Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tech? No!

I wanted to blog a bit about technology, and describe what kinds of technology are out there for Deafblind People.

The word Deafblindness is a broad term. It can mean someone who is hard of hearing, with low vision to a person who is profoundly deaf and totally blind. most deafblind people have a bit of sight, or a bit of hearing, or a bit of both. I, for example have a small bit of sight, but not enough to use for reading print, or signed conversations. I use braille and ASL tactually. I can also hear a bit but can only hear speech in quiet settings. If I am going to listen to audio long term, I plug a device called a streamer into my computer or iPod, and it links it directly with my hearing aid-- eliminating background noise and cranking up the volume. Since there are so many different combinations of "deafblindness" what works for one won't work for all.

I use a Macbook with a braille display. The display runs off of USB, and is "twenty cells" long which means that it displays twenty characters or spaces at a time. There is a program called Voice over which will either speak what is on the screen, or will translate it into braille to be read on my display.

I also use an iPhone with a braille display. I learned to operate the iPhone using the touch screen and various gestures. The iPhone has opened up new worlds for me. Until I got an iPhone, I couldn't make phone-calls independently when away from my computer. I use relay to make calls. I use AOL Instant messenger to connect with relay operators who call the number I want. They type in what the other party is saying. I read the conversation on my screen, and type back my answer. The relay operator then reads my answer back to the hearing person. It is a newer version of the TTY. But I could only use this on my computer. Until I got an iPhone and downloaded an application for AOL Instant Messenger and could now make phone calls to anyone, from anywhere.

This meant that I could call a cab for myself, when out doing the shopping. It meant that I could call the pharmacy to get refills for my meds while I was on the buss. It meant real independence. The iPhone has many other apps. I can identify money, the color of a shirt, the label on a can, and get hurricane warnings all on my iPhone. I can also do texting, which opens up a huge new world of communication possibilities for friends and family. I can also use GPS.

On Friday I took a buss from my office to the grocery store, I got on, paid my money, and opened up my iPhone and braille display. I started my GPS app, and it began naming the streets we were crossing, as well as the street addresses. I had told the driver where I was going when I got on, and also that I was deafblind and could she tap my leg when we got to my stop? But by watching the addresses move by on my braille display, I could know if we were coming close to my stop, could remind the driver about my stop, and could know when we arrived. This is more information about the environment than most deafblind people have ever had.

I also use a Braille Note. It is a small device-- about the size of a net book-- and is akin to a PDA. I can do things like compose documents, keep an address book, and read trashy romance novels, all on my Braille Note. This unit can also act as a braille display for my iPhone-- using bluetooth, it will reflect what is on my iPhone's screen or the screen of my Mac, when requested to do so. I also use my Braille Note to facilitate face-to-face communication. When going to a store, or an office, I can ask the person with whom I wish to communicate to type their message on my Braille Note's QWERTY keyboard. The message then appears in braille. The unit also has a USB port for a keyboard for use to caption meetings when I can't get an interpreter. The Braille Note can also go on the internet but I don't use this feature much because I find the speeds faster using my iPhone. I can read books from
on there. Bookshare's collection is growing every day, and I can read books on almost any topic using my Braille Note.

There are also programs designed for computers and cell phones, for people who have low vision which make the font larger and the colors contrasting for easier reading. All of the programs I described have speech, so if a person has remaining hearing, they can use that. Whether you prefer Mac, Windows, or Linux, you use a braille display or large print, there is a computer out there which can meet the needs of almost everyone.

Since the iPhone is gaining in use amongst the deafblind population, I would like to start a series of blog entries about apps which are usable by, and helpful for, deafblind people. I will start out with my personal favorites, but would love to hear from any DBP out there who have a particular favorite app!

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