General Election 2015 – Is This The Nastiest Dog Fight Ever?

So the gloves are off! Cameron has formally asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament so the real campaigning for the 2015 General Election can begin. But with the closest result ever being predicted, who’s your money on? And is this going to be the nastiest run-in yet?

Let’s start with the Tories. We know what the Conservatives are all about. We’ve had them for five years, and we know that their goals are to destroy the working classes, privatise the NHS, and haggle over Europe. Let’s face it, they have made more u-turns than F1 World champ Lewis Hamilton. They have no interest in zero-hour contracts, foodbanks and young voters. Their strategy is to keep knocking the vulnerable and disabled in society with a Welfare Reform bill that has cost them billions to implement. They are obsessed with putting down the poor!

Then you have their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. If it comes down to a hung parliament, will Nick Clegg fancy another five years in bed with Cameron?

And with the SNP threatening to sweep across Scotland for Westminster seats, where does that leave Ed Miliband’s Labour?

Oh, and we ought not to forget UKIP though I would like to!

Sadly, my money is on the Conservatives again, but with a coalition that should make it hard for them to pass more of their austerity measures. I was born and brought up in London’s East End during the 1960s where voting anything other than Labour was unthinkable. I could never have imagined my dad, a fork-truck driver working in the docks, casting his vote in a tory direction.

But for the next five weeks, we are going to see some dirt flying before the outcome on 7th May.

Going The Distance

If you have ever thought about studying as a mature student, but don’t feel you could go to college for whatever reason, there is always the option of distance learning.

A lot of places offer distance learning courses, but if you have a sight impairment, are the materials going to be accessible with your screenreader or magnification software?

The Open University,
www.open.ac.uk
offers a wide range of accessible distance learning courses, depending on what you want to study. I fancy undertaking the Creative Writing course when it starts later on this year.

But my favourite provider is the College of Media and Publishing, CMP. Its Director, Cleland Thom, has written a variety of journalism and writing courses for anyone interested in that genre. Prices are very reasonable, you can study whenever you want to, and they are a very friendly bunch to work with. But, most of all, course materials are accessible, and Cleland is always willing to assist if you have difficulty with any aspect of your chosen course. Check out
www.collegeofmediaandpublishing.co.uk
for a full list.

I have completed several courses with CMP over the years to help me as a freelance writer. It is a fully accredited education provider, frankly the best I have come across.

A few tips:

1. If you want to undertake distance learning study, make sure the course is accessible before you pay for it to save you a lot of grief later on.

2. Check that the website of the provider is straightforward to navigate with your screenreader or magnification software, and that course materials are in Microsoft Word or HTML format.

3. Let the provider know you have a sight problem at the outset. If they put up barriers and excuses, then clearly they are not worth bothering with.

Gerrard Sees The Red Mist

Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, was sent on to galvanise his team at half-time in Sunday’s infamous clash with Manchester United at Anfield. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that after 38 seconds of the second half, the 34-year-old would be red carded for stamping on United’s Ander Herrera.

I listened to the game on TalkSport, where pundit Stan Collymore said that when he was playing, “you could have got away with that, but not today”.

As encounters between these two bitter rivals go, it wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination. All the talk afterwards was about Gerrard’s stamp, particularly given it was his last game for Liverpool against United before his summer move to the States.

In typical Gerrard fashion, however, the Liverpool skipper offered a full and frank apology afterwards. He didn’t hide behind his manager, or attempt to make excuses for his reckless behaviour.

Liverpool have tough fixtures ahead after the Internationals next week that they must win if they want to secure fourth spot for a Champions League place. I personally think they will miss out, making it 25 years since the reds last won a league title!

Cane Or Canine

Most people who are blind or severely visually impaired opt to use a cane or apply for a guide dog. Every individual’s circumstances are different, and there is no right or wrong preference.

I grew up using a cane for many years. But during the 1980s, I decided to apply for a guide dog. At the time, I was commuting between Fife and Edinburgh every day, and I figured that having a dog would help me navigate very busy train stations. I trained with a beautiful German Shepherd called Vale. She was a great worker, and provided me with many years of safe travel and companionship.

