Lessons from “Twilight”, a memoir by Henry Grunwald

Looking for vampires??? None here.

This eloquent memoir precedes our current computing pre-occupations, making a case for the advances we consider in our previous posting ‘Aren’t we Vision Losers lucky?’. The book includes the author’s description of his diagnosis, treatments, and emotional responses along the way. Chapter 2 has a fascinating section on blindness as seen in mythology and literature, identifying our patron Saint Lucy.  This book is especially cathartic for a vision loser asking ‘do I feel or act like that?’ or ‘wow, he expresses my sensations so well. And that makes me feel better to share that feeling.’

Grunwald developed full blown wet macular degeneration  after his retirement from Editor-in-chief of Time Magazine and a distinguished career including ambassador to Austria. He wrote his memoir of his vision losing experience in the late 1990s following a well-received article published in the New Yorker in 1996. His short eloquent book is available on Bookshare.org, scanned by this blogger.

In Chapter 10, Grunwald sums up the life-changing effects of gradually losing his eyesight. Hope for a cure never left him, but reality about the permanence of his condition forced him to come to terms with it. Bouts of anger exploded in throwing unreadable magazines across the room. And his family never fully realized the extent  of his loss  until his journalistic report. He frankly describes the concurrent effects of his aging, and realizing its progress, intermingled with losing vision.

His descriptions of emotional turmoil express  my feelings, as well. I often throw a fit of exasperation when sorting out the junk mail, especially when looking for something important like health insurance.    Since my condition is caused by lifelong progressive myopic degeneration, I feel somewhat smugly exempt from the age-related label but know in my heart that  whitening hair and the slowing gait of a cautious Vision Loser combine to enhance the impression of aging in others and in myself. Hope, which I have never been given by doctors still brims up in me when I hear of progress in stem cell therapies. I spoke once to my retinal specialist about becoming a subject of a clinical trial, and he chuckled  as he informed me that no matching patients as myopic as I could be found for a trial population. Now, it takes a lot to get a grin, let alone a chuckle, from a sober retinal guy, so I gave up on that idea.

Grunwald expresses well what a profound life experience is vision loss, a force for change that brings us to a level of capability  and adjustment to age-related factors we might have otherwise just passed through without conscious awareness of  the changes or their effects. I personally would not have developed my guiding 5  level philosophy that has helped me sort out not only contemporary but also lifelong feelings. For example, as  Grunwald expresses, we develop a keen appreciation of those things we can see. I  often feel my greatest loss is not seeing smiles, simple accepted personal experiences which I never appreciated, and especially relish in the rare moments I catch one on a loved one’s face falling in the right spectrum of light. I also find myself more aware of my own smile and offer it to others as a conscious gift not as a reflex, whether they recognize my awareness or not.

Grunwald wasn’t a ‘computer guy’ like us, but he often describes his love-hate relationship with his magnifiers. They are both aids and symbols of loss and regain of power. His electronics use was, in the 1990s, the early days of recorded books and text to speech.   I wonder how this highly literate spirit would react to podcasts, ATT Natural voices, and  reading technologies we enjoy now, more than a decade after the vision loss transition he describes. A man of letters and printed text would surely appreciate the experiences with digital and spoken materials, even at a cost of intervening synthetic manipulation and complexity.

I bought  ‘Twilight’ well before I was into any noticeable level of print disability, was not ‘out’ to many colleagues,  just experimenting with MDSupport.or  community. Listening now to a book I can not read but know I need helped me gather both courage and humor from a wise older spirit.

Happily, there is a book interview with Diane Rehm on her WAMU radio show, an inspirational personality encouraging ‘intelligent and civil conversation’. This interview stimulated an open letter from the National Federation of the Blind raising issues about Grunwald’s openness about his visual difficulties and how that attracts negative images of blindness in the press. The letter writer considered him as a suffering soul who would benefit from more integration with blindness organizations like NFB, taking advantage of its valuable Newsline service, then on phone and now available on Bookshare. Actually the book, more so than n the interview, describes interactions with Lighthouse and New York City -based doctors. Listening again to the interview, I sense in Grunwald’s European-accented voice, more world weariness of a life-long journalist, uncomfortable about discussing personal feelings, and not fully conveying the sense of adventure, learning, and self-mockery apparent in the full book.

Belated thanks, Mr. Grunwald.

REFERENCES on Henry Grunwald and ‘Twilight’

Revised to add audio link on July 21 2008


Look, ma, no screens!! nvda, non-Visual Desktop Access, is my new Reader.

Summary: This Vision Loser makes the transition to screen reader dependence, sets up her new tablet notebook with mostly open source apps, and learns many painful new routines.

As my vision changed over the past year, I started to use Narrator, the minimalist screen reader built into Windows XP speaking in Microsoft Sam. I had seen and heard demos of the standard Freedom Scientific JAWS and GW Micro WindowEyes and also tried the newcomer System Access to Go but could not bring myself to invest the $$ fees and upgrade slippery slope and irreversible learning time. However, something deeper, perhaps my Rebel archetype, said “don’t go with the traditional, but find your own pathway.” After all, I’m not on the “rehab grid”, I pay my own way, I appreciate and understand software, and I have time to experiment.

A short flirtation with the Thunder screen reader supported many of my needs, but was rather, well, quirky. A podcast on ACB Replay and review from Blind Geek Zone introduced the nvda (non visual desktop access) open source, free screen reader from young Michael Current, a blind Australian, and his budding infrastructure nvAccess . A simple install, the quick start on the screen, an easy switch to my own synthetic voices, and a bout of fumbling with the keyboard and I knew this was, for me, “the real thing”.

As luck would have it, my Dell notebook’s screen dissolved and I needed to move my primary connectivity and screen to backup Toshiba tablet now also getting a bit old and precarious. With a new tablet moving into the household, along with the Linux-based Icon PDA and it was time to totally remodel my computing environment and my brains, hands, mouse, and reflex “operating system”.

Any relocation, whether household or computer, is a time of mental and emotional turmoil. What applications should I move, e.g. the text reader discussed earlier, and the voice data files I’ve grown accustomed to? Where are the license keys, the setups’ or links to later versions? Maybe it’s also time to revamp my myriad email accounts now mostly funneled through gmail, which I love-hate? Do I want to commit my new setup to the “stove pipe of evil” — Microsoft office, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express? A month later, I’m trying to distill in this post my painful experiences, with more to come later on gmail and portable apps and recent announcements from Mozilla and IBM.

First, let’s define a “screen reader” as really a “screen listener” which responds to events from the Windows operating system and running applications as the user moves focus around the screen. Usually the OS and applications express themselves with dialog boxes and wait for user requests on menus and buttons. The screen listener picks up information about these events and speaks them through a speech engine and chosen synthetic voice files. This is really complicated because there are so many levels of operating systems and applications software, mechanical and electronic hardware in keyboards and mouse, and users flittering around the screen looking for something with their finger or finger surrogates twitching movements leading to a rapid stream of events to be mediated by the screen listener, vying with other processes for memory resources, preferably without crashing.

Narrator is actually understated in value, as Microsoft software goes. Upon initiation, a dialog warns that you’ll probably want a more robust screen reader for everyday use, but well, here’s Narrator for backup or to get you started. Indeed, one purpose of Narrator is to try to assist Windows installation. If you are unfamiliar with Narrator, go to the Start button and type Run and then Narrator or find and work through the Accessibility Wizard. Narrator will occasionally choke when Windows is in a precarious state, but can usually be counted on to walk through the primary windows on the screen and through the file explorer. Therefore, here’s my

Fundamental rule of survival:

(***) Keep Narrator as a backup and remember how to use it with different types of outage: eyesight, mouse, keyboard, resources. It’s there on the desktop as a shortcut in my 911Emergency folder, on the Windows start menus (added in the users + You + startup directory, and specifically added in the startup directory. Of course, you have to find it first and create a shortcut to copy around. And there’s the Start button + Run + Narrator.

Setting up nvda:

nvda is available from ….with either an installer or a zip extractor version. The installer may be hard to understand voice-wise and may be overkill. nvda has a very important property of being a Portable App that keeps all its files in a single directory that will run from wherever it’s extracted, including a USB memory stick. Portability means that you can walk up to modern Windows systems, plug in the memory stick, start nvda from an autorun or shortcut, and you’re in screen listening mode, albeit maybe not with your accustomed voices.

nvda has a number of Preferences to set up or leave as defaults: speech engine, voice and its speed, how much to read punctuation, and rules of behavior in a browser (called “virtual buffer”).

