The Real Deal 3: Information and Enrichment

Monday morning. No alarms! Still, I awake at 6:30.

I hop from station to station initially, but decide to listen mostly to the Mark and Mercedes Morning show on Mix 94.1. It’s at least local! They keep advertising some sort of “eat and greet” where you get to chat with the Goo Goo Dolls at a pool party put on by the station. It sounds like fun stuff. They also note, with a combination of happiness and bewilderment over the surrounding hype, that Las Vegas will soon have an Ikea furniture store. Their most interesting discussion revolves around the question of whether you can be in love with two people at the same time.

I have arranged to meet yet another Twitter follower whom I hadn’t met previously for breakfast at 9:15. She had indicated that we might leave the hotel in search of quieter environs, but when we start to look around inside we discover that Wicked Vicky’s (I keep wanting to call that place either “Wicky Vicky’s,” or “Wicked Vicked”) is actually relatively empty.

This will give us more time to sit,” she reasons. It ends up being her, one of the exhibitors whom she assists, whom I also have gotten to know well online, and the woman from Indy, whom we suck in as she floats by. It is again all in the randomness of convention.

For breakfast, I order a Wicked Vicky’s Stack, which consists of delicious French toast, sausage patties, and cheese eggs. I also have two cups of nice, hot coffee.

To make talking easier, the person I’d come to meet asks the server if someone will turn the music, which is kind of loud, down. They just plain turn it off. I often get nervous about requesting such things, but must admit that I could hear a lot better without it. I enjoy the chatter as my belly fills.

At this point, I have little to do until approximately 1:45. So I head back up to my room, where I read, fade into and out of sleep, and just enjoy vacating. Until..

“Housekeeping.” Oops? I’m about to be kicked out of here! Well ok, I doubt it would’ve been that serious. Still, I opt to get out of their way and let them work, realizing only after I’m on the elevator that I have forgotten my bag. Better hope the hearing aid batteries hold up.

I make my way into the lobby and towards the convention center so I can see about attending the workshop on deafblindness and employment. I enter the room, where I am told they cannot scan credit cards so I must head back out to registration to purchase a ticket. The line for that isn’t terribly long, and in about 6 minutes I am seated again and ready for the presentation.

Some technical issues pop up, and while they try to fix them the main presentor, who is totally deafblind, goes around to meet those in attendance. She takes my hand, and another voice says “Hello, nice to meet you. Where are you from?”

“Me?” I reply just to be sure it is she who is speaking to me. I believe she makes a sound to try and confirm that for me, even as the interpreter speaks for her.

Once on stage, she asks us why we think she wants to meet us in that way, making contact while doing so. It is an important, and really the only, way she has to physically connect to a person, and insodoing she gleans other information from the person as well. She also has an environmental interpreter who lets her know how the audience is reacting: are people falling to sleep, cell phones ringing, other conversations going on, etc. As a blind person, I don’t even know some of that kind of information as I present. It is fascinating.

I think that kind of interpreting takes quite a bit of work though, as the voices switch off three times during the talk. Another individual, whom I think is blind and hears ok, speaks as well. There may have also been a third, sighted/hearing person up there.

They highlight the work being done at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind in employing those who are deafblind. That location hires interpreters to allow employees to talk with supervisors and co-workers, as well as working with those groups of people to teach at least some rudimentary signs to facilitate basic communication. They also use normal pagers to alert deafblind people of breaks, dismissal time, and emergencies through a series of different vibrations.

The crux of their talk is that we must understand how privilege, power and independence work together to make possible or shut someone out of a chance to use his/her skills in a meaningful way. When possible, try to stay away from words like “help” and instead say “support(s)” as it can indicate a more active role by the deafblind individual. In my opinion, some of this is a question of what a person means when using certain wording, but I do agree that it should all be considered.

After this event concludes, hunger has again gotten the best of me. I order a too expensive ham and cheese sandwich and Mountain Dew from the Java Stop, though if I had waited another hour or so I would have been fed. It is 4:45 now, and the Vanda Pharmeceuticals reception starts at 5:45. But whatever. Without my bag, and thus my headphones, I am forced to press the iPhone against my head as I check email and messages over the roaring crowd while I chomp.

Next to the Vanda reception, where I have at least five different kinds of cheese, crackers, grapes, shrimp, and a spring roll. They give us about 15 minutes to work on our plates before beginning.

Vanda is a relatively small drug company that has worked for several years to develop a drug, now called hetlioz and previously Tacemelteon, to help totally blind individuals combat non-24-hour Sleep/Wake Disorder, otherwise known as Non-24. After a fairly intensive study, this drug has just gained FDA approval for that narrow subset of the population. A doctor speaking on behalf of the company gives a comprehensive presentation covering what is known about the drug, reasons for using it, and possible side effects.

