An interview with Leona Emberson, 2016
The following is an interview with Leona Emberson, a specialist in independent living skills with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) at their Ottawa office on January 25th, 2016. Within the interview, Leona speaks of her experiences with the CNIB, the shifts in technology and the importance of universal design. Near the end of the interview (23:10), Leona demonstrates a classic slate and stylus. Please find a full transcription of this interview below. You can also access the transcription through the Items menu, listed to the left of the screen.
25 January 2016, CNIB Office, Ottawa, ON Office
Interviewee: Leona Emberson
Interviewer: Beth Robertson
My name is Leona Emberson and I am a specialist of independent living skills here at the CNIB. I have been here 10 years but I have been a client of CNIB my whole life.
My first probably true memory of being involved with the CNIB was through a summer camp that would help once a week when I was probably about to enter grade 8. It was just a weekly summer group where we got together and we did … we went to a water park and we went horseback riding … so probably my first involvement. Then after that for a period, I did have some mobility training from CNIB orientation mobility training learning how to get around my high school. And then there was really no involvement until I started working at the CNIB the Joseph Center for summer employment and then that eventually led into working here full-time. When I first started working for CNIB, it was actually a camp counselor at the summer camp I was working with clients to help them to participate in the different activities at the summer camp and working at the front office, working in the dining hall, that sort of thing. Then I transitioned into, once I finished my college education, which was as a rehabilitation instructor for the blind. I then became employed here at the Ottawa office.
I am a specialist of independent living skills. My job involved teaching people how to either gain the independence in their personal lives or regain independence or maintain it so it rather depends on the individual where they are in their life and where they are in their journey with vision loss. So, for some people if they have been vision impaired their whole life and they are learning new skills if they have just lost their sight then its learning skills in a different way. That can mean either that I am working with them in their home, working with them the office or working with them out in the community. I teach Braille. I teach some adaptive computer technology I teach cooking skills home maintenance money management whole variety of different things.
Did you ever correspond to cooperate with any international organizations or other CNIB offices outside of Canada?
CNIB does not have offices outside of Canada. But I have worked with an organization called World University students and they bring students from other countries into Canada to study. They do this every year and I have worked with them when they first bring their students because they bring them to Ottawa. I've worked with some of their students within the first couple of days that they arrived in Canada, just to help to provide some of the very, very preliminary skills and talk to them about what the expectations are for students with disabilities in Canada and help them to understand some of the technologies that are available to them here. Because they are quite different, of course, in Canada, the services that are available to them are quite different. I've worked with them just to start them on their journey as far as providing the first couple of touch-typing lessons, introducing them to some of the assistive technology that is available, which is often … what they have been introduced to is technology we may have used ten years ago, is what they have seen. So just to kind of show them that this is what's available, so that when they get to whatever university they are going to be studying at and they sit down to have their assessment, they at least have been exposed to what they're going to be shown so that it's not a total shock or a total … you know all of a sudden they have to make all these decisions that they've seen nothing.
How much as your work involved the use of technological aids?
Quite a bit has changed over the last ten years. When I first started, the extent of technology that I was teaching was very desktops, computer-based, maybe a little bit of laptop computer based, where I would teach typing skills and a little bit of how to check your email, how to do some basic internet searches, use Microsoft Word, that sort of thing.
We were still using four track players. We just started introducing daisy players, which are technology specifically designed for people with vision impairments to listen to audio books, and at that time, that was sort of big technology – “Oh my gosh, I can listen to my book on a CD!” and it was, like, exciting. Mp3 style of listening to books was kind of just starting to come in for people who were visually impaired, but that was kind of the extent of it ten years ago. And now I would say a much larger portion of my training is being focused on iPhones and iPads and mp3 type of technology. How do I download my books? I don't want to wait for a CD to come in the mail I want to listen to my book, when I want to listen to it, and I want to check my email when I'm on the bus and how do I do that and how do I use my smartphone. And so, it has changed drastically because people can now use similar or the exact same technology as their family and friends and that has really changed the way that I teach and the way that my clients are learning and the way that I access the world, as well.