Each screen reader package has a “modifier” key to be keyed in conjunction with letters and other keys. nvda uses the Insert (INS), which may be found in widely varying places on keyboards: immediately right of space on Toshiba, upper right corner on Motion Computing tablet plastic cover keyboard, and middle right of backspace on my Bluetooth 101 full sized keyboard. One of the hassles, a dread for me, is memorizing the needed keys for the screen reader and my customary applications. It’s boring, never-ending, and I just needed to get over An audio tour on the nvAccess website prodded me to continue trying, even to “RTFM”.

Here’s my memory bank to illustrate a few:

Windows shortcuts: ALT+TAB among windows, ALT+F4 to exist an app, ESC to get out of most dialogs, space or enter to push a button, TAB to move around in a window, right and left to open and close tree views with up and down inside a tree,

Trainer Karen McCall of Karlen Communications in Canada calls this knowledge “literacy” but it is often not learned until needed and then becomes essential. with nvda (or any other screen reader), a user must develop a rhythm of interaction, receiving and interpreting speech feedback, e.g. where a TAB has taken you, within or among applications.

nvda frequent actions in Mozilla Firefox include: “h” to headings, k to links, up down between lines, top to reload, combining with Firefox shortcuts control+F to quick find a phrase, control+k to open a search, control+L to type in a location, control+TAB to move among tabs, control+T to create a new tab. And now the big switcheroo in a screen reader is to notify it you’re in an edit box and don’t want the k and other nvda operations, invoked by Insert+Space, known as “virtual buffer passthrough on or off”, always to be remembered on forms.

Well, to wrap up this post, I highly recommend nvda for partially sighted users. It works unbelievably well, especially considering the price ($0) and ease of setup and portability. It lacks the scripting and maturity of the big $1000 packages but has a corps of open source developers helping out, i.e. nvda has a rapid trajectory of development and improvement. As a developer myself, nvda is inspirational, showing how much one dedicated technical person can accomplish in a remarkably short span of time.

My prejudice toward open source throws some light on my above semi-facetious comment about the “stove pipe of evil”. “Stove pipe” refers to communities that don’t talk to each other very much and only use software within their pipe or area. I’m not implying Microsoft evil empire here but rather that lock-in is a user choice that I do not want for myself. Too often I’ve received email which consists of a paragraph written as a MS WORD which I need to click to launch a big application to read, which assumes I own MS WORD or have its reader working, when a simple text body of a message would be safer (clicking an attachment asks for trouble, like a virus), lighter, and easier to produce. Outlook is OK but too attached to WORD. Internet Explorer has finally provided the tabbed windows available for years in Mozilla Firefox, and is a fine browser, but not attractive to me after Firefox. Where I’m let down now in the open sources space is OpenOffice which is inaccessible with nvda. Mostly, my Rebel says to go follow the path of most freedom and change if it offers the affordability and functionality I need.

More to come on “Portable Apps, a good trend, and ones that work for me”, “Living in the new operating system of Web 2.0 and browsers”, and “untangling and reading gmail”.

Summary: I finally took the big leap away from the screen following the nvda screen reader as I set up a new computing environment better accommodating my changing vision, acting as my own rehab support and tra


Memory, Identity, and Comedy: Conversations with author Susan Krieger

"Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision", by Dr. Susan Krieger, published by University of Wisconsin Press, is a great introduction to personal facets of vision loss. Better yet, audio interviews with the author delve further into memory, identity, and comedy as well as the technology of living with and writing about our condition. Podcasting brought the author and I into correspondence and acquaintance that has really enhanced my transition, as well as proven my claim that the podcasting media is especially great for Vision Losers. An accessible version of the book is available, as described on the author’s website, along with spoken sample chapters.

In this posting, I offer my own personal observations on some of the topics discussed in the audio interviews, often raised by the interviewers and listeners. This posting fits in with other "As Your World Changes" entries: Bookshare.org as an excellent source of reading materials; screen and text readers and other assistive technology enabling writing while blind; grousing about availability of accessible reading materials on the web and from publishers; and the evolution of a Vision Loser’s philosophy of safety, energy, relationships, appreciation, and support.

Driving! Really?

SK tells about a pre-dawn bird-watching trip involving a dark road. On every Vision Loser’s agenda is that disturbing question about "hanging up the keys to the car". When, why, how, and who makes you do it. Like SK, I had night-time experiences when the road kept disappearing. I once spent an afternoon practicing my way back home from an upcoming evening party held about 4 miles from town, on a winding road. I made it back OK with the only real terror on a bypass within a mile of home. For me, today, not driving remains a real limit, in a town without public transit, a taxi company where the dispatcher is also a driver, and two teenagers with busy schedules and heads in other worlds. It haunts me that I cannot remember the last time I drove, probably just a routine return from downtown but during a winter stretch (February 2006) when I was never sure that I could get back up slippery or foggy hills to home. It was a relief when I finally figured out I had quit driving, but font memories still come back about starting for a get-away drive without having a target and, in my younger days, cross-country trips.

Reality and Identity — what is your inner vision?

SK speaks eloquently in her book and interviews about the reality that emerges in accepting, or rejecting, the identity of being blind, or visually impaired, or however one chooses to term the condition. For SK, the identity is one among many in a lifetime of personal relationships and a scholarly . career. As one interview caller notes, vision loss, is in many ways, just another life change, much as you are not the same person as in high school, progressive vision loss is just another set of forces that yield reasons for a person to grow and understand more about herself and her world. The appeal of SK’s book and interview persona lies in her direct embracing of the transition and changed reality, using writing as an instrument of "processing that loss".

I’ve adopted "Vision Loser" as my identity because it is such a blunt recognition that surfaces the "Loser" model in our society, a force to counteract in my mind and actions. My sense of identity is clouded by several years of covering up my condition during a period of employment where I felt being out as visually impaired would harm me. My colleagues were steeped in aviation, the military, and religious intensity of Mormonism and evangelical Christianity, none of which project compassion toward a feminist, unmarried, ambiguously parenting, curiosity-driven, techno-oriented crone-like woman. I had no specific conditions to request for A.D.A. accommodations, just turn off the damned bright overhead lights, let me set the cursor size on then classroom projector computer, and don’t ask me to flip burgers at the college’s picnic. In my last semester, as I engaged my students in projects to produce an assistive software package (@Podder podcatcher), I began to realize I’d been expending more energy coping with and covering up my condition than I was getting work done. I also figured out students were having extra trouble reading my writing when I couldn’t see that I hadn’t erased the white board before writing on it again, duh. My take-away from is that the adaptations required for keeping me productive were so utterly trivial, and probably beneficial to others of a certain age, that the stress of covering up wasn’t worth it. As SK notes from teaching a course of "Women and Disability", it’s possible to become amazingly adept at covering up, a skill which can backfire when differences become viewed as deficiencies, while also being a skill one can use later to help others feel comfortable with your disability. I fear that covering up invoked a "loser" or archetypal Victim mind-set requiring, for me, extra effort to overcome.

Work, energy, time — where does it go?

SK rei-iterates through her interviews and vignettes in the book that maintaining productivity during vision loss is really hard work — new skills to acquire, updating oneself as new technologies come along, under constant vigilance for safety. So, true, a lazy Vision Loser must be a real pain for self and family.

SK’s description of being hit by a car is so scary I cannot reread it. I take an evening walk along a lightly traveled housing cul de sac where I can avoid cars but silent, fast-moving bicycles on the downhill are teaching me to listen for the whiz of their tires. Ditto, quiet hybrid cars can sneak out of the haze of my vision. But the beauty of this walk is the freedom of movement that comes from retained vision to see sidewalks, muscle memory of curb height, trust in a smooth pavement, and lack of obstacles. These allow me to walk briskly, freely, youthfully, and with release of energy after a day’s hesitant navigation around objects in my house or or wherever. It almost feels like flying. However, I sometimes find myself offering a friendly nod to a back
hoe tractor I thought was a tall person, walking
up a pile of gravel wondering why the sidewalk was headed down, unable to recognize any other walkers by name (except for the gregarious Jack), jumping in surprise and zig-zagging the wrong way when encountering other walkers, stepping on small dogs and once cutting in on a baby stroller. Safety is so ever-present a part of reality consumes energy beyond my prior imagination.

