Living Visually Impaired in Prescott Arizona — The 2016 Story

Resources for ppersons losing vision in the region around Prescott AZ.


Living Visually Impaired in Prescott Arizona — The 2016 Story

If your vision is beyond correction by traditional medical and optical procedures, if you are anticipating this situation, or you are assisting someone like this, you need resources and training known as “Vision rehabilitation”.

Good news! Technology and well known practices offer affordable techniques to reduce many vision limitations to inconveniences if you’re willing to tackle the learning curve. Bad news! Prescott is limited in its access to rehabilitation personnel, awareness of possibilities, and diffusion of people who can help each other.

Below are resources collected by a Prescott resident who maintains vision loss coping skills after reaching legal blindness a decade ago. There’s plenty of room to improve the community resources. Please consider action, suggestions and collaboration for everybody losing vision in these days of abundant technology and information sharing.

What is Vision Rehabilitation

Useful techniques range from marking appliance settings by sticky dots through using a smart phone to read books, identify money denominations, and participate in social media. “Active Daily Living” refers to these sticky dot tricks and myriad organizational tasks formerly taken for granted. Serious safety concerns are addressed by “Orientation and Mobility Training” for climbing stairs, walking with the miraculous long white cane, and crossing streets. Gaining or maintaining computer communicationskills requires adapting to magnification or audio interaction or gesturing on a touch screen smart phone.

Sensitive interpersonal skills come into play when a conversation partner must be identified by voice or when sighted assistance must be requested. All these are conquered by learning and practice, leaving only the misery of transportation until the day of civilized public transit or safe, affordable driverless cars.

Where does one start recovering from vision loss?

When the page text becomes wiggly or haze surrounds you or objects jump into your path, eye doctors may help for a while, but there’s no miracle cure for effects of aging, sunlight, and genetics. Struggling to drive, read, walk, recognize faces, or see computer screens tell you it’s time to find vision rehabilitation. Medical interventions (except for cataract removal) rarely restore vision. Don’t deny, bargain, get angry, or become dependent when it’s time to learn new ways of doing things.

A great starting place is Macular Degeneration Support ( You’ll find ongoing discussions about treatments, vitamins, iPads, good lamps, photography, travel, smart phones, and just about everything a Macular Degenerate lives with. We share secrets, such as the frequency of visual hallucinations called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Guide books and tips abound. The community is international and multi-generational.

Another great resource is the “Eyes on Success” weekly podcast interviews with vision loss survivors, eyesight professionals, technologists, hobbyists, sportsters, and employed workers. A friendly pair of retired scientists in Rochester NY, one blind and one sighted, have compiled a library of easy listening MP3 files and show notes.

Where do I go for local help?

Locally, here are resources beyond the vision medical professionals who do not customarily offer vision rehabilitation as described above. Veterans have great residential training in Tucson. Students grow through school disability services and special education programs. People seeking jobs have state Department of Economic Services special programs and assistance to work. Otherwise retired people must generally develop and implement their own rehabilitation programs.

  1. The ‘People Who Care’ nonprofit offers “Confident Living” introductions to topics in Vision Rehabilitation and Causes of Vision Loss. Limited transportation and other elder support services are also available. Six-week seminars are presented when funding is available.
  2. Georgeanne Hanna is a contact with and certified rehabilitation contractor for state services that also assist retired individuals. Her phone is 928-775-5857. Watch for Public Service Announcements. Orientation and mobility trainers can be imported at state expense upon request.
  3. The Disability Empowerment Center (formerly New Horizons Independent Living center) provides independent living services for people with various disabilities, and a transportation system based in Prescott Valley. Call and ask whether vision rehabilitation services are currently available.
  4. Yavapai Library Network sites have assistive computers for people who know how to use magnification and audio assistance. Contacts are available for the National Library service “talking books” program.
  5. YC OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) offers occasional workshops on vision and hearing loss adaptation.
  6. Prescott Fine Arts Theater honors requests for front row seating for visually impaired people and companions.
  7. Lions clubs underwrite medical and optical services for low income persons and occasional publicized events. Clarification of their services would be appreciated in the comments of this website, especially to identify matches with needs expressed here.
  8. Warning!!! Former organizations now defunct include: Northern Arizona Vision and Hearing Loss, “old blind center”, Yavapai Association for Blind and Visually Impaired (YABVI), “new blind center”. Check out carefully Daily Courier articles for dates referring to services gone from the troubled trail of Prescott vision supporters.

In summary, People Who Care Confident Living Seminars and state DES rehabilitation coordinators are the primary currently active resources. A mobile person losing vision should also consider relocating to gain a full multi-month training program from a facility such as Southern Arizona Association for Visually Impaired.

What help is available from government?

  • AZ Department of Economic Services supports a local vision rehabilitation professional (see above), special services for vocational training, and limited assistive technology. An online directory is available.
  • In 2014 Prescott established Disability and Accessibility coordination mandated by the 1990 American Disabilities Act (A.D.A). Call the city information line or The federal website expands on citizen rights, organization responsibilities, and procedures for grievance.

    Many cities have a Disability Services Coordination council based in the Mayor’s office, alas not Prescott, but maybe in Prescott Valley. Audio alerts for street crossing are available only on Willow Creed Road near Embry-Riddle but not downtown. Sidewalk barriers, icy patches, overhanging branches, and unsafe construction should be reported to City Streets and Code Enforcement (they do respond). Visitors to downtown Prescott should not expect comfortable, safe walking conditions.

  • with A.D.A. enforcement, airlines, banks, and hospitals have trained personnel for providing equitable services. PHX airport provides walking guides through TSA to your gate (tell before checking in). Notable within Prescott are bank “talking tellers” for automated cash withdrawal (e.g. Chase Bank). Checkout devices at stores are now equipped for accessibility and privacy, e.g. typing in a PIN, but may not be enabled or known to checkout personnel.
  • social Security offers documents and transmittals in electronic formats on CD.

What do blindness support organizations offer?

The following groups are knowledgeable about all aspects of vision loss and advocate for improvements that benefit people with disabilities. Organizations that accept charity contributions are not necessarily well informed about Active Daily Living, Orientation and Mobility, assistive technology, the A.D.A, or the interface between medical and social service systems (but they should be). “Helping the visually impaired” requires education, awareness of needs, and accountability.

  • The American Council for the Blind (ACB) and National Federation of the Blind (NFB) advocate and educate on blindness issues that benefit people with all kinds of vision loss. State affiliates hold annual conferences and support local chapters (but not currently in Prescott).
  • The American Federation for the Blind (AFB) has special websites for seniors and is affiliated with the Vision Aware service. A monthly newsletter evaluates technology
  • specializes in macular degeneration with myriad free downloadable guides and an ongoing support mailing list.
  • Books and newspapers are available from, with a library of over 400,000 fiction/nonfiction, adult/adolescent volumes readable on the website or downloadable to book readers. The NFB NewsLine offers national newspapers and magazines in various formats and reading services, available also through BookShare. National Library (NLS) provides narrated books played on free) devices.

How about technology?

  • PC and Mac computers have built-in magnification and voice support. For Mac, VoiceOver is a click away while for PC a free NVDA package is easily installed. Various $1000 commercial products offer versatile magnification and audio with support and training. These “screen readers” enable a synthetic voice to speak web pages, documents, and buttons or typing. The technology is great, but the learning curve is steep and trainers are scarce.
  • Elegant hand-held devices can read books from NLS or Bookshare, notably Victor Reader Stream and BookSense. Amazon Kindle and Nook devices are not usable without sighted assistance.
  • The smart phone has put mainstream devices into the hands of people without full vision but with sufficient hearing. The iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch have Voice Over built in to read buttons as fingers glide across the screen as well as text in mail and web pages. Book reader apps from Bookshare, Apple, NLS, Amazon enable downloading and listening to books, magazines, and documents.

