Do it.

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

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.

metrolift: how the blind get around houston

MetroLIFT bus

Ridin' around town

Deb C. recently friended me on Yelp and checked out this site upon seeing the link for it in my profile. She sent me a kind note telling me to keep it up but also had a very pertinent question: how do I get around?

I was going to send her a link to a post I’d written on this blog about the MetroLIFT, but upon searching for the post, I realized I never wrote one. Egad! So here it is, the long awaited post of how the visually impaired get around Houston.

I first heard about MetroLIFT from my orientation/mobility (OM) trainer who, through Lighthouse of Houston, helped me become more independent by use of a white cane. Those lessons were scary in themselves, and I should save them for a later post (or if it’s meant to be, a future memoir). But my OM instructor was the one to introduce me to the shared ride service that is called MetroLIFT. If you ever see those short buses driving around town and wondered who was on it, it’s those who can’t drive themselves. And those yellow cabs? More often than not, they’re also contracted by Metro to run MetroLIFT services. In a city like Houston where most everyone has cars, the need for taxi transportation is nearly nil, so many of the cab companies “loan” their cars to MetroLIFT.

To qualify for MetroLIFT service, you will have to go for an interview. I had brought my Certificate of Blindness (which was issued by DARSafter an opthalmology exam) with me for proof of my disability. If you’re approved for MetroLIFT service, you will receive a MetroLIFT ID in the mail which should be presented to the driver before every ride. (Apparently, there are people out there who abuse this transportation system.)

The service isn’t free but it’s incredibly affordable. There are two payment options: the pass or the ticket. If you plan to use MetroLIFT frequently (e.g. going to and from a full-time job), the pass will be the more economical route. I, however, am a graduate student with classes maybe once or twice a week, so I opt to purchase MetroLIFT tickets. Whether you use the pass or the ticket, that and your MetroLIFT ID should be given to the driver at the start of each ride. A monthly pass which gives you unlimited rides for one month costs $38.60 while an annual pass is $347. A single ride ticket is $1.15. I buy my tickets in sheets of ten for $9.75, making each one-way trip less than $1–cheap if you consider the prices of gas, car maintenance, and auto insurance. You can purchase ticket sheets at almost any large grocery store’s courtesy booth. As a disabled patron, you can also have one person accompany you free of charge.

To schedule a ride, call the reservations line (see below for all phone numbers) and speak to an operator if it’s your first time to or from a particular destination. Once the address has been recorded in your file, you can use MAX, the automated service, to schedule rides. Rides must be scheduled by 5 PM the day before.

MetroLIFT is convenient for those of us who can’t drive ourselves, but it’s not without its downsides. My chief complaint is the time used up when riding MetroLIFT. For example, I live 20 minutes from campus without traffic, but when I ride the MetroLIFT to school, I am often on the bus for an hour or two. I know the LIFT is a shared ride service (meaning the bus picks up and drops off other patrons along the way), but seriously? Then there is the late factor. I always input my appointment time (time I want to reach my destination) as 30 to 45 minutes before the actual time I want to be there just to be on time. Sometimes I am 2 hours early for class, and other times I am 20 minutes late. It is so varied that it’s not always dependable. They say to speak to a supervisor if your ride is late, and you’ve called twice without results, but most of the time, the dispatch operators don’t seem to care. I don’t even know which is worse–arriving way too early for class and knowing I could’ve been at home getting other things done, or running into class late and breathless and looking truant. I’m not the only one with this complaint; KHOU did a story on MetroLIFT client complaints last year.

Of course, riding the LIFT has its share of stresses, but in the end, I am still grateful there is an inexpensive, relatively reliable transportation service for the disabled. For now, it seems to be our only option short of hiring a personal driver. And if you’re not a millionaire, MetroLIFT will have to do for now.

MetroLIFT Phone Numbers

  • Reservations (to schedule rides): 713-225-6716
  • Dispatch (to check when your ride is scheduled to arrive or to work out scheduling issues): 713-225-0410
  • Main (customer service): 713-225-0119

To reach MAX the automated service, call either the reservations or dispatch line and press 1.

