Blind Athletes and the 2006 Winter Paralympics

I never thought much about the Paralympics. In fact, I thought they had some kind of relationship to the Special Olympics, the heartwarming event held periodically in which mentally challenged athletes participate and “everyone goes home a winner.” Then, a few years ago, in a conversation I had with Matt King, IBM Special Needs Advocate and competitive tandem bicyclist, I learned that the two events had nothing to do with each other and, in the Paralympics, the competition gets fierce and the athletes play to win. At that time, Matt trained daily for the Melbourne Paralympics in which he would compete in the cycling events.

Matt, who lost his vision to RP, has a blind brother, Jim King, who also enjoys outdoor sports and, if memory serves me, Jim, a PPO board member and all around terrific guy, became the first blind musher to run the length of the Iditarod course behind a dog sled. Needless to say, the King Brothers don’t need to feel like winners just for showing up but, rather, their competitive drive brings them to sports and, when participating, they play to win.

Having learned about the real nature of the Paralympics from Matt, I found myself interested in the recently concluded winter events in Turin, Italy. Paralympics means, “Parallel Olympics and does not refer to paraplegics specifically although some do compete. I will focus on blind athletes and the sports in which they participated and let those who write about other disabilities cover them for their readers.

I must say, as I collected background articles for this piece (thanks again to the Blind News guys), that I found it surprising that very few of the pieces mentioning blind athletes came from the US. Except for a single piece from MSN news, all sources for this item came from outside our country. It amazes me that the networks will spend hours covering a hissy fit between two male speed skaters but not give blind athletes a single mention.

The March 10 MSN News ran an article titled, “Winter Paralympics opens in Turin: cauldron lit by blind 11-year-old Italian girl,” and described some of the major points of the games. Demonstrating the importance of these events to the athletes with various disabilities, the article states, “Random anti-doping tests will be performed, while the medalists in each event will be also tested.” These competitors take this very seriously and these events don’t celebrate one for just showing up. Even though most of the press had left Turin, the Paralympic games would award 58 medals during its nine days of

Due to a lack of sponsorship dollars and an unproven audience base, the Winter Paralympics did not receive television coverage, but fans could, “check out the webcast of all the events at the International Paralympic Committee’s site. It features a searchable archive, program guide and highlights section,” says an article in Toronto Now.

“In many ways, these Games make for more interesting viewing, because the athletes aren’t carbon copies of one another. Each has individualized harnesses and prosthetics specially designed for his or her participation in events. The truly visionary technology used by athletes is often a test run for designs that help thousands of people with disabilities,” continues the Toronto Now article. This demonstrates another similarity between technologies for the mainstream and those for people with disabilities as many medical procedures, automotive and other technologies get their first tests in the world of competition and later get applied for non-athletic purposes.

In the skiing events, people with vision impairments can use a guide, “who describes the intricacies of the course from the sidelines with a megaphone.” The Toronto Now article continues by explaining that, “the very best skiers just need to hear their sighted guide ski on the course ahead of them to know which path to take.” I know quite a few blind skiers and this item makes the first reference to following a guide just by the sound of their skis on the slopes. I guess that’s why these guys compete internationally and, when I find myself in a snowy environment, I either sit by a fireplace indoors or, if I feel especially energetic, use cross country skis in preformed paths over short and mostly flat courses. Even the thought of careening down the side of a snow covered mountain listening to someone yell directions at me through a loudspeaker frightens me. These blind skiers should challenge the Olympic medal winners to a lights off competition on a random slope after dark. I doubt any will accept this challenge.

Regular Blind Confidential readers will know that I often include firearms in my lists of items I would like to have made more accessible and, as recently as last week, I challenged any KKK member to a shoot out if I could use a specially rigged Mossberg shotgun. The blind Paralympians already have accessible weapons described in the Toronto Now article, “For the biathlon, visually impaired skiers follow their guide to the shooting range and are directed to the targets by sound. Their rifles shoot a beam of light and sound at the target that gets bounced back to the shooter’s headset. The pitch increases the closer they get to the target, allowing them to refine their aim.” I’m a member of the Night Shooting Club in Clearwater, Florida. I go there with a friend once a year or so and he gives me verbal clues to aim my weapon and shoot at paper targets. Last time out, of the fifty shots I took with a competition target pistol, I got 46 hits and about fifteen bulls.

I plan on researching this technology further to see what I need to buy to attach to a rifle and handgun to improve my shooting skills. One of the fellows who work at the Night gun club is a former member of the Israeli secret service, he has told me, “If I can teach sighted people to shoot in the dark, I can teach you to shoot too.” With this technology, I’ll probably take him up on his offer. If anyone in my readership knows who builds these attachments for the guns, please send me an email or post a comment as I really do want to learn more. As I have a little experience cross country skiing, I wonder if there is a senior circuit for blind biathletes.

Proving that the Paralympic games also maintain the drama of controversy, The Star Phoenix, another Canadian publication reported, “Chris Williamson of Markham, Ont., was awarded a bronze medal at the Paralympics Tuesday by enforcing a rule he never agreed with.”

Williamson originally thought he had finished fourth in the vision impaired Super G slalom event when he learned the rules committee had awarded him the bronze medal, “after German gold medalist Gerd Gradwohl was disqualified because he became separated by more than one directional turn from his guide Karl Heinz Vachenauer during the race,” says the Star Phoenix article.

Gradwohl, who had thought he won Sunday’s downhill race, was furious over the disqualification and quoted in the same article as saying, “It is disgraceful. It always is when you lose a medal, especially a gold, because of a rule. Sometimes it’s not good to make decisions because of rules. It is not sporting.”

Williamson, the benefactor of the disqualification also showed anger at the decision, “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If you can’t see your guide, I don’t see how that is a benefit. I think the basic theory of the rule is incorrect.”

Demonstrating the worldwide appeal of scandal, the Chinese Peoples Daily online covered the story in an article entitled, “Italian seizes first gold medal from blind skiing at Paralympics.” The article states, “Dal Maistro seized the gold medal in the Super G, blind category at the Sestriere field. As a matter of fact, Dal Maistro finished second behind German skier Gerd Gradwohl, who was then disqualified because the distance between him and his guide was not within regulations, and third was Slovakian Radomir Dudas.”

So, with controversy, intense competition and blind people with firearms, I can’t understand why the Paralympic games do not get more coverage in the United States. Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that very few Americans participated and all of the medals were won by people from Canada or Europe with Russia leading the pack. We Americans like to ignore what we can’t win and the Paralympics don’t even have figure skating to please those who enjoy leering at teenaged girls in skimpy outfits.


A quick apology to Matt Bailey who, in my last two BC posts, got renamed Matt Daly. This is part of the fun with listening to speech synthesizers all of the time.

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Blogs About Blindness

Since starting Blind Confidential back in January, we have found ourselves quoted and referenced on a number of other blogs and in blindness related mailing lists.  Other than an occasional acknowledgement, Blind Confidential has not reciprocated by mentioning any of the other blogs I have found interesting.  We do keep an ever growing collection of links to other blogs of interest but rarely say anything about them in my nearly daily articles.  Because my wrists hurt from typing a bit too much, I felt that I should lay off the keyboard as much as possible and only do a short entry today.  Thus, a blog about blogs I find interesting.

The first link under our heading “Blog Related Links” is “Subscribe to Blind Confidential RSS Feed.”  This brings you to a page where you can subscribe to Blind Confidential and, rather than coming to the web site each time you want to read a story, you will automatically receive all new material when you launch your RSS reader.  If you come here often, this will make reading BC more convenient.

The other links in this section all point to other blogs.  We keep this list in alphabetic order so as not to show any sort of bias.  We keep the links in the “Businesses and Organizations” alphabetized for the same reason.

Blind Access Journal, written by Darrell and Karen Chandro “is all about the blind and our quest for the greatest possible access to all the information available in the world around us.”  BAJ has new material almost every day and I find it quite informative.

The Desert Skies Podcast talks about, “technology with a twist toward accessibility.”  It is run by old friend Jeff Bishop and he updates it frequently.  Jeff keeps well informed about issues regarding technology and blindness and brings a nice mixture of the technical and personal to the blogosphere.

The Fred’s Head Companion, a blog run by American Printing House for the blind and managed by Michael McCarty has rerun Blind Confidential posts and, on a very frequent basis, discusses issues of interest to people with vision impairments.  I like this blog especially because Michael often writes about topics that get far less coverage than the AT debates and technology issues.

