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No internet!

When we installed Windows 10 on my PC, my copy of Windows Live Mail stopped working properly.

My brother suggested Mozilla Thunderbird as an alternative email program, and kindly installed it for me remotely using TeamViewer.

Needless to say, Thunderbird looks completely different to Live Mail, so I am having to learn how to use it from scratch. Fortunately, a friend who is visually-impaired uses this program, so she was able to help me learn my way around it. My brother also found a list of keystrokes for me, which has proved very handy.

At last, everything was working.

Then I lost the internet.

Well, my PC did. I could still converse with Alexa and use my phone, and my lodger was able to use her laptop, but my desktop machine just wouldn’t play ball. My lodger kindly spent a chunk of one evening trying everything she could think of to get it working again, but to no avail.

The following day I phoned my internet provider. They tried to be helpful but we kept coming up against problems.

“Is your router black?” they asked.

I replied, “Sorry, I’m visually-impaired. I think it is.”

“Is there a yellow wire coming out the back of it?”

“Sorry, I don’t know.”

“Can you trace the wire from your router to the computer?”

“If you could only see the mound of wires I have here! No, I don’t think I can do that.”

And so on.

In the end I thanked them for their time and rang off.

My next step was to call my local computer shop, who have looked after my IT hardware for many years now. My trusty local man came out and tried to sort out the problem.

Eventually, he said that my PC seemed to be connected to a public network. He changed it over to our own private connection and, for a few precious minutes, I got the internet back.

Then it went again.

Apart from those few minutes, I had been without the internet for three days by this point and I was getting anxious. Not only is it vital for work but it is also something of a lifeline.

On Saturday morning, lo and behold, the internet came back from wherever it had been sulking and all was well. My brother accessed my computer remotely for me and found how to change the connection from the useless public network to our own private one. Wonder of wonders, after he’d shown me how, I could even do it for myself.

Until today, that is, when I found myself lacking a connection again and tried to follow the instructions we had compiled at the weekend. Different messages were coming up to those we’d encountered previously and I couldn’t work out how to get to where I needed to be.

If you are reading this, then you’ll know that I did finally manage to get a connection for long enough to email this blog post to my brother-in-law so that he could publish it on my website. And if that all happened, then I can’t even begin to tell you just how relieved I am!

Driving me dotty

In last week’s blog I explained how updating the operating system on my PC to Windows 10 caused all sorts of problems for the specialist software I use to run my braille transcription business.

In particular, I had to re-install JAWS, the text-to-speech program which I use to read aloud documents on my computer. After we’d finally sorted that out, I hoped that would be the end of my problems, but it wasn’t, because I soon realised that Duxbury wasn’t working properly either.

Duxbury is the program I use for braille translation. When all is working as it should, I open the document to be transcribed, usually a Word or text file, run it through Duxbury, and what comes up on my braille display is a pretty good braille document. Pretty good, but not perfect, so I carefully go through it and create the appropriate layout and correct any braille errors.

I can do this because the braille is coming up under my fingers on my braille display. This is a tablet which sits in front of the keyboard and produces what is known as refreshable braille. This is formed by tiny pins which can rise and fall to create braille symbols under my fingertips as the screen cursor is moved along the line of text and down the page. It is a brilliant piece of kit without which my job would be very difficult.

I can edit in braille on the computer because while in Duxbury, the home keys on my conventional QWERTY keyboard – that is to say, the letters S, D and F under my left hand, and J, K and L under my right – operate as a braille keyboard, allowing me to write in braille, just as if I were using my manual Perkins Brailler.

This kit is expensive, but when I first started my braille transcription business, there were no government grants or subsidies to help pay for this type of software and equipment. In those days, I had to create the document in an early word processor called Word Perfect. I would then run the Word Perfect file through a braille translation program, print it off in hard copy, read it, note any errors, and then go back into the Word Perfect file to make my corrections. After that, I had to run the corrected document through the braille translation program all over again, and finally print it off for the customer.

Looking back on that era, I think, “What a waste of time and paper!”

You can also see why I value Duxbury and why I was so keen to get it back up and running again after I installed Windows 10.

The first thing we needed to do was uninstall the previous installation of Duxbury. That’s where the fun started.