The drug must be taken continuously and at the same time once started. If one were paying out of pocket it would cost a considerable amount, however they continue with their campaign to get more insurance carriers to cover it. To start, people will receive refills from a program called Hetlioz Solutions, but they hope to bring large pharmacies like Walgreens into the mix eventually.

With regards to side effects, none are particularly dangerous. The most common, I suppose not surprisingly with a sleep medication, is drowsiness. There could also be liver problems, so you have to be aware of that if your liver is already compromised in some way. Less effective in those at or over 65. Always seek medical advice before even starting to take something like this anyway, as possible drug interactions and/or the presence of other disorders may need to be taken into account.

After a moving personal testimony about how this drug has helped one woman come back to herself, they take questions. The most notable comment, and it can apply to some other companies as well, is that the ads promoting this treatment tend to portray blindness in a very negative light. We need to find a way to get the message across without making it sound as if we are all sad sacks who don’t know how to cope.

Overall though, I found it to be an informative talk. Will I take it? I’m not sure, as I’m a bit wary of depending on anything continuously like that. And while regular sleep would be good, my life is such that it would be impractical for me to go to bed at the same time absolutely every night. I don’t know, we’ll see.

At this point, it is 7:53. With the assistance of one of the presentors, I make a mad dash for the Suite Tower elevators as I am to participate in a Braille study at 8 PM. Once onto the correct floor, we already hear those folks calling my name, and so I slide in.

The guy who running the study seems to be totally blind, and has a sighted assistant who makes sure that things are in the right place. They fit my right index finger, the reading finger, with a small camera that will record my motion. Something is also strapped to my wrist, I guess more for stability than anything else. Before I start each test, the cameras must be calibrated to the beginning and end of the Braille line.

First, I am given a small hard copy Braille book to read. I take it in as quickly as I can, then am asked a series of questions about what I’ve just learned. I find it hard to read with any kind of speed and remember exactly what I’ve read. Man! Kinda makes me worry about whether I have some kind of issues with this period, and if it didn’t make my education not go as smoothly as it could have, especially in grad school.

The second, shorter passage is done via a refreshable Braille display, an electronic device that can be connected to computers or mobile devices and made to render the text in Braille. I find this a lot easier, and really want one of those HandyTech displays! This particular display is 40 cells, which causes me to sail right along. I still have some issues remembering all of what I have read, though.

“I feel like a lab rad!” I quip.

The final part makes me feel most like a lab rat, as I had to try to decide if something was a word by jumping over two extraneous Braille cells being placed in the middle. This is a real challenge, because my brain needs the continuity. I note my decision by pressing pedals with my feet, right for yes it is a word and no for it isn’t.

“Am I going to receive some sort of electric shock for getting it wrong?” I ask while chuckling.

“Nah, I’d be in jail if I did that,” he replies.

I can’t help grunting and moaning when I mash a pedal and realize a second later that I have made the wrong decision. It is all rather amusing. I think mostly he wants to get a sense of how and why we make mistakes when reading that might help in coming up with methods of increasing our effectiveness with the Braille medium. Meanwhile, as I walk back to the elevators I shake my head and question my intelligence.

I wrap this day in the Banana Leaf CafĂ©, an Asian fusion (whatever that means) restaurant at the hotel. I grab a delicious chocolate cake, and get my iPhone screen all sticky as I pound out messages while eating. Then it’s up to my room for more reading, and off to bed.

The Real Deal 2: Sunday Fun Day!

Sunday arrives, slow and sweet. I allow myself to lay in bed, luxuriating in the fact that I have no immediate reason to rise and can enjoy the time away.

As always, my favorite thing to do is listen to road morning shows. I initially reach for what I think is the clock radio, but quickly give up on that and start playing with the Tune In app on my iPhone. I hate that they no longer make it as easy to change stations, other than once they’re in the Recent Stations feed. They have some sort of cumbersome social media-type interface now, which just makes it harder for me to find stuff.

Of course, most Sunday mornings are given to religious content. So, I listen to a bit of some pastor in Vegas before rising at 10:30? 7:30? something:30! What is this time thing we’ve made up anyway. They say humanity is really the only species that so closely watches it.

After spattering water all over the floor from my shower, as there seems to be no way to stop it from flying out the side, I slip into a casual pair of slacks and button-down shirt. I hope to look just presentable enough for new sets of eyes that I might encounter.

Then into the hall for the fun elevator game! Gah it drives me a little bit crazy when places have four of them from which to choose. Whack the button, stop breathing, stand really still, and there it is! Only BANG! no? wrong one. Oh that one wait, I nearly lost a finger! Relax, begin cycle again.

I play this annoying sprint around the vestibule a couple of times, until I hear some, I guess high, heels come clicking into the room.

“Sir, may I help you?” she asks. I’ll finally get down!

I don’t notice till she tells me, but she is from Scotland. One of my favorite accents, for sure. She says she’s about to check out of the hotel and head back, I think.

