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.

the blind cook turns 1

I can’t believe the Blind Cook is turning one in a few weeks. It’s been a whole year??? My, how time flies, yet it seems like this blog has been keeping at it, trucking along slowly but surely.

In celebration of this blog turning one on July 23,I will now reveal to you my true identity (although it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out in the first place what with my Twitter account and other blogs of which I’m a part). But yes, hellow, I’m Christine. What’s your name?

I think it took me some time to “come out” because I was still not yet entirely comfortable in my own skin when I first started this blog. I thought, What if there are weirdos out there who find out I’m a sight-impaired woman and decides to drive all the way to Houston and mug me? Or I just wasn’t jiving with the thought of a stranger recognizing me and heckling me for my online thoughts. But now, I’ve decided I’m going to man up and own my identity, Blind Cook and all. Before you know it, I’ll even have a photo of myself up. Reward?

Now that we’ve got that awkwardness out of the way, I must address something that you may have noticed has been lacking lately on this site, and that’s food and restaurant reviews. That’s because starting in May, I began writing for the Houston Press‘s food and drink blog, Eating Our Words. I write two posts a week for them, and while they are not always food reviews (and no, we do not get comp’ed for our meals), I do once in awhile write my thoughts on a particular local eatery. And being the Blind Cook and thus, the Non-Driver, it isn’t easy for me to hop in a car and get on over to the next new dive, so I found I had to conserve my reviews for the HP blog which, yes, means the reviews on my own personal blog are sacrificed. This is the unfortunate circumstance of things. But it has been fun to reach a wider audience, despite some of the hipster and d-bags I’ve encountered (take a look at this post from when I was a wee HP blogger and got torn a new one). Thankfully, they haven’t been as harsh since, and I attributed the meanness as a form of online hazing I had to go through as a new writer.

All in all, it’s been and hopefully will continue to be a great experience. Now that you know who I am, please take a moment to check out my posts there, too. With all this blogging, how’s a girl supposed to get her thesis done?

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.

it’s about time the blind get a fashionable watch

Concept tactile wristwatch

Concept tactile wristwatch

I previously blogged about the Haptica Braille watch, but now there’s news of a new concept watch in the making that may give Haptica a run for their money. Jacob Rynkiewicz is designing a sleek watch with a rubber wristband that should be easy to put on and take off. Instead of numbers, there are tactile markers on the face of the watch so that a person could potentially feel with their fingers which way the dial hands are pointing, and thus, telling time. Perhaps the advantage of this watch to the Haptica is that the user doesn’t have to know Braille to know the time. As far as looks go, I obviously don’t know which one is more fashionable. What do you think? Lend me your eyes.

blind mother wins marathon

My cousin, Pauline, recently sent me an online article about Amy McDonaugh, a legally blind woman from South Carolina who won the 13th annual Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. She ran the 26.2 miles in 2:58:14, and this marks her first marathon win. Amy is a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom who has no peripheral vision, very poor vision in one eye and is blind in the other, but she ran the entire race without a guide. She can see straight-away; perhaps this helped her “focus” on the finish line.

Pauline noted that maybe next year, John and I can do the MS150 together, but with my tendency towards fatigue, I don’t quite see that happening. Instead, I’ll remain happily indoors blogging about all the great things other blind people do.

6-month urban garden update

Garden - June 2011

It’s been six months since we planted the first of our urban garden. Since then, we’ve expanded a little; the backyard is now home to all the original herbs–rosemary, parsley, thyme, cilantro, and oregano–in addition to the original broccoli heads. In February, we purchased lemon and lime trees, roma tomato plants, Italian basil, and Thai basil. We had to show up bright and early at the nursery and elbow all the old people out of the way to get to the tomatoes and basil–those things sell like hotcakes. We were happy to get our hands on some but ended up destroying so many of them anyway. So here are the lessons learned during the first six months of our brown-thumb urban gardening.

TOP 5 BROWN-THUMB LESSONS LEARNED IN THE FIRST SIX MONTHS

  • Lesson #5: Don’t plant your lemon and lime trees in terracotta pots. Terracotta clay is too hot for the heat of Houston summers and will likely burn the roots of your trees. We learned this only after we already bought the terracotta pots and planted our dwarf lemon and lime trees in them. All other pots were either ugly or too expensive so we left our trees in them with the hopes that excessive watering will keep the roots cool. (Who said trees can’t be fashionable?) Too bad we are probably not watering them as often as we should. The curse of a lazy gardener.
  • Lesson #4: Give your tomatoes plenty of room because those suckers are wild. The roma tomatoes were rampant which you think would be a good thing, but we used weak bamboo sticks to hold up the vines a la zip ties, and the result is a crazy looking mess. Better to buy tomato cages and give the tomatoes plenty of space. We planted our Thai and Italian basil too close to the tomatoes, and now the crazy tomato vines have overshadowed the basil and stunted their growth.
  • Lesson #3: Make sure you use the right ratio of soil-to-fertilizer for each plant. In other words, check the chemical levels of the soil and fertilizer used because different plants require different ratios. The Black Kow fertilizer was fine for the herbs but virtually burnt our tomatoes. The tomato plant bore scores of little tomatoes but they all had burnt black bottoms, a result of too much nitrogen in their diet, I believe. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
  • Lesson #2: Watch your dogs very carefully. My delinquent dogs have been eating all my Thai basil. I didn’t even know until I smelled it all over their breath. Why couldn’t you dogs at least eat the parsley which is better for your breath and more plentiful anyway? I haven’t even had a taste of my Thai basil because they’ve all gone in my dogs’s tummies! And to think I blamed it all on the crazy tomatoes.
  • Lesson #1: Don’t be lazy about watering. The problem with the Houston heat is it truly makes one lazy. It’s so hot and humid outside–we’ve already hit a record-breaking 100 degrees the first week of June!–that nobody ever wants to venture outside. The downside is our plants are also dying of thirst. The broccoli is probably having a heat stroke right now as I type this. To combat our weariness, my husband rigged a homemade irrigation system: he made a rain water collector out of a garbage can and some piping which he attached to a porous hose that seeps water out through its gauze-like exterior. He also bought a water timer so now promptly at 7:30 CDT every other day, the garden gets a drink.

John is already talking about building another garden bed–the Beta Bed, it would be called. This garden bed would be built from scratch (rather than from the Costco kit) so that exact dimensions are achieved at a fraction of the cost. In this Beta Bed, we will employ all of our lessons learned in the first six months of urban gardening and try our hand at bettering our brown thumbs–maybe they can become beige. We’ll use the correct dirt, give plants enough space, use an efficient crop rotation. Check back later for more updates.

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