As a fan of Dr. Moira Gunn’s Tech Nation show, I was delighted by the techie content of her interview with SK. How great to hear about cutting-and-pasting text by ear not eye, using audio to edit writing, fighting with PDF accessibility, sensitizing someone like Moira Gunn to how the blind read and work, and SK’s activism to expand access to electronic versions of publications. This is a singularly great interview about technology uses in transition to vision loss.

SK provides a compelling way of looking at the common question of whether our other senses become stronger as vision fades. The key changes occur in the mind, finding alternative ways of working, learning to double check for mistakes, etc. True, the other senses get used more as new scripts for work are created by our minds, practiced and debugged, over-riding vision dependent ways of working. But the locus of change is in the mind, or brain, rather than sense organs.

SK and a caller discuss the "slowing down" effect, perhaps we might call it a benefit, of vision loss. Especially when we think of vision loss as concurrent with aging, "working more slowly" is more concrete, pressing, and real for Vision Losers. I actually think not in terms of minutes or hours consumed by tasks, but some form of fictional energy units associated with time spent on a task, number of mistakes made then caught then corrected, worry about consequences of mistakes, degree to which my fingers and photo-receptors are being worked, and when my internal battery is going to reach the 20% level beyond which I get "tired and cranky" as well as more error-prone.

Seeing, Not Seeing, and Thinking you are seeing

SK speaks of the newly found enjoyment of seeing large things, like succulent plants and mountains and sunsets. Retained vision has a focus and quality of its own, not only because it highlights the loss but also offers genuine pleasure. Memory of landscapes and events decades past represent sources of distress for SK, e.g., a summer camp for youth that seems to have vanished into a housing development. In conjunction with vision loss, memory can fill in gaps and guide where and how one looks at surroundings. But memory in conjunction with vision loss raises another dilemma: is the thing I remember no longer there or am I just unable to recognize or see it from vision causes?

I recently retraced a short hiking trail with a visitor. With my vision I could follow the path but was constantly thrown off balance by "moguls" or drops in level for drainage or natural ground slopes. With the steadying arm of my companion trained to guide me, the walk was much as I had last felt, maybe 4 years ago. I see the trees and butte above in silhouette, dark outlines with little detail, but the enclosure of tall pines and the familiarity of the trail filled my senses. On each turn of the trail, I knew what was coming next and how far we had to go (up about 700 feet, around the back of the butte, then down). This particular morning brought two additional pleasures of weather and sound. A light rain cooled the walk, lasted only a few minutes, just as I had predicted, and symbolized the rainy so-called "monsoon" season of Arizona high desert. Also, a climber had scaled the butte and regaled the entire slope with flute music and Indian-like calls, somewhat eerie and reminders of reported sacred connotations of this Thumb Butte. On the far side of the mountain, the trail passed a clump of what looked like fire-damaged pines. My companion and I argued a bit as to the source, fire damage which he, but not I, could see, and pine bark beetle, which I remembered had devastated this region. We settled on probably both as causes of this particular defoliation. With SK’s images of place, I think back a month later to the role of memory in this little jaunt. I wonder if this would also happen at Mt. Katahdin, Monadnock, the Smokies, Lynn Canal, Galapagos, Mustang Island, or other places I’ve visited, sometimes with high frequency. Recent trips to new places, e.g., Tombstone or the Tucson Desert Museum, invoke a different sense, because I can enjoy the ambiance but do not really know what I have missed. Traveling with poorer vision is definitely different, but hardly less pleasurable, except for concern about contributions to a companion’s traveling experience.

Well, there is so much more stimulated by the book and interviews of Susan Krieger. This comparison of experiences is, for me, far more than just a past-time as I find her articulations of perception, feeling, and modes of operation so help me identify and clarify my own. Thanks for this book, Susan, and I look forward to more tales and advice in the next writings.

Reference website and podcasts

  1. "Things No Longer There" book website
    . Includes information on accessible versions of the text. This books is available on Bookshare.org.

  2. Tech Nation with Dr. Moira Gunn on itConversations Network

    "Play now" link in browser or download mp3

  3. KQED Forum Interview

    Go to the "listen" link and audio should stream to your browser

  4. "To the best of our knowledge", Wisconsin Public Radio, segment 1 of "ways of seeing"

    Streams by Real Player at link "Listen", may require additional software.

  5. Audio reading of this post

Revised July 10, 2008 for typos and reference details

Help! I’m being updated to death!

Many applications and systems software take advantage of the “always on” status of networked PCs by performing frequent updates for security precautions as well as normal regular updates. These updates can be very intrusive, indeed competing with each other for attention, and sometimes cause havoc of their own. This Vision Loser just spent several harrowing hours overcoming a bad attack of update mania by Windows, Norton Security, and Mozilla Firefox.

I’ve been in transition from a notebook with a dead screen to a different notebook awaiting a new tablet PC. I was just setting up an external monitor, using the extended desktop which requires alignment of primary and secondary screens. With the multi-tabbed Display Properties dialog on the screen, my attention was rather rudely diverted to Mozilla Firefox announcing its intent to update and then failure during the process, probably lack of Internet or wireless connection. Turning attention back to the Display Setting dialog (so I thought), I clicked OK and watched in dismay as the pretty pastoral screen on Windows XP appeared. The problem for my weak eyesight is the extreme brightness of that display theme versus the High Contrast Black I work in comfortably. Apparently, I had changed the theme as well as monitor settings. For a while, I felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights,stunned, and immobile.

Well, OK, I’ve been through this before, but not on this particular notebook with this external monitor, both beaming away at my overworked photoreceptors. My remedies were there if I could see through the brightness, relying on the hit-and-miss, ugly-sounding, but often help Windows Narrator to talk me through the menus, tabs, and buttons:
1) Bring up Display Properties again and fumbled around for High Contrast Black
2) Go to Control Panel then Accessibility and find, I hoped, the Accessibility Wizard
3) Go to Start, All Programs, Accessories, Accessibility then, finally, the Accessibility Wizard
4) Work through the Windows Explorer into Windows then Accessibility folder to the Accessibility Wizard

For one reason or another, each of these failed. Either the Accessibility Wizard wasn’t where I remembered it or I couldn’t reach it in a cascade of menus nor could I locate High Contrast in Display Properties.

In frustration I resorted to a sighted person, a grumbling sleepy teenager, to talk through the Wizard and restore my relative serenity of dark background. Meantime, Mozilla and Norton were battling for attention to do their updating business.

So, what’s the big deal here? First, is the annoying disruptive practice of of semi-automatic updating that saps away energy and introduces user error opportunities. That is, for this Vision Loser, updating at the wrong moment is sometimes a major disruption. At least here the error’s consequences were totally visible rather than a small change like a check box that could have required a lot of trace-back and debugging to find, later, after I’d forgotten where I was making changes..

Second, since I rarely work in the normal bright Windows mode, I experienced a visceral reaction to the unwanted change. In a recent podcast, NosillaCast’s Alison Sheridan discussed this phenomenon in the context of the Mac Finder, expressed in terms as “physical assault” by a hyper-bright window. Often sighted people, especially designers, have the misconception that the brighter and more colorful the effect the better, and that this rule applies especially to partially sighted users. Rather the mantra for me is “Contrast, Contrast, Contrast”. A simple screen with clear outlines, a restful dark background and white or pale foreground, with images only that have clear meanings is the ideal. I’ve been working on this in the form of a Java framework for the @Podder podcatcher I’ll discuss in a future post.

Two improvements in my practice did occur from this little episode. First, I now have a better organized Start Menu with a special folder named “911 EMERGENCY” which stands out in a folder list in Start Menus and on the Desktop. It contains shortcuts for the Accessibility Wizard for which I’ve memorized the options and their order, as well as the Mouse Settings, and launchers for order and Magnifier, the built-in Windows accessibility tools. This is the equivalent of carrying a small first aid kit on a hike, and the lesson I learned today was never to leave home without it.