She kindly walks me to the jam-packed Java stop, where I latch onto an endless line. I try not to pound the person’s back who stands in front of me too many times, but also to balance that with moving up when I need to. I sometimes feel I’m the worst at waiting in line.

Audio recorded from therein: Initial Craziness

Then I meet a kind volunteer from Georgia, cool accent too, who agrees to help me find somewhere to sit while I await my city tour. Only everything is pretty much full, so I go back into the Java Stop and sit till she again comes to collect me at 12:45 to board the bus for the 1:00 departure.

I love heat! But, that Vegas heat is something different somehow. The second we step into it, I feel all of my water leaving my body.

“I couldn’t stay out in this for more than ten minutes,” I say.

More audio: City Tour Snippet

And that woman continued being just as entertaining, having us all applauding, laughing, or groaning in turn. One thing became clear from her words: Vegas was built by rich folk who had that kind of money to throw around. I know she said one person built a casino at the request of his wife, so that his love for gambling wouldn’t end up costing him everything. He’d just be recycling his own money. Not surprisingly of course, Vegas is seeking to diversify beyond strictly a gambling Mecca of sorts, as well.

I had always wanted to get to convention early enough to do the city tour, just because I love hearing people talk about their area. Yes, it would’ve been cooler to walk around some of those places, but I’m not sure how much of that I could have handled anyway.

Back into the hotel by 3, I finally decide to make my way to the exhibit hall. Here, I meet a couple of long-time online friends and folks who were selling products for the first time.

From the AT Guys, I purchase a Soundpods portable Bluetooth speaker. I’m pretty satisfied with it, and think for its size it doesn’t sound half bad. It does make it easier for me to take in content from my iPhone while in bed.

From Elegant Insights, I acquire a Braille-embossed, copper key chain that reads “ACB 2014. It’s a nice little souvenir. I also volunteer to be this vendor’s first experiment using a credit card, a task made interesting by the fact that she uses a somewhat challenging iPhone app that requires turning VoiceOver off and back on a few times to get it to record the card info. Still, it is great that such technology is even moderately accessible to blind folks, and I hope it continues to become more so.

Finally, it is the part for which I have most been waiting: the tweet-up! I am surprised that the crowd there isn’t larger, but it works out for me as I can easily hear everyone in attendance. Here, I meet one of my longest-running online friends from our neighbors to the north, Canada. I also meet a long-running friend who stays in Vegas for the second time ever. We all introduce ourselves by name and Twitter handle, then spend the rest of the time chattering away about any and everything.

I plan to go to the opening ACB General Session, but as soon as I make my way out of the tweet-up location around 6:30, my Canadian friend, one from Indianapolis, another person from Canada and I think yet one more ask me if I wish to join them for dinner.

“Hmmm, that sounds fun,” I reply.

We then spend the next half hour working our way to the Wicked Vicky’s Tavern, being given spotty directions and losing each other a time or two in the process.

“Hey, this is how we roll at convention,” I say. “We’ll get there eventually.”

Once seated, I opt to have some delicious-sounding meatloaf and mac and cheese. The mac and cheese wasn’t the “real” baked stuff I most prefer, but then I guess I shouldn’t have really expected it to be. It was pretty good anyway, though I had to stop eating it once that runny cheese began to make me feel sick.

This is really the last thing I do, after which I retire to my room to see how my speaker works. I know that, not being the most technologically adept person, it would probably take me a minute to figure out the Bluetooth component. In the meantime, and this is probably unfortunate as I may never get around to learning said component, I discover that the cable they provide for charging also has an end that will allow it to be plugged into a headphone jack. So, I’m still kind of just using that.

I play with the volume, trying not to turn it up too loudly as those walls seem to retain no sound. As I feel myself flagging by 11, I finally slide under the covers and call it a night.

The Real Deal 1: A Near-botched Arrival

I intend to title my whole series about this fun, fantastic trip to Las Vegas Nevada The Real Deal, since it was the theme adopted by the organization who put it on. And what is that organization? Well of course, the American Council of the Blind (ACB. This year marked their 53rd annual convention, and was my third convention in 6 years. I seem to have adopted an odd pattern of attending every three years, as I had in 2008 and 2011 before.

I am fortunate that I was able to depart on Saturday, for reasons you shall soon learn. First though, I shuck my bags and bounce down to the local Dunkin Donuts for reading and enjoyment of my coffee. While here, I decide that I’m going to save money and take the bus all the way to the airport.

This actually goes well. I first hop the 400/700 all the way to the Regional Transit Center, then I have only to wait a few minutes before the 100 bus comes to take me to Raleigh/Durham International Airport (RDU). The bus stops only a few feet from the terminal, and a traffic officer offers to help me inside.

“I’d recommend you take the curbside check-in,” he says: “as there’s no line out here and inside of the building it’s really long.

