All posts by Empish

About Empish

Freelance Journalist, Blogger and Consultant

Watching Movies at Home During Covid-19

People Watching Movies at Home

People Watching Movies at Home

This weekend I would normally be out of the house watching a movie at my local movie theater. I would have already checked the listing of new releases earlier in the week and started making plans. I would have gone online reading the reviews and ratings on the films I wanted to see. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic I am at home.    The theaters are closed until further notice and I am watching more movies at home than ever before.

Prior to Covid-19 I would watch movies occasionally through streaming and mostly on DVD. My primary place to do this is Netflix. I have been a subscriber for many years and used it as a backup to going to the actual movie theater. If I missed a movie or wanted to watch it again, I would rent the DVD and catch it at home. In the last year or so I upgraded my subscription and added streaming.  On my iPhone I can watch all kinds of movies from miniseries, classics, blockbusters and Netflix’s own original content. the thing I love the most is that a lot of Netflix content is accessible to the blind and a large amount of their movies are available in audio description.

Let me explain what I mean by that. When it comes to the DVD’s I can go to the Netflix website and check for audio description. Movies are usually labeled under the details section with the verbiage “video description English” or descriptive audio” or some similar terminology. Not all movies on Netflix are available in audio description. If it is something I still want to see I will do some research beforehand so when I do watch it, I understand what is happening.  Now, the tricky part of watching a movie on DVD in audio description is that I have to get sighted help.  The audio description track is inside of the menu options and is displayed on the TV monitor which of course I can’t see. To remedy this, I use an app called Be my Eyes that uses sighted volunteers via my iPhone’s camera. The volunteer will see my TV monitor and direct me through the menus to turn on the audio description for the movie. So, what I do is hold my phone in one hand with the camera facing the TV while in the other hand I hold my DVD remote to press the buttons for the menu options. You might be saying, “That seems like a lot of work just to watch a movie!” And I would say, “You are right!” But I love movies and so I do the work. I am also sharing this with you so that you understand what the blind community has to deal with just to do things that sighted people take for granted every day.

Now, streaming is a bit easier to manage. Through my iPhone I have audio speech settings turned on and when I launch the Netflix app audio description will automatically play if that is available for that particular movie. Again, Netflix will indicate on their website if the movie is available in audio description. Additionally, I can get a listing of  audio described titles from the Audio Description Project. each week the site provides an updated list of titles along with a listing in alphebetical order of movies available. I place those movies on my play list and watch when I get ready.

because of these two options I have the ease of curling up on my sofa, laying in my bed or relaxing in my recliner to watch a movie at home whenever I want. But today it seems that having Netflix is not just a luxury but a necessity to keep me entertained since I can’t go out.

Zoom Videoconferencing Helps Me Live Work and Play During Covid-19

Zoom Logo
Zoom Logo

I don’t know about you but I have seen an increase in the request to join a meeting through Zoom videoconferencing.  I would dare to say that almost daily if not weekly I get an email invite to a webinar, meeting, seminar, townhall or chat. If you have not gotten an invite for Zoom in your in box just wait it is coming! But for those who are not familiar with Zoom let me fill you in.  According to their website, Zoom brings teams together to get more done in a frictionless video environment. Our easy, reliable, and innovative video-first unified communications platform provides video meetings, voice, webinars, and chat across desktops, phones, mobile devices and conference room systems.

I have been using Zoom since last year but my usage has really ramped up with the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been a great tool for those of us in the blind and visually impaired community because we can easily connect with each other without the stresses of transportation. The Zoom platform is also very accessible with our adaptive technology that we need to use on our computers, smartphones and tablets. So, when I saw this increase in Zoom invites, I had to smile and chuckle a little. As we shelter in place, practice social distancing and work from home the Zoom platform has become even more essential. As a result, I have found some ways that Zoom helps me live, work and play during Covid-19.