Probably the most frequented blog in the blindness world, The Mosen Explosion, may also publish the most eclectic content in the blindness corner of the blogosphere.  Jonathon Mosen, who rose to fame as the original host of the popular ACB radio program, “Main Menu” and who now works as a product manager for Humanware brings a lot of insightful commentary about nearly every subject from technology to dishwashing.  Jonathon updates his blog numerous times per day and shows great courage by discussing very personal matters that I couldn’t imagine revealing about myself in a public forum.  Jonathon, as he always did before, brings us a lot to think about, a lot to read and a lot to listen to.

Peter Korn’s Weblog contains, “The collected occasional commentary by Peter Korn, Accessibility Architect at Sun Microsystems, Inc.”  If you don’t know Peter, he brings a frenetically genius view to the world of accessibility.  Peter doesn’t update his blog too often but his opinions, whether I agree with them or not, always seem to be well considered and come from a long career in the access technology biz.

The most recent addition to our list of interesting blogs, Web Site Accessibility Blog, written by Matt Daly, a great guy who also enjoys salt water fishing, intends to increase “the awareness of Web Site Accessibility and Marketing.”  Matt works as a web access and marketing consultant and writes about this important subject as well as other issues related to disability.

The blindness community probably has lots more blogs going and BC would love to add a link to your blog in exchange for one to us.  We find our ever growing readership, with quite a lot of hits to the page, a solid number of RSS subscriptions and the republishing and emailing of our content very exciting.  We’ve received a lot of fan mail lately which makes us happy and I hope to continue to write articles that amuse, challenge and inform.  So, please either write to me directly or post a comment if you would like us to add a pointer to your blog.


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Driving While Blind

[Today, I will try to reconstruct the item I wrote yesterday about driving while blind.  It will likely be less funny as it will be less fresh but that’s life.  Leon Gilbert, the man behind Blind News (one of my greatest sources for blog ideas) posted a comment yesterday that made reference to some serious blind driving projects.  I am aware of these and will, when in a serious mood, write something about them.  Today’s item will, however, be pretty silly and in the semi gonzo form I’ve been taking lately.

Some material in today’s article might not be suitable for young readers.  There is nothing sexual but there are comments about the use of various intoxicants during a period in my personal history.  I do not advocate drug use, alcohol abuseinsanity, , promiscuity or violence but, as the late great Hunter S. Thompson once said, “It worked for me for a long time.”  Today, I don’t use any illicit drugs or drink alcohol as I think for a living and such substances do little for the clarity of mind I need to do my jobs.  I rarely get involved in violence anymore as I am old, weak and pathetic.  Promiscuity ended when the women started saying, “no,”.  I keep enough insanity around to make up for the others though.]

Back in 1977, the State of New Jersey in its infinite wisdom found it appropriate to issue me, one Christian David Hofstader, a license to operate an automobile.  They seemed to miss the fact that I spent most of my leisure time swilling beer, smoking pot and ingesting nearly any other intoxicant available in freakdom – a fact the local juvenile justice system knew quite well.  They also neglected to notice that I had nearly no remaining peripheral vision, a fact I kept well hidden.

“It doesn’t matter what’s beside you,” said the driver’s education teacher and my wrestling coach at Union Catholic High School (I won’t include his name to protect the guilty); “just drive straight ahead and you’ll do fine.”  While taking advice from a gym teacher who would, on occasion, purchase some very potent Hawaiian herbal remedies from my little cottage business might  lead to a poor outcome, my testosterone driven seventeen year old self wanted to drive as much as did my Molson swilling, bong water stained buddies.  

As Bruce described the Jersey suburban landscape of the time, “Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young!”  Driving meant freedom to us suburbanites.  So, license in wallet, I hit the road.  I slammed the gas pedal to the metal on my 1972 Toyota Corolla and raced up to a blazing 45 miles per hour, at least double the speed I could reach on my bicycle and, as the rust fell off the once yellow body and Blue Oyster Cult blared from the 8 track, I had achieved Nirvana – Jersey style.

Fortunately for me and the occasional daredevil willing to ride as a passenger when I drove, the six accidents in which I was involved during my legal driving career resulted in nothing more than the occasional ding and an increase in my dad’s insurance rates.

Ultimately, a judge forced me to turn in my license during a trial resulting from a bit of nastiness involving the Union County Police, beer, marijuana, ice skating, a friend suffering a head injury (unrelated to anything automotive), a whole lot of shouting and those sticks cops carry striking my head a few times.  My attorney used my poor vision and the brutality of the police as the basis of my defense.  Somehow, the judge couldn’t reconcile my legal blindness with my legally driving so he forced me to surrender my license, pay $100 in court fees and let me go on my way.

A little detour in our story:  A few months after my adjudication, the arresting officer in my case (a name I will leave out to protect the innocent, his family and such) attended a party with a whole lot of other police officers.  After consuming large amounts of alcohol and who knows what else, some of New Jersey’s Finest started to play a game called “cop.”  I don’t know the rules of this game but I suppose someone does.  The boy in blue who arrested me on that winter night, with a blood alcohol level approaching flammable, shocked his fellow officers by firing a real bullet directly between the eyes of his partner, killing him instantly.  In the same courthouse where I gave up my right to drive, he received a life sentence and had his life handed over to the care of Rahway State Prison in Woodbridge, New Jersey.  I hear the other residents of such places treat former cops pretty poorly; I don’t know, I’ve never lived in a state prison.

The last time I drove a car happened during COMDEX 1994.  My business partners and I sat for a long time in the Caesar’s Palace tequila bar, the only drinking establishment 3000 miles from home where the bartenders knew our names and served us our drinks for free.  We drank beer and tequila shots until we couldn’t stand those damned talking statues outside of the place.  We picked ourselves up from our stools, not a simple feat at that point and staggered across Las Vegas Blvd. to Bally’s to drink in their tequila bar.  After a few hours there, the idea of my driving the rental seemed like a brilliant diversion so we yelled, “To the Lincoln!”  And set back across the street to retrieve our car from the Caesar’s valet.

When the kid brought our car around, Steve, our CFO and designated drunk driver, hopped behind the wheel and headed east, toward the desert.  When we passed Henderson, well on our way to Boulder City, Steve pulled off onto a deserted patch of sand hills, dirt, cactus and total darkness.  He hopped out of the car, ran to the passenger’s seat as I slid behind the wheel, we all buckled up and Eric, our lead software engineer, a MIT graduate and now executive at a very successful Silicon Beach technology company, yelled, “Let’s do it!”

I put the vehicle into drive, slammed down on the gas and listened as my boys shouted directions to turn right, left, stop, reverse.  We flew off sand dunes, catching air in a Lincoln Town Car, we slid, we spun, we whooped and hollered and, when we grew tired, Steve drove us back to the MGM Grand.  In the parking lot, a couple of guys asked, “What happened to your car?”  We explained and it turned out they wrote for PC magazine and mentioned us in a COMDEX highlights article in the next edition.

Before returning the car to Avis, we removed a chunk of chaparral from the grill and used Super Glue to repair it.  With strapping wire, we put the muffler back near its original position and, with only my Leatherman toolkit, we got the rear bumper back to where it belonged.  We ran the vehicle through a car wash to get rid of the cactus juice, sand and other crud and brought the car back looking pretty nice.  I often wonder what happened to the next people who rented that particular Town Car.

I found it interesting when I read an article that came through Blind News from the Illinois based, Belleville News Democrat that described how Chicago public schools require students with vision impairments to pass the written portion of the driver’s education test in order to graduate from high school.  The article quotes a blind 16 year old, Mayra Ramirez, as saying, “In other classes, you don’t really feel different because you can do the work other people do.  But in driver’s ed, it does give us the feeling we’re different. In a way, it brought me down, because it reminds me of something I can’t do.”

Clearly, young Ms Ramirez hasn’t predicted the beer bashes, hydroponic bong hits, electric Kool-Aid parties, grain alcohol, Jell-O shots and other hazards to which she will undoubtedly receive invitations when she reaches college.  After any of these events, she could drive as skillfully as any frat boy, sorority babe or chemistry geek who cooks up the freakiest intoxicants in the basement of the science building.

