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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!

Wrestling with the technology

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. It’s great when it works. The rest of the time…

But let’s start with the encouraging stuff.

I was sitting at my desk on Wednesday when a text message arrived on my phone.

“Dear Miss Judith Furse, your Eye Clinic appointment has been made…”

Seconds later, an email to the same effect appeared in my in-tray.

“Yay!” I shouted to the world in general.

After years of talking to hospital staff and raising the issue at patient usergroup meetings, the hospital had finally sent me an appointment notification in not just one accessible format, but two!

I am not sure I can convey just how excited I was. I think, deep down, I had begun to think this was a battle I wasn’t going to win or, at least, not for some time to come. When the hospital sends me printed notification of an appointment, I sometimes have to wait days to get someone else to read the letter to me. And then, of course, personal information which should be confidential immediately isn’t. I hope you can see why, for me, any information which I can access for myself is something of a minor triumph.

So that was all really good.

And then there was Thursday.

On Thursday, I came back from a meeting ready to settle down at my computer and get some work done. It was around 2 pm when I turned on the machine and started the booting-up process. It beeped and whirred as usual but then… Nothing.

Time passed.

It was extremely frustrating. I strongly suspected that there was some kind of message on the screen and all I had to do was tick an OK box and all would be well. The computer hadn’t booted up enough to open my speech software, though, so I was in the dark.

I fumed for some time. Then an idea came to me: my sister-in-law might be in. So I made a video call to her using my cell phone and held the phone up so that she could see the computer monitor. This was easier said than done. I found it very hard to judge distance and angles. She called out instructions reminiscent of a competitor on The Golden Shot. (If you didn’t see that particular 1970s game show, you haven’t missed anything.)

I was right. There was an error message and there was a “dismiss” button. All we had to do was click on it.

First find your mouse.

I rummaged about on my PA’s desk until I located it. I should say here that I have never used a mouse. I was about to embark on a crash course. I continued to hold the phone up in my right hand, trying to keep it steady all the while. With my left hand I grasped the mouse. We tried to marry the cursor up with the button to be clicked on.

For some time we played a kind of cat and mouse game with the cursor and the button, though strictly speaking, I suppose, it was the mouse operating the cat. I tried to push the mouse left, right, up and down, not too fast and not too slowly, whilst holding the phone aloft.

We weren’t sure that we’d achieved the desired result but it occurred to me that if the cursor was in the right place, I could probably press the “Enter” key on the keyboard and all would be well.

I pressed “Enter”.

Nothing happened immediately so I went to get a cup of tea.

After a while I heard the tinkling notes of the Windows jingle. Hooray! The computer was booting up. Sure enough, soon after that my speech software started talking to me and, at around 5.30 pm, I finally started work!

Technology can be an absolute pain and it can be wonderful. For want of a simple click, I had lost an entire afternoon but, thanks to my phone and my sister-in-law, the situation was eventually rescued.

So this week has been a mixture of frustrations and gains. Much like any other week, really!

The Christmas experience

Welcome back! I hope whatever festival you celebrate at this time of year was enjoyable and, if you were having a break from work, that you feel refreshed.

I love Christmas. I have always loved it and have never grown out of that tingling feeling you get on days that just feel “special”. I love the music, the carol services, the food, the decorations, the get-togethers and, yes, the presents! I should add that that includes giving as well as receiving.

It has never occurred to me before to think about whether my experience of the festive season is different to that enjoyed by those of you who inhabit the sighted world, so I’m going to give it some consideration now.

I can remember helping to decorate the tree each year from quite a young age. Having inherited the family box of decorations, I have in my possession tree baubles dating back over fifty years to my parents’ first Christmas as a married couple. I can recall what these look like and as I hold them I can conjure up pictures of Christmas trees of the past.

Many decorations are very tactile. They are made of glass, papier-mâché, metal, and pottery and the tree is trimmed with silk and velvety ribbons and bows. Many of the shapes are distinctive, too: Father Christmas, robins, angels, pretend parcels tied up with bows and much, much more.

I can see the lights and by that light I can see some twinkling of shimmering baubles and tinsel.