We couldn’t do it.

The installation process kept asking us for codes we didn’t have. We urgently needed to contact the manufacturer.

Two problems there.

Duxbury Systems, who make the braille translation software, are based in Westford, Massachusetts, in the USA. That means that they are four hours behind the UK at this time of year.

And the other problem? It was a Sunday.

On Monday, I allowed them time to wake up and then emailed Duxbury Systems. They emailed back that all would be well now.

It was evening by this point, so my brother in Leicester was back home from work and able to help me out. He used a program called TeamViewer to remotely access my computer and together we tackled the Duxbury installation process again.

We were soon asked for our licence number. This was printed on the side of the box the software came in, which is fine if you’re sighted, but left it absolutely inaccessible to me.

I used my mobile phone to contact my sister-in-law on Messenger (is this sounding familiar to regular readers?), and held the software box up in front of the camera on the phone so that she could read the number aloud to my brother, who was sitting next to her, operating his computer.

It took a lot of fiddling about with the phone camera and the box, but we got there in the end.

So, that was well, best beloved (a Kipling reference there), but then we were asked for a reference code. Fortunately, the good people of Massachusetts were still awake and at work, so I was able to email them. They wrote back and, guess what, we should have de-activated Duxbury before uninstalling it. No one I had spoken to had mentioned this before.

Oh dear… Return to Go, do not collect £200!

We did manage to get Duxbury back up and running eventually. Did everything else run smoothly after that? Hah! I’ll tell you the rest next week.

Rescue from the death of JAWS!

If you’re a PC user, you’ve probably been running Windows 10 for ages but I have come to the party rather late in the day. It had to be done, though, so a couple of weeks ago my brother kindly helped me load the operating system onto my PC. It all seemed very straightforward and I thought at first that everything was running normally.

Ha! I wish! It turned out that JAWS wasn’t working properly.

JAWS, which stands for Job Access With Speech, is the software which runs the speech and braille applications on my computer. In theory, the program converts everything on the screen to speech. So, as I move the cursor through, for example, a Word document, JAWS will read it aloud to me. I can also navigate through a document letter by letter so I can find errors and correct them. JAWS will even read punctuation if I place the cursor over the relevant symbol. I also use it for reading emails as it is quick and easy and saves my joints, which get a lot of stress while reading braille.

I said that, in theory, JAWS can read everything on the screen. To do that, though, you have to be able to move the cursor onto every part of the screen and I have often found that this is easier said than done.

Sometimes, for example, when I have a problem reading a document, I ask my sighted PA what is on the screen and she says, “You need to get to the column on the left.”

Documents like that pose two levels of difficulty for me. How do I know that there is another column on the left and, even if I do discover its existence, how do I get to it?

I’m not saying that someone with more technical expertise than me couldn’t make JAWS reach the parts that other programs cannot reach (which, for those of you too young to have been watching UK TV ads during the 1970s, is an oblique reference to a famous beer commercial), but it can be very frustrating when I can’t do what a sighted person viewing the screen could manage so easily.

That said, JAWS is a great asset and, despite its annoying robotic voice, I find it invaluable.

So, how to get JAWS up and running again following the belated arrival of Windows 10?

First, my brother and I had to uninstall JAWS. That was interesting because it was at that point that we discovered that I already had not one but two versions of the program on my computer, so one had to be deleted.

We then re-installed the other version and restarted the computer. We waited with, literally in my case, baited breath, to see if JAWS would start again.

I shouted “Alleluia!” when the robot voice announced “JAWS Professional,” and we all breathed again.

So that was it, then? Everything running perfectly on the new operating system?

You’ve got to be joking! After that we had to sort out Duxbury… But I’ll tell you about that next week.

Just like the Queen

You may recall that late last year, I spoke about visual impairment to a local cub pack in readiness for them to take their disability badge. Louise Kutzner from Vision West of England and I returned last week to help them through the steps required to earn the badge.

Once again I entered the lions’ den. I don’t know quite what was going on when I arrived but, as far as I could tell, between twenty and thirty small children were involved in some kind of noisy game entailing a lot of running about and shouting. Louise and I sat down at a table and eventually the children were corralled into groups and brought over to work with us eight or so at a time.

