DC On Air 3, Meetings and Marching Home


Today starts early, as I take a quick listen to more local programming and hit the showers by 7 AM. I’d thought about opting for late check-out, but decide that I may as well just drag my bags to the couple of places I’d be going. It’s not like they are particularly heavy.

I make my way down to the second floor and am checked out by a guy who then claims he doesn’t even work at the hotel. This makes me a little nervous, but I guess all is well as there don’t seem to have been any further ramifications. I’d located my bill inside of my room just prior to departure, and so had only to drop off the room key at the desk anyway.

Then downstairs to await the first of my two meetings with long-time twitter friends. She shows up at 8, and we walk the few steps outside to one in a small chain of French sandwich shops called Au Bon Pain.

I opt for a delicious cinnamon pastry, and a cup of French vanilla coffee. This brings me around as we make small talk, I enjoying the never-fading novelty of hearing one’s voice in person after months of following them exclusively online. Actually, I’d heard her once before via a podcast to which I often listen, but she sounds different to me even than in that recording.

She needs to head back to work, so after about a half hour we walk back to the hotel’s ground floor waiting area. I don’t really call it a lobby, since it doesn’t even have a restroom. The lobby is basically on the second floor. I speak to the woman who works behind the counter about this, and she tells me that the hotel had been opened only 5 years ago. I’m surprised they opted to construct it in this way.

While awaiting my next meeting at sometime around 11, I sit in the chair and listen to that woman have a number of conversations with other guests. I also send and receive messages on my iPhone, while a man who works at some sort of major tech company watches.

“How do you use that,” he asks. “Does it talk to you?”

I pull out the headset and let him hear VoiceOver.

“See, I’ve been trying to convince the folks at my company that we need to make sure our products are usable by, people… people like… can I say?..”

“Yes, you can say blind people,” I tell him. I kind of understand his hesitancy regarding that, given that it can be a challenge to not use words that might inadvertently offend. While I am all for making sure to speak of people in the best way possible, I know at least when it comes to me I usually accept that maybe someone isn’t fully aware of which phrases are appropriate. The intent, the knowledge that we might wish to use mainstream products and can benefit from them, is more important in my opinion.

Eventually he departs to run further errands, and I settle back in to read. My next person arrives at around 11:30, and we go back to the same restaurant as before. Only at this time of course, I choose for a more lunch-type item. The chicken sandwich, with what I think was an unusual kind of cheese, is pretty good and filling. She has a broccoli soup that she says does not taste good at all. I knew it would be interesting to talk to her, because of her love of travel and the kind of work she does in blogging and social media. She is also deaf, but could understand me pretty well. Given that both of our lesser ear is the right, it makes trying to find a workable configuration for conversation a little fun. I do thoroughly enjoy the chatter, though.

She resides in the DC area, and so knows the Metro system well. I thus ask her if she can take me back to Union Station, only a stop away, so that I can go ahead and await the Megabus there. We actually take an escalator up higher to hop into the subway car, which then makes its way underground as it approaches Union Station. This is my first time in the DC subway since 2000, and my first on a subway period since 07. The major urban transit nerd in me will always find this exciting.

Once we arrive, she suggests that I wait downstairs in the Amtrak lounge, because the seats are more comfortable and it has WiFi. But once she shows me where the Megabus will board, I opt to stay on that level and in the other waiting room she finds. I somewhat regret this, as the air smells heavily of pain, but in the end all is well.

I get in there at approximately 1:10, and don’t depart until nearly 3:20 once my bladder begins to rebel. I flag someone down who helps me find a restroom, then choose to sit on a bench outside, even closer to the roaring buses but free of the nose-numbing smell of that room. I inform someone else that I wanted to board the bus that leaves at 4:15, and so suddenly at 3:50 my bag just disappears from under my leg.

“Time to go,” that person then says.

Um, you could have warned me first, pal. I’m thinking someone is stealing my luggage!

Tweet Signpost: So long to our nation’s capital. It’s been real.

I press my nose to the window as my sightless eyes take one last look at the city and the GPS names off streets. We pass by the Verizon Center, Constitution Gardens, and the National Mall before making that bone-jarring bounce back onto the bridge, over the river, and away.

I talk to my seatmate for a few minutes, finding out that she will stay in Durham on Friday night then be picked up by friends for a fun weeklong trip to Wilmington. Then she informs me that she wishes to sleep, so I fall silent and pull out the entertainment boxes.

Not much of note happens for the rest of the trip home. We pull into Durham Station shortly after 9:30, pretty much on time. I am somewhat dismayed to learn that my cabbie hasn’t in fact shown up. She sends someone else after me, mainly so that person could get some money and experience in picking up loyal clients. Only that person decides it’d be nicer to get a big fare, securing a couple of Raleigh trips right off of that bus. So my usual cabbie hears about this, becomes somewhat upset, and makes her way back across town to get me. But by this point, I have gone ahead and hopped into the van that was to take my seatmate to her hotel, with us splitting the fare. I badly need to use the restroom, and the facilities inside of that bus station have been shut for the night. After procuring fast-food, as I know my refrigerator is all but empty, I finally, mercifully arrive home.

And that is the end of a fun trip to DC, during which some light networking especially within NPR may have occurred. One thing that organizing this did show me is that if one wants something enough and knows the right people, one can make it happen. This is a really important lesson for me to keep in mind at all times.

There is some degree of irony perhaps in my journey taking place just before the 50th anniversary of MLK’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred. As I’ve pondered this over the last few days, I wonder if and to what extend persons with disabilities played a role in that march. I guess not all that much? I have heard of some powerful civil rights protest by individuals with disabilities, though, and just as with many minority groups in this country, much progress has been made but much remains to be done. We’re here though, our faces will be seen, and we will continue to push for more! Join me?

