), and I had to write this strange email to him explaining to him that I was a contestant on a TV show and wanted to get my tattoo done before the series ended on TV, and that I wanted him to incorporate garlic, anchovies, and cilantro into a Japanese print.

Sure enough, it was the strangest request he’s had in a while, but being the amazing artist that he is, he came up with this tattoo which he freehanded on my back.

It is much larger than I’d originally wanted or anticipated, taking up a good portion of my lower right backside (instead of the 4”x6” I asked for). But Tracy said for the details and coloring I wanted, the tattoo would only look good if it was much larger. And so I acquiesced, figuring that I should leave the artist to his devices. After all, I know how irritating it can be to have someone come into my kitchen and telling me how to chop the onion.

“You pick the artist according to his skills and what you’ve seen of his work, and then you just have to let the artist create,” John told me. And this is true. And so that’s what I did.

I know I can’t see my tattoo, but I’ve been told by many people that it’s skillfully done and very unique. I guess even if it was terrible, it’s on a place on my body that is easily hidden and, being blind, I’d never see it anyway. (!) But I’m extremely happy with it. I have to give Tracy props for being able to take three food ingredients and working them into a harmonious flow all the while imposing a Japanese print look to it. On top of this, the art would have to look good with the curvature of a backside. Let’s just say the man knew what he was doing.

Many wonder if it hurt. To be honest, there were some parts that were more uncomfortable (e.g. When the needle passed over my spine or ribs or if he was doing some shading and had to go over a certain spot time and time again). My skin definitely felt tender for days after a session, and the aftermath hurts more than the actual needle time. But for the most part, it was not bad at all, just like how I’d remembered it when I got my first. In fact (and I know I’m weird), I kind of liked the buzzing pain sometimes. Call me a masochist—I survived “MasterChef” after all. The tattoo was supposed to take three sessions but because (in Tracy’s words) “I took that shit pretty good,” he was able to finish the entire thing in only two sessions of about 2.5 hours each. Because I was so still and silent, he’d kept asking me if I was okay or about to pass out. But I was fine. In fact, I was either dozing off or reading a novel in Braille.

I will likely get another tattoo after I publish my memoir a year or two from now. That will be another momentous occasion in my life that I will want to capture in ink. I don’t know what I’d want yet, but I’m thinking some sort of literary quote in an aesthetically pleasing font. What do you think? Any suggestions? DO you have any tattoos? What are they of, and what are the significances?

What did 2012 mean to you?

The year is coming to a close. It’s been a wild 2012 for me, that’s for sure. And I’m sure 2012 has been a memorable year for many of you, too. Here is a 6-minute video documenting the events of 2012, and I’m happy and humbled to be a part of the momentous declaration. (Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll catch a glimpse of me towards the end.) Thanks to Alphons who originally posted a link to this video on my MasterChef Facebook page.

Read More…

Caution: Blind boarder

I don’t know what’s come over me. The older I get, the more daring I become. Or maybe the courage came with the vision loss, an illogical need to overly compensate to feel “normal”—“everything you can do, I can do too.”

Whatever the motivation, it has driven me to skydive two years ago and ski last year. My most recent adventure involves strapping both my feet to a board and skidding down an icy mountain. That’s right, I tried snowboarding last month. A bunch of friends decided to take a trip to Breckenridge again, and again, I called the BOEC to schedule boarding lessons. I was surprised to find that boarding came more naturally to me than skiing. I was less miserable this time and could even say I had fun. I was psyched to be able to go down the green and connect my turns a little from toe to heel by the second day. My teacher insisted that I was better than a lot of sighted beginning boarders. I think the key was the no fear factor—because I couldn’t see how steep a slope was or where the obstacles were, I just had to go with it and fully trust my instructor. I also think I had great instructors who, obviously, are highly trained. Thanks, BOEC, for helping people of all abilities enjoy the outdoors.

Here is a video John got of me snowboarding down the green with Wendy, my instructor. I’m slow as hell, but hey, I can say I carved on my very first trip! I hope this video inspires you—know that you can really do anything if you put your mind to it. Happy New Year, everyone!

Elly and Franky: Pug BFF

I haven’t been one for posting about food lately. After my first round of routine Rituxan last month, my vision deteriorated slightly. We decided to wait to see if it improves after the second round of Rituxan, but unfortunately, it remained the same: mildly worse than baseline. Dr. Greenberg, my neurologist in Dallas, decided to move forward with high-dosage steroids with the hopes that they will return my eyesight. We had to go with the oral route since it was right around Christmastime, and getting in to an outpatient clinic for IV steroids would prove to be difficult. (A side note: why does it seem like all my health problems arise during such inconvenient times like holidays and natural disasters? I know I’m not alone in this, too.)

