Literacy Lost and Found: Keystrokes, Pie charts, and Einstein

September is Literacy month

September is a reminder month for topics that challenge a Vision Loser. September 8 was International Literacy day and the 26 begins Banned books week. This post describes a technology project that forced me to think about how impoverished, illiterate people survive, and a creative low cost way to help them. I also face a personal decline in literacy without a replacement for reading pie charts. I chastise myself for accepting a sloppy literacy in the language of keyboards, menus, and application interface tasks. I Try to overcome vision limitations by seeking simple, powerful, memorable formulas using numeracy to conquer reading limitations. One of those formula leads me to an example of dubious information literacy, a quotation by Einstein. In passing, I pick up a new term ‘trans-literacy’ to describe the phenomena of literacy across media, including Braille. And, without getting too political, my book club discussions help me nail down some fundamental questions of belief systems that counter banning premises.

Literacy in a broad sense

To me, literacy is the ability to do information processing actions and processes without thinking about them so you can accomplish the tasks that require hard analysis to function in society. Literacy processes external to mental representations for the brain to store and reason about. Writing is the inverse process. Fluency is the ability to perform the basic skills sufficiently rapidly, effectively, and accurately to sustain everyday life on the highest, hardest level possible. The challenge for a Vision Loser is to reclaim one way or another those basic skills as they deteriorate.

Here’s an example of vision literacy issues. If I cannot find the line to sign a receipt for a prescription, that is simply a vision deficiency that requires trust of the pharmacy that I am signing appropriately. I could overcome this deficiency using the KNFB reader but it’s not worth the effort. I have the literacy to find the charge entry on the bank system website If a correction is required. the phone number should be associated with the transaction for Kmart pharmacy but I may have trouble finding the local number. these are all variations of the problems of getting the symbols from a jumble of data into my brain, requiring hard work but doable. A different form of literacy occurs at the end of the year when the credit card company sends me a summary of cumulative transactions. Perhaps tabularized or represented in charts. I no longer have the ability to drill down or read out from a pie chart to find the percentage for annual medical costs. This complicates my planning for retirement expense estimation. Literacy has been lost, I hope only temporarily. I can only translate those external symbols into a mental representation by mastering intermediate technologies, e.g. transforming printed characters into sounds through synthetic speech.

Combating fundamental illiteracy through digital talking

Let’s consider the extreme of people with no capability to read or write informational items beneficial to their daily life in any printed media. Is their only hope of progress learning to handle some print form? A recent ITConversations podcast by cliff Schmidt of posits that a low-cost audio player/recorder can go a long way toward improving access to the necessities of life without requiring literacy as we know it. The prototyped audio device will be used to exchange oral information, e.g. treating infant malnutrition. His project role model is the One Laptop Per child project willingness to focus on qualities of cost, limited functionality, and durability traded off against style and attractiveness and universal purpose. I was intrigued with the simple onboard USB connections among devices following simple physical models of transfer rather than invisible Bluetooth protocols. After stumbling onto some accessibility trouble spots, I inquired about the talking book project’s philosophy on accessibility. Schmidt replied:

Absolutely no vision is required to use the Talking Book Device. From the beginning, we’ve wanted the device to work without the need for vision. There’s no display — all system indicators and prompts are aurally. The buttons are embossed. The device has non-visual indicator, a green and red LED, but that indicator is redundant the aural information.

Whoopee! My accessibility dreams come forth. Like how my late father enjoyed the boxes of remainder books I brought him, as well as his requests, in his assisted living location. Imagine a device that could be rapidly refilled with human or synthetic spoken books from a kiosk or a peer device in the hallway. The might have encouraged more book clubbing among readers with vast life experience. And I’ll bet he would have been multitasking book reading, recording, TV watching, memoir writing, and I hate to think what else. Conquering file transfer problems and exploiting digital content would have meant so much a decade ago, even more to baby boomers and beyond comfortable in the audio realm but limited in sensory apparatus. I wonder also if convincing cost breakthroughs in self-voiced devices can help alleviate some health care costs.

The LiteraryBridge web site accessibility problems are due to ISP provided templates that also trapped me once into painfully scraping excess HTML off my own web content. But the message is well amplified by recent news articles and podcasts. I even made it all the way through checkout on the donation form, which often lead me to cursing the insensitive form makers. I found a wonderful picture of illiteracy and poverty that might soon be changed by well designed low cost digital equipment, combined with localized information networks, supported by donations and volunteer effort. Watch this social entrepreneurial story unfold.

Literacy lost for pie charts

Now, here’s my latest vision challenge. My retirement adviser from TIAA CREF sent me pages of tables of fund data and asset allocations, along with those nice curves that show how much you will have to live on at age 95. OMG, 95, 3 decades away! Now, I can get read out each line of the table with fund name, percents, and changes of allocations. I Can see on the screen fuzzy pies with a chunk removed, but I cannot absorb the information the way I did previously.