DC On Air 2: The Tours, NPR and Air and Space


Up early, as is typical when I’m in a hotel. This is primarily because I enjoy browsing the local (if any can even still be called that) radio stations of a city to which I’ve traveled.

Only, this evil, new-aged machine decides pretty quickly that it has it in for me. I somehow get it turned on, but don’t know if I ever turn it back off. And, I can only really slip between four stations, likely all presets.

Tweet Signpost: I miss simple to operate clock radios. Hope I’ve not inadvertently set an alarm. Lol

Relenting on that frivolity, I shuck the thick, warm covers and stumble towards the shower. I don’t know what has run amok, but I somehow end up with water all over the bathroom floor! *sigh* I sure hope the rest of this day will not follow suit.

Speaking of, I slide into mine, make sure I have my room key in the pocket only after the door has slammed shut, (I should win an award for highest IQ), and head for the elevator.

Coffee, the elixir of life, starts streaming through my veins, and finally things begin to make some sense. I sit among a raucous crowd in the hotel’s second floor café and also punish a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit. I decide, smartly as it turns out, to deposit the complementary bottle of orange juice into my UNC tote bag as I make for the door.

The cab ride is short and sweet. I kind of wish I’d braved the Metro system a little more though, as I surely could’ve saved some of that dough. I was concerned with being there on time however, because I’d made appointments for help from no doubt busy people.

Tweet Signpost: I have arrived at @NPR . Just waiting for someone to find me. Let the fun begin!

This is at 10:23, and the individual who would be taking me inside shows up promptly at 10:30. I am surprised when it turns out to be the person with whom I had been corresponding in order to put the tour details into place. She describes the types of things I would encounter, then takes me to the gift shop where I acquire a nice NPR travel mug and two CDs of popular NPR shows. I then ask her to take a picture of me with my iPhone.

Tweet Signpost: Me inside of the @NPR lobby in front of a sign panel (Photo)

This to me is one of the great things about having mainstream technology, something I can just hand to a sighted person and they’ll know what to do with. Photos don’t much matter to us blind folk, of course, but I know they can bring things to life for any pairs of eyes that look.

I wish I, with my faulty memory, could keep the happenings of the tour in order. If you would like to take it yourself and/or read a quick description of what one is supposed to see, check this entry. I should note that I am guided by a kind volunteer who has retired from her prior work and enjoys helping others as they go through the tour.

The building is seven floors, but we only get to see five. She says the top two don’t much contain anything of interest anyway. The voice that announces floors and direction in the elevator is that of none other than the legendary Susan Stamberg.

I enjoy sitting in the same chairs as the reporters do when in planning sessions for major shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They show how stories are edited, noting that there is usually a fixed time that must be filled to the second, meaning that sometimes extended musical pieces will be used to make it all fit. I guess I feel a little better when listening now, because I often cringe involuntarily when I fear that a guest might be going on too long. I especially do this when the host says “Uh-huh?” in a way that says “Alright wrap up, please.” But, I’m just like that.

One of my favorite things to discover is to what extent NPR is going to ensure that its content is accessible. I think the tour guide says there will be an individual who can do live captioning with only a 3-second delay, for those who are hard of hearing. They also have a Braille display that is keeping time with the on-screen stories.

“Let him come up and feel this,” the guide says to the person with whom I am walking. “Can you read that?” he asks as I lightly touch the display.

“The…, suit,… It’s going too fast!” I reply. This draws laughter from the other members of our party.

And I think we’re among the lucky ones who actually do encounter an NPR host, as Weekend Edition Saturday’s Scott Simon pops out in a corridor just up ahead of us. Maybe some get to shake his hand, but I am too far back to do so. Still, it is interesting to hear him talk in person.

This largely wraps up what was for me a pretty exciting walk-through. If you’ve been following me for a long time, you know I’ve wanted to do this just as long as I’ve been blogging. My thanks to Erin McIntyre, volunteer Barbara, and the good folks of NPR Generation Listen for working with me to make that happen.

Tweet Signpost: Now the tour is over, and I’m just sitting in the lobby hoping a reporter walks by. Lol, we actually did run into @NPRScottSimon .

I sit here for a while longer drinking in the surroundings, until I am predictably approached by a security guard.

“No you aren’t in any trouble,” she says: “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t waiting for transportation or something.”

I accompany her into the café, where I buy a cheeseburger and am furnished with a cup of water. I know immediately that I won’t need a big dinner at night, as I’m still pretty full from the breakfast sandwich I’d had back at the hotel. They eat in DC!

The guard calls my next taxi, and once I arrive at my destination my iPhone decides it’d be a good idea to slip from my pocket. Imagine my panic when I touched that spot and felt nothing but flat fabric.

“Hey,” I asked no one: “y’all still see that cab?”

Fortunately for me, the driver had noticed it as he pulled off, and was already proffering the device without which I would’ve been very unhappy.

That crisis averted, I set off to do another thing I’d wanted for a while: visit Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. I kind of waited till the last minute to arrange this tour, having called on the Friday prior when they’d actually prefer that one do so two weeks in advance. Even so, a guide is found for me.

His name is Larry, and he notes that he has read for the organization now known as Learning Ally but then called Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. Not surprisingly, his main interest is in books about planets and intraplanetary (ok, I made that up but so?) aviation. I believe he also served in one of the military branches, though I cannot remember if he tells me which.