The training that that we offer is it's based on client’s needs and desires, so it really is based on what people want and what people need. There is still a huge range because we work with people of all ranges and abilities. For example, my day can start with a visit in a preschool, where I am working with a two-year-old on pre Braille skills. And that can still be very hands on, where we're playing with a toy cat and then we're feeling the Braille letter C and then we're feeling a tactile two-dimensional shape of a cat and making all those connections. Then, I may go into a seniors’ residence right from there and I'm teaching them how to use a daisy player. And, we may not even want to get into the concept of Wi-Fi and downloading books, because you know it's a 95 year old woman who as soon as you start to mention those letters of “Wi-Fi” and “direct to player,” and all of those concepts … that's just a little bit too much for her. So you just want to focus on “this is a book-reading machine, that we're going to put this CD in, that is kind of like a record and it will play your book for you…”
Then from there, I may go to somebody's house and spend some time on their iPhone teaching them how to use voiceover, which is software that's built into their phone – It comes right on the phone, you don't have to pay anything extra for it and, I can teach them how to use their iPhone and voiceover to check their email and how to download their books directly from the CELA library, which is the Center for Equitable Library services, that allows them to download audiobook content directly onto their phone. Which is the same phone that their family members and friends are using, the exact same technology everyone else has. They just have to use it in a slightly different way. I am teaching them how to download their books directly onto that, and that can be my day.
So, it's far ranging, from the most basics of technology, such as using a piece of paper and some puff paint to work with a two-year-old child, to a nursing home where I'm using a daisy player and a record or a CD, all the way through to an iPhone connected through Wi-Fi and downloading eBooks from a library that is in a total different end of the province. It's all ranges of the spectrum of age and abilities and technology.
In your opinion, how has the technology to assist people changed over time?
It has changed drastically. It’s gone from large and bulky and cumbersome to something that fits in your pocket. It's gone from having to be something that is extremely specialized and built specifically for people who are blind and visually impaired to something that is built for everyone and built to be inclusive. But, at the same time, there is still the need for something that is built specifically for people who are blind and visually impaired, such as a refreshable Braille display that allows you to connect to technology and read Braille from your smartphone. That's something that's never going to change, because the general population is never going to need that. The blind and visually impaired population will always need that because Braille will always be relevant. But that technology has become better and stronger, and now that it can connect with something mainstream, it has become better and stronger so that has changed in so many ways.
For the most part, it has changed for the better, but there are some ways that it has become more challenging. For example, because of things like digital displays and touch screens certain things have become more challenging. So it used to be that you wanted to do a recording, you could just pull out your tape recorder and easily feel the buttons and push record in no time at all. Now trying to find a digital recorder that is easy for somebody who is newly visually impaired to use … they all have digital displays, little tiny buttons. They record them in the machines memory. You have to go through a screen that you can't read to be able to use it. So the autonomy for someone to be able to use that has now been taken away. And it's incredibly hard to find something that's simple and basic and easy to use. So, although in some ways it's gotten a lot better there are some drawbacks. Think about all of the stoves that you come across. It used to be you'd walk into your house, you'd turn a knob, your oven is on. You have the coil burners. You could feel those.
Now, on some stoves, they're touch-sensitive. You run your finger across the back of some stoves and you have now accidentally turned on two burners, you've turned on the oven self-cleaning function, and your oven is locked and it's cleaning itself. Think of how complicated and a little bit scary that would be if you were blind. You now can't even use your stove. So there are advantages and there are disadvantages. Most of the disadvantages come from the designers of technology not understanding the needs of the vision-impaired population, because those things could be very easily fixed. Instead of making it touch sensitive, just from – and I don't know the actual terms for it but – just like the heat from your finger, but making it pressure sensitive, because then you can put a tactile mark on it. So just switching the way the displays are made … all of a sudden it goes from being inaccessible to accessible. And if the designers of the technology realize this and did it right from the beginning, everything could be made accessible, making sure that all buttons when you're designing these things are just a little bit bigger and have some kind of tactile mark on it. It could be easily done. So there's pros and cons. And it's just sort of a concept of universal design that just needs to be applied to everything that's being made.
To follow-up with that, how have changes to technological aids influenced shaped or change the lives of persons where blind or partially sighted at CNIB or elsewhere?
In many ways it has allowed us – and I'm going to say us because I myself am visually impaired – it's allowed us to sort of advance ourselves as far as employment, in many ways.
The computer technology has made it so that I don't have to have someone sitting beside me in my office reading me all kinds of materials. I can sit down at my computer and I can read it myself, as long as it's accessible from the beginning. I can be much more independent in my job. I can obtain information because I can keep up to date with news and what's happening in the world. I can stay relevant in my field because I can read journals. I can access all that information, that in the past I wouldn't have been able to access or I would have had to access through sighted assistance.