Another benefit of this excursion was a catch-up on the Accessibility Features of Mozilla Firefox, rightfully touted as low-vision friendly. I learned the setting that allows me to just start typing to find a part of a web page — neat! There’s more to learn and this confirms my recent decision to set up my browsing environment around Firefox and its add-ons (including the TextAloud reader and soomer).

Moral of this story: Beware of hazards of over-zealous updating applications and give them the right of way.

One more thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the updating applications could be spoken rather than pattern-matched out of dialogs, e.g. “Mozilla Firefox wants to update its XX and YY components to make your browser faster/safer/better. You’ll notice the following changes (or none) which may affect these add-ons…”. Just like a good dentist or other professional will give you a coherent explanation of its planned actions, so should software interact with its human clients

So, Norton, Adobe, Microsoft, Mozilla, and all you other update maniacs, think about every intrusion you foist your users Is that change really necessary? Could you, maybe, fix all your buffer overflows before the next release? instead of one at a time? How about checking if your user is using a screen reader, or has voices available, and give a polite request rather than only a dialog to join the window clutter? Could updates be no more complicated than an install? Could the dialog boxes at least be readable by simple screen readers like Narrator or even by low vision users? Come on, you inaccessible update bullies, mind your manners. Please, please, please, please don’t update me to death!

e-Voting = “Extreme Voting” = a moon shot for democracy ?

E-voting = “Extreme Voting” = “moon shot for U.S. democracy”

California’s Secretary of State office is facing an unexpected early primary in 2008 by performing a “top to bottom” analysis of the preparedness of its electronic voting systems. A series of reports by security and accessibility researchers documents the bad news that flaws abound in 3 commercially provided voting systems and, beyond that, in the policies, procedures, and training that enact voting in a polling place.

My initial reactions to reading the accessibility analysis was that disabled voters were being thrown into a situation akin to an extreme sport, testing their limits of skills and endurance, both cognitive and physical. Likewise for software developers, testers, and certifiers face extreme challenges of time and performance. In sports terms, the athletes, judges, and sporting officials) are participating in a high stakes competition and race toward deployment where the rules of the sport are still being made, marred by rampant reactions to disqualification, maintaining credibility, and keeping the sports attractive to viewers. Is this any way to run a democracy?

Problems documented in the California reports are so varied: wheelchairs don’t fit under polling station tables; voice users take 4 times longer to vote, often requiring standing; voices are uneven in speed and intelligibility; instructions are convoluted, with poor grammar; eavesdropping on votes and large print screens isn’t difficult; keypads require special plus and often fall out, disabling the workstation; personal sanitation practices must be put into place for a succession of voters handling the same equipment; multiple natural languages other than English must be supported; and the list goes on. Even if standard codes of accessibility conformance were met, accessibility is inadequate without usability, which addresses ballot design and the overall ability of the voter to accomplish the task with reasonable effort, accuracy, and satisfaction.

Security? As now documented in a check list of vulnerabilities from many studies in New Jersey and general knowledge of the security education community, voting systems are highly vulnerable to tampering and simple misuse: Physical entrance to change memory cards (using a hotel mini bar key in one study); equipment failure in (don’t we all curse our printers?); add to tabulation difficulties, e.g. complex rules for multiple choice races; ambiguous configurations of hardware and software that make replication of election conditions impossible; unregistered user accounts that might enable login to change results; applications running over an inherently insecure operating system, Windows; and this list goes on. Running a democracy on inherently, well, there’s no better word for it but “flaky” electronic systems is folly if democracy is at stake, both in voting results and in credibility of the process.

Software engineers know well the above manifestations of underlying systemic failure. Source code will inevitably have errors, if not coding mistakes, then problematic conformance with specifications. Getting specifications complete and consistent in both art and science. It is tedious, time-consuming, and expensive to design and execute test cases to identify software failures (e.g. overflow) and assure that all states in a vast space of user and operator actions, invoking the rule of thumb that half of the lines of good code are for handling exceptions. Configuration management is a challenging process in itself, keeping track of components, both hardware and software, and what it means to be version of a system. And we cannot forget documentation for users, which includes end voters, poll workers and vote certifiers, installers, other developers, and buyers. What we’re talking about here is literally millions of lines of code, specs, tests, documentation, procurement, and other artifacts.

Furthermore, voting is complicated by its infrequence, requiring the assembly of special equipment, trained poll workers, and an accessible environment only a few times a year. The success of a voting setup requires enormous outreach to draw voters to their polling places (which may include homes). For people with “special needs”, additional outreach is required to prepare voters for their experience, assuming they have been able to ready themselves for their private voting decisions. Wow, democracy is an expensive process!

In the view of many computer and policy minded people, the U.S. system is inherently flawed by the ideology of the marketplace. Multiple vendors offer competition but not necessarily better products and encumber state and local agencies with complex purchase and CYA decisions. As in many other areas of safety and finance, regulatory protections have been blended with industry self-interests to the point that broad regulation is non-existent independent of the operational purchase and oversight demonstrated by the California state officials.

The kicker for computer scientists, an often libertarian breed, is that source code is unavailable for scrutiny enabling the practice of “{security through obscurity”. Indeed, many of the flaws suspected to undermine the election system vulnerabilities (reported in separate confidential reports) seem to track back to two root causes: (1) violation of rationalized coding practices known to well educated software developers, testers, and tech writers and (2) an industrial practice that never works, namely to attempt to retro-fit security and accessibility onto code modules and designs. The power of “open source” dominates much current thinking about software development in that openness spreads the quality responsibility among many developers and invites improvements from diverse minds without destroying the market place opportunities for customization, maintenance, and general support of open source code ndeed, in some countries, Australia I believe, voting system code is at least open for all developers and crackers, leading, at least in theory, to closing of security vulnerabilities. Yes, this is ideology at war, the proprietary and unregulated versus the transparent and, with sufficient knowledge and effort, regulated by inspection and use. Democracy in the U.S. seems to have become confluent with the marketplace and profit, a potentially, if not already realized, lethal combination.

I am in awe of the California “top to bottom” effort. I have some experience with computer security education, know the high quality of the academic researchers who wrote the reports, and understand quite a bit of the lingo of security and accessibility. That the work was done within a period of a few months is remarkable in ints elf and the reports are eminently readable.

As I read (actually listened to) these reports, I was struck by the magnitude, complexity, and inspiring goal of a credible, accessible electronic voting system. The challenge is comparable in many ways to the JFK challenge to get humankind to the moon in a decade. Lots of engineering and management expertise, the memory of recent deaths of astronauts, the image of the moon hanging there in the sky, the motivation that comes from teamwork, the not forgotten shock of Sputnik, so much spirit headed in the same direction. The year 2000 election is today’s Sputnik, although there aren’t any Russians to race, just our own U.S. political system. The California report suggests many ways of mitigating at least security vulnerabilities and the enormous complexity of addressing all forms of disability in multiple languages. In some ways, the e-voting situation is more complex than a rocket to and landing on the moon because so much human fallibility is involved. The moon shot succeeded with a rethinking of the science and engineering principles from the Mercury to Apollo and the maturing of a few generations of engineers and managers.

My personal voting experience in 2006, first time voting partially sighted was not satisfying. The Election Board told me of their nice new crisp touch screen system but I only managed to make it in for Early Voting on the last afternoon, due to teenage driver scheduling issues. Indeed the screen was sharp and colorful but the overhead lights and the screen in self made me recoil, the continual complaint of the photophobic partially sighted. My driver/nephew read the choices to me and we muddled through a 40 page ballot, losing stamina when it came to the propositions. I had no privacy, surrounded by poll workers and other voters, a bit scary as a blue voter in a red county. Something was printed out, but it could have been a grocery list for all I could see. Well, I take responsibility for not being prepared for my voting experience and have vowed to seek out demonstrations and ask more questions before I next vote.

So, what would I do if I were in charge? The California accessibility report convinced me that the sheer number of human factors makes accommodating every variation of every disability impossible. Democracy must trump accessibility, except for issues of entry to the polling place. Trusted sighted poll assistants that accomplish the voting task in whatever time it takes and at whatever low level of technology required is preferable to a high tech sabotage of election results. Let’s put the accessibility criteria in the category of a moon shot achievable within a half decade provided a new regime of voting systems is attempted. Security dictates only one conclusion: throw out the current systems, adjust the ideology of private vendors to accept transparency, and design the system in the broadest sense, including not only hardware and software but also polling place training and outreach education to all voters.

