Category Archives: Literature

Hadley Provides 100 Years of Remote Learning to the Blind Community

Empish Reading Braille

For a century the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired has provided remote learning to the blind community. This is an enormous accomplishment. Even more so in the midst of COVID-19 where distant learning, sheltering in place, social distancing and remote access are becoming the new normal. According to their website, the mission of Hadley is to create personalized learning opportunities that empower adults with vision loss or blindness to thrive at home, at work and in their communities. Well, I can attest to Hadley’s mission because I have personally benefited from their instruction. I am going to share my experience, but first let me give a little history on the organization because again 100 years is a long time to be in existence and knowing the back story is important.

History of the Hadley Institute

William Hadley, a former school teacher, lost his sight at 55 and loved reading. He wanted to learn braille but was frustrated with finding a teacher so he taught himself. Along with an ophthalmologist and neighbor, Hadley found a way to share his love of learning with others who had lost their vision too. So, in 1920, the Hadley Correspondence School and the “braille by mail” curriculum launched.  The very first student, a woman in Kansas, had also lost her sight later in life and wanted to continue reading. She mailed her lessons to Hadley, and he corrected and returned them along with encouraging notes. This was the beginning of the close instructor-learner relationship that is a trademark of Hadley learning today.

Ways I’ve Benefited from Hadley’s Instruction

I too was one of those who lost vision as an adult. I learned braille previously at a vision rehabilitation center but realized too late that I didn’t have a good solid game plan on how to implement it beyond the alphabetic code. I learned braille because that is what I was supposed to do and I saw some immediate benefits such as labels for my Music CDs, spices for cooking and metal labels for my clothing. I was not thinking about reading braille books or magazines. Outside of that braille was just a vague thought in the back of my mind. As a result, my reading and writing skills stayed on a rudimentary level; much like a kindergartner at school. So I contacted Hadley to take a braille course and began my journey back to braille. Unfortunately, life got in the way and I didn’t finish my course however I accessed other learning tools from Hadley.  The next course I took was on LinkedIn where I went through the modules online to complete my profile and then connected with my instructor. Once we connected, my instructor gave constructive criticism on my LinkedIn profile that was helpful. Another Hadley course was on the keyboard. Over the years my typing and keyboard skills had gotten slack and sloppy. I was making several key punch errors. This course helped me get reacquainted with the home row and other important keys, practice proper posture and slow down my typing for accuracy.

I love a good informative and entertaining podcast. Hadley offers Tech It Out is an hour long, monthly call-in discussion group; but I listen to it afterward as a podcast. There I have learned about all kinds of technology for home, work and entertainment. The very first one I attended we discussed grocery shopping and food delivery apps.  So many people joined in the conversation and that was long before the pandemic! Other podcast topics have been on accessible small kitchen appliances, using tablets, watching audio described movies and learning about streaming services. Their most recent topic is accessing tech support for your devices.

All of the remote learning I gained from Hadley was at no cost, at my own pace and from the comfort of my home. They are a non-profit organization and receive donations to provide these services. I applaud Hadley for the work they have done and have no doubt they will continue to be successful in educating the blind for many more years to come.

Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

Every Day is Book Lover’s Day for Me

Today is National Book Lover’s Day but every day is book lover’s day in my world. If you have been reading my blog or know me personally you know full well how much I enjoy reading and I couldn’t let this day pass without saying something, right? Of course not. And it being the weekend makes it even sweeter because I can truly relax and get into a good book or two. Honestly, I usually am reading at least one or two at the same time. One on my NLS talking book player and the other on my iPhone.

I have loved reading books since I was a child. My enjoyment began with my parents reading to me bedtime stories from the Golden Book series, which were short stories printed in a hard-bound book with gold trim on the binding. During my middle school years, it was Classics by Charles Dickens and contemporary fiction by Judy Blume. Once in high school and college I was introduced to African-American novels by Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright. Even after losing my vision I didn’t quit reading. I did try reading braille for a while but found the process stressful and laborious. So, I stopped with just the rudimentary skills learning my numbers and letters. Today I dig into a good read in audio format.

The ability to escape to another place or time, learn something new or improve my life comes from reading books. Another benefit is the soothing effect and stress relief I gain from reading. Life can get busy and there is lots to do and many things to distract but sitting still and reading a good book slows me down, gives me some peace and helps me to be calm. I encourage you reading this blog to take time today and every day to read a book.