But my circumstances changed in 1990 when I had a baby. My son became the centre of my world where there was no room in my life for a dog. I reverted instead to my trusted white cane.

I now live in Northern Ireland. With wonderful open countryside and a large garden around me, I felt the time was right to apply for another guide dog in 2013. I thought I might have to wait years, but Bumble bounded into my life within weeks of my being on the list. This gorgeous creature is three years of age today, St. Patrick’s Day. She is the most incredibly loving German Shepherd with adoring big brown eyes and a captivating nature.

Having an animal is hard work anyway, but a huge amount of time, money and effort is required to bring the successful partnership of owner and guide dog together. The rewards of having a guide dog are the bond between dog and owner, social interaction with other people, and the ability to move around safely outdoors.

Cane users, meantime, can stand their mobility aid in the corner and forget about it until they need to go out again. Canes are cheaper to buy and require little to no maintenance. One guide dog costs the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association £50,000 throughout its working life. And a cane has no emotional attachment when it cannot be used any more, unlike a guide dog who has served its owner so well.

I like the combination of both, where a particular situation might be suited to one or the other. Bumble isn’t just my guide dog, she is my friend and companion. But my cane stands in the hall ready and waiting for action!

Booking A Flight Unaided

Until now, I have always had to ask my son to assist me with booking a flight on the Easyjet website. This is because the platform they work with does not lend itself to screenreader use. So, up until now, I have either telephoned Easyjet Customer Services and requested them to book my flights, or done it with my son over the phone.

But thanks to a revamp of the Window-Eyes screenreader, the latest version now lets you book a flight on the Easyjet website without sighted assistance. As I worked my way through the various stages of booking my journey from Belfast to Edinburgh scheduled for April, I kept thinking something would go horribly wrong and throw me out of the site. But everything went through, just as it ought to when anyone wants to use such a portal.

I wish developers would consider access technology users more carefully when creating their website. After all, they can make it visually appealing without excluding people like me. Why should I have to ring Easyjet and pay through the nose for a flight just because I can’t take advantage of the online price? Well, at last, this is not necessary if you use Window-Eyes 9.1 from GW Micro. Even the iOS app doesn’t work well with VoiceOver, so Easyjet have a long way to go before they make their website completely accessible, and get my pat on the back. And they are not alone!

Screenreader users are not asking for a separate website, nor a lack of visual presentation. But we want companies to be more thoughtful and aware when creating their website. Even experienced Internet users with no visual difficulties often complain that a site is too cluttered, or is difficult to find something. If a screenreader user cannot access a site and is therefore unable to make a purchase, then we are being excluded, and this is unlawful under current legislation.

If you are a company developing your website, or have an existing portal that you are revamping, contact W3C,
www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility
for accessible website guidelines.

Book Your Reading Experience

One of my favourite pastimes is listening to audio books, and with thousands to choose from, and on so many devices, is it any wonder we are now so spoilt for choice?

The Royal National Institute of the Blind’s Talking Book service has been one of its flagship offerings for many years, providing readers with currently 23,000 titles to choose from. For £50 a year, blind and visually impaired members can receive their books on CD, USB sticks, or through the recently launched OverDrive digital library download service. Some Local Authorities will even pay the subscription, so my advice is to check with the body responsible before parting with your dosh. But even if you have to pay out of your own pocket, it is fantastic value for money at less than £1 per week.

My husband and I are both Talking Book subscribers, and avid readers. We receive our books through the post, and additionally share an OverDrive subscription to download books as well.

But for up-to-the-minute book releases, the place to buy and download a great range of unabridged titles is Audible. Here, you can purchase books individually, or do as we have and take out a plan that lets you use up to 24 credits. Watch out for daily deals, and offers that let you buy two books for the price of one.

And if this isn’t enough, there is always the Amazon Kindle Store. Using the Kindle app on an iOS or Android device, you can purchase and download thousands of electronic titles and read them on your mobile peripherals. For those who read Braille and have a portable display, you can read Kindle books this way as well. There are also lots of deals and offers to be had from Kindle, so remember to check them out.

