Visually Impaired: Now What?
by Maribel Steel
Editor's note: In honor of National Reading Month, today's post features an audio recording of Maribel Steel's story, "Many Different Hats." Whether you enjoy reading large print, braille, or following along with audiobooks, the VisionAware peers encourage you to continue to enjoy reading. Click the link below to listen to Maribel's story.
(Soft music plays then fades out as the narrator begins to speak)
Narrator:"Many Different Hats," written by Maribel Steel and read by Carol Middleton. Playing Time: 7:51 minutes.
My hat goes off to all the blind travelers around the world—may you always find a safe path home.
When a blind or vision-impaired person ventures out from her home, it can feel like going into a battle zone. Navigating a safe path around obstacles and barriers, and maintaining your dignity, is like taking a merry waltz through a mine field.
At any moment, the ground can shift beneath your feet, the white cane may sweep a path straight into a hole, and not for one second can you allow your thoughts to lapse or to become caught up in the whirlwind of commuter activity.
While standing on the pedestrian island in the middle of Dandenong Road with peak hour traffic zooming past, I stop to consider how challenging it is to get from home to my workplace.
With my mother hat securely in place, I walk my son to school, kiss and hug him goodbye, then negotiate my way to the tram stop. The entire time, all of my senses are switched to high alert, manoeuvring around a host of obstacles in this unpredictable environment.
My ears prick up for the slightest hint of anything different today: workmen, rubbish bins, old mattresses dumped on the footpath.
My mother hat is swiftly replaced with a survival hat. Using my white cane as a trusted guide, I attempt to cross a busy road. I listen with complete focus and concentration—not one other thought crosses my mind except 'Stay safe'.
Luckily, the audible beeping lights actually work today—well that helps. I cross the tram tracks and appear calm as I wait with the other city-bound travelers.
With my sensitive hat on, my nose twitches at the noxious fumes of trapped pollution. My eyes are stinging and my ears are bombarded with the unpleasant roar of the traffic.
At the tram stop, a friendly old gentleman starts chatting with me, attracted by the white cane. He helps to identify the right tram, which is a relief. Our chat continues until my stop. The brief interaction with a kind stranger gives me a sense of connectedness to others.
I step off the tram clinging to two hats, my well worn survival hat plus my "Don't panic" hat.
I am delicately poised on a meter of uneven ground, between a tram line and a wide highway, ready to lunge forward at the next break in traffic. My body is tense, my hand and feet rigid, my thoughts and hearing focused.
It is an unnerving place to be, heavy metal roaring past, and trams thundering by only inches from my heels. The deep vibrations on the metal tracks linger well after the tram has moved on. I hear people darting across the road, and I dare not run this gauntlet as I have no idea if they are jumping the traffic lights since the warning beeps are not working on this crossing.
My cane always alerts others to my visual disability and often brings much appreciated help, as on this occasion. A young woman comes to my rescue and gently guides me over to the safety of the pavement.
I count the ten concrete steps to the front foyer of my work place with a sense of relief and achievement. Not only have I located the right building, but I have also arrived safely. Its time to don my work hat, but I am not at my desk yet.
There is still the lift to locate. I squeeze into it and listen to the robotic voice announcing the floors. At the right moment I dash out, careful not to get my cane caught in the doors. I make the final short trek to my desk on the ninth floor and slump into my chair.
Even though the trip has taken under an hour, so many hats have been necessary: mother hat, survival hat, don't panic hat, focus hat, stay calm hat, courageous hat, alert hat…
It has taken a lot of mental energy and emotional courage just to get this far, and now, new challenges are about to present themselves.
Another unpredictable environment awaits—they may not be life-threatening, but it can bruise my ego if I stumble over unexpected objects amid the clutter of desks, filing cabinets, or loose items on the floor.
My work day passes quickly and before I know it, it is time to set off again for home, in reverse order—the lift, the steps, the roads, the traffic, the tram stop, school, home.
I climb aboard the number five tram, relieved to have a few minutes to rest my eyes. Check list: work hat off, multi-tasking mother's hat on? Yes!
