Friday, February 23, 2007

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Me, or my Dad?

One evening, my wife and I were looking through some old video tapes. If you’re anything like me, you find reasons to save almost anything recorded. “Hey, that’s the Diana Ross concert from Central Park, we have to keep that. That’s an historic event, and I was there. “

As we reviewed several tapes that included martial arts instructional videos to episodes of Oprah, we came across what might be one of the first recordings I made with a video camera. The star of this tape was my nephew. He was a 10 month old learning to walk. As we sat watching the tape, trying to remember the exact occasion, I heard a laugh. “Is that me?  Wait I think that’s my Dad. Is that me or my Dad?” I continued on until finally my Dad was in the picture and my wife confirmed it was my father.

For some, hearing the voices of loved ones who passed on can be disturbing. Hearing my father’s voice and laugh was like the sun pushing through a rainy summer afternoon as a bored child stuck in doors. As I listened to him talking and laughing I was amazed at how much we sound alike.

It will be ten years today since my father went home. Before he passed, he went through seven years of Parkinson’s disease. The last year and a half, he was unable to speak.

My sister and mother frequently comment that I am so much like my father. Sometimes it brings over a feeling of deep pride, while others seem meant to let me know I should correct that “bad” habit. Maybe constantly hearing these comments have dulled my senses and made it difficult to think about the ways he and I are alike.

Some things we share I have known since I was a youngster. I have exactly the same hands as my Dad. My knees seemed to be jacked up like his too. My father had this way of getting on my mother’s nerve by calling her “Sweetie” when he was annoyed with her. I do exactly the same thing. It just so happens, it works, my wife gets annoyed at this every time. Try it fellas!

More importantly there are many qualities that I can only hope to one day achieve. His amazing   command of the English language. He read the dictionary from cover to cover.  His ability to keep his cool under any circumstance. We only knew he was upset because he would get this big bump in his fore head, other than that you would never know. I don’t think anyone outside of the home could get him to that point.  I first learned that my father was so cool during high school.  Some friends came to my house before we headed to a party. My Dad was sitting in the living room in his usual chair. He greeted each of my friends real calm and easy – never judging them. He told us to have a good time and be safe. Apparently this was not the norm because the conversation for the first fifteen minutes after leaving the house was about how my father had to be one of the coolest Dad’s they ever met. I never knew!

Dad was old school. I am talking real old school. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, part your hair on the left, call women broads, but not pejoratively, and carry an attaché case to work old school.

In his days, sacrifice was not a big deal, it came with the job. Commitment to his family was the most important part of his life. Unselfishly going through months with a whole in his shoe in order to be sure that he has enough money to cover tuition and other expenses for his children to attend private school.  Taking the time after work to spend with his children in the park, despite the day to day problems that make staying home and watching the boob tube sound appealing.

Dad would often brush his hand against the back of my neck. It wasn’t something he did for any specific reason, rather just enjoying the tender feeling of his child.  This continued through my teenage and young adult years. It sometimes annoyed me when he caught me at the wrong moment. Ironically, now that I have lost my sight I find myself doing that even more to my children. Often I stop to think of my Dad when I am touching my daughters. I hope somehow he too can feel their warmth through me.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reflections from my first state convention

On October 19, I set out for my first state convention of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. I had so many objectives for the weekend;
- Speak on behalf of the Monroe County Council of the Blind and share our accomplishments
- Meet other blind people and hear their stories and learn new ways for handling common experiences
- Get to know the others in the MCCB a little better

I am happy to say the trip was a success.

The two hour ride to the Brunswick hotel in Lancaster was fun. At least for the non drivers. During this time I had the opportunity to get to know two other MCCB members a little more than before we set out for the trip. Later that evening we hooked up with a few others from our organization and had a good time over dinner. I decided prior to the trip that I would keep an audio journal of the events. Something about having a microphone and recorder that brings out the humor in people. Oh yes, thanks to the sighted member of the group for knocking down that glass, its ok, that sometimes happens.

It was a learning experience being around such a varying degree of blind people. Not just in terms of the wide range of visual acuity, but also people from all walks of life, socio economic as well as people with other physical or even mental challenges.

