What you learn from Senior Connection and ‘Your Benefits Count’

Seniors entering LantanaOn June 12th, we held the 19th annual Senior Connection, inviting low vision support group members across Massachusetts for a day-long conference! Seniors arrived at the Lantana in Randolph, dressed in their finest attire, excited to learn useful information about coping with vision loss from experts and each other. If you couldn’t make it to our annual event, tune in to hear the fun facts we learned on tax exemptions, disability placards and accessible voting that could save you time, money and agony!

At “Your Benefits Count,” speakers Kathleen Colleary, Michele Ellicks and Michelle Tassinari updated us on the latest changes made in state agencies MA Department of Revenue, MA Department of Transportation and Office of the Secretary of State, which are especially beneficial to the blind and visually impaired community. A block of time was allotted for a question and answer forum where senior guests could share personal issues and concerns with our visiting experts.

Are you aware of the basic state tax exemptions available to the blind and visually impaired? If you are living with a disability, you may be eligible for basic home and vehicle exemptions! With the help of Colleary, seniors had the opportunity to ask specific questions about tax Kathleen Colleary speaking at Senior Connectionabatement guidelines. One senior asked, “Is exemption possible with a sighted spouse?” To his advantage, he learned that regardless of his wife’s vision condition, he should receive full tax exemption if all other qualifications are lawfully met.

Furthermore, Colleary explained that the elderly generally qualify for their own exemptions that may be even more favorable than those available to the blind and visually impaired community. If this applies to you, the MA Department of Revenue will determine which exemption is most valuable for you. For more in-depth information regarding tax exemptions, click here.

Guests listening to speakersGood news for all you travelers out there: The days of renewing disability placards are over! This may be old news to some of you readers, but it was certainly a piece of information causing a few ears to perk up at the Senior Connection.

Michele Ellicks speaking at the Senior Connection

Actually, the process changed a full two years ago. Michele Ellicks from the MA Department of Transportation explained that the registry now automatically updates the placard, mailing a new one out to the individual in need upon expiring. Our seniors shared personal experiences with their own placards where they had to sign or send money for renewals – Don’t be fooled, there is no reason you should be paying a cent! The one and only detail to remember is to immediately replace the old placard with the new one. More specific questions of disability placards can be answered by clicking here.

Michelle Tassinari speaking at the Senior ConnectionEver feel like you aren’t getting enough privacy when voting? Voting privacy is an ongoing concern for people with vision loss. Support group members spoke about feeling apprehensive about their privacy when submitting absentee ballots or having someone accompany them in the voting booth. Michelle Tassinari from the Secretary of State’s office gave us the full scoop on the state’s efforts to secure anonymity for absentee ballots and to place accessible voting equipment in all polling stations. She mentioned that with the accessible voting machines, you always have the option to turn the screen so it’s facing the wall, or shut the sound off altogether and use headphones. She urged voters who have specific concerns about their polling place to contact her office.  If you have any additional questions on accessible voting, click here.

This year’s event was a great success. The next Senior Connection, held the second Wednesday of June 2014!

Images courtesy of Darlene DeVita Photography

Coping with Vision Loss

My vision loss was a slow process with occasional spikes of sudden decrease. After each spike I experienced a period of coping with the loss. I remember with the first spike I could no longer read normal print. I had previously relied on The Boston Globe for my daily diet of news during the morning commute and had to give up this pleasure. I could have used magnifying glasses, but that caused me more pain than pleasure. I had to resort to reading large-print books, and although it was a reasonably good substitution for my long commute, there was a dearth of it. Pretty soon I changed jobs to a different place in the suburbs and my rides were short. However, I continued to read large print books at bedtimes. By then I had also begun listening to books on CDs borrowed from the library via those portable CD players. I loved those CD players and allowed myself the luxury of buying more than two of those devices. I think I used them even after they went passé with the advent of the Apple iPod.

