Just a little question

November 14, 2009 - Leave a Response

Here’s something to ponder in the gloomy winter. Why is it that quite a few English people seem to think that England is the only country in the world that puts our clocks back in winter?

I’ve heard this lately from quite a few people who think putting the clocks back is a bad idea and say “I don’t know why we do it. We’re the only country that does”. When I was a kid I used to think we were the only country to do it. Where does this idea come from?

Curious…

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The Bringers Of My Smiles

June 3, 2009 - Leave a Response

They come easy and flowing in a glass of wine
or sit in the crust of a pie
while life is tottering by

They tickle me from the mouth of a friend
who offers me food to try
after declaring it “vile”

Reviving and wholesome they sweetly sneak
into my festival tent
where journeys and music mix into sleep

Pinching my heart they thrust me free
when leonard cohen, aged seventy three,
dazzled thousands and silenced me.

They softly stroke from ear to ear
as in simple calm i hear
the purring of my cats.

They rummage in rubble or dawdle sometimes
but i mostly eventually find
the bringers of my smiles

Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Turner. All rights reserved

Yes I Can

February 15, 2009 - 5 Responses

I initially thought this entry would be impossible to write. I wanted to rise to the challenge posed by this blogger I often read of writing something about disability and sexuality for Valentine’s Day.

But I’m not in the mood. I find the topic fascinating and important in
lots of ways but my emotions are rather delicate at the moment so I
prefer not to think about it, especially on Valentine’s Day.

Eleven years ago a drunken man who I couldn’t see, hear properly or
touch in a noisy student club asked a drunken me “Can you have sex?” And I felt flattered because sex was somewhat mysterious to me and I took the question to mean that this man – who I knew nothing about beyond the fact he wanted to know whether I “could have sex” – wanted sex with me.

These days I don’t go to noisy clubs, and I would find anyone who asked me that question in that context offputting. To me the question “can you have sex” may or may not be asking something specific about the mechanics of one’s body, but at the same time it’s masking the more fundamental question of “are you human?” Because every human has sexual desire and so in my book – yes, everyone “can have sex”.

Of course that’s not what the guy meant! And I wasn’t bothered then about the questions which occupy me now. These include “how on earth am I going to find a partner when I do the same things with the same people week in, week out?”; “how do I, as a blindy wheely, express my desire and how do others perceive it/me?”; and “who can I find to accompany me and share some desire, expanding horizons, new experiences, comfort and support while we’re here on this grubby beautiful planet?”.

Thanks to decent, accessible housing, technology, a substantial care package, brilliant Personal Assistants and many other things I’m actually able to explore these questions – something I seriously doubt would have been allowed to be an issue if I’d lived permanently in an institution, for example, which was a real and frightening possibility at one point.

As my favourite (I’ve tried a few!) dating website, OkCupid, was pointing out recently – we’re in a recession but messages on OkCupid are free – spread the love!

So my (day late) contribution to this topic is to revel in the fact that I can spread the loves, and pains, and anything else that makes us human, whether we’re disabled or not. I hope you can too.

200 Years Old – Let’s Keep It Going Strong

February 8, 2009 - Leave a Response

2009 is the bicentenary of Louis Braille’s birth and people the world over will be marking it in some way. Here in the UK the RNIB is organising events, publicity and research around celebrating and promoting braille.

In these days of powerful computers and speech synthesis braille often gets overlooked or rejected as being old fashioned, too difficult to learn, and various other criticisms. But braille has unique, powerful qualities which are invaluable to a blind person who masters it, and I think it’s crucial we give it a much needed boost and put pressure wherever it’s needed for people to have the chance of learning it. It is difficult to learn, but boy is it worth it! And whoever said worthwhile things were easy to come by?

Here are some personal reflections of why braille has been so important to me.

When, aged eleven, I first dipped my finger into the world of braille I had no inkling it would ever be more than a curious hobby for me. It really was a “dipping”, my eyes were more involved than my fingers, along with a BBC computer and very determined teacher. Whenever I did touch the page I could barely tell that there were individual dots, let alone distinguish patterns they made. So I carried on with the graphics accompanied by monotonous beeps from the BBC and avoided the cold frustration I felt whenever touching the dots. But one day a year or two later I did manage to crack that bumpy code.