  • Smart phone apps provide walking navigation, location awareness, remote identification of photographed objects, reading money, and other assistance. Many games and apps are fully accessible. Speech recognition increasingly replaces keyboarding. Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) are fully accessible by voice (use Triple Click Home to start). Android devices lag Apple in both capabilities and training, varying across models and manufacturers. Verizon and Apple store personnel can assist in turning on these devices but only practice will determine whether they meet vision needs.

  • The blindness communities maintain a “Internet radio network” of interviews, demonstrations, and advice on all topics related to vision loss and especially technology.,, and have highly informative weekly updates. These are MP3 files for subscription and downloading as podcasts via iTunes or podcatcher apps.
  • Hand-held readers also serve as recorders for presentations, memos, and bookmarks. Some also provide radios with audible controls.
  • Apps can remotely recognize and label record contents of files and food cans. Color identifiers, GPS systems, and talking thermostats exist to overcome daily eye sight annoyances. The coming Internet of Things offers in-home devices that recognize speech, read out device information, and operate remotely. Be sure you understand the surveillance capabilities of such devices as well as how failures can lock you out or inadvertently activate other devices.

  • Twitter social media is a river of news about technology and blindness under the keyword #accessibility and people like slger123 and all major vision-related organizations and federal agencies.

See the “Talking Assistive Technology” page on this website for links to products.

Where can I get more information on vision rehabilitation in the Prescott region?

This web page is your current best bet for information. Its author is a legally blind technologist. She survived the sparse services available in Prescott by seeking resources for self-rehabilitation. She has attended national and state assistive technology exhibitions and visited vision rehabilitation centers in Tucson and San Diego. She’s a user of assistive technologies and a constant tracker of external services. Ask her anything about vision rehabilitation and she’ll find an answer.

Please add comments with additional services, corrections, or opinions. Anyone interested in taking over this web page and keeping it up to date is welcome to the information compiled so far.

Isn’t it time Prescott had full service vision rehabilitation for retired people with vision loss? Following the MDSupport motto “No one should leave an eye doctor’s office thinking their situation is hopeless”, vision loss is a journey of learning and adaptation and challenges that build on established rehabilitation practices and abundant technologies. Why can’t Central Yavapai have a branch of such a facility? Advocacy needed!!!

Send corrections and additions to or leave a message 928.445.6960.

Links to Resources

Other Posts in “As Your World Changes”

This blog started as a way to reclaim writing skills. These earlier posts convey the spirit of a changing world as vision degrades and skills increase.

Warnings About Web Misinformation

  • Web searches in Google, DuckDuckGo, Bing often link to misleading or outdated web pages. Sometimes links go to local white/yellow page directories driven by advertising.

  • The following organizations are defunct: Northern Arizona Vision and Hearing Loss Center; Yavapai Blind Center; YABVI Blind Center;; and related terms. There is no blind center on Washington Street, vacated in 2007. The phone number 928-778-0055 is disconnected. If you receive a brochure or read an article about this location, facility, or phone number, please correct the mis-informant. YABVI (Yavapai Association for Blind and Visually Impaired) appears to be a restructuring of a previous organization, now managed funds by a group of eye doctors.

  • No attempt is made here to assure accessibility of web sites beyond ascertaining content using Firefox with the NVDA screen reader. Some resources use PDF documents difficult to use with a screen reader.

  • Resources here focus on “vision rehabilitation” rather than medical treatments typically billed to Medicare or insurance. Vision Rehabilitation includes: Orientation and Mobility Training, walking with a long white cane and safely crossing streets; Active Daily Living, tricks and techniques for optimizing remaining vision in everyday life; reading newspapers and books; and using technology by magnification or voice interaction.

National Level Organizations

Vision Information and Support

Federal Government

Under the Americans with Disabilities act we can claim equal access to most resources. However, “civil rights are not self-enforcing”. The following websites address issues of equality and offer many paths to further public information.

  1., connecting the disability community with information and opportunities drill down by state and topic, e.g. to Arizona and Transportation.
  2. White House Disabilities Coordination including monthly conference calls
  3. Federal Elections Help Americans Vote Act implemented by Yavapai County, supporting private and independent voting on site
  4. FCC 21st Century Communication Act covers cell phones,audio and video descriptions, and PLAN, the Personalized network for public safety alerts
  5., the law, policies, enforcement’s.Dept of Justice and YRMC settlement on training citizen complaint invokes A.D.A. to change procedures and train staff

State Level Organizations


  1. Directory of services from Department of Economic Security

  2. AZ Governor Council on Blind and Visually Impaired

  3. SunSounds Reading Services
  4. Assistive Tech Training Center (Cottonwood)
  5. National Library Service Talking Book Arizona contact

Resource Centers

  1. SAAVI (Southern Arizona Association for Visually Impaired (Tucson), website describes full service vision rehabilitation
    Arizona Center for Visually Impaired (Phoenix)
  2. (PDF) ViewFinders Low Vision Resource Directory (PDF)

  3. VRATE, Vision Reabilitation and Asstive Technology Expo is held annually in Phoenix, free, excellent coverage of state-wide capabilities

  4. Arizona Assistive Technology Exchange

Chapters of national organizations

  1. AZ Council for Blind
  2. NFB (National Federation for the Blind) Arizona Resources

Yavapai County and Prescott Area


  1. State Department of Economic Security Rehabilitation sustains local vision rehabilitation and coordinates orientation and mobility training.
  2. Prescott Public Library may have screen readers on notebooks and vision aware Computer
    Mentors. Also provides membership with National Library Service.

  3. City of Prescott Accessibility and disability coordination (A.D.A) Meeting the A.AD.A law!!!

Nonprofit and other services

  1. Georgeanne Hanna Certified Vision Therapist and Certified Low Vision Therapist,, phone 928.775.5857. Contact directly to arrange state rehabilitation services.

  2. Disability Empowerment (formerly New Horizons Independent Living) Center (Prescott Valley)
  3. “People Who Care Confident Living Seminar (

Technology Assistance

  1. Verizon can turn on iPhone VoiceOver, Triple-click-home
  2. Best Buy sells Apple products with good accessibility (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) and Android tablets with unpredictable accessibility
  3. Chase (and maybe other) banks have “talking ATM” machines that read menus into earphones to dispense cash and perform other services.
  4. Yavapai College Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers a track of technology courses.

  5. Prescott MAC and PC clubs have held programs on assistive technology

Revised July 25 2016,
“As Your world Changes” article on “Living Visually Impaired in Prescott AZ” — 2016

Prescott Needs a Community Inclusive Disability Council

Scooter and Sticky Analyze Their Community Disability Life Situations

Scooter and Sticky are enjoying their occasional Gimp girl luncheons at Ted’s Pizza on the Square. Taking turns interviewing each other about their respective disabilities, services, adjustments, and continuing constructive life style changes orchestrates their rambling. They both admire the statement from the White House lawn celebrating 20th anniversary of the A.D.A. that “Civil rights are not self-enforcing”. However, practical daily life strategies for different disabilities vary greatly and consume so much energy. Their discussions challenge them back on their respective tracks toward goals within shifting social systems neither fully understands. It’s scooter’s turn to quiz Sticky to organize her recent experience

  1. Scooter:
    Hey, how’s your perennial search for services comparable to SAAVI in Tucson or Lighthouses around the country?