We make our way through the huge crowds of people gawking at giant, old aircraft mounted over our heads. He pulls out a little cart on which he places model versions of some of these machines for me to feel.

I get to check out the Wright Flyer, which I am surprised to discover is kind of rectangular with its length going sideways, if that makes any sense. It has a kind of mesh at the front, and propellers. I wonder how they got that thing off of the ground.

I also see miniature versions of the first jet aircraft, which look more sleek and aerodynamic. He informs me that people initially thought that two wings were necessary in order to achieve even lift, but in actuality this depends on the level of force the aircraft’s fuselage is able to endure. Once this was discovered, some chose to build only single-wing aircraft.

Next, we take a quick trip to Space exploration. He shows me a model of Apollo 11, with its spindly lunar lander, conical mother ship part whose official name escapes me at the moment, and the bottle-shaped service module that contains all of the life-giving supplies such as oxygen and water. I’ve heard these parts described, but still it is fascinating to get a feel of what they actually look like.

He is fascinated by how much I know about air and Space travel. Well what can I say: I’ve just been hooked from a young age.

Tweet Signpost: Back at the hotel, man what a day! Pondering what to do tonight. Sleep will wait till I’m home.

And not a whole lot happens after this point. As I always must do when traveling, I take about an hour and a half in my room to de-compress and allow my ears and hearing to recover. If I don’t do this, I will develop a headache from all of the strain, becoming incredibly stressed out eventually. So, I sit on the bed with my phone in hand, firing off tweet replies to everyone who has commented over the course of the day and lining up plans for the next day’s meetings with online friends.

Tweet Signpost: Milkshake Outdoors, and My Day in a Nutshell (Audio)

Tweet Signpost: Oh, and Another for Ambience, Cuz I talked Too Much Audio

One of my favorite things to do when in a different location is to capture some of the sounds. These are a blind man’s photos, after all. In the first piece of audio, you’ll note how crazily windy it is out at that table where I sit, sucking on a delicious sweet mango milkshake from an Indian restaurant right near the hotel. My original plan was to sit outside for a bit, then head in and see if I could find some ice cream. But I hadn’t realized that I’d chosen a restaurant’s table until I am approached by a server who asks if I want anything. It ends up being quite a nice experience.

After a quick conversation with a friend in Chapel Hill once I return to my room, tiredness rolls in like a tide. I drift off as my phone and the NPR app streams All Things Considered, feeling happy and full of anticipation of what is to come.

More tomorrow.

DC On Air 1: The Going


A light rain falls as I disembark from the Triangle Transit 700 which, ironically, arrives at the Durham Station transportation center on time. This is the first time all week, as on both Monday and Tuesday the bus got there so late that I had been unable to make my connection to the DATA Route 6 bus that takes me home. Today, I don’t even need it.

I kind of hang out at that immediate location from 4 PM until almost 5, knowing there are still a couple of hours to kill. Then the bladder places its call to the brain, and so I stand and make my way toward the Greyhound station to meet that need.

People are milling around, babies crying, teens may as well be. Meanwhile, I put my hearing aids into the beautiful t-coil setting that largely isolates all sound and settle in with my audio books to complete the wait.

I don’t think I’ve talked about it yet, but I’m reading The Twelve by Justin Cronan. In order to really read this one though, you have to have read The Passage first as it’s a sequel. Both novels, of epic length, start out in modern times and quickly advance to a somewhat post-apocalyptic future where “virals,” previously human figures that have been taken over by an awful virus, attack and destroy the fabric of civilization. These resulted from an experiment on prisoners that went very wrong. It’s good stuff, if quite disturbing.

So once 5:45 rolls around, I know it is time to start finding my way out to where the Megabus departs. I meet a nice individual who says he knows where I should go, and walk with him out to the back as we chat. The rain is still coming down, but sun also shines, which actually feels pretty good other than the fact that my clothes are getting wet.

I’d tried to memorize the confirmation number for my reservation, but apparently get it wrong. iPhone to the rescue, as I just pull up the email so the driver can have a look. Ah, I love no longer having to find a way to print this stuff out. Then, off we go.

Tweet Signpost:

And with that, my trip to DC is underway. Sitting upstairs, which is cool. Helpful pax showed me electrical outlet

I think this may be only the second time I’ve ever ridden on a double-decker bus. The ride is quite comfortable, and I’m surprised that I can feel a little less engine rumble up here. People do turn on their music and play it aloud, which I’m sure the rules stipulate should not be done. I guess the driver doesn’t particularly care, though.

Tweet Signpost:

And the first county on the other side of the NC/VA line is Mecklenburg. Copy cats! Also a town called Norlina right at border

Yep, one of the things I especially enjoy about this trip is really taking Ariadne GPS, an iPhone app that is customized for VoiceOver, for a spin. I have my destination hotel saved to its favorites, and so I watch the milage count down as we get closer and closer. It makes me feel like I’m headed to another planet.

We take on passengers in Richmond, stopping for only about 15 minutes. At this station, a woman boards who manages to hold up a very loud cell phone conversation for the duration of the trip. She speaks in what sounds like a mix of English and perhaps some African language, alternately stomping eratically and laughing hysterically. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but I’m willing to bet that some passengers do.

Tweet Signpost:

Yikes! Right into the heart of some heavy rain.

And right at that moment, I become glad I hadn’t opted to take Amtrak. Of course if I had, I would’ve had to leave earlier anyway, so that likely is a moot point. But I remember what happened to me as I attempted to reach Charlotte and my cousin’s wedding through a dounpour.