I arrive home safely with my son, my head thumping and eyes stinging. My tense body lets go of rigid muscles in the comfort of our home, where most things are predictable.
Each time I step out of the house, a whole new adventure begins, presenting a new set of challenges as well as hazards of all descriptions: people, poles, rubbish bins; post-boxes, shop signs, outdoor chairs, tables; steps, uneven sections of pavement, parked motorbikes, bicycles; dogs on long leashes, small children on small bikes; waiters dashing out from café entrances. Not to mention tram tracks, bus stops, overhanging branches (particularly not appreciated in the rain), puddles, unaligned curbs. The list is endless.
As a vision-impaired person, to cope with my limitations and to successfully function in a sighted world, I have learned to refine certain qualities along the way, like razor-sharp wits, well-honed orientation skills, courage, trust, good humor—and, of course—a fetish for many different hats!
(Soft music begins to play then fades as narrator ends the story)
Reading with Vision Loss
by AFB Staff
International Day of Happiness All Year Round
People around the world now celebrate International Day of Happiness on March 20th each year. We hope that by taking hold of life’s unexpected challenges in a more positive way, we can appreciate life from a higher vantage point. If we can think of gratitude as a graceful eagle that can launch into flight to soar above the mundane, then an incredible sense of happiness flies into serving our every need—all year round.
Editor's note: When everything appears to be going wrong in your life, or you are feeling frustrated by the challenges of living with a visual impairment, it can seem impossible to retain a sense of equilibrium and inner peace on those "tough" days. Two of VisionAware’s peer advisors, Maribel Steel and Lynda Lambert, share the ways in which they take hold of happiness by being grateful for unexpected things.
Out of My Comfort Zone—Big Time!
When my family was given the diagnosis of my pending blindness at 17 due to the onset of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), it didn’t seem like there was much in our lives to celebrate. Suddenly, all my career options dropped away for a young woman rapidly losing sight.
I knew with an inner certainty that no matter how challenging my life became, I’d have to muster the courage to keep my focus on my abilities and not my visual limitations. I began to collect positive quotations that would lift my thoughts over daily challenges.
One particular quote by Patrick Overton became a favorite. "When you have come to the edge of all light that you know and are about to drop off into the darkness of the unknown, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen: there will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught to fly."
Firm Ground in Being Grateful
Being in the final years of secondary schooling with a visual disability was extremely challenging. Computers had not been invented, and assistive technology was hugely expensive. But my parents purchased a device that saved my life emotionally so that I could carry on in the face of adversity.
It was one of the first models of a black and white Closed Circuit Television (CCTV and now called electronic video magnifier) which allowed me to use my remaining sight to catch up on school work at home while listening to my favorite records. My bedroom became a sanctuary of contentment, and I was so grateful to have such loving parents who provided me with not only a way to continue reading and writing but who also encouraged my love for being independent.
A Different Journey: Equally Creative
I was well established in my career as a tenured professor of fine arts and humanities at a private Christian college when I suddenly lost most of my vision to Ischemic Optic Neuropathy. Sight loss with this condition is instant, giving no warning before a stroke-like event affects the optic nerve. I was plunged into a new world in two separate events—one in each eye, 10 months apart.
I attended a residency program in Pittsburgh, PA, where I learned how to do ordinary daily activities and eventually learned how to use a computer again. This training took nearly two years and was a major turning point from being a victim to being an overcomer. I felt determined to keep living with my art aspirations and exhibiting my work internationally. Using assistive technology meant that I could continue to write, produce books, and work on getting my poems and stories in literary journals. The change in my life was a blessing because it enabled me to pursue my art and writing passions full-time.
Inspired by the words of Helen Keller, "Life is either a grand adventure or nothing," I feel the same. Each day is a grand adventure for me as I enter my studio and pick up my precious gems, beads, crystals, and threads. At other creative times, I spend many happy hours writing articles to uplift and encourage others.