Perhaps the oral steroids would work out better financially for us anyway since we haven’t renewed my Cobra insurance coverage, and we haven’t been able to enroll in John’s insurance through his new company. Regardless, I hadn’t been on such a high dosage of steroids in so long that I’d forgotten all the weary side effects that come along with them: extreme itchiness, hot flashes, taste distortion (constant metallic taste in dry mouth), increased appetite, general discomfort and bloatedness, constipation, restlessness, and insomnia. I hate all of it except for maybe the restlessness but only because it helps me turn into some extraordinary productive machine; I’ve been cleaning out the closet and tidying up the house and thinking about the novel like there was no next hour in the day. John took a forlorn picture of me yesterday at 11 PM. I was in my pajamas in the closet buried underneath boxes of shoes and bags of clothes trying to figure out what to donate and what to re-stack neatly on the shelves. He threatened to post the photo on Facebook if I didn’t take a sleeping pill right then and try to rest.

Needless to say, despite what you’d think with the increased appetite and energy, I haven’t been in the mood to cook or eat much. In fact, I’ve been kind of moody with what we NMO patients call “‘roid rage” lately. That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves of the fun and funny things in life. Like these two pugs who triple as best friends and guide/VI client. John sent me this post the other day, and we immediately thought of Jenna, my NMO Diaries sister who owns a pug of her own, Marmaduke.

Elly is a blind pug from Wales who relies on her pug friend, Franky, to guide her around town. How cute is that? And so I leave you with this lasting impression of 2011. Remember what extraordinary blessings we have in this world despite our circumstances. With the right group of friends and support, we can survive anything, and we can survive it with a smile.

Holiday gifts for the blind

If you’re like most people, this time of year is not always one of family fun and relaxation. It’s a season of hustle and bustle, of scouring the malls and web for that perfect gift (or gifts) for your spouse, child, grandchild, best friend, crazy aunt, postal carrier. No, the holidays are not stress-free at all. And if you’ve got a visually impaired person on your Christmas list, you may be at an even greater loss as to what to get her.

Not to fear. The folks over at AccessWorld have put together their annual list of holiday gifts for the sight-impaired. First on the list is cooking gear for the blind. Check it out and get some great ideas to give to that special sight-impaired someone in your life. Now visually fine crazy Aunt Wanda? Can’t help you there.

Meet the Blind Geek

Who is the Blind Geek? Me, that’s who.

In order to streamline topics, I’ve started up a new blog dedicated to tech news and reviews for the blind: the Blind Geek. That way, the Blind Cook can concentrate on all things food related. The Blind Geek is already up and running–all content from this blog under the “Technological advances” category has been copied over there–and from now on, all tech related entries will post only on The Blind Geek. Please be patient: the blog is still undergoing a makeover though it’s functioning for the most part. Also, my techie husband, John, will also be a contributing writer to the Blind Geek. I hope you decide to subscribe to both blogs. Any feedback is welcome.

Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple who pioneered accessible technology, dies at 56

Tonight as I was covered in flour from making chicken marsala, my iPhone kept ringing over and over, the caller persistent in reaching me. Finally after washing my hands, I swiped and double-clicked via the clever VoiceOver technology and found that it was my husband calling from his evening jog to tell me Steve Jobs had died. I asked my Apple fanboy of a husband if he cried, and he said, “Almost.” When I hung up, I texted a friend, and as I returned to the sizzling pan, I was surprised to find myself sad beyond what I’d expected of such news.

Steve Jobs became a household name after I met my now husband who turned me on to Apple products back in 2007. Since his own conversion years prior, John had converted dozens of friends, family, acquaintances, and even sometimes strangers perusing the computer aisle at Best Buy on to Apple. Since the iPod, Steve Jobs has become a household name everywhere, his innovative products popping up in homes across the globe. People ate up the iPod, then the Macbooks, then iMacs and Mac Minis and iPads–nobody had ever seen anything like those Apples.