I watch as we bounce onto a bridge and the GPS reports “Potomac River”. I think that’s the Woodrow Wilson Bridge? It takes us from Arlington into DC, depositing us, I think, on SW 14th Street. I also note the towns of Lorton, Springfield, and Alexandria as we close in on the city.

At Union Station, I am assisted to the level to grab a taxi by a young woman who says she’s from Chapel Hill and about to complete her MSW at Howard. Impressive, I say.

Tweet Signpost:

Here In DC (Audio)

Hunger has nearly crippled me by this point, so as I state in that audio post, I call up a place called New York Pizza. I listen to the belly rumblings and order a 12-inch cheeseburger sub, when I would definitely have been fine with only 8 inches. I end up only able to consume half of it, depositing the rest into the can untouched. This is why I wish all hotel rooms had refrigeration.

I think I will stop here and continue with Thursday’s happenings tomorrow.

My Tech Experience, 2007-Present

I’ll say that this was, for me as for probably everyone else, the era of social. Or at least online social.
I had been blogging since 2003, and especially connected to my Live Journal community since 2006. It was a joy to try and generate interesting content that could be evaluated, appreciated, and expanded upon by strangers.
But the prospect of finding and reconnecting to high school friends finally drew me into this weird world of social media, micro blogging?, whatever you wanna call it.
I therefore joined on the tail end of MySpace’s dominance of this new form of communication. I ended up being glad that I did, as this allowed me to receive the information so that I could attend my ten-year high school reunion. My goodness, I’m already only four years from the 20th. How time flies and things change.
Speaking of change, people were already encouraging me to go ahead and create an account on the rapidly emerging site Facebook. I didn’t really like it though, because it wasn’t too entirely usable with screen-readers yet and there were very few people I knew on there. And besides, it clearly catered to people who were still in college, as you needed to use your university email address to sign up. Even though I’d been out of undergrad for four years, I still got my old address to work.
Over the following years, Facebook did of course become a lot more important in driving my decisions about many things, including in many respects my return to graduate school. I was able to get advice from people regarding which course of action I should take. And once arriving at UNC to start that crazy time in the Fall of 2009 I friended the other incoming classmates and thus found it easy to get transportation, help with study materials, and other things I needed starting out. Of course no amount of technology can really make one do what he truly needs to do in order to succeed, as I learned.
I could argue though that Twitter is giving me an even better chance to succeed, as it is bringing me into contact with the communities of interest that I’ve never really had access to before. I hopped onto that network in November of 2008, at the urgings of one of my Live Journal friends, and initially found it even more useless than Facebook. It just kind of puttered along in the background, with me remembering to log onto and post on the website a few times a week or so. Isn’t it funny to think that it was once that quiet?
I had interacted with Twitter some via text message on my LG EnV phone, still a relatively new innovation to blind folks. This worked ok, but was kind of cumbersome as the tweet stream continued to increase the farther we went into 2009.
Twitter use really took off for me in March of 2009 with the advent of Jawter, the first blindness specific client. And while clients have since become more complicated and divorced of being only able to function with the JAWS screen-reader as that first one was, its basic functionality has continued to underline most of them.
To read tweets, one holds down control+windows, which are basically modifier keys, and taps either the up and down arrows depending on whether one wishes to go forward or backward in the timeline.
With later iterations of this concept such as The Qube and Qwitter before it, it became possible to tap the left and right arrows to cycle between buffers, home, mentions, etc. These clients don’t have an on-screen interface, but are instead operated with hotkeys meaning they can be accessed no matter what else one is doing with the computer.
So suddenly I was able to follow hundreds, even thousands, of people, and keep up relatively well with what was going on. I probably have more followers who are blind or low vision and/or deaf/hard of hearing, naturally. But of course bloggers are a big segment of those I watch as well, as the influence and inspiration gives me ideas such as this very tech series. Then, there are the folks at networks like NPR, with accounts like NPR Generation Listen helping tremendously in my realizing the desire to travel up and check that place out as I will this week. Pretty good stuff, huh?
My ability, some may say productively, some maybe less so, to interact with social media has definitely been enhanced by the introduction of the smartphone, and specifically the iPhone, to my life. I think the Android platform has finally almost caught iOS in terms of usability by people who are blind, which makes me happy as we definitely benefit from having more and better competition.
As I’ve provided short samples of how the PC-based screen-readers sound, I thought you might also like to hear VoiceOver, which I should again point out that you can do if you have a fairly recently device running iOS by clicking home three times rapidly. Remember if you choose to do this that gestures do change slightly. You’ll need to first tap the icon which you wish to select, then double tap to activate it. Try doing this with your eyes closed, just to add to the fun.
I know I was and often still am surprised at how well I can actually operate a touch-screen device. In fact, I may now write faster on it than I did with cell phones that had buttons, and especially those on which you had to text using only the numeric keypad. This is because if one puts it into the mode called Touch Typing, one need not find each letter then double tap it in the way I described above. Instead, I just place my finger on the screen close to where I think the letter I want is located, slide it around a bit until it repeats that letter, then release to input it. It takes practice, but becomes a lot more convenient once the skill is acquired.
And I suppose this entry sums up the look through my experience with technology, starting with those big bulky computers and shrinking to the tiny machine I have sitting across from me streaming Stevie Wonder on Pandora. It really is amazing to contemplate how far we’ve come, and harder to imagine where we might in fact be going. I plan to enjoy the ride!

