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Wise words from Helen Keller

Helen Keller outdoors wearing gorgeous hat

Wherever you may be and whatever you are doing— If you are bathed in sunshine or wrapped in snow— take a few moments to enjoy and reflect on Helen Keller's wise words:

"It is beyond a doubt that everyone should have time for some special delight, if only five minutes each day to seek out a lovely flower or cloud or a star, or learn a verse or brighten another’s dull task. What is the use of such terrible diligence as many tire themselves out with, if they always postpone their exchange of smiles with Beauty and Joy to cling to irksome duties and relations? Unless they admit these fair, fresh, and eternal presences into their lives as they can, they must needs shut themselves out of heaven, and a gray dust settles on all existence. That the sky is brighter than the earth means little unless the earth itself is appreciated and enjoyed. Its beauty loved gives the right to aspire to the radiance of the sunrise and the stars."

Excerpted from The Open Door, 1957

Copyright © American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives

Image: Helen Keller standing outdoors wearing a wide brimmed hat with flower decorations, circa 1920s

Social Life and Recreation
Helen Keller

AFB’s Vice President Paul Schroeder's Visit to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)

Paul Schroeder stands in front of the Mercedes self-driving concept car at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show

Our VP of Programs and Policy, Paul Schroeder, got up close and personal with the Mercedes self-driving concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place earlier this month in Las Vegas with lots of gushing about the latest in huge televisions with remarkable pictures. Oddly, the show gave more and more attention to automotive technology. For those of us with vision loss, the other exciting trend was captured in an opening keynote by Boo-Keun Yoon, Samsung President and CEO, who described his company’s commitment to connecting all of its products via the Internet. By 2017, his goal is for 90 percent of Samsung devices to be connected via the Internet. This vision has come to be called the “Internet of Things” or IOT. Along with smartphones, Samsung produces home appliances, health and fitness gear, and much more. Already, people with vision loss have begun seeing the benefits of controlling smart thermostats, home security systems, and health monitoring devices using a smartphone. The promise of the IOT world for access is almost limitless. Of course, as we saw at CES, it's not clear that every piece of technology or clothing actually needs to be connected to the Internet.

William Reuschel, Manager of Technical Solutions, and I attended from AFB. We want to thank the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) for making this visit possible and for their help in arranging meetings and interactions with leading industry players.

We had a chance to spend some time talking with Samsung about their phones, TVs, and even the new Samsung Galaxy Gear S (watch), which includes its own screen reader. Interestingly, the watch and television are built on the Tizen OS. During the quick overview of the accessible television, it appeared that Samsung has made some further improvement since we reviewed the Samsung UN50H6400 Television in AccessWorld last August.

If you’ve read any of the coverage of CES, you no doubt know that it is truly huge. For example, with more than 3600 exhibitors spread across multiple sites with over 2.2 million square feet of convention floor space. Every imaginable to category of consumer technology is well represented, and even hundreds of start-up companies attended. Still, it was surprisingly possible to get around Las Vegas to visit various exhibit sites and interact with a diverse array of companies.

Besides visiting some of the major technology companies like Samsung and Panasonic, William and I decided to focus on technologies to improve health, home, and fitness.

As noted earlier, the “Internet of Things,” offers us the prospect of controlling our appliances and home systems from a smartphone or tablet. Admittedly, this is only good for those who can afford the phone or tablet, but the prospects are tantalizing. Most of the major appliance companies and home system developers are connecting via mobile apps to the Internet. We visited Bosch and Whirlpool and also heard about developments at Samsung and LG. We also visited with Honeywell International. Of course, we weren't able to test the accessibility of any of their solutions so we hope to review some of the leading products in the future. For now, a limitation of the app-connected appliances is that they tend to be at the top of the price range and sometimes not available in the US market yet. But, chances are good that we’ll see more of these connected appliances.