Two people from this trip left a positive impression on me. First, one of the workers in the hotel named Patrick became quite fond of our group. It is often very obvious when people are uncomfortable being around the blind. Patrick was quite the opposite. He quickly understood that we were just regular folks who liked to have a good time like anyone else. He is just a genuinely kind person who likes to be around people. When my wife and I were putting our luggage in the car, he ran up to us making sure to say goodbye. He has even offered to those responsible for managing the convention details to volunteer for next years festivities. He just had a good time with us and enjoyed being helpful and appreciated.

The other individual was Timothy. I actually didn’t have much of an opportunity to talk with him, but he made an impression on me. Timothy is a sighted person who volunteers with his local blindness advocacy group. As far as I know, he does not have a direct relationship with any of the members of the organization. He simply enjoys their company. Not only does he drive for the organization but he works on various committees to advance their mission. When talking to him, he constantly stressed the point that they do for him, opposed to what many would see as his good deeds. Just a regular guy doing something right for the right reasons. Too often it seems that some in the blindness field assist the blind community but perpetuate the belief that blind people cannot do for themselves. Often treating the blind as though they are less of a person simply because of their blindness.

It felt good watching how we all helped one another. Not from a self righteous pity toward each other, but rather it is just how it’s supposed to be. I think most people at the convention realized that each individual’s physical or mental challenge could easily be their own. For me it felt like everyone there understood my story because they too are living it. That felt good!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What's in a word?

As my wife and I walked into a local dollar store one afternoon a man called out to me. “Excuse me, where’s your can?” Well, at least that is what I thought I heard. “Excuse me,” I growled. Realizing I didn’t quite hear the man, my wife informed me that he was asking me about my cane. “Where do you get one of those? Do they help you get around?” he asked. He was referring to my white mobility cane. I explained that the use of the cane involves specific orientation and mobility training and they are not sold off the shelf in drug stores.

He confided with me that he was losing his sight due to diabetes. He was no longer able to drive and do many of the day to day things he was used to doing. He asked where he could receive training to use a cane for assistance in his travels. As I explained, he should contact an organization such as the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, his interest suddenly vanished. “Oh, well that’s ok. I’ll be alright.” Almost as quickly as his interest faded, he was gone.

After an unnecessary breath freshness check, I asked my wife if she noticed his sudden loss of interest when the word blind was mentioned. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something in my imagination. She agreed.

I should probably explain, while I am totally blind and use a white cane, I do not wear sunglasses often associated with blind people. Most people are probably unaware that I am totally blind. I more than often do not wear shades and I wear a black patch over my right eye. I occasionally wear sunglasses, usually when I wear my right prosthetic. I choose to wear the sunglasses with the prosthetic since my eye lid was also removed with the eye, and the prosthetic does not blink.

This man probably thought I had some working vision and was using the cane for extra assistance.

What is it about the word blind that can make a person change from day to night? Is it the fear that their lives will never be the same? Are there suddenly images of stereotypical blind people strolling through their mind with white canes and tin cups?

My first contact with the word blind came when I was losing my sight. At the time I thought the problem I was experiencing was due to a change in my prescription for corrective lenses.  After trying on my new glasses, which was stronger than the prior, I noticed no change at all. The Ophthalmologist immediately re-examined me and finally decided to refer me to the Jewish Guild for the Blind. She offered to call me later that evening with the specific contact information. When I heard the word blind I remember everything just stopping. I really don’t remember any specific thoughts, just internal silence. I asked her to call my cell phone so my wife too would not be shocked by the word.

Many people will admit they are losing their sight, even say they are visually impaired, but never will they say they are blind.  For some blind represents an inability to perceive or understand. Some even equate it with a lack of spirituality. There have been several people I have met that upon meeting me and finding out I am blind have for some strange reason assumed that I need to be saved. Maybe it’s the black patch – it makes me look kind of rough!

So here is a question for you. How do we get around the impact of this word in order to reach out to people who need the assistance and information?

I would love to hear what you have to say.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Teaming up for change

Since losing my sight, I have been fortunate to meet other individuals who are also going through the loss of sight. In December 2005, eight of us joined forces to create the Monroe County Council of the Blind. This organization is a local chapter of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind who in turn is an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind.

One of the main purposes of this organization is to advocate on behalf of the visually impaired and blind community. Our agenda includes securing accessible transportation, increasing social and economic opportunities and changing the way people view and perceive the blind community. It is my opinion that the latter is one of the most important issues we face.

