The past week has been very difficult for us as a family. Martin’s brother, Sean, passed away last Saturday lunchtime after suffering from a complex lung condition. Sean was the youngest of the Brown siblings, and was only 53 years of age when he died. He didn’t smoke, he wasn’t a drinker, and kept himself pretty fit as a young man. Yet he struggled to breathe due to scarring of the lungs in recent times.

The last week has been filled with fitting tributes to Sean, culminating in his cremation at Rose Lawn Crematorium just outside Belfast on Wednesday.

The emotions of losing a loved one touch all our lives at some point, but two aspects of the past week stand out in my mind. Firstly, it has made me think about my own mortality. Sean was the same age as me, and his passing makes me think of how little time I may have left. It is a gloomy subject to dwell on I grant you, but it is the one certainty we have in life. I think we should all be more open about death, and bring some structure to all the arrangements that have to be made once we die. Just before his death, Sean managed to convey to his partner Sonia, and his brother Martin, that he wanted to be cremated. Perhaps we should all be clear about what we want in order to help our loved ones in planning our funeral.

In 2006, my mum died from liver cancer. She was given six weeks to live when being diagnosed. It gave her time to put all the necessary arrangements in place for when the time came. I found it hard to listen to her discussing the songs she wanted at her funeral service, and how her ashes were to be disposed of. But she was right to tell us what she wanted, just as Sean was last weekend. It is an incredibly difficult subject to discuss, but I believe it makes it easier for family and friends to know what to do when death occurs.

The second aspect of the past week that stands out for me is the love and support shown by Sean’s family. They were all there for one another, doing their bit in helping with the funeral arrangements. And what’s more, I felt such a part of that togetherness. They are truly lovely people with no heirs and graces, but always that welcoming hospitality. I feel lucky, proud and privileged to be living among some of the nicest people I have ever met.

Rest in peace Sean, your memory lives on through your family and friends.

My First Five Years In Northern Ireland

I can’t believe how quickly the last five years have flown by. Perhaps it has something to do with getting older, or perhaps that it is because I have found so much fulfilment in living here.

When I moved in with Martin, exactly five years ago today, life was very different. Firstly, we hadn’t known each other that long. It was long enough to fall in love and know we wanted to be together, but not long enough to feel like we were an old pair of comfy slippers!

Secondly, Martin’s mum was suffering with dementia. She needed round-the-clock care, and Martin was doing his best to look after her at their family home.

Needless to say, it was a very difficult period of adjustment for me. His mum was extremely abusive caused by her condition. It was nothing personal, she was afraid of most people by that time. If you have never lived with anyone suffering from dementia, I can tell you it is a desperate illness for everyone concerned, and a thankless task for the carer. A dementia sufferer will very often have a personality transformation. In Teresa’s case, she turned from a lovely, mild-mannered lady into someone angry and abusive. It was heartbreaking for Martin to see his mum end up that way.

If I am honest, there were times when I thought I couldn’t hack it any more. I found the adjustment so difficult. With Teresa’s demands, her incontinence and abuse, plus people wandering in and out of the house at all hours of the day, I wondered if I had done the right thing in giving up everything to come here. But something inside kept telling me to stay for Martin. And boy am I glad I did!

In September 2011, Teresa sadly passed away. In some ways it was a relief for Teresa’s sake, nobody should suffer as she did. But it also lifted a heavy load from Martin’s shoulders, and we were finally able to look forward to the future.

We got married two years ago in a beautiful civil ceremony surrounded by family and friends. It is our second wedding anniversary today, the fifth anniversary of my being here.

Not only did I fall in love with Martin, but I also fell in love with Northern Ireland and its people. It is hard to put into words the kindness and hospitality of locals here. I love our home and garden, Maghera where we live, the beautiful countryside, the peace and quiet, and the life I share with my soulmate. I have so many people to thank for making me feel such a part of this community. Most of all though, I have to thank my husband. Do I sound terribly smug? Not at all, I am just thankful for what I have, and for the important people in my life. This is very definitely one story worth sharing.

