How Can You Vote if You Can't See?

October 30, 20089 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

Blind justice!voting-image.jpgA comment to my Tuesday blog post from a young woman named Sandra gave me the idea to write this post about voting. Sandra is blind, and she had some questions — not about who to vote for, but literally how to vote.

…have you (or any other readers of this blog) ever used the touch screen machines with audio output? If so, are they accessible? This is my first time voting, so that’s why I’m curious.

I used the touch screen machine with audio output during the primary earlier this year, and it worked fine – very accessible. With sound added to the ballot, I put on headphones, listened to the choices, and punched a button on a special contraption connected to the keyboard. All by myself.

The contraption comes with a “help” button that explains aloud how it works, it’s not exactly intuitive but after just a few tries I got the hang of it. The biggest glitch in audio voting comes right at the beginning, when you sign in. Sandra should expect the poll workers to scramble; they don’t get many voters with visual impairments and may not know what to do with her. My experience is that they want to do right by us but feel a bit awkward.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) set up a toll-free hotline (877-632-1940) to help blind voters if they experience any problems at the polling places this Tuesday. Voting specialists answering this number are supposed to help the blind voter and/or the poll worker resolve the issue.

I hate to think this, but I have a feeling that hotline will be busy on Tuesday. A sighted friend of mine voted early today, and He told me that a man who is blind was there in line with him. When it was the blind guy’s turn to vote, one of the poll workers read every choice out loud to him. “Maybe there were talking machines there, but for some reason the poll worker helped him on a regular machine,” my friend told me. “I thought I read that all the polling places were supposed to be accessible.”

He read that right. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires “voting systems” to provide independent and private voting for all voters — including citizens who are blind or visually impaired.

My friend’s experience this morning tells me these machines might not always work! If something like this happens on Tuesday, and a blind voter can’t vote independently and privately, NFB says the voting specialists on their hotline will record details. “Information from situations that cannot be resolved during a phone call to the hotline will be referred to the proper authorities for follow-up action.”

The hotline is only running on November 4. For that — and many other reasons — I decided against early voting this year. I’ll spend my time in line on Tuesday memorizing the hotline number. With any luck, by the time I get to the talking voting machine, there’ll be no reason to make a call!

Today it's Hannah's Turn

October 29, 20084 CommentsPosted in memoir writing, radio, Uncategorized

Chicago Public Radio logoIf you read my blog post last week, you know I teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens in Chicago. A few weeks ago I asked the writers in my class to put something down on paper about the Great Depression. Only two of them — Wanda and Hannah — were old enough to remember living through it. The stories the two of them read aloud in class were so moving that Chicago Public Radio agreed to interview these two for a series on WBEZ-FM.

Wanda’s interview aired last week, and Hannah’s aired today. Here’s a description of Hannah’s interview From the Chicago Public Radio website:

In part two of our look back at the Great Depression through the stories of those who were there, we hear from Hannah Bradman – a Jewish woman who came of age in Germany at this time.

It’s a privilege to know these women. Listen to Hannah’s story online and you’ll see – that is, hear – what I mean.

Hanni & Me on Chicago TV

October 28, 20084 CommentsPosted in Beth Finke, blindness, Uncategorized

It’s official. Hanni and I are the Chicago poster children for disability issues. And why not? I work for a disability organization — Hanni leads me to meetings at Easter Seals Headquarters in downtown Chicago every week. Plus, Mike and I raised a child with disabilities. And, hey…I’m blind!

So last week when ABC Chicago decided to do a story on the presidential candidates and their views regarding
disability issues, they came over to Printers Row to film Hanni and me. If you missed our 8 seconds of fame on the morning ABC Chicago news last Sunday, never fear! The story is available online.

Karen Meyer, the reporter who covers the “Disability beat,” for ABC-Chicago, is deaf. As far as I know, she is the only newscaster in America who can’t hear. I unfortunately do not know sign language — thank goodness Karen reads lips. She interviewed me for about ten minutes, but I have a feeling there is more footage of Hanni in the finished piece than there is of my fascinating talk. The cameraman had Hanni walk me down the street a number of times after the interview was over. He needed just the right shot of the real TV star: Hanni!

The Deaf Leading the Blind

October 23, 200815 CommentsPosted in memoir writing, radio, Uncategorized

That’s Wanda helping me as I sign books at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Every Wednesday, Hanni leads me to the Chicago Cultural Center to teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens.

Eighteen women, great names. Myrna. Sybil. Eldoris. Bea. They’d grown up on the south side, in the suburbs, in Italy, in West Rogers Park. Some have Masters degrees. One finished her undergrad at age 73. Many of them were teachers, a few taught in the Chicago Public Schools. Their stories are fascinating.

Each week I assign these writers a topic, they go home, write 500-word essays, and then bring them back the next week to read aloud. After weeks, months, years of hearing their stories, I’ve come to know a lot of them pretty well.

