Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

My Reflections on Life After Deaf

Life After Deaf Book Cover
Life After Deaf Book Cover

I was intrigued when I read the announcement at the DeKalb County Library for the reading and discussion on the book Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery by Noel Holston. I am not deaf but do have a sensory disability and because of people’s lack of understanding sometimes get lumped into the deaf community. I won’t get into all of that right now but will save for another time. In the announcement Holston wrote a memoir about losing his hearing, at age 62. He describes that it was virtually overnight, how he battled with his medical insurance provider, how it impacted his marriage and how he ultimately regained his hearing with a cocular implant. I was quite fascinated and decided to not only attend but read the book.

I downloaded the book from Bookshare, a great resource for books for people with print impairments. As I read, I quickly began to see similarities in his story and mine.  Even though Holston is older than me, deaf, married and a man, we had a lot in common. I found myself nodding my head and saying “Hmm, Hmm, that’s right!” like someone in the amen corner at church. 

The way he lost his hearing was overnight. he thought it was a sinus cold but later realized it was his hearing. I too started losing my vision rather quickly. My eyes began to tear up all of a sudden and became very sensitive to light. Like Dracula I would shrink away in pain when coming in contact with any form of light. By the time I got to the right doctor for a proper diagnosis I had some permanent eye damage that was not reversable.

We also were prescribed the same exact medications for our condition. I was diagnosed with bilateral uveitis, an auto immune disease that causes inflammation and retinal detachment. At the beginning I had a lot of inflammation and was on prednisone. What was supposed to be about 6 months ended up being 3 years on this drug. and what a rollercoaster ride that was! My doctor also prescribed methotrexate as well which Holston took too. Neither medication worked as a long-term solution for my visual impairment.

Another similarity I could relate to was dealing with isolation. Even though he was married and had friends and family Holston had difficulties with connecting. He shared openly and honestly the challenges of communicating as a deaf person. He talked about the myriad ways of trying to understand what people were saying, carrying around a note pad and pen, and dealing with services that didn’t offer email or text message options. Blindness can also be isolating too. When I lost my vision, I also lost the ability to pick up facial expressions. No more getting those small nuances such as raised eyebrows, grins, smirks, or rolling eyes. I was not able to see body language either. No more seeing hands waving, fingers pointing or shoulders hunching. The only thing I could go by is inflections in a person’s voice and my intuition. Also, since I move my head toward sounds, have an expressive face and have natural-looking eyes people think I can see better than I can and so assumptions are made and things get miscommunicated a lot. Sometimes assumptions are made about the abilities of the blind. That we don’t have a life, work, have fun, date, go out, etc. So, then we don’t get invites to events or are included; which leads to isolation.

Holston approached his journey into deafness with a wry sense of humor titling his chapters with puns and sharing mishaps along the way. One example is how he locked his keys inside his car with the engine still running. No spoiler alert here! You will have to read the book to find out how he got out of that situation because I am not going to tell!

He shared how much he liked Marvel Comics’ Daredevil; a blind lawyer who turns into a super hero fighting crime at night. He copes by focusing on his other senses through sight, smell and touch. He uses them to go walking, exploring nature, going to museums and reading books. The goal is to concentrate on what you have, take pleasure in that and not on what you don’t.

Empish and Author Noel Holston
Empish and Author Noel Holston

At the end of the library’s reading event, I spoke to Holston to share my appreciation for him writing Life After Deaf and how much his words, life and experiences resonated with my own journey of vision loss. We both realized that even though our disabilities are different learning how to cope and making peace with our situations is where we all can find common ground. He told me it was his hope the book would provide that opportunity for everyone.

Ten Ways I Use Braille Everyday

Bra
Braille women restroom sign

Happy New Year everybody! I am kicking off the year on the Triple E Blog with a post about braille and how I use it every day.  January is the month that those of us in the blind and visually impaired community observe Braille Literacy Month. Braille is a code created for reading and writing. This code, which is a series of raised dots on paper, has revolutionized the lives of people with vision loss because it has opened doors of literacy, education, employment, and independence.

But before I get to how I use braille let me give you some background. Louis Braille was born this month in 1809, and was a Frenchman who lost his vision from an accident as a small child. His family enrolled him in the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. While there and as a teenager, Braille began the process to create a reading and writing system by touch. He continued to perfect the system and as an adult became an instructor at the Institution.  Unfortunately, Braille’s method was not accepted by the sighted instructors and he died in 1852 never seeing his creation used by the blind. Eventually, the code was accepted and today this system of raised dots is used all over the world.

The braille code is made up of letters, numbers and symbols. It is not another language. The alphabet is based on a cell that is composed of 6 or 8 dots, arranged in two columns of 3 or 4 dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the dots that are contained in the cell. Braille is usually found in a large book format on doubled sided paper to maximize space and can be read for math, science and music.

Now that you got that little history lesson and some background info; back to me and my daily usage. I have to be honest in saying I am not a proficient user of braille. Don’t bring a braille book or magazine and expect me to quickly move my fingers across those raised dots and tell you what it says because it ain’t gonna happen! But I do use braille in a small way every day. So, let me share with you the ways I read Braille which still benefit me greatly.

  1.  braille calendar
  2.  public bathroom signs
  3.  the door number at dentist’ office
  4.  braille labels on my credit cards, library card, insurance card, and expiration date on my state ID
  5.  braille labels on file folders in my home office
  6.  braille on elevator panels
  7.  braille labels on my music CDs
  8.  braille labels on my lipstick tubes
  9.  braille labels on spices in my kitchen
  10.  braille labels on my exercise equipment

So, there you have it! A list of the multiple ways I read braille every day. I have found braille to be very useful and greatly appreciate the contribution that Louis Braille has made to my life. Share with me in the comment section about your personal usage of braille. Are you a braille reader? How has braille impacted your life every day?