March Trilogy Book Cover

Review of NLS Graphic Novel the March Trilogy by Congressman John Lewis

Editor’s note:  Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis passed away on Friday, July 17th from pancreatic cancer. Many news reports, articles, blogs, podcast and conversations are happening right now about this incredible man and the major accomplishments he made to push the needle forward for equality for everyone. As a resident of Atlanta, I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak on more than one occasion at disability and/or social justice events. A couple of years ago I wrote a book review for VisionAware on his graphic novel titled The March Trilogy.  In celebration of his life I am reprinting it here.

The March Trilogy as a Graphic Novel

I don’t typically read graphic novels, as a matter of fact this book that I am reviewing is my very first one. For those that are not familiar a graphic novel is a written story presented with cartoon-type drawings in a panel format. They are similar to a comic book but much longer and with more text. I have been told they are very popular and many people love to read them.  Well, the Library of Congress/NLS record their first one titled The March Trilogy by John Lewis. Although Lewis has published an autobiography in the past, the idea to make his story a graphic novel came from the time he was 15 years old when he first learned about Martin Luther King through reading a comic book on his life.

I was excited to read this book because it was about the life of US Congressman John Lewis.  He is not only an icon in the civil rights movement, more popularly known for his beating while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the March to Montgomery in 1965; but he is an outspoken politician in my hometown of Atlanta. These reasons made me even more interested in reading this book.

The overall story of Lewis’ life was educational and fascinating.  Without giving too much away, I learned so much about his life that I didn’t know and was inspired by his passion and zeal to create change despite some incredible difficulties.  His childhood growing up with parents who were sharecroppers gave him firsthand exposure to racial inequality. He attended college while participating in sit ins at lunch counters and bus boycotts.  Then he later extended his civil rights activities into a career in politics.

Challenges Reading a Graphic Novel

 Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

But after I downloaded the book and started to play it on my NLS talking book player that is when the challenges and some disappointment began. The first thing I noticed is that my mind began to wonder from the story and I had to rewind my player. I realized that I was doing this not because the story itself was not interesting or that I was tired, sleepy or distracted but because I was having a hard time figuring out when the description of the graphic started and stopped. Terminology and phrasing such as “zoom in”, “zoom out”, “next panel”, “we see”, “in the frame”, “the next three panels show” give you an indication that the reader is describing what is in the panel and then going back to the text but if you are not listening carefully you can miss it. It is done very seamlessly. This is not necessarily a bad thing but just an observation. For years I have tuned my ears and my brain to read an audio book and thought that I had become quite proficient but reading this graphic novel challenged my audio reading ability. I had to really pay attention in order to visualize the scene and pictures in order to keep them separate from the actual text. There were times when I thought maybe I am trying too hard and should just let the story flow and not be concerned about it. Perhaps that is the way to read an audio format of a graphic novel?

The second challenge I had with reading this book was the detailed audio description. I love audio description and have written about it many times here on the VisionAware site but in this book, I found it to be a little overwhelming. The description of the illustrations was very detailed and lengthy. I shared my thoughts with a sighted friend who had a printed copy of this book. She listened to the NLS version and we reviewed it together. She understood my concerns and thought that in some ways the descriptions could have been shorten. But perhaps that is just personal preference. Some people like a lot of information when it comes to audio description and some like less. 

On a positive note. I did appreciate the sound effects of the reader that were made within the audio description. That did bring the book to life more and made the story even more interesting. For example, when John was a child, he had to feed the chickens on the farm. The reader actually makes clucking sounds as John is doing this task. Some other sounds are phones ringing and an alarm clock buzzing. The reader also changed the inflections in his voice which I also enjoyed.

But despite these enhancements I have to conclude that a graphic novel is probably not my type of book to read. I found the story itself to be a good one however the illustrations to be a distraction. It was just too much for me to digest in an audio format and it took away from the overall story I was trying to read and enjoy. But perhaps you will read this book and have a totally different experience.

Photo of Helen Keller

My Favorite Quotes from Helen Keller

Today is Helen Keller’s birthday. She was an icon in the blind, visually impaired and deafblind community. She was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing her to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day”.

This incredible woman overcame and accomplished so much during the course of her life. So in celebration, I want to share some of her famous quotes  that I like from her book To Love This Life: Quotes by Helen Keller. To start my most favorite one is, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” I realized that shortly after losing my vision that I had to take “the bull by the horns” and jump into life. I realized my own mortality; that life was too short and that I might only get one chance to do the things that I wanted. It is amazing that a disability brought me to this decision. Looking at Keller’s life also inspired me as well. I first read about her when I was a little girl and was amazed that a woman who was deafblind could accomplish so much. She learned how to read and write. She graduated from college. She traveled all over the world. She met famous and important people. She fought for civil and human rights. She co-founded Helen Keller International, an organization initially for blinded WWI soldiers. She was outspoken and a feminist. She did not allow her disability to keep her from enjoying the fullness of life or participating in it. Her life was truly an adventure! I model my life the same. Continue reading for more of my favorite quotes.