Wanda is 87 years old and grew up on Chicago’s south side. She has a significant hearing loss, but like so many her age, it went undiagnosed when she was little. In school, Wanda was punished for being rude, or for not listening in class, when she simply couldn’t hear what was being said. Wanda is not a complainer, though – once she sorted things out and got hearing aids, she used her experience to build a career. Her job? She went from public school to public school, testing the kids for, guess what? Hearing loss. Now Wanda sits right next to me during class so she can hear every word. This turns out to be a privilege for me: I get to hear everything Wanda says, too! Today, she said she could tell stories of her upbringing that would “make the hair curl on a bald man’s head.” She often quotes her beloved uncle, Hallie B., who told her, “People who sit and mope with their head in their hands, they never see the good things coming their way.”

The oldest student in class this session is Hannah, age 88. Hannah grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish. A determined and adventurous woman, Hannah escaped on her own before World War II – she was only 20 years old when she arrived, alone, in the US. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time. “I’ll tell you this,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.”

Economic news lately prompted me to ask these writers to put something down on paper about the Great Depression. “I’m wondering how it compares to what you see going on now.” Many of them returned with essays about their parents’ view of the Great Depression — Wanda and Hannah were the only ones old enough to have lived through it. The stories the two of them read aloud were so moving that after class I contacted my “connections” at Chicago public Radio, askde them if they’d be interested in recording Hannah and Wanda’s stories.

WBEZ said yes. And though the producer there had only planned on using the stories for a three-or-four-minute bit, he ended up spending more than an hour in the studio with the two ladies. Afterwards he sent me this email:

“Because both stories were so compelling, we just couldn’t cut them TOO short. So, we’re going to air them in two separate parts, on two separate days, as a short “series.” So, Wanda’s will air tomorrow, and we’ll then try to run Hannah’s within a week. I’ll let
you know about that one when we have an air date for that.
So, I hope that’s cool with you and them. They would have been powerful together, but I think they’re just as powerful on their own.

The producer was sooooooo right. Wanda’s interview aired this morning, and she was sensational. Listen yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m so proud to know these women! I can’t wait to hear Hannah’s story on air next week. I’ll link to her story here on the blog once it airs so you can hear it, too. Stay tuned!

Ella, the Toast of the Town

October 19, 20085 CommentsPosted in book tour, guide dogs, Mike Knezovich, public speaking, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, visiting libraries


That's me at the Ela library, which is a pretty tremendous facility. Say ee-lah (not Ella).

That's me at the Ela library. A great crowd showed up, and the library is a tremendous facility. Say eee-lah (not Ella, despite the title of this entry).


In last week’s post, I listed all the things we did with our friends from Northern Ireland while they were visiting. One thing I forgot to include: my visit to the Ela Area Public Library In Lake Zurich, IL.

Well, actually I didn’t forget to include it – I left it off the list because it didn’t really qualify: Sheelagh and Beni didn’t come along on that trip. October 13 was Sheelagh and Beni’s last day here. Instead of taking an hour-long train ride with Hanni and me to the suburbs, they opted for one last meal in Chicago. Who could blame them? Chicago has some pretty darn good restaurants!

Sheelagh and Beni are both vegetarians — while they were happily munching away on Moroccan Style Eggplant and Portabella over Lentil & Rice at Andie’s Restaurant on N. Clark, Hanni and I were being chauffeured to the Ela Library. My friend Chris lives in Lake Zurich, and she met us at the train station.

An enthusiastic (and large!) audience greeted us at Ela Library — more than 40 parents and kids were there, and it was a school night! During my talk, I explained three rules to keep in mind when you encounter a guide dog with a harness on: don’t pet the dog, don’t feed the dog, and don’t call out the dog’s name. “Those things can distract a Seeing Eye dog,” I told them. “It’d be like if someone nudged you or kept calling your name wile you were working on your spelling words at school. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

I suggested we come up with a fake name for Hanni. “If you use her fake name to say hi to her, she wont’ notice,” I said. “She’ll think you’re talking to someone else!”

I went a little off-topic from there, explaining that while the word “Ela” in “Ela Area Public Library” begins with a long e sound – it’s pronounced “Eela” – my talking computer says it like “Ella.”

“So for tonight, let’s call the dog ‘Ella,’” I said. “You know, like Ella Fitzgerald.”

The name suited Hanni. She’d make a good Ella, actually. And gee, in that one moment, the kids learned a lesson in phonics, adaptive technology for the blind, and…jazz history!

Kids lined up after my talk to have me sign copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. As always, I enjoyed talking to the kids one by one.

Our hero Mike arrived at the end to drive us home –that way we were back in Chicago in time to join Sheelagh and Beni after their meal. We met them at Hackney’s, our local tavern, for one (or two) pints of draft beer. Monday was the Irish pair’s last night in Chicago, after all. It was important to toast their vacation!

Hanni, aka Ella, resting at Hackney’s after another big performance