The time I became able to start reading braille, rather than deciphering hostile bumps, was when I discovered it was a vehicle for something I definitely wanted to do: the school play. I was using print as my method of reading and writing. But lighting in our school’s drama studio was not conducive to my reading and anyway I felt hampered straining at a script through a magnifier in dull light whilst simultaneously trying to move around and respond to other people. Reading my braille script I found I was able to stop worrying about how to read and start worrying about how to act!

After that, using braille became a real option for me. The difficulties gradually eased and because I found advantages to reading braille rather than print I didn’t mind the frustrations. I could catch up on unfinished homework (unfinished because my classmates and I had spent most of “prep time” discussing music, rearranging the furniture in our classroom or just generally messing around) by reading in bed without disturbing room mates. I chose to use braille hymn books in assembly purely because I’d heard that people sometimes changed the meanings of the words by scratching out some dots. I provided some amusement when, responding to a teacher’s apparent surprise that I was using braille on that occasion, I said that I wanted braille because every time I leaned forward to read print my nose started running (I had hayfever at the time).

So braille became an important tool for me. The ability to use it helped enormously in my school/college work and, just as importantly, allowed me to join in a certain kind of culture among braille users.

By the time I started university my vision had deteriorated to a point where print was not a viable option. I used a mixture of braille, audio and electronic material instead. I preferred braille but couldn’t always use it because of its large space requirements and the lack of available material. Whenever possible I used braille though. There is nothing more distracting when discussing a piece of text in class than hearing a screen reader’s electronic voice babbling, say, Plato’s “Republic” in one ear whilst trying to concentrate on what a tutor is saying with the other. When I did use speech instead of braille in seminars I had to decide whether to understand what was being discussed or to join in the discussion, I didn’t have the capacity to do both. When giving presentations I felt much more confident when I could use braille, the ideas I’d put on paper could flow straight from my fingers to my mouth without the awkward computerised interpreter in between. This was important for me not just for academic work but also for other parts of my life as I was involved in various societies and often facilitated meetings supported by notes I’d made.

However I was forced to stop using braille because of worsening sensation in my fingers. Reading it became slow and difficult so I stopped and got used to relying on speech synthesis. I was able to work in this way but it was tiring and presentations became an embarrassing necessity.

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve regained my connection with braille and the qualities it brings. I discovered a few years ago that I could read braille if it was written on plastic type labels or on braille displays because the dots are sharper and firmer. I used labels to identify CDs etc but it was only recently that I acquired a braille display and so truly brought braille literacy back into my life.

I’ve now discovered new benefits to using braille. The difficulties during the school play were nothing compared to listening to synthetic speech, to the director, keeping the laptop on my lap and driving my powerchair, oh and putting effort into the actual acting too, all at the same time. My Braillenote (a braille-based PDA) sits easily on my lap and makes no noise if I don’t want it to.

I can read on noisy trains.

I can understand bank statements more easily by feeling the figures rather than hearing them.

But braille literacy’s gifts are more profound than its tangible uses. It keeps my mind alive and connected with the world around me. My spelling -something I had always been quite good at – became awful when I stopped reading braille. I couldn’t visualise words like I used to. Now that I’m reading again I’m able to visualise in a pattern that’s a kind of fusion between print and braille. I make few spelling mistakes but more importantly this visualisation and imagination that braille stimulates is part of who I am. Spelling is part of language and language is something fundamental to our being; it’s culture and identity. Braille literacy keeps me connected with culture in its widest possible sense.

For me there’s also something unique about the physicality of reading braille. Being a wheelchair user means I don’t experience much direct physical contact with the world and people around me. When using braille I feel more connected with them – it’s almost as if, by feeling the words underneath my fingers, I’m getting a sense of the rough feeling of gravel under my feet, the cramped intimacy of a crowded pub corner or the grimy satisfaction of cleaning a dirty floor. Listening to descriptions – whether by speech synthesis or a human reader – is a pale imitation because it comes through something or someone else first before it reaches my mind.

I’m glad I can experience these sensations and benefit from the fuel braille provides to my imagination. I look forward to the doors it might open for me in the future (I hope to learn braille music). Most of all I deeply appreciate the dull beeps of the BBC computer and determined energy of my teacher all those years ago.

Can we do better than this?

September 28, 2008 - Leave a Response

I reckon so and I certainly hope so, but most of the media makes it pretty tough.

Not sure I’m able to say what “this” is at the moment – I haven’t read many newspapers or listened to much news lately, and when I had the radio on this week I thought I might as well not bother. The economy’s going pretty mushy, Marvin knows whether/how our planet can survive what we’re doing to it and all they talked about on the radio this week was whether Gordon Brown is “the right man” to see us through these economic times, and how well/poorly constructed various politicians’ conference speeches were. I’m sure there are plenty of other real crises happening in the world but like I said I haven’t listened to the news much lately.