Here’s a little experiment for sighted people to understand how it might be voting. March down to your ATM with ear buds or ear phones and withdraw $100 from your account. No voice-enabled ATM, go elsewhere, but also complain to your bank. OK, close your eyes and find the little hole to plug in your ear buds, listen to the instructions, and follow through the menus. Correct or cancel out if you make a mistake. Never mind the lines of gawkers behind you if you’ve chosen a busy time. Like that voice? get used to it, we Vision Losers live with those robotic speakers and are thankful for their interaction. Have to memorize keyboard and stretch to the Enter key? Can’t tell where the menus will lead you or how many key strokes to get there? Forgot what you wanted to do? Actually, it’s pretty easy, after a year of monthly practice, only takes me about 10 keystrokes, less than a minute, at Chase Bank, except if the service throws in a credit card offer before returning my card, which causes a bout of cussing and complaint to the nice service people inside the bank. And my favorite ATM serves both walk-up people like me and drivers, so I’m often in line with big trucks. But, my point is that any ordinary citizen can get the flavor of using a service by key and voice only, somewhat like I imagine a voting system for the blind.

Am I over-stating the complexity and significance of e-voting? I really think the model of e-voting as an extreme sport captures the challenges for accessibility and the cross-section of disabilities, and will require a great deal more applied science, testing, and sensitivity to needs if the ultimate goal of private voting for every citizen is to be achieved. And I’m sorry but I think that is a less worthy goal in the near term than a credible election in 2008. Is the level of effort to overhaul and implement a national voting system comp[arable to a moon shot? Yes, but this is 2007, not 1963, and enough is known to do the job well enough, accepting imperfection but not failure, if ideologies can be controlled.
eferenced Links:

California Secretary of State “Top to Bottom” Review with
links to reports in PDF on 3 voting systems and accessibility


Overview, U.C. Davis Prof. Matt Bishop, Study Director

Podcasts on “accessible voting”

Aren’t we Vision Losers lucky?

Aren’t we lucky? Just when our vision starts to deteriorate on us, there comes a whole new medium of information, entertainment, and inspiration opening up to fill our ears, and our years. This new medium is called "podcasting" but you will not need an ipod, not even ear buds, just your PC, speakers, and audio player, which probably come with the package. Add one piece of additional free software, called a podcatcher, and you’ve entered a new world. One theme in this blog is the full utilization of the podcasting medium for the benefit of Vision Losers of a certain age.

Who are this so-called ‘we’, the lucky ones, the generalization of the singular self-styled Vision Loser? who is this blog written for?

Well, there are literally millions of over-50 people with variations of macular degeneration and other forms of retinopathy who retain partial sight, enough to operate most software packages, on a decent vision day, albeit somewhat more clumsy than the multi-tasking, keyboard-glued, Internet-addicted younger generations. Many of us have been using computers for work, for communication, and for gaming for years, while some of us are newbies to the Internet and the PC world. Our ranks are growing rapidly with the baby boomer generation. Plus, others who care about the well-being of those losing vision.

The lucky ones are those who can take full advantage of a low-cost, vibrant, versatile, varied, stimulating medium especially helpful for those in vision loss transition. That’s our main message: use the podcasting medium to supplant print-based activities and to introduce yourself to the technology, people, and philosophy of the parallel world of the partially sighted and fully blind.

The quality of life we address in this blog are the "partially sighted" who have lost some significant properties of vision: contrast, color, print discrimination, or steady lines of objects. More challenging are normal abilities to read, drive, converse with facial and body awareness, Gone are many energy-saving and safety-providing actions formerly taken for granted. Being partially sighted is far different from being completely blind because the world is continually playing tricks on you, luring you to "see” but denying you all the details in your partial sight, you live with the shape shifter and Trickster archetypes.

Meanwhile, strangers, colleagues and friends and family cannot recognize your problems because, quote, you "do not look blind" — whatever that means. You are perfectly capable of absorbing and giving information through digital media, but at a loss to sort the mail and read important matters without adaptive technology. You need some help, but maybe not the full-blown, costly equipment avai able to the fully blind.

One way to appreciate this quality of life — both the losses and retained skills — is listening to podcasts by people dealing with their losses in similar situations. Aren’t we lucky that we can find and follow the inspiration of such people, without stretching our personal limits of energy and mobility? This blog will take you through a tangle of podcasts to place ourselves in a virtual crowd of like-abled people.

With our partial sight, we can avail ourselves of many PC packages with only a modest additional expense and some self-training.We clearly have one foot in the blind camp where many software vendors offer custom products, but at an expense that is often borne by employers, rehab offices, and educational systems. Being of a more advanced aged, perhaps out of the work force, some of us struggle with many trade-offs of finance, training, and frustration less faced by those with no options, like the blind. But it turns out there is a rich suite of relatively low cost packages on the market which this blog seeks to motivate and explain individually and together.

The trick is to think as a "system integrator” who identifies tasks, and processes, and quality factors then finds components that work together to provide a high enough level of productivity and quality of getting our work and our fun under control. These include text-to-speech readers of web, mail, and other documents; partial screen readers: that guide us around software tools on our screen; and magnifiers that zoom in on smudges of print we want to see but not hear.

Aren’t we lucky, that vendors have found a large enough market of people like us, or with similar needs, to produce tools we can integrate into our environments? Aren’t we lucky that a few years ago breakthroughs in speech synthesis have given us voices that resonate in personality while they clearly read for us? Aren’t we lucky that podcasting came along to give us access to many product reviews, demonstrations, and testimonials?

This blog describes a combination of free and low-cost products that can launch a Vision Loser into a more effective, still familiar, way of using our PCs. And one of these software products is a podcatcher customized for partially sighted people.

But, isn’t it strange, that we Vision Losers might have the advantage of early adoption of speech interactions with our software while the fully sighted remain with their eyeballs glued to their screens? In technology transfer terms, we can be as geeky as we like as “early adopters” while many software products are simple enough to master for those without a "geek streak”. This blog discusses many of these download-install-try and adopt or discard packages. We demonstrate that some added functionality here and a better interface there and, with practice, we can remain cost effectively fully functioning in the networked world.

What else does podcasting have to offer vision losers? While we are using podcasts to learn about technology to exploit our partial sight, we hear the inspiring words of Vision Losers like us, across a spectrum of losses. More than that, we can see how podcasts can fill the information voids caused by difficulty reading print magazines and newspapers. We will find a generation of communicators, both younger and older, using podcasts to develop a style and outlets for their cultural, humor, and intellectual interests. The early podcasters are entrepreneurial, energetic, and often fresh figures to replace TV fixtures and columnists we may have been using for years to structure our own views of the world.

Aren’t we lucky so many independent and creative individuals offer us a new way to explore and absorb a very wide world beyond our screens and speakers? We will find that podcasting offers a way to design your own stream of content geared toward your own information and entertainment needs and time available. And it is amazing how much more you can get done listening to podcasts than watching a tube or unfolding and refolding a newspaper?

Aren’t we lucky, that we have a medium so well matched to our needs, so flexible, and so cheap?

We began this blog by describing a PC environment that may help many Vision Losers with little expense or effort, namely a few synthetic voices, an application, that reads from the clipboard, and the minimal functionality of magnifiers supplied by the Microsoft XP (and other) Windows environments with an add-on mouse. We have also been using podcasts as references in earlier articles, just requiring a PC invoked with the click of a link to a .mp3 player. We’ll soon move on to harder trade-offs with other screen readers, editors, and podcatchers that bring out a tendency to collect podcasts.

No, it is not great to be a Vision Loser; in fact, it’s a very hard life with more of the same and worse for life’s remaining decades. But, really, the confluence of assistive technology, opening of independent media through podcasting and blogs, and the challenge to learn and use these as rapidly as possible during vision descent leads to the significant conclusion: Contemporary Vision Losers have timed their transition well to take advantage of technology never before available, not robbing the bank account, and poised to become one more node in a vast network of audio driven information and human connection.