  1. Socialization-As I shared before I was using Zoom last year. It started when I joined the Bookshare book discussion. I talked about Bookshare in a previous post here on Triple E and how much I love reading their books on Voice Dream. Well, last summer I decided to join their Zoom book discussion and I have been participating ever since. Each month we get together for a live chat to share our thoughts on reads we like, love or can’t stand.
  1. Education and Technology-To keep up with my adaptive technology I listen to webinars and seminars through Zoom. Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Freedom Scientific offer a large volume of educational opportunities for me to learn about the latest technology advances for blind people. Recently I attended a webinar about Microsoft Teams as it related to a current blogging contract.
  1. Volunteering-For years I have been a peer advisor with VisionAware, a website that provides resources to the blind community. As peers we meet once a month via conference call to discuss ways we can enhance the website, contribute blog posts and respond to inquiries from the community. We recently switched to Zoom for our calls so that our international peers can participate easier and more often.
  1. Medical-Just last week I participated in my very first telemedicine Zoom call. One of my doctors opted to meet with me this way verses a face-to-face visit because of the Covid-19 virus. A link was sent to me and we talked during our pre-scheduled appointment time. Things went very well except for the video portion Since in my previous meetings I don’t use it. After a couple of tries I was not able to turn it on. I am currently reading a tutorial so I can correct this problem.
  1. Physical Fitness-I exercise on a regular basis in my home using a treadmill, recumbent bike, mat and weights. But I get bored and have been looking for a change. I came across Angel Eyes Fitness, which is a non-profit program that helps blind people stay in shape. They offer Zoom workout classes because of the challenges with transportation. So, this past weekend I went to the website and took advantage of the free Pilates class.

Zoom has become a great way for me to live, work and play while dealing with the Covid-19 virus. As I shelter in place and work from home, I anticipate I will be using Zoom more and more. I see Zoom as a way for all of us to stay connected and live as we move through this challenging time.

The 2020 Census is Totally Accessible

Census 2020
Census 2020

I found the 2020 Census totally accessible. In the past I would have to get a sighted person to read the questions and fill out the forms for me; but this time around I was able to handle the whole process independently. Historically people with disabilities have been under represented and so this year strong efforts are being made to make the census inclusive and accessible to everyone. A downloadable and printable Census Bureau fact sheet on accessibility is available to learn more about these efforts.

Once I got my census documents in the mail last week, I went on line to the census website. I use a screen reader called JAWS which stands for Job Access with Speech. This screen reader allows me to access the Windows operating system such as Word, Excel and Outlook. I can also access things like PDF files and get online with Google. I am even able to write this blog and manage this website in WordPress! It has allowed me to work, live and play as a blind person.

But back to the census. So, I went to the site and logged in with my census ID number. There was a series of questions I had to answer and it took me about 15-20 minutes or so. At the end they had the option to review your answers before submission. Strangely, for some reason that screen didn’t pop up and I could only press the submission button. Next, I got a confirmation screen with a confirmation number and the option to save and print; which I did. I called the census toll free number to alert them to the small hiccup I had with the verification screen and was told that others had had the same problem. They apologized and said they were working on that issue. Aside from that small glitch I found completing the 2020 census to be totally accessible. Additionally, I could have opted to call verses doing the census online. Now, that I am done I want to encourage you to do the same. If you haven’t already here are some reasons why.

Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities annually. That’s billions with a B! The results also determine how many seats in Congress each state receives. Community leaders and elected officials rely on accurate census data to make funding decisions about education, senior citizen and veteran supports, along with other community allocations. Therefore, it is important to have accurate numbers. Everyone must be counted including people with disabilities! The Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention (CDC) says nearly 1 in 4    people in the United States has a disability with nearly 5% having a visual impairment. This means that having some kind of a disability impacts all of us.

Census data plays a vital role in people’s everyday life Even though the census comes around once a decade. Specifically, census data determines allocations for real-life necessities like health care, public transportation, special education grants, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefits. In addition, the census helps advocates, community leaders and politicians address inequalities in housing, health care, employment and education.