I really must do something about my current lack of political or news awareness. I’m not involved in any political groups any more so I don’t pick things up that way. I do the very occasional bit of reading things like Socialist Worker but I also like to listen to news/the radio while I’m getting up in the morning – I do love my BBC radio!

One factor is – everyday things like getting up, getting dressed, eating etc take me so bloody long (being disabled) that I guess I want my news quite short so I can listen to it while I’m doing other things. And of course you don’t get quality discussion/hard questions in hourly news bulletins.

I can still do something about this though – after all I do get weekly CDs from the Talking Newspapers Association. But what do I subscribe to? “Arts And Entertainment Weekly” – no wonder I’m out of touch!

Having said that it was seeing a play that got me thinking about my current ignorance. In “Death Of An Anarchist” one highly talented and pissed off mimic runs rings round the authorities and brings some police to their knees in his quest to find the truth. Towards the end of the show he points out to the audience that we’re such fans in this country of voting (Big Brother etc), and asks us to now vote on whether or not he should set off a bomb, whether the society we’re making for ourselves is really the best we can hope for.

I found it a good show, and it got me thinking towards the end. I felt encouraged that the place was packed, and quite a few of the audience seemed pretty young. I wonder if the sixteenish year old I overheard yesterday saying “I hate politics” would have enjoyed it. I thought to myself as they went by “if what I’ve heard on the radio this week equals ‘politics’ I hate it too”.

Now I’m off to find some news to read, and see what else I can subscribe to from Talking Newspapers.

A Fickle Comedy Fan

November 5, 2007 - One Response

I saw Jeremy Hardy last night at Colchester Arts Centre and was surprisingly disappointed.

My first problem was that I’d heard a lot of the material before from his “Jeremy Hardy Speaks To The Nation” radio shows. The live show wasn’t particularly billed as containing new material – the publicity put more emphasis on him being a well established comedian – but even so I somehow expected more than half the gags to be unfamiliar, and it turned out to be the other way around.

I don’t think it was purely the material though – I’ve listened to several of his radio shows plenty of times and do still laugh. Somehow he just didn’t seem to deliver the lines with as much confidence/energy as usual. And whereas his radio shows have themes like “How To Die” or “How To Look”, last night he seemed to wander around with not much connecting the different topics/gags. Perhaps he’s always like this live – I’ve only ever heard him on the radio before – but it didn’t work for me.

That said, the ability to laugh also does depend on mood. I saw Paul Foot last week, and he too wanders from topic to topic – I can’t think of how his “System for Awkwardness Free Encounters” and a mime about a cat sanctuary and a fishmonger’s were linked together. Yet that didn’t bother me, and I found his show very entertaining.

But this week I’m struggling with depression, and though comedy/art of various kinds is more likely than many other things to seep in through the black fog around me, said fog does rather skew my perspective. Perhaps I’m more discerning at these times. Or perhaps it makes me a fickle fan.

Bravo To The Blogosphere!

October 28, 2007 - 2 Responses

Two weeks after making my first blog post here I’m still adjusting to the vastness of the blogosphere, and seriously considering making Google BlogSearch my start page, rather than good old fashioned google.

I didn’t even realise google had a specific tool for searching for blogs until I read this post and I’m glad I did!

Thinking about it, a lot of the stuff I search the web for is info/ideas/thoughts produced by people rather than, say, a telephone number or details of a particular product: when I do want static information like phone numbers, I’ll go to the organisation in question’s website and find out there (unless their website is very inaccessible/unusable, in which case I’ll make google search their website).

Take one example web search which I do from time time, and have been doing for several years. I’m visually impaired, and a wheelchair user. For various reasons I’ve often wanted to search for other VI wheelchair users or for information about them/us. I can’t remember specifics from the past, but let’s just say I’ve had no success in finding what I want relating to VI wheelchair users using google.

One of the difficulties is how to word the search. We have the old problem of how people describe themselves: blind? visually impaired? wheelchair user? wheelchair bound? paraplegic? And so on. But I have to find some way of putting a complete label in quotes – if I search for something like blind “wheelchair user” or “visually impaired” “wheelchair user” I get lots of disability related websites with info relating to blind/visually impaired people, and to wheelchair using people, but not to blind/visually impaired wheelchair using people.