Dark Days Ahead Under David

The 2015 General Election is now over. Cameron is once again ensconced in Downing Street with a small majority at Westminster. I knew in my heart long ago that they would return to office, but I couldn’t have predicted the manner in which the night unfolded.

What can we look forward to under the new Tory government then? Well there is the ongoing demise of the NHS, which has been slowly eroding into private hands for some time. No change there then. A referendum on the EU is on the horizon, with discontent brewing among Tory back-benchers. No change their either.

And the Scotland question? The SNP have 56 MPs at Westminster who will be looking to push the Conservatives all the way on greater devolution powers north of the border and, ultimately, independence. Let’s hope they can be a thistle in Cameron’s side!

But more important to me personally than all of that is the Tory obsession to turn the screw on welfare reform with another £12bn expected to be announced in the next Parliament. With rumours circulating that Personal Independence Payments are to be taxed, Carers’ Allowance means-tested, a further cap on Child Benefit, and more stringent rules on Housing Benefit to young people, is it any wonder that so many vulnerable and disabled individuals feel victimised?

The Conservatives, as we all know, are about protecting the wealthy. They are not interested in ordinary working-class people. They have no desire to rein in big companies and tax dodgers with off-shore bank accounts. They just want to attack those they consider to be beneath them. It’s time we started to fight back. Why should we be demonised by the Tories just because we have a disability, and find it difficult to look for work?

The Other Big Debate

While the 2015 General Election campaign is reaching fever pitch, there is another big debate still raging, and it is in the blindness community. Those who use a Smartphone seem to have very definite views on which way to go, Apple or Android. The whole subject of which is better or worse has dominated Email lists, blog posts and articles for some time. Read on for a few of my own thoughts on the matter.

I have been using an iPhone for more than two years. At first, I simply hated it, and wanted to go back to my trusty Nokia handset with tactile buttons and the Talks screenreader. But what urged me to keep going with iOS was the number of tasks I could achieve on one device. Now, my attitude to using a touch-screen is: “so what”. It has its drawbacks, but Apple must be commended for developing accessibility to allow so many of us to compete on a level playing field with our sighted peers. We can walk into a shop or order an Apple device online, turn on VoiceOver, and use it without forking out extra hundreds of pounds to tag a screenreader onto the operating system.

Similarly, those who have opted to purchase an Android Smartphone instead are enjoying the built-in Talkback screenreader. It is fair to say that with every upgrade, Talkback has made great strides, and is now on iOS’s shoulder. So you might well ask, what is the debate all about?

It seems to me that people using one operating system over another claim that theirs is the best. I wanted to know why, and how they do compare. So I have now invested in a Google Nexus 6 in addition to my iPhone 6.

The first point to make is that I am new to Android and Talkback, and am therefore slow at finding my way. I am cheating a little because I have purchased an external Bluetooth keyboard which is helping me navigate the Android environment, particularly the Play Store. But I did this when I bought my iPhone as well, and rarely use the Apple wireless keyboard now.

There is no doubting that Android is different from iOS. The principles of achieving tasks on your Smartphone are the same, but how you navigate Talkback over VoiceOver is a different experience. I think you can swipe with your finger quickly and more easily with VoiceOver, whereas Talkback requires an exploration experience with your fingers ,using a lighter touch.

Android appears to give the user a more customisable approach, for example, being able to turn sounds and vibrations on or off independently of each other when navigating the screen. Android also lets you download a variety of TTS engines so you have greater flexibility with the voice you use. And the great plus with Android for me is being able to connect my handset to my computer and drag and drop files. All this has to be done in iTunes on iOS which I absolutely detest! Yet there are still far more accessible apps for iOS than Android.

But these differences and many more don’t mean I prefer one over the other. To me, they both have pros and cons. I have a lot to learn about both systems, and the joy for me is being able to do that with either device.

I say let’s not continue with a battle that the General Election has turned into, rather keep it constructive and civilised so everyone benefits from new innovations and exciting times for access technology users.