“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.”

“I think the degree of a nation’s civilization may be measured by the degree of enlightenment of its women.”

“True teaching cannot be learned from text-books any more than a surgeon can acquire his skill by reading about surgery.”

“I cannot but say a word and look my disapproval when I hear that my country is spending millions for war and war engines—more, I have heard, than twice as much as the entire public school system costs the nation.”

“Personally I do not believe in a national agency devoted only to the Negro blind because in spirit and principle I am against all segregation, and the blind already have difficulties enough without being cramped and harassed by social barriers.”

“The woman who works for a dollar a day has as much right as any other human being to say what the conditions of her work should be.”

“I am younger today than I was at twenty-five. Of course the furrows of suffering have been dug deeper, but so have those of understanding sympathy and inner happiness. Whatever age may do to my earthly shell, I shall never grow cynical or indifferent—and one cannot measure the reserve power locked up in that assurance.”

“The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them.”

Now that you have read some of Helen Keller’s famous quotes are you motivated, inspired or encouraged by her life? Did you know about Keller before now? What do you think about her and her contributions to society? Share your thoughts and feelings about Keller in the comment section below.

Juneteenth Logo- Celebrating 155th Anniversary

Recognizing Juneteenth and Curious About Disabled Slaves

Today is Juneteenth;  the day slaves were freed in Texas. Although I live in Georgia, I am very familiar with this holiday because I am a native of the Lone Star State. I grew up hearing the story of how slaves were notified they were free two years after the fact. Each year there would be all kinds of activities, news stories and of course family barbecues at home or at the local park. It was and still is a time of celebration in the African American community. But since I have been living in Georgia for several years, I have not participated in the observation. Now with the recent conversations and protests around racism in this country and abroad, the idea of Juneteenth becoming an official national holiday has risen again.

Juneteenth not only marked the end of slavery in Texas but also in the United States. Here is the story from History.com. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and slavery in the United States has ended. Despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, a lack of Union troops in the confederate state of Texas made the order difficult to enforce. Some historians believe the lapse in time on poor communication in that era especially during and after war time.  Others believe slave owners intentionally withheld the information to keep slaves working as long as possible.

Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas.
Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas.

Major Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

On that day, 250,000 enslaved people were freed, and despite the message to stay and work for their owners, many left the state immediately and headed north or to nearby states in search of family members they’d been ripped apart from. For many African Americans, June 19 is considered an Independence Day. Forty-seven states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but efforts to make it a national holiday have so far stalled in Congress. Many corporations like Twitter, Nike, Target, Harvard and the National Football League have made Juneteenth a company holiday with paid time off.

As I reflect on Juneteenth, I think about what happened to the disabled slaves? I have often wondered about slaves with disabilities in general. How they managed on the plantation. Since the existence of a slave is the ability to work and be abled bodied how does that actually look for a person who has limited abilities and functioning? As I have been and continue to do research, I have struggled to find a lot on the topic. I read the books on Blind Tom and wrote about it in a previous post. He was a famous musician that was never emancipated. But when he was born his master wanted to get rid of him. It was his mother who begged for his life. Later he discovered the piano and the rest is history. The intersectionality of slavery, labor and disability is something I find very interesting. Even to this day we value a human being based on his or her ability to produce. If you are not able to work and produce something of value you are not worth very much. The unemployment rate is sky high right now because of the pandemic  but the unemployment rate in the disability community has also been high  and even worse for disabled African Americans. This has been the case for decades and many don’t blink an eye. The assumption is that disabled people can’t produce and therefore are not very valuable.

African American Slavery and Disability Book Cover

The life of the disabled slave has got me wanting to learn more. In my research I have found one book so far at one of my favorite libraries, Bookshare.   The book is titled, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster. The summary says that, disability is often mentioned in discussions of slave health, mistreatment and abuse, but constructs of how “able’ and “disabled” bodies influenced the institution of slavery has gone largely overlooked. This volume uncovers a history of disability in African American slavery from the primary record, analyzing how concepts of race, disability, and power converged in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. I am looking forward to reading this book and learning more about this somewhat unknown part of America’s history.

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 COVID-19. 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 COVID-19. 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.

How I Manage Anxiety Around the coronavirus

Picture of a Microscope
Picture of a Microscope

Each day more and more info comes out about the coronavirus. 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.  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 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 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 COVID-19.  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 COVID-19.

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.

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