“May I see your identification?” the counter agent asks.

Someday, like now, I’ll learn to put my ID in a separate pocket. Because I have not so done, we spend the better part of 2 minutes combing through a thicket of plastic that would be sufficient to drown the world’s oceans. Once it is finally found, more bad news follows.

“Um sir,” he says: “this thing is expired. It has been for a while. If a year or less, you could probably get away with it. But any longer, and they’re gonna have a problem with this (up at security).”

Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous for me to have allowed my card to so aggregiously have expired. However, I rarely need the thing and when I do, no one points out this discrepancy. I had even flown a few times during its expiration period and not been flagged at all.

After waiting another 30 bone-jarring minutes for an assistant to lead me through the incredibly packed airport, we arrive at the security desk. I think the woman there actually consults the no-fly list, verifies that I am not on it, then just orders an enhanced screening. Not having realized that this second layer of screening has been put into place, I attempt to retrieve my items after sliding through the scanner as I normally would.

“No, don’t do that yet sir!”

After asking preliminary questions about medical or other equipment that might be implanted, possible sore spots and the like, I am asked to hold my hands out, palms up. I am then thoroughly patted from my neckbone all the way down to my toes. Finally I am cleared, but remain rattled for most of the rest of that day.

I try to calm myself while sitting in the boarding area by reading, but am unable to get into the book so give up. At this time it is just after 6. I drift and doze till my flight is called at 7:30, then make my way to my usual, favorite, right-side window seat.

This flight is strange to me, as about midway I notice that we seem to descend to a lower altitude and hold there for its remainder. Nothing is said about why this has occurred, so I feel nervous on top of everything else. In fact, it seemed nothing was really said by anyone after takeoff, making me feel I’d suddenly been sucked into a Stephen King novel. Needless to say, I was more than a little relieved when it was wheels-down in Las Vegas.

Another hour waiting for checked bags? *sigh* I am absolutely famished, since I haven’t had enough sense to eat some food with that coffee, and am just wondering what on earth is taking so long. Not to mention that it’s already pushing 1 AM Eastern, 10 Pacific.

Out to the Super Shuttle, the same folks I’d used when arriving in Tampa this December. We stop at 3 hotels before arriving at mine, the Riviera Hotel and Casino, and by the time I get up to my room and shuck my bags, it’s 11:35 Pacific. So? I’m going to get something to eat! This is Vegas, I’d guess second only to New York City in its unwillingness to sleep.

Using the hotel orientation that ACB has attempted to provide via Email, I make my way gingerly towards the food court. My room is in the Monaco Tower, 1 of five such towers, and so I have to take the elevators down, locate an exit that leads out to and past the pool, and try to remain on a fairly long sidewalk before re-entering the hotel at another door. The food court could also be reached through the casino, but obviously this isn’t the best idea for a blind person who wants to hold onto a little bit of sanity.

After even a sighted person and I get a bit more turned around, we eventually make our way inside. I choose a restaurant called Big Burger. And it is a BIG BURGER. While I certainly love the burger, I am most enamored with the fries. Just the right amount of seasoning, no need for ketchup. I also order sweet tea, and laugh as it doesn’t taste like Southern sweet tea. It really just tastes like some kind of juice. Hits the spot though, as I am dried out and thirstier than a camel.

It takes another 30 minutes of standing on sidewalks, just inside of buildings, and being passed from person to person, but I finally! make it to my room. I then slide very much contentedly into my bed and am out before I can even finish the thought about being too tired to read.

End of Saturday. Still to come, Sunday’s tour, tweet-up, and surprise dinner; Monday’s surprisingly expanded breakfast, deafblindness workshop, Vanda Reception, and Crazy Braille study; Tuesday’s basically just hanging with friends, and surprisingly large hot dog! Lot of surprises, huh? Stay tuned!

Follow-Up: My First Uber Experience

Ah, so I was quite fortunate and got my real hearing aid back sooner than I’d thought would happen. The call came in at around 11:20, just as my head began inching inexorably toward that sharp cutout that holds my light stick box as I fill it.

And fill them I was! I had to work quickly and keep thinking about any and everything in order to keep the brain working. And the harder I worked, the more aggressively they pumped material into the bins.

Anyway, at lunch time I knew I’d need to place a call to my supervisor and tell him I’d be exiting at 1 PM in order to retrieve the aids. Then, I made my way down that long, narrow corridor with its unusually textured floors to the front of the building.

In the receptionist’s office, I pulled out my iPhone to attempt summoning the ride via the Uber app. I hadn’t known how it would go, but I actually found it pretty cool. The app uses your GPS to give an approximate address, which you can either confirm or alter to read the actual address. I should have done the latter, but in the end it didn’t end up making much difference.

You can also get it to calculate your approximate fare. It said mine would be $16. Nice.