My Tech Experience, 1997-2007

In 1997, I was first introduced to the glories of Email. Well kind of, as for the most part our screen-reading software wasn’t exactly able to interact with the now primitive clients used to send and receive messages.
I’d taken a course over that summer at North Carolina State University. This was designed to prepare me for the academic side of life in college, which of course was rapidly beginning to include interactions with and an understanding of the Internet.
At that time, in order to work with the messages I occasionally had to receive, I’d have to get a sighted person to read them on the monitor. Also, I would take exams by writing the information into my affore mentioned Braille Lite and taking it back to the Rehabilitation Center on the campus of the Governor Moorehead School for the Blind to print it. This introduced some integrity issues, leading the professor to allege several times that I had cheated because I achieved no less than a 98 on any of the exams. I certainly hadn’t cheated though, and was able to prove my high level of understanding of the subject matter, Interpersonal Communication, during the group final. The group in which I was included obtained a score of 99, highest in the class by far.
By the time my freshman year began that Fall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Job Access with Speech (JAWS) for Windows, was finally becoming more widely used. This is the screen-reading, (text-to-speech) program that Freedom Scientific developed. There were at that time a couple of other solutions for accessing information vocally, but JAWS was by far and away the preferred option as it was most able to support needed software in the employment setting.
Many different synthesizers work with JAWS and its ilk, but the one I still primarily use because it’s easiest to hear is Elloquence. Here’s a sample. I know you may find it challenging to understand still, but trust me it’s a far cry from the days of the Braille ‘n Speak.
I gained my first real exposure to this when having to take exams in the campus office of Disability Services. It took me a while to master all of the keyboard commands, and often if I even so much as accidentally alt+tabbed out of my exam’s file I’d be hopelessly lost.
By 1999, it had become clear that those of us who hadn’t grown up with the current technology would need to be fast-tracked so that we could get enough of a grip to remain competitive in class, work, etc. So, the North Carolina division of Services for the Blind put us through a week-long crash course in the Internet and email, also at the Raleigh Rehab Center. We were asked to type a sample paper into Microsoft Word to learn about spell check, formatting, tables, and the like. We also had to conduct searches on a site called 37.com, that supposedly aggragated the functionality of a bunch of search engines. This was certainly in the time before Google had risen to prominence. A highlight in that for me was finding the first video any of us had located online, a trailor for the Titanic movie after having been prompted by the instructor to type in “largest moving object ever built by the hands of man”.
I took my newly acquired skills, especially email, back to UNCC that fall and spent hours in one of two university labs that had computers with JAWS loaded on them. I browsed sports scores, read the newspaper, but used much of that time composing messages to people I wanted to get to know. One of those regular correspondences did nearly lead to a deeper relationship with a woman, as I ended up taking her number and going home that holiday season with a stack of long-distance calling cards so that I could continue chatting with her. For various reasons though, that kind of fizzled out.
By 01, the Division of Services for the Blind had begun providing personal computers to students on a larger scale. Many of these systems were used, and so they weren’t of the highest quality. Still, I found it very cool to finally have a machine in my dormroom, and to thus be able to hop out of bed at 2 AM and get online.
I slowly became more proficient, mainly because I was surrounded by some really gifted blind individuals who taught me how to do many things. They sat with me as I banged on the keys and swore at the unit as I struggled to configure instant messaging software. Plus they showed me the wonders of downloading music! Oh c’mon, I know y’all remember Audio Galaxy. It was magical to be able to type in a random song and suddenly hear it in my speakers. In my defense, I hadn’t realized that was illegal at the time, although I don’t know how as we weren’t having to pay for it.
When I had to relocate to Southern Pines in 03, actually an even smaller town called Pinebluff, I signed up for dial-up service with Earthlink. I hadn’t initially realized that I could dial a number in Southern Pines, and so was calling one in Fayetteville instead. Hello $250 phone bill. Oops? My folks accepted my apologies for that, as sadly I didn’t have the cash to reimburse them for it then. Lessons learned.
I could barely get online though, because by the time I finally won the phone wars with everyone else in the household it’d usually be well after 12 AM. And, it was so slow! I did think the sound made when one was connecting to dial-up was kind of cool though, it just sounded technological.
On moving back to Charlotte later in the summer of 2003, I acquired cable Internet access, and the rest was history. Finally, I could really stream audio online. Baseball, football, Internet radio stations, you name it.
I actually think that not a whole lot more significant happened between that point and 2007, and so I’ll go on with the rest in the next entry.