One of the activities was for them to demonstrate that they could write their name in braille. At home, I use a manual device called a Perkins Brailler to generate printed sheets of braille, but although it is portable in theory, it is also incredibly heavy, so I had decided not to bring it with me. Instead, I gave each child a card with the braille alphabet on it and encouraged them to make the patterns of the dots with pen and paper. Some got quite proficient and were writing their first, middle and last names – and, in one case, the names of their siblings – in no time at all. Others took a little longer, but they all had a good go at it.

After that we talked to them about guide dogs, explaining what they do and how you mustn’t approach them if they are working. Then I showed them my long cane and demonstrated how to use it.

I also told them how to approach a visually-impaired person and did my best to make it clear that you shouldn’t just grab them without warning, but should ask nicely if you can help!

The children asked a lot of questions, although it was very hard to hear their high-pitched voices against the considerable background noise in the room. This is something I may have mentioned before. Sighted people unconsciously lip-read to some extent. Those of us with little or no sight don’t have that advantage. In a noisy environment it can be hard to hear what people are saying. Despite all that, I think I managed to answer all the children’s queries.

After we had done our bit, the leader asked us if we would like to stay to the end. We had been intending to pack up and go but when we discovered that the cubs were going to be given their badges that very night, we agreed to remain. We were duly given chairs in front of the stage. Once the cubs had lined up in their sixes, a boy was brought forward to be sworn in. Then the leader announced that they should all come forward “and shake the lady’s hand.”

What???

Apparently I was going to give out the badges!

This was, in many ways, the highlight of the evening for me. I was handed a pile of badges and twenty-four small hands were thrust into mine. I’m sure they would hate me to say it but they were so cute!

It was quite a routine. Handshake, “Hello, and here’s your badge.” Handshake again, “Hello, and here’s your badge,” and so it went on. By the end I had begun to appreciate a little of how the Queen must feel when she is handing out honours!

It was an evening well spent.

Anniversary

Open the champagne and cut the cake, it’s my anniversary!

Well, maybe it’s not that exciting but I have been writing this blog for just over a year now. In fact the actual anniversary was 5 February.

I must say I can hardly believe it. I didn’t set out to become a blogger. My brother-in-law, who runs my website and social media, suggested I write an article for the website. When I finally produced something, he decided, as it was a bit long, to chop it up and create a blog, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Or a year’s worth of blogging about braille, visual impairment and disability issues, anyway!)

I am surprised to find myself in this position for a couple of reasons.

To start with, while my life can be enjoyable and interesting, it is not, on the whole, eventful. Yes, I have done exciting things such as travelling to the US on my own to visit my niece (see earlier blog!) but, mostly, I live a quiet and ordinary life. I often wonder what on earth I can find to write about.

Secondly, while my visual-impairment and arthritis do profoundly affect my life in many ways and I try and describe these in my blog, the reality is that I am not always thinking about them. Like millions of others, I just live my life, going from day to day and concentrating on the next thing that needs to be done.

So what have been the positives?

Blogging has proved to be an excellent way of explaining about disability. Most people don’t understand the practical issues faced by those with a visual impairment and I believe that education is the best way to promote equality and integration.

I also want people to feel they can ask questions without fear of offending me. Blogging about my experiences has created opportunities for them to do this. It’s fascinating to discover the things they want to know!

And it has been a learning curve for me too. I have had to think about how I do things and find ways of conveying some of the obstacles I face.

Then again, there’s also been the fun of sharing some of the joy I experience despite my disabilities.

So I am very grateful to you, dear reader, for being interested enough to keep reading my posts. I hope you’ll keep going with me as we venture on together into the uncharted territory of a second year of blogging.

And you never know, I might do something really exciting one day and tell you all about it here. You wouldn’t want to miss that now, would you?

Photos

I wonder how many photographs you have seen today?

If you have been on Facebook or Instagram, there is a good chance that you’ve swiped through one or two. You might even have taken some yourself. Pictures are ubiquitous these days. From shots of food to selfies and images of beautiful scenery, photos surround us.