As we write this blog we draw from a library of podcasts collected on vision-related topics and by and for blind and partially sighted individuals. Check this out in the blogroll and
@Podder Eyesight Podcast Library

Listen to an audio version of this posting

Resources, support, and reality check for macular degenerates

A look at mdsupport.org http://www.mdsupport.org

A person newly diagnosed with macular degeneration often leaves the office of an eye doctor after being told “You’re doing to lose your central vision over the next few years”. Maybe the doctor has explained the situation but the patient is unfamiliar with the terminology used, as well as in shock. Maybe a pamphlet “Explaining macular degeneration” is in the patient’s hands, maybe not. Such a hopeless, under-informed, awkward launch into a period of profound life change is the situation addressed by the mdSupport foundation, hosted at http: http://www.mdsupport.org.

“Macular degeneration” is a condition of the eye, literally a loss of cells in the part of the eye called the macula where fine detail of vision is accomplished. I will not try to define all the medical terms as there is an excellent audio on the mdsupport website. The condition has many causes and generally encompasses a family of diseases, often but not always associated with aging, and structural differences such as my condition, high myopia (-16, long eyeball). The common factor is the end result, degrees of loss of ability to read, drive, and do many other daily activities without some kind of assistance. And these results lead to a position in society that, for some people, is a declaration of legal blindness but for many is a perpetual state of difference from both the fully sighted and the fully blind, a state likely to be invisible to other people if we do not notify them. Literally, millions of people are passing through this stage of vision, soon to be joined by crowds of baby boomers.

mdsupport.org, the website, is a fertile encyclopedia for reading about the medical and social aspects of macular degeneration. But this website is no Wikipedia but rather meticulously edited by its founder, a macular degenerate himself and music teacher, Dan Roberts with the help of many medical authorities, especially a low vision specialist “Dr. Windy”. And the website also stands as a portal to other organizations dealing with patient, physician, and rehab sides of md.

Here’s an example of how I used mdsupport.org a few years ago as an authoritative reference. I needed a bright light for certain kinds of reading but was leery of those big ads about UV bulbs flooding your living area, unsatisfied with halogen lamps I was getting at Kmart, and physically assaulted by overhead lighting. mdSupport offers a remarkable article “Artificial Lighting and the Blue Light Hazard” explaining light in physics terms, the physiological effects of light on the retina, the cyclic recovery and damage of bright light, and the, and the state of scientific debate and uncertainty. I chose an elegant, but expensive desk lamp, Lazlight, that appeared safe from the information given in the article. I use it sparingly, for writing checks using my template or for trying to read phone books or other fine detail without using magnifiers. Sometimes the lamp and my vacillating state of vision are sufficient to do the job, but less often than when I originally purchased the lamp. One might ask: well, at least in the U.S., aren’t there protections against selling lamps that might damage our retinas” but the answer is “apparently not, based on both the state of scientific knowledge and the simple lack of regulatory oversight of the lighting industry”. To sum up this anecdote, mdsupport provided significant guidance toward a lighting purchase that satisfied my needs at the time, left me comfortable about safety, and illuminated by understanding of the issues of lighting fixtures and retinal responses.

I’ve also known mdsupport through its mailing list discussion among macular degenerates of all ages and sorts and locations. I was active in the list as far back as 1998, the time of my cataract surgery, but left when employment and better vision and other interests lured me away. I recently returned to reading mdList on my icon and Director Dan and Dr. Wendy were still wisely guiding list members on topics ranging from stem cells to external computer monitors. One of my problems with all mailing list is the amount of traffic that comes from polite notes of “thanks” to personal prayers that could be transmitted by private email rather than an entire list. But this systemic personal characteristic of mailing list members does not deter me from now staying subscribed and coming out of lurking soon. A typical exchange on the mailing list is a forwarded article snagged from a newspaper or Google alert about a treatment for some cause of md with a response from the founder and his advisors about the efficacy and reality of the treatment, “yes, but it doesn’t do this”, or “it has not yet been proven” or “another treatment will be available soon” with very interesting comparisons of the cost and availability of the treatment across international and the U.S. health care systems.

Dan Roberts has been one of my heroes of vision loss for nearing a decade, a mythic figure of knowledge, compassion, and commitment. mdsupport.org is a bequest in my will and a good place to memorialize the few friends who have died. plan to follow up soon with a recap of work Dan reports on about better models for rehabilitation for low vision patients.

In the context of this blog, the technology often discussed is complementary to our array of software and hardware gadgets. A comforting aspect of the mdList is the mixture of individuals beginning transition to vision loss gaining answers for their questions and learning how to manage their own eye care, the reassurance of seemingly normal life from people with juvenile origin forms of md, and normally sighted eye care professionals offering support, advice, and information.

Permitting myself a little rant here I’ve never understood “why sighted people need such bright light”. In the context of my 5 tenets of living with vision loss (previous posting), bright overhead light drains my energy and incapacitates my retained eyesight. A few times recently I’ve attended meetings in hotel conference rooms and governmentoffice buildings where the fluorescent lighting was so intense I felt myself shrinking away in protective reaction, sneaking over to try to dim the room lights, and wondering if these sighted beings are aware of the work their retinas are doing to process and recover from the bright lights, and possibly, accruing tiny amounts of damage that will affect them in a decade or two. Many sighted acquaintances are surprised that more artificial light is definitely not better for my myopic degeneration, but that I prefer whatever natural light is available, even down to just cracks of light coming through closed drapes. My explanation is basically “contrast, contrast, contrast” when it comes to computer screen lighting and how overhead and bright lights wash out the contrast. And a darkened room can be easier to navigate because I have developed compensating movements and confidence in my slower gait and fumbling around. Do we lighting-averse partially sighted and blind people contribute less to problems of energy conservation and climate change? I’d love to hear explanations of why fully sighted people need so much light to function,

Off the topic of mdSupport into the podosphere, “macular degeneration” is a popular topic across health news, science reports, and government agency announcements. Renowned medical journals, e.g. from National Library of Medicine, offer summary podcasts. Nature magazine and a variety of public science sites, many from U.K., report on stem cell advances, prosthetic eyes, and brain functions. An ophthalmology continuing education podcast covers in-depth treatments. And many physicians, health advisers, and vitamin hucksters offer 1 minute messages. Just like “It must be true, I read it on the Internet”, “I heard it on a podcast” is a caution about validity of the information to follow, but many of the podcasts we cite are highly authoritative. Linked below is a list of podcasts we have retrieved, but not yet listened to all, over the past 2 years, mainly using an alert from Podzinger Audio Search on “macular degeneration”. Use this web page to listen to mp3 files however your browser invokes an audio player or save the files and listen in your favorite player.



Founding Director Dan Roberts

Eyesight Podcast Library on “macular degeneration”

Everyzinger (Podzinger) Audio search

Interview with Dan Roberts on his book “The first year of macular degeneration”
(link moved, copy to be posted)

Mouse Hacks, Magnifiers, and Being Your Own System Integrator

In this post, we look for ways to reduce the costs of our computing environment as we deal with vision loss. Magnifiers are helpful, sometimes essential, and, we show, can be very low-cost with additional benefits.

Assistive Technology (abbreviated AT) software comes in several cost categories: built-in, $0, $50, $500, and $1000. The “big AT” vendors sell to individuals, of course, but the main market is the IT and A.D.A. support organizations of government agencies and employers, i.e. the “budgets”. I claim that an independent Vision Loser can save by becoming a System Integrator of sorts avoiding not only costs of acquiring “Big AT”, but also reducing complexity of installation, maintenance, and training.

Here’s a little case study in System Integration, First, some caveats: I am neither a trained rehab/AT specialist nor an experienced System Integrator. But I did go to conference with these types and have assembled a library of podcasts and web articles with excellent advice.

What we are calling a “System Integrator” is someone who looks at how components work individually and composes a new “system” where the components work together to achieve a goal. With the uncertainty of progressive vision loss, a worthy goal is frequently a kind of testbed to experiment with techniques that compensate for vision deficiencies and offer a measure of comfortable use. Experimental results may lead to identification of a suitable product or provide experience for evaluating more costly alternatives.

Here’s our goal: low-cost magnification capabilities for a Windows XP computing system. The underlying problem is for this Vision Loser to have available screen magnification when needed to complement self-voicing and screen reading software (a future post). I really want to know both what is (1) necessary and (2) sufficient to meet my vision needs, keeping mind that needs will change as vision changes. Change is as much daily, even hourly, variation as slower deterioration.