Gratitude Is Like a Treat on a Tray
Being in the school of life with vision loss has taught me that when I am truly challenged by being unable to do a visual task or some other frustration is hampering my happy-heart, I must look for the good in that very moment. In other words, I stop my thoughts raging out of control to highlight all the negatives of the situation and force myself to find three reasons to be grateful—right in the midst of difficulty. By shifting my thoughts to consider things I can be grateful for, especially when I don’t particularly want to, is like being invited to an uplifting party and being given a treat on a tray. A heart-felt gratitude can make any issues of blindness fall away from my thoughts and is replaced with a more gentle approach to the situation.
Gratitude and thankfulness are core essentials in my life too. I begin my day just before dawn to walk my two dogs in the woods along the creek where we are surrounded by nature and waking bird calls. Nature brings balance and peacefulness into my life. Happiness is intentional. I intend to have a happy and fruitful day, no matter what happens!
Ways to Invite Happiness Into Your Life with Low Vision
When you are looking for reassurance, inner peace, and emotional security, why not consider the following ways to invite happiness into your daily routine.
Create a Gratitude Journal
Try keeping a journal or a document on your computer dedicated to writing down all the things you are grateful for in your life. Begin by recording your thoughts for a month and jot down at least three to five aspects of your life unique to your vision loss experience; list everyone and everything you count fortunate to be experiencing each day.
There will be days you won’t want to write anything but if you stay true to this process and prompt the heart by saying, "I am grateful today for..."—it works in helping to cope with negative aspects of a situation.
Reading an Inspirational Book
Lynda recommends reading an inspirational book before you take on any project. One book she suggests is The Seven Spiritual Laws for Success by Deepak Chopra. Currently, Lynda is reading the Bible and takes time to listen to a daily audiobook. Not far from Lynda’s reach is a stack of poetry books near her computer, so she can pick one up and read poems using her electronic magnifier.
Random Acts of Kindness
Often a sense of well-being and happiness comes when we are generous to making a difference in the lives of others. It is acts of random kindness, a genuine comment, or words of praise that will literally "make their day."
Some people call this "paying it forward" based on a book and a movie of the same name. It highlights the kindness of a young boy who did three good deeds for others. All he sought in return was for those three people to pass on another good deed for three more people. By participating in acts of kindness, we become more effective and happier in our home and work environments.
Likewise, another example is from author Darren Hardy, who wrote in his book, The Compound Effect, how he jotted down one thing every day for a year on the things he loved most about his wife. Keeping his "gratitude journal" had a transforming effect on his relationship with his wife as well as being able to present her with a unique gift on Thanksgiving Day!
As a member of the Art Abandonment Group on Facebook, Lynda enjoys leaving gifts of art works for a random person in unexpected places. She regularly wraps up pieces of her art and leaves them with a message that this art work has been abandoned in this place intentionally, and it now belongs to the person who found it.
Let us know your thoughts. How do you like to get into a happy mood?
To Love This Life: Quotations by Helen Keller (print and audio versions)
Lynda Lambert's New Book: Walking by Inner Vision: Stories & Poems
- Personal Reflections
by Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald
Editor's note: VisionAware's Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald dives into the world of 3D ultrasounds for expecting parents who are blind or visually impaired in this two-part blog post. In today's post, Francesca interviews In Utero 3D founder, Aleksandra Witkowska-Masojc, about the process of creating a bas-relief model of your child. Read "Breaking Down Barriers for Blind Parents, Part 1" for more information on this new company and the inspiration behind this new initiative for blind or visually impaired parents-to-be.
Breaking Down Barriers for Blind Parents-To-Be
A family-run company in Poland has created a new project giving blind expecting mothers and fathers a chance to know what their baby looks like even before he or she is born. The initiative is called Waiting Without Barriers. The program's goal is to give blind mothers and fathers the same experience as sighted parents and break down another barrier between parents-to-be who can see and blind parents-to-be.
The company, In Utero 3D, uses a special software that allows them to take a 3D ultrasound scan and digitally design and print a 3D bas-relief model of the baby. Here is their unique process.