To wrangle all of these “Internet of Things” devices, we learned about two competing standards that are being proposed. The Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) includes members such as Samsung, Intel, and Cisco. This group is proposing a standard for communication of devices that belong to the IOT. This standard is competing with the group called the AllSeen Alliance which has a number of large stakeholders, and is a Linux Foundation collaborative project. Members of the AllSeen Alliance include Qualcomm, LG, Microsoft, Panasonic, and Sharp. Both of these organizations seek to create the communication protocol to facilitate communication between devices regardless of manufacturer, or how it talks to its “hub,” i.e., Ethernet, Bluetooth, or Zigbee. Organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind must work to ensure that these standards include the necessary features to support accessibility.

One interesting home product we did see was a smart electrical outlet developed by Brio. The idea behind this outlet replacement is that it uses microcontroller technology to prevent shocks. Brio’s outlets also connect to other sensors such as CO and smoke detectors.

With broad availability of various sensors and cheaper chips, electronic health devices are proliferating. Several hundred companies unveiled health-related devices and apps at CES. For an initial look at this fast-developing market, see the AccessWorld article on health and fitness products. It is nearly impossible to tell from a visit to an exhibit booth which products are promising, but the trend toward connected health devices is positive, if we are able to ensure that the apps work with Voiceover and Talkback. Of course, the actual device must also be operable by people with vision loss. One interesting technology that got a lot of attention, though we weren't able to see it, was the Bluetooth-equipped Pacif-i smart pacifier from Blue Maestro. It is a pacifier that serves as a thermometer and also a tracker in case your little one wanders away.

In the health space, companies are battling to be the platform on which health-related devices converge, making it convenient for consumers to keep all their health data in one easy to manage place and allowing communication with healthcare providers. Apple and Google are offering platforms, though neither exhibits at CES. Samsung and Qualcomm both described their approach to establishing the platform on which all this health device data and communications is managed. Qualcomm offers The 2net™ Platform* from Qualcomm Life. Samsung is offering its own S-Health platform. All of these solutions promise to aggregate health related data from third party devices for easy access for consumers.

It seemed like every exhibitor at CES had a fitness tracker device. Fitbit gained early attention in this space (see the August and November articles in AccessWorld), but lots of other companies now are hoping to measure your steps, heart rate and other vital health and fitness metrics. Withings, a French company that makes connected health devices, was there showing off its new fitness trackers, the Pulse Ox and Activit`e. The company invited us to take a look at the Pulse and so far, it’s a mixed bag, easy to set up with good Voiceover support, but some of the device functions like measuring heart rate cannot be performed without sight. And, the presentation of measurement results information in the iPhone app will need to be better organized.

Technology developers are starting to put fitness sensors into earbuds to monitor heart rate, blood oxygen, body temperature etc. from the ear canal. We had a chance to learn about “The Dash,” from the German company Bragi. These wireless smart in-ear headphones can store music, cancel or pass-through surrounding noise, and include a microphone for phone calls. If they work as advertised, your fitness information can also be provided verbally through the earbuds, giving you information about the distance you’ve gone, the speed you’re going and the impact on your heart rate etc. They’re taking pre-orders on this crowd funded technology for $299.00.

Audio technology remains a big part of CES. Although we weren't able to spend very much time checking out headphones and speakers, we did manage to indulge a love for good and interesting audio technology. Bone conduction Headphones have become popular among blind people since sound is delivered through vibrations to the cheek bones (in front of the ears), allowing the wearer to hear the surrounding ambient sounds. Aftershokz is a well-known developer of these headphones and while we were visiting their booth, we had a chance to visit with Ilkka Pirttimaa, the developer of BlindSquare. Aftershokz works closely with Blindsquare to increase access to information about getting around. Panasonic and a small company called Max Virtual LLC both showed off bone conduction headphones as well.

A new entrant, A-Audio showed off headphones combining style with quality. Audeze, another high-end headphone company, was showing off a product called the Subpac, a low frequency bass vibration pad you wear on your back. It provides the feeling of pounding bass delivered by a large woofer. And, the adorably named Acoustic Sheep, were back with improved SleepPhones® and RunPhones®, headphones incorporated into cloth headbands.

Speakers that use a table or other surface as the sounding board were also easy to find at CES. The “Bass Egg,” (which fits in your hand) was kicking up quite a bit of sound and will soon be able to attach to a window or wall as the sound surface.

