Accessibility Expectations: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

As may be obvious to people who read Blind Confidential, I talk to a fairly large number of different blind people on a regular basis.  I often infer conclusions from our conversations and write about them here.  Recently, I have held one-on-one discussions with four other blind men.  Do not place too much scientific credibility that the results I infer from these conversations, on the topic of “Accessibility Expectations,” as they violate two major research principals.  First, I include myself in the results so you might call this a gonzo survey and, the other four people I talked to all fall into the category of personal friends and, therefore, scientific objectivity hardly applies here.  Finally, all of these conversations were part of another conversation so no controls existed, individuals were not asked the same set of questions and my own opinions clearly colored any results that might be derived from this informal study.

This population of five blind men, only coincidence left out any women, includes 4 middle aged blinks and one college student.  Half of us in the middle aged group lost our vision later in life, the other two were blind from birth.  The college student also blind from birth, has lived less than half as long as the other four and, therefore, brings a very different perspective to the conversation.

“What differences, if any, exist in the expectations of people blind from birth when compared with those who lost their vision later in life?”

This question came up when one of those middle aged men, blind from birth stated that Blind Confidential always sees the glass as half empty rather than half full.  In the following weeks, I pondered this notion and, when talking about the idea again, the conversation moved to the question: Do people blind from birth have a different set of expectations from those of us who went blind later in life If so, why?

I’ll start with the group of four middle aged blinks.  In order to move the separate conversations in the direction of the topic, I would pose the question, “Do you find life easier today than you did twenty years ago?”

Immediately, the split between the congenitally blind and those blind later in life starts to show.  The two of us who lost our vision later in life, look back twenty years and remember times when we could see and accessibility posed virtually no problems.  If we bought a new stereo component, we could bring it home, look at the manual and have it hooked up in seconds.  We never struggled to figure out which bus approached the stop and we could read menus and nearly anything else that we found interesting.

The two who have been blind from birth, however, responded in precisely the opposite way.  They raved about all of the new access available to them through screen readers.  One described a then and now scenario as, “Twenty years ago, if I wanted to buy a new record, I had to call a friend for a ride to the record store, have them read me the information on the packages and then choose those I wanted.  Today, I can launch any of a number of web sites, browse at my leisure and buy what I want independently.”

Back and forth, those of us who went blind later in life would always find the many things that we could no longer do and those things we can do but much less efficiently.  The blind from birth pair kept reminding me of things they could not do twenty years ago that, with JAWS, PAC Mate or an iPAQ with MSP, they do every day in 2006.

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

I move to my college student.  This young man, a member of the JAWS Generation,  grew up using JAWS and cannot imagine a world without talking computers.  His sighted counterparts grew up with Windows and Macintosh and cannot imagine a world before graphical user interfaces.  He looks at the world as both half full and half empty.  This young man can imagine the future with really cool user agents that provide access to inaccessible appliances, he likes the notion of 3D audio interfaces and he finds force feedback, low cost, haptics very exciting.  At the same time, our college student also describes how much progress he has seen and enjoys in JAWS and, more recently, with MSP that provide him with incremental improvements from year to year.

As is the case in mainstream technology, the kids often have the best ideas as they have far fewer pre-conceived notions.  I learned this many years ago, when I could still see well and Turning Point Software, my employer back then got the contract to write a paint package for kids that would ultimately be released as “Fine Artist.”  Microsoft intended the software to allow children to make their own paintings as well as teach them about art history.  We got to create really cool features like “cubist mode” which would convert a child’s drawing into the cubist school of modern art.  Perhaps the most fascinating moments, though, occurred when we watched the video Microsoft made with real kids using the software in their Redmond usability lab.  The kids would click on parts of the screen that had no hot spot and then ask the adult why it didn’t do anything.  When the child was asked what it should do, they almost always came up with an excellent idea.  Many of those ideas made it into Fine Artist before release and the program received rave reviews.

Back to my unofficial and unscientific focus group.  The three populations all had different expectations.  One pair wanted everything we had lost, the second pair celebrated everything they now have and the kid likes what he has but wants much, much more.  

Does this tell us anything about how AT products should be designed in the future?

Because the study has no scientific grounding, no controls and is statistically insignificant, I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from this article.  I do think this topic deserves further research so we can find more solid conclusions.

As my personal bias lies with those of us who went blind later in life and because the aging population will mean that an ever increasing number of people with vision impairments had once had sight, I think we need to push for the “everything” solutions as they won’t hurt the group who has been blind all of their lives.  Perhaps, though, those of us who write opinion pieces should also remember just how far AT products and accessibility has come in the past couple of decades.  If these advances hadn’t occurred the late in life group and the college student may not even have the ability to imagine more radical innovations in the future.

Are We so Dependent on Scripts and Developers?

Yesterday, Chris W., one of my online buddies, posted a comment about my item about  His comment included the thought that, because the Audible Player didn’t work perfectly on his MSP enabled iPAQ that that the more mainstream solutions like MSP and PAC Mate aren’t really that different from the blind-guy-ghetto solutions as we have to wait for the AT company to do something to make the software more accessible.  On this issue, I strongly beg to differ and actually point above to the guys who enjoy all of the progress made in the last twenty years, even in the last five years that clearly separates the mainstream platforms in PAC Mate and with MSP or Pocket HAL on off-the-shelf PDA devices.

I use Audible Player on my iPAQ, PAC Mate and desktop, all of which run mainstream operating systems.  The Audible Player is imperfect on all three and, although I could write scripts for JAWS or MSP, I’m too busy and too lazy to do so.  Imperfection does not mean unusable.  Certainly, Audible Player, if scripted, would perform much better.  But, as it is, with all of the poking around with the JAWS and MSP cursors, I can and do use it on a daily basis.  This separates the wheat from the chaff.

