Fear of Subways

August 2, 200810 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized

Hanni and me at Chicago bus stop -- on solid ground.Last week I read an essay written by a reporter whose notebook fell into the New York City subway tracks.

Since one train had just left, it would probably be about seven minutes before the next one arrived. At the very least, it would be five minutes. Jumping down to the tracks and picking up the notebook would take no more than a few seconds. So that would leave four minutes to climb back.

The essay was written by Jim Dwyer, and it grabbed my attention. I live in Chicago and am proud (you could even say haughty) of how efficiently I get around the city with my Seeing Eye dog. Hanni and I walk long distances, jump into cabs, ride CTA buses…but we NEVER take the el by ourselves.

During the 1990’s, when I was working with my first Seeing Eye dog Dora, a number of blind people using guide dogs died after falling into subway tracks in Boston and new York City. They fell in, but couldn’t see to find the ladder to get out. This 1993 NY Times story explains how one woman perished:

A blind woman led by a guide dog was killed yesterday when she fell from a midtown subway platform and was struck by a train as she frantically tried to climb back over the platform edge, the transit police said.

“We don’t know how or why, but she apparently slipped over the edge, leaving her dog on the platform,” said Albert W. O’Leary, a transit police spokesman…

Ms. Schneider was killed at 9:18 A.M. after she fell onto the southbound express tracks along the Broadway line. Witnesses said Ms. Schneider got up and tried to find the edge of the platform with her hands as a southbound No. 3 express train roared into the station with its horn blasting.

I am not afraid of much. I am, however, afraid of the el. Plenty of people who use guide dogs take the subway safely back and forth to work every day. I, however, am not one of those courageous blind people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now requires subways to mark platforms with bumpy material to warn blind people away from the edge. But the image of those people stuck in the track still haunts me. Bumps on the platform edges aren’t enough. When it comes to getting around Chicago, Hanni and I keep our feet –and paws – on ground level.

PS: The New York Times reporter who dropped his notebook? He did not climb down to the tracks to retrieve it – he let subway officials do that for him. His essay is very appropriately titled, Celebrating Prudence and a Trip Not Taken.

Enter the Letters You See in this Box — If You Can See Them

July 28, 200820 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

You know that box of distorted letters that shows up when you’re about to submit your comment to a blog post? Or when you are setting up afacebookaccount? Or when you are casting a vote to get your favoriteWhite Sox player onto the2008 Major League Baseball All Star team?

You have to read the text, then enter the characters you see into a form. Then, and only then, can you complete the transaction.

That's Alexis Reed (foreground, left) chatting with me at the AER conference.

That's Alexis Reed (foreground, left) chatting with me at the AER conference.

But if you’re blind, you can’t see a dang thing in that box. People with certain types of low vision can’t make sense of those distorted characters in the box, either. Same for some folks with cognitive disabilities — dyslexia, for example.

That box of distorted letters is called a CAPTCHA: Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. CAPTCHAs are meant to prevent robots from spamming or overvoting or whatever it is that computer robots do in their spare time.

Many sites using CAPTCHA have added an audio option. This probably makes them feel good about helping the blind. It might make sighted people who see that link feel good, too, to know those of us who can’t see have an option. Trouble is, those audio CAPTCHAs are impossible!

Wanna see, I mean, hear, for yourself? Go to the Gmail sign up page and click on “Listen and type the numbers you hear.” You’ll hear a woman’s voice speaking numbers, but creepy noises and voices talking backward in the background make it very difficult to figure out exactly what she is saying.

In fact, the next time you get nostalgic for those mysterious backward-talking “Paul is Dead” clues on Beatle albums, you don’t have to get out your turntable and old LPs. Just link to an audio CAPTCHA. A bonus: After the creepy voice reads the numbers out loud, she says, “Once again.” The numbers and nonsense background noises repeat, and you get to be freaked out one more time.

It’s not just gmail that has crazy noises on its audio CAPTCHA. ALL of the audio CAPTCHAs that I’ve linked to sound like this. The background noise is disturbing. It makes it nearly impossible to hear the numbers. To do this on my own, I drag out my tape recorder, record the creepy voice, then play it over and over to figure out what she’s saying. You know, the same way I used to listen for “Paul is Dead” clues on old Beatle albums!

But I’m not a teenager anymore. By the time I’ve listened to the CAPTCHA a half-dozen times, I feel frustrated by how much time I’ve wasted on this endeavor. I don’t leave many comments on blogs. I wasn’t able to set up a facebook account on my own. I wanted to vote for Jermaine Dye to play in the Major League All Star Baseball Game this year, but I couldn’t.

I use a blogging service called to publish these blog posts you read. Why did I decide to use wordpress for my Safe & Sound blog?? Because they don’t make users fill out a CAPTCHA form to sign up for an account. Folks who comment to my blog posts don’t have to pass through a CAPTCHA screen, either. Sure, I get spam from time to time, but the wordpress spam blockers usually weed them out. The few spams that make it past the blocker? I delete them.