Well, how about that! Microsoft accessibility software includes a simple stationary magnifier with several levels of magnification and inversion of screen colors. Stationary means it doesn’t follow the mouse and it can be docked at one of the borders so it doesn’t move around. Indeed, I found I liked a stationary magnifier set to level 2, inverted, and docked at the top. The down-side is vertigo from the magnifier tracking the mouse. So, Only time and trial would show its sufficiency.

Enter the “{mouse”. and yes, we were talking about magnifiers, not pointers, or vermin! On a trip to a computer store, I decided to pick up a new wrist rest and a more comfortable mouse. By sheer luck, my niece shopper assistant pointed out a mouse with a magnifier. At home, I discovered that this little guy really is useful. It provides a “tracking” magnifier to complement the stationary Windows lens, again within levels of magnification and resize of the tracking box. Now, with a flick of an extra side button on the mouse, up came a magnifier aimed at the text I want to read. The product model is called a Microsoft Laser Mouse 5000, but these names and model numbers may have changed.

But, wait, what about the extra button capabilities that come with the mouse. Only the right side button, an extra sliver, is being used, to pop up the tracking magnifier. Wow, I have these other tools that read to me when I copy text to the clipboard (see previous post). I wonder if I can link these two. Indeed, the left side mouse button can be assigned to Select All and the Wheel button to Copy. Now with two clicks, I can hear a window of text. Cool! This save fumbling around the keyboard for Control-A then Control-C or a couple of trips down a context menu.

This is what computing folk call a “hack”, a clever way to get a job done, maybe not obvious or elegant but definitely effective. Indeed” OReilly Press has raised “hack” to a publishing genre, with piles of books that collect, explain, and propagate hacks for Amazon, Google, podcasting, even mental productivity.

There are always trade-offs in any system design. The first is that a solution only works if you remember to use it! That use must become part of your reflex repertoire But then you’re in trouble on a different computing system at a friend’s office or on a consulting gig. I forgot my mouse on a recent trip and walked over to a Staples to get a replacement, a smaller notebook mouse with a single side button magnifier. It worked right out of the box, but getting the thing released from its hard plastic covering required 2 hotel clerks and some dangerous instruments. Then, I really noticed the loss of select-copy functionality as I struggled under fluorescent lights and a nasty wireless security system. Further, to make my hack work, the Windows security system had to permit copy to clipboard, which many IT departments like to over-ride.

What if I want or need more magnification? Software like ZoomText is widely used (I hear from podcasts) and is designed especially for partially sighted people. A trial use early in my vision loss showed how many ways graphics could be adjusted to achieve magnification and contrast effects, with the primary benefit crisper text at higher levels of magnification Indeed, vision is so complicated – is it color, contrast, glare, font, or other factors that are most crippling to a particular Vision Loser? And, my vision changes so much, with lighting conditions, time of day, cumulative exposure, and who knows what other factors. In any case, the $500+ price tag was out of my budget at the time of trial.

What is the System Integration lesson? In “computational thinking” terms, we look for abstract interfaces of components, primarily their inputs and outputs. We don’t worry about the buttons or the user interface or menus but focus on the generic capability. In this example, the system clipboard is a (hidden) input to TextAloud (or similar tool that monitors the clipboard) and our MS Laser Mouse has a (hidden) output to copy selected text to the clipboard. Well, duh, the clipboard pervades Windows applications, but now we have endowed it with text-to-speech reading capabilities. We’ve wrapped a different way of thinking about the united capabilities of two separate components – a text reader application and a mouse.

When you put yourself in System Integrator mode, you ask: what’s my inventory of components? what are their abstract interfaces? how can I connect these applications together? How much complexity is added to my system by now having inter-linked components, e.g. when one is upgraded? What forms of training are now required, including getting used to, learning the foibles of, and gaining reflex control over the new capability? How do my solutions compare with each other and what are the trade-offs? Is there a show-stopper against or in favor of a particular solution?

One of the most serious lessons of the Software Engineering field, where I formerly taught, is the importance of getting the requirements right early on. That usually is not possible in our Vision Loser world, but rather we need to set up an experimental testbed where we can try out different ways of compensating for vision loss. Necessary and sufficient are always concerns, e.g. an expensive solution may be sufficient but not necessary while a low-cost solution may be necessary for some uses but insufficient for others.

Readers of this posting might be wondering: why not ask an expert? Well, I don’t have one handy, have never had computer rehab support from an employer or agency, and, frankly, have already had some unsatisfactory experiences with consumer low vision businesses. But really the experts are out there, telling me much good advice on podcasts and in accessibility publications. Thanks to them.

helpful podcasts and articles:

Access World comparison of magnification products
http://www.afb.org Search (upper corner) for “Zoomtext, MAGIC, magnifiers”

Barrier-Free IT Tips and Tricks podcast on the Windows Accessibility Wizard

Literacy Questions for Magnification, Karen McCall from Carlin Communications
(link to be found)

OReilly “Hacks” Series http://www.hackszine.com

Microsoft Laser Mouse search for “Microsoft Laser Mouse” and “on screen magnifiers”

Seeing Through Google Book Search

Google’s blog recently announced the availability of Google Book Search with direct links in search results to out-of-copyright books for download as PDF. This action opens the portion of scanned books in the Google Library to print-disabled readers with traditional text-to-speech tools. However, this sub-collection is, by virtue of its vintage years, of value to only a few scholars and occasional readers. The remaining scanned books remain inaccessible in both their stored content and page images displayed in the book search results.

I decided to experiment to learn (1) what’s in the Google Library that relates to my professional and personal interests and (2) what could I actually get to expand my library suitable for my print-disabled status? The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): (1) I can access less that fully sighted professional colleagues and (2) this experiment didn’t yield any additions to my library.

Here’s the experiment: query Google Book Search on a topic I know something about and assess the value of the resulting books. The topic picked was one where, well, being immodest, I had myself published several articles in the 1980s and 1990s, using terms “software testing”, “formal specification”, “formal methods”. Working from memory, the book list showed books I’d previously owned, some I’d forgotten about, and a few I’d never known of. Several books were actually government publications, e.g. from NIST, and several were primarily reprints, many available from other electronic sources, such as the IEEE Digital Library. None appeared to be available in downloadable form, but I wasn’t sure what annotation would tell me that. I was at first confused about “full view” which did NOT mean downloadable but rather available for display as images in search results. The book lists were fairly long, between 50 and 100 books, indicating a comprehensive scanning or publisher contribution on my topics of interest.

So, what did I actually get to “see”? I was running Windows XP in its standard accessibility mode, with docked magnifier and narrator screen reader plus a simple zoomed magnifier associated with the Microsoft Laser Mouse; High Contrast Black Windows theme; Maxilla Firefox with images off, using FireVox free screen reader and TextAloud for reading page text. Of course, with images off I got a snippet of page text, a big empty block of missing image, and various book meta data, including where to buy or borrow. So, I turned images ON in the browser and, ouch, was it bright! I could recognize a page, almost read the bright text in inverted magnifier at size 4, but could not really glean much. Probably, more effective, and more costly, zoom could get more words into clarity, but there was no substitute for having the text read to me to gain context of the search result. This is the major point – there’s nothing in, around, or any way out of the image into screen readable mode. The image might as well have been a lake, a building, or porn for all the information I could glean from it. I wondered why the omnipotent Google toolbar, gathering data about my searches, and offering me various extra search information could not also be the reader.

Staring at the empty image was really disconcerting, even demoralizing. Were I still in the grant-grubbing, publication-hungry mode of an academic researcher, I would be disadvantage in getting paragraph-sized chunks of information to quote or cite (without ever handling the book itself). And these book references were to my own work, either citations or reprints of articles I’d written. Google Book Search does provide an excellent overview and snapshot of an era of research – who, what, and why – but not much more than a reminder for me. Of course, I could buy or borrow the book but then I’d need to scan it to get anything “readable”. Alternatively, running Google Scholar would lead me to many of the same resources in the Digital Libraries where I could buy or use a subscription to get the articles. Or, perhaps, a local employer or public library could get the article through Inter-library loan. It does appear that my search was biased toward retreiving as many reprint collections as books with original content, perhaps a side effect of computing literature publishing practices.