    Growl. As far as I can tell, New Horizons is still the main game in town, actually way out there in PV. Yet another vision specializing occupational therapist closed up her practice, and I’ll miss her. New Horizons and some other “vendors” held a Low Vision Expo at the Adult Center where I met some new Vision Losers, but I’m not appraised of the exhibit’s after effects. I met a home schooling mom of two children with disabilities in the PPL elevator who confirmed my experience. It’s hard to get services except by piggybacking on vocational rehab or school special ed if you are retired.

    I just keep wondering how many other folks like me are out there looking for services, not even sure what they really need. Who in Prescott would have stats on my, or your disabilities, like how many diagnosed and how many being served? And how do people get referred around the state, medical, charity, nonprofit, etc. like groups? Somebody must know, but our intuitions raise the right questions.

  2. Scooter:
    Don’t the eye doctors handle that? You mean, they don’t address like how your life changes and where to get help?

    Not often in my experience. One referred me to Second Sight rehab but that operation is long gone. Usually they send you off to the Phoenix based Low Vision practices which offer high priced reading equipment as well as magnifier thingys. But nobody on the medical side seems to have a charge code for dealing with life changing effects of their diagnoses.

    My best source for about 15 years has been, run by retired music teacher Dan Roberts. His motto is that “no patient should leave after a diagnosis feeling it’s hopeless”. That website and mailing list is a Wikipedia of vision-related information and the mailing list for Macular Degenerates regularly connects cool people and their diverse experiences. But the docs ignore anything not optical or retinal and live over in another silo. This predicament is national, really international, so MdSupport helps patients prepare questions to prod information out of the medical people.

    There’s also locally People Who Care seminar on Confident Living that introduces vendors if you happen to hear of it by word of mouth or Daily Courier notices. This is good introductory information but progressive vision loss means continued learning new skills for the rest of our lifetimes. I’m proof of how much a motivated person can learn on her own, but, let me tell you, it’s really hard work for my family as well as myself.

  3. Scooter:
    So, exactly what kinds of services are you talking about?

    First, and foremost, is OMT, Orientation and Mobility Training. Like how to use my precious $35 white cane, clamber up stairs, find buildings, and, horrors, cross streets. I had to wait a year after getting put on the list for state paid OMT specialist Kim in Sedona but she retired or quit. Finally, I broke down at the People Who Care seminar I went to and got lined up for lessons with a Special Ed OMT person during the summer. Those few lessons gave me independence and staved off isolation, with Yavapai College as my main OMT practice area and now playground for courses at OLLI. Ironic that the cost of that OMT would be far less than any single trip to the ER! but OMT isn’t generally available.

    Other stuff Lighthouse and SAAVI do are called ADL, Active Daily Living, like cooking, labeling clothes, signing checks, and other things you never thought about needing to learn. Braille literacy and computing technology, too, of course. My favorite Prescott helper,, probably unknown to anybody else, is the Talking ATM at Chase Bank – plug in ear buds, listen to menus, punch the keypad, and walk off with your cash. Beautiful!

  4. Scooter:
    A lot of that sounds like regular training to upgrade your skills. How do you keep up? What are all those gadgets you carry around?

    For years I’ve listened to podcasts which I automatically download to hear recorded demonstrations, interviews, group discussions, even book clubs, all organized by Blind people. Like Main Menu from the American Council for the Blind, community rooms, and Blind Cool Tech. It took some mind warping, but I crossed a cultural boundary when I discovered how much the Blind could teach me living partially sighted.

    A friend took me to exhibits spread across several hotels at LAX showing all the assistive tech products I’d heard about on podcasts. Even Stevie Wonder showed up at one booth I was scouting. So, I bought a lot of listening devices and shifted all my reading, TV watching, and writing to using these audio feedback hand-held gadgets. Here, this black phone looking box, called a BookSense, has over 1000 books I’ve collected from Bookshare, a volunteer and publisher supported distribution system. For $50 annual BookShare fees, I also get NYTimes best sellers and NewsLine NYTimes, Washington Post, New Yorker, and more. Reading just keeps getting better and rarely causes me much hassle.

    Now, this past year, I’ve picked up the iPhone, really a little computer with an ecosystem of apps that merge specialized assistive tech into the mainstream. Like, my iPhone tells me currency, sends away pictures I cannot identify for near instant interpretation, plays my podcasts, scrolls my Twitter TimeLine, and also reads books and news. A little voice tracks my fingers moving on the screen and gives me complete control of the device.

    My computer setup is a simple Windows netbook, costing about $300, with a free screen reader to feedback my keyboarding and speak out text on the screen. I think I spent about $1500 in 2011, not as much as most years, for upgrades, new tech, and services. Students and employees get more expensive stuff through tax paid funds, boosting prices in the so-called disability-industrial complex, so people like me are paying out of our retirement funds. Ouch, but worth it!

  5. Scooter:
    So, you must be a great community resource! Do you give courses in this tech wizardry?

    sure I do offer but most people losing vision have trouble making this tech transition. Our brains have to shift from seeing to hearing and most people want to hang on using vision as long as possible. Magnifying from their computers works, but is very slow. I’ve helped a trainer from New Horizons learn the computer screen reader I use, called NVDA. But there isn’t a critical mass of local users like me to convince new Vision Losers to try mysterious gadgets and overcome what I’ve dubbed Synthetic Voice Shock.

    Honestly, it’s lots of hard work to learn all this, took me many months on each gadget to get comfortable. We need more teachers and understanding of how this tech works. My best experiences have been a 2 hour session on “Using Things That talk” at OLLI. And I have a nicely organized collection of the podcasts I’ve learned from that I can distribute on DVD or 4GB flash drive.

  6. Scooter:
    If I understand you correctly, most of what you Vision Losers need is out there, but not integrated into any location in Prescott, let alone understood by the medical profession. What is the crux of this problem?

    It’s like the whole system is broken, locally. Nationally there may be a serious lack of trained vision rehab specialists,made worse by geographical distribution. It takes enough consumers, i.e. Vision Losers like me, to support these services, but there also must be a healthy referral chain from eye doctors and sharing of personnel among retirees, employment seekers, and students. It’s a mess! And nobody has the stats out in the public of this city to help understand how big a mess!

    Now, remember, this isn’t charity we need. Occasional potlucks or outings might be nice, but personally I want to maintain and grow my relationships among people with broad interests, like AAUW and YC OLLI, and maybe even an OCCUPY or political sideline. Plus family and remote friends.

    Of course, lack of public transportation is a major barrier, but asking for that invites a smack down. “Costs too much! Gotta keep every street re paved and broadened and make people think this is a great place to retire”. That brings up another topic, about how much money is really sitting around in nonprofits or federal funds or raised annually that could generally improve services? Who knows? Who cares?

    One cool idea I’ve heard about elsewhere is an “Aging in Place Concierge” service. I actually used something like this in Tucson, called Red Rose, two women operators who would do whatever you needed for flat rates, like $35/hr. Pet sitting, rides, mail sorting, light repair, whatever plus knowing the existence and quality of services for outsourcing. I’d love to find that in Prescott!

  7. Scooter:
    I heard about some new communications practices that seemed important, like preventing loss of life as in Katrina. Did you participate in an emergency preparedness test last year?

    No, was there one? I think it’s the national effort in the FCC that is rolling out those tests. Like not relying only on radio and those scrolling lines on TV screens I cannot read will be replaced by a system sending notices in forms I could use, including ring tones, vibrations, and text messages on my iPhone. But communities have to take responsibility for linking up with the funding and implementation of that national provision. Who in Prescott does that? Where do I sign up?