The article continues, “It defies logic to require blind students to take this course … and waste their academic time,” said Meta Minton, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.  I’ll quote Paul Simon here, “When I look back at all the crap I learned in high school,” things like history lessons that described the white supremacist genocide of American Indians with the lovely euphemism, “manifest destiny” as if God himself endowed those of European ancestry the right to kill, torture, steal and maim in order to be blessed from sea to shining sea, I actually think the driver’s education classes I took probably provided me with far more useful information.  Put in the light of how issues like slavery and the use of atomic weapons against human targets were taught, I’m certain that traffic laws came in handy far more often than the bleached out, Disnified past that never happened but was forced upon us did.

The article adds, Brent Johnston, a teacher at a suburban high school and chairman of the Illinois High School/College Driver’s Education Association, told the Chicago Tribune that the classes aren’t a waste of time for blind students.
“I don’t think you can ever get enough traffic safety,” Johnston said.  I’m just glad this guy doesn’t teach knife throwing or gun safety as that might encourage him to take truly dangerous actions.

In all seriousness, though, blind people have entered automobile rallies and others have driven around portions of the UK and Canada to raise awareness of various causes involving people with vision impairments.  Carnegie Melon University has a robotic automobile that drives based on GPS, cyber-vision and all kinds of other artificial intelligence which may take over the personal transportation world in a few decades.  Independently operating some kind of vehicle is probably the Holy Grail of blindness technology and I, for one, look forward to experiencing it someday.  Just don’t ask me to be a beta tester…


Thanks to Jonathon Mosen and Matt Daly for featuring Blind Confidential in their blogs yesterday.  We’ve added links to their blogs in the list of blindness related blogs up at the top of this page.

An unfortunate act by an idiot spammer or, more likely, a bot released by an idiot spammer, has forced Blind Confidential to change its policy of open comments to a moderated status.  So, if you post a comment, you’ll have to wait until I get to my email so I can approve it before it will show up here.  I promise to approve anything that pertains to the topics discussed herein, positive, negative or death threats.

In today’s piece, I take certain attitudes held by white supremacists to task.  If you happen to follow this doctrine, you probably want to kill me just because I have a birth defect.  This behavior advocated by the slow minded members of the KKK, National Front, Arian Nation and other organizations populated by lunkheaded skinheads amuses me as they don’t believe in evolution so what difference does it make if I swim in the gene pool or not?  I, on the other hand, do believe in evolution and believe someone should add a little chlorine to the gene pool in order to get rid of these neo-Nazi types.  I’m not advocating killing these people, castration will do nicely.

If you consider yourself a “conservative” or “neo-con” who feels badly about my statements about the overt racism in the history books I grew up with, consider this, the real Nazi Party, the one back in the bad old days of Germany, first started their genocide by executing homosexuals.  Next, people like me, people with birth defects, became the subjects of horrific experiments.  Nazi rhetoric always singled out Jews and other foreigners who, shortly after we blinks hit the laboratories, found themselves in extermination camps.  Recently retired Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted with the majority in Bush v. Gore to put W. into office, in a speech earlier this week, probably became the most prominent American ever to suggest that our nation may be heading toward dictatorship.

So, when I see the governments of various states and the president of the United States openly making discriminatory statements about gays and lesbians and passing mob rules legislation about people from foreign nations, I start thinking about buying that Mossberg M9, twelve gauge, pump action shotgun with halogen blinding light affixed atop it.  I’ll have nine rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber, you’ll be as blind as me, so come on you crazy Kluckers, let’s rumble.


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Today’s blog entry ran to the typical length for a Blind Confidential entry.  I posted it but, realizing that it had some font problems, I went to Blogger and deleted it.  I returned to MS Word, changed the font by selecting all and going to the font dialogue.  I then accidentally hit delete and, as I always do, I saved the document before using the Blogger button bar add-in for Word to post the item.  Thus, a very nice post about driving while blind and the insistence of the Chicago public school system that blind students pass driver’s education has been lost.

I haven’t the time to do a rewrite as I need to get on with my day.  Maybe I’ll try again at some point in the future.

Sorry about this.

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CSUN Preview and PPO Fundraising

Today’s blog entry contains one serious portion and the rest will contain some humorous, satirical bits about access technology.  The piece starts seriously by talking about raising funds for our non-profit.  And then moves into an entirely silly prediction for the CSUN that I would like to see but that will not happen.

Project Paddle Odyssey, the non-profit started by my wife and me, works to design kayaks that blind people can paddle solo.  Like many other non-profit, research and development organizations based on contributions to survive, PPO struggles financially.  Over the past few months, though, a number of AT companies along with businesses that sell paddling and fishing gear, have joined together in support of our very cool project.

Yesterday, Susan, PPO’s secretary and treasurer put the first of the products contributed onto the charitable section of e-bay.  A copy of ZoomText 9.0 reader/magnifier went up as the first item in the PPO charitable auction.  The minimum bid is $300, roughly half of the MSRP for the world’s leading low vision tool, so, a lucky bidder can get this terrific item for a great bargain.  You should be able to find it by searching for ZoomText or by looking for paddleodysseysales on ebay.

In the days to come, we will be adding items from Dolphin Systems, Serotek, Code Factory, DOA Lures, Quasi-Jig, Bill Brown Music Lessons, ViewPlus, Musical I Press and many other contributors.  Other sponsors have provided us with cash and labor contributions and, therefore, we appreciate them greatly but their products will not show up in our auctions.  Even if you don’t win one of our auctions on ebay, we hope you will patronize our contributors as they do their best to help us in our goal of bringing independence on the water to we blinks.

Announcements I’d Like to Hear From CSUN 2006: The humor portion of the program

Every year, the entire AT industry shines up its products, caffeine loads its people and ships hardware, software, people, marketing materials, chochkas, t-shirts and all kinds of unimaginable items to a handful of hotels surrounding the Los Angeles International Airport.  Anyone with a reasonable background in AT can predict many of the products and announcements that will make their first appearance at almost any CSUN.  As CSUN 2006 will be the first one covered by Blind Confidential, I thought I should predict the announcements that I would like to hear but, sadly, are unlikely to actually happen during the conference:

Possibly the coolest product to hit the AT arena since Alva announced its MPO, “ShrinkText” from AI^3 will make its first appearance at CSUN 2006.  W. Benjamin, CEO of the newly formed AI Cubed, a company described as a “bunch of very laid back, hashish smoking, snowboard types from Jay Peak, Vermont,” has provided Blind Confidential with an exclusive first look at this exciting application of nanotechnology to the AT world.  “We looked at the low vision products,” said Benjamin.  “We found consistent problems that plagued all of them and we went down to MIT, spent a few months with Marvin Minsky studying nanotechnology and finally found the perfect solution.  We call it, ShrinkText.”

I asked what it did differently from other products on the market and Benjamin continued, “Other magnification packages make the text on the computer’s screen larger so users can better see it.  ShrinkText avoids the problems caused by all of that video hooking and CPU intense smoothing algorithms by rearranging the molecular structure of the users to shrink them down to the proper size so the text on the screen appears proportionally larger.  Thus, the PC remains more stable and, when the session ends, the users return to their normal size.”

Blind Confidential wishes this new venture well but will take a “wait and see” approach before trying it on any of our team.

The second great new bit of news came to Blind Confidential via a leak from within Freeman Scientology, the Clearwater, Florida based access Technology Company.  According to our sources, day two of the CSUN conference will feature an extravagantly theatrical announcement of a new product adding to their already popular Dianetics for Windows and PersonalityTestTalker line of products.  The punched up press conference will feature their long time CTO, Gore Glendon backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama Gospel singers, in announcing JAWS for Jesus.  Gore will don a white suit and preach about the wonders of this new product that will deliver the Gospels to blind people in speech and Braille in every language into which they have ever been translated.  Our anonymous source said, “This product will be perfect for everyone from the left wing red letter Christians all the way to the Arian Nation people.  It’s the perfect Christianity tool for anyone interested in the New Testament.”

Our source at Freeman Scientology also suggested that, later in the year, they will be releasing, Jews for Windows, the perfect Talmudic study guide for blind people, OpenZen, a holistic approach to the works of the Buddha Gautama and BackPack Mate, the perfect device for bringing your religious texts with you on the road.

Mike Mountain, Chief Technologist at Porpoise Systems in the UK, announced an interesting genetic engineering project that they will demonstrate on the Los Angeles beaches during the conference.  “We realized that guide dogs had a major limitation,” said Mike, “they did poorly in aquatic environments.”  So, they came up with an incredible solution.  “This year, we will be demonstrating the alpha test version of the first ever guide dolphin.”

