Independence--vision

February 29, 2016

Wrappers wrinkle against your fingers as you fumble for the bright orange bag—which happens to have been hidden in the back of the freezer, just behind the steak your dad bought last night—and undo the rubber band. You reach for a plate, a small, microwavable one, in the left cabinet and place a burrito on top. Then you retrieve the rubber band, seal the bag, put it back in the freezer, pick up the plate, walk over to the microwave, set a time, put the food in, close the door, and wait. As that cooks, you get a banana, a handful of carrots, some Cheetos, and pour a glass of water with crushed ice. A minute later and voilà, lunch. That’s dandy for you, but this same method presents myriad problems to the visually impaired.

 

How, without looking, can one determine whether a plate is microwaveable? The few seconds you spend rummaging for a bag could take a visually impaired individual over a minute. And pressing buttons on a microwave? When I wore a sleeping mask for forty hours as part of a blindness simulation, I would hit the “popcorn” button three times in a row and never find the button for “1.”

 

Christine Hà, an almost completely blind professional chef, has found a way around these obstacles.

 

In 2012 she won Fox’s cooking competition MasterChef and her cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, was a New York Times bestseller. Hà explains that she is able to cook “just the same” as everyone else “With only a little adaptation.” She describes capturing a food by its taste and the images it garners, and figuring out how to emulate those elements in her own dish. You can see Christine’s recipes on her blog The Blind Cook.

Hà uses the same equipment that a sighted person does when she cooks, and although she had assistants on MasterChef to help her carry the food and maneuver the stage, she cooked everything herself. There are appliances like these microwaves that are designed with the visually impaired in mind. The first one has buttons in a column with Braille descriptions, and another is a “talking microwave” that speaks confirmations of selected functions and cooking times. 

 

Appliances like these allow the blind to cook with the same skill as a sighted person, despite obstacles. This same rule goes for technology and functioning in a classroom setting. During my own blindness simulation, I typed all my notes on a word document on my tablet. After this, I would have had my notes taken to a translator who could convert them into Braille, so I could read them on my own, or use an app or service that could read back my notes.

 

There are many alternative methods. Peggy Elliot, a woman who has been blind for almost 25 years, had classmates in her logic course give her a carbon copy of their notes for her to use as reference. When she studied, she would ask her friends to read off the notes or describe diagrams as necessary.

 

Hà uses a Mac book with computer narration and keyboard commands, so she doesn’t have to use a cursor at all. Jessica Jones, another woman who went blind when she contracted diabetic retinopathy, uses a scanner to read her mail, Kurzweil to read documents for her, and JAWS for computer narration. They can pass college classes, run their own businesses, and write blogs on their own and without help, a huge step towards independence all thanks to this advanced technology.

 

Even with these innovations, all three of these women admit that being blind is demanding and burdensome. Before losing her sight, Jones was a photographer and art teacher. When her vision started fading, she was “scared” that she would lose her autonomy and be forced to change professions. Elliot faced similar challenges when she was told by her college professor that she couldn’t continue his course, even though she’d gotten an A in the first half, because the final portion was too visual for her.

 

Hà, too, was no stranger to being patronized. She was continually underestimated, and when she performed well in MasterChef, people claimed that she wasn’t really blind and Fox was just pulling a publicity stunt. But today, Jones is an art teacher for the disabled and is still involved in professional photography. Elliot ended up taking the course, receiving a 100% on the final exam, and outperformed most of her sighted classmates. Hà still cooks and blogs, and she is a judge on MasterChef Vietnam and a co-host on Canadian cooking show “Four Senses.”

 

These interviews are the manifestation of what Jones said on the documentary Going Blind: “You learn to use what you have.” Talking ovens, Braille, and Kurzweil, all for one purpose: independance.

 

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