So I can be much more independent. We can be much more independent. So it's given a level of independence that previously wasn't available. But there are still those gaps, which mostly come into play when the people who are designing the technology just don't think of universal design or don't understand when designing a website that they need to think of that from the beginning. Or don't understand when they're sending out a document, that it needs to be done from an accessible point right from the beginning.
Based on your experience, to what extent are technological aids important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of employment?
Hugely important, and really not that expensive. For somebody who doesn’t have a vision impairment, you’re going to buy your employee a computer anyway. The computer is already there, and the software itself really is not that expensive… Once the software is purchased, it is there on the computer, as long as the person knows how to use it. That is what has really opened doors. Having the accessible technology means that you can do a job independently that previously you would have had to have somebody reading you information or even jobs that perhaps you wouldn't have been able to do before because you wouldn't have been able to do the research, or you wouldn't have been able to access the information required. Now you're able to do all of the things independently that that you would not have been able to do before.
Based on your experience, to what extent our technological aids important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of learning, such as schools or universities?
I think that the same sort of theory applies as soon as the students have access to technology, the more independence they are able to have –to a certain extent. I think there needs to be some caution in there, specifically when it comes to Braille. Often technologies are being used to replace Braille mistakenly. If technology is used side by side with Braille, as a tool, it can be great. But what is sometimes happening is that instead of investing in a child learning Braille, which … Braille provides literacy skills, so reading Braille is equivalent to learning print. So when you learn Braille, you learn how to spell, you learn sentence structure, you are learning where punctuation goes. You're learning all of your grammar skills. Sometimes what happens is technologies are introduced too soon, and a child will switch to auditory. So, they will start listening to books instead of actually reading a book. They then will switch from learning how to spell words, because they aren't actually physically reading anymore. And then they lose some of those literacy skills or they don't develop them as strongly as a sighted peer might because they aren't actually looking at a computer screen. They're just listening to a computer screen, or they're just listening to a book being read to them. So there has to be some level of caution in an education system as to when and how technology is used. If you're using technology with a Braille display, so you're still reading Braille while you're using your technology, then that is a great way to use technology alongside Braille. But it has to be used properly and in the right way to make sure that a student is getting all of the proper information that they need.
Technology can mean that a student is able to keep up with their classmates. It can also mean that in atmosphere where … Braille-reading students, if they are working with a teacher who doesn't know Braille, if they are writing in Braille on a braille keyboard and then it comes up on a screen in print, that means that their sighted teacher now knows what they're writing. That's a great use of technology, as long as the student is still reading in Braille. The technology also means that they can get more information faster. So instead of having to wait for it to go off to a transcriber, or be sent off to a special place to be put in large print, or to be put in audio, or to be put in, whatever your format approach might be. Your teacher can just send it to you like email, and you get it instantaneously, so you can keep up faster. So it is a huge improvement to learn at a speed in which you can learn with your classmates.
As a way of following up on that, how do you think technological aids are important for reducing social barriers?
I think that the biggest thing that we see, that I've observed most recently, is with smartphones. For me personally, what I noticed was, as soon as I got my smartphone and I was able to finally text – because I was way late on the bandwagon, when it came to being able to text with my friends. I had a cell phone and I could kind of send a text, but I couldn't read anything anyone sent back to me. So it was kind of pointless, because I'd send something, and then people would text back and I'd have to pull a magnifier out of my purse… I would have to make sure that I wasn't actually outside because I couldn't read it when I was outside. I had to be in a dark space and I only kind of got half of what they wrote to me, and it just it was pointless. So when I got my smartphone and I could actually read a text, all of a sudden I was included in more conversations than I had been. So instead of just getting the information at the end of the week, when everyone else had already been discussing it for a whole week and I kind of got the quick synopsis, I was actually being included in the moment, which is how life works now.
In the past, you'd get together for coffee and everyone would kind of catch up on the week. But I was finding that everyone was already caught up and nobody was quite giving me all of the details. I was kind of getting, like, just a quick sort of snippet and kind of going, “wait a minute, but how did that happen, what happened before that?” And I was really missing out on a lot of things. So once I got my smartphone and I was kind of getting in the loop on a daily basis with what was going on… It really, really changed my world socially because… I mean, not like my friends were purposely excluding me, but it’s just I wasn't fitting in with the way that they were organizing their social world. I was also able to go for those quick coffee gatherings, because nobody called each other anymore. So when they were going past my house, they'd actually send a text and say, “hey I'm close by -- want to go for a coffee?” But for some reason, no one ever thought to call and say that. But as soon as I could text, all of a sudden those things are happening. And I noticed that slowly that was happening with my other vision-impaired friends as well, once they were able to get in on this whole texting business.