According to Mike, Porpoise Systems has engineered a bottle nosed dolphin that can speak human languages and has a handle on its back.  “The lovely critters ask the blind swimmer where he wants to go, swiftly brings him there and lets the rider sit on his back while fishing.”  Mike continued to explain that the final version, due out in 2009, will have Braille dots on the back of the dolphin’s head for the deaf-blind rider, rod holders and even a built in beer cooler and tackle tray.  Bubba Clemson, salt water writer for Field and Stream said, “This may be the greatest advancement in sport fishing since the advent of the DOA Shrimp lure.  A dolphin can bring a fisherman directly to the best fishing holes and far outperform a Wal-Mart sonar device for finding game fish.  Sure they are meant for blind people but I want one too.”

SerenityTek will demonstrate its Freedom Sensory Deprivation Box to hit the market later this year.  Michael Bald, the company’s CEO, said, “We found many blind people had become increasingly stressed out so we went up to Harvard to find a solution.”  Working closely with Seymore Papert, educational psychologist, and MIT’s Stephen Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist, Bald determined that something like the box Fred Skinner built back in the 1950s might just provide the perfect solution for his market.  “SerenityTek is all about the users and the community but we realized that all of this communication can get pretty noisy and drive one pretty nutty.  So, the Freedom Sensory Deprivation Box can be placed in one’s office and when they just can’t take it anymore, the can climb right in and hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing and enjoy some real peace during the workday.”

As Fred Skinner’s daughter, one of the first people to be used to study his box ultimately killed herself, Blind Confidential recommends that this product be used with caution.

Finally, Humidware, following in product manager Moe Jonathonson’s footsteps, has decided on designing their show room area with an all love theme.  “Everything will be in soft pink and red so the sighted people can see how much we love our consumers,” said an unnamed source in the Visuaid group.  “Everything will have a soft, velvety texture so the blind people can enjoy the sensual experience that Moe so loves to describe on his pod casts.”  To top things off, Humidware has taken the booth babe concept a step further, “We decided that hiring beautiful women to stand in our booth just to look pretty discriminated against blind people.  This year, we contracted with women from some of LA’s top gentlemen’s clubs who will provide the tactile, Braille version of the booth babe for the blind clients.”  Blind Confidential believes that this approach may be the most attractive offering at CSUN 2006 and this author, for one, hopes to be at the front of the line as soon as the Humidware Group Grope gets started.

I will be sending one of the gonzo reporters from our staff to cover the show.  He will don a disguise and will probably not be recognizable to other conference attendees.  He will consume loads of coffee and carry serious weapons (he’s a bit paranoid) so, if you do bump into him, please be kind.

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Musical Musings

Many blind people enjoy music.  Many blind people enjoy music so much that they choose to learn to play instruments, to sing and do so regularly as a job, hobby or just to annoy the neighbors.  I wonder, then, why so few music instructional materials get published in such inaccessible formats.  I also wonder why so many electronic musical instruments and the software to control them also remain inaccessible.

I will jump right in and say that our friends up at DancingDots provide the best solutions for blind musicians and composers.  DancingDots, however, makes a true professional tool that requires one be able to read Braille music and afford a boatload of hardware and software components including JAWS, a Braille embosser, Sonar, Sibelius and the musical instruments themselves.  This solution can do everything a professional, like Stevie Wonder or the late Ray Charles, would ever need.  For a hobbyist like myself who enjoys playing around with his Kurzweil piano, his MIDI drum machine and blowing on his acoustic harmonica, the DancingDots solution would take more time to learn than I would spend just playing.

While in grammar school and junior high, I took piano lessons from a woman named Mrs. Smith.  On day one, she tried to teach me to read music.  I wondered why my teacher focused on reading before speaking but, not knowing any better, I followed her instructions.  After a few years, I could not play a single song with any level of competence from start to end.  She never taught me the “why” of music, just the “what” and a little of the “how.”  She discouraged me from experimenting with the instrument and I just assumed that I had no talent for the subject.

Years later, while working as a software engineer in Cambridge, I decided I want to learn to play blues harmonica.  I went to a music store near our house and got a copy of David Harp’s “Instant Blues Harmonica for the Musical Idiot or Zen and the Art of Blues Harp Blowing.”  On the tape, Dave tells his listeners, that he will teach you a basic blues twelve bar in less than three minutes.  Dubious, I continued to listen and, roughly three minutes later, something was coming from my harp that almost sounded like music and definitely with a blues structure.

Since then, I’ve read a lot of books and listened to all sorts of CDs about blues and rock harmonica playing.  Unfortunately, most of the audio materials come complete with a book and the tape and the printed text refer to each other.  Thus, without vision, I have hardly been able to find much audio only music instruction.

Bill Brown Music by Ear sells a number of really excellent lessons for piano, guitar and, perhaps, other instruments in an audio only format.  He also has some introductory material produced specifically for people with vision impairments that includes some supplementary information that would usually be visible on an instrument.  I’ve exchanged a few emails and talked to Bill once or twice, he is a PPO sponsor and a terrific guy.  So, check out his web site for lessons in a purely audio format.

While Bill’s lessons can teach you a lot, you might want to explore techniques he doesn’t offer or learn an instrument that he doesn’t teach.  Here begin the real problems.  If you don’t want to learn Braille music, a system with which I have no experience and, therefore cannot comment on, you must find lessons either from a human music teacher, which can run to terrific expense, or you can find some recorded lessons and start there.  If you are just starting out and you want to learn one of the instruments Bill Brown teaches, go to his site and order his products.  If you want something more advanced or to learn a different instrument, you may find yourself struggling.

If you google on music lessons, audio, type of instrument, etc. you will get hundreds or even thousands of hits.  Unfortunately, virtually all of these require that the audio and print work together.  Some piano lessons claim to teach one to learn by ear but also include some kind of color coded template to put above the keys, thus leaving us blinks out.  Others include a simplified “tab” system of describing notes and chords that do not require one to learn music, unfortunately these also require vision.  Nobody, to my knowledge, has done a Daisy music book that could provide both audio and textual information that, by using the Daisy timing features, could actually synchronize the sound and text in a manner that a blind person could probably understand.

I’ve discussed doing making Daisy books with David Harp’s harmonica lessons and with Bill Brown but other projects always seem to get in the way.

Moving on from books, CDs and tapes, we can find mountains of software products that claim to teach one to play an instrument or sing properly.  Unfortunately, of the dozens of these that I’ve downloaded trial versions of, absolutely none even reach the minimal level of accessibility with JAWS or Window-Eyes (I haven’t tested with any other screen readers but I would assume the results would be identical or, perhaps, worse).

If you have already learned an instrument and want to get into the world of electronic instrumentations, you may find this world even more difficult than the inaccessible lessons.  I have a Kurzweil SP88X, a really cool electronic piano that sells for around $800 at Musician’s Friend my favorite source for all musical devices not related to harmonicas which I buy from The Best Lil Harphouse in New Jersey.  This piano has an excellent sound and feel with nicely weighted keys and the voices that made Ray Kurzweil’s musical instrument businesses so successful.

My SP88X has tons of features.  I can use a handful.  The manufacturer buried all of the others in multi-level menus that require me to memorize seemingly random sequences of key presses.  My drum machine, a pretty standard unit from Alasys, has the same problem but, as it has many more voices, built in styles and such, I find it even harder to use much more than the simplest of its functions.

I made the assumption that MIDI might hold the answer.  There seem to be hundreds of devices and software packages that serve as a MIDI sequencer and controller that can send instructions to the various boxes around my musical system So, I bought a Tascam MIDI controller/very high end external USB sound card so I could hook it all up through any of the PCs we have in our house.  I ordered some MIDI cables and started checking out the software.

To my great disappointment, none of the owner’s manuals that came with any of these gadgets used accessible PDF and made reading about how these items connected very difficult.  The software presented an even greater challenge.  Sonar, with the scripts that Bill McCann sent me for evaluation purposes made it fairly usable (the hard part for me was learning my way around this very complicated program).  Nothing else, though, seemed to work with screen readers and the computer seemed to have constant trouble deciding which audio device to use so something’s came out through the speakers attached to my computer and others through the amplifier attached to the Tascam MIDI controller.

I tried lots of other software products for Windows and GNU/Linux but none could talk worth a wit using a screen reader.  In Some, I could use the JAWS cursor to get to some features, other programs would have accessible menus and dialogues but nothing in the main windows that proffered information in a meaningful manner.  Frustration set in.