My Tech Experience, 1987-1997

I had written an entry like this in my previous blog, but it got sucked down the drain in the great Spam attack of mid-February. Ugh. So, I shall try again. Also, this’ll be more comprehensive. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll make at least two and perhaps three entries out of this, so as not to go entirely too long. Plus, it’ll give me some days and topics in this challenge.
Now, this topic is going to be more of interest to the sighted people who may know little or nothing about the kinds of soft and hardware that blind folks are able to use. I’m writing it specifically because someone I came across in the #31WriteNow challenge asked questions about this, and hey what am I if not a divulger of information? So, why don’t we start from what I think is the beginning.
My first interactions with technology came about in approximately my third grade year. This means 1987-88.
I’m not savvy enough to know which kind of computer we were using, other than that it was one of those big, clunky Apple machines with attached monitor and on which you had to flip a switch on the back of the unit to power up.
Remember those loud six-inch floppy disk hard drives? One had to insert a disk in order for the system to work, and if you popped it out prematurely it sounded as if an electric shock was being delivered! Even though that sound terrified me I couldn’t get enough of it, having to be admonished repeatedly by my teachers to “cut that out!”
Attached to our unit was a specialized external synthesizer that we could adjust and turn off and on independently of the computer itself. I believe at first, the synthetic speech may have been generated by whichever program ran on the disks we used, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, by today’s standards the voice was rather annoying. I wonder how I even understood it.
We primarily used the computer at this time for gameplay. My favorites were Space Invaders, one that asked you to listen to an ascending tone and whack the space bar whenever the tone matched where you were on the screen, supposingly causing you to hit the invading alien ships. This tone would get faster and faster until eventually you misfired. I could spend hours with that one.
Another favorite was the Math Olympics, a fun, multiplayer game that had a series of problems to solve in order to take home the medal. Each player selected a country to play under, and the winner would have its national anthem played. Ah, the sneaky ways to educate children without them even being aware of it.
Most of my typing skills were actually acquired on a typewriter, though. We had a big, electrical thing, and I loved feeling like an officeworker as I struck the keys rapidly, enjoying that sound and making no doubt countless errors. In 1992, I used that thing to nervously hammer out a Valentine’s note to one of my first crushes.
By about that year, technology took a considerable leap forward for blind individuals. I think it had existed in some form prior to that period, but that was the first year my school system got access to what were called Braille ‘n Speak machines made by the company that would eventually become Freedom Scientific but was then known as Blazie Engineering. These things were amazing to us, because for the first time we had a really portable device on which we could write Braille quickly and efficiently. They also had somewhat boring synthetic speech voices by comparison to today’s technology, but my cousin, a number of friends and I never tired of playing with the speech rate and pitch and doing such silly things as making it read a long string of A’s, variably punctuated sentences, and any other thing that would make the voice react oddly.
I have a synthesizer on my machine called eSpeak as part of another software application that I will profile in a later entry. While not exact, the uninflected eSpeak voice nearly approaches that of the Braille ‘n Speak. Listen to a short sample.
From my technological point of view, not much really changed up through 1997. They did eventually create a better version of the Braille ‘n Speak, called a Braille Lite, that had a refreshable Braille display. This is a device that uses little pens to simulate the dots one would feel on a Braille page. Some, like the Braille Lite’s, are built entirely into the machine, although it is more common for the units to be detachable these days. They are fantastic pieces of equipment, however the price of these is prohibitive for most would-be users.
This had sadly been the case for most all blindness-specific technology, but fortunately those old barriers are being bulldozed. In subsequent entries, I will detail how some of this has occurred. From 1997-2007, the rise and proliferation of the personal computer, still dominated by two or three screen-reading products. From 2007-present, the introduction of cheaper, effective screen-readers, and the rapid accessibility gains made with smartphones.

A Month Before Year 35

Today marks a month before the beginning of year 35 for me! And yes, I turn 34 years old. But that means I have 34 years behind me, right? You’re born into year 1. I have this bad habit of explaining that every time I point it out. Ah well.
This particular year of my life has definitely represented a major change in era. It started with having to put the wraps on an up-and-down, maybe just plain crazy 3 years in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, and will likely end,.. where?
I enjoyed what will likely be my last meal out with a group of classmates from my time spent in the UNC Rehabilitation Counseling and Psychology (RCP) program, as most of us have gone onto bigger and better things. We ate at a delicious, well-known Chapel Hill establishment called Mama Dip’s. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it.
I acquired an iPhone, another lifechanging device, on the 21st, a day before some good friends of mine from the Community Empowerment Fund came over to help me shuck all of my furniture into storage. Yes, it was time to make that move onto Pinebluff, at least for a time, while I decided what was next.
Oh sure, I was happy that I’d get to spend some of their formative years with two of my nephews and a niece. And of course, I’d also get to enjoy conversations over and around sports with my dad, something I’d not really done in at least ten years.
The harder part about going out there was being so far away from, well, everything. No more bus lines, or coffee shops, or hanging with friends. It was a form of living that would just require a different mindset. More like trips to church, the grocery, or to scoop my mom up from her job at Wendy’s. As they tried to tell me repeatedly though, and I’ve since come to agree, I’d appreciate that time of relaxation eventually.
The job carousel began almost immediately after I left Carrboro on the 23rd. I returned on the 25th, being put up by some kind classmates and treated to a pizza party featuring home-brewed beer, so that I could go to a job interview in Raleigh the next day. As with so many of my attempts, it didn’t quite pan out.
Life went on in Pinebluff, and I basically read a lot and listened to more games than I could count. The very tiny Yorkie also couldn’t get enough of me, making me laugh with her futile attempts to climb onto my relatively high bed.
We had a great and lively Thanksgiving there, some of the silly audio of which I recorded. For Christmas, I opted to travel to Charlotte with my cousin after having attended a party with other friends in Lumberton. That period was nice, but full of anxiety as I anticipated a move to Montgomery Alabama to work for what I thought would be Hulit Packard under the auspices of the Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind.
For reasons I never quite learned, that job didn’t end up happening. Perhaps I ended up being ok with that, because having gone there would’ve been beyond anything I know of.
Instead, I went ahead and accepted the offer from my current employer, Durham’s LC Industries, after having interviewed with them in November. It was in many respects a last resort type of situation, but one that at least has allowed me to re-establish independence and get into an area where I could make the adult choices I wish to make.
It took almost a month to get my furniture in here, and when that was finally accomplished, it happened because a long-time friend opted to lend arms and a truck. That first month living in here, with about $50 in my bank account and having to survive some craziness due to not knowing the bus system as I should have, were tough. But hey, I made it.
And other than that, I suppose things have been ok. We have spent the last month at least kind of low on work, but at least we’re finding some way to hang in there.
I’m very hopeful that year 35 will be a big one for me, and I feel that I’m finally taking the steps to at least make that a possibility. But I don’t have to tell you, there are no guarantees.