    Out of curiosity last year, I joined in listening to the White House Disability monthly conference call. Lots of info, like transportation regulation changes, oh, wait, not to worry there. But medical, independent housing, broadband, education, across the board good stuff is happening. But not locally unless someone is on their toes to learn and spread the word. Who would that be?

  8. Scooter:
    Just wondering, do you ever hear the A.D.A. mentioned in your circles within Prescott?


    Oh, the YRMC got a little play in the Daily Courier and a big notice in DisabilityScoop and last year. Actually, it sounds like they did the right thing, training their personnel, after a deaf complaint denying ASL. I wonder if that training is available at other city sites.

    It would also be interesting to know how many A.D.A. complaints and grievances have been filed and how they were resolved. Like the VA, colleges, and city parks and streets are covered. YC campus is pretty habitable, at least for this long cane walker. However, I don’t understand how anybody on scooter or wheelchair or care-giver arm can negotiate those advertising placards in front of every store downtown. Often I get stuck among them, the benches, and plants or run smack into oncoming pedestrian or bike traffic as I decide which way to go around those damned barriers. Another common problem is construction on sidewalks, like how am I to know how to get around a ditch or find another route? And, ice on sidewalks and bridges gives me weeks of Cabin Fever, missing my 1.5 mile daily walk on those blessed smooth streets. But who do you contact about these problems
    , trying to avoid a formal complaint? Do you know?

    Hey, Scooter, do you know the term TAB, as in Temporarily Able Bodied? Not like other civil rights, disability is a category anybody can join any time. And everybody will join if they live long enough. Plus, disability doesn’t happen just to individuals but also to that person’s family, friends, and colleagues. Yes, disability should be a universal concern.

  9. Scooter:
    sounds like there are Lucky Vision Losers who won the lottery being located near services. And then there are Unlucky Vision Losers stuck in a frayed web of confusing groups with no central organization looking after them?
    What do other cities and regions do?

    A quick web search turns up many “Mayor Disability Council” where city offices, disability service vendors, charities, and, most important, disabled people themselves. You can even listen in on recordings of the San Francisco Disability Council, with transit, independent living, A.D.A. complaints, and more on the agenda with feedback and suggestions from “consumers”, i.e. people with disabilities, many far worse than you and I experience.

  10. Scooter:
    Eureka! Let’s get together with more representatives of other disabilities and form some kind of Community Council that really addresses these problems we’ve been talking about.

    Great idea! Read on fora draft to get us started. Educate! Advocate! Liberate!

Prescott Arizona Really Needs a Disability Council

  1. Collect and publicize data on services available, services provided, and services needed
  2. Publicize and implement federal and state guidelines and mechanisms, such as emergency preparedness
  3. Coalesce and channel charity, nonprofit, federal/state/city funds toward services as articulated by citizens with disabilities
  4. Match citizens with disabilities to boards, advisory groups, city committees, etc.
  5. Publicize and accept A.D.A. complaints and grievances and promulgate resolutions
  6. Support peer communication among people with different as well as same disabilities and common needs
  7. Provide public training on organizing events, managing facilities, and communicating with persons with disabilities

What do other cities do with their disability services and citizens with disabilities?

Chatanooga Mission Statement

The Mayor’s Council on Disability’s overall mission is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that give equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability; and to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.

A Blogger Treasure, Walking No More

Julie Woodman aka “Granny J” at Walking Prescott blog

Julie and her blog were genuine treasures for the Prescott community. She inspired other bloggers to seek honesty, humor, and beauty in our writing. We all aspire to her level of blogging for ourselves and others.

And here is her post on Bloggery 101 Social Media Class which helped us learn her blogging philosophy. Now, don’t let anybody tell you blogging isn’t for people of all ages!

The ‘Talking ATM’ Is My Invisible Dream Machine.

A twitter message alerted me to a milestone I surely didn’t care about a decade ago, but really appreciate now. This post explains how easy it is to use a Talking ATM. People with vision impairment might want to try out this hard-won disability service if not already users. Sighted people can gain insight and direct experience with the convenience of talking interfaces. But, hey, why shouldn’t every device talk like this?

The Milestone: 10 years of the Talking ATM

The history is well told in commemorative articles published in 2003. References below.
Pressure from blind individuals and advocacy organizations circa 2000, with the help of structured negotiators (lawyers), led banks to design and roll out Automated Teller Machines equipped with speech. Recorded audio wav files were replaced by synthetic voices that read instructions and lead the customer through a menu of transactions.

first, I’ll relate my experience and then extrapolate on broader technology and social issues.

My Talking ATM Story

As my vision slid away in 2006, I could no longer translate the wobbly lines and button labels on my ATM screen to comfortably perform routine cash withdrawals. Indeed, on one fateful Sunday afternoon I inserted my card, then noticed an unfamiliar pattern on the screen. Calling in my teenage driver, we noticed several handwritten notes indicating lost cards in the past hour. I had just enough cash in hand to make it through a Monday trip out of town, and immediately called the bank upon return Tuesday. A series of frustrating interactions ensued, like my ATM card could only be replaced by my coming in to enter a new PIN. But how was I to get to the office without a driver or cab fare when I was out of cash?

This seemed like a good time to familiarize myself with audio ATM functions, to lessen risk of having another card gobbled by a temporarily malfunctioning station. With lingering bad feelings about the branch of the Sunday fiasco, I recalled better experience at a different office after my six month saga on reversal of mortgage over-payment. Lesson learned—never put an extra 0 in a $ box and always listen or look carefully at verification totals.

I strolled into the quiet office and asked customer service to explain the audio teller operations. The pleasant service person whipped out a big headset and we headed out to the ATM station. Oddly, most stations are located in office alcoves or external walls. This one was outside the drive-by window to be shared by pedestrian and automotive customers.
ok, waiting for traffic to clear, we went through a good intro. I wasn’t as familiar with audio interfaces at that point in my Vision Loser life but I eventually worked up courage in the next few weeks to tackle the ATM myself with my own ear buds.

Well, 3 years later, I’m a pro and can get my fast cash in under a minute, unless my ear buds get tangled or I drop my cane. First problem is figuring out how to get in line, like standing behind a truck’s exhaust or walking out before a monster SUV. Usually I hang back, looking into the often dry bed of Granite Creek until the line is empty. Next step is to stand my white cane in a corner of the ATM column, feel around for the audio opening hidden in a ridged region, wait for the voice to indicate the station is live, shove in my card, and ready to roll. The voice, probably Eloquence, usually drones into a “Please listen carefully as the instructions have changed…”. Shut up, this will only take a minute and I don’t need to change volume or speed. Enter, type PIN, retype PIN if commonly hit a wrong key, and on to Main Menu (thinking of ACB Radio’s Technology jingle). 6 button down to Fast Cash, on by 20,…100,…, confirm and click, chug comes cash, receipt, and release of card. Gather up receipt, card, cane, and — important — remove ear buds, and I’m on my way.

Occasionally things go wrong. Recently, my receipt didn’t appear and customer service rep and I did a balance request and out spat two receipts, both mine. Kind of nerve wracking as somebody else could have intervened and learned of my great wealth. The customer service rep vowed to call in maintenance on the ATM, but I bet a few more receipts got wadded up that afternoon. Electro-mechanical failures often foil sophisticated software.