Valid census data also helps ensure fair voting representation and enforcement of voting rights laws. Federal tax dollars cannot be distributed fairly and effectively without an accurate accounting of the population.

Lastly, when completing your census form you can feel confident that your information will be private. Your answers are kept anonymous. They are used only to produce statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to protect your answers and keep them strictly confidential. The law ensures that your private information is never published and that your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court. Additionally, no identifiable information about you, your home or business, even to law enforcement agencies can be released.

So, when you get your census form complete it. Go online, call the toll-free number (1-844-330-2020) or get a sighted person to assist you. This year the 2020 census is accessible so there is no excuse to not do your part and be counted.

My Blindness Doesn’t Determine My Happiness

Ever since I lost my vision in the late 1990s to Vogt–Koyanagi–Harada (VKH) syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease characterized by chronic, bilateral uveitis, I made a decision that I would strive to live a happy life. I was determined that my blindness would not control me and I would figure out how to live and make peace with my situation. Now, let me tell you this was not an easy decision! I still have struggles with it to this day. But it is something that I work at on a regular basis. On March 20th we will be celebrating the International Day of Happiness where the theme is Happiness Together; focusing on what we have in common rather than what divides us. This theme ties right into my own personal philosophy of life. One of the things that has kept me going and staying happy as a blind person is the positive community of friends I have cultivated over the years.  I have worked on being a part of groups that feed me and fill me up. It is important to be around positive people but also people that are honest and will tell you the truth along with allowing you to vent and release your frustrations. It has been especially uplifting with the epidemic of the coronavirus/COVID-19 virus. I have been talking to friends daily as we have been checking on each other and having encouraging conversations.

Empish Working in Home Office
Empish Working in Home Office

But during those early years I would have never realized that my life would have taken such a drastic turn. When I went blind, I had no idea that I would be permanently disabled and also working in the disability community. Today I am a writer, blogger and consultant in this arena. It is like what Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”  My plans after college were to work in the public relations field, make lots of money, purchase a nice car and a beautiful home. It was not to go blind. I could have focused all my attention on what I lost. That would have been very easy and expected. No one would have hardly blamed me. But I decided to shift my mindset because I had a long life ahead of me and I wanted to be happy in the life I was going to have blind or not. It was a decision I had to make. So, I took lemons and made lemonade. I used my journalism degree and worked in the disability industry. That is where I am today. I realized that I am responsible for my own happiness. I can’t blame my blindness or other people for that.

So, as we celebrate International Day of Happiness, I encourage you to not only make a personal decision to be happy but find ways to help others be happy too. Be intentional in your acts of kindness. It doesn’t take much. It is easy for us to focus on the things that divide us but true happiness comes from seeking out the common ground and seeing our humanity.

How I Manage Anxiety Around the Coronavirus Virus

Picture of a Microscope
Picture of a Microscope

Each day more and more info comes out about the coronavirus/COVID-19 virus. I am sure you have heard and read the reports so I won’t go over it here on my blog. As a result, I could allow this constant bombardment of news and information to sweep me away causing me severe stress and anxiety. But I decided to empower myself, to not panic and maintain as much control of my life as possible. I want to share with you some things that I have done and will continue to do as we work through this global crisis.

1.  The very first thing I have done is pray. I am a spiritual person and believe in the power of prayer. I have found that this time of supplication helps to calm me and still my mind and soothe my soul. I can relieve my worries and fears and leave them with God.

2.  Reading news from reputable sources has helped me to stay calm. I look at websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization. Since I live in the Atlanta-Metro area I also go to Emory Healthcare.  These sites have been great resources to gather accurate information on the Coronavirus/COVID-19  Virus.  I also read the news instead of watching it on TV. Broadcast programs can tend to dramatize and sensationalize information that traditional print media doesn’t. I read newspapers like the New York Times  and The Week. reading also gives you a fuller, deeper story than just a sound bite.

3.  I have been talking to friends and family for emotional support. I think it is a good idea to share fears, worries and concerns with people in your circle, and who you love. They can help you feel better and offer comfort and encouragement.