Then came another spike in my vision loss. I couldn’t read anymore, period. This was a huge loss for me. At that time, the CD players were my best friends. I also decided to try out the iPods. The Shuffle met my needs: simple to operate without reading anything, enough capacity to hold a normal-sized book and extremely portable. To this day, I use the Shuffle. The later generations of it can hold much more than a book and are compatible with VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reading technology. I also started using ZoomText for screen magnification and a visual magnifier for reading my hard-copy documents. These technologies helped fill the void I felt, being unable to read print. As time went by and my eyes continued going through gentle spikes of loss, my magnification rate increased in sync.

I started preparing myself for the inevitable. I had read about Apple’s huge investment into accessibility, and the Mac piqued my interest. A colleague at the workplace – a serious Mac fan – gave me a demonstration. He showed me some cool accessibility features which blew my mind, as they didn’t even require any third-party software. Most importantly, everything was intuitive. It was love at first sight for me, and I requested my manager to order a Mac for me. That was how my transition to the world of Macs began.

On the Mac, the Zoom accessibility feature replaced the Zoomtext software I had been using earlier. Although some purists will argue that Zoomtext did a better job than this feature, it was fine by me. There were other nifty accessibility features, like announcements of warning pop-ups, time of day, mouse cursor size etc. With these, I was sailing on calm waters for a while. I knew, however, that it wouldn’t be too long before I met some kind of obstacle.

Enter VoiceOver, the Mac’s screen reader technology. I started to wet my feet in it, soon realizing it was going to be my savior. I read a lot of buzz on this technology from blind forums, blogs and of course, the slick Apple marketing machinery. I lapped it all up and began preparing myself for the inevitable. I was so enthused that I even gave a couple of evangelical seminars at The Carroll Center for the Blind. I remember taking my Mac-mini to these seminars and demonstrating VoiceOver with a flourish. Blame it on human nature, but I still hung on to the Zoom feature for magnification and relied on its ability for my tunnel vision. This meant that all I had learned on VoiceOver soon dissipated into a handful of commands. It is only recently, after the magnification became some kind of joke, that I picked up VoiceOver again. This time I decided to make her my guardian angel, unless…

During all this time, I struggled with mobile phones. The earlier, bulkier ones served better as paperweights than phones. I went through several of them and none deserve special mention. I remember one phone where I could not access the address book and had to rely on speed dial for the nine most frequently used phone numbers! I have to admit that my memory was at its peak performance during that time. There were voice-activated phones, but those simply refused to understand my accent.

The iPhone from Apple was making its rounds during that time, but the earlier versions did not spark my interest. It definitely looked cooler than those kludgy ones I had befriended, but that wasn’t enough to make me to switch camps. It was only when Siri, the ground-breaking voice activation, know-it-all software appeared on the iPhone 4, that my interests were piqued. At the Apple Store, I was dismayed by the demo. It did not understand me, and my hearing loss did not help the situation. The Apple sales rep did say that Siri would learn my accent over time, but I decided to pass it up and wait for something better to floor me.

About a year and a half ago, my good, old friend – who happens to be completely blind – was flaunting an iPhone 4, and using it with dexterity. And Siri was nowhere to be seen. I gingerly asked him if VoiceOver was good enough and he replied that he could do almost anything on the iPhone using VoiceOver. I kicked myself hard on the back, but managed to wrangle a few free lessons from him as soon as I was eligible for a new phone. I promised Apple I would worship her forever.

Mani prefers to work in a dimly lit office, to maximize his eyesight

Mani prefers to work in a dimly lit office, to maximize his eyesight.

This post was written by Mani Iyer

Two men, one vision: A running guide’s account of the Boston Marathon

Introducing Team With A Vision member Ray Charbonneau…   

The 2013 Boston Marathon was my 22nd marathon and my fifth Boston. This time I didn’t have a number. Instead, I ran with race bibs pinned front and back, reading:

Picture of Ray's Bib reading "Guide Blind Runner"

I ran as the guide for visually-impaired runner Mike. Mike’s sight is limited to a narrow window directly ahead of him, a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. We ran tethered together, holding on to opposite ends of a necktie Mike had borrowed for the occasion.