Another time, I finished my Fast Cash and waited for card release only to be given a “have we got a good deal for you” long-winded offer of a credit card. I wasn’t sure how to cancel out and still get my ATM card back. since I lecture family on the evils of the credit card, I was fuming at a double punishment. Complaining to the customer service rep inside, I learned sighted people were also not thrilled at this extra imposed step.

Now, to reveal the identity of the ATM, it’s Chase Bank, formerly Bank One, on Gurley Street near the historic Whisky Row of downtown Prescott AZ.
Although I haven’t performed any complex ATM interactions, it’s fair to say I’m a satisfied user and would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone with good hearing unafraid to perform transactions with engines and radios and cell conversations roaring all around. An indoor ATM would be a good step someday but, hey, this is a conservative town, not particularly pedestrian friendly. Mainly I appreciate that I can get my cash as part of a routine just like other people and I don’t even use up extra gasoline waiting in line.

Broader Issues of Talking Transactions

Does the ATM voice induce Synthetic Voice Shock?

I coined the term in Synthetic Voice Shock Reverberates Across the Divides to explain responses I heard about voices offered in assistive technologies to overcome vision loss. Personally, I hated Eloquence when I first heard it demonstrated but I rapidly grew to love my Precise Paul and friends as I realized that (1) the voices really were understandable and (2) I didn’t have any choice if I wanted to keep reading. I now wonder how people like me, slowly losing vision while off the rehab grid, learn about Talking ATM and related services. It hurts to think people give up that one step of independence from not knowing whom to ask or even if such services exist. And supposing someone does step up to an ATM ready to listen, are they tuned in to hearing synthetic speech sufficiently to make an informed choice whether the Talking Teller is an appropriate service for them? Did the Disability Rights movement fight through a decade only to have a generation of drop-outs from oldsters with difficulty adjusting to vision loss, a panoply of technology, and no-longer-young nerves?

Are Audio E-voting and Talking ATM’s Close Cousins?

I have described my experiences in 2008 voting without viewing. The voting device is a keypad like offered by the ATM I use while the voice is a combination of human narrated candidate and race announcements interspersed with synthetic speech instructions and navigation. I found this mode of voting satisfying, compared with having someone read the ballot to and mark for me. However, even my well-attuned ears and fingers seemed to get in trouble with speech speedup and slowdown, which I blame on poor interaction design. Note that many ATM and voting systems have origins in the NCR and Die bold product lines so usability and accessibility research lessons should carry over.

Why aren’t all check-out services as easy as banking?

I buy something at a store and then have a hassle at check-out finding a box on a screen or buttons I cannot see for typing in a debit card PIN. I’ve never understood why I can give a credit card number over a phone without signing but must sign if I swipe it on checkout. And giving a PIN to a family member or stranger isn’t good practice. Sometimes check-out can get really nasty as when a checker wouldn’t let me through because my debit card swiper was only age 20 – it’s my debit card, my groceries, my wine, and I’ll show you a social security age ID card. Geez, now we’re nervous every time we check out a Safeway since Aunt Susan has a short fuse after a tiring shopping session. If only the Point of sale thing talked and had tactile forms of PIN entry. I ask Safeway when accessible check-out will be possible and let them know the store has a visually impaired regular shopper.

Is audio interaction a literacy issue?

We are actually on track to a world where everything talks: microwave ovens, cards, color tellers, security systems, thermostats, etc. Text to speech is a commodity additional feature to onboard processors in digital devices. Indeed, we can hope this feature slips out of the aura of assistive technology into the main stream to enlarge the range of products and capabilities available to everybody. Why shouldn’t manuals be built in to the device, especially since the device is soon after purchase separated forever from its printed material? Why shouldn’t diagnostics be integrated with speech rather than provided on bitty screens hard to read for everybody? How about making screens the add-on features with audio as the main output channel?

Let’s generalize here and suggest the need for a simple training module to help people with recent vision loss get accustomed to working keypads accompanied by synthetic speech. Who could offer such training? I asked around at the CSUN exhibits and haven’t yet found an answer. There are multiple stages here, like producing a book and then distributing to end users via libraries or rehab services. My experience is that social services are hard enough to find and often more available to people who have already suspended independent activities.

The outreach problem is real. Finally, I’d like to express my appreciation to the activists, educators, and lawyers who convinced banking organizations and continue to work on retailers to make my “money moments” conventional and un stressful. The “talking ATM” shows what is possible not only for business but also for the broader opportunities sketched out above. Let all devices talk, I wish.

References on Talking ATMs

  1. Background and excellent overview compiled by Disability Civil Rights Attorney Lainey Feingold>

  2. Blind Cool Tech demos of talking devices

  3. Talking ATM on wikipedia

  4. Swedish choice of Acapella voices for ATMs for more modern sounding speech. Demos available on website.

  5. Chase bank and Access Technologies ATM collaboration

  6. (PDF) 2003 case study of Talking ATM upgrades
    . Bundled features with speech included better encryption and streamlined statement viewing.

  7. The electronic ‘curb cuts’ effect
    by Steve Jacobs

  8. Portfolio of talking information
    based on ATT technology

  9. ‘What to do when you meet a sighted person’ (parody)

Lessons from 2008 ‘As your world changes’

This list compiles postings from 2008 as my Lessons Learned.

Progress in adjusting to vision loss

  1. Analytic approach for personal safety risksThinking about risks
  2. Gearing up and voting independently in 2008 elections Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing
  3. Understanding values of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability
  4. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Understanding of software applications limits and alternatives Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Appreciating the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  7. Identify accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  8. Compile and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
    Hyperlinks considered harmful

  9. Use better information for medical opinions Controversy Discovery Engine

Community Interactions

    Safety issues walking partially sighted in a neighborhood. Thinking about risks

  1. Spreading information and interest in accessible audio voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  3. Illustrating value of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability

Information for Computing Professionals

  1. Success and glitches in accessible electronic voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Explain and demonstrate how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found Hyperlinks considered harmful
  3. Demonstrate and explain the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  4. Future thinking for assistive technology and accessibility Is there a killer app for accessibility?, Curb Cuts principle for rebooting computing,
  5. Demonstrate accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  6. Illustration of quality assurance failure in major software product Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  7. Dissemination of alternative deep search method controversy Discovery Engine

Actions and Follow up

  1. Start ‘accessibility arrow’ monthly series on WCAG standards, and good and bad examples Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  2. Develop “adopt an intersection” accessible street crossing plan Thinking about risks
  3. Learn about emergency preparedness and alert systems for disabled Thinking about risks
  4. Maintain web page of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Investigate SSA, tax, HIPAA, and other official information representations and accessibility Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Revisit and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, <a href=”#Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
  7. recast accessibility, reading, writing, information processing in Computational thinking terms
  8. Promote needs for and opportunities of assistive technology and accessibility at Rebooting Computing summit, January 2009
  9. Recognize and explain high quality software and hardware products, e.g. Jarte editor in screen reader mode
  10. Promote for medical information gathering controversy Discovery Engine

Best Stuff found in 2008

  1. ‘Reading in the dark’ blog for opinions and pointers on books, media studies, and accessibility opportunities. And many other blogs, too.
  2. content platform for supporting edit ability, accessible templates, and tag surfing
  3. Jarte editor for easy editing based on reliable Windows Wordpad engine with added multi-documents, contextual spell checker, and screen reader mode
  4. (PD) Becky Gibson, web accessibility architect
    demo of DOJO keyboard, high contrast, and screen reader demos of ARIA applications