What about the promised downloadable content? I looked up “Wuthering Heights”, downloaded (link in upper corner) the PDF, and went through the usual screens of Adobe Reader updating itself. The, damn, ouch, another bright window of PDF I could not read. I remember Adobe had nicely provided an accessibility wizard buried down on the Help Menu and Read Out Loud on the View menu. After switching to more restful yellow on black of the PDF, I was able to hear the very interesting page of Google warnings about use of the book. Were I to actually read the book, I’d want it converted to text for downloading to BookPort reading in synthetic voice (good old “Precise Pete”) or in mp3 for an audio player. The PDF was, for me, just a format to get out of the way, although I could have read the book via Adobe’s Read Out Loud staying tethered to the PC. It would have been preferable to have by option the book in the DAISY format directly input to many text-to-speech tools, i.e. more standard than PDF.

Well, does Google Book Search do anything for this print-disabled person? I don’t think so.

These issues are discussed at more length in a 2005 white paper by Benetch/Bookshare founder Jim Fruchterman. He points out various ways that images might be annotated to stay within the conventions of web pages but the main problem is that publishers, Google, and some intermediaries need to cooperate to live up to the spirit of the legal rights of print-disabled people to access book content on a par with fully sighted individuals.

My wish is that Google would extend its toolbar to provide an audio from of the page for those who hold a certificate of print-disability similar to Bookshare’s policy. This would provide as much Entitlement as seems feasible for print-disabled, preserve rights to images, for deaf, and slightly raise Empowerment for print-disabled who can listen and make notes or do something else.

Another concern I’ve mentioned, and may have just missed in the page links, is the range of other options for some of the content in the books sampled in this experiment. Many reprints are available by Google Scholar, by the former NEC CiteSeer, from Digital Libraries of professional societies, and from the “database” collections of traditional library services. Is there a disconnect from Google Book Search to these alternative services?

Bottom Line: Getting a list of books discussing my topics is a good thing, but displaying ONLY page images was better for sighted users. And, I doubt my reading profile would identify benefits from downloadable full text of out-of-copyright books.

Well, this article has a definite “what’s in it for me?” tone, but I’d like to refrain that a tiny slice of the content here are words I wrote myself, receiving no compensation from publishers, only employers or research contracts. It’s ironic that I cannot enjoy going back to read myself what others have written about my work, or to continue the work with the same ease as sighted colleagues, nor get those empty images out of my mind. In the theme of this blog, Google Book Search is not classy use of technology, except in the “digital divide” sense of establishing different classes of users depending on their sigtht capabilities. I am not anti-Google, just disappointed.

Google Book Search http://books.google.com

“Comments on Accessibility of Google Print”, white paper by Jim Fruchterman http://www.benetech.org/about/whitepapers/google-access-022705.pdf

5 Tenets for Adjusting to Vision loss

Note: I wrote this a year ago in mid 2006 and have found it useful to assess my priorities and for planning.

Demarcation of noticeable vision loss worried me that my priorities were not well established yet. Before my weekly meeting with my “life coach”, I always make notes, a kind of journal, about my main concerns, triumphs, joys, and frustrations. I was gradually losing the ability to read my notes, even written with a bold Sharpie. From the need for a mental model emerged the following:


Every motion now involves concern for safety. Peripheral vision does not identify the columns in my living space, nor the dog on the floor. The sidewalks in my neighborhood are walker-friendly but the curbs are deadly if I don’t follow the curb cuts. How high is the curb and how deep is the gutter below it? Of course traffic – signals, stops, crossings that have rules are still treacherous as drivers, bikers, and other walkers don’t always follow them. My worst experience led to 5 stitches in the emergency room after a decorative flat-looking rock tripped me up. Caution is not an option, shortcuts are out of the question, and nothing can be assumed safe until it’s past. Looking forward, I need to learn more about the mobility aides for the blind — dog guides and white canes — and we’ll soon listen to some podcasts that provide experience if not answers to the questions of when, why, and how to make these major adaptations.

And safety is not only a physical issue as financial transactions, federal forms, and bills are all exposures to costly mistakes, waste of precious energy, and loss of self-respect and independence.


No, not thermostats, but rather gaining an understanding of where energy is used relative to eyesight functions. Safety responses and monitoring expend energy in order to accomplish a goal. Waste increases as mistakes are made, everything from mis-typing an email address to adding an extra 0 into a mortgage payment. Things that were trivial are now major energy consumers. For me, these experiences were complicated by unpredictability of my vision quality, seeing well first thing in the morning, and nearly nothing of print or detail in the afternoon. This has meant identifying each day the highest priority item to accomplish with 2nd, 3rd, and so on as objectives but maybe needing to be put off to the next day. And when a task requires preparation and materials, those must be acquired and not lost before needed. Life becomes an assembly line of planned actions with nothing taken for granted. Frustrations and worry consume energy too. Most important is to conserve energy for relationships.


How does one make one’s friends and family comfortable with our vision changes? Asking for help is necessary but may seem manipulative and frustrating when it doesn’t fit into the helper’s schedule. We’re talking here about maintaining current relationships then expanding contacts, developing or re-developing relationships, and avoiding social isolation are even harder. Luckily, Bookshare had several great books on self-esteem and on enlightening the sighted about blindness. Knowing common patterns of responses to blindness, from me and others, calmed my concerns and provided ways of working on relationships. However, social isolation remains Enemy #1 in my overall program.


Vision loss inherently imposes limits that require changes in activities, e.g. visiting a museum , traveling, and reading, A surprise to me is that the alternative ways of performing these activities are actually enjoyable challenges, provided energy is available. Repeated activities such as visiting the Grand Canyon are simply variations of past memories, where the colors of the canyon walls almost jump out of the haze. Was I seeing that contrast of purples and gray, remembering it, or imagining? Does it even matter? Taking on a new experience, e.g. walking the paths of Palo Alto Shoreline Park, are much more auditory and smell since the details of the surroundings are simply not clear. Provided safety from companions, I have not felt a loss of quality of life, simply a change. And Change, seeing the world differently, is a gained quality itself. Vision-specific activities such as viewing photos and using facial cues in conversation with an interesting new acquaintance are most sorely missed. Audio reading is a pleasure in itself, but one’s overall reading profile necessarily alters. Podcasts are a particular boon when we can hear first hand the joy and reinforcement that appreciation can be retained, even expanded. Again, I must seek out readings and people who can share their new ways of appreciating their own changing landscapes.


Vision Losers need a special bank account to cover necessary equipment — CCTV, magnifiers, software, etc. I budgeted about $5000 for equipping my living space and office. Knowing I faced vision loss, I put away those funds when I was working. For many of us, that amount is out of the question, especially with unexpected vision loss, requiring grants, or going without. An irony of the Vision Loser at the end of his or her career is that the assistive technology is more available, indeed mandated, for those in the workplace and educational systems. working against the independent Vision Loser, forcing us to seek alternatives. Other costs are not deducted from our bank accounts, but consume energy such as evaluating product options and self-training. My personal motivation for buying some of my magnifier equipment was the simple desire to see smiles — a prices experience.

Vision Losers experience a rapid immediate descent into a lower level of citizenry and must come to terms with disability attitudes of society. Insurance firms require
a waiver for your vision costs — you got a pre-condition, you own it for life until Medicare. Voting entails hassles and loss of privacy, complicating the already difficult tasks of gaining voting information to responsibly complete a ballot. Organizations you work for or with get nervous about providing accommodations — fear of lawsuit piled on fear of you as a disabled person. The good news, in the U.S., is that 508 and A.D.A. requirements continually prod education and training and adaptation of environments and websites. However, the independent Vision Loser must learn the language and ethos of what to expect and how much to require.

Note: This framework has helped identify topics for future blog entries:

  • Safety: dog guides vs. canes, general mobility training; new dangers from quiet cars; developing a Fault Management Cocoon; …

  • Energy Management: A nebulous topic and a broad problem, perhaps varying the widely touted “Getting Things Done” approach of author David Allen; all things talking – microwaves, color-tellers; ATM’s, …

  • Relationships: Many helpful self-esteem books available from Bookshare; advice on caring for those who assist us; …

  • Appreciation: More great books with accompanying podcasts; changes in museum procedures for assisting blind visitors; hobbies displayed on Blind Cool Tech; …

  • Financial, Legal, and Citizenry:
    Accessible currency; anti-CAPCHA activism; accessible voting; employment advice on Disability411; saving $$ being your own System Integrator and Trainer;

Audio version of this posting