Just for fun, I installed a sample program that came with my MIDI controller called GigaStudio.  A friend of mine said that GigaStudio is a killer software music synthesizer and, from the number of add-on products available for it, it seems very popular.  My friend, also a JAWS user, said that by poking around the GigaStudio interface with the JAWS cursor that one could do most anything with it.  I learned that I had a newer version of the software which had an interface less accessible than its predecessor.

For the most part, I’ve given up.  When a friend I play blues with comes to the house, we hook up the MIDI system so we can have backing tracks for our harmonica, piano and voices but, on my own, I can use one instrument at a time which is fine for the piano but the drums get pretty boring after a while.

I have searched for a guide for setting up and using MIDI devices and some of the software products that would be useful for a blind person to read?  Does anyone know of such a tutorial or manual or collection of articles that I could get so I might stumble a little further along in creating the Blind Christian Blues Orchestra?  Keep in mind that I am only a hobbyist so I don’t need to learn all of the details that a pro would want to know.  

To conclude, I suggest to all publishers of music lessons that they  take a look at the Daisy format.  If anyone knows any of these people, please send them my contact information and I can point them to people who make Daisy books and even some with very strong music backgrounds that can be applied to making such tutorials work even better.  I also ask that manufacturers of musical instruments make their documents accessible and add something like UPNP so a screen reader user could use navigate through the instrument’s menus without needing to memorize a set of silent sequence of button presses.

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Beethoven’s Unmatched Genius

I often refer to artists who inspire me as my “friends.”  Sometimes, I will write about my friend William Faulkner or Toni Morrison or Coltrane or JS Bach.  Of these, I have only met one, told her that instead of an autograph, I would prefer a hug.  She laughed and obliged.  I told her I love her and she gave me a peck on the cheek.  I haven’t been in her presence since.  Without the ability to bend space-time, meeting the others would have presented some major challenges as Faulkner, if memory serves me, died a few years before my birth; Coltrane died shortly before I turned seven and Bach died centuries earlier.  To me, though, they, along with a lot of others, have brought me such joy that I cannot think of a word other than friend to use to describe them.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, though, probably the greatest composer of all time, especially when played by the tragic Canadian agoraphobic genius, Glenn Gould, has brought me such tremendous pleasures, such joy and such images of pure beauty that I would be far too shy to even try to befriend him.  Recordings of his work by Gould, Hogwood, Toscanini, Ozawa and so many others fill shelves in my CD racks.  Each one containing a sonic leap into the lofty genius that we mere mortals can visit but where Beethoven lived his life.

Throughout history, many people with disabilities have made tremendous contributions to the world of the arts.  Perelman, the virtuoso violinist, performs from a wheelchair.  Many blind musicians from JS Bach, who lost his vision later in life, to Andre Bocelli, one of the hottest opera singers today, have delighted audiences with their talents.  Blind blues, rock, jazz and pop stars appear on the charts quite often and many others with many other disabilities have produced many great works of art.

Beethoven, though, stands alone in that he overcame the greatest affliction that a musician could have.  Sometime before the publication of his third symphony, the brilliant and groundbreaking Eroica, he went deaf.  He could not hear much during the composition of the third and even less when he wrote the fourth.  His fifth symphony, a point in musical history that would change all that would follow, was composed in total silence.

In a writing addressed to his brothers, now called by historians, “The Heiligenstadt Testament,” Beethoven describes, more beautifully than I’ve ever read elsewhere, the pain one feels when they lose a sense:
“O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from
childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for
six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face
the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible
to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was
I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could
I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest
perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed – O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when
I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society
of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society. I must live like
an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed –
thus it has been during the past year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this
almost meeting my natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood
beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought
me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave
the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence – truly wretched, an excitable body
which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state – Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope
my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to bread the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared.
Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else – Divine One thou lookest into
my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that
ye did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power
to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to
describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after
my death.”

The historical record shows a number of other near-great composers who lost their hearing.  All of them ceased their work and more than one fell into deep depression and, later, suicide.  Beethoven, however, pushed forward and, in total silence, would compose the fifth, sixth, seventh and the glorious ninth symphonies, he would compose his later piano sonatas and concertos, still among the most challenging works and he would compose “Fidelio,” his only opera, his beautiful mass and his violin concerto in D, perhaps one of his most well loved compositions.

In no means do I want to compare my work with that of Beethoven.  He brought the world art that will last forever, I made some computer programs.  I do, however, identify strongly with the sentiment he describes in his beautiful testament.  When I, a pretty hot hacker, lost my vision during the ascendancy of the graphical user interface, I would do anything to cover up my affliction.  In social settings, whether having had a drink or not, I would excuse tripping over an obvious obstacle or walking into someone by claiming intoxication.  While working, I would delegate tasks that required good vision to someone else and, with my DOS screen magnified, I would hack away at the low level parts of the programs.  When my vision got so bad that I couldn’t read my text editor, I would actually get drunk and my boss would send me home to sleep it off – the following day, he would welcome me back and I would cope by using a huge font, banging out some pseudo-code and handing it off to an intern to implement.  I got by for a few years this way.  Finally, not knowing about screen readers (those of us with acquired blindness have no knowledge of the system of blindness services) I too found myself hospitalized for depression.

In 1867, Karl Marx, published an essay called, “On Relations of Production,” in which he describes how we, as humans in the industrial age, cease perceiving the world through a holistic view but, rather, we understand our surroundings as filtered through the work we do.  As examples, Marx describes a group of people looking at a house.  The man who makes nails for a living, sees the house as it is held together; a man from the lumberyard sees the boards that the house is built of; the painter sees how the house is painted and, referring to himself as a political economist, Marx explains that he sees the house through the cost in time and labor required to build it.  Jumping forward 120 years, I would probably have seen the house through the CAD/CAM software used to design it or the parts database used by the builder or some other computer related view of a construction project.  

I find this essay by Marx to contain tremendous insight into myself and to others I know who have transcended the notion of living as a “human being” and, my self included, have grown into “human doings.”  My job is my identity and my identity is my job.  Thus, when my relationship to my means of production changed due to the onset of a disability, I felt I had lost my identity.  My life, as I thought I knew it, had come to a quiet end in a pint of ale served at the Cambridge Brewing Company.

My work, then and now, does not rise to greatness nor will people remember it or me for centuries to come.  I just try to make my contribution to my small community and hope some people will find my work valuable.  I wonder, though, what other individuals with tremendous genius and talents would have done had they, like Beethoven, lost the sense most central to their art, craft or profession?

Ludwig Van Beethoven composed his “Ode to Joy,” his ninth symphony entirely in silence.  He had to rely entirely on his memories of the sounds of instruments and voices that he hadn’t heard in many years to compose the most perfect piece of music ever published in the history of western civilization.  Throughout its now long history, the critics have rarely ever found a flaw in the composition and, those who did, had to stretch well into 20th century musical theory that hadn’t been conceived for a hundred years after the ninth premiered in Vienna.  The Ode to Joy so dominated the rest of 19th century composition that few composers, even greats like Franz Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and so on would hardly dare to stray far from the path set by the ninth.  

Brahms, so impressed with Beethoven tried to live and dress like the great master and composed music so derivative of Beethoven that his first symphony often gets called “the tenth.”  Later in his life, Brahms refused to work on a tenth symphony out of respect for his long dead hero.  Mahler became the first major composer to cross the line of superstition by publishing a tenth symphony but his work sounds even more like Beethoven (with a much larger orchestra) than did the works of Brahms.

Needless to say, the ninth cast a shadow that would last well into the twentieth century.  A few composers, Scriaben, Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie started the move away at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century.  Their works aroused such controversy that the great early Stravinsky works would cause riots at the Ballet Russe as some listeners would charge forward to better hear this amazing new music while others would storm for the exits unable to understand such radical innovations.  So powerful was the pull of the ninth that music that vectored too far away from its high romantic model sounded so unfamiliar to many listeners that the reactions could turn to violence.

Thus, within the history of music, the ninth stands almost alone.  But what of other geniuses who worked in other media?  What would happen to them if suddenly afflicted with a disability that took away the sense they relied upon most deeply?

Here I must jump into conjecture as I could not find any examples of a genius at Beethoven’s level who lost the sense most important to their work.  Stephen Hawking has certainly lost a lot but his most valuable organ sits inside his head and, with modern technology, he can continue his work.  Bach didn’t lose his hearing but, rather his sight, so he could dictate his compositions to a student.