This got me thinking how reading charts is a form of literacy, often called numeracy, or quantitative literacy. I’ve see these charts in middle school textbooks but I suspect many adults are chart illiterate. Not me. Having programmed with a chart tools and hyperlinks I understand well how raw data can be converted into alternative graphic forms to facilitate rapid assimilation of relative values in a data set. In a hypertext world, those charts can drive navigation to web data linked via image maps. But now I can neither visually process the chart down to the labels and numeric values nor infer a mental representation of the data in the table. I am going to be very grumpy at age 90 in 2033 if I run out of money and suspect I chose the wrong asset allocation.

There are alternatives to tabular and graphic printed formats. Tactile maps can be created but these require external devices and reading abilities comparable to Braille. I am currently Braille illiterate, a symbol system and sensory skills usually not offered to or self-learned by retired Vision Losers.
Another option is software like Chart Explainer that creates textual representations from data sets and chart presentations.

A third possibility I would favor but have not found is a way to interact by audio and keyboard with the basic data set. Just as an audio player supports short steps, longer jumps and extreme moves forward and backward, I would like to use my arrow keys to explore data arranged in bar, pie, or other chart format I remember so well. Comparison data could be announced using other keys. In a few minutes, with the small number of data items in this situation, I believe I could absorb the content sufficient to decide whether I like the allocation. For example, I think I would have a gut reaction to finding abnormally large real estate funds or negligible international fund allocations. More so than struggling to magnify pie slices or hear jumbled numbers across a row, the effect of finger actions and controlling of interactions would absorb and stimulate my brain to formulate its own model of the data. Whether that model was accurate is another matter.

Are there versions of Excel or other quantitative tools that support non-visual interaction? I’d really like to try these out. I certainly expect a Java or DOJO widget could provide me the combination of interaction and audio information. I wonder if sighted people might also benefit by bringing together their tactile, auditory, visual reasoning capabilities rather than staring at non-interactive charts.

As I become a more experienced Vision Loser, seeking always independence, I become more frustrated with current word processing. Let’s see, analysts generate boilerplate and formulas for allocations, produce 30 page documents, print and bind these, send them to me, and I scan them using Kurzweil 1000. data about my very own money and these analysts’ projections are all too much imprisoned in documents. Using PDF is not much better than printed documents unless attention is paid to propagating data sets through tags rather than pixels..

Literacy at the keystroke level

Yet another form of literacy, so dubbed by Canadian accessibility adviser Karen McCall. Whether using magnifier, screen reader, or more traditional software like word processors and operating systems, the Vision Loser needs to get into her brain a number of key combinations, modifier rules, etc. Some of these are shortcuts around menus, others are power starters, and some are survival remedies. Life gets very complicated keeping straight the standard access keys, those of applications, and the overlay of screen Rieder functions. At this point I am semi-literate, often lapsing back to menu and mousing around when I forget or have not learned the necessary keys. were I trained in a Veteran or ADA keyboarding class, I would have been drilled and tested to know this stuff. Note to self: diagnose gaps, lay out a practice plan, and drill my way to proficiency. Yechy but will save hours later on and help me accomplish higher level tasks. Here I simply have not yet learned the rules for reading tables as well as making them accessible to screen readers.

Compressing literacy into memorable formulae

Back to numeracy, there are a few simple formula that govern much of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Compound interest, for example, is the basis for my ability to retire modestly without too much stress when I could no longer seek another job after vision loss. It’s truly amazing how much growth comes from those employer and employee plans over a few decades. I try to convince all youngsters I encounter to put away that $1000 or $100 as early as they can in life, and never touch the funds. Compound interest at different rates as shown in a simple calculator, ignoring inflation, is really impressive. Another formula often useful is the monotonic increase e.g. 1+2+…n which is n*(n+1)/2. Isn’t that neat? $100 increased by $100 each yields $21,000 after 20 years and that’s without compound interest. Learning the potential payoffs of some discipline, which every one hopes to get painlessly, is my legacy goal. If only we all understood how much it will cost to pay off, say $20 million debt using village funds, or $trillion for national debts…

Applying to retirement planning, for all the analysis and allocation mumbo-jumbo, what I really need to know is some rule that I can withdraw something like 5% of net worth, adjusted quarterly, and live to that awful age of 95. Also can I assume that the models such as 1/3 invested in annuities is an all around good bet based on last 50 years and a dose of reasoning.

Did Einstein really admire compound interest?

Then there’s informational literacy. I found a neat example from compound interest motivation. I had read, indeed quoted, in a discrete math lecture on recurrence that Einstein considered compound interest one of the greatest wonders of the world. either he had a really good investment strategy or just liked discrete math as well as physics, whatever, actually nobody seems to have nailed down that quote to a time and place and context. Maybe he said it, maybe not, still makes a good story. but it takes a bit of Google probing to get to a page of doubters rather than the useful flip quoters. Try out the controversy discovery engine to give you alternative profiles of whatever you’re looking for, especially if you think you’re going to live to age 95 on what you learn. Literacy in this case refers not only to looking up information but knowing how to choose materials, assess their quality, and fact check each information nugget.