Workwise, it also changed once I was able to start using a phone for work and get email on my work phone. All of that time that I spend in between client visits on a bus… Hey, I can actually send emails and keep on track of emails in that 40 minutes that I'm spending sitting on a bus in transit. I'm actually using as proper time. I'm not just wasting it. So all of these little bits of time that were kind of unaccounted for all of a sudden had a purpose. And I find that what's happening for all of my friends. All of a sudden you're being more included in social circles. All of a sudden we can sit in on conversations because, you know, we can listen to the podcast more easily. All of a sudden, we were reading more news articles than we had in the past because we can actually access them. And we can access them not just when we get home at 9 o'clock at night or at 7 o'clock at night. Whatever time it is, we can access them any time of the day. So it really is changing the way that we're able to fit in with the world.
Thank you Leona. Now I see you brought some objects with you. Would you mind showing us what they are and how they work?
So what I brought with me… I brought a couple of different ones that are all the same thing, just different shapes and sizes – they are slates and a stylus. So this one is the slate. It's a metal object that has two sides to it and a hinge on one end that kind of opens up. And the one side has six rows of, I think it's 28 little metal Braille cells, and the other side has the same amount of rows of Braille cells, but they are holes. Then I have the stylus in my hand and it is a wooden stylus. So it has a wooden knob that you hold on to and then a metal pointy bit. What you do is, you lie the slate on its side and you slide the paper in – it's kind of a little alligator mouth – you snap it shut. So this is kind of how people used to write Braille before the [mechanical] Brailler even existed, which is that large sort of clunky thing that you carry around. Or some people still do use this [slate and stylus] because you can carry it around in your purse. It's the easiest way to take notes if you go to a meeting. The tricky bit is you have to write backwards, so from right to left, because you're punching the holes from the back.
When you're thinking about technologies like this one, and some other more recent technologies, how would you say ease of use has changed over time?
Ease of use has greatly changed because this is obviously slow and … I mean it fits in your purse nicely, because you can get little tiny ones, so it's great because it can be quite compact… But it's slow, its hard to fix mistakes. Because you have to write backwards, anyone with any kind of learning disability just ends up with a jumbled mess. Like, myself, I always get my D's and B's, and F’s and J’s all inside-out and backwards because they're mirror images in Braille. Then you have to write them backwards… yeah it turns into disaster. Having technology where you can, you know, more easily write things, correct mistakes, and have voice coming back to you at the same time as you are writing in Braille, and you can actually read it at the same time such as the electronic Braille display – I think Richard showed you his Braille note. It makes it so much easier. But again, on the flip side of that, a lot of people don't know how to use a slate and stylus anymore. So if they don't have technology with them and people don't carry a slate and stylus … And, you can, as I said, you can get smaller ones that just work with little cue cards, so it is a great thing to carry in your purse with you or your backpack… You can just pull it out so you can jot down somebody's phone number… But people don't know how to use them anymore, so it's kind of that – which side of the fence are you on. Where people don't know how to use it, so they don't have the resource, where it can sometimes be the easiest and best solution because it's the simplest. But, of course, for taking down a whole big college lecture, this is a little bit of a pain, compared to what is available now, which is great.
In your experience and your opinion, what do you think is one of the most important technologies out there for reducing social barriers or enabling and empowering people?
I'm going to have to say smartphone, just because of the versatility. You can, you know, I have a Braille display that attaches to my smartphone. I have a talking GPS for my smartphone, so I can use it to help get from place to place. I use it to read my books … My Braille display hooks up to it, so I can actually use it to read Braille. I can use it to take notes. I can use it for email. If I needed to, I could use it for everything that I need it to. It's not always the best solution for everything, but it can serve for almost everything that I need it to. And there's new apps coming out all the time. There's even specifically different apps that are designed for people who are blind or visually impaired.
I got stuck in a building once where I needed to find a doctor's office. And there was nobody else that I could find, and the elevator buttons weren't Braille and none of the offices had Braille labels and they weren't even large enough print that I could read them. So there's an app called “Be My Eyes” and it connects you with sighted volunteers. So I called somebody up and they read the elevator [buttons] to me and they read all of the office labels and helped me find the office I was looking for, so how great is that! And I wasn't even late!