What would have happened if Leonardo has lost his vision?  Would the Mona Lisa still sit in the most esteemed position at Le Louvre?  Could Leonardo have painted the last Supper entirely from memory?

What if Michelangelo lost his vision?  Could he still have carved his David by touch and memory alone?

Was Beethoven entirely unique in having the genius, tremendous stamina and tenacity to continue composing works that would endure the tests of time, artistic movements, trends and thousands of arrangements from the great to the elevator versions?

So, once again I leave you with an open question.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my literary improvisations on the thoughts of genius and acquired disability.  Have a pleasant weekend.

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Trout Fishing in Florida

[Author’s Note:  I started out to write an opinion piece about blind people and outdoor sports.  I got started by writing about fishing and that’s also how I ended aside from a short political diatribe at the end, this piece is entirely about fishing with a focus on fishing without vision.]

People who know me well, actually, almost anyone who has spoken to me in the past few years, knows that I have a passion for shallow salt water fishing from a paddle craft.  Hand me any of my G. Loomis inshore rods, a reel loaded with lightweight PowerPro, any of a number of my favorite DOA lures, put me in a canoe, hand me a paddle and I’m ready to set out into any of a number of different mangrove stands, oyster bars, grass flats or to some very secret spots to try to convince a sea trout, redfish or snook to eat the chunk of plastic with a hook through it at the end of my line.  

I find that my fishing buddies feel comfortable bringing a blink to their special honey hole – I’m not likely to give anyone else directions to a location thick with fish as I usually cannot remember how we got there.  Unlike deep sea fishing, the inshore fishes often move around based upon time of day, tidal flows and to find food for themselves so secret locations depend upon these factors as well.  Thus, returning to the same spot on consecutive weekends will not provide the same results as the tide will have changed with the cycle of the moon and the predator fishes that we so enjoy catching will have moved to a locale more suited to their feeding practices.  So, even if I memorized the location, I would also need to remember all of the other factors (anything from tide to water temperature to angle of the sun to which color lure to use in which conditions) and find the correlation between all of them in order to reveal a secret spot when the fish pile up in it.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own database of spots and conditions and can usually find fish when it’s my turn to pick the location.  Florida’s extreme weather conditions will on an annual basis make certain pages in one’s fishing logbook entirely obsolete.  Where once a deep cut filled with fast moving water and sea trout once stood, a single hurricane comes along and now the sea bottom looks like a sandbar.  A spot where a sandbar that would slow down the flow just perfectly to cause a buffet of bait fish for waiting snook and redfish that would slam my lure in their feeding frenzy relocated by a storm lost its nice horseshoe shape and the big fish stopped eating there.  Even one of my favorite oyster bars disappeared and the redfish who once stalked it went away too.

Fishing for snook, the royalty of our big three fish, requires different skills than do the redfish and sea trout.  Snook tend to try to protect their territory and, more so than the others, ambush their prey rather than hunt it down.  Snook spend a lot of time hanging around in mangrove roots, sort of like freshwater bass and the structure they seek, which presents an extra difficulty for blind people who enjoy this sport.  Specifically, how can a blind person toss a lure into submerged tree roots without catching their line in the tree branches (often called decorating the tree for Christmas)?  

]A bit of a side note here, if you enjoy fishing, blind or sighted, fresh water or salt, and get a lure and line caught in a tree, do everything within your power to retrieve it.  While fishing line and lures do not hurt the tree, they often cause horrible injuries and even kill birds.  In the past thirty years, since the publication of “Silent Spring,” the public outcry about the demise of our bird population and the Federal ban on the use of DDT, birds of all types have returned and some have even developed populations large enough to be removed from the protected list.  

A juvenile bald eagle does his hunting at one of our favorite sea trout spots.  On some days, when we may not have even felt a tap on our lures, the eagle, who also knows this spot fills up with tasty fish at the beginning of an incoming tide, will circle over our heads.  His broad wing span against the wind provides a lovely soundtrack to our slow drift across the flat until he spots his prey.  Then, we hear a sploosh like sound as the bird elegantly enters the water.  Finally, we’ll be treated to the sound of an animal with a six foot wing span beating against the water until he gains enough air to take off and, with the sound of pounding wings, takes off, trout in his talons to wherever he eats.

If we, as a nation, had not started protecting our birds during the seventies, bald eagles, south of Alaska and Canada would have gone extinct.  To me, just hearing the power, terrible, violent, beautiful sounds of one of these great predators makes an entire outing worthwhile.  If I come home with no fish but a memory of an eagle, osprey, spoonbill, black or turkey vulture or any of the other myriad flying species that inhabit Florida, I have had a great day on the water.  If I also catch a fish, all the better.

So, if you fish, please help protect our birds by taking your line and lures out of trees and, if a fish cuts you off, try to retrieve as much of the broken line from the water as possible.  The materials used to make fishing line do not bio-degrade so, while your day fishing might have ended long ago, the hazards caused by your litter will last for years to come.

Stop preaching Chris.


Before my sermon about sea birds, I had been describing snook fishing for a blind angler and how to avoid landing one’s line and lure in a tree.  I have a few techniques to attack this problem.  If your fishing buddy has vision, ask her to line you up so you point parallel to a mangrove stand.  This technique works best at low tide because the snook need to come out further from the roots and will leap at bait that swims by about three feet or sometimes more out from their protective cover.  Use a “swimming” lure and cast your lure straight ahead and use your reel to first take up any slack in your line and then, slowly, crank your lure back to you so it can act like the sort of thing a snook would find appetizing.  You will know when a snook hits your hook, they grab on like a freight train, so just crank a little to bury the hook in its mouth and keep the line tight.  Within a second or two, your reel will start screaming as your fish takes off, looking for safety and the fight is on.  Work your rod for leverage to keep the snook out of the tree routes, if you hear and feel it jump out of the water give it a little slack and then crank hard when you hear the splash as it returns to the sea.  Pump and crank and enjoy the ride.  A good sized snook can pull two adults with a cooler filled with ice and beverages in a canoe some distance before tiring and coming to the side of the boat so you can have your partner take a picture of you with one of the most desired species in game fishing.

The second technique that a blind person can employ for getting a hook into the water at root level avoiding the tree requires the use of a fly rod.  Fly casting, unlike using a spinning or bait casting reel uses the weight of the line rather than the bait for momentum.  Thus, an angler can measure out exactly the amount of line he or she wishes to toss.  If a blind person has a sighted buddy fishing alongside, the sightie can estimate the distance to the roots or once Project Paddle Odyssey has made a laser range finder talk, a high tech gadget can measure the distance with great precision.  Then, while stripping the line off of your reel, you can find the exact length you want.  It is helpful to get some of that gooey stuff that Maxi sells to mark your line every five feet or so to help you estimate length more accurately.

Fly fishing, says my good friend and fishing partner John Callahan, “makes the difficult task of snook fishing ore difficult” so I don’t recommend it for the impatient among us.

Mark Nichols, founder and CEO of DOA Lures, a PPO sponsor and real nice guy, once said that people have historically told others that to catch fish, one must think like a fish.  Nichols rejects this notion and instead says, “To catch fish, one must think like bait.”  So, to succeed in this sport, imagine that you live in the body of a Spanish sardine, a three inch fish, and a thirty inch redfish, with its mouth agape is approaching quickly.

A child of another wise Florida fisherman I once knew asked him, “Dad, what do fish think”  The fisherman pondered for a while and replied, by saying, “Fish only care about two things, can I eat the things I see or can they eat me.  So, they go through life thinking, can it eat me, can I eat it, can it eat me, can I eat it…”  Life as a fish must be pretty exciting as they spend all day hunting or as prey.  