Use the MetroLIFT yourself or know somebody who does? What is your experience?

iphone app helps the blind identify color

Today I continue my rave about the iPhone

Because I used to have vision, I know what colors look like. That is, I know that white is lighter than black, what red or blue or purple look like. But what if I had been born completely blind? Even now as I acquire new clothes in my wardrobe, how do I know where the shirt belongs in the scheme of things? (I organize my clothes in ROY G. BIV order–something I did even before I lost my vision.) How do I know if my new tank top matches better with my silver or gold shoes? First, you need some fashion sense and color coordination skills already ingrained in your brain; For that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you can’t tell what color the new tank top is, if you just can’t see well enough to know if it’s red or green (two colors that my washed out eyesight mixes up often), then Apple has an app just for you.

Kolorami is an app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch that helps the color-blind and vision-impaired identify colors. Making sure there’s ample lighting for the camera to pick up the shade, hold the iPhone/iPad/Touch up to the thing you’re trying to figure out–say, about a couple of inches from it. Then click on the “Determine Color” button, and within a few seconds, the app will break down the color for you: “10% brown, 90% dark brown.” Ah, yes. Gold shoes it is.

I’ve tested the app out on clothes I’ve had since before my vision loss so I knew not only which color it is but exactly the shade, too, just to see how accurate it is. I find that Kolorami usually gets it right in the general ballpark of the color, but it can often be off in identifying percentages of shade. E.g. the thing I tested it on earlier was really beige, so it would’ve been more accurate if it said, “90% light brown, 10% brown.”

I’ve also read that some people use the Color Identifier app (like my aforementioned fellow blind blogger), but I have yet to try this app out. Color Identifier (or Color ID) seems to have more versions (including one that costs $1.99 in addition to the free one) and ratings (compared to Kolorami’s free one with zero ratings). Has anyone tried both? What are your thoughts? Should I switch?

meet a fellow blind user of the iphone

Last week, I wrote about my personal love for the iPhone. This week, I know I’m not the only one. Austin Seraphin, a fellow blind blogger, had posted about his own love for the iPhone quite some time ago. My husband had sent me the link when his post went viral on Twitter, but I only got around to blogging about the iPhone recently. Not convinced by my argument on why the blind would benefit from having an iPhone? Take a look at Austin’s post–he’s much more technologically savvy than me. Thanks, Austin, for a thorough and entertaining read.

why i (and all you blind people should) love the iphone

iPhone

I heart iPhones.

By now, many in the sight-impaired community have discovered the Apple iPhone for its awesome accessibility features to help not only the visually but also the hearing impaired. With this being the Blind Cook’s blog, I will focus on the accessibility features for the blind user.

I’ve mentioned many times before that Apple products (i.e. Macbooks, iMacs, iPads, iPhones, iPods and iPod Touches) all come with VoiceOver, a text-to-speech application that will virtually read aloud everything on the screen for the blind user. A nice feature of VoiceOver is its human-like speech; Alex, the name Apple has given its most realistic sounding screen reader voice, employs tonal shifts and inflections, even pausing to “breathe.” No more robotic, monotonous voices of yesteryear.

My husband recently attended the An Event Apart design conference for web developers, where he met a woman who works at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. (A shout-out to any new readers from FSDB; hello from Houston!) John learned that the man at Apple responsible for developing the VoiceOver application is blind himself. This comforted me because who would make for a better tester for technology accessibility than a blind person? I’ve often come this close to emailing Steve Jobs himself asking to become a tester of VoiceOver functionality. As a student, a writer, and a blogger, I depend on my computer and cell phone every day, and I want to see Apple’s products get better and better with their accessibility.

Before my iPhone 3GS, I had a non-data Nokia RIZR which I used for making simple phone calls. I could not even send and receive text messages because I could not see what was on my screen. I did not even know who was calling me unless I had set that person’s ringtone to something unique (which I only did for a few people who called often). I could only dial people on my “favorites” list by scrolling down the memorized number of lines; everyone else in my contacts list I had to use voice recognition commands which were not always accurate. This was frustrating to say the least, but unaware of anything better on the mobile market, I had accepted this as my cellular fate.