We spent the first mile slowly picking our way through the thick crowds while we worked out the details. The tether worked better if there wasn’t a lot of slack, so we ran side-by-side with less than a foot between us. That meant we bumped arms frequently, but the contact helped us keep track of each other’s location.

Once we had a little room, Mike starting turning in sub-9 minute miles, well under the 9:40s he’d need to finish at his stated goal of 4:15. We were passing people more often than we were being passed, so I was constantly scanning the runners ahead of us, looking for spaces wide enough for two people to fit through. When I saw something, I’d call out the direction and either tug on the tie or give Mike’s arm a nudge. When we were lined up properly, I’d say okay, give the opposite signal to stop our sideways motion, and we’d move through the gap.

Runners with guides at the marathonAs we got more comfortable running together, we got a little more aggressive. Sometimes Mike would see a gap ahead of him and he’d go for it, but since his field of vision was narrow, he wouldn’t realize that the gap wasn’t quite wide enough for the two of us. There were a few times I had to hold him back, but for the most part I just fell into line behind him until we made it through. Then I’d accelerate to get back to his side.

Once I realized Mike wanted to go for it, I started leading him through those gaps, darting into his field of vision and calling, “Follow me!” We’d shoot through, I’d slow down for a few steps so he could get back to my side, and then I’d start looking for the next gap.

Mike only had two collisions, both early in the race when runners directly ahead of us decided to stop suddenly. The first person was just oblivious (and wearing headphones), while the second had stopped to pick up a sweatband that another runner had discarded. In both cases Mike let me know he was okay and we got right back on track.

It was a warm spring day, and it got warmer as the race went on. By the time we reached Wellesley, I was sweating profusely and I had to throw water in my face to rinse the salt out of my eyes. Even Mike, used to the warmer weather in Texas, was getting a little too hot.

Luckily, a cool sea breeze started to provide some relief as we approached the Newton hills. All of Mike’s previous marathons were on flat courses, so the series of four hills in Newton between mile 17 and 21 would be a big challenge for him.

We rolled up the first two hills, passed the Johnny Kelly statue, and climbed the third hill. When we reached the top, I told Mike that the worst of it was over. Then we hit Heartbreak, which looked to Mike, “like a wall of people on a giant escalator.” Halfway up he was struggling, but he had enough breath to complain that I’d said this would be “just a bump.” I cheerfully admitted that I might have lied.

Once he crested Heartbreak, Mike sped up again, determined to finish strong. Whenever there was some space, he’d jump ahead, forcing me to accelerate to catch up. I was starting to get tired. Each time I had to break into a run to chase Mike down, in the back of my mind I wondered if I could do it. Happily, I answered the call every time.

As we zoomed along, we caught up with a slower woman runner so quickly that I didn’t have time to decide whether to go to the left or to the right. Instead, I shouted, “Up!” By this time we were working so well together that we both instantly raised our arms, split, and went around her on either side, our arms still connected by the necktie passing cleanly over her head. As Mike noted later, it was a good thing she was short.

I was furiously doing math in my head as we ran.  At mile 24. I realized that if we were able to finish strong, we might just sneak in in under four hours. Mike somehow increased his effort to meet the challenge.

Then we turned right on Hereford, left on Boylston, and Mike sensed the finish. He found a clear path down the middleRay and Mike running together of the road and charged for the line with me running alongside, struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, the reason there was a clear path was because there was a large group of cameramen in the center of the road. Most runners went to one side or the other to avoid them but Mike crashed right through with me trailing behind, thankful that we didn’t hit anything.

Mike crossed the line with a chip time of 3:58:47, placing him 11th in the Visually Impaired division.

This post was written by Ray Charbonneau

The 27th Mile Book CoverRay Charbonneau is the editor of The 27th Mile. The complete version of this article is included there, along with works from Amby Burfoot, Lawrence Block, Kathrine Switzer, and more runners who write. Proceeds from sales of The 27th Mile go to benefit The One Fund Boston. For more information, visit the27thmile.com.