Once a driver is requested and confirmed, it gives you the driver’s name, license plate number, and make of automible, as well as an estimated time of arrival. I found that last to be the best part, for sure. Once it went to 0, the app sent a notification and the driver called to make sure he knew where I was. After a few seconds of sorting, he managed to find me. Oh, and because he didn’t know initially that I was blind, he’d just sat there for about two minutes before I tried calling his cell.

The vehicle was comfortable, and it felt and smelled up to standards. This guy was from Ethiopia, enjoying to talk about where I’d come from, what kind of schooling I’d had and the like. He said one of his favorite things about the US is that we get greater choice in which types of things we’ll study in school, whereas over there, according to him, the government dictates which topics you must learn about. “I don’t understand why more people don’t fully take advantage of this!” he said.

He located the building easily enough, and I hopped out and went inside. I launched the app, and it said I had been charged $21.45. That’s odd, as from what I’d understood, my first five rides were to be free. It isn’t a big deal though, as that is still cheaper than the amount a cab would usually cost. I also loved the convenience of the whole thing.

The return ride was also provided by a foreign person. I am uncertain from where he may have come, as he said little the entire way other than asking where I was going. He already knew where my apartment complex was and so I got home quickly and easily, also in a comfortable van. They didn’t in fact bill for this ride, which was nice.

So on the whole, I’d have to say I liked the service. It takes away a lot of the anxiety, again for me as a blind traveler, regarding when they might arrive and if I’ll miss them. I’ll have to use it a few more times to see if there’s always a noticeable difference between the quoted fare and what they actually charge, but even so I still liked not having to engage in any cash transactions. Finally, I appreciated that the app asks you to leave feedback on each trip you take. I suppose this could be used to weed out any bad actors, should there be any.

And those are some of my thoughts. Kudos to whomever came up with this idea. It is yet one more way that I can reap some major benefits from my third hand, the iPhone. And it is a potentially powerful tool to enhance independence, and decrease the need for me to try frantically to find drivers when I need to get somewhere quickly. I hope it continues to be successful.

Entering the Transport Revolution

Hurray! I’m sure you’ve heard some about the ride share services Uber and Lift lately, as they’re kind of taking the country by storm. The basic concept is that you put your pick-up location and destination into the app, (it said iPhone and Android, so I don’t know if other platforms support it), and it gives you a predicted fare and sends a driver. Your credit card is also linked, meaning that you don’t have to worry about paying the driver anything.

Well according to this article, Uber has now made it to my adopted town of Durham! Charlotte, my actual hometown, has had the service available for some time now.

It took me just a bit longer than after I’d completed the article to download the app to my phone and sign up. Registering was easy, and quite accessible with VoiceOver. I did experience a moment of trepidation though, when it said “your Uber ride will be there in two minutes”. Huh? I hope I hadn’t requested one at the moment, as I’m not planning to go anywhere! No one has shown up though, to my knowledge, so I guess all is good.

One of the coolest features I’ve seen so far is that you can attach a photo of yourself in the app, so the driver will know how you look. I imagine this would be very helpful for blind folks, in particular. And of course, it’s easy enough to do with the iPhone. All I had to do is remember the timestamps in my camera roll that I wanted to use. If I got it right, I chose the snappy picture taken of me when I visited NPR last summer.

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

And that’s it for now. I hope to try and use them when I have to go pick up my refurbished hearing aid. At present, it costs $23 to get from my job or home to the audiology clinic, so anything less than that will be very much welcome. I’m wondering though if they’ll transport me to just over the Chapel Hill line though? I suppose I should try and see how that works, bu if not it won’t crush me.

I know that many taxi drivers find this service to be upsetting and are attempting to stop it. But, I think they’re bringing an innovative, 21st-Century approach to the problems I wrote about in my recent taxi cab post. It says in the article that drivers are vetted and checked for insurance, so hopefully they’ll be as safe as anyone else. I think the thing I’m most curious about is the quality of vehicle I’ll see. Someone’s old, rusted pickup? Or a car with French fry boxes and kids toys that I must sweep from the seat. In any event, it should be fun!

The article notes that both Uber and Lift are available in Raleigh, while Uber has expanded to Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and a couple of other smaller NC cities. If it’s in your area, how have you found it to be thus far. I suspect that it could vary a lot based on all sorts of factors. More once I’ve taken it.

Summer Time, Current and Past

Welcome to summer! My most favorite season of the year, when the hot days don’t end and the cold beverages flow freely. When I can sit outside all day and meet so many different people it makes my head spin.

I’ve spent much of this weekend, which has turned out to be superb weatherwise, sitting outside and reflecting on the summer camps I attended as a child, back before I had any conception of the kind of work I’d likely be doing as an adult.