One day after my Nokia had broken, John was researching cell phones to find which would be most suitable for me. I was this close to buying a Blackberry but could not commit to the difficult, tiny keyboard. Then by chance, John found an online video that reviewed the iPhone and how it is blind-friendly. How he could’ve missed this being the Apple fanboy that he is is beyond me. But I was just glad he found it–better late than never. What he learned was that a blind user could navigate the touch screen by swipes back and forth; up and down; using one, two, or three fingers. The VoiceOver reads aloud whatever your thumb touches, and if you swipe with one finger to the right, the cursor moves to the next app icon on the screen, or, if you’re inside an app, to the next image or form field or text in the app. Swipe with one finger to the left takes you to the previous item. Applying the same principles of left or up for “previous” and right or down for “next,” swiping with three fingers is like the PageUp and PageDown functions. Swiping with two fingers will read everything on the screen. To select an icon, button or button, or to activate a form field, double-click with your finger. If you take your thumb and forefinger (or any two fingers, for that matter) and swipe in a circular motion on the touch screen as though you were turning a dial, it will select different levels for navigation. E.g. you can select to navigate by the line, by the word, by the character, etc. After selecting the level, one swipe with one finger back and forth will scroll the cursor to the previous and next line, word, or character. Those, my friends, are the basic iPhone (and iPad) VoiceOver commands.

When I first got the iPhone 3GS back in December 2009, the VoiceOver was great but after updates, it, it is even better. For example, now upon scrolling over a letter, after a pause, Alex will say the military alphabetic equivalent of that letter. This aids in lessening the confusion I once had between similar sounding letters like “M” and “N”, or “B” and “V.” Now I will hear “M…Mike” or “N…November,” and “B…Bravo” or “V…Victor.” Another improvement I noticed was now the “back” button to get to a previous screen when inside an app is more intuitive in that it actually says “back” after “hovering” over the button. (In the previous VoiceOver version, it would only read aloud the name of the button, so I wouldn’t know if it actually was a functioning button or not.)

The new iPhone 4GS is set to release in stores this September, and perhaps if you can wait long enough, rumor has it that iPhone 5 will come out next year. If you are sight-impaired and on the market for a phone, I highly recommend the iPhone. It is by far the superior cell phone for the sight-impaired.

Hadley recently aired a seminar about the Apple i- products. Visit the Everything i page to check when they will have an audio recording available of the seminar.

Have an iProduct? Tell me what you think of it. Want an iProduct? Have questions about one? Leave a comment.

why go on an all-inclusive vacation?

Cabo San Lucas

Wish I could see this with my own eyes

Summertime means summer vacations. I recently went on a short vacation with my cousin and two girlfriends to Cabo, a beach town on the tip of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. I hadn’t been to the Pacific side of Mexico since my teenage days when my family would drive down to San Felipe and camp for days on the beach. I discovered that the west coast of Mexico–like the west coast of the U.S.–has much more temperate evenings and chillier ocean water than the Atlantic side and its Gulf of Mexico where the waters are much warmer and more swimmable. No matter, because the Pacific has us beat in terms of appearance. The water was a bluish-green (or so I was told by my travel companions), and best of all, there are mini mountain formations next to the surf which, I guess, makes for a fantastic postcard picture.

While I admit sightseeing and taking in beautiful views are no longer a priority since I’d lost my vision, I decided to go on this vacation because I’d always wanted to visit Cabo, and there was too good a deal to pass up at the Riu Santa Fe. It was the first all-inclusive vacation package I’d ever been on (not counting cruises), and while ideally, I’d love to explore and immerse myself in the cityscape and culture, it is just no longer feasible without vision. So I (reluctantly at first) came on this trip but soon found that all-inclusive packages relieve a great deal of stress on the vacationer. Sure, you don’t get to really venture out on the town and try street food and come in closer contact with the locals, but what you get instead is minimal headache and less stress. Your meals are already taken care of–just grab a plate in one of the many buffets or make a reservation at a sit-down restaurant and just get up and leave when you’re done without settling the bill. The mini bar in your room is already paid for; drink all the water, soda, beer, and spirits you wish. There is something going on every night at the various on-site venues. You never have to leave the resort to do anything.