Your listening content can be played on a variety of specialist and mainstream devices. I can sit for hours listening to crime fiction using a Victor Reader Stream through headphones. Some of my favourite authors are Peter James, Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham, Simon Beckett, Susan Hill, Stephen Leather, Karin Fossum, Tess Gerritsen, Nicci French, Martina Cole, Kimberley Chambers, Nelson DeMille … the list is endless!

Check out these useful links for more information:
www.rnib.org.uk
www.audible.co.uk
www.amazon.co.uk/kindlestore
www.fantasticfiction.co.uk

Happy reading!

A Tribute To Luke Williams

Luke Williams, who worked for many years at British Wireless for the Blind Fund, (BWBF), has sadly passed away. Luke, from South Africa, was instrumental in the development of the Sonata Internet Radio, and someone with whom I had many discussions about content on the device.

Like many, I shall always remember Luke’s contribution to the blind and visually impaired community through BWBF, and his patient willingness to answer technical queries in such a friendly and efficient manner.

The Sonata is a fully voiced Internet Radio which can be loaned or sold through BWBF. I highly recommend this product, so for more info, visit
www.blind.org.uk, or contact 01622 754757.

WATCH OUT! THERE’S AN APPLE WEARABLE COMING TO A WRIST NEAR YOU

So now we know! Apple unveiled its new product at the Spring Forward event on 9th March. We know there are two sizes. We know it comes in three versions. And we know it will come with a choice of colour wristbands.

But what isn’t clear so far is what accessibility features, if any, will be available. We can’t just assume that because Apple’s other kit is equipped with VoiceOver, the Apple Watch will be as well.

From what has been published since the Spring Forward event, Siri is available on the new watch. But just because Siri speaks its replies on other Apple products doesn’t mean to say it will on the watch.

And battery life on the new product is purported to be around 18 hours, with a charge being necessary every day. So if VoiceOver is available for blind and visually impaired users, how will it impact on battery life?

I love gadgets, but I don’t want to pay £299 at the outset for a gizmo that might end up in a drawer, or on some second-hand portal. If I end up contributing to Apple’s empire, I would like to think the watch will offer me something my iPhone doesn’t already.

All will be revealed from 10th April, when potential customers like me can get some hands-on of the Apple Watch at one of their retail stores before it goes on sale a fortnight later.

What Is Your School Of Thought?

I was born blind, so when it came to education, my parents were told I had to attend a boarding school. There was no question of my being able to go to the local school round the corner with my siblings. And despite their howls of bitter protest, my mum and dad saw their daughter being unceremoniously carted off to a school for blind and visually impaired children in South-West London, 20 miles away. Well, it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it felt like it for all of us at the time!

I spent the next decade of my life being institutionalised from Monday to Friday, while making the most of weekends and holidays at home. It didn’t do me any harm, but I did resent having to leave my family, and I vowed that if I had any children of my own with a major sight problem, they wouldn’t go to “special school”. As it turned out, my son was born with no sight issues.

But things have changed dramatically since my days at school. We used Perkins Braillers to write on, and were taught to touch type on old manual machines back then. Today, a blind person growing up has so much more at their disposal. To a large extent, their parents have a choice of mainstream or specialist education for their offspring. If the Local Authority is willing to work with the family in integrating a blind pupil at a school round the corner, the child has the benefit of growing up in their local community. And if the chosen school has the resources to accommodate the child to an acceptable standard, then mainstream can work.

When I sit using all my assistive technology: computer with screenreader; Braille display and note-taker; scanner with OCR software; iPhone with VoiceOver; and dedicated DAISY player, I try to imagine myself being at school again surrounded by all this gear. I fantasise about being in a class of 30 kids, all giggling as they listen to the speech synthesis on my gadgetry. I think about what it would be like to navigate a large building with a labyrinth of corridors and a babble of noise from children of all ages rushing around. How I would have loved to be growing up with all the innovations and developments of today, backed up by a pool of resources in mainstream education.

But this route isn’t for every child with a serious sight problem, and my ideology of being educated with a raft of assistive technology at the local school isn’t always practical. Some pupils cannot cope with the demands of mainstream education, or the support just does not exist in their area. No matter how much technology is out there to facilitate their needs, some kids are better suited to a tailored environment.

But whatever your school of thought, surely the child’s emotional state and cognitive ability ultimately lie in the decision-making process?