The first of these was a five-week program at the Governor Moorehead School for the Blind in Raleigh that had been designed to help us not only have fun, but also be further educated on daily living skills, academic material, and sports pursuits. The thing I remember most, and remember hating most, was being taught to swim! I bet some of the poor folks who had to teach my crazy cousins and me to do that still bear the markings on their wrists.

RELATED: A Step Back in Time: My Trip to a GMS Talent Show

After about five years of that fun, we began to age out of GMS and started attending another place called Camp Dogwood in a small town near Lake Norman, about 45 minutes away from Charlotte. The thing that still amuses me about that was how fearful I had been when my sighted peers told me that I was going to a place where I’d be learning to hunt and shoot ducks and other land and water animals. Like they had any idea.

What we did do, and the activity that I’d say was most prominent in my mind, is go tubing. This involves sitting in a circular tube that has been tied to a speed boat with a rope. The tube is then sucked through the water, bouncing and threatening to jar its occupant into the air. This was doubly fun for me, a small person, as the boat’s driver, often a lifeguard, tried valiantly to flip the bigger person who rode in the tube beside me. Many times he would indeed be tossed, as I still hung on white-knuckled and nearly sideways in the water. I think it’s actually a lot harder to get a small person off. Ah, what fun!

We also went horseback riding. Usually, we’d just lope around the corral at a leisurely pace, but once the person walking my horse said she was bored. I thought she’d taken me on a gallop, but have since been informed by an avid rider that if I found it bumpy, it was most likely only a trot. A gallop should feel pretty smooth somehow. Ok? Well, I need to experience that someday, too.

Nowadays, my summer excursions tend to look less like that, and more involve a trip to an urban area where I can indulge in all sorts of fun events around me. I currently have twenty days till my big trip of this season and the year: a jaunt to Las Vegas to attend some of the American Council of the Blind’s conference and convention. I’ve planned a fairly light itinerary, so that I have a lot of flexibility to meet people and hang out on the fly. I might choose to register for more events once I arrive, if I am still able to, but if most of them are full I won’t mind. Even just chilling in the hotel with new friends would be fine. A list of my planned activities are below, for those who want to meet me there:

  • 7/12 8:35 PM Arrive aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 3112 (Please no delays!)
  • 7/13 8:30 AM Probable wake-up time (How hard will I get hit by jet lag?)
  • 7/13 1-3 PM City Bus Tour 3 (I know they’ll prob describe on PA what we pass, but the GPS nerd in me can’t wait to use it to follow along!)
  • 7/13 5-6 PM How Tweet It Is (What they’re calling their tweet-up, I think this is where I’ll meet most of you for first time. Talk loudly to me! Ok!)
  • 7/14 4 PM (I think?) Talent Showcase Auditions (I’m not entirely sure if I’ve got the guts to do this or can even still sing these days. If not, maybe I’ll just go watch)
  • 7/16 9:30 AM Depart Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines Flight 4135

So as you can see, I have a lot of blank space to fill in. Help me do so!

Other than that, I hope to do something for my birthday. I want either to go back to DC, because I still have many to meet there; to Chicago so I can finally attend the Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me show that I’m supposed to catch; or perhaps down to the ocean. Really, I’d like to do all three! Sadly, my place of employment doesn’t give me enough days off for that. Bah-humbug.

Writing 101-2: Expanding Presence

If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now?

Ok, I’ll take this post sort of literally, because I am not as good at waxing poetic as perhaps I’d like to be. It is an interesting concept.

First, I never cease to be amazed at how large the universe really is. Heck, how large even the solar system even is. Millions of miles separate us from our nearest planet, and thousands of years lie between us and the nearest star at any speed we could currently travel. I’ve just read somewhere that the fastest moving object in human history was one of the Pioneer space crafts, clocking an incredible 52000 miles per hour. This may have been eclipsed by the Voyager craft, but I’m not sure.

I do often wish we could at least move at the speed of light, and survive touching down on another planet’s surface. Ah, to walk around on Mars. Or feel the steamy impossibility of Venus. And I thought it was cold? How about Neptune, or the recently demoted Pluto. I’d not feel much of any sun from that distance.

Ultimately, I’d like to achieve this concept of hyperspace that most science fiction writers employ to get their characters across vast interstellar distances. It’d be humanity’s next great chance to explore an area thought to be far beyond itself, and one in which we are not sure where or if other life exists. It is hard for me to believe though that in a sky filled with more stars than there are grains of sand down here, that something or someone else isn’t out there.

And if not? Well, I’ll start a colony on one of those far away worlds in which we’ll try to get it right. A utopia where war is not permitted, a place where we agree to settle disputes through peaceful, diplomatic discussion. And of course, a place where the sun always shines! Join me?

Taxi Tales: Finding, Going, Paying

I’d come up with this idea after the previous weekend’s visit with my cousin, but couldn’t exactly decide how to encapsulate it. Then, I came across a great post by Tiffiny Carlson, about access or lack thereof to cabs for persons in wheelchairs. So thanks for the inspiration. I prosper from the world around me.