Of course, it would be a different matter if I could see, but this all-inclusive thing made vacation a lot easier. Every morning, we ate, went to the pool or the resort beach, ate lunch, then sunbathed some more, then showered before going to dinner. After dinner, we’d have a drink or two while hanging out at one of the bars or in the main courtyard where onstage there’s live music or shows. Then we go to bed, next day: repeat. This may not be my ideal vacation, but all-inclusive resort packages are good when you just need to get away for a weekend to relax. You never have to deal with price haggling, exchanging money, getting ripped off, or finding your way around. And thus, it makes for the perfect sojourn for the NMO patient or sight-impaired person. Less things to deal with means less stress, and that’s always a plus during vacation. We have enough stress as it is; what good would a vacation full of worries be? There are many sites that offer all-inclusive vacation packages for reasonable prices. Try some of the following:

pfeatured, thanks to “masterpiece theatre” and fork for thought

Several months ago, a reader contacted me and asked to do an interview for a short piece she was writing about the cook who is visually impaired. I guess with a URL address as obvious as “theblindcook.com,” it was easy for them to stumble upon my page. The inspiration for the piece is rooted in the recent popularity of a Masterpiece Theatre show called “Downton Abbey” where the household’s cook begins losing her vision and has to deal with kitchen mishaps. I had forgotten about the article and interview until a friend recently brought my attention to it; she had found it while searching for my site. How funny is that?

I was also fortunate to have come across a fellow foodie blogger recently and was captivated by her descriptive and honest takes on local eateries. After contacting Ms. Fork to let her know she had another fan, she was generous enough to also write an entry about me.

read a novel in braille: check.

Overrated

Happy Independence Day, America. (And happy birthday to my dad.) And in celebrating this day of independence, I am going to toot my own independence horn. In my last post about Braille in April, I had talked about how I was finally fully literate in Braille, having finished learning both uncontracted and contracted Braille. Now, I am reporting that I had just finished my first novel in Braille, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. While I’m very glad to have accomplished such a feat, I was at the same time disappointed that the novel was not so good. For additional reasons that I will not rant about here as this is not a fiction review blog, all I will say is I am surprised this won the National Book Critics Circle Award and became an award-winning movie. My husband says if I am to scorn a Pulitzer Prize finalist, then I’d better go ahead and win it as soon as I graduate with my M.F.A. in Fiction. Doh!

Regardless, I enjoyed the process of reading by touch, and this was what kept me going despite my sentiments toward the story itself. The novel, with its 352 pages in paperback, came bound in three thick binders. It took me three months to finish the novel, and while that is slow for someone who claims to be a writer, it is still quicker than the majority of people I know who read maybe one novel a year. I timed myself at random points and found that when I started the book, it took me about twelve minutes to read one page. Toward the end, I managed to shave my reading time by half to six minutes a page. Woo hoo! My ultimate goal is to be able to read Braille as quickly as I was able to read print. People have told me it’s possible, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

My next reading project? I’m going to conquer Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. We’ll see how that goes. Stay tuned for updates.

blind driving in our future?

Ever since I lost my vision, one of the things I miss most is driving. I used to love driving alone on a beautiful sunny day with the windows down, the sun roof open, and music blaring from my after-market sound system. Driving gave me a sense of independence, and losing my vision meant losing driving which meant losing independence. So when I heard about this project at Virginia Tech, it was an answer to my most pressing wish.

Using robotics, laser rangefinders, GPS, and smart feedback tools, Dennis Hong is working on designing a car that will allow blind people to “drive” independently. He notes that it is not a self-driving car, but rather one that allows a vision-impaired person to gauge speed, proximity, and route. Hong is the founder and director of RoMeLa, a Virginia Tech-based robotics lab responsible for many developments in the field of robotics. Perhaps we’ll be driving in our lifetime? Watch out, everybody!

Here is the TED Talk where Hong describes the project.

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