Is Braille the answer?

Sue and I were making her indulgent coffee cake https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNC0uwo0Xcg&feature=youtu.be complete with butter icing and walnut decoration.  For me, its one of those cakes that brings back memories of childhood, licking the bowl and making sure that there were still enough walnuts left for at least one apiece.

She was one of the Southampton Sight   www.southamptonsight.org.uk volunteers who had come equipped with a Braille cookbook.  But, as Braille is so very bulky when printed, one “normal” cookbook turned out to be five volumes when reproduced in Braille.  The system of raised dots representing each word, letter or number uses more space and thicker paper which adds to its bulk.  There are alternatives such as Braille touch pads that respond to electronic documents: presenting them as changing tactile symbols as the document is “read” – but these aren’t always ideal when you want a ready reference like a cookbook.

Sue had learned this way of reading when she was young and agreed with the advice I’d been given, after about age 50 one’s fingertip sensitivity has lessened so it is much more difficult to learn Braille.  Remembering that relatively few people have no or little vision from childhood while much sight-loss is associated with older age, it is not surprising that not many people (perhaps 10,000) use this system in the UK.

The lesson is that, if you are producing documents for the public or any audience that might include people with limited vision, don’t automatically think that Braille is the answer.  Certainly, you might offer it as an option alongside large print   but, as more and more people use electronic documents, make sure that these work with screen magnification and screen readers.  Documents in pdf formats are notoriously poor with screen readers if they haven’t been created in a suitable format – so don’t rely on these either.

My answer is to always keep an original version of a document in Word which can then be used with adaptive technology, including a Braille printer or touchscreen, can be printed in any size and can also work with screen readers and magnification.  Such a document may not solve every problem but will be close.

And, of course, the Equality Act makes this applicable to any organisation (public, private or voluntary sector) serving the public and employers who know that they have visually impaired staff.    It needn’t be difficult or expensive to comply with the law – it just takes a bit of forward-thinking

 

 

Help or what?

Kate and I roared with laughter as we tested one of those kitchen gadgets that are utterly useless https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKd7uD4GTbk&feature=youtu.be and end up languishing unloved and unused at the back of a drawer.

She’s a wildly enthusiastic supporter of the visually impaired people who are assisted by Southampton Sight  www.southamptonsight.org.uk

She’s passionate about encouraging blind people from the city and further afield in Hampshire to get back in to the kitchen: more independence, more social activity and more pleasure alongside better health and  better budgeting.  No wonder she loves her job when she can make a difference for so many.

We had embarked on the classic English chicken and mushroom pie when she produced what appeared to be a pair of scissors with a small chopping board attached to one blade.      With all the enthusiasm we could muster (and even more strength), those scissors just couldn’t get through something as soft as a chicken breast.  We gave up and went back to a trusty sharp knife: does the job and easier to wash-up.

I love kitchen gadgets and wouldn’t be without my talking scales and thermometer plus the gizmo that will read any barcode and record my own voice label.  But, otherwise, all my kitchen equipment is the same as anyone else’s.  Years ago, I had an audio alarm designed to sit on a mug  and beep when water, tea or coffee got near the rim.  But now there’s a super heater that will boil and pour the right amount of water with one button press – on sale anywhere.  I must have been given at least three talking jugs but I never used any of them: they take up too much space, are too fiddly and too slow.  It’s easier to remember that 100cl water weighs 100g and use the scales instead.

Visually impaired herself, Kate described how she manages and completely understands how gadgets that claim to be “disability-friendly” don’t always do the job.  Often choosing mainstream kit that is familiar  and easier to find is the answer.    That water heater fits the bill as do a chopping board with a rim on one side to reduce spills,  a knife-block that stores the knives between bristles rather than hard-to-find slots, a knife sharpener that clamps to the work surface and more.  None of these are more expensive or difficult to find but they are gadgets that are slightly more thoughtful than the norm.

My top two kitchen tips are about storage.  A blind person hunting for the right-sized lid for a plastic storage box is either super-organised or wildly frustrated.  My answer is Lakeland stacking boxes: three different size boxes that all use the same lid.  The joy of throwing the old mismatched collection away.

Secondly, I got rid of most of the kitchen cupboard shelves and replaced them with two or three metal “vegetable or pan” drawers in each.  No more scrabbling around to find what has slipped to the back of the cupboard.  A wonderful friend (Clare) gathered over a hundred ice-cream boxes from her daughter’s café (again, same size/same lid) and these neatly slot in to the drawers to keep the contents separate and neat(ish).

The moral of this tale is that making a kitchen or other space more accessible doesn’t always mean spending lots of money or getting specialist kit.  Understanding the core problems, making the most of off-the-shelf solutions and using your imagination can make a massive difference.

And thanks to Hampshire County Council for sponsoring our cooking sessions for local people with visual impairments.

 

 

 

Where are all the other blind cooks?

Back in Hampshire, I managed to find Steve and his Sri Lankan beef curry – but I’d been lucky to discover him. https://youtu.be/gS0RlZ9lF4o

There must be thousands of visually impaired people across such a big county but it was difficult to locate some who would cook with me.  Begging e-mails to the organisations for blind people plus the other charities and voluntary sector organisations failed.  Was it me?  Was it the prospect of the video camera?  Or are blind people not cooking?

Thanks to Southampton Sight, that supports people from beyond the city, I managed to find Steve, Kate and Sue who all generously shared their time, recipes and cooking tips.

Steve’s curry was especially new: I’d never used Sri Lankan flavours and my tube of tamarind paste had been languishing, unloved and neglected, in the cupboard for more years than its “Best Before” date could bear.

Most inspiring was Steve himself.    He is one of those precise and meticulous cooks who gets all his ingredients prepared first and then can cook easily without making a mess – which is important when you can’t see well.  He has enough residual sight to be able to read the spice labels with a magnifying glass.  This is always tricky with any level of sight loss so I try to always keep the spices in the same order and then trust to memory, smell and taste.  He was particularly careful with the tin of coconut – notorious for that large lump of coconut solid that usually slides out of the tin at the last moment to splash in to the pan.  His advice was to give the tin a good stir at the start and break up the solids.

Most caring was his concern that his usual level of chili would be too much for me and the other guests.  It’s a fine cook who is ready to lay down his own taste for the sake of others.  And it was delicious.

If you know anyone who has lost some or all their sight, why not encourage them with their cooking?  Being independent in the kitchen can be so satisfying  and rewarding.  Perhaps one of the videos might help show what’s possible?