4.  This is an excellent time to focus on the things that I can control. I have no way to control the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Virus but their are things that I can. By focusing on those things, I have been able to keep myself calm and at peace. Some of the things that are in my control are recommendations by the CDC such as washing hands often, exercising regularly and eating healthy foods. All these things I can do. I have also made more efforts to get rest and sleep by going to bed a little earlier and/or sleeping in a little later. My work-from-home schedule allows me the flexibility to do this.

5.  Focusing on doing fun things helps me relieve stress and anxiety. If you have been reading my blog you know that I love reading and watching audio described movies. So, I am continuing to enjoy those things during this time. I am a believer in enjoying life and living to the full.

6.  I decided that I might not travel to visit family. I have a couple of trips coming up in the next month or two but I am not sure if I should travel or not so I had a talk with my mother about it. We talked it over and decided depending on how things go with the Coronavirus Virus that it would be okay not to come to the next family gatherings. My grandmother will be celebrating her 95th birthday and my nephew will be graduating from high school. Both events are very important to me but it might not be wise to go. I have made peace with the decision and will make alternative plans such as sending my grandmother a big bouquet of flowers and goodies instead. I have already started planning so that when the time comes around, I will be okay emotionally with whatever decision I need to make.

These six things are a part of my personal game plan to deal with the COVID-19 Virus.  I have no idea what the future holds but I will prepare and plan without panicking to the best of my ability. I will rely on facts not fear. I will look at evidence not depend on my emotions. This is all a day-by-day process. I believe with these strategies and my faith in God I will be able to successfully manage anxiety around the COVID-19 Virus.

Making Peace with My Lack of Sleep

Empish Yawning
Empish Yawning

This week, March 3-9, is National Sleep Awareness Week. The Sleep Health Foundation contends that sleep is the third pillar of health, alongside diet and exercise. I would strongly agree because for the last 14 years I have battled with a sleeping disorder.  Like so many others I took my sleeping for granted but now I realize how essential sleeping is to my overall quality of life.

In 2006 I began to have severe sleeping problems. For years I had always been a good sleeper. Going to bed at the same time each night and rising around the same time in the morning. Even taking a long nap during the day did not negatively impact my ability to get a good night sleep. But something shifted and I began a long and stressful battle with sleeping. At first, I thought it was just stress from normal life challenges. My schedule at work had changed. I was freelance writing on the side. My roommate had just moved out. A romantic relationship had just ended. So, I naturally thought that just the everyday things of life were causing me to not sleep well. But my lack of sleep persisted to the point I was not sleeping at all. Many nights I had difficulty falling asleep and would just lay in the bed for hours wide awake and feeling stressed. Other nights I would fall asleep with no problem but could not stay a sleep. I would wake up from the slightest noise or to go to the bathroom and then I could never get back to sleep. Other nights I just couldn’t sleep at all and would literally stay up for 24 hours. And lastly, this impacted me during the day, where I would nod off at my work desk or doze on the bus.

At first, I tried over-the-counter sleep aids. I tried nature relaxation music. I tried drinking warm teas and taking warm showers. None of these remedies worked. Something was majorly wrong with me and I needed to seek medical attention. First, I went to see my primary care physician and he immediately thought I had sleep apnea. He gave me a referral to a sleep doctor for follow up. When I saw the sleep doctor she agreed and scheduled me for a sleep test. I spent the night in a lab while they monitored my sleeping. In addition, they monitored my breathing, heart rate, any body movements and probably other things I can’t remember! The results showed that I had Sleep Apnea. I had episodes where I had woken up several times from lack of breathing. I was given a prescription for a CPAP machine. But this device never worked and something in the back of my mind told me that this was not the true cause of my severe sleeping problem. I shared this concerned with my sleep doctor but since the lab results showed sleep apnea there was not much she could say. I shared my worries with friends, family and co-workers; expressing that the CPap machine was not helping me. Some nights I felt worse after using the machine than before.