Generally, not being able to see photographs hasn’t felt like a huge loss to me. True, when there has been, say, a family wedding, and everyone is commenting on the pics, I feel a momentary pang of regret, but I don’t worry about it on a daily basis.

A recent family event, however, has made me think again about what I might be missing.

My niece, who lives in Australia, had a baby in September. Naturally, pictures started appearing on Facebook. I “liked” them as a matter of course. He is my great-nephew, so obviously he must be beautiful!

The speech software on my phone helpfully told me that the pictures contained images of a baby, but that didn’t exactly describe him to me.

I started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t see the photos. Fortunately, another technological revolution came to my aid.

I had been accustomed to talking to my niece from time to time via Skype. This turned out to be quite difficult for me to manage. The software was forever updating and changing the keystrokes necessary to making calls and in the end I gave  up on it in disgust.

My phone, though, gives me access to Messenger, which includes full video and audio options, and this turned out to be much easier to use.

So one morning, UK time, I called my niece using Messenger. It was evening in Australia and she was just getting the baby ready for bed. He wasn’t happy about it so some wailing ensued.

Wonderful!

At last I could hear what he sounded like. I didn’t mind that he wasn’t chuckling manically or gurgling happily, the important thing was that I could hear that he existed. I was surprised at how much this meant to me.

I should add that I have recently been able to go one better than this. The Australian branch of the family came over to England last week and I got to hold my great-nephew and play with him. Nothing beats holding a baby while he wriggles around and steals your specs!

I have no idea if the image of him that I carry in my head is even remotely accurate, but now that I’ve actually held him, the picture is certainly more vivid than it ever was before.

The photograph shows Judith sitting in a chair with her four month old great nephew sitting in her lap. She has her arms round the baby.

Under pressure

When a visually impaired persons opts to have their letters sent to them in braille, it turns out that they’re reducing the amount of time they have in which to respond. When the letters concerned are from a landlord or a government department, the consequences can be serious.

Let me explain.

Just before Christmas, I had a phone call from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). They told me that my £10 Christmas bonus, (an annual “gift” to those of us who claim benefits here in the UK), would be in my account by the end of December. They asked me if, having had a phone call, I still wanted notification in braille. I said I was quite happy with the phone call.

This came up for discussion on one of the online groups for visually-impaired people that I belong to. I ventured to say on the group that I didn’t need a letter as well as a phone call. Then other issues came to light.

Many people with a disability in the UK have claimed a benefit called Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for some years now. It is supposed to compensate us for the additional living costs we incur due to our disabilities, such as paying for taxi fares for those who find public transport difficult or inaccessible.

A few years ago, DLA was replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP). You are not automatically transferred from DLA onto PIP. You have to apply. You get a letter telling you that you can apply for PIP and if you do not do so within a certain time your DLA payments will stop. After you have applied, you then go through a protracted process of telephone interviews, form filling and face-to-face assessment.

Let me return to that initial letter telling you that you can apply for PIP. As I have indicated, it is time sensitive. You have to respond within a certain time frame. The clock starts ticking from the moment the print letter goes into the postal system.

If you have indicated that you would like your correspondence in braille, the print letter will be sent to a third party to be brailled. That person then has to return it to the DWP, who will then send it out. Time meanwhile is slipping away. To add to an already difficult situation, the DWP send the letter out by second class post. They could send it “Articles for the Blind”, in which case it would go first class and free but, no, they pay to send it out via second class post.

So, by the time the applicant gets it, there is little time left to respond.

I have also encountered this issue in my role as a braille transcriber.

Suppose I am transcribing a letter regarding a tenant’s failure to pay rent. Time may be of the essence. The customer may ask me to return the letter to them. I reply, “Wouldn’t it be better for me to send it directly to the person in question? I have the right packaging, I can send it Articles for the Blind, it will save time and, also, each time the braille goes through the mail, the dots get a little more squashed, making it harder to read.”

Sometimes I win this battle, sometimes I don’t.

However, I do feel that government departments in particular should be taking this on board. They shouldn’t be penalising people who are already disadvantaged by taking so long to send vital letters in a format the recipient can read. And why waste taxpayers’ money by paying unnecessarily for postage which takes longer than the free alternative?