The story behind Apple and their history with Steve Jobs is fascinating, and the world will get to read all about it come November 21 when the long-awaited Steve Jobs biography is released. Even months before it’s stocked on the bookshelves, Steve Jobs’s biography has been a top selling pre-ordered item on Amazon. Timely coincidence that the biography was due out on bookshelves so close to his passing? Maybe, but supposedly the book’s release was pushed up to November because everyone knew Steve wasn’t doing well, this notion only fortified by his resignation as Apple’s CEO only months before. And now with his passing, there is no doubt the book will be a bestseller.

Tonight, even the Apple website, which is always littered with product advertisements, only displays a full-screen portrait of Jobs with his life span, “1955-2011.” I can only imagine the ferocious dumping of Apple stock tomorrow once that morning bell rings on Wall Street.

Apparently, death escapes no one.

In Steve Jobs’s commencement speech to Stanford’s Class of ’05, he says:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

No matter if you’re a refugee who had been working toward a triple degree in law, philosophy, and literature before escaping from a war-ravaged country on a naval ship; or if you’re a creative genius who changed the face of technology; no matter if you were my mother or if you were Apple’s CEO; death is the destination we all share. (You should really read Steve Jobs’s commencement speech–it is truly awesome and inspirational.)

It is an eerie coincidence that Steve died the day after the latest Apple announcements, but his legend lives on. The new iPhone 4S boasts Siri, the virtual assistant that lets you communicate with your phone as though you were speaking to your butler or KITT the Knight Rider car. John had been harping about this new phone feature for the past several weeks, and while I admitted it was cool, I wasn’t sold; a part of me wanted to hold out for the next round numbered model up: the iPhone 5. But then tonight, John played me this video, and I think I’m in love.

John told me the last woman in the video is reading Braille and then uses the new iPhone 4S to text her friend. More power to the blind!

Apple has changed the world. Steve Jobs had changed Apple. By transitive property, Steve Jobs changed the world. He envisioned every household owning a personal computer. He envisioned it, and then he made it possible. And he made it so that even blind people could use it. He empowered everyone. He empowered the blind.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. May you live on in our innovations.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

2011 NMO Patient Day, here i come

Last year, I attended the Guthy Jackson Charitable Foundation in L.A. This year, I was unsure if I could go, but things fell into place, and it looks like I’ll be coming once again. I’m thankful for these sorts of gatherings because not only does it give hope and knowledge by the spread of information, it builds community. NMO can often be a lonely disease, and (as ironic as it sounds) it’s wonderful to be in a room full of people who share the same battles. It was here that at this same time last year I met Erin and Jenna, and the birth of NMO Diaries commenced. I encourage those who have NMO or loves somebody who does to attend the 2011 NMO Patient Day to be held on November 9 at the Hilton Beverly Hills in L.A. Maybe I’ll see you there. And even if you can’t make it in person, you can view it from the comforts of your own home for the events are broadcasted over the web for full accessibility for those who cannot travel.

Accessibility improves with the new Mac Lion OSX

It seems like all I’ve been complaining about lately is the unaccessibility of so many things on the internet, e.g. Facebook, iTunes, Evite, and so on. Oftentimes, it bleeds into my frustrations with my own hardware; my PC-run JAWS is slow, crashing often, leaving me with just the blue screen of death. (Thank goodness for residual vision or else I don’t know how I’d know I’d gotten the blue screen.)

When I first met my now husband, he was an Apple fanboy. Now that he’s my husband, he’s still an Apple fanboy. He turned me on to Apple Macbooks, telling me what he tells all Macbook virgins: “Give it two weeks. I guarantee you’ll like it so much more than Windows and PCs.” And he was right. Everything ran so much simpler and more efficiently. The layout and functionality of the OSX required a small learning curve, but after two weeks, I was practically a Macbook pro (with a lowercase “p”).

I started out using Apple when it was the era of the Tiger OSX. And with each subsequent OSX upgrade (and thus, the feline superiority scale), we are now in the era of the Lion. I was already blown away with the Tiger OSX’s VoiceOver capability, but now Lion boasts a most advanced VoiceOver.

My first laptop was a 17″ Dell PC–I bought something with a huge screen because at the time, I was only beginning to lose my vision so I relied mostly on zoom magnification to use my computer. I magnified all the fonts in my Word docs to 30+-point font. After meeting John, I moved over to Apple and got a 15″ Macbook Pro. Then my vision worsened even more until where it is now, and I could no longer rely on screen magnification. Instead, I had to start using screen readers, so I decided a 15″ laptop was too heavy and bought a 13″ Macbook since seeing the screen no longer mattered. Last month, I sold my 13″ Macbook and bought the new 11″ Macbook Air because I wanted something ultra-portable, especially because attending many classes and conferences the last couple of years made even lugging a 13″ around annoying. After spending days setting up and moving over files to my new 11″, I said to my husband, “I feel like all my past laptops were just boyfriends, and now I’m finally married to one.” Yup, I plan to run this Macbook Air to the ground.