So I settle on searching for “blind wheelchair user” or “visually impaired wheelchair user”. It’s impossible for me to replicate my original problem because I’ve recently got a gmail account and enabled web history, and from experimenting just now I think the web history feature is improving my google search results. But until I used the google blogsearch, I hadn’t found, for example, someone simply mentioning/talking about being a blind wheelchair user. A real live one! Like me! This is very significant for me – there are issues specific to blind/VI wheelchair users which just can’t be picked up on/tackled without putting the blindness/VI element and the wheelchair using element together. And the last few times I’ve tried, using google, or looking on sites such as freelists to find any communities/lists/forums dedicated to those people/issues I just couldn’t find any.

My experimentation during this post is making me as much a fan of google’s web history as I’m becoming of their blogsearch. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to unpick which searches led to which refinements, but it is certain that I only first found the above mentioned blog with google blogsearch, and that my searches for “blind wheelchair user” and “visually impaired wheelchair user” with plain google are bringing more and more relevant results each time I do them.

Hurrah! I really am pleased – dare I say it, even excited – about this: trawling through links which are sponcered, leading to yet more price comparison sites or just generally useless was becoming the norm. This blogging/blogsearch malarkey is beginning to reignite the enthusiasm I had for the internet’s immense power when I first started using it nine years ago.

So Where Is All The Accessible Flash?

October 11, 2007 - 2 Responses

I attended the TechShare conference last week and was interested to observe the creation/use of a screen reader accessible flash user interface to play accessible (with audio description and captioning) videos in the session “Accessible Video With Flash Technology”. I have heard/read for some time that screen reader accessible flash players are perfectly feasible but, not able to remember the last time I actually came across one in use on the web, it was good to actually see/hear one in action.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the UI used here was compatible back to JAWS version 4.5; I can’t remember the Window-Eyes and Hal compatible versions quoted but they weren’t the very latest.

So why the gap between what’s possible and what happens? I can safely say that I can’t recall any accessible, usable flash players on the web, let alone audio described videos. I’m sure (I hope) someone will point some out to me; I’m not saying they’re not out there – but they are few and far between and none springs to my mind at the moment. Without going into how to define “accessible” and “usable”, let’s just say that as a pretty knowledgeable/experienced JAWS (primarily) and occasional Window-Eyes user who uses the web extensively, I can’t recall any.

Is there a problem with lack of resources for developers? I’m not sure how many in the room were developers, but one who was did ask where they could find this information.

Is it too time consuming/costly to deliver accessible videos with flash technology? Taking the user interface and the content separately – I’m not a flash developer but I would think adding labels to buttons on an interface takes very little time – and would not be seen as an “extra” if development software behaved in such a way as to make labelling default/almost compulsory behaviour. At the very least, I’m convinced that if a dialog box popped up whenever a file was closed leaving a button unlabelled explaining/encouraging labelling but not making too much of a meal of it, most people would label.

Regarding video content itself – I think this is a different matter. There are degrees and types of accessibility where videos are concerned. There’s a difference between “audio description” and somebody describing a little of what they’re doing; between subtitling aimed at people speaking a different language and captioning aimed at hearing impaired people. What people can/should/do do depends on a whole range of factors and is much more complicated than the labelling buttons issue. But it’s highly welcome that flash has the capability to support audio description and captioning.

I do wonder whether, by discussing accessible UIs, audio description and captioning all under one heading of “accessible video” (as it was at this particular conference session), we mislead developers/commissioners about the distinctions between the issues and end up in a situation where nothing is done very well: if “accessible video” comes to mean in people’s minds video with audio description and captioning which (by the way) gets played via a screen reader accessible player, will they, not having the budget/skills to do audio description and captioning, neglect to make the interface accessible too?

One of the main reasons there is such a lack of accessible flash (by which I mean accessible interfaces to control the flash on the web), and a reason it matters so much, is the expansion of so called “web 2.0” sites like myspace and youtube where the lines between those developing interfaces/content and those using/interacting with it are blurred/non existent. Techshare conferences and the like can only ever reach a certain proportion of developers/those who have a hand in development, which is why it is becoming more and more important to make accessibility as default/automatic as it can be, through the development tools used.

If I go to a play/show which isn’t audio described I still have a chance of enjoying it/experiencing it in some way – at the very least, if it is highly visual, I can have fun in my head making up what’s happening on stage whilst listening – but having an inaccessible user interface is the equivalent of being shut out of the theatre, or even not being aware of its existence.