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Pages from the Hartle Playbook: Trying Out a New Alternative Technique

I’ve been meaning to write this post for several weeks now, but for various reasons have found little time to sit down and pound out a blog post. But, finally, here it is. So, a couple of weeks back, I was asked to give a talk in church. This meant, I was given a topic and asked to prepare essentially a fifteen minute speech (for lack of a better word) to present in our sacrament meeting service. It’s not the first time I’ve ever done this, especially since my work experiences have always required a number of presentations, but the first in awhile. Usually when I’m asked to give a speech of some kind, I typically have to memorize it, or I come up with a general outline of what I want to say and memorize that. This also means I can’t ever use direct quotes either unless I memorize them. I spend day’s first writing up the talk and then a few more trying to memorize it or at least the main points. I’ve written up outlines in large print, but never want to refer to them when I’m actually giving the talk because I’d have to hold the paper so close. Now that I know Braille better, I’ve also tried writing my outlines in Braille, but seeing that I’m not a very fast Braille reader, I am self conscious of using this method too for fear I’ll lose my place. My notes in whatever medium usually just end up keeping the podium warm as I usually result to just memorizing what I want to say, or “winging it”.

I’ve been complimented often in the past on my public speaking presentations, but I’ve always felt a little insecure or stressed about my public speaking abilities. I always come away remembering things I didn’t say, feeling that I could have been more articulate or concise, frustrated at my non verbal pauses )um, or ahs) or disappointed that I couldn’t refer to a quote directly rather than having to paraphrase it. I’ve always admired people who are really good at public speaking and have tried to develop this skill personally. I’ve always been slightly jealous of those individuals who can write out and deliver a great talk because they can read or refer to their notes easily.

Anyway, when this opportunity came up to speak in church, I decided to test out a new technique for giving my talk.

Last summer, I heard about this great idea from another