Links to blog postings

  1. Thinking about Risks blog Permalink
    December 2008

  2. Accessible voting worked blog Permalink
    November 2008

  3. Using the Curb Cuts Principle blog Permalink
    October 2008

  4. Literacy blog Permalink
    September 2008

  5. Voting Without Viewing blog Permalink
    August 2008

  6. Synthetic Voice Shock blog Permalink
    July 2008

  7. Hyperlinks Considered Harmful blog PermalinkJuly 2008

  8. Controversy Discovery Engine for Medical Opinions
    June 2008

  9. Technology for nonVisual Reading blog Permalink
    June 2008

  10. Writing by Listening blog Permalink
    May 2008

  11. Identity Cane and Disability Culture blog Permalink May 2008
    May 2008

  12. Intuit against High Contrast blog Permalink
    March 2008

  13. ‘Hear me stumble’ blog Permalink March 2008

  14. Killer App for Accessibility blog Permalink
    January 2008

  15. Prescott Visually Impaired Services blog Permalink
    January 2008

All posts for 2008 — HTML and audio

Thinking about Blindness, Risks, and Safety Trade-offs

Facing safety trade-offs through risk management

It’s time to structure my wanderings and face denial about the special problems of dangers of living with partial eyesight. This post starts a simple framework for analyzing risks and defining responses. Sighted readers may become aware of hassles and barriers presented to Vision Losers who may learn a few tricks from my experience.

Life is looking especially risky right now: financial follies, pirate attacks, natural disasters, ordinary independent activities, … A Vision Loser needs special precautions, planning, and constant vigilance. So, here I go trying to assemble needed information in a format I can use without freaking myself back into a stupor of denial.

Guiding Lesson: Look for the simplest rule that covers the most situations.

Appeals to experts and clever web searches usually bring good information, lots of it, way more than I can use. I discussed this predicament in the context of Literacy when I realized I couldn’t read the pie charts sufficiently well to understand asset allocations. I had 500 simulations from my “wealth manager”, projections to age 95, and my own risk profiles. But what I needed was a simple rule to live by, that fit these, now absurd, models, like

“Live annually on 4% of your assets”.

Another rule, one I obey, that could have saved $trillions is like:

Housing payment not to exceed 1/3 Income.

Such rules help focus on the important trade-offs of what we can and cannot do sensibly rather than get bogged down in complex models and data we can’t fully understand or properly control. If we can abstract an effective rule from a mass of details, then we might be able to refresh the rule from time to time to ask what changes in the details materially affect the rule and what adjustments can cover these changes. We can also use generally accepted rules to validate and simplify our models. This is especially important for the partially sighted since extra work goes into interpreting what can be seen and considerable guess work into what’s out there unseen.

I need comparable safety rules to internalize, realizing their exceptions and uncertainty. Old rules don’t work too well, like “Look both ways before crossing the street”. also listen, but what about silent cars. Or “turn on CNN for weather information” if I can’t read the scrolling banners.

Background from Software risk management

When I taught software engineering, the sections on project management always emphasized the need for Risk Management in the context of “why 90% of software projects fail”. This subject matter made the basis for a good teamwork lab exercise: prioritize the risks for a start up project. I dubbed this hypothetical project Pizza Central, a web site to compare local pizza deals and place orders, with forums for pizza lovers. Since all students are domain experts on both pizza deliveries and web site use, they could rapidly fill out a given template. Comparing results always found a wide divergence of risks among teams, some focused on website outage, others on interfaces, some on software platforms. So, one lesson conveyed among teams was “oops, we forgot about that”. My take-away for them was that this valuable exercise was easy enough to do but required assigned responsibilities for mitigating risks, tracking risk indicators, and sometimes unthinkable actions, like project cancellation.

I am about to try a bit of this medicine on myself now. Risk is a complicated subject, see Wikipedia. I’ll use the term as “occurrence of a harmful event” in the context of a project or activity. The goal is to mitigate both the occurrences and effects of these nasty events. But we also need indicators to tell when an event is ongoing or has happened. Since mitigation has a cost of response both to prevent and recover from events, it helps to have prioritization of events by likelihood and severity. So, envision a spreadsheet with event names, ratings for likelihood, severity, and costs, perhaps with a formula to rank importance. Associated with these events are lists of indicators, proposed mitigation actions with estimated costs. This table becomes part of a project plan with assigned actions for mitigations and risk tracking awareness across team members as a regular agenda item at project meetings..

Risk analysis for my workout/relaxation walk

I will follow this through on the example of my daily workout walk. I do not use my white cane because I feel safe enough, but really, is this a good tradeoff? Without the cane, I can walk briskly, arms swinging, enjoying shadows, tree outlines, and the calls of quail in the brush. The long white cane pushes my attention into the pavement, responding to minor bumps and cracks my strides ignore, and there’s even a rhythm to the pavement that adjusts my pace to a safe sensation. I would not think of walking without my guiding long white cane on a street crowded with consumers or tourists but this walk covers familiar terrain at a time frequented by other recreational walkers. This situation is a trade-off unique to the partially sighted, who only themselves can know what they can safely see and do, living with the inevitable mistakes and mishaps of the physical world.

Here are a few events, with occasional ratings on a 1-10 scale. For this application, I feel it’s more important to ask the right questions, albeit some silly, to surface my underlying concerns and motivate actions.

  1. Event: Struck by lightning, falling tree, or other bad weather hazard

    <Indicators<:Strong winds, thunder, glare ice

    <likelihood<: 8, with walks during

    <Severity<: 9, people do get whacked

    <Mitigation Actions and costs:<

    • -7, look for dark clouds. but Can’t see well enough in all directions over mountains
    • 0, Listen for distant thunder, also golf course warning sirens
    • -1, check CNN and weather channels, but hard to find channel with low accessibility remote and cable box, also reading banners and warning screens not always announced. FIND RELIABLE, USABLE WEATHER CHANNEL, ADD TO FAVORITES
    • Ditto for Internet weather information, but I never am sure I am on a reliable up-to-date website or stream, especially if ad supported
    • Ditto for Radio, using emergency receiver. ACTION: set up and learn to use.
    • For ice patches, choose most level route, beware of ice near bushes where sunlight doesn’t reach for days after a storm, walk and observe during afternoon melting rather than before dusk freezing

    Summary: I should keep emergency radio out and tuned to a station. ACTION needed for other threats than weather, also.

  2. Event: Trip over something

    <Indicators<: Stumbling, breaking stride, wary passers-by

    <likelihood<: 5,

    <Severity<: 6

    <Mitigation Actions and costs:<

    • 0, Follow well-defined, familiar route with smooth pavements, rounded curbs – I DO THIS!
    • Never take a short cut or unpaved path.
    • $100, wear SAS walking shoes with Velcro tabs, NO SHOE LACES to trip over
    • 0, detour around walkers with known or suspected pets on leashes, also with running kids or strollers.
    • 0, take deliberate steps up and down curbs, use curb cuts where available. Remember that gutters below curbs often slope or are uneven. Don’t be sensitive that people are watching you “fondle the curb”.
    • Detour around construction sites, gravel deliveries, … Extra caution on big item trash pickup days when items might protrude from trash at body or head level.
    • Detour around bushes growing out over sidewalks, avoiding bush runners, also snakes (yikes)

    Summary: I feel safe from tripping now that I have eliminated shoe laces and learned, the hard way, not to take curbs for granted.