If I had a blind-guy-ghetto (one of these days, I’ll post a Blind Confidential glossary so I can use abbreviations for such often used phrases) handheld, I could not use the Audible Player at all.  I think might have a toolkit/API that a vendor can use to bring its content to their device but I don’t see Humanware running out any time soon to write a proprietary Audible Player.

For my tastes, at least, I prefer marginal accessibility to no access at all.  PAC Mate and MSP make this possible, The BrailleNote family of products do not.  While I’ll kvetch about mediocre to poor accessibility and do whatever I can to influence the mainstream companies to make their products more screen reader friendly, I’ll yell and scream and start throwing things and probably end up in a locked psychiatric ward one of these days over absolute walls to even some accessibility.  If it can’t be perfect, give me something I can fool around with and maybe make work well enough for myself.  PAC Mate, MSP, Pocket HAL, JAWS, Window-Eyes, HAL, ZoomText, MAGic and others provide access to everything even though the access might be poor in some applications; the blind-guy-ghetto products provide exactly what their vendors think you want or need and assume that we blinks are too stupid to do a little hunt and peck, peek and poke and use, albeit not as efficiently as we might like, programs that they considered too hard for us.  Let me make my own decisions please.

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My Fragile Relationship with

For the past six years or so I have maintained a love/hate relationship with  As regular Blind Confidential readers already know, I enjoy fooling around with gadgets and I have a strong preference for those that fit in a shirt pocket.  So, when I first subscribed to, I took the package that included a free Diamond Rio, then about the coolest MP3 player on the market.  This would have occurred in the Spring of 1998 before JAWS 3.31 and its virtual buffer came out and when the Window-Eyes MSAA mode took a lifetime to load any web page with more than a dozen links or so.  Over the years, Internet support in screen readers has improved dramatically but continues to present challenges.

A few days after I first subscribed to, my Diamond Rio arrived at my office, the address I gave so as to ensure proper delivery (the apartment complex where I lived then had a policy of only delivering packages when they felt like it).  I brought my Rio home, plugged it into the USB port on my old Gateway PC and fired up the Audible application.  This begins one of my hate periods involving

The Audible desktop program which, accessibility wise, could best be described as “sort of works if you poke around with the JAWS cursor a lot” proclaimed via a dialogue that did read nicely with JAWS 3.20, that I had to install the firmware upgrade on my Rio to enable it to play content.  It asked if it should do so, I clicked “yes” and listened to a bunch of things flash on and off of the screen that sort of made JAWS sound like a severely mentally ill techno freak babbling at the moon.  Then, came the Windows 98 crashing sound and a complete lack of speech.  I rebooted and tried again, same results, one more time, no change, time to give up.

The following day, I called from my desk.  I explained that I can’t see, that I thought could serve as a good resource for blind people, that I worked for a company that made a product very popular among blind people, that the desktop application worked poorly, that the web site confused one terribly using the old “reformat screen” feature in JAWS and that attaching my new Rio, the one they sent me, caused my computer to crash three times the night before.  The New Jersey woman who answered my call apologized and transferred me to “someone technical.”

I heard Sasha’s voice, deep and with a strong Eastern European accent, for the first time.  I had no idea that the fretful person who initially took my call would put me straight through to the Chief Technical Officer.  In fact, I had no idea to whom I was speaking.  I explained my dilemma.  Sasha asked me for the serial number on my Rio, I called someone into my office to read it to him.  Over the speaker phone, I heard a keyboard clatter and then, “Oh…  We will send you new Rio,” continued the somewhat annoyed engineer, “Yours has wrong firmware for our upgrade.”

I then explained the accessibility problems with the desktop application.  Sasha had heard from blind people before and explained that he could not use standard controls because, “Our user interface is very, very cool and all custom.”  I suggested that their service would work well for blind people, a population who really enjoys audio books.  He said he had some contact either with GW Micro or a Window-Eyes user and had made an accessible version of the desktop application for them and he gave me a link to download it.

A couple of days passed and my new Rio arrived.  I installed the “accessible” desktop player on my Gateway at home and connected my Rio.  JAWS could read the controls but the accessible desktop player did not have the functionality to talk to external devices.  I returned to the peek and poke method of using the JAWS cursor in the “very, very cool” user interface.  Finally, I got the firmware upgrade to load and I put some content on my Rio.  I can’t blame for the inaccessibility of my Rio as they don’t make the hardware but the only features I could use were, play, pause, fast forward and rewind.  The Rio defaults to playing the last file copied to it so my most recent purchase was always ready to go.

The software running on the Rio had a bunch of bugs back then.  From time to time, it would go directly into fast forward for a little while and bring me to some spot further into the book.  I would then enjoy interpolating back and forth with fast forward and rewind to find my place and resume listening.  I could not, though, argue with the convenience of having a device smaller than a deck of cards as my book reader and having a web site that, with a lot of hunting and pecking around, could provide me with the instant gratitude of buying and downloading a book on a whim.  Thus began one of my love periods with

A few years passed in which I didn’t do much pleasure reading.  I discontinued my subscription and gave my Rio to a colleague in the office next to mine.  I didn’t follow progress on but heard continuous reminders of its existence on NPR as a lot of programs, including “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” had signed distribution agreements with the Wayne, New Jersey based content company.

One day, while testing an alpha PAC Mate TNS 1.0, the thought of came back to mind.  I wondered if they had made a Pocket PC player for it yet.  I went to the web site, poked around a little, found a PPC player, downloaded it, installed it on my very pre-release PAC Mate and, voila!

