Tag Archives: Disability

celebrating -gaad-2020 Logo

GAAD and My Daily Access to the Internet

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). According to their website, every person that accesses the Internet deserves a first-rate digital experience. Someone with a disability must be able to experience web-based services, content and other digital products with the same successful outcome as those without disabilities. This awareness and commitment to inclusion is the goal of GAAD.  This event was launched 9 years ago based on a single blog post that challenged web developers and designers to dig deeper on the accessibility of their web content. Unfortunately, equal access to the Internet is not always available.   This year one million webpages were analyzed for accessibility and came up lacking.  Some of the issues were low contrast, no alt text for images, empty links, and missing form input labels. These issues and more all impact the ability  of those with disabilities to access information on the Internet.

Every day I spend the bulk of my time online. As a result, I come across inaccessible websites on a regular basis.  Just this week I was trying to register my all in one printer with the manufacturer and portions of that process were not accessible with my screen reader. When I called customer service, I was told that they could not assist me and that I had to complete the process on my own; but yet the website is not accessible. I have heard this all the time for many years. I have used sighted friends to help me from time to time. Yet it has been somewhat frustrating and annoying when there are probably simple fixes in the web coding that could be done to remedy the problem.  Additionally, I bump up on accessibility with mobile apps. I hear all the time about wonderful apps that can do this or that. But my question is, “Is it accessible?” If not, I don’t even bother with downloading it because it’s not going to work for me no matter how wonderful.

I have learned that I have to continue being an advocate and speak up about this issue. Many people still don’t realize that people that are blind and visually impaired are actively online. That we use adaptive technology to access the internet. Not only do I use the internet to post this blog I am writing but I live my life like everyone else. Here are some examples:

1.  Download books to read for my book club.

2.  Stream movies to watch on Netflix.

3.  Participate in Zoom videoconferencing meetings on my desktop computer.

4.  Completed my 2020 census online.

5.  order groceries  and other goods online.

Now we are in the midst of a global pandemic and it is even more critical that everyone have access to the internet. More and more people are working from home. Shopping, banking and other daily activities have increased online. School students are taking classes on their computers or tablets. Various entertainment venues are looking at moving some of their content online. So, web designers and developers need to know and understand that people with disabilities, which add up to about a billion worldwide, are online too and need equal access.

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.

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.

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.