For blind folk, as least as far as I know, it’s never been all that practical to try and flag down a taxi. I suppose some can do it, depending on what level of sight they have, and maybe catching the closest available ride is a bit easier now as smartphone apps begin to come online that make this possible. I think though that there is some kickback to the general implementation of this idea, but hope it happens.

For now, I still use the old-fashioned method: place a call and wait. This is often nerve-racking, though.

I now live in an apartment with a difficult to discern address. Everyone from dispatch to the drivers, to heck, the pizza delivery folks and other passersby argue about exactly what it is. Even if I check with my phone’s GPS programs, I’m likely to get different results at different times. This means finding me can be a challenge.

For instance, I once thought a guy had said he was on the way to the right place and would pick me up shortly, because he said the correct street and number. However, it turned out that he then sat waiting in front of some location a bit farther up for ten minutes, finally placing an irritated call asking “Aye man, are you still trying to get this cab!” For this reason, I often opt to just go somewhere else for pick-up.

Ok, so I’ve successfully gotten into the taxi and am on my way. Where are we trying to go? How best to get there. Now, it’s certainly easier as I can just use my phone to tell me. But not all cabbies take the most cost-effective way, and I guess I can’t really blame them.

Because I’m interested, I just looked at this, apparently not wholly reliable, Wikipedia article that suggests that the first metered taxi service began in Germany in 1897. It says the meter even ticked, now that sort of feature would actually be convenient for the blind passenger.

Failing that though, I’ve heard there are supposed to be solutions on the horizon that will allow us to know exactly how much the driver should in fact be charging, as it accumulates. Maybe the meters will speak? Or perhaps the info could also be sent through our phones someday. If I feel somewhat shaky about how much it might cost for me to get there, I’ll just ask dispatch to give me a projected fare quote before leaving. Of course, if traveling a great distance many companies require that you pay in advance anyway.

So I’ve arrived at my destination and been told how much it will cost. “Uh,” I say “do you accept cards?”

Awkward silence.

If I’m lucky, they’ll grudgingly get out the card machine and swipe it. Or, maybe they’ll call it in and read my card number out loudly enough for anyone standing by to overhear. Worst of all? “No, I only take cash!”

Having finally begun to tire of this, I’m trying to make myself start carrying more cash around again. This of course has its own risks, but asking the cabbie to take me to an ATM so that I can withdraw the needed funds is definitely flipping a coin. In their defense, I must say that most try hard to be honest and make sure that I know they’re so being. Some have me call my bank and check the statement immediately. One individual, who could barely speak English, just summoned a nearby police officer to assist me in getting the dough.

The only person whom I think has taken me for a ride was a woman I met via Craigslist, no not you Shannon if you happen to be reading this, who probably shorted me $20 and then vehemently denied doing so. “I’ll just come and give you 20!” she said when I attempted to call her out for that. She never did so though, and I never used her again. Was a shame too, because she’d actually seemed pretty nice. But, it’s always difficult to tell.

As they say, it’s usually best to find and stick to a particular driver when possible, so that a fuller trust can develop. I do have my favorite driver, but lately I’ve not been as able to get her when trying to call. I can’t say why this is. Amusingly, on my short trip from Durham’s bus station to the Amtrak, I did meet the woman my favorite driver had asked to pick me up in this entry. She said that in addition to my little $5, she’d only made 10 all day long. I can kind of see why, as she didn’t strike me as the friendliest person in the world. That’s the thing, the best, or probably most aggressively tipped, cabbies are also good talkers/psychologists. Hey, whole shows have been made about this phenomenon.

So, to my other blind readers out there, what have your cab experiences been like? I know that unfortunately, they’ve still not always been friendly to those with guide dogs. This definitely needs to change. Have heard horror stories of people being dragged down the street while clinging to the doorhandle, all while trying to secure a ride for which they’ve desperately been waiting. Let us know your thoughts on this and other aspects.

Booking it! Online?

I would venture to say that at some point or other, every blind and visually impaired computer user has experienced this difficulty. I’d say that it results from the varying combination of browsers and assistive technology we might use to interact with the sites, as well as the many ways a site can be designed and function when certain actions are taken.

I’m headed to Charlotte to visit my cousin this weekend, yay! We’re gonna watch the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four matchups this Saturday and probably talk a lot about any and everything.

In getting there, I’m taking the Amtrak as usual. I decided I would go ahead and finally create an account there for myself, so that I might get some Guest Rewards points since I’m likely to make at least this trip fairly often in the coming year.

I log on, and after a little of this and that, manage to enter my user information. A number is then generated for me, but I hadn’t known at the time that this wasn’t the end of the acquisition process for guest rewards membership. I sure wish I had realized it!