The PPC Audible Player didn’t talk perfectly right out of the box but I could use TAB to reach some controls and read most everything else with the JAWS cursor.  If JAWS on the PAC Mate could see it, we could write scripts for it.  The FS team made contact anew with Sasha and scripters created the JAWS customizations necessary to make the audible player speak nicely on the PM and with “Big JAWS” on the desktop.  Meanwhile, the engineers at made changes to their application to make it more accessible without losing the “very, very cool” look and feel.  FS and did a joint press release and PAC Mate users, upon its release, could download a coupon from the FS web site for a discounted subscription to

The PAC Mate clearly distinguished itself from the blind-guy-ghetto products with its ability to run off-the-shelf programs.  FS had all sorts of shareware running, most of the applications that ship with PPC and a very popular audio book service that could not run on any of the other products.  PAC Mate made history by taking the PDA for people with vision impairments out of the ghetto and into the software mainstream.  Thus began another period of loving

Once again, though, I fell into a period in which I did not do much pleasure reading and, although I could listen to audible content on my PAC Mate, I canceled my subscription as I didn’t want to pay the monthly charge for content because I didn’t have the time for listening.

Another couple of years pass.  I now have both a PAC Mate and an iPAQ and I have a little time I can spare for reading, one of my lifelong pleasures.  So, I go to and try to sign up for a subscription.  Thus begins another hate period.

I don’t know who does the web site for  I can only suppose they never look at other web sites or, if they do, they clearly choose to go well out of their way to obfuscate as much as possible.  Just getting to accept my credit card turned into a nightmare (a few weeks later, I heard from a blind friend who had the same experience).  The form to subscribe for an subscription shows any problems in red.  Thankfully, JAWS has its Speech and Sounds Manager so I could get it to play a sound when it saw red text.  I chose the Ernie’s car keys .wav file and reread the page line by line.  The sound played when I reached the street address box.  I read it and it sounded correct.  I read it character by character and it sounded correct.  I called my sighted wife into the room and she looked at all of the fields and said they were all correct.  I called technical support and listened to their promotions punctuated by the occasional male voice popping in to say that “due to a large call volume resulting from the holiday season you will be waiting for a very, very long time.”  When a nice young sounding New Jersey woman finally picked up, I had grown nearly catatonic from listening to repeated descriptions of Truman Copote’s “In Cold Blood” a new addition to the catalogue.  I described my problem.  She said that my credit card information, including billing name and address had to appear precisely as it did on my bill.  I called my wife back into the room and she could see that I had reached a boiling point after spending about two hours trying to perform a five minute task.  I explained the situation as rationally as I could.  She returned with my credit card bill.  We looked it over line by line, had I used “Chris” or “Christian?”  Was I supposed to spell out “Florida” rather than using the abbreviation?  Then we spotted it.  I live on 8th Street North in St. Petersburg.  In my application, I wrote 8th St. N. but my credit card information had 8th St. N – there was no period after the “N” on my credit card bill.  I hit the continue button and, voila!

Thinking my hardest times with round three of my relationship with were behind us, I proceeded to download the desktop player and the Windows Mobile player for those devices.  They simply refused to make this easy.  On my first attempt, the desktop player downloaded properly but, in the infinite wisdom of the folks at, they wrote their own download manager which then crashed while trying to download the Windows Mobile player.  After a couple of repeats, uninstalling the desktop player and starting over, I achieved success.  Frustrated, I no longer felt like reading and I went to bed.

The following day, I returned to the web site and started browsing for content.  Something subliminably in my head reminded me that I hadn’t read “In Cold Blood” in about thirty years so I chose it as my first download.  Clicking on “Download It” in the table in the “My Library” page of causes the desktop player to wake up and manage the download process.  This, even though the book came in two separate files, went smoothly.  Then, because I hadn’t attached a Windows Mobile device to my laptop yet, I got a dialogue telling me that some horrible error had occurred and, upon hitting the “OK” button, everything went screwy.  I had to use the power button to shut down.  Hatred and dread continue.

After restarting, I attached a WM device to the USB port on my laptop and opened the program.  I seemed to start in something of a list view but then the application moved focus to a web control which contained a nice description of Truman’s classic.  I brought up the JAWS help file for the Audible Manager and read a couple keystrokes that sounded useful.  Upon returning to Audible Manager, I found that they didn’t work.  I also found that very standard Windows keystrokes like F6 to bring me from pane to pane didn’t work.  Hitting ALT did bring me to something of a menu bar but one can perform very few useful tasks from menus.  Once again, I called on the trusty old JAWS cursor and started poking around.  After a while, I got my book onto my Windows Mobile devices.  At this point, the fear and loathing started to recede a bit.

On my PAC Mate and my iPAQ, I could use the Audible Player for Windows Mobile.  Once again, I had a convenient method to have instant gratification audio books and I got the audio New York Times delivered daily.

Love and hate continue to fight for prominence when I use anything from  I love the huge library but hate the cumbersome web site – a site that mostly follows the WAI guidelines but has such a low signal to noise ratio as to cause complaints from blind and sighted people alike.  I love the instant gratitude but hate the instability of their software – I’ve tested it in various situations with JAWS and Window-Eyes and no screen reader and could repeat crashes every time.  I love the free things posted for members each week but hate that I can never delete any content from my library on – forcing me to keep every back issue of the Times that I ever downloaded.  I love the fact that always seems willing to work with AT companies to make their products accessible but I hate that they wait until after they put out a new release to inform anyone of the UI changes.  

Overall, I guess I like the service.  I think their software is altogether too delicate and unstable but their content, convenience (when you figure out which Quick Keys should be used on which pages) the instant gratification can’t be beat and I like their pricing structure.  I pay $15 per month and, for that, I get 1 book credit which I exchange for a book that would otherwise cost around $19, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, a discount on any books I purchase and some pretty cool free audio content every week.  

Finally, I think I like because I like to kvetch.  To those of us who grew up in metropolitan New York, complaining, bitching and moaning rises to the point of high art.  Any of us can stand in an idyllic place with our best friends, fine food and beverage, perfect weather, a cool sea breeze and the smell of orange blossoms and still find a turd in the punch bowl.  We gripe because griping is our birth right and, if you don’t like it, we got people we can call.  “What you lookin at boy?”