Once, while being interviewed on the Cap’n Mel Florida Fishing radio program, Mel asked me, “What’s the hardest thing about fishing blind?  Is it the knots?  Avoiding hooks?  Selecting a lure?”  I replied, “None of those, Mel, you’ve seen me do all of that.”  “There must be something that’s more challenging for a blind angler,” insisted my friend and host of the nation’s most popular fishing show.  “Yes, one thing, getting a ride to the put in spot whenever I feel like fishing which is most of the time.”  We laughed together and returned to topics of paddle fishing, wade fishing, favorite lures, species and nothing more about blindness.  Fishing, inshore or off, takes a soft touch and good tactile skills.  More often than not a sighted person can’t see the fish they want to catch any more than a blind person.  To get really good at fishing, whether you can see or not, requires practicing as often as possible, getting onto the water with more experienced folks and learning to enjoy the quiet, the sea air, the many pristine environs, the birds, bs’ing with your buddies and learning as much as you can.  Even world champions get skunked from time to time so never worry about not catching fish and always remember that you choose a hobby to have fun.  If you just want to eat fish, it will always be much easier and less expensive to buy a nice filet at your local fish market than it will be to buy tackle, get onto the water, find the fish, catch the fish, clean the fish and then go home to cook the fish.  Fishing, for those of us who love the sport, is a passion.  If you were to add up what most of us spend on gear, clothing, tackle, boats, gas and everything else that comes with fishing, you will probably learn that a fisherman pays about $600 per pound for the filets we bring home.  The pleasure of a day on the water, the excitement of the fight, the shriek of a happy eagle is, as the commercial says, priceless.

So, if you can’t see, can only see a bit or can see perfectly, give this great sport a try.  Contribute to PPO and conservation organizations to ensure that your grand kids will also have the opportunity to enjoy this sport.

Project Paddle Odyssey, the non-profit started by my wife Susan and I, continues to limp forward on a nearly non-existent budget.  If you find the idea of independent participation in paddle sports by blind people interesting, please visit the Paddle Odyssey web page by clicking on the link in the group of businesses and organizations at the top of this blog.


If any PETA members read this blog and object to my enthusiasm for sport and game fishing, they can kiss my boney white but.  The only PETA I care about is called, “People for Eating Tasty Animals” and I will not put down my rod and reel to please those hippy-dippy anti-vivisectionist eco sprout Nazis.  If they want to fight for a cause, how about civil rights for humans with disabilities, how about fighting against the genocide in Sudan, what about torture of political prisoners detained by so many different nations, what about world hunger, child abuse, peace, fighting racism and discrimination against all people, etc.

Also, I would like to remind the PETA freaks that sporting people, men and women who enjoy hunting and fishing, contribute more than any other identifiable group to conservation and environmental organizations.  In fact, the oldest conservation organization in the United States, The Isaac Walton Foundation, was founded by sports people in the nineteenth century to promote the conservation of our already shrinking wilderness.  Sporting organizations like Ducks and Trout Unlimited raise large sums of money and actually buy up wet lands and land adjacent to rivers and streams to permanently preserve them as natural habitats.  The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has done far more to reintroduce elk to the wild and to grow the elk population than any other agency, public or private.

The kill from people who hunt or fish is dramatically less than the reproduction rate.  So, we sporting folks give our dollars to protect habitat and there is a large net gain in the numbers of animals in water on land than before.  PETA people, however, find that chasing people while we fish or hunt is the answer to the problem  I ask just how many wildlife reserves they have built, how many wet lands have they bought, what are they doing to preserve the habitat other than annoying a couple of quiet guys in kayaks trying to enjoy a Florida morning?

Rant over.

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Thoughts on Tactile Images

When I first moved to St. Petersburg, I made friends with an O&M instructor named Rosey.  She and I would go out to restaurants, beaches, canoeing, to movies and shopping.  One day, while we sat awaiting our meal in a local Chinese joint, she asked me why I touched so few things.  I didn’t realize that my behavior fell out of the norm and felt a bit self-conscious.  Rosey used the third person at our table, an old friend named Mike, as an example.  She pointed out that Mike touches virtually everything in his surroundings to get a lay of the land and to figure out where different items sat on the table.

Mike spoke up and suggested that the difference in our behavior might result from his lifelong blindness and my having acquired my blindness at age 36 or so.  Which brings us back to what seems like the topic of the week at Blind Confidential, different perceptions between those with congenital versus acquired blindness.  This topic is yet another for which I have no empirical evidence, a sample size of two, one of which is me and no controls or other tools that help keep researchers objective.  Hence, do not draw any deep conclusions from this story but, rather, enjoy it and, maybe, use it as a topic for research on your own.

Mike continued the conversation by describing how he had always touched as many things in his surroundings that he could find.  He told us that his parents would take him out to stores so he could familiarize himself with items he would hear mentioned that they didn’t have at home.  I, on the other hand, learned to avoid touching things, especially in stores, “You’ll break it and then we’ll have to buy it,” my mother or grandmother would reprimand.  So, perhaps more so than others who grew up sighted, I had a bit of a phobia about touching things.

My tactile sense let me use a cane for pedestrian travel and Rosey, a certified O&M instructor, described my mobility skills as “excellent.”  I could feel all of the Braille characters but not always know what they meant.  I could tell salt from pepper based upon their relative weight and had a few other tactile skills that I employed frequently.  Touching everything around me, though, had never come to mind.

Most of my life in the AT industry focused exclusively on audio interfaces to the exclusion of things tactile.  I would read an occasional Braille label and I enjoyed feeling my way around a tactile map of the US in the HJ test lab, I especially liked that the Braille on it claimed that two states were named Utah and none were called Colorado.  I’ve read articles about tactile graphics, haptics and other concepts that rely on one’s sense of touch and played around with some force feedback stuff but didn’t ever study it thoroughly.

Over the years, though, I have started picking up many of Mike’s habits.  I find myself touching almost everything on a restaurant table, feeling different textures of wallpaper and wood carved walls and I found myself really enjoying all of the great tactile models of various creatures found around our state while touring the excellent Natural History Museum on the University of Florida campus.

My membership in the Adaptive Graphics list (hosted on Free Lists) has exposed me to all sorts of concepts regarding tactile graphics but my participation has almost entirely fallen into the audio categories of discussion.  Recently, Lisa Yayla, the list’s owner, posted a piece describing using hot wax to make tactile images.  She wrote about using wax alone and by dipping a thin thread into wax and making tactile graphics from them.  She explained that, in her past, she taught the craft of making Ukrainian Easter Eggs, a process which I am told uses melted wax, and suddenly the idea of making a tactile graphic using a similar technique came to her.  Low tech as it may seem, Lisa’s wax method can create very useful tactile images for a very small cost.  Once again, a mainstream technology transferred into the accessibility world provides an easier and less expensive solution.  Wax images are not the right answer to many tactile graphic problems so thermoform and the cool embossers from ViewPlus needn’t worry but wax can be another tool in our collection of techniques for creating tactile images.

The tactile graphics mailing list has also piqued my interest in tactile books.  Earlier today, I ordered a book called, “Touch the Sun, A NASA Braille Book” by Noreen Grice from for $24 (it also gave me a reason to buy the latest Elvis Costello CD as I had to break $25 for free shipping).  The book, also available from Barnes & Noble, teaches its readers about the sun and how it works.  I suspect that I might find the book to cover topics I already understand and may target a younger audience but I hope to explore the tactile images in the book to get a better feel for how I can learn fairly complex information by touch.

The search results for this book includes among its sponsored links a site called The Braille Superstore which I have not visited yet but, according to the blurb on amazon, claims to offer a “Huge selection of Braille books, products, games and more.”  There also seems to be quite a few resources online for Braille children’s books.  I don’t know how many others are sold by amazon as they don’t let one search for specific characteristics of a book.

Soon, I will write a blog entry about tactile art and tactile representations of famous artworks.  I have read a fair amount about this subject lately and find it very interesting.  I’m an art lover and, if I close my eyes, I can still conjure works by my favorite painters.  I haven’t done any hands on testing of these tactile representations so I don’t know if they will help me create a synaesthetic image of the work or not.

As my interest in things tactile grows, I find myself attracted to the video game section at Circuit City and Best Buy to check out the latest force feedback devices and try to think up ways to adapt them for some kind of valuable use by a blind person.  I doubt I’ll ever find someone to fund a development project involving the force feedback fishing rod to simulate catching snook from a canoe but many of the others look like they might have promise.  If any Blind Confidential readers have any experience with force feedback game controllers, please send me your impressions of them.  Also, if you happen buy the video game section in a store, play around with some of these devices and ask yourself how a blind person might benefit from using such a device in some future access technology product.

The last time I spent any time actually playing with a force feedback game happened back in the old Henter-Joyce days.  Our then beloved and deeply feared General Manager, Jerry Bowman, made the mistake of taking a vacation.  His office sat at the end of the hall filled with we hacker types.  We had a tradition of pulling practical jokes on people when they went on vacation.  One time, one of the people in the test lab went into my SYMBOLS.INI file in my JFW folder and changed the letter “r” to “w” and “th” to “f” so, when I returned, JAWS 3.something spoke with a terrible lisp.  I found myself with a gay PC.  