I Get Around

On Twitter I follow Micki Maynard, a reporter who just announced the Curbing Cars Project. This is an effort to get a sense of how and to what degree our transportation choices may have changed in the last few decades. In short, how do we get around? I’m participating, by keeping a diary for a week on my transportation interactions to collect data that will then be used, along with many others, to get a sense of wider trends.
As a person with a visual disability, I obviously have never been able to drive. This may well change in the future though, as companies like Google and others continue to make strides in creating cars that won’t really need much input from their drivers in order to cruise the streets. I suppose there are reasons to be leary of this invention, and as many say in reference to that the idea of blind people in such automobiles by themselves will be slow to catch on even if they are proven safe, mainly due to what some call social capital. This means that the general attitudes will have to moderate, which will likely take many years.
So until that beautiful time comes, we have to cobble together the easiest way to get across town and to hit the road. Many would say that’d be paratransit, but well that just depends.
And what is paratransit, you ask? Loosely defined, it is a patchwork of accessible vehicles, usually an offshoot of a city’s fixed-route transit system, that takes clients with verified disabilities from door to door. I don’t know how wide that criteria spans, but they definitely work with people with mobility difficulties and blind folks. Someone conducts assessments to determine whether an individual can cross streets and thus gain access to fixed-route buses. The way it worked when I was in Charlotte was that if you actually could hop the bus sometimes, you were able to get a pass that would grant use of both systems. This meant I could use the paratransit to get to work, and still have an unplanned day on the town if I wanted.
That last is an important point, and the main reason I don’t often use paratransit. Many systems require you to call at least a day in advance in order to book a ride, mostly because of the logistical challenges involved in planning routes. I discovered why having such a policy does generally make sense, but still one rarely has everything thought out even that far in advance.
Here in Durham, I still haven’t signed up for the local paratransit system. I know there are some legitimate reasons why I should do so, but the paperwork will take a while to process. Plus, even if I do opt in, I’ll likely still take the Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA) and Triangle Transit routes to work, because they are considerably cheaper. Here I can’t get one of those combination passes, but must instead pay almost double per ride on a paratransit vehicle.
The only area in which I see using paratransit potentially benefiting me would be in getting to the grocery store. Although even that has been mitigated some by my having found an excellent taxi driver who always charges me a predictable price and also will walk me up and down the aisles as I acquire the goods.
This gets to my final point about getting around, especially as it applies to persons with disabilities that make it difficult to drive: it can be a real challenge! Often even in the cities with the best transit systems, there are times where one wishes to just jump in a car and get to somewhere quickly. What about when it’s not an ambulance-level emergency but one must confront an issue that suddenly crops up and do so without a big hastle.
Most of us have the experience of dealing with kind, well-meaning friends who may in the end make us feel like a nuisance because we have chosen to ask for their assistance to reach a destination. Usually in these situations, our options are limited. Yet I at least always try to ensure that an individual whom I’ve asked can feel free to say no. And believe me, because our options are so limited it is far better for you to say no as quickly as you can rather than just kind of sitting on the fence, so that we can look into whatever other possibilities might exist. Often, it’s almost worse to actually get what we want done but feel a person’s inconvenience over having to do this thing while tired or wishing to do something else than to just let it go by. So if I ask you, or anyone needing such a service does, please let us know what the deal is. And if you feel you should charge for that favor, please state it. I then have to make the decision whether I can pay your named price or come up with another means of getting where I want to go.
These are just some of my thoughts regarding transportation for persons with disabilities, about which I admit I think a lot. I invite others to chime in with their thoughts as well.

Sang With the Choir!