Sleeping Problems and Blindness

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Empish Sleeping
Empish Sleeping

At one point I came across some information on sleeping disorders and people with disabilities. I had never taken my blindness into consideration with my sleeping problems. A friend told me that since people who are totally blind can’t see sunlight, their bodies could not tell it was time for sleep. A local vision rehab center was doing a workshop for people with total blindness who were experiencing sleeping problems. I went and learned that my poor sleeping might be due to the fact I was totally blind and not to sleep apnea as originally thought. I began to do more research and have more conversation with people about this. I even went back to my sleep doctor to discuss the possibility. She said that was something new that she was not aware of and would look into it. But in the meantime, I continued unsuccessfully to use the CPAP machine. After multiple fits and starts, I finally gave up on that darn machine! I had become a bit depressed but also resolved that this just might be my life and to get over it. But a friend told me about a governmental clinical trial. They were looking for people who were totally blind, had no light perception and were having problems with sleeping. Well that sounded like me, right? I contacted the researcher and signed up. For two years I provided saliva samples about once a month to the Oregon State University Sleep Lab. They analyzed my samples and discovered that my circadian sleep rhythm was all over the chart. I would do well for a time and move over to the left. Then I would do well for a time and move all the way over to the right. Basically, I was zigging and zagging all over the medical chart. They found this interesting and asked me to sample more often and stay with the study a little longer. I agreed. At this point in my life I was feeling tired, depressed and desperate for a clear diagnosis of what was wrong with me. So, I was willing to persevere to get to a solution. I also wore a sleep watch and provided any changes in my health, eating or exercise routines. I told my PCP about the clinical trial and that I had stopped using the CPAP machine. He ordered another sleep test and it was discovered that I really did not have sleep apnea after all. The lab results showed that I did not have enough breathing episodes to warrant the condition.

At the end of the sampling, the researchers told me I had non-24 hour sleep wake disorder. This is a serious, chronic circadian rhythm disorder that affects a large majority of people who are totally blind. They had discovered that my internal body clock had gotten off track and felt it was because of my blindness. At some point in those first years of poor sleeping, I must have lost all light perception which explained why for years I had good quality sleep and then in 2006 things changed. They told me there was no cure but I could take very small amounts of over-the-counter melatonin an hour or two before bedtime. The important thing was to stay on a good sleep routine. I was saddened there was no cure but relieved that I had a diagnosis and some medication I could take. I decided to make peace with my situation and just continue to do the best I could. I decided to not get stressed about it anymore. To not be depressed about it anymore. To sleep to the best of my ability.

Then in 2010, I heard about the research that Vanda Pharmaceuticals was doing. They were working on developing a medication that would help remedy this problem. Well, they did just that and in 2014 they were given FDA approval for the drug call Hetlioz.  I have been on this medication ever since and it has greatly improved my sleeping. Again, it is not a cure and my sleeping is not like it used to be nor is it perfect. I still have moements when I don’t sleep through the night. I still have moments when I wake up and can’t fall back to sleep. But I have better sleep than before and more importantly I have made peace with my sleeping disorder.

Before you nod off, let’s  talk. do you have problems with sleeping or sleep wake disorder? What is your sleep regiment ? What things do you do to make peace with your lack of sleep? Join the conversation and let’s chat about sleeping disorders and blindness.

Haban Girma First Deafblind Black Woman to Graduate From Harvard

Haban Girma Book Cover
Haban Girma Book Cover

Black History Month is quickly coming to a close and as promised I wanted to share about one more black person with a visual impairment. This person is not a historical figure from the past like Blind Tom but rather made recent history by being the first black, deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School.  Her name is Haban Girma and her first name means pride. She is from Eritrea and moved to the United States when she was a child.  She wrote a straight forward, no-nonsense  book about her life entitled Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.  