I did have an issue with my tree lights this year. I had to buy new ones. Lights these days, so it appears, come with several settings. These range from a slow on-off sequence to something rather like traffic lights on amphetamines. You can cycle through them to get to the desired setting and a friend helpfully explained that I needed to press the button on the plug seven times to achieve this. Unfortunately, the button was one of those new spongy ones. They have them on some card machines in shops these days. They are horrible. You can’t feel if or not a button has been pressed. There is no click or beep and no tactile sensation to give you a clue. Whoever invented them, if you are reading this, take note: they are extremely unhelpful if you can’t see!

I cannot see decorations in shops or in other public places, apart from the lights, but I have been lucky in having people around me for most of my life who describe them to me and my imagination fills in any gaps.

I like my gifts to other people to look good. My PA describes the wrapping paper designs to me and does the actual present wrapping on my behalf, which means that the resulting packages are much tidier than they would be if I did them!

In theory, I also like to know what the presents other people give me are wrapped in, but I have to admit that in the excitement of Christmas Day I tend to rip first and ask questions later!

I choose cards carefully and love to have those sent to me described. People often send me amazing tactile cards. Some of the 3D ones have become decorations in their own right and come out each year so I can “play” with them again!

In short, I love it all. I lap up all the pictures conveyed to me and enjoy choosing for other people.

I met a man once who found it so difficult to come to terms with the loss of his eyesight that he would spend Christmas Day in bed rather than having to deal with the fact that he could no longer see any of the decorations or other trappings of the festive season, or even watch Christmas television. I found this incredibly sad. Perhaps he couldn’t picture any of it in his mind’s eye. I love it all and what I can’t actually “see”, my imagination supplies.

Sadly, it’s all over for another year. I am back at work now  but the sun is shining and who knows what 2020 will bring? I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Amnesty

I don’t think I’ve said much about my involvement with Amnesty International. I joined at college. One of my lecturer’s organised a fundraising concert and I signed up that night.

I’ve been a member of several groups over the years and have been chairing the Swindon & Marlborough Group for quite a while now.

When I joined, it wasn’t the easiest organisation to belong to if you had a visual impairment. The amount of paperwork coming through the letterbox was a little daunting. This was for the admirable reason that Amnesty do in-depth research and present their members with as much information as possible. I had to take the same line that I did at college, however, working out what was necessary for me to know and only reading any extras if I had time, not to mention a willing volunteer to do the reading.

I clearly wasn’t the only one who found it all a bit overwhelming but I am pleased to say that the UK section took their members’ views to heart and cut down enormously on the amount of paper they sent out.

These days, of course, much of the information comes to us via email which means I’m on a level playing field with everyone else. (Not that being part of Amnesty is competitive! The whole idea is that you do as much or as little as you want.)

In our group we always have a prisoner of conscience for whom we write letters every month. At the moment we are campaigning for the release of Aster Fissehatsion, who was “disappeared” in Eritrea in 2001 for daring to suggest that transparency in government might be a good idea. We have no idea if she is still alive or not but we keep writing anyway.

We also join in other campaigns, which can be for specific countries, or for specific issues, such as torture. I know this sounds very serious, and it is, but we have fun too. I shall never forget the giant pink cardboard cut-out battle tank created by some of our group to highlight human rights abuses in China.

We have heard some amazing speakers at our meetings over the years. I am always struck by how humble ex-prisoners of conscience are. They are “ordinary” people who do the extraordinary by speaking truth to power whatever the consequences and, believe me, those consequences can be pretty dire. I will never forget being hugged by a former prisoner from the Maldives as though I had done something special. All I had done, along with others, was write letters to the authorities asking for their release. It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it.

Last night’s meeting was our most light-hearted of the year. At this time each year, Amnesty runs its “Write for Rights” campaign. They produce details of prisoners we can send cards to, either directly, or sometimes via their family and friends. We write our cards to the accompaniment of mince pies, stollen, and hot spiced apple juice.

So why do I continue to be involved in an organisation where the printed word which I can’t see is so important and which I have to have assistance to support?

Quite simply, I believe in it.

Whatever my problems may be, they are nothing compared to those of the people we campaign for.

Returning to the mince pies, I am now going to take a break for Christmas and New Year. Thank you for staying with me so far. I wish you all well for the holiday season and the very best for the New Year.

Judith Furse will be back with a new blog post on Tuesday 14 January 2020.

Cubs!

When you aren’t around children much you forget how noisy they are en masse! So why were my PA and I venturing into the lions’ den?