The Macbook Air came with the Lion OSX. Without further adieu, here are the blind user observations I’ve had over the past month.

What I Like About the Lion OSX:

  1. iCal event input is more intuitive. Now you can add a new event to your calendar by typing CMD+N, and then typing in “Mom’s birthday dinner 11/5 7 PM to 9 PM.” Hitting enter will create that exact event in the iCal. I read online that you’re supposed to be able to designate an event location in the same way, but I’ve tried it (“Mom’s birthday dinner at Taco Bell on 11/5 7 PM to 9 PM”), and it didn’t move “Taco Bell” to the location field. Does anyone know why? Still, this input option provides a quicker way to add events–after hitting ENTER, I just tab once to the location field and input it manually.
  2. Address Book no longer requires a year input for birthdays. In Snow Leopard, if you didn’t know a year for someone’s birthday, it would default to some nonsensical year, making your mom, like, thirteen or something ridiculous. (No offense, if you are a thirteen-year-old mom.) No known year? No problem. But if you do know the year, your iCal will display that person’s age come birthday time: “Mom’s 60th birthday.” (And you’re taking her to Taco Bell?!)
  3. Address Book has more field options for further categorization. If you’re anal like me, you like to remember friends’ anniversaries (even though you don’t really wish them a happy five years or anything), their partner’s name, dog’s name, their blog URL, Twitter handle, maiden name…and the list goes on. The new Address Book has many of these fields and more. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one out there actually using these new features, but it’s nice to have the option.)
  4. Mail keeps conversation threads together. This helps to sort emails when there are a lot of back-and-forths with your husband about what to do about dinner. Apple takes a hint from Gmail.

Things I’m Still Having Trouble with on Lion OSX

  1. Apps take some getting used to with VoiceOver. As with anything new, there is a learning curve. The curve is especially steeper for the visually impaired. There are still things I am used to or prefer with Snow Leopard: I’d rather have VO read to me an event title and date/time when I tab to it in iCal rather than the event title and location, but I don’t know how to revert this; and there are still some navigational issues around apps,, but I hope this will resolve itself after more experience with Lion.
  2. Gestures, scrolling, QuickNav, and VO buttons are still confusing. This is an extension of #1 from this list–even at 32, I feel like an old fart (“What’s the internet?”). I know there are so many useful tools for the sight-impaired on the Apple, but I need some time to get used to them (not to mention someone to teach them to me). The scrolling is a little off-putting at first because now, you swipe up on the trackpad to scroll down on a document rather than swipe down to scroll down. This is the way it’s done on the iPhone, though, so I imagine it will catch on.
  3. Sent emails stick around in the drafts folder. I have no idea why some of the emails I’ve already sent still remain in the Drafts folder as though I had not sent them. This gets annoying, especially for someone like me who loves organization. This issue tricks me into wondering if I actually sent an email or not.
  4. Zoom magnification is glitchy. On the Snow Leopard OSX, the zoom magnification function worked by holding down CTRL and using two fingers on the trackpad to scrooll up (for zooming in) and down (for zooming out). This feature has to be enabled in Lion: System Preferences>>Universal Access>>Seeing tab>>Zoom Options, then check the box labeled “Use scroll wheel with modifier keys to zoom.” Make sure the field following that reads CTRL. Despite this, sometimes the zooming function using CTRL and up scroll or down scroll shuts off. I find that it works again if you go into the Preferences and uncheck and recheck the box, but this is annoying.

Lion OSX is supposed to be more compatible with Braille displays, and its VO features are the best yet. I tried to learn about it but got overwhelmed with the page. I’m considering paying $100 to get the one-on-one tutorial with the Genius Bar to learn all about VO. I still do not know how to navigate web browsers and inernet sites with VO, and I know this is possible. Hopefully this will allow me to use VO to its full capacity, and then the world is mine!

Do you have questions about the Lion OSX or Apple’s accessibility? You might be able to find VoiceOver answers here. Want to know more about the Lion? Learn about the Lion OSX here. Know how to use VO with Lion? Teach me in the comments section, please! Or just want to speak to your personal experience with Apple, Macs, VO, or Lion? Your comments are welcome, too.

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