  3. Event: Hit by some vehicle

    <Indicators<: Movement, perhaps in peripheral vision; noise

    <likelihood<: 5

    <Severity<: 7

    <Mitigation Actions and costs:<

    • 0, stay on sidewalks, if not overgrown by brush
    • 1, walk when others are out and about, expecting auto and bicycle drivers to be aware
    • find a safe, regular road crossing, away from an irregular intersection, and jay walk. Is this wise?
    • Do not walk at times of day when sun may blind drivers, e.g. winter days when sunsets are long and low
    • Do not trust ears. Bicycles are quiet on smooth pavements, move rapidly down hill. Also hybrid cars may run silently.
    • Halt completely when in the vicinity of noisy delivery trucks or car radios. Blending hearing and seeing requires both be at maximum capacity.
    • Remember that eerie white cross memorial indicating a dangerous intersection with cars coming around a blind curve and often running stop sign. Also shout at speeders and careless drivers.
    • REJECTED: Use white cane to warn others I’m limited at seeing them. I don’t think the white cane adds more warning than my active body motion.

    Summary: I am currently using 3 safe routes, must not let mind wander at each intersection and crossing. ACTION: sign a petition for noise indicators on silent motors.

  4. Event: Getting lost

    <Indicators<Unfamiliar houses, pavements, in intersections

    <likelihood< 1,

    <Severity<: 1

    <Mitigation Actions and costs:<

    • Follow same routes through established neighborhoods
    • $1000, get GPS units and training. Consider when I move and need to define new walking routes.
    • Beware or boredom to tempt alternate routes.

    Summary: I used to get lost, turned around in neighborhoods, no longer take those excursions. 3 regular walking paths will do.

  5. Event: Cardiac attack

    <Indicators<: frequent stops, pain, heavy breathing

    <likelihood<: Hey, that’s why I do these walks, to build breathing stamina at an altitude of 5000 ft with several serious up and down hill stretches.

    <Severity<: Something’s gonna get me, hope it’s quick.

    <Mitigation Actions and costs:<

    • Exercise regularly to maintain condition.
    • Checkup when Medicare allows and physicians are available (thanks U.S. health care system)

    Summary: Not to worry as long as walks feel good.

Risk Management Summary

I choose this walk as my primary exercise activity, have integrated it into my daily routine, and generally feel better as well as safe. Eliminating shoe laces removed a major stupid cause of minor stumbling and potential falls. I have avoided unsafe and confusing trajectories. My main fears are: Fedex or UPS delivery trucks, fast downhill bikes, pet greetings, loose children, persistent brush-hidden ice patches. My cane would, in this environment, change attention from moving objects toward pavement which is smooth and uncluttered. The cane would do little to warn off threats — they either notice me or not. I choose to balance my partial sight used cautiously with improving listening skills and opt to walk faster and more comfortably without the leading cane and its frequent catches in cracks and grass.

Actions: While walking may not be the main reasons, I must gear up with that emergency radio for other threats. More generally, I must learn about emergency information sources that fit my vision capabilities.

References on Risks

  1. Wikipedia on Risk
  2. How to for risk management
  3. Risks to the public using software, decades of examples of software-related events and management as risks
  4. ‘Nothing is as Simple’ blog, a phrase to remember and examples
  5. Previous post on Literacy and reading charts, how I discovered I couldn’t read pie chart data
  6. Previous Post ‘Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability’. I have now progressed through orientation and mobility training to using a longer cane with a rolling tip.
  7. Emergency preparedness checklists for Vision Losers — TBD

voting Without Viewing? Yes, but It’s so Slow!

Taking advantage of accessible voting

I decided that since the Help America vote act had encumbered quite a view million $$$ for fancy electronic equipment with accessible extension, I would take my chances to vote as independently as possible this round. Here’s the story of early voting in an Arizona primary. Vision Losers might use this experience to evaluate their own voting options. Other citizens and technologists will learn how electronic voting works for one tech savvy Vision Loser.

Against a background of the sorry state of American voting processes

First, let me say that, as an informed computer scientist, I do not for one nanosecond believe the odds are very high that my voting precinct actually got a correct tally of votes, including mine. I voted on a setup from the infamous Diebold, now renamed to Premiere Election, Systems. There’s just no way any independent assurance organization can reasonably test a black box version of software and hardware, let alone all the combinations of diverse local ballot designs multiple configurations of the setup, and inevitable versions of evolving software. And that’s not worrying about human error by voting board personnel, malicious people, or silly policies like Ohio’s sleep-over procedures. Business ideology has trumped common sense democracy for Americans, unlike Australia and other countries that adopt an open approach.

Here is how I voted in September 2008

A preview and trial at my local voting board

Nevertheless, I wanted my independence and to force myself through the best possible preparation. A few months ago, I paid a visit to the Yavapai county recorder’s Office for a personal trial on a mock ballot so I would be familiar with the equipment. I was reasonably impressed with the audio system, very enthusiastic about the personnel who welcomed the opportunity to try out their audio setup, and comfortable about working the equipment rather than asking someone to read and mark my ballot. I knew the actual voting would be slow and that I needed to do my homework on candidates and races so I could concentrate on the voting act itself.

Getting from sample to real ballot

I was pleased to find a nice little primary coming up in September with early voting several weeks ahead. One primary race is especially important in Arizona district No. 1, to replace rep. Rick Renzi who was indicted on 35 counts of fraud and other bad stuff. With a senator as presumptive Presidential candidate and a 40% voting record, Poor representation of this region for months especially annoys me as economic and social policies have consequences I had not foreseen as I grapple with my own rehabilitation and my family’s future. Both major parties had a good slate of 4 or 5 candidates with experience relative to a highly diverse region of Indian reservations, small cities, and lots of open space.

I made my choice of party and candidate for Congress and began to look for the other races of interest. There were few contests so I assumed the ballot would be a piece of cake. Actually, I had some trouble figuring out the full set of races. I used VoteSmart, the AZ clean elections site, the county listing of candidates, Arizona Republic and Daily Courier candidate blurbs, even Wikipedia. A sample ballot arrived just before my trip to the polling place, but my reader and I were confused about a long list of write-in lines.

The nitty-gritty mechanics of voting

So, as much prepared as I could be, I entered the county office lobby and asked to vote using the audio system. I think I was the first to request this as a flurry of calls upstairs quickly produced an access card to a screen protected by side blinders and the headset and keypad I had used in my previous experiment. Oh, and most important was a chair.

To summarize the audio voting process, you click the appropriate numbered buttons to advance through races, making and confirming choices while hearing the race titles, constraints and candidate names through headphones. There is nothing visual happening. I listened to the instructions and tried to adjust the volume to match both a synthetic voice announcement of races and human recorded reading of candidate names, using female voices. Occasionally, other customers and voters in a noisy lobby overcame the headset ear pads. The input device was a simple phone keypad with larger sized keys, comfortably held in my lap.

Uh, oh, am I in a loop?

I moved quickly through my choice for the congressional and legislative races. Then things became unfamiliar with more races for county offices and state supreme Court seats all with only a write-in option. Not having any choice, I kept hitting 6 to next race, 9 to confirm my under-voting for continuation to next race. At one point , my attention drifted and I seemed to be in a loop of hitting next without actually having races announce, maybe between district, county, and state races.

After a while I got bored and tried an actual write-in, “gump” sounded good at the moment, and was easy to type although tedious to spell and confirm. Then I got serious and canceled out of write-in. In successive races for supreme court seats, the synthetic voice seemed to be getting faster, and very high pitched. Now, I can listen to really fast voices on my reading appliances. But by the end of what seemed like 50 races, I couldn’t understand the voice. Nor could I remember how to get the main menu or adjust voices. I was stuck, hoping the end would come before I fell asleep at the keypad. Finally, the printer attached to the side clattered and the voice trailed off into oblivion. My nearly trance state lifted and I called for the attendant to complete the session.