I suspect this is a case of a lack of joined-up thinking among civil servants and a lack of understanding of the material they are dealing with. It could all be so much more streamlined with a bit of forethought. Wouldn’t it be nice if they asked the people on the receiving end for their thoughts. What a wonderful world that would be!

Why trying to watch TV is so trying…

I have had a rant about technology before on this blog but I am now going to vent my feelings once again. This time, it’s television.

Attached to my television is a device known as a digibox. This accesses all the free digital TV channels, which are known collectively as Freeview here in the UK. It can also digitally record and retrieve programmes. Importantly for me, this particular digibox has text-to-speech functions on all its menus.

I record a lot of programmes and last summer, tired out from hard work, my digibox had to be sent away for mending. Since it has come back, whilst much improved, it has also had its temperamental moments and around the start of this year it threw a wobbly and refused to record some of my favourite programmes.

When this happened before, friends put ITV Hub on my mobile phone and set it up so I could watch some of the episodes I had missed. (ITV Hub is the online service for watching programmes which have previously been broadcast on the channels operated by the UK’s commercial Independent Television company.)

So, last Sunday afternoon, having a little spare time, I thought I would try and do this myself and catch up on missed programmes by playing them on my phone. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

Wrong!

I knew you had to go to “Categories” first and select “AD” for audio-description and, amazingly, I managed to do that, or so I thought. I then tried to find the series I wanted. I found it eventually but could only get the third and last episode. I wanted episode 2 as well. In fact, not unreasonably, I wanted it before episode 3.

After much tapping and shaking the phone in frustration, I did manage to find episode 2 but could I click on it? No I could not!

In the end I gave up and watched episode 3. It wasn’t ideal, but I thought that I could probably catch up, which I could. A short way into the programme, though, it dawned on me that I was not receiving audio-description. I couldn’t face going through the menus all over again so I just managed without. Fortunately, it was a show with a lot of dialogue, so I think I got all the important points.

At some stage in all this, however, the app on my phone developed an obsession with PIN numbers and the name of my first pet. Why I should need to set up security details when the app has been on my phone for some months, I can’t imagine.

Next, I turned my hand to BBC iPlayer.

I’m not saying that someone more tech savvy than me couldn’t have found their way around the app but to start with I couldn’t find audio-description at all. Categories started with “Art” and then went on to list the BBC channels. I went round and round in circles for some time. Eventually I did find one of the series I wanted but, again, as with the ITV Hub, I could only find the last programme in the series.

I spent the entire afternoon in this frustrating vicious circle. My language became more and more unladylike and there were times when I was sorely tempted to throw my mobile phone out the window, which, incidentally, was shut.

I realise that, in the cosmic scheme of things, missing a few TV programmes isn’t the worst that can happen. But it is hard just to shrug it off when you know that  a sighted person could have done relatively easily what I spent a whole afternoon failing to achieve.

I have calmed down now and kind friends are going to help me out by letting me watch the programmes I’ve missed on their smart TV. Surely, though, television apps could be designed so that this “simple” activity wasn’t so incredibly difficult for those with visual impairment?

There. I’ve got it out of my system. Rant over.

Until the next time, that is!

Dispensing with the EU

Now that the UK has left the European Union, I thought that I would ponder on the benefits visually-impaired people have derived from the EU.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on a political soapbox! I’m just giving some thought to specific issues affecting the visually impaired which won’t have been covered in the mainstream media.

The most obvious benefit has been the EU directive requiring medication to be labelled in braille. I have mentioned before how much this has helped me. For those of you who haven’t read every single blog since the beginning (Really, you haven’t? What have you been doing with your time?!), I take a lot of prescription drugs. I have a strong painkiller that comes in two different strengths. The stronger capsules are in a pink box and the weaker in a yellow one. I cannot see the difference and for years I had to ask someone which was which. I would then put an elastic band round the box of stronger capsules. The EU directive solved the problem far more neatly and restored my independence. Once all medication was labelled in braille, I could tell which box was which for myself.

It is true that even now there are occasions when tablets are dispensed without braille but, generally, the rules are adhered to and I am sure I’m not the only person to be grateful for this.