Images of visually impaired and blind people are often in one of two categories; the bumbling fool or the super natural person with extraordinary senses. Examples of each are Mr. Magoo and the comic book character Daredevil respectively.

When I initially lost my sight, I had many people ask the question, “Has your hearing gotten better?” Many people believe that senses are automatically heightened when you lose another. Although, I don’t recall any cartoons or comic books about people in wheel chairs or hearing impaired heroes with amazing sight.  If I had to choose a stereotype I would choose the Daredevil over the stumbling fool. It is a personal mission of mine to assure that when I am in public I navigate my environment as best as I possibly can without drawing any negative attention to myself.

Why is changing perceptions of blind people so important?

When people buy into stereotypes and the belief that all of any group of people have a specific characteristic or trait, the individual is reduced to less than a person.

When people don’t see the humanity in a person they are “justified” in their mis treatment.  Empathy by definition is the ability to think and feel oneself into the lives of others. If more people concentrated less on the differences and more on the similarities they have with blind people, negative treatment would cease to exist.

Finally, belief in stereotypes and internalizing negative images of blind people is not limited to the sighted community. Many blind people seem to accept the limitations placed on them by these stereotypes. I have witnessed first hand how many blind people limit themselves because of their lack of sight. It is one of the main challenges after losing sight to not succumb to these negative thoughts.

The MCCB has recently taken on the challenge of dispelling these myths and altering the way we our viewed in our community. We have completed our first event that featured three other members discussing topics like dispelling the myths, truths about service dogs and what they really do and training people in the proper sighted guide technique – the method for assisting a blind person in navigating unfamiliar surroundings.

We plan to continue these presentations and even tailor the discussions to specific audiences. One of our targets is the medical community. Some of the worst offenders are ironically in the medical field. Including doctors. Maybe one day I will post some of my interesting doctor visits and the medical community’s reaction to me as a blind person.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Accessible Google?

Google has taken what many are saying is a giant step toward an accessible web. They have recently released a version of their search engine that has been specifically tailored to the blind community. Check it out here.

The search engine allows users of screen readers to locate web sites based on an accessibility ranking. Google uses various measures to determine if a web site is accessible to screen readers. As you may know Google currently uses a ranking system in their search results that is based on various criteria. There is an entire industry of search engine optimization experts that has sprung up to assist companies to assure they have significant placement in the rankings.

So, is this a good thing?

It is probably too soon to determine if this will help the quest for an accessible web. The fact that a company like Google is dedicating some resources to the issue, well that is definitely positive. When an industry leader begins to promote standards in design, others are bound to jump aboard.

Plessey v. Ferguson

I am referring to the case that declared separate but equal was legal in the United States. As it turned out, the equal part of the segregated south never actually   panned out. Some may wonder is this the beginning of a two World Wide Web society. One for sighted people and one for the blind. Let’s try a comparative search to see if the results are equal.

A search on the blind Google yields:
- Results 1 - 10 of about 14,300,000 for Boxing

And now for the sighted Google:
- Results 1 - 10 of about 118,000,000 for boxing

Wow, that’s a lot of inaccessibility!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Learning new ways to challenge.

I recently read an article   titled Budding programmers swap ideas with Gates. This profiles some talented college students from various countries who won the opportunity to share their projects with Microsoft’s Bill Gates. One of the featured contestants is a Brazilian development team who created vibrating wristbands that work with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and mapping technology to help blind people navigate their surroundings.

What a great way to get people interested in creating devices and other improvements for the greater good of all. Microsoft is not only marketing their development tools they are also challenging young people to think about utilizing technology for real world applications.

As a member of a newly formed local organization of visually impaired and blind people, I am motivated by the ideas presented in this article. Not just the technology featured, but more so the concepts that inspired the contest -- Challenging people to create with social consciousness.

I hope that our organization, the Monroe County Council of the Blind, can use creative methods to market our ideas and change the perceptions of visually impaired and
Blind people. We have several challenges ahead that include local awareness campaigns, countering the many stereotypes associated with blind people and challenging our membership to strive for their individual goals. I look forward to sharing more about this endeavor and especially our accomplishments in the future. It’s not very easy to take a task like educating the public on a topic such as blindness and other related issues. Well, frankly, the topic is not considered exciting enough to attract the desired attendance. After reading this article I am moving in the direction of finding solutions that have been applied to for profit business rather than thinking of this effort solely as a social issue. Should be interesting! Stay tuned.