Paul Schroeder and Stevie Wonder This year, Stevie Wonder caused quite a stir at CES. He was quite the popular figure on the show floor as he looked at some of the exhibits. He also spoke on a panel hosted by the Consumer Electronics Foundation. Wonder spoke about the importance of ensuring that everyone has access to these new cool technologies. He was joined on the panel by several representatives from the disability community, along with Mick Ebeling of Not Impossible Labs. Ebeling works to harness technology developments to create inexpensive solutions for human needs. He described work to create an artificial arm using a 3-D printer for less than one hundred dollars. He also said that his team is looking at ways to bring affordable technology-based solutions to the blindness community.

In a “one on one” with Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the CEA and Tom Wheeler, Federal Communications Commission Chair, lauded the Consumer Electronics Association and their Foundation for the commitment to accessibility. We echo his sentiment. He also noted that Internet connected technology offers great promise for people with disabilities, and he challenged the industry to ensure that accessibility isn’t an afterthought. It can’t be “down on the priority list,” he said.

The show indeed features all kinds of consumer technology, even Gibson Guitars sets up a booth. I got to indulge my love of all things guitar there by checking out some of the instruments on hand.

Paul Schroeder playing guitar at the Gibson booth

Finally, William and I heard about Mercedes autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. We weren’t able to sit inside its new “concept” car, which sounds like a mobile living room. Mercedes believes we might see self-driving cars in use by the year 2030. We say, bring it on!

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Helen Keller: What would she say if she attended Davos today?

Helen Keller with Polly Thomson in Fukuoka, Japan, 1948 Helen Keller at an institution for war blinded children 1946 Helen Keller with musicians blinded while on active duty during World War IIHelen Keller and Polly Thomson in front of a sign

Yesterday was the first day of the Annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At a time of global concern over economic disparity and cultural polarization it is interesting to read a letter that Helen Keller wrote in 1922.

In this letter, excerpted below, Keller sends her regrets to the Rand School in New York City (now the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives), saying that she is unable to attend an event. The letter conveys her strong support for the school’s commitment to a more equitable economic and social world order.

"Dear Miss Mailly,

…If the Rand School succeeds in making it clear even to a few individuals that the collapse of our present-day civilization is due to economic and social causes, and not to any one nation or race, it will have accomplished something worthwhile. Moreover, if it teaches men that the world is an economic unit, and that no part of the world can do business without reference to its relations to all the other parts, it will have taken a long step in the direction of finding a remedy for what is wrong with us. There is less need of resentment and denunciation of the evils we perceive in the social system than of patient study and determination to understand them. Education is the most powerful and effective weapon that can be put into the hands of the Proletariat. Sometimes I think man’s ignorance is the measure of his wrong-doing. Perhaps he only needs to see in order that he may burgeon out of darkness into light.

It must be obvious to anyone who thinks at all that the world is passing through a period of economic, social and political change. Circumstances are forcing men to alter their attitude towards time-honored institutions and traditions... "

Letter from Helen Keller to Miss Mailly, December 28, 1922. Copyright © American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives

Image top left:Helen Keller speaking to a large crowd in Fukuoka, Japan in 1948. Keller is on the far right with Takeo Iwahashi and Polly Thomson beside her.

Image top right: Helen Keller with children blinded and maimed during World War II in Rome, Italy, 1946.

Image bottom left: Helen Keller with blinded musicians who fought during World War II, London, 1946.

Image bottom right: Helen Keller and Polly Thomson stand in front of a plaque marking a center of atomic bomb damage in Japan in 1948.

Helen Keller

Equality and Justice for All

The letter E in manual sign languageThe letter Q in manual sign languageThe letter U in manual sign languageThe letter A in manual sign languageThe letter L in manual sign languageThe letter I in manual sign languageThe letter T in manual sign languageThe letter Y in manual sign language


Again and again down through the ages humanity has shown itself equal to its dream of justice.

Helen Keller

On Martin Luther King, Junior's birthday we salute all those who have fought and continue to fight for a more inclusive and equitable world.

Image: Helen Keller's hand photographed signing the letters e, q, u, a, l, i, t and y of the manual alphabet.