Of course, if we hadn’t joined the EU, the UK Government might one day have decided to bring in a law stating that all medicines should be labelled in braille but I somehow doubt it and as many of our drugs are imported, it might have been difficult to enforce the rule even if they had.

What else?

I believe the EU was involved in changing the rules on copyright, and this made life a lot easier for those who, like me, depend on braille.

Let me explain.

It used to be the case that, if you gave me a print book and I scanned and brailled it, even if it was for my own use, I would technically be in breach of copyright. This was frustrating and it took a lot of negotiation to change but now an individual can transcribe printed material without the author’s permission provided it is for their own use and not for profit.

You might be surprised how difficult it has been on occasion for the RNIB to get permission to transcribe certain books into braille. I think this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t think people operating in the world of print realise that no one makes any serious money out of braille production. The RNIB, who are probably the biggest producer of braille books in the UK, subsidise the cost of those books so that people like me can afford them. If they charged the true cost of production they would be prohibitively expensive.

I’m pleased to say that there are authors who positively embrace the idea of having their books produced in alternative formats. One of these is J. K. Rowling and the RNIB managed to publish the Harry Potter books in different formats at the same time they were published in print.

Why is this important? Because when your friends are talking about the books they’ve read, you want to join in the conversation and not have to wait years to read the book in question.

Of course, now, with the Internet, streaming services, and companies like Audible, it is easier to keep up with the latest best-sellers. However, I still maintain that we miss out on the special experience of browsing a bookshop and buying whatever takes our fancy on the day.

Never mind, I’ve just received my latest batch of six books from the Talking Book library and am enjoying Pepys’ diary. I have no need to feel I’ve missed out on anything because 1660 was a long time ago!

Spectacles

I wear spectacles.

If you’ve never met me or seen a picture of me, this may surprise you. Your idea of  a visually-impaired person may be of someone who wears dark glasses or even an eye-patch, but I wear glasses.

Now, it is true that I have a seriously tiny amount of sight. It is also true that my specs don’t make a huge amount of difference. Nevertheless, I feel a bit strange without them. They sharpen up some of the blurred lines. They give my world some definition. They make a difference to me.

So why am I musing on my use of specs?

It’s because, recently, mine broke.

They didn’t smash or anything spectacular (Or should that be “spectacler”? Get it? No? Oh well, never mind..) like that. The flap that separates the edge of the lens from the nose broke off on one side. This meant that a jagged edge was sticking into me, causing pain and annoyance.

I can’t easily just toddle out to an optician and my PA and I have been very busy of late, so the opportunity to get it fixed didn’t open up until today. A friend was giving me a lift to an appointment after which we always have coffee. On enquiring, I discovered that there was an optician nearby so, hey presto, it is all fixed now.

The optician’s first comment was how old my specs are. This was said in the way in which plumbers tell you your boiler is too ancient and they can’t get the parts any more. It got me musing as to why I leave decades between visits to the optician.

Well, for a start, I don’t need to go to get my eyes tested. That is done regularly at the hospital, so I only go to the opticians when I need new frames. If you haven’t had your eyes tested at an optician’s within two years, however, they are legally obliged to test your sight. The last time I went I protested that I was already under the ophthalmology department at the local hospital, but it made no difference. This seemed a waste of time to me. They weren’t likely to find something the hospital had missed and my prescription hasn’t changed for about twenty years or more.

On the other hand, part of me thinks that this insistence on checking is good practice. It means no one gets overlooked. Any changes will be picked up by someone and it doesn’t really matter whether that person is working in a hospital clinic or a high-street shop, but it still felt odd and meant everything took a long time.

The good part was that, because of my particular eye condition and lens prescription, I got an NHS voucher towards the cost of my glasses. I got quite excited. I believe my glasses and frames came to over a hundred pounds.

Guess how much the voucher was for.

Four pounds eighty. Yes, £4.80.

Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

After waiting for the eye test, I then had to choose frames. As with buying clothes, I have to rely on the judgement and advice of others. I have no idea what current spectacle fashions are and I can’t tell what suits me. So, taking all the above into account, I don’t venture into a high-street optician very often.

Then again, if my glasses are so old that they’re causing comment, perhaps I should steel myself and go anyway. Hopefully I can be left in peace for a decade or two after that!