Literacy expanded to ‘trans-literacy’

So, here’s a new term ‘trans-literacy’, I encountered on the reading in the dark blog. I think it involves comparative ways of operating using basic literacy skill but across different communication media as we have in abundance in our Internet, RSS, culture. does this encompass the reading problems discussed so often this summer, as in my Hyperlinks considered Harmful posting? I feel myself privileged that my brain is not only aging rather gracefully but also exhibiting its plasticity in transferring my reading practice from visual to audio. I’ll soon be ready to take on the next reading mode, the tactile and symbol system of Braille. Partly, I seek these skills because I am now illiterate in the labeling and data entry modes provided in technology for the educated blind. I also admire hearing books read or talks given from notes recorded in Braille. And then there’s always that worry about loss of hearing.

Anti-literacy by banning

Finally, to end this eclectic rambling, why are books ‘challenged’ in libraries and schools? reasons may be given honestly and correctly such as readiness as deemed by educators or parents. or this may be an excuse to prevent National geographic magazines infiltrating elementary schools with pictures of naked women in other cultures. this might mean parents are not ready to explain nakedness to their children or just don’t want to. For my book club, I reported on the youth-oriented story ‘a wrinkle in time’ by Madeleine L’engle, an introduction to time and space travel that brought out the strengths of teenage and young children in a context of strong family values. However, some characters were, over 2 billion years old and strongly powerful women, i.e. witch-like. A reference placed a biblical character in a lineup of other significant figures on earth fighting the evil that was more of a shadow archetype than a force comparable to most demonic figures. I just couldn’t believe such a positive, intriguing story, even including a planet of blind creatures, could be challenge by parents over the decades.

This brings me back to those simple formulae that provide guidance. I ask my youngsters, if you were born in the, say, 75% of the world that holds different beliefs, e.g. in the Middle east rather than America, would you be able to explain and justify their belief system? Wouldn’t your current beliefs differ by culture you are born into? consider the institutional structures encompassing those belief system, if you questioned, say 10% of those beliefs, could you remain in good standing in the institution? It’s wonderful that the Banned Book Week tradition raises these questions each year and that book clubs, like ours for AAUW members, reinforce the discussion and that my favorite library Bookshare even seeks out banned books for Vision Losers to read.

References on Literacy

  1. UNESCO International Literacy Day
  2. American Library Association Banned Book Week Celebrating the freedom to read
  3. Literacy Talking Book Project, the $5 Ipod
  4. Literacy Bridge Talking Device interview by Cliff Schmidt podcast on itConversations
  5. Tactile Graphics
  6. Chart Explainer
  7. Essay on Numeracy
  8. Braille Introduction
  9. Karen McCall’s Check lists of Assistive Technology Literacy
  10. TIAA CREF Financial Planning tools
  11. Veracity of the Einstein quote on compound interest as a wonder of the world
  12. Controversy Discovery Engine for more analytic Google queries
  13. Wikipedia description of ‘transliteracy’ objectives
  14. Reading in the Dark blog on literacy topics, September 9 2008
  15. Previous post on ‘Hyperlinks Considered Harmful’ reading difficulties
  16. ‘A Wrinkkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle, frequently challenged book
  17. Audio version of this post

Author: slger

Susan L. Gerhart (slger) is a retired computer scientist. Her professional specialities included software engineering research, technology transfer management, and computer science education, see SLGer's Research Autobiography. Susan is active in a lifelong learning institute (OLLI) at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona. She has facilitated courses on podcasts, Twitter, the Singularity, and climate fiction. "As Your World Changes" blog describes her journey with vision loss into the spectacular world of assistive technology and the frustrating practices of accessibility. She writes with the NVDA screen reader, reads books from Bookshare on a BookSense, and listens to podcasts on an iPhone. slger123 on Twitter records her favorite articles and occasional comments on life and politics. Creative writing courses led her to undertake "A Chip On Her Shoulder", a novel asking the questions: "how did we get into the privacy mess of modern social media?" and "Are we now just 'packets of data formerly known as people'?" She's enduring the 2020 Pandemic era and autocracy challenge by analyzing changes in progress, promising, and unknown. Times sure are changing! Contact: slger123 at

6 thoughts on “Literacy Lost and Found: Keystrokes, Pie charts, and Einstein”

  1. ‘Reading in the Dark’ blog posting analyzes ‘multiple literacies’

    I share the author’s joy at the convergence of the Internet, assistive speech technology, and a network of resource suppliers that mitigates the effects of vision loss on reading life styles. This article narrates several experiences with limitations in the educational and social services worlds. Sighted advisors and teachers often lack the creative insights to appreciate the multiple ways information is absorbed by visually impaired and other print disabled individuals, exemplified by the superior skills of the multiply literate.

    Also highlighted is the highly individualistic learning process of the adult Vision Loser requiring the additional literacies of screen readers and media modes to access such valuable resources as blogs like ours and podcasts from Blind Cool Tech and Accessible World. It’s especially tricky when you must learn how to learn new technologies and unfamiliar resource sources.

    Literacy as Process: The Multiple Literacies of Blind Readers
    By Alicia “Kestrell” Verlager

    reprinted October 13 2008 in ‘Reading in the Dark’

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