It’s because we were invited to speak to a local Cub pack. They will be working for their “Disability Awareness” badge in January and they wanted an introduction to braille. So we set off in search of said Cub pack…

We arrived at the front entrance of the school where they meet. We spoke to a couple of people who re-directed us to the back of the school. We walked round the perimeter, across the car park at the back, and eventually we found them.

When we entered, we encountered around twenty 8-10 year-olds. I think exuberant would be a good description!

I started by saying a few words about Louis Braille and handed out cards with the braille alphabet on. I then showed them some children’s books in braille which I borrowed from the ClearVision Project for whom I proofread.

Two of the books were print books with braille interleaved on clear plastic. I heard one child pipe up,  “I think I’ve got the hang of it now!”

My PA went over, and turned back the print pages so they could only see the braille. Then she brought some Cubs over to hear me read.

They also loved the tactile books made by volunteers who sew and embroider to embellish the pages. I love these books too, and particularly like the page in Little Red Riding Hood with a door that actually opens and closes. (Little things amuse me!)

They enjoyed trying out my talking kitchen scales. I had provided two clementines for them to weigh.

I then got them to pair up. One child had to close their eyes, take the arm of their partner and let them guide them round the room. I was impressed by the enterprising ones who took their “blind” charges up the steps onto the stage.

They asked lots of interesting questions. One observant girl noticed I was wearing glasses so I tried to explain that I have a tiny amount of sight. She also noticed I was wearing a necklace and wondered how I got dressed and put on jewellery. Another shared his grandmother’s experience of using a liquid level indicator. I’m afraid I just put my finger in the cup when I want to know how full it is!

At the end I was given a rousing chorus of “Bravo!”

We waited to hear them sing “Jingle Bells” and then sallied forth again into the car park.

It was a lively evening. we enjoyed it and hope they did too!

By the way, for those who read my blog regularly: the John Lewis Christmas ad is audio-described. Thought it would be!

Election

You may not have noticed but we are in the midst of an election here in the UK. If you are reading this from outside our borders, be grateful it isn’t happening to you!

The impending election made me start to think about whether we, visually-impaired people, are disadvantaged in the electoral process.

One year, the RNIB made a point of advertising the fact that the three main parties had had their manifestos put into braille. They made it easy by giving you the numbers to ring so I rang and obtained all three documents. There was quite a lot to read, (I think Labour’s was the longest) but I did read them all the way through.

The RNIB haven’t, so far, mentioned any braille versions of the manifestos this year. I’m not sure I can muster sufficient enthusiasm to chase all the phone numbers this time but I suspect the same could be said for a lot of sighted voters. How many people do search out all the relevant manifestos and read them? I’m guessing it’s only a small percentage of the electorate.

Then there are the leaflets that come through the door. I have a sighted PA who would read these to me if I asked but am I going to ask? Probably not. It takes time that I could put to other uses. Many visually impaired people won’t have anyone to read these to them, though.

When it comes to canvassing on the doorstep, I am definitely on equal terms with my sighted neighbours. I can engage in a political argument…sorry, I mean, discussion…as well as anyone else and, provided they don’t turn up while I’m watching Ghost Adventures on television, I may do so.

The physical act of voting raises more issues. I know  a number of visually impaired people who opt for a postal vote which they can get a trusted friend or relative to help them fill in.

This is a good idea but I like to exercise my democratic right to attend a polling station.

There is a system of assistance in place for visually impaired voters who want to vote at a polling station. I can ask at the desk for someone to help me and a member of staff will take me to the booth, read out all the names and put a cross where I ask them to.

I personally have no problem with this and I trust them to act according to my instructions. Of course, if there are other voters around, it isn’t entirely private. The booths aren’t sound-proofed. As I tend to be quite open about who I vote for, I don’t mind this but I could understand others not being happy with it. There are templates produced by RNIB which you can line up with the names on the ballot paper and which enable you to put your own cross on the form. I was only offered this once and I didn’t find it very easy to use but it did, at least, mean my vote was secret.

Latterly, I have gone to vote with a friend and been quite happy to let her put my cross in the desired box for me.

I don’t know if there is a perfect system but it is certainly the case that casting a totally secret vote when you can’t see where to put your cross is a challenge. This will matter to some more than others but perhaps we should be giving more thought to this question. After all, that little cross is at the heart of our democracy.