I read the book through my membership with the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, (NLS).  Unlike Bookshare, NLS provided this book in a commercial audio format so I got to actually hear Girma’s voice as she read her book. NLS books are not text to speech files; each book is read and recorded by a human being. The collection has about 65% fiction and 35% nonfiction. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are the most popular. There are also books in Spanish and a limited number in other languages. NLS is a free library service enacted by Congress that provides printed materials in audio and braille. NLS has regional network libraries that patrons contact to access books, magazines and other materials that are mailed to them via Free Matter for the Blind.  The books are sent as an audio digital cartridge and play on a specialized NLS player. This player is loaned to patrons from the library. But I usually  don’t want to wait for books to come in the mail so I download them via Braille Audio and Reading Download, more commonly known as BARD.  

Listening to Girma tell her story was very interesting and relatable. She shared about her childhood and the challenges of being deafblind especially the moments of isolation she experienced. There were times throughout the book were trying to reach out and engage with others was hard because people don’t get disability. But I appreciated her positive attitude and perseverance. She is not totally blind or totally deaf. She described her hearing loss by saying that when people spoke it sounded like “mumble, mumble.” She also said that traditional hearing aids didn’t work for the type of hearing loss that she had. She has residual vision and she described it as seeing “a parent on a couch as one blob atop another.”

As the years progress, her hearing and vision decreased and she learned how to use a white cane later moving to a guide dog. She also enrolled in a vision rehabilitation center to learn daily living skills and how to be more independent as a blind person. To better communicate with others, she started using a braille note device and Bluetooth keyboard. These pieces of adaptive technology allow Girma to communicate face-to-face with virtually anyone. The person can type on the keyboard, while she reads on the braille device and response verbally. This has helped her to not only communicate, but complete her education, practice law, maintain employment, travel around the world and meet and introduce former President Obama at a disability presentation at the Capitol.,

After reading Girma’s story I felt what an amazing woman! I felt especially proud because she is black and disabled and it is not very often that positive stories of people like myself are written. I left feeling very encouraged by her life and all that she has accomplished so far. Her desire to aim high and reach farther push me to do more of the same. If you want to read her book, and I encourage it, try listening to it in audio. You can check it out at NLS if you are disabled but if not try Audible.com.

The Voice Dream Reader Makes Reading Bookshare Books a Dream

February is National Library Lovers Month where the focus is on reading and the institutions that provide books. It is a time to honor and recognize the important role that libraries play in the community. Although I grew up reading and patronizing the library since losing my vision traditional, brick and mortar libraries don’t completely work for me anymore. I am able to access various programs and join in on my monthly book club but the books on the shelf are not accessible. So I use two other libraries called Bookshare and   the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, also known as NLS. These two popular libraries provide a huge volume of books in audio, braille and large print. 

Now What better way to celebrate libraries, books and the love of reading than to share about my favorite reading app and place to get audio books. First let me tell you about Bookshare. I have been reding and enjoying books provided by Bookshare for several years now and have found their service a great alternative to the NLS Library. Bookshare is an eBook library with nearly 800,000 titles and is the most extensive collection of accessible eBooks in the world. Sometimes I am looking for that obscure or off-the-beaten-path book and they will have it. I also have found that Bookshare has a large volume of African-American titles that I absolutely love. They tend to have that book that is hot off the presses; that everyone is chatting about and I am anxious to read. There are reading materials for educational pursuits, professional development and lifelong reading.

Now with that being said in order to enjoy these thousands of books a good book player is essential. Over the years I have listened to Bookshare books on a variety of players such as the Victor Reader Stream, NLS Talking Book Player and iPhone apps like Read 2 Go. But the best by far is the Voice Dream Reader.

The Voice Dream Reader is an app you download on your smartphone. It is not a free app; cost ranging between $10-$15 depending on if you are using an iPhone or android. Once downloaded you can immediately connect it to your Bookshare account and start downloading books and storing them in your library. The coolest feature I found is the variety of voices available. Since Bookshare is text to speech reading a book can sometimes sound mechanical depending on the player you are using. Voice Dream offers one premium voice, 61 free voices in iOS; and over 100 premium voices for purchase. I have found the voices excellent and sounding close to human quality. Voice Dream also provides their voices in 30 languages.