As Fred Hammond’s Jesus Be A Fence All Around Me blares out of my speakers, piped in via the iPhone, I find myself reflecting on the days of singing on various church choirs. It still makes me somewhat sad that my ability to harmonize well was one of the first things to go as my hearing has continued to deteriorate, and especially since I had become so good at it. I haven’t therefore sang on a choir since probably 2001? Doing so gave me some of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had, though.
It started with the children’s choir at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I can’t really remember if we were required to join by the parentals or if we just opted into it, but certainly all of my sisters and I were a part of the choir at that time. Rehearsals were on Saturday morning, and one could get quite exhausted working and re-working the same song until we had it.
One of the most intense songs I remember singing in those early days was a take on the Hallelujah course.
“O Lord, o Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth,
O Lord, o Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth”
Man, that piece was intense! Mostly because we had to get incredibly loud to be heard above the pounding musicians and general roar of the congregation as they got into it and stood to bounce in the aisles. By the time we got to the final, extended, “O Lord, my God,” I’d be practically on my knees and voiceless. But it was so exhilarating, too, because of the reaction that tune inspired.
We continued singing with the church even as we aged, doing so first at different locations in Charlotte, and then the pinnacle of at least my experience with that choir, our 1992 trip to New Rochelle New York to perform for one of that area’s churches.
Our hotel was actually in White Plains, and the first thing I remember about arrival there was their constant assurance that White Plains was pretty much just like Charlotte. That may be, but they sure didn’t have no grits! When I asked them for some, they acted as if I were speaking another language.
We of course also went to, and promptly got lost in, Manhattan for at least a couple of hours. My cousin and I, along with a few others, had decided we were zonked and had had enough by the time they finally located the ferry that would take people to the statue of liberty. An 81-year-old choir member who had known times of much more aggressive walking put us youngins to shame, though, and went on the tour with the rest.
Somehow, a New Yorker managed to commandeer a city bus that took us back close enough to our White Plains hotel to get a taxi, where a driver tried to take us around the way because “I need more money to tickle my hands!” Uh-uh, buddy.
On that epic trip, we also went to see the Broadway play Jelly’s Last Jam, and quite a few of us had our picture taken with Gregory Hines in front of the theater in which that play took place. It was great.
That was probably the most extravagant trip I’d gotten to take with that or any choir. Once my folks relocated, at least most of us, from Charlotte in 1994, I never did join the choir in our new church home of First Baptist Missionary in Southern Pines, North Carolina. In 1996, after some trickery by my resource teacher at Pinecrest High School that luered me into their auditions, I did get to experience a different kind of choral singing. Unlike our church choirs, this required me to learn to blend in and use what to me sounded more like an operatic tone. I’m certainly not saying that either way is better than the other, just that they’re different kinds of singing. I think it’s good for a musician to be exposed to such variation anyway, and would say that my chorus instructor at Pinecrest did more to bring out my voice than anyone I’d ever known.
People submitted to sing the major solo in our final concert my senior year, but being the shy, confidence-lacking person I was, I didn’t bother putting my name in that hat. Still, he gave me the biggest solo and worked with me every other day for 30-45 minutes to ensure that I learned it.
Singing in the harsh spotlight that I could actually feel shine down on me, I’d rarely felt the flood of happiness that came from achieving that goal. And that’s probably the main thing I gain from any sort of musical experience, a sense of pleasure and fulfillment equaled by nothing else.
Onto the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I participated on both types of choir at the same time. Now that’s some real fun.
The Unlimited Praise gospel choir traveled to Greensboro, Salisbury, and some points around Charlotte to sing at churches and such. Being a part of that choir gave me a community to belong to at a time when I really needed it.
And my cousin and I found out how valued our contributions to it were when we left due to a rapidly intensifying semester. They decided they wanted us to come with them for support at a competition in Rocky Mount, a town that makes one feel he is traveling back in time. We took an insane day trip that began in Charlotte at 4:29 AM and returned at 3 AM the following day. Hearing six different groups, including one from Long Island that stole the show, was great; but my favorite thing was the food. But isn’t that always the case?
In the University Chorale we never took long-range trips, because some knuckleheads were uncooperative the year before I got there. This left the instructor more inclined to just stay local.
We did, however, get to perform inside of a place called Oasis Temple. I’m not sure if that place has a religious background, but it’s very nice. I think we may have sang at a couple of other local churches as well.
I should probably find a church here in Durham, that is if I really want to experience that kind of connection. And if I do, I might still try and see if I can’t belt out a tune. I might have some issues with flatness or whatever, but hey I know some folk on choirs who are, um, tone deaf? But as long as they enjoy it, it’s all good! We shall see if any of that happens again for me in the near future. In any event, it was fun to reflect on. And as I close, the phone is playing Dottie Peoples, He’s an On-Time God, another foot stomper!

On Unruly Bus Passengers And Social Skills

Sometimes, things happen that leave one shaking his head. They also kind of dove-tail with some of the thoughts I’d had regarding my own social skills, which admittedly may or may not be where I’d like them to be.
The relatively empty bus rattles toward the transportation center. I have my headset on, listening to the latest news as usual. A passenger boards approximately a stop before the station, but at a point where some highway still separates us from that final location.
“Hey!” I hear him say: “don’t you do…?”
I kind of lose track of what he is asking the driver, but I know at first he was inquiring about which bus left for the airport and at what time. Then he says he’d need to take the driver’s number, because apparently the driver provides some service that he was desperately seeking. I think that driver expressed reluctance to divulge his digits.
“Ah alright, man,” he said: “I’ll just give you my number!”
I put exclamation points, because everything this guy said is indeed very loud. It doesn’t take long for me to develop a headache and long for that bus to hurry up and let me off!
I transfer. Ah, I’m free of that, right? Wrong!
Not long after hopping onto the second bus, the skies open up and thunder booms overhead. We ease away from the station, this time with a woman at the wheel.
“Hey!” someone yells.
And again, I lose track of his thoughts as he thunders on and on.
“I can’t really even hear you!” the driver says over the din of the downpour.
And if that isn’t the same guy as before, then it’s incredibly ironic.
When I do manage to re-connect with the conversation, he is asking “but you’re not allowed to give out your number, right?”
“Right,” she says.
“Ok, well I’ll give you mine when I get off. … Ok?”
“Ok,” she replies.
Woo, I think to myself; perhaps that’s finally over.
“You know, your husband is really lucky,” he pipes up again.
Sigh. I have no idea what kind of state this guy is in, but maybe he was trying to figure out a way to talk to people. It probably bordered on, if not actually being, harassment.
While that’s a particularly brazen example of how not to socialize with others, I can’t entirely say I’ve been all that good at it either.
Back in my younger days, I pretty much thought that every time I met a woman, I should try and get her number or find some other way to ensure that a connection was established. I wasn’t doing this for malicious reasons, but because I thought it was the only way I could have a chance of finding where and with whom I might be able to build a relationship.
Needless to say behaving in this manner can create sticky situations, and especially for one who is blind and can’t see her husband, standing right there. Yes, I’ve done that once. That incident finally showed me why just taking that sort of blanket approach was a bad idea.
So during this phase of my social development, I’ve pretty much gone to the other extreme. I really don’t try to connect with anyone, but instead I just keep working on my conversation skills. I do know that it takes more than a couple of minutes to really know if you want to continue talking to a person. I guess my difficulty now is that I feel that I’ve missed some good opportunities out of an abundance of caution. And of course, it would be nice just to have someone with whom to hang out. But all in time. I certainly don’t think it’s ever! Acceptable to make people feel uncomfortable in order to get something I want, and feel badly for the, hopefully, few times I’ve done that.