Next, I proceeded to attempt purchasing my roundtrip ticket between Durham and Charlotte. I like that I could add the two stations as favorites, which in theory would make future scheduling a snap. Once I managed to find the link labeled Passengers with Disabilities, which I needed in order to request assistance and get the small discount for which blind folks qualify, I made the, apparent, mistake of linking my Guest Rewards account to the trip I was attempting to book.

So here’s where I really became frustrated. I got my card info in, clicked the Purchase button, and it just sat there saying it was “Processing payment”. Paranoid about the idea that if I clicked it again I’d be charged twice, I allowed the machine to sit there for about 20 minutes before conceding and calling it a night, for it was already late.

Fortunately everything had been saved, so I relaunched the same search the next day and got the same hanging Now Processing result. I was wishing for at least an error of some kind, so that I’d know that something was wrong and perhaps what that something was.

I opted to give it a try with the iPhone app, but with that I couldn’t even get the date to enter correctly. So, I threw up my proverbial hands and called in to order the ticket as I had done on all previous occasions. I told the call center representative with whom I spoke I was doing that, throwing up my hands, and she laughed. She was nice though, and demonstrated to me that the problem was that I had not completed my enrollment in that Guest Rewards program.

I could go off on a tangent regarding my usefulness of loyalty programs, which often require you to have amassed piles of points to redeem one flight/trainride/pizza/what have you. I of course understand this logic, as the hope is that one will continue spending with said company in order to obtain the benefits, and that so doing will result in greater profit for the company. But I usually don’t see the need, and just buy the thing I want outright. I know there are some things to be gained from these associations though, which is why I was going to give it a go. Do you engage in any loyalty programs?

I do think I might sign up for Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards, as I’m slowly starting to use them more. They actually have done a good job lately of making their site a lot more accessible with a screen-reader, ad they offer great prices on nonstop flights from my local airport.

So that was a little of my trip booking fun. I guess for now I won’t actually become a Guest Rewards member, but I might feel like signing up eventually. I do have to say that the Amtrak site was usable for the most part, but just wish it could have been a bit more explanatory and that things could be more easily located.

Especially for those with visual disabilities, what have been some of your trip booking challenges and/or successes lately. I’ve also heard that Expedia isn’t exactly wrking well for screen-reader users lately either, but cannot personally attest to this as it’s been a while since I’ve completed a booking there. Weigh in.

Time to Plan Summer Travel

Welcome to March, 5 days late. Did you know that in many countries, they consider the season to have changed once we reach the first of the month in which equinox or solstice is reached? Well, I’ll boldly take up that idea and say hello Spring! Now if only all this freezing rain, single-digit temperatures, snow, and the like will agree and make haste back to Alaska where they are, if not entirely enjoyed, certainly more expected.

And yes, I am of course aware that Northern winter put our comparatively puny Southern winter to shame. But looking at it from a relativist perspective, we’ve been hit about the same.

So where warm can I go. I know? I’ll go to Chicago! Um, quiet about that, it is so warm.

In any event, I’m still not sure if that will happen anytime soon. I reported winning that contest to attend a live taping of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me there. However, I haven’t really been able to confirm all of the details, and so I can’t actually book the trip. With all I’d have to do other than that, such as visit a special, blind-friendly exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, maybe go and at least hear Lake Michigan (because I can’t imagine a lake with waves!), and have lunch/dinner with countless friends; I’m likely to just go anyway. Maybe I’ll be better served to just hold off until at least May though, when perhaps the temperature will at least remain at or above 50 degrees. We shall see what happens with that.

I’m trying to decide something quickly though, because I haven’t exactly ruled out a jaunt to Vegas in July to attend some of the Convention of the American Council of the Blind, (ACB). I’ve never been to Vegas, and would have lots to do there and many people to meet also. I think it would be considerably more expensive though, and I’d have to ask myself am I getting the most bang for my buck. I wish I had an unlimited travel budget sometimes.

I’m hoping these stubborn days that forced me to take off work by icing and snowing everything in won’t significantly cut into the meager vacation time I am given. I think we weren’t charged at all for taking Valentine’s Day, since almost everyone found the sidewalks impassable. I had to take yesterday off too, well ok maybe I could’ve made it in but I wasn’t certain of that and didn’t want to get way far from my door only to realize the path was too treacherous. I saw another person who stays in this neighborhood, and she told me the bus was sliding back down the hill as they tried to pull up out of here anyway. I guess I would’ve been ok through all of that, but it sounds kinda scary nonetheless.

I think y full 40 hours of paid vacation doesn’t kick in till July, but I do get five unpaid days. I probably have 2 of them left, so wherever I go during this part of the year will likely be a Wednesday night/Thursday morning departure. Man, could I ever use something to look forward to!

Have you started planning your trips yet? Ideally, where would you like to go? To a big city? Up in the mountains? Down by the ocean? Does it matter? Do you know to which song I’m referring. I’m sure something will happen soon.