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Clowning Around – Very Sick Humor

[Authors Note:  Upon rereading this item, I truly believe it will stand as the sickest thing I’ve written for or will write for Blind Confidential for a long time.]

I’m in a silly mood this morning so when I found a story about blind children and the Ringling Bros. Circus in my mail from Blind News, I suddenly found the inspiration for this morning’s blog entry.  A warning to those of you who find distasteful humor distasteful, you might want to ignore this entry as my feelings about clowns, elephants and other circus attractions delve deeply into the bizarre and the disgusting.  

I have a peculiar collection of feelings about the circus.  As a child, my parents brought me to see the Ringling Brothers at Madison Square Garden.  I remember a few things about that day, I got cotton candy, my mother would not let me get a circus flashlight, “they’re dangerous,” she explained, “swinging them around like that – you could put your eye out.”  We saw lots of cool animals, trapeze artists and, of course, scary, methadrine crazed  clowns.  

Over the years I went to the circus a couple other times.  An old friend from Boston got into the clown college hear in Florida and got a job with Ringling after graduation so he put a bunch of us on the guest list and we went to the old Boston Garden to watch the spectacle.  The circus sure had changed since my childhood.  My favorite act as an adult featured two incredibly beautiful African American women, clad only in tiny gold lamé bikinis performing some kind of extreme homo-erotic trapeze gymnastics.

Since losing my vision, though, I lost any interest in going to a circus of any kind.  I still suffer from a sort of clown phobia as well and assume they’re all like Krusty but angrier.  If I want a drug free, psychedelic experience, I only need to look around, Florida, as Carl Hiaasen, says, “George W. Bush may have his axis of evil but we Floridians, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, have the Axis of Weird.”  The Sunshine state isn’t home to the clown college for nothing.

Children seem drawn to circus acts and, according to an article in yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirer a group of blind children recently got to “touch the circus.”  Seeing the headline, I had to read on.  According to the article, “the staff of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus treated six students with limited or no vision to a Touch Tour Thursday.”  I suppose more than six children with vision impairments live in the Cincinnati area so, I must assume, that these kids had either never heard of the horrors that go on in such places or had mental illnesses which drew them to the a place where enormous and dangerous animals interacted with humans.  Hadn’t they heard what happened to Roy?  Or was it Siegfried?  Didn’t anyone tell them that these large wild animals tended to attack the young and weak as they made easier prey?

The article continues by telling us that these defenseless kids were forced to “get up close and personal with Smiley the goat, Asia the Elephant and a gaggle of clowns at U.S. Bank Arena.”  Ok, they avoided the lions, tigers and, excepting the clowns, truly dangerous predators.  Did anyone, however, consider that an elephant turd is about the size of one of these little kids?  Imagine if tragedy struck and, instead of a story about a visit to the circus, the headline read, “Small Child Drowns in Mound of Elephant Dung – Investigation to Follow.”(

Proving that he has a severe vision impairment and doesn’t realize just how ridiculous he looked, a seven-year-old kid “donned a pink and blue striped coat and some extra large shoes from the circus wardrobe.”  Parents can be so cruel.

One of the instructors took one of the children’s hands and, “guided it along the elephant’s skin.  Isn’t there some kind of ancient story about blind men touching an elephant? It had something to do with different perspectives if I remember correctly.

A woman from Westwood, Ohio, “accompanied her daughter, 6, as she touched the goat’s soft coat and tried on a clown’s jacket before being treated to the Greatest Show on Earth.”  I already mentioned the fact that parents can be cruel but watching her own little daughter stroke a barnyard animal is just perverse.  What could she possibly be thinking?

As all Blind Confidential readers know, I advocate for the rights of people with vision impairments to do everything possible.  I’m actually glad to hear that the kids all seemed to enjoy themselves and commend Ringling Bros. for setting up such a tour for the children.  I do not intend that this post be taken seriously in any way, I wrote it with fun, satire, perverse (actually sick) humor in mind and don’t want anyone to think for a second that I believe any of the above.  Click in the link to the newspaper near the top of this post to read the original article which I found pretty entertaining.

Then again, I do have clown phobia so, if you plan on visiting me, do not show up in giant shoes, a big phony red nose or holding a spritzer bottle as it may drive me into a psychopathic episode or at least cause me to run upstairs and hide in our attic for a few days, eating fiberglass insulation for sustenance.

Again, thanks to Leon and the Blind News gang for inspiring another Blind Confidential item.


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Junk Food Accessibility

What accommodations must restaurants make for people with vision impairments in the wired age in which we live?  According to a Catskill woman quoted in an article titled, “Legally blind woman sues fast-food restaurants, demanding Braille or large-print menus” from today’s, New York based, Daily Freeman.

Catskill resident Alice Camarillo has filed suit in the Federal District Court in Albany against, “several fast-food chains that do business in the Hudson Valley, including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Subway.”  According to the article, the restaurants have filed for dismissal on the grounds that, “the restaurants have no obligation to accommodate the visually impaired beyond having someone read the menu to them.”

Camarillo’s attorney in a statement quoted in the article describes the difficulties that she has when standing at a counter, listening to a fast-food clerk try to read the menu.  My own thoughts turn to the fact that many of these restaurants have pictures on the cash tray because the clerks cannot read so I wonder how accurate they can describe the entire collection of fat and salt filled delicacies.  Ms Camarillo complains that listening to the clerk read the menu holds up the line, annoying people behind her, and that on some occasions she has, “been told to wait while other customers in line are served before her.”

Camarillo’s lawyer continues by referring to the section of the ADA that requires, “auxiliary aids, which mandates that people with special needs be provided the assistance necessary to have access to public services.”

Because the plaintiff is low vision, her attorney says that she would prefer large print menus to Braille because her Braille reading skills are poor.  The article quotes the attorney as saying that each restaurant could produce a large print menu for around “$10” by having employee type one up in a word processor using a large font.  Of course, Braille menus would cost more and, for us with profound vision impairments, large print will serve no value.