Images courtesy of In Utero 3D
Interview with In Utero 3D Founder: The Process
Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald: What is the full process from the time a family decides they want this done until they are holding it in their hand?
Aleksandra Witkowska-Masojc: The first step is to request a proper 3D volume format of the 3D ultrasound scan from the clinic holding the patient’s records. Usually it’s saved as a JPEG or AVI file, but these formats lack volumetric information; we are not able to create a 3D model from this data source. We work with data saved in VOL, DCM, or MVL format (depending on the instrument the hospital is using). These formats contain 3D data necessary to create the 3D model.
Once we receive the file in the proper format, we create the 3D model with our software. This will take about two to three hours to create the high-quality model. Parents, at this point, will have the option to take the high-quality model file and print it themselves in their country, on their own printer, the 3D printer of a friend, or they can have us print the model for them.
FCF: How long can the 3D printing process take?
A: Depending on the dimensions of the data, the printing process could last many hours. Printing the image of a tiny baby in the 20th week of pregnancy could take up to five or six hours. But, when the baby is bigger, in the 28th week or 30th week, for example, features are obviously larger, and it can take up to 11 or 12 hours. That’s natural if you want to receive this high-quality, detailed, 1:1 scale model, it requires many hours in the printing process.
FCF: What material do you use to create the 3D models?
A: The bas-relief is made of ecru non-toxic bioplastic material known as PLA - polylactic acid.
FCF: What are some challenges that you've faced along the way?
A: One of our biggest challenges occurs in the first step of our process when patients go to receive the file of their 3D ultrasound from the hospital or clinic, and it is saved in an improper or incompatible format. If we are contacted before the parents go to their clinic to receive the file, we are able to send them and the clinic very specific instructions regarding the file format.
FCF: What happens if the file you receive is not in great quality and features are difficult to decipher?
A: Because we work only with the data sent to us from the 3D ultrasound examination, the quality of the file is important. If the image is not the best quality, we do not try to tweak, change, or idealize; we contact the parents and request a new, better image. It is important to us that we are creating the baby’s image to it’s exact likeness.
FCF: If someone here in the US wants to join Waiting Without Barriers or purchase a bas-relief 3D printed ultrasound, what should they do?
A: If a blind mother or father in the United States contacts us, we’ll provide them with all the step-by-step information of how to send the proper file format to us. We’ll explain all of our processes and rules about quality of the image and printing.
If they send the file and the format and quality are all in good condition, we create the 3D model and send it back to the parents. We’ll tell them that they have the option to print the model we created there in their own country. In the USA, for example, we work closely with a company in Ohio called Proto3D Printing. They can send our model to a company in their home country to reduce the delivery cost and receive their model much faster.
FCF: How is Waiting Without Barriers financially supported?
A: We decided early on that Waiting Without Barriers would be our own initiative. It is not funded by an agency, and it is not considered charity; this is something we believe, as sighted parents, that we should give to parents that cannot see. The only cost for blind parents from Poland is equal to 1 zloty ($.25 USD) for the bas-relief of a baby printed in FDM technology. For parents outside of Poland, we create the 3D model of a baby ready for printing in their own country also for a symbolic 1 euro ($1.08 USD).
We knew that we didn’t want to charge for the service because being able to see your baby is a standard, it’s right and fair that you can see your baby as it grows. We consider this a right that we’re simply making possible.
Blind Parenting Series
by Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald
Editor's note: VisionAware's Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald dives into the world of 3D ultrasounds for expecting parents who are blind or visually impaired in this two-part blog post. In today's post, Francesca introduces us to a new company that works to remove barriers for blind mothers- and father-to-be.
Breaking Down Barriers for Blind Parents-To-Be
We have made unprecedented strides in technology, improving our experience and interaction with the world around us. For individuals who are blind or visually impaired, we are finding ways to adapt iPads, improve refreshable braille mechanics, and broaden the option of VoiceOver technology, so we can all experience the visual world as accurately and interactively as possible. And yet, we have not yet discovered a way to transpose one very common visual experience—watching the ultrasound of an unborn baby for blind parents-to-be. VOTREX, a family-run company in Poland, however, has gotten very close.
