Braille

“If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

You’d get no argument from Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen about that famous quote, “If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

The Grand Haven couple spends many enjoyable hours each week listening to audiobooks together.

In 2010, they listened to all 40 books in Gilbert Morris’s “House of Winslow” series. They accompanied generations of the Winslow family from the time one crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower through the time his descendant fought in World War II.

Talk about time travel!

More recently, the VanDuinens accompanied Richard Paul Evans’ character, Alan Christoffersen, through his daring four-book walk from Seattle to Key West following the tragic death of his wife, betrayal by his business partner, and subsequent bankruptcy.

They’re eagerly awaiting the fifth book of the “Walk” series, “Walking On Water,” to be published later in 2014.

But don’t expect the VanDuinens to place a hold on “Walking On Water” at their local library, or be first in line to buy it from their local bookseller.

Wayne and Yvonne are blind. They both have Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness.

So, they can’t feed their reading habit in the usual ways.

The VanDuinens rely on the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to keep them in free reading material – and have for more than 40 years.

Congress authorized the service in 1931, when many veterans were returning home from World War I with visual impairments, or physical disabilities that prevented them from holding a book and turning the pages.

The National Library Service (NLS) circulates books in braille and as recorded books in a special format that can only be played back on equipment issued to eligible patrons by Braille and Talking Book Libraries.

The recorded books are circulated postage-free through the mail. Wayne, however, is computer savvy thanks to a screen reading software that allows him to navigate the World Wide Web. He has been downloading books directly from NLS’s Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) portal since 2008. He loads the books onto a digital cartridge to playback on the machines.

The VanDuinens, who have been married for eight years, have two of the special players. Yvonne, 76, listens to one in the kitchen, while she’s preparing meals. The second is usually in the living room, where the couple likes spending one to three hours a night listening to Christian fiction and historical fiction together.

“In most households it would be the television, but we don’t spend much time with our TV set,” said Wayne, 73, who taught biology at Spring Lake High School for 31 years before he retired in 1994.

In March, the couple bought a 50-inch wall-mounted TV set, thinking they’d be able to get programming with video description – narration between the dialogue describing what is happening on the screen.

But only big cities got the audio description service on the first round. The Federal Communications Commission will require expansion of audio description services from 25 to 60 venues in 2016. Wayne has already composed a letter asking the FCC to permit the company that provides his cable service, Charter Communications, to one of the “venues.”

The VanDuinens also borrow movies with audio description through the Michigan Braille and Talking Book Library in Lansing, although they say there are few newer movies on DVD in the collection. Most of the collection is still on VCR.

Hollywood doesn’t produce all movies with a video description track. And it’s usually difficult to find the track on DVDs – especially for those without sight – because it’s usually buried in the foreign language or special features options.

Both can read and write braille, although they usually prefer listening to audiobooks for pleasure reading.

Choosing what to read would be difficult, the VanDuinens said, if it wasn’t for Sheila Miller, a Reader Advisor at the Braille and Talking Book Library’s Advisory and Outreach Center in Muskegon.

“Sheila has introduced us to all the books we’ve liked,” Yvonne said. “I call her about every two weeks. She’s always got good suggestions for what we’ll like to read next.”

“Really,” Yvonne added, “this is a big part of our lives.”

When Yvonne’s vision deteriorated to the point where she could no longer see the sidewalk, the couple stopped venturing out with their white canes, unless their sighted friend Sarah Meiste can walk with them.

But, thanks to Richard Paul Evans’ “Walk” series, the VanDuinens feel like they are poised to complete an epic cross-country trek.

Assistive Technologies - Go Ahead. Make Your Life Easier.

By the time he was 50, it was obvious my brother had a hearing loss.

Maybe decades of working around heavy equipment assaulted his hearing.  Maybe he attended too many rock concerts and sat too close to the speakers.  Maybe it's just part of aging.

Our mother suggested he get evaluated for hearing aids, but Bruce wouldn't hear of it.

He said he could compensate.  Besides, he didn't want to look "old."

Needing an assistive device to do something you used to be able to do on your own can seem daunting, but the trepidation is usually short-lived.

I wasn't enthused about getting my first pair of eyeglasses in the sixth grade, but finally being able to see the world clearly made me forget concerns about how I looked to others.

Most of us are accustomed (or spoiled) by automation in our homes.  Programmable heating and cooling, automatic garage door openers, remote controls for TVs, and kitchen appliances are all assistive technologies, and nobody's embarrassed to use them.

These days, so much information and communication is virtual and the tools to help us are digital.

Both IOS (Apple) and Android (Google) operating systems have built-in screen-readers (Voiceover and TalkBack, respectively) and magnification apps.  They sport other accessibility features too, that help users with limitations in vision, hearing and motor skills.  

More possibilities will debut this fall.  IOS 8 will be introducing a Braille, a gray-scale mode for colorblind users, improving its magnification feature (Zoom), and building in audio description on entertainment where that track is supplied.

Android L will allow users to invert and correct colors on the screen - features that will help people with low vision and color blindness.

Here's a look at a few popular applications (apps) in different categories that can help compensate for chronic, short-term or age-related disabilities.  They were featured in a webinar titled "High Quality Apps for Accessibility" by Jonathan Campbell, assistive technology specialist at the Minneapolis-based Pacer Center and Simon Technology Center, which is dedicated to making the benefits of technology more accessible to people with disabilities.  

Reading (Text-to-Speech)

  • Read2Go (IOS) 
  • Go Read (Android)
  • Voice Dream Reader 
  • EZPDF (reads PDF files, which are not readable by most screen readers)

Reading (Digital Book Players)

  • iBooks (IOS) 
  • Kindle (Amazon) Newer models have accessibility features
  • Nook (Barnes & Noble)
  • Blio (Kurzweil Technologies)

Writing

Apps with word prediction features that guess what you're typing, which allows you select the word you want from a list without having to type the whole word.

  • Fleksy
  • iReadWrite
  • Co:Writer App

App that allows you to type without repeated tapping

  • Swype

App that records audio as you type notes, and allows you to bookmark important information to find that audio fast

  • AudioNote

Vision

  • TapTapSee (Snap a photo, uploads to a server, then provides an audio description of that image)

Communication (Picture/Symbol Systems)

  • Proloquo2Go
  • Tobii Sono Flex
  • LAMP Words for Life
  • Speak for Yourself
  • My First AAC

Campbell also recommended some apps that help people remember, organize and manage tasks.  Notes and reminders can be written, spoken, or given as pictures.  Popular accessible organizational apps are:

  • Wunderlist
  • Evernote
  • Any.do

Many of these apps - like other assistive technologies - are conveniences for the disabled and able-bodied alike.

I sometimes use the Voiceover feature on my iPad to have technical journals read to me aloud.  It's just easier than plowing through multiple-page articles published in tiny type.

And I don't even want to imagine how I would function without Evernote.  it's how I remember what I remember.

Are Voiceover, Evernote and my eyeglasses signs that I'm getting old and "losing it"?

Maybe.  But I don't care as long as they help me function.

Do you hear that, brother?

Written By Kym Reinstadler