I’ll watch this case and report on the outcome when I hear about it.  I fear that this plaintiff may settle the case by accepting large print only and another suit will need to be filed for the people who cannot use that type of accommodation.

Braille literacy helps a great deal in the lives of many blind people.  Various studies by the Braille Institute and others demonstrate a tremendous delta between the success of blinks who read Braille and those who do not.  Unfortunately, less than 15% of blind people in the US today have enough of a grasp of Braille to read it with any sense of efficiency.  I, for one, a person who still tries to learn and practice his Braille skills, would take an eternity to read the huge Braille menu at any Bennigan’s so ask the people with whom I’m dining or, if alone, the waitress to read menus to me.  I almost never set foot in a McDonald’s and, then, usually just to use the men’s room so I don’t feel the shame of holding up the line and I would probably go ballistic if some high school drop out asked me to wait for the line to pass.

So, what can solve the problem for blind Americans?  Also, what about people with cognitive and learning disabilities who may not have the capability of reading either?

I can think of a few “high tech” solutions that wouldn’t cost restaurants too much and would work for people with and without disabilities.

Some restaurants, Starbuck’s entire chain for instance, have wireless, 802.11, routers that their customers use to enjoy the Internet while drinking their $4 cup of coffee.  Restaurants like this could put their menu atop the T-Mobile (in Starbuck’s case) login screen so customers don’t have to pay to read it and anyone with a WiFi enabled device would have their favorite user agent in hand with which they can access the information.  

A local web page could push the daily specials and the restaurant owner can make additional income from its patrons who choose to click through to the rest of the Internet and logon to their T-Mobile account.  One good 802.11 G router with a PC and high speed connection (paid for by T-Mobile in their case) costs very little, would give access to any blind person with a PAC Mate with WiFi card installed, Humanware MPower or MSP or Pocket HAL on a Windows Mobile device.  The cost to the
restaurant will probably be repaid by the T-Mobile royalties pretty quickly and will serve a lot of their customers nicely.

Another option, although less practical at this time, would put the menu on an RFID tag that could be read using an expansion card for a PAC Mate, iPAQ or laptop.  This would cost the restaurant very little ($2 if mounted nicely on a plastic sheet) but, unlike WiFi devices, RFID hasn’t gained much popularity yet.  I don’t know if anyone has tested RFID reading software with a PAC Mate or mainstream PDA with a screen installed so its accessibility also remains somewhat in question.  As I know of a number of projects around the country to make RFID readers talk with JAWS, PAC Mates and in self-voicing blind-guy-ghetto solutions, such accessibility should be coming soon.

There are numerous other technologies which could perform this task but none as practical as WiFi or RFID.

What about people who don’t carry high tech gadgets with them when they go out for a Royalle with cheese?

Well, roughly 15% of American blind people could do with a Braille menu but these can get costly as each fast-food franchise has somewhat different prices and some will or will not carry specials like that yummy McRib.  So, every time a franchise changes a price or the corporation runs a national special, the district manager (I would assume) would have to emboss another set of plastic Braille menus for each separate restaurant.  If you’ve priced embossers lately, you will quickly understand why a fast-food chain would not want to buy hundreds of them for distribution around the country.  If they do, though, I’m sure my friends up at ViewPlus could accommodate them.

Large print would work for a particular group but do nothing for the totally blind folks or those with cognitive or other textual impairments.  So, once again, I conclude a Blind Confidential entry with an unsolved mystery.  Of course, if any of the fast food restaurants mentioned above do install one of my suggested solutions, I probably won’t notice as I don’t especially care for the Royalle du fromage and I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.


Thanks again to Leon and the “Blind News” email service hosted on the “Blind Programming” server.  The article referenced in this piece came to me from Blind News as do many other very interesting items.

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1986: A Work of Fiction


A week or so ago, I finished rereading “1984,” George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future ruled by a central party where “thought police” kept the population under control through near constant surveillance and extreme tortures.  Children joined a club called “The Spies” and reported any incorrect ideas (badthink) that their parents may have suggested.  The population lived in a constant state of fear and Big Brother kept an ever present watch.

Winston Smith and his girlfriend Julia stand central the to the story.  Winston privately revolts against the party by making seditious entries in his diary.  “”Down with Big Brother!”  He wrote over and over along with other criminal thoughts like, “2 + 2 = 4, if the party claims it equals five, it still equals four.”  After he and Julia find a way to steal away together and perform downright revolutionary acts like having sex, enjoying black-market chocolate, high quality coffee and time together away from the ever present spying telescreens.  Winston believes that they can change the system; Julia, somewhat dubious, follows.  Winston feels he can trust, although warned not to, a member of the ruling elite called O’Brien.  He also realizes that if he tells his secrets to O’Brien he and Julia will be at great risk.  Finally, in an entry in his secret diary, Winston Smith writes that it doesn’t matter whether O’Brien can truly be trusted or not, he and Julia would make their stand for justice, ask for O’Brien’s help and succeed or fail as they might.

The story ends after Winston and Julia have spent time in the tortures of the “Ministry of Love” and both has betrayed the other.  Winston and Julia meet only once after their release, Winston a broken alcoholic and Julia, now scarred and thickened, hopelessly continue their miserable lives apart.

I hadn’t read “1984” since high school, about 30 years ago.  In the time that has past, I have studied both literature and creative writing.  I’m especially fond of twentieth century American writers but, including Orwell, I find many modern and post-modern British and Irish authors very compelling as well.