Helen Keller

A Blind Professional's Take on the Batman Episode, "This American Life"

Joe Strechay with white cane in hand, posing by the 19 Ways to Step Back poster

A friend of mine sent me a link to an episode of NPR's "This American Life" on Dan Kish. I had not heard it yet, though I do listen to that show often. I listened to the piece right away, and I thought I would share my take on the piece.

First of all, Dan Kish is an extremely successful and brilliant individual who is blind. He has trained youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired on how to travel independently for a long time. He founded World Access for the Blind, and trains individuals in the skill of echolocation, orientation and mobility, and independence.

I should preface this by noting that I reached out to Dan Kish when I was finishing up my graduate work at Florida State University and preparing for my orientation and mobility internship. A professor suggested that I reach out to him for tips. I did, and he provided me with some useful advice about being an orientation and mobility instructor who is blind or visually impaired. I have also seen him speak in person and met him in years past. I'm sure he wouldn't remember our interactions, though.

As I listened to the piece about Dan Kish, they discussed being able to see without eyes. I think Dan is extremely skilled and impressive, but the episode left a lot to be desired for myself and others. They showed Dan Kish's abilities on a bicycle and alluded to his ability to travel through the woods in a very familiar area. Being a successful person who is blind in the general public has nothing to do with these activities. These activities may build someone's confidence and self-esteem, and I believe in the use of some echolocation techniques with the combined use of a white cane, but this is not typical or even necessarily desirable.

Joe's Issues with the "Batman" Episode on "This American Life"

  • The show explained a point in time where Dan Kish bullied another child during his adolescence, and even had the individual interviewed, but there was no apologetic feeling, nor statement that bullying is a bad thing. The show even compared his training techniques to bullying. This all seemed irresponsible to me.
  • The show provided an interview with one supervisor from one state vocational rehabilitation agency to generalize about all of the services for the individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
  • The overall message about stepping back and allowing children to experience things is a message that I learned in graduate school at Florida State University under Dr. Sandra Lewis. Did all professionals have this training and follow it once in the field? No, but there are a good portion of professionals who do live by this. This is not only a mantra embraced by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), American Council of the Blind (ACB), American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and many other organizations, but one shared by many well-trained professionals around the United States. I praise NFB, ACB, and AFB for continuing to preach this message.
  • As a person who is blind or visually impaired and a professional in the field, I take issue with some of the misconceptions the episode will create or reinforce about individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

Positives and Other Thoughts About the Story

  • The episode preached high expectations for children who are blind or visually impaired, which is great. People need to know that out in the world, so preach on, Dan Kish!
  • I learned a lot about brain activity, vision, and echolocation.
  • Dan Kish is an impressive and inspiring individual.
  • The story reinforced that I have a lot to do in my own work.
  • The reporter noticed that she was treating Dan Kish's riding a bicycle like a big deal, and it really isn't a big deal. I think the public is often impressed when people who are blind or visually impaired do typical, everyday things. People are amazed when I mow the lawn or do general tasks. The public doesn't get to see these activities done by someone who is blind or visually impaired often.
  • I loved the message about letting children explore, and making sure not to jump in before the learning happens. Otherwise, we will be teaching the children something negative. We all get hurt—my head has taken a beating over the years (with vision and without).
  • Echolocation should be another tool in our toolbox as people who are blind or visually impaired. We need all of the tools we can get.

Well, I am willing to pull away the curtain—you all can come to my house and watch me take out the garbage, wash dishes, clean the bathroom, trim our trees, fix our awning, and shovel the sidewalk. Look out "Little Couple, Big World," here comes "Joe and Jen Take on the World."

Take the time to listen to the piece and form your own opinion. Overall, I really liked the piece a lot. It may not seem like it, but the story highlighted topics that are not often addressed by the media. As I was taught in graduate school, "take a step back" before you step in to help, or you might be hurting the future of that child. People are often too quick to step in and help youth who are blind, but how else are they supposed to learn these valuable lessons? Thank you to NPR, "This American Life," and Dan Kish for highlighting these topics in the "Batman" episode of "This American Life."

Here are some related links to explore:

Social Life and Recreation
Planning for the Future
In the News
Personal Reflections
Orientation and Mobility
Getting Around