My Father Learns to Read from Blind People

By: Catherine J. Kudlick

For Easter I went to visit my parents who are in their mid-80s and still live in the house where I grew up.  Over the past few years my father has been proof of that saying in the disability community that if we live long enough, we’ll become disabled in some way.  His eyesight has been declining due to macular degeneration.  I’ve watched with fascination as the eagle-eyed fellow who shepherded my mother from whom I inherited my eye condition and me around to our various eye doctors became the one who Mom and I helped.

Interestingly, the things that we all thought would be beyond horror turned out to be something he took in stride.  They live in San Jose, a city dominated by the car if ever there was one.  Non-drivers because of our eyesight, my mother and I had always taken public transit, but Dad had been aloof, viewing it as a necessary, less-desireable alternative for his wife and daughter. And yet the day he traded his car for the bus, he seemed relieved, even freed.  Maybe his inner New Yorker came back to sit on vehicles with a cross-section of the local community, yet maybe too his wife and daughter had paved the way for demystifying transit.  In fact, he found his fellow passengers fascinating, especially how the well-dressed, largely white eco crowd interacted with the mostly Latino day-laborers, those of all races either too young or too old to drive, interspersed with the occasional grump whose car or license had been impounded. After years of listening to me and Mom complain about the car culture and advocate for every possible transit initiative, he became even more zealous than both of us combined, telling everyone about routes and projected improvements and the like.

But my father’s real gift from the disability community came from my having discovered the iPad’s accessibility.  Several years ago I began hearing about this out-of-the box feature built into iOS called VoiceOver which made Apple mobile devices fully accessible to blind and low-vision users by making everything you touched on the screen talk.  I knew you could make the letters bigger by spreading your fingers, but otherwise unless you’d been around blind people who used the text-to-speech feature, it seemed counter-intuitive: tiny flat screen, few buttons, no knobs. Poking at it, I felt frustrated, but something deep down told me that if so many of my blind friends (only two qualified rocket scientists) were raving about how great it was, there had to be something to it.

Bored on a transatlantic flight, I pulled out my iPod Touch and started fooling around with the VoiceOver practice screen that comes on every Apple mobile device beginning with 3GS. It’s a bit of a learning curve because when you turn VoiceOver on, you use different gestures to make things happen, so there’s tons of trial and error as you try to master new ways of interacting.  For example, there’s something called a “rotor” that allows you to switch languages, how fast it speaks, whether it reads individual words, characters, or paragraphs, and lots of other things you can set up by slowly moving your thumb and index finger like you’re turning a knob.  One, two, three, finger swipes allow you to jump to a new article or chapter by flicking your finger.  The advice provided by blind iPhone users on the web is useful, if hilarious, with descriptions such as “think of it like you’re removing a bug.” I can only imagine how all my swiping and tapping - not to mention any accompanying facial gestures or unintended exclamations - must have appeared to the guy sitting next to me who finally somewhere over Greenland plucked up the courage to ask “what game is that you’ve been playing?”  But my perseverance was rewarded, because by the time I arrived in London, I owned that thing: books and webpages with pinhead-sized print and apps with cryptic logos all came to life.  I could access nearly everything, except for a chunk of apps that hadn’t been designed with access in mind.  (I would LOVE for every description in the App Store to say whether or not it was compatible with VoiceOver.)

As my father’s vision continued its slow, inevitable decline, he grew more and more depressed about having first to read his beloved New York Times with a magnifier, then on a cc-tv, then online with ever larger fonts.  The New Yorker with its shiny paper and precious print had been out a long time ago.  “The lights are going out, kid,” he said one day. Always mentally-alert and a voracious reader, he was withdrawing more and more into himself.

Something in his sadness clicked: I thought of my father not as an old guy losing his sight but as a blind person with possible links to the same community that had nourished me. The reasons for my failure to make this connection sooner are perhaps the topic of another blog, rooted as they are in the barriers our culture continues to draw between disability and old age.  But however it came about, I finally realized that my own experience and, by extension, the expertise of my fellow blind people with VoiceOver could open a new chapter for my father.

When my partner and I showed up with an iPad, Dad seemed intrigued but skeptical.  He tried the gestures, but they didn’t seem to work, the voice talked when it wasn’t supposed to and failed to talk when he seemed to need it most.  Too fast, too slow, the swipes and pokes felt silly and did nothing.  I tried to help, but wondered if he needed his own equivalent of my transatlantic flight.  A week later, he sounded defeated on the phone.  I could tell he wanted to learn and sensed somewhere that he could.  But he needed a cheerleader, so I came back home and sat with him on the couch, maybe just like he sat with me as I held my first book in my lap when I was learning to read.  “All the blind people do it,” I kept saying, “and they do it only through touch and hearing!” We practiced, furrowed our brows, we cheered, we laughed and rewarded ourselves with chocolate. By the end of the two hours we sat together, he’d mastered enough of the gestures to experience results.  I left only once I knew there was no turning back.

This was two years ago.  Since then, I’ve told him about apps like and the National Federation of the Blind’s free access to hundreds of newspapers and magazines through their amazing Newsline for the Blind.  He constantly sends links to articles in the Times, keeps up with the local paper, and has added new magazines to his repertoire like Wired and the Guardian.  He follows stocks and financial news of every sort, sports, and reads novels.  Together at home a couple of days ago for Easter, we compared notes and swapped gossip from our reading.  “Go figure,” he said, shaking his head, “Who would have thought that blind people would have given me back the ability to read!”