Had I actually accomplished my voting goals? I think so as the early races that mattered seemed to be OK, but since I lost control in the middle and was pretty confused toward the end, I can only hope nothing invalidated those early race clicks. This whole process took about 30 minutes, long enough I had to wake up my driver to leave . I reported my troubles to the poll assistants but left unsure we understood the cause of my loop and voice speed-up. My guess is that the speed up started when I hit the relevant key during my write-in fumbling and the modes got confused as I skipped through further write-in choices.

Yes, I will vote this way again, but can others?

I had hoped this experience could be recommended to others, but, alas, I fear those less adept at computer interactions might not find the humor in the loop and could freak out with babbling voices. I will vote again this way in November but next time pay lots more attention to the exit, speed, and volume options. Everybody has a limit to attention and energy to put into this voting exercise. Half an hour for a handful of races and an enormous number of later vacuous choices is a dubious way of getting the job done.

Further concerns about time commitments, voice shocks, and practice

Another lesson for next time is to seriously invest more effort into learning about picking candidates. I hope to find more help from the SunSounds state audio assistance radio system or locate better candidate description materials. For example, the AZ Clean elections brochure that arrived in the mail was organized by race, then district, then party, then candidate which was beyond my patience to scan or anybody else’s willingness to read to me only the district No. 1 choices on pages 4, 39, and so on. Perhaps voting early beats preparation of more candidate comparisons and recommendations from organizations like league of women voters. Perhaps my “domain knowledge” of elections and state offices made my Google and dog pile searches susceptible to donate Now organizations. Certainly, I have not yet found a good source of advice directed to people like me voting blind for the first time. What I really want is a web page duplicating the ballot, divided into levels of government, with attached very short bios and links to longer histories, position statements, and reputable sources of candidate comparisons. The HTML and hypertext structuring are important as PDF is hard to use by audio and often loses the content structure when converted to a text stream. It might also be nice to have a candidate-a-day RSS feed to make the information more digestible in smaller chunks.

I would recommend to others considering using an audio or visually assisted voting workstation to request a trial. Yes, that means taking up time from election board workers, but I found them helpful, friendly, and interested in feedback. Anybody who can handle a bank ATM via audio should be ready to try out the system. However, someone with hearing problems might not be able to adjust the equipment to their needs in a noisy environment. The long-time blind who readily adapt to new devices should appreciate the new-found independence. However, new Vision Losers are faced with lot of work to master both the information gathering and the audio assisted voting process.

My biggest warning is the time commitment to survive the rigors of a long ballot. Had I wanted to actually write in a lot of names, I would have been there until closing time. With so few voters like me, there seems little data to accumulate experience for a warning label, but this is a practical constraint. Voters need to know how much time to ask of their drivers. With more voters using the assistive workstation, there would be a long wait just to get your chance. I suppose I could have asked for assistance during my loops and voice accelerations, but I just wanted to get out of write-in hell. Far more instructional time could be required for first time users of the audio assistance, especially if the equipment balks at start up or printing. And, what happens if a voter gives up during a voting session or nearly goes into a trance, as happened to me? Of course, there are other disabilities more complex than vision, such as strength and mobility, for using different input devices.

Getting a bit more technical, in my earlier visit for a trial, we discussed the need for a simulator for voter training using the audible equipment. I’d appreciate knowing if this exists anywhere. Since the user interaction is by phone keypad, a simulator with a mock ballot, as in my trial, could service widespread people if they knew the voting system designated for them. This could be done by phone or be a downloaded or web 2.0 app, something even I could write if I knew the rules. I could have called up and learned the instructions in the quiet of my home, memorized my way out when I hit a snag, and also reported problems back to the ballot designers and equipment vendors. Had I known about the write-in race survivor test, I’m not sure I would have followed through an actual vote. Those suffering from synthetic voice shock could at least determine whether they wanted to try to and were able to interpret the race announcements and instructions.

While the overall interaction of voting with only audio is really pretty easy, clearly the keypad needs a separate HELP key and RESTORE DEFAULTS action. Maybe these were available, but I was so deep into figuring out how to reach the end of the ballot, I was not interested in finding the escape button. More seriously, as a software testing expert and veteran system breaker, I really would like to replicate my experiences with the next-race loop and accelerating voice problems. It would be too irreverent and silly for a 65 year old lady to whiz around a county office building crowing that I’d broken the system, lookee, the computer is in a really bad state. No, I really appreciated the professionalism and help of the voting staff, but, well, I think I did break something and wish it could be reported and corrected.

So, why don’t I, a formerly reputable software professional try to do more? Well, first, with only two years of legal blindness I am still a learner in the assistive technology world. But more seriously, getting on my high horse, this whole system is an affront to U.S. citizenry. In my previous post, I equated electronic voting with two mixed metaphors, a “moon shot for democracy” and “extreme voting”, like a sporting challenge.

A rant on eVoting as a ‘bungled moon shot’

Just as sputnik shocked the U.S. into action for education in science, just as a catastrophe on the moon in 1969 would have undermined U.S. Self-confidence, just as the later space shuttles failures signaled a decline in space travel prowess, a definitive failure in our voting system undermines our feeling of living in a democracy. Yet, there is every sign that our voting system continues to be bungled, in the names of fancier technology and free enterprise. In my mind, the quest for a technological solution is a doable, long term project but only if committed to the technologists with expertise and freedom to question the safety of every step in the process, test each component down to its core against its specifications, simulate to exhaustion, and finally rely on combined community acceptance of safety to launch. In many ways, a rocket system is easier to design because it works with and against the continuous laws of physics, whereas a voting system works on discrete math and with and against the laws of human capabilities and differences. The security quality of human interactions with system is another dimension of complexity, but the bottom line is that voting systems cannot be black box. Discrete systems must be subjected to inductive reasoning applied to the code, hardware, user scenarios, with a huge dose of version control. Experimental software engineering has established the efficacy of software inspection, especially performed early and often using multiple viewpoints from varieties of expertise. Asking a weak testing regime to accept the assurance of vendors of proprietary systems, even against clear signs of fallibility, is like delivering a rocket to the pad, asking the astronauts to jump on, and not telling mission control how the rocket will behave.

My other metaphor of extreme voting is based on both user and developer experience. it is a lot to ask voting equipment vendors to produce extensions to service all ranges of human differences, including those considered disabilities. I was amazed the keypad and audio system worked as well as it did. Indeed, I might ask why spend all that money on fancy visual interfaces when audio will do, except for hearing impaired people. Users like me are forced into extreme and unknown conditions like long ballots read by unfamiliar voices marked by never before touched keypads. Please accept my invitation to use a bank ATM by audio to get a feeling for this experience. My current ATM transaction time is about a minute by knowing the exact sequence of key clicks, but at first I had little idea of the menu structures or the confirmation, cancellation, and selection instructions held in mind. Voting by audio is a similar experience.

To sum up, even though I had prepared myself well, I fell into a mess of write-in races which cause me to either mishandle the keypad input or to find an actual flaw in the system. In either case, the unpredictability of the long ballot and time required to work through it present, not insurmountable, but discomfiting conditions of voting independently. But I survived, and will continue to vote this way in the big election in November. I will also work hard in perhaps better information conditions to identify the races and candidates where I really care about my vote. I certainly do not want to leave wondering if I have voted for the right guy.

References for Voting without Vision

  1. Previous post on extreme Voting and a Moon Shot for Democracy
  2. California Secretary of State appraisal of voting system security and accessibility
  3. Concerns of computer scientists about electronic voting systems
  4. Audio version of this post