Since March 2016, their 3D project, In Utero 3D, has been giving blind expecting mothers and fathers a chance to know what their baby looks like even before he or she is born. Using their company’s unique, crucial software, they are able to take the provided 3D ultrasound scan, digitally design the 3D model, and print the 3D bas-relief model of the baby.
Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald spoke with In Utero 3D founder, Aleksandra Witkowska-Masojc, about their inspiration and process.
Interview with In Utero 3D Founder
Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald: Where did you first get the idea to create your project In Utero 3D?
Aleksandra Witkowska-Masojc: We are a family-run company, so it’s me and my husband. Before In Utero 3D, our backgrounds were in medicine and education, but this project came about from our passion as parents and for 3D technology.
FCF: Do you remember the first time you saw your child on the ultrasound screen?
A: Yes, in fact, I will never forget it. In the 20th week of pregnancy, we went for the ultrasound, and I looked up at the screen and there was the face and nose and hands of my baby. I thought to myself, that is my baby, and it was so clearly ours.
Everything changed from that point on because you’re no longer waiting for a baby to arrive, you’re waiting for your baby that looks and moves like you. We saw a connection between our fascination with the emerging 3D printing technology and our role as parents. It was our dream to make this a reality and to create something as special as this first image of your child to keep and hold on to. My husband and I put our skills together and worked to create our own software to transform the data.
FCF: Did the idea to extend this to blind parents emerged organically?
A: One of our main reasons for starting this company came about because we realized that we are living in a world where technology is constantly advancing, changing, and expanding. 3D ultrasound images were getting clearer, more lifelike. We also knew that still, even with all this technological evolution, we have not found a way to make this technology benefit blind mothers and fathers. They still can’t see their baby’s face.
So, when In Utero 3D launched last year, we knew we’d have an opportunity to create something that would benefit blind mothers and fathers too. We decided that it could be it’s own separate branch of the company, and we named it Waiting Without Barriers. The program’s goal is to give blind mothers and fathers the same experience as sighted parents and bury another barrier between parents-to-be who can see and blind parents-to-be.
FCF: Do you have a lot of interest from parents in countries outside of Poland?
A: Yes, we cooperate with Germany, Denmark, the US, and partners in several countries around the world. We are in cooperation with many clinics in Poland and partnering countries where our pamphlets are on display in their offices, advertising our 3D ultrasound printing service, and the Waiting Without Barriers initiative. Blind parents—expecting mothers and fathers—who are visiting these clinics will see our advertisement or their doctor will let them know about us, and they get in contact. With a certification of blindness, they are enrolled in our program.
FCF: The 3D printing industry has exploded here in the US. Is it booming the same way there in Poland?
A: When we first started to grow as a company, some people were skeptical about the ethics around this idea. They weren’t sure if it was right to see the baby’s face printed in this way; I am not sure why. But, when they found out about our program Waiting Without Barriers, it seemed to make a lot more sense to people. This project opened their eyes and mind to think about the way this service is helping people, and the ways it shows us that with new technology, used in the right way, you give other people sight too.
FCF: How many blind mothers or fathers have been a part of Waiting Without Barriers?
A: Since our company launched in March, we have made 16 3D models for parents who are blind.
FCF: So, the interest among blind mothers- and fathers-to-be is active. Do you remember your first Waiting Without Barriers member?
A: The first person that came to us with a request was a blind father from Poland. So, while Waiting Without Barriers was originally designed for blind mothers, the service is obviously also extended to blind fathers-to-be as well.
FCF: Have you heard from those parents since they received their 3D model of their newborn?
A: Yes, they were incredibly grateful. It was amazing to know that we are opening a secret for someone that couldn’t see their baby and now with a touch they can visualize the baby’s face. Really, we were just giving them something they deserved to see.
FCF: I imagine you receive some very rewarding feedback from the parents involved in Waiting Without Barriers.