Last week I gave a session called Blogging by Ear at the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) International Conference. Alexis Reed, a woman who has commented to this blog before, was in the audience. What fun it was to meet her – and her wonderful Seeing Eye dog Julia – face to face after knowing her virtually through this Safe & Sound blog. ! Alexis wrote a blog post about her time in Chicago –It was her Seeing Eye dog’s first time at a professional conference like this. After reading her post I was tempted to leave a comment. That’s when I found out I had toAt first I thought I’d have to sign up with LiveJournal to do that. But then Alexis commented to this post to let me know I could comment anonymously. Voila! Add LiveJournal to the list of accessible blog services. No CAPTCHA on the comment form , either.
I guess I’m lazy. Or maybe, just old?! I’m hesitant to sign up for all this stuff every time I want to leave a comment – especially knowing I might face a CAPTCHA afterwards anyway.

During the q&a part of my Blogging by Ear session last week, a majority of the comments were about CAPTCHA workarounds. It was reassuring, yet sad, to discover I am not alone in my frustration!

Navigating a New Workplace

July 23, 20087 CommentsPosted in blindness, radio, Uncategorized

Chicago Public Radio logoEvery once in a while I record an essay for Chicago Public radio that, for one reason or another, sits and sits before they ever put it on the air. That was the case with the Navigating a New Workplace essay I recorded for WBEZ back in 2006. The piece was about an internship I did at Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago.

The internship was part of a federal grant called the Technology Opportunities Project. Easter Seals teamed up with Convio, a software company in Austin, to make their web content program accessible. Translation: the program made it possible for blind people to manage and update web sites, even though we can’t see what we’re doing. That internship led to a part-time job for me – I moderate the Easter Seals autism blog now. Navigating a New Workplace finally aired on WBEZ this morning. Here’s the intro:

Starting a new job can be both exciting and intimidating. You have to learn new computer programs and protocols, get used to the office politics and figure out where the bathroom is. And sometimes there are even bigger challenges to face. Chicago writer Beth Finke recently navigated her way around a new workplace.

But oh, that’s just a tease. If you want to hear the entire essay, you’ll have to link to the story on WBEZ!

Hanni's Harness

July 21, 20082 CommentsPosted in blindness, Blogroll, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

You might remember my blog about seeing a physical therapist — I’d asked her if she thought my rotator cuff injury had anything to do with the way I hold Hanni’s harness. “Well, it’d be better if the harness handle were vertical, not horizontal,” she said. “You know, so your thumb would be sticking up.”

I phoned the Seeing Eye then to ask whether rotator cuff injuries are common among people who use guide dogs. “This week they are. “ The trainer on the phone answered, sounding slightly bewildered. “Strange — you’re the third person to call in the past couple of days with this same problem.”

It’s not just the blind folks using guide dogs who suffer shoulder and arm injuries — Turns out a lot of the trainers end up with problems, too. Think about it. They are training young (STRONG) puppies to pull.

One of the trainers, a terrific guy named LucasLukas Frank, recognized this problem and has patented a new “swivel” harness handle that might alleviate shoulder and arm pain. After a few calls from my physical therapist, LucasLukas has had one of these new harnesses custom-built for me. He’s coming to Chicago this week to speak at the 2008 International Conference of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), so while he’s here, he’ll show me how to use the new harness with Hanni. My physical therapist Patrice hopes to be at this training session, too –she wants to see how the harness works. She also wants to know (from LucasLukas) what she can tell me to do in re: posture and holding the harness without jeopardizing my safety. iow, I have to be able to “feel” Hanni through the harness, so even if it would help my shoulder some, I can’t hold the handle too lightly.
I’m doing a session at that same conference LucasLukas came to town for – my session is called Blogging by ear and meets at the ungodly hour of eight o’clock in the morning on Thursday. I’ll be talking about my job as moderator for the Easter Seals Autism blog and how that job led me to starting this personal Safe & Sound blog. And now, thanks to LucasLukas Frank, it looks like I might be debuting Hanni’s new harness at that session, too!

Henry Has a Home

July 12, 20087 CommentsPosted in book tour, travel, Uncategorized, Writing for Children


Henry, in safe hands after thumbing a ride from the ASPCA.

Henry, in safe hands after thumbing a ride from the ASPCA.

Remember my Lucky Dog blog post? It was about Kristen Limbert, the Coordinator for Humane Education at the ASPCA. While chauffeuring the Henry Bergh Childrens Book Award winners to a fundraiser to benefit a southern California animal shelter, Kristen stopped on a busy highway to rescue a puppy.


Now, that was one lucky dog. What were the odds of an ASPCA van crossing his path, headed directly to the local Animal shelter?! He had no tags, so was dubbed Henry — for the book award, of course! Kristen vowed that if no one adopted him by the end of the week, she’d take him home.

Many of you commented to that post, wishing the best for Henry. Well, guess what? You get your wish! Kristen emailed this week with this wonderful news:

I thought you all might like to know that Henry, the adorable little critter that let me rescue him off the California freeway has been adopted by a family out there. I had spoken to SEAACA (Southeast Area Animal Control Authority) staff on Saturday, when his stray hold was up, and at that point no prior owner had come looking for him. He was doing well, no longer limping, but still waiting patiently for a family. I was planning on taking him home myself, if he wasn’t able to find a new home easily and quickly. Such a sweet dog. However, I wanted to give him a few days, to see if a new caring person would come forward out in CA, saving him what would surely be a stressful flight to NY.

I called yesterday to check on him, and to begin making arrangements if he was still there, and he had been adopted!!

A smidgen of sadness, definitely, but I know it’s for the best. Hopefully he will have a happy, healthy life in Southern California. Good news for everyone involved!