Empish using iPhone
Empish using iPhone

Another great feature of Voice Dream is that the app has collaborated with Apple. Some of your typical iPhone commands work with the app. For example, to stop the reader from playing a book you do a two-finger double tap. You can also customize Siri to open the Voice Dream Reader to the current book you are reading by setting up that option in the settings menu. The voice Dream Reader can sync with iCloud so that any Bookshare books or other data saved there can be backed up in the cloud. Once you have downloaded your Bookshare book you can adjust audio and visual settings. You can flick and swipe to fast forward or rewind in the book you are currently reading. There is also an instructional manual directly on the app. But if you are like me and want to read the manual from another device while you practice on your smartphone, you can read it on the Voice Dream website via your PC or tablet.

Besides Bookshare books the Voice Dream Reader can be used to access files from places such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Ever Notes.   In addition, Voice Dream has apps for a scanner, mail and writer which you can learn more about on their website.

 The Voice Dream Reader has become a dream to use for my Bookshare books. It is quick and easy to use. Everything is right there on my phone and with a couple of flicks, swipes and taps I am on my way to reading some of the latest and most enjoyable books.

Audio Described Movies and the Oscars

Empish at Concession Stand
Empish at Concession Stand

Besides diving into a great book another of my favorite pastimes is watching an audio described movie. If you are not familiar an audio describe movie provides extra verbal narration     of visual elements happening in the film. It could be hand gestures, facial expressions, physical movements or a description of clothing and action happening in the movie. It describes things that a person with vision loss might not notice or realize. A fast-pace action, suspense thriller, a funny comedy, a classic animation, a gory horror or a sappy romcom—I love them all! But the funny thing is that I didn’t really get into movies until I went blind and couldn’t see the screen. Go figure!  Then I really, really didn’t get into movies until audio description became readily available. Many years ago, I rented a couple through the GLASS Atlanta Library; but regrettably I found the selection very limited and quickly lost interest. Today that has changed because audio described movies have increased in availability with the law and demand.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have curled up on the sofa, got under my fluffy cat blanket, grabbed my microwaved popcorn and watched a Netflix movie with audio description. It has been too many times to count. Audio description is not only available from Netflix, there is Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney +, iTunes and more.   In addition, local TV stations like ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX provide some audio described content. The cable and satellite companies have it too; but I cut the cord a while back so can’t comment too much on that.

In addition to watching audio described movies at home, I watch them at my local movie theater. The two major movie chains in my city, Regal Cinema and AMC Theatres, both offer most blockbusters and current films in audio description. When I go to the theatre, I request the device for the blind. It will be a headset attached to a small box with a little lever on the side for volume. There are also close captioning devices for the deaf and the hard of hearing. A couple of times I was given the device for the hard of hearing, which looks similar but is not attached to the small box for the volume control. Depending on the theatre you go to, you might have to do a little education with the theater staff and take time to explain exactly what you need.

Empish Using Audio Described Headset
Empish Using Audio Described Headset

The description makes a huge difference if I can enjoy the movie or not.  I have been faithfully watching audio described movies since 2014 and know that without it I will miss critical and key information. This impacts my ability to get the fullness of the film. There have been times when I have fudged my way through a movie only to talk to a sighted person later and find out I was dead wrong about a particular scene. And just forget about foreign films with English subtitles scrolling at the bottom. Sorry I can’t see enough to read them and I just understand English! LOL! No way to work my way through those movies.

Now we have come to the Oscars. I was sitting on my sofa, with my fluffy cat blanket but no popcorn this time. I was glued to the screen listening to those all too familiar words, “…and the winner is…” The majority of the Oscar winners in various categories had audio description; which is fabulous!