A: For us as parents who can see, we believe this technology has made something truly special possible. They will have it for the rest of their lives too. Very often we don’t know the parents that we are creating this model for; we do not hear from them, but I can say that when we are making the bas-relief model for a blind mother and father, we enjoy that work a little more. We know that when they receive this gift, they’ll be able to open their mind and eyes to their baby for the first time, just as we did.
Interested in learning more about the process or how you could get a bas-relief model of your child? Read part two of this interview with the project's founder.
Blind Parenting Series
- Blind Parenting
by Maribel Steel
As women from every corner of the globe come together to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, VisionAware peer advisor, Maribel Steel, acknowledges the feminine spirit that nurtures, supports, and uplifts through the sisterhood of friendship.
Women in Collaboration
A few years ago, I was the project coordinator for a World Premiere music event in Melbourne, Australia called, "Precious Music, Precious Water." I mention it here because it was a project commissioned by The Victorian Womens’ Trust—it was an insightful experience to be at the monthly meetings where 95 percent of my fellow collaborators were women!
It was thrilling and daunting to be given such a responsibility to ensure the event went to plan with media interviews to schedule and artists to book. What fascinated me about my job as the coordinator was how fluent we worked together; women, adaptive and flowing, like water itself, moving with purpose in the current of efficiency.
Bold for Change
In 1975, the United Nations observed International Women’s Day on March 8th as a day to celebrate women’s achievements and acknowledge gender equality. The theme for this year is "Be Bold For Change." You can follow along on Twitter by using the hashtag, #BeBoldForChange.
On this day, women, including those with disabilities, are encouraged to set some time aside to come together with a host of gatherings, talks, arts performances, rallies, and other networking events supported by women's organizations, corporations, and charities worldwide.
Female Peers and Mentors
There is something very special about the solidarity of women; a global sisterhood who understand each other from the heart. Only yesterday, I heard a saying: there are three ways to communicate—you can use the phone, turn on the TV, or...talk to a woman! Maybe this is the ‘special’ quality of the feminine role model; she uses open communication to nurture and create change in the world.
I know that whenever I may experience an accomplishment or a setback or am challenged by living with a visual disability, more often than not, it is my female friends, colleagues, and peers I turn to for their wisdom and support. This includes even women I have never met in person but have cultivated a relationship across Cyberspace.
As an example, the women peer advisors for VisionAware are a group of amazing women who are blind or visually impaired. E-mails fly back and forth, full of admiration, empathy, laughter, and shared experiences that keep us working together as a "merry band of peers," writing posts that reflect so many of our varied interests, concerns, and personal skills. The bond of friendship and camaraderie is strengthened through genuine thoughtfulness, carried on the invisible communication lines of womanhood.
Women's History Month
In February 1980, President Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the Week of March 8th, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. A special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year which honors the extraordinary achievements of American women. This year's theme is "Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business." The theme honors women who have successfully challenged the role of women in both business and the paid labor force. Women have always worked but often their work has been undervalued and unpaid. During this month, women encourage one another to step up and take ground-breaking action to continue in the quest for gender equality at home and in the workplace.
March may be the month to create change and take action, but I feel fortunate that no matter what time of year, my female friends rally around in times of upheaval and offer kind words in many caring ways. It is uplifting that we are able to see beyond any limitations and be strengthened by the kinship of women who carry us emotionally, who offer to lift each other above our clouds of doubt to a sunnier outlook, bringing cheer to our hearts to not give up the quest.
So in honor of International Women’s Day (and month), I’m sending out a huge thank you from my corner of the globe hoping these rays of friendship come beaming towards all the women of the world who are helping each other as peers, mentors, and ambassadors working together as bold and beautiful seekers for equality and understanding.
Men Celebrate Too
Guys, you don’t have to miss out; we honor our menfolk on International Men's Day on November 19th each year. Sixty countries come together in their own unique way to celebrate men’s and boy's health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and to highlight positive male role models in our communities.
Talk to Us
Let us know how you like to celebrate International Women’s Day or how the feminine spirit moves in your life.
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