Adaptability for Disability

May 12th, 2009

If you've read my 'About' page, you would have noticed a small mention about my trouble with vision loss. At one time I used to have a more detailed description of what it is, and talk about a few common questions that people ask me about it. I don't know why I took most of it out. If you know me, then you know that <!--more-->I'm blind, and if you don't then, it doesn't matter. You can get to know me by the things I post to my web pages. Which probably isn't much different from what any other person might put on a web page. In other words, I'm just a regular guy who happens to not be able to see.
In recent weeks, I began thinking about writing a few articles based on what it's like to be a blind person. Maybe it will interest people. Maybe it will encourage other blind people to make their own mark on the world, in their own way. More importantly, maybe the average person will come to understand that blind people, or any disabled person, are pretty close to being the same kind of people that they are.

Deep thought of the day: Everybody is handicapped in some way or other. A person who is close to me, name withheld, but if you know me it won't be hard to figure out who, had some trouble a few years back. Among other things, it involved going to rehabilitation support groups. As people talked about their addictions, and their own brand of substance to abuse, it would have been easy to sit around smuggly, and be all preachy, and think that you might be better because you didn't have these abuse problems. It could be a temptation to wag a finger at these people, whip out the, "I told you so" statement and think how much better you are because you have risen above this particular problem. You would be deceiving yourself if you thought that.

People who are substance abusers have a problem in their lives, because of addictive behavior. What are you addicted to? Don't tell me that you aren't addicted to anything. It is just that the addiction of choice for the so called normal person is an addiction that doesn't involve chemicals. Maybe it's something tame, like pets, or house cleaning, or reading, or watching TV, or computers, or surfing the web, or knitting. See what I mean? Everybody has an addiction. The trick is to find one that isn't going to destroy your life, and the lives of those around you. Before I go on, I'll say that the person in my life who went through an addictive problem is doing very well today, but not without a hard road to walk.

Now, what does that have to do with disability? While I hesitate, in my totally unproffessional opinion, to name addictions as a disability, it certainly is disabling. With corrective adaptive behavior, an addict can operate, and function just like everybody else.

A disabled person also lives a typical life. They just have to adapt either their methods of doing things, or their environment, or a combination of both. In particular, blind people, because I am one and know that way of life better than other disabilities, have ways to adapt to common chores and do things much the same as everybody else. Somethings take longer. Some things don't. Somethings can even be done faster.

For example, Braille. I once could hold a book in hand and speed read through a moderate length novel, like a Perry Mason story, in about 6 to 8 hours. My Braille reading skills have become rusty, but I can read it. At my fastest, I could never tolerate sitting and feeling dots under my finger tips for more than about 2 or 3 hours at most. I could top out at maybe 10 minutes per page. Keep in mind that Braille is approximately equivalent to 28 point font. So a page might hold a moderate sized paragraph or so. A huge slow down for me.

Books can be read on tape, or some form of recorded media. The pros include a normal sounding, human voice. You aren't tied to a chair, holding book in hand. You can get up, do chores around the house. For sighted people, even drive the car while reading. Cons include, You need a special device to play back the recording. Not a serious problem, unless you have dead batteries, or a lack of other power source. To slip in a book mark is virtually impossible. If you have read to another point in the book, and want to go back and read something that you read earlier, it will take time to find it, and then scan back to where you were just reading. If the tape player has a tape counter, it only helps if you can see it. If the reader on the tape says a particular word, or you want to check out a punctuation mark, you can't stop them and ask about it.

Books on tape are much smaller and portable than those in Braille, even with the need to carry around the tape itself, and the player to read it. Putting the audio into either mp3 or wave makes it even more portable, by using an mp3 player. You can read on the go, even carry around several books at once in the palm of your hand. But you still have the problem of placing a bookmark, locating any given reference point, similar to audio books.

Digital form might also include text to speech. This may require a computer, not very portable. Or a laptop, much more portable, but limited. Or some form of book reader, or a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). The book reader or PDA devices are extremely portable, but are limited in memory, compared to a computer, but when it comes to reading text, just as affective. The pros include, a voice that never gets tired. You can stop reading and go back to a troubling word to have it spelled, or to look at punctuation. You can move through text line at a time, character at a time, paragraph at a time, depending on the actual software used. You can make the voice read faster, or slower. You can use a voice with a lower pitch, or a higher one. Depending on the software used in reading, you could set bookmarks, or do a search for a particular word or phrase. Digital text to speech is probably the most powerful way of reading, and with the most precice information available, other than Braille.

The cons of text to speech include the expense of the computer or device it takes to read the book. The computer voice has very little inflection. Occasionally a word is misread. The expensive equipment is probably the biggest obstacle, but once purchased, texts are relatively cheap, or even free, to download.

For a blind person, technology is becoming a big equalizer, and not simply for reading. Learning what kinds of technology is available, and how to use it can put a blind person at the same speed, or sometimes ahead of, a sighted counterpart. That's what I meant by my opening statement about encouraging other blind people. It's also what I meant about possibly affecting the average person to understand that blind people are pretty close to being the same people as they are. Blind people aren't an underpriveleged class of folks who need a hand out, as they sit alone at home, and out of the way of society. Blind people aren't a courageous race of people with super hearing and heightened senses. Trust me, my hearing is the same, and getting worse as the aging process kicks in, and my sense of touch isn't all that hot either. Blind people just know how to make the most of their ability.

Our biggest obstacle is just not being given a chance. People see the white cane, and shut down. The thought of, "I wonder what this guy can do for me with the tools he offers?" evaporates. It's replaced with, "How am I going to try to tell this guy how to use my tools, to do his job?" The starting point and the goal are the same. Make an undone job into a finished one. There are many methods to the same end. The blind guy already has tools and resources for the job. He just needs a place to use them. Isn't that all that anybody really wants?

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