Adverts

One of the joys of recording television programmes is that you can fast-forward through the adverts.

Alternatively, you can use them as handy waypoints through the programme, allowing you time to do the washing-up, make quick phone calls, check your email and a host of other useful things.

When I do let them run, I take very little notice of them. Apart from the meerkats and occasional tunes such as “Right said Fred” being used for an equity release ad, I couldn’t tell you the straplines or identifying features of many of them.

However, a while ago I pricked up my ears. I suddenly realised I was hearing audio-description – in an ad! Guess who it was for? Specsavers!

Someone in marketing had actually thought seriously about their potential target audience and realised that some of them might not have very good eyesight!

You may be thinking, “But that’s obvious, isn’t it?”

No, it isn’t.

As I have described in previous blogs, even people who are directly concerned with visual impairment don’t always get it right.

Next, I noticed that Amazon’s Alexa ads are audio-described. This does make sense because they appear in association with RNIB.

I started to listen more carefully.

I was quite excited when I found myself hearing the Asda Christmas ad described.

“Aha,” I thought, “other stores have elaborate Christmas ads too. I wonder whether M&S and John Lewis will follow suit?”

Lo and behold, M&S’s Christmas advert is also audio-described. 

You may be wondering why I’m getting so excited about this. After all, I’ve already said that I generally don’t pay any attention to advertisements.

Well, it shows that marketing departments are starting to take visually-impaired people seriously. And so they should! We are real people, potential customers with economic agency.

I promise you, this is a step forward. We may not be in the brave new world yet but we are getting there.

Oh, and the other reason for my excitement?

I love Christmas.

I’m still listening out for the John Lewis ad, by the way, fingers crossed and hovering over the fast forward button!

Fireworks

Most evenings for the past week, I have heard fireworks going off in the area around where I live. The noise of the loud bangs, whooshes and crackles have taken me right back to my childhood.

I loved Guy Fawkes night when I was young. I remember the peculiar joy of making a Guy by stuffing old tights with dried leaves and creating something that resembled a somewhat sinister scarecrow. One year I had the immense satisfaction of burning my hated school beret on the Guy.

I can still taste the hot potatoes, tomato soup and sausages, eaten as we stood by the bonfire. In later years we had more sophisticated food, chicken drumsticks marinated in spicy sauces for instance.

The wonderful part for me, though, was the fireworks. The rockets were frustrating as they often burst into stars too high up for me to see but the other fireworks, well, that was a different matter. Golden and silver showers of stars, bright pinks and greens and the amazing whizzing speed of the Catherine wheels are all fixed clearly in my mind’s eye.

Sparklers were great too. You could write your name in the air and create pretty patterns of sparks.

The next morning, my brother and I would go round the garden collecting the now soggy and unappealing spent fireworks. Why we enjoyed doing this is a mystery to me now. Perhaps it helped us relive the fun of the night before.

At some point our family decided that burning money wasn’t very sensible and that peering at explosives in the dark whilst trying to light the blue touch paper by torchlight wasn’t the best idea either, so, we paid to go to an organised display. To me, it was a disappointment. You couldn’t stand close to the bonfire watching the flames and listening to the crackling sounds and the public had to stand so far back that I couldn’t see a thing.

This is where the whole topic gets tricky. I do think that fireworks are basically dangerous and many people nowadays don’t have long enough gardens to allow for spectators to stand well back from the firing zone. The rational, safety-aware, part of me says organised displays are the best way to watch fireworks. The trouble is, they are a dead loss if you have limited vision.

There is another issue too. Most animals absolutely hate fireworks. They find them terrifying.

I belong to a WhatsApp group for former students of Chorleywood College. This week, several guide dog owners have expressed their desire for fireworks to be banned altogether. One person had to miss a concert she had been planning to attend because she literally couldn’t leave her dog. I am sure if I had animals in the house, I would feel the same.

Notwithstanding all the above, I miss those homespun firework displays of my childhood. I can’t think of any occasion since when I could see such vivid colours.

Perhaps the answer is to have organised displays in uninhabited areas and allow the visually-impaired spectators to stand at the front? I don’t know if there is a perfect answer but, for now, I will have to rely on my memory and imagination.