Orwell ends the narrative seemingly without hope.  Winston and Julia have grown apathetic, their lives seem without joy and there seems no way to change the miserable totalitarian system.  The book, at the end of the story, feels very depressing.  Then, as something of an afterward, Orwell includes an essay about “Newspeak” the language of the English Socialism that governs his dystopian view of the future.  Well before 1949, the year “1984” was published, authors had used the concept of narrative perspective as a tool in creating their novels.  William Faulkner would change first person speaker without informing the reader but one could follow the lives of the Comptons anyway.  James Joyce and Marcel Proust would change tense frequently to demonstrate that the narrator might know the outcome or not.  Orwell, it can be assumed,  had read works by these giants of literature and, a great writer himself, must, therefore have been aware that the fictional author of the essay at the end of “1984” speaks in the past tense.  As the essay contains phrases like, “it differs from the English we speak today,” he must, therefore, have intended to leave the readers with a belief that the party, at the time this essay would have been written, in Winston and Julia’s future, had fallen.

I, therefore, present you with a short sequel to “1984” written by me.  I don’t claim anything near Orwell’s agility with the English language nor do I claim that I possess his imaginary skills.  Like a music student of average talent might practice by improvising on Coltrane riffs, I, an unofficial student of literature and writing, will make my best attempt to explore the work of a master 57 years hence.

Of course, because Orwell based his story in the then future year 1984, I will imagine a horrendous past that didn’t happen.  I will bring a 2006, a blindness and disability perspective to the story as well.  I hope this doesn’t suck.

If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it.  “1984” is a “must read” portion of the pantheon of twentieth century English language literature.

[Author’s Note: This piece is a work of fiction.  Excepting a few references to individuals from history, any resemblance, real or imagined, to an actual person, living or dead, in this text is purely coincidental.  The characters Winston Smith, Julia and O’Brien all come from George Orwell’s original work and have been lifted by me without permission.  Any other characters, excepting the aforementioned historical figures come directly from my own imagination.  I hope all who read this piece enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I rarely dive into actual fiction but do admit that some anecdotes that appear in this blog may have had their reality stretched a bit for entertainment value.]


Part One

Winston Smith awoke in his shabby apartment with his usual hangover sometime around 1100.  He swung his legs, clad in his thread bare party issued pajamas to the floor and reached for his party issued pack of cigarettes.  Winston slid one of the loosely packed, poor quality cigarettes from its packet, put it into his mouth and, with his party issued lighter, lit it and took in a long drag.

Winston curiously observed the image made by the telescreen in the grey-blue smoke he had exhaled.  With his right hand, he rubbed his right eye as his left brought the cigarette back to his mouth.  Transferring the cigarette from hand to hand, he rubbed the other eye.
The telescreen pronounced something about the third or fourth three year manufacturing program having exceeded its shoe lace targets by 4 million pairs.  Winston cautiously stood up, testing one leg and the other to ensure he could balance.  He sat back onto the bed, grabbed his party issued bucket that he kept nearby for such occasions and vomited into it.

Winston finished his cigarette, marveling all the while at the ghostly images made in the exhaled smoke by the image on the telescreen.  He lit another and continued staring at the random, kinetic sculpture of light and smoke.  The telescreen delivered the news from the front lines, the war with Eastasia, with who Oceana had always been at war, had taken an interesting turn.

Winston arose once again, tested his legs and, assured he could maintain his balance, walked to his percolator to prepare a pot of the low quality party issued coffee.  As the coffee started to brew, Winston went to his toilet, installed his dentures, shaved with a dull blade and glared at his face, the face of the man who betrayed his one true love, the face he detested more than any other.

Winston had, during his torture sessions in the Ministry of Love, learned to love Big Brother.  Winston learned that Big Brother was the only one worthy of love.  He learned that 2 + 2 could equal five or even three if Big Brother declared it so.  He returned to his coffee pot, poured some of the weak fluid into an unwashed cup, sat in a chair beside his little table, lit another cigarette and stared into the dancing smoke picture.

Winston, absorbed by the ballet his cigarette choreographed, couldn’t pay attention to the telescreen.  Since returning from the Ministry of Love, the telescreen rarely addressed him directly, the party no longer believed he had any real value and had grown confident that Winston posed no threat to the status quo.  The telescreen repeated the three slogans central to the party’s doctrine, “Freedom is Slavery!”  “War is Peace!” and “Ignorance is strength!”

Intently watching the images in the smoke, Winston started to wonder why he found them so fascinating.  He continued to chain smoke and continued to delight in the dance of the smoke sculptures.  Winston slowly started to remember.  A word from his past, had a year passed?  Two?  He drew on his cigarette and muttered softly a single, two syllable words that had long ago been removed from the language, “beauty.”

Part Two

Winston hadn’t gone to the café for his regular session of drinking clove flavored gin and working chess problems at his reserved table in more than a week. Was it two?  He had grown very confused.  The numbness he had carried since his time in the Ministry of Love would break periodically.  Winston would start to cry for no reason he could determine.  On other occasions, he would burst out in maniacal laughter, shout angrily at arbitrary strangers and when smoking in his apartment, stare at the smoke and contemplate beauty as if it were one of the most challenging chess puzzles he had ever encountered.

O’Brien, at his desk in the Ministry of Love, would, from time to time, observe Winston through the telescreen.  He grew concerned that Winston had hardly a sip of gin in nearly a month.  He didn’t worry, Winston had simply gone mad and like schizophrenics (a word also erased from Newspeak as no one suffered from mental illness under the rule of the party) of which chain smoking was a common symptom had taken Winston’s defeated mind. O’Brien knew he had Winston’s trust; he had always had Winston’s trust and would always have Winston’s trust.  O’Brien couldn’t imagine even the smallest probability of his terrified Winston betraying him as he did his one true love.  Winston, he knew, feared a return to Room 101 and trusted that O’Brien would have the caged rats ready for him if he did or said anything unseemly.

Staring into his abstract smoke cinema, another phrase, a slogan maybe, something from the history he had helped to erase when he worked in the Ministry of Truth would enter and then, just as quickly disappear from Winston’s thoughts.  “Freedom is Slavery!”  “War is Peace!” “Ignorance is Strength!” proclaimed the telescreen.  “I am sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” a statement from the distant past that his alcoholic father would sometimes utter during Winston’s childhood.  “What could this mean?” Asked Winston as he lit another cigarette and tried to return to his reflections on beauty.

“Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” insisted Winston’s fragmented mind.  “Beauty,” he tried to fight the word into the front of his consciousness.  “Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”  “Beauty.”  “Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”  “Beauty.”  “Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

“Freedom is slavery,” heard Winston as if for the first time.  “War is peace!” “Ignorance is Strength” All rang in Winston’s mind as if he had never thought of these constantly repeated slogans before.  “Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” his conscience reminded him, “Beauty…  Julia…”  The thought alone startled Winston to nausea.  The love he had once betrayed, the name he couldn’t say, the emotion he could no longer feel, the thought he could not think had returned.

Part Three

“If freedom is slavery, war is peace and ignorance is strength,” thought Winston, a few months after returning to work and chess problems, “then, death could be life and love could be hate.”  In the Ministry of Love, O’Brien had taught him that the converse of these statements were also true, the party had said so.  Then, drawing on his own logic, Winston thought, “Love for Big Brother could be hate for Big Brother; Hate for Julia must, indeed, be love for Julia.”

Following his thoughts further, Winston concluded that he could only achieve life through his own death.  Winston stood up from the conference table where he and his colleagues debated which words they should remove from the next edition of the Newspeak dictionary, excused himself and walked out of the Ministry of Truth for what he assumed would be the last time.  

Winston walked briskly toward the most dangerous part of London, the region most likely to be struck by one of Eastasia’s missiles.  “Had Oceana always fought Eastasia?” thought Winston, “he couldn’t remember such details any longer.  He did remember his once strongly held belief that the future lies among the proles.

Upon reaching one of the most dismal sections of one of the regions occupied by the proles, Winston entered a pub, ordered himself a liter and looked for the oldest person he could find.  “Tell me old man, can I buy you a liter?”

The elder squinted, looked at his newspaper, Manchester had defeated Chelsea in a match he seemed quite interested in learning more about and asked, “What do you want from me?”

“Just a listening ear and a friend to talk to,” replied Winston.

“Then, my friend, get me a liter,” grumbled the old man, “of the bitter, not the porter, I can’t take the weight of it at this age.”

Winston set down his glass, walked to the bar and bought the old man his ale.  When he returned he sat and asked the older gentleman a very dangerous question, “Have you studied history?”

The old man took a long sip from his glass and asked, “Do you follow football?”

Winston said, “I can only find life through death.”

The old man’s interest seemed to take hold as he took a long sip from his glass.  The elder’s eyes widened with what appeared to be recognition and he said, “No, you need to be invisible to be seen.”

“I need to die to live.  I need to die even to become invisible,” replied Winston after finishing his ale in a single swallow.  Was he wrong, he wondered?  Could one become invisible without dying?

The two sat and drank a couple more glasses of ale when the elder gentleman suggested they leave for, “a breath of fresh air and a nice stroll.”  Winston agreed.

When the two reached the sidewalk and walked a short distance, the old man spoke with great determination and more steadily than he had in the pub.  He also seemed to grow younger before Winston’s eyes as he stood taller, walked briskly and with more intention than Winston had observed the man do anything in the pub.  “You see,” said the elder to make his point, “I am invisible.  Most so called senior citizens are invisible.  Blind people, cripples, deaf and dummies are invisible.  Our own families can hardly see us and,” he paused to open an unmarked door on an unmarked building in an unmarked alley, “you can be invisible too.”

The two men entered a dark room, lit only by the setting sun through the open door.  When Winston had gone fully into the dark and strangely sweet smelling room, the old man shut the door firmly and engaged a few locks.  The room, now totally dark and silent except for the breath of Winston and the old man and, “Were there other people here?”  Thought Winston as he felt himself slammed to the floor and felt his consciousness fading away.

Part Four

Winston awoke in his shabby apartment at 600 and remembered the terror he felt just before he blacked out that afternoon, a memory that remains strong in his mind.  He recalled that for no logical reason he had once again chose to trust someone.  Hadn’t he and Julia been betrayed by a member of the thought police they assumed to be a prole?  Hadn’t his time in the Ministry of Love, in room 101 taught him to only love Big Brother and not to trust anyone else?  He, sat up and, using his thread bare pillow as a back rest, lit a cigarette and watched the smoke dance in the light that entered the room through the slits in the blinds.  “Beauty,” he thought as he daydreamed about how life had changed since that afternoon with the old man.

With his cigarette in his right hand, Winston turned to his left and softly started to stroke Julia’s once again long hair.  Lovingly, he ran a finger down the scar on her forehead.  He returned to stroking her hair and thought, “Beauty.”

On that day long ago, a few more people stood in the dark room when Winston and the old man, a man he now knew as Bill, a man he now knew wasn’t much older than himself, a man he now understood clearly, a man who also lived as a refugee from the party walked in.  Bill had signaled ahead, the team had formed and prepared their ambush.  When he regained consciousness, Winston found himself naked in four point restraints, sore in every orifice in his body, thirsty as he ever felt and craving for a cigarette.  “Bill stood at the foot of the bed smiling, like O’Brien had once smiled at him but without the old man disguise on anymore.  “Please… No…” was all that Winston could utter.  Bill’s smile broadened and, in a soft, reassuring voice, he told Winston that he needn’t worry.  “But…” Winston uttered, “Hush,” Bill reprimanded.

Bill removed Winston’s restraints, handed him a packet of cigarettes, good ones, not party issued and a cup of strong smelling coffee.  Winston’s fear grew as O’Brien had welcomed Julia and him with similar luxuries years before.  Either the old man serves in the very inner party or he has excellent black market connections.

After a few puffs on the cigarette and a swallow of the excellent coffee, Winston found the courage to ask, “Where are we?”

Bill laughed and said, “Nowhere.”

“What?” Asked the puzzled and groggy Winston.

Bill sat in a chair beside Winston’s bed.  “Sometimes, we joke and call this place the Ministry of Invisibility but, officially, we don’t give it a name.  Invisible places have no name.  You, my dear Winston, are now among the invisible.”

“What?”  Asked Winston.

“This place, this non-place serves as the headquarters for the invisible,” Bill stated slowly as if he had said these words many times.  

“The invisible,”

“Yes, the invisible.  The old, the blind, the deaf and dumb, those who the party cannot see even if we’re standing in plain sight.”

“But you don’t look old anymore,” Winston stated wondering how this transformation could have happened to the old man he had met in the pub yesterday?  A week ago?

“Enjoy your cigarette and I’ll explain, said Bill as Winston lit another.  “The invisible fifth column battles the party.  The party can’t see us so they don’t know how to fight back.  When they review the tapes, they see an old prole or a blind man and believe instantly that the perpetrator must come from a foreign land and must have blown himself up or escaped detection somehow.”

A smile came to Winston’s face and he repeated the sentence the old man had told him in the pub, “One must become invisible to be seen.  But don’t we need to die to become invisible?”

“Of course not,” laughed Bill, “You only need to make the party believe you are dead.  We placed your clothes, your dentures and a few random body parts we picked up at a local murder scene in the rubble after a missile attack.  The party officially declared one Winston Smith dead.  You got a lovely obituary in The Times.  Very nice really, I didn’t realize you had done so much to advance the cause of truth.”

Winston laughed and, as Bill refilled his cup, asked his original question once again, “Have you studied history?”

“Yes and you will too, in good time,” replied Bill.  “First we need to heal your mind, the party, the Ministry of Love, Room 101, causes lasting damage.  We will include some history lessons in your psychiatric treatment but the detailed facts will need to wait another year or so.  Now, let’s get you some clothing.”

As each week passed, Winston worked with his fellow invisibles.  A blind woman taught him to trust his sense of touch and to analyze the things he hears.  A man who could not move his arms, legs or even head taught him logic, critical thinking and that, “just because the party claims something to be scientific, it may really be bollocks.”  A deaf girl taught him to trust his visual observations and one who could not speak taught him how to communicate non-verbally, a requirement for a member of the invisible revolution.

Winston met with Bill, a former member of the staff at the Ministry of Love, before his defection and invisibility occurred, for the hardest part, the psychology and the unlearning of ideas that he heard nearly every day of his life.  Winston, daily, begged Bill to get his Julia, “Use force if you need to get her, just save her, kill her, make her invisible.”

Daily, Bill would pat Winston’s hand and remind him that no one, not even the party could predict the future.  Once Winston had assumed his calm, they would go to work on one of the slogans he had to unlearn.  They started the big three in reverse order.

“Ignorance is Strength,” said Winston.  Bill referred to the immobile scientist’s lessons as often as possible.  He used logic, mathematics and the scientific method to demonstrate how much power we could have when we conquered Ignorance.  One day, while working on the third slogan, bill started the session by saying “A long time ago, more than 200 ears, Europe went through a philosophical revolution.  Historians,” Winston perked up at the sound of the word, “call this period The Enlightenment.

“You don’t need to learn the details now but just know that humans made tremendous discoveries, scientific, philosophic, political, artistic, etc.  The period had about run its course when one of its great heroes, Thomas Jefferson and a few others defeated the world’s strongest military in the name of free expression, religious freedom and many other sacred freedoms that existed in the land once called America before its empire crumbled.”

These ideas frightened and delighted Winston.  He couldn’t imagine a world like that.  Like a character from a book he translated into newspeak years earlier, Winston constantly asked about rabbits, he would ask Bill to, “Tell me about the Jefferson again.”

Next, came the slogan, “War is Peace!”  Bill taught Winston, using more examples from history that the truly great of the past all stood for peace.  Winston learned of people like Jesus, Buddha Gautama, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin, a singer called John Lennon whose work had only recently had been discovered by invisible archeologists.  Bill taught him of the many movements of the many lesser known pacifists and of how the warlords had decried them as divisive.

Sometime during the work on the middle slogan, certainly before they started into the first, Winston caught a glimpse of Julia out cold on a stretcher.  He broke into laughter and tears at once.  He enjoyed his lessons much more after that although he would not be reunited with his love for some time to come.

Winston continued daydreaming of his early days as an invisible.  Julia started to stir and, catching sight of his face, she asked what he found so amusing; apparently his smile gave away his mood.  He remained silent as Julia got up, put on her robe and crossed the small apartment to make coffee.

“Come on, let it out,” she teased, “what’s on your mind.”

Smiling he pronounced,, “Freedom is Slavery!”

“You remember your history my darling, abolitionist northern Christians fought General Lee and won freedom from slavery,” she pronounced proudly as she didn’t always study her lessons as diligently as her groom.  They both laughed heartily but remembered that the party remained in control – for now at least.

2016:  An Epilogue

Winston and Julia, the party having long ago crumbled, in part do to the invisibles but mostly due to the avarice of its inner circle, retired to the region once called America to the province once called Virginia to the town still called Monticello.  Winston wanted them to live out their final days near Thomas Jefferson.

Their only son, the one they loved and cherished, worked as a field archeologist to help restore the history that the party erased.  He, at the time of this writing, worked in the region once called America, in the province once called Florida in a town thought to be called Kiss Me.  There, he and his colleagues worked to unearth something called the “Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow.”  This place, called “EPCOT” by its contemporaries they believed contained the original home of the party, the place where Big Brother first started rewriting histories.

Bill remained in London and still preferred Chelsea to Manchester.  He still drank bitter ales and, now that he had grown old, felt invisible once again.

O’Brien was believed to have drowned in his own vomit after partying a bit too hard at yet another Deep Purple reunion concert.

— End

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