But the winner for best picture, parasite, was not an audio described movie. I had tried to see the film at my local theater only to notice that my device was not working. I later discovered that the distributor didn’t provide audio description. Unfortunately, this is what happens to some of the great films I would like to see. Not all movies are available to the blind community yet. I have mixed feelings about this Oscar winner and I struggled to even talk about it here on my blog because this movie made history. Parasite, a Korean-language film, won for best film, best director, best international film and best original screenplay. This is an amazing accomplishment and a positive step toward diversity and inclusion. Although It is not the Academy’s fault the movie was not accessible; people like me were left out. If you had a visual impairment you could not enjoy this film like everyone else.

But on a more positive note, since the Oscars came earlier than usual this year, several of these films, and as of this writing, are still in theaters and not on DVD or streaming yet. This means you can still catch them at the movie theater. So, grab some popcorn and get ready to enjoy a great audio describe movie!

Blind Tom a Georgia Slave Never Emancipated

Empish holding book on Blind Tom
Empish holding book on Blind Tom

This month is Black History Month.  To start things off I am posting a story that I previously published at the Center for the Visually Impaired and VisionAware. Later in the month I will share about another interesting blind African American. So stay tuned!

Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X,  and Fredrick Douglas – these are names of famous African-Americans that are well known and observed during this month. But this year I wanted to bring to your attention a famous blind man whose story is not typically in the history books or spoken about in daily conversation. Thomas Wiggins who was born a slave in Columbus Georgia in 1849 was an incredible musical performer and entertainer. From a very small age he traveled all over the US and Europe playing classical music and performing on stage to massive audiences. He was also known for having what we know today as autism and was a musical savant.

What makes his story so incredibly compelling and sad is that he was never fully emancipated. After the Civil War was over his parents signed an agreement with General James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor, to a five year contract of indentured servitude. During this time in history African-Americans who were newly freed and uneducated were not able to exercise their full rights, especially a former slave that was disabled. His parents felt that it would be better for him to be under the care and protection of someone they knew than to run the risk of him being abused or even stolen by strangers. This unfortunately began his life of permanent servitude; never being completely free until his death in 1908.

From the time he could walk, Tom developed a deep fascination with nature and sound. Once his master purchased a piano it was virtually impossible to keep Tom from being close to it and wanting to play.  His desire was so great that he became quite emotional and would literally throw temper tantrums if his wishes were not met. His master soon discovered that Tom had an incredible talent for music and could play very difficult pieces with little to no practice time. His master started to place Tom in minstrel and side shows around the country. He was known for being an obsessive and demanding child with a healthy appetite that continued into his adult life.

Tom was known for playing the piano for hours on end.  He would play Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical musicians. He even composed several pieces of his own. During his lifetime he was one of the most well-known pianists and made thousands of dollars for his owners which in today’s terms would be millions.

One of the most important things that contributed to Tom’s slavery and permanent servitude was the transfer of ownership. When he was a young musician and traveling across the United States he was owned by General Bethune. Then later ownership was transferred to his son, John Bethune. After John died in a train accident, he went back to General Bethune; but lost in a court battle to John’s wife, Eliza, who became Tom’s last and final owner. These transfers of ownership were all attempts to keep Tom and the money he made with little regard to his family. Tom’s mother made legal attempts in vain to free Tom but his owners were always able to elude the legal system. In 1904, Eliza, after 40 years of performing, took Tom off the road when he had a stroke and had difficulty playing the piano. Four years later Tom had another stroke that ended his life. Tom was buried in New York but the citizens of Columbus, Georgia raised a headstone in his honor in 1976. 

I first learned about Tom several years ago attending a performance of his life at a local community theater and I was captivated then and still am to this day. As a blind African-American woman, a descendant of slaves, and live in the South his story speaks to me in a very powerful way. Plays, films and books have all been written and performed to capture Tom’s incredible life story. There is also a websitedevoted to him and YouTube videos where you can hear his music. I found and read Two books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled in digital format. They are listed below:.

1.  The Ballad of Blind Tom by Deirdr O’Connell

2.  Blind Tom, the black pianist-composer: continually enslaved  by Geneva Southall