Returning to the Bowman story, Jerry is a NASCAR fanatic, he and his wife drive their motor home all over the country to attend the different events.  The sport never had much appeal to me, why watch a bunch of rednecks turning left?  But, as it made our fearless leader happy, we decided to go with a racing video game.  A product manager ran out to one of the consumer electronics stores and returned with a deluxe, NASCAR authorized video game complete with force feedback dashboard, steering wheel and gas peddle.  It may have had a clutch too, I don’t remember.  A couple of the software guys (actually, software was all we had back then) hooked it up and hid Jerry’s keyboard.  I, as department manager, had to test the system to ensure reliability and accessibility.  I sat in Bowman’s chair and, listening to two of the programmers yell directions at me, crashed my way around the Daytona speedway causing great injury (in the gaming world) to Jeff Gordon and lots of other NASCAR drivers, pit stop workers and fans in the grandstand.  The game did not qualify as accessible but it did seem reliable and certain to create a good laugh when the boss returned.


Sam posted a number of very interesting questions in the comments section following the article about DVS I posted yesterday.  While I find these questions tremendously compelling, I have to wave the white flag and turn those queries over to someone who might know the answer.  I haven’t spent any time studying how different people might enjoy different films with or without a descriptive audio track or can I speak to how well one can pay attention to such a presentation when compared with sighted people or to program without the DVS turned on.

My friend, Will Pearson recently wrote an email to me about the psychology of attention which speaks somewhat to Sam’s questions so, perhaps, Will can post his thoughts on the DVS issues.  I would also recommend searching in googles academic engine to see if anyone has published on this topic.  Lastly, I would go to the WGBH Center for Accessible Media and see if they have any articles posted on the matter.  If you still can’t find any studies on DVS that answer the questions Sam posed yesterday, you might send an email to someone at WGBH to ask for pointers.  They are really terrific people who I have always found to be very helpful.

In yesterday’s blog, I forgot to include links to the various businesses and organizations I referenced.  Fortunately, all of them also appear in today’s post so if you couldn’t find on your own, there is a link in the article above.

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Preferences of DVS Films

Yesterday, Sam posted a question asking if I knew of any differences in how the two groups I compared (people with congenital blindness and those with acquired blindness) liked audio described (DVS) films.  I have a tiny bit of purely anecdotal information about the perceptions of the two groups and will use that to start today’s entry about descriptive video and my opinions thereof.

The sample I have for this completely unscientific survey includes four friends of mine, two who have been blind since birth, one who has been blind since childhood  and one who went blind later in life.  I provide the fifth opinion.  So, as this entirely violates any standard for objective study put it into the category of gonzo research and use the content herein purely for entertainment value.

A pair of colleagues expressed the first opinions I ever heard of DVS movies.  These conversations happened nearly eight years ago so my memory may not reflect perfectly the impressions they provided.  The first came from a congenitally blind friend who had only listened to one DVS movie, “Pretty Woman.”  He didn’t like it much but found the “blow by blow” description amusing.  The second opinion I heard came in that same year from another friend, also blind from birth, who told me that he really enjoyed descriptive video tapes.  Thus, my information from that group splits evenly and no conclusions can be drawn.

The friend who went blind in her childhood has probably listened to every DVS film ever produced and raves about them.  She has described enjoying everything from “Basic Instinct” to science fiction films to action adventure to romantic comedy.  I can’t say that I enjoy all of these genres, with descriptive video or not.

I saw or heard my first DVS movie when a friend, the other with acquired blindness in this survey, brought an audio described copy of an Indiana Jones film to the apartment I lived in around four or five years ago.  I noticed that, as we sat with the video playing on my VCR, that I paid much more attention to this movie than I had to any other in a long time, probably since losing my vision.

Since then, I have listened to a wide array of different DVS films.  I have enjoyed some very much, disliked others and found some to fall in between.  In fact, I find that, for all intents and purposes, I enjoy the same kinds of movies with DVS as I did when I could still see.

I continue to enjoy films with excellent dialogue and terrific performances.  Even when I had vision, my friends would tease me for my fixation on “chick” films.  While still a teenager, I grew out of testosterone driven, muscle pounding, explosive, fast car filled, violent films without a good script and good performances.  I don’t dismiss the entire action adventure genre out of hand (I enjoyed Arnold’s movies based on Harlan Ellison novels, I liked the first “Speed” but so did the critics at The New Yorker) but, for the most part, I find them fairly senseless.  I enjoy some crime stories but usually those, like “The Maltese Falcon” or “In Cold Blood” that the screen writers derived from excellent books.  Finally, I do not nor have I ever enjoyed pornography – some of my old friends still joke about me sitting with my back to the screen as XXX flicks played during my bachelor party.

The growing selection of DVS movies does go some distance to provide a decent selection for those of us who enjoy them but my tastes still tend toward films that don’t rise high enough in the popularity polls as to meet the criteria for going to the expense of adding a DVS track.  Of the films that did well in the Academy Awards this week, I would most like to see “Capote” as it describes a slice of the life of one of my literary heroes and “Good Night and Good Luck” which reminds us of the days when America had a press corp that hit hard and told unembedded truths.

It pleases me to see how many videos with DVS that can be found for sale in mainstream retail outlets.  I often receive bulletins about new DVS releases available on and the Barnes and Noble web site.  While writing this, I tried to go to the sites and search for DVS and only found one result (Ray) but I think they have more that don’t show up in a search because DVS doesn’t appear in the title of too many films and the sites don’t let the user search on DVD features.  WGBH remains the primary source for information about the latest in DVS productions and their Center for Accessible Media creates the descriptive track for the majority of DVS films that hit the streets.

So, I don’t think I’ve answered Sam’s question properly as my sample was even less scientific than yesterday’s.  I wonder if anyone (WGBH maybe) has done research into this matter.  


I’ve been contemplating starting a second blog with a name like BC Rants and Raves” in which I talk about issues unrelated to blindness.  It will contain my thoughts on movies, books, art, politics and life in general.  Obviously, the posts will be colored by the opinion of a blind author and blindness may make appearances but it will be incidental to the articles I write there.  I’ve also thought about including some of that kind of writing here on Blind Confidential, I think my parody sequel to 1984 would fall into the other blog rather than hear because it had little to do with blindness.  The 1984 post let me exercise my creative writing skills a bit and I had fun writing it.  I have fun writing most of the Blind Confidential entries but those in which I have greater creative latitude are most fun.

I’ve also started thinking a bit about changing the direction of Blind Confidential itself.  If you look around the Internet, a ton of web sites, online magazines, blogs, listservs and newsgroups exist that discuss current AT products.  My relationship with current and past AT offerings certainly frames a lot of what I write here and, personally, I find the more futuristic topics far more interesting.  Rather than speaking from my past as an AT professional and as a current user, I think I might enjoy looking more toward things I learn today.  Issues that regard human factors and blind technology users, topics that include accessible technology beyond the desktop and PDA like smart spaces, talking signs, access to goods and services and user agents that will work in many different places.  My professional path is moving away from screen readers of today and into researching concepts that, hopefully, will find their way into access technologies of the future.

My friends at Access World and elsewhere are better equipped to keep up with the latest versions of the latest technologies and my focus has a horizon far further in the future.  I also find remaining unbiased in my opinions very difficult.  I’ll think of the great time I had working for Ted Henter and the great gang at HJ/FS and write pieces seen through those rose tinted glasses.  Similarly, I maintain friendships with people in a lot of different companies around the biz and my opinion of their products may see the good parts and ignore the flaws as often happens when talking about the work of friends and family.  Finally, I only left FS in late November 2004 after six great years there, most of my local friends are current or former FS employees and, therefore, maintaining objectivity of any sort is impossible as my strong feelings about these people will be reflected in any review I do of their work or that of another company.

I think I’ve maintained a reasonable level of objectivity in this blog thus far but some products, especially made by my friends at FS and elsewhere, get mentioned more often and probably with greater favor or, in some cases, deeper criticism than products from companies where I don’t know the parties very well.

What do you readers think?  Should I focus on the future (I can hear my friend Will Pearson jumping for joy all the way from the UK) or not?  Should I put articles unrelated to blindness in a separate blog or should I mingle my thoughts on other subjects with the
Subjects I discuss here?

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