Ask a blind person who is my age about what it was like to be blind a few years ago, and they’ll describe a different world. Old-timers (who aren’t even old!) will tell stories of taking notes in class in high school using a slate and stylus, punching out words in Braille by hand one letter at a time, doing it in reverse so they could read it left to right from the other side. It reminds me of those stories our parents used to tell us about how they had to walk five miles to school in a blizzard, uphill both ways.
I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about the Assyrians. There was a room with cuneiform clay tablets that people had once used as receipts for buying squash and things like that. The slate and stylus stories remind me of that exhibit. Or maybe it was more like Leonardo Di Vinci writing in his notebook backwards in a mirror.
Braille of course remains an irreplaceable and critically important method of communication for people with visual disabilities. I wish I were better at reading it than I am. But the difference between then and now is striking.
A very professional blind person told me about her college experience. When she typed a term paper on a manual typewriter, she had to be careful not to make mistakes because there was no echo feature to let her know when her fingers had hit the wrong key, and she wasn’t able to white out the typos. She didn’t have the luxury of taking a break to get up to go to the refrigerator, because when she returned, she couldn’t read what she’d written to know where she’d left off. She’d stay up late writing her papers because she couldn’t interrupt the writing by going to bed. I felt guilty listening to her, because I’d been sighted as a student, and eyesight seemed like an unfair advantage. People got Ph.D.s like that.
I was declared legally blind in 2002, and the entirety of my blind experience has been in the technological age. My cell phone, watch, computer, alarm clock, and half a dozen other things talk to me. I can get almost any book I want in a format I can access. It may take a few weeks for me to locate it and get it into a format I can read, but it’s usually possible.
Five years ago when I graduated from the Carroll Center for the Blind, I started going to restaurants with my blind friends. Since I wasn’t blind as a child and didn’t receive my education in Braille, I’m not very fast at reading a Braille menu and I normally just asked the waitress to tell me the day’s specials.
A couple of years later, we learned how to look up the restaurant’s menu on the internet at home, using a talking screen reading program for the computer, and decide in advance what we wanted to order. It was an improvement, but you had to remember to look up the menu before leaving home, memorize the name of the thing you wanted, and actually go to the same restaurant you’d been contemplating. Otherwise, you were back to playing 20 questions with the wait staff.
I was recently eating in a restaurant with David, a blind friend who just got an iPhone. He learned how to use it to look up the restaurant’s menu and have the talking VoiceOver feature on the phone read it to us. We could consider the whole menu in real time without needing to ask a waiter to read it to us, just like when we could see.
Then he wowed me by pulling up the name of my favorite ice cream place, reading the 2000 flavors of ice cream that are written on a chalkboard. I haven’t been able to read the chalkboard in years, so I always stick with my favorite flavors. Who knew they had fluffernutter?
We got our bill but the waiter left the table before we could ask him to read us the total. Undeterred, my resourceful friend whipped out his iPhone and snapped a photo of it, then used an ap called “Viz Wiz” to ask a web worker half way around the world, “What is the total on this bill?” The phone rang and he got a text message that read “$61.27.” Correct! Of course, it was 20 minutes later and we were already across the street finishing up the ice cream, but the concept was there.
People have been blind for millions of years, but ours is the first generation to experience the miracle of the technological age. My eyes aren’t getting any better, but the ways to cope are expanding exponentially. If you were blind in 1329, then too bad for you. Nothing was going to change in your lifetime. Now if you can’t do something just wait a minute and there’s probably an app coming out for that.
The human genome has been mapped since I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, and scientists are now experimenting with microchips that can be implanted in the eye to restore some little bit of vision. It’s still very experimental, and I’m not holding my breath for the chance to get the procedure done. It probably won’t even happen in my lifetime. I’m content to go about my business, taking advantage of the new technology when it solves a problem but not waiting for a cure.
Still, the promise is palpable, and intriguing new solutions appear and evolve on a regular basis. At the Carroll Center, technology training for the blind includes Braille and iPhone apps and everything in-between, all of which are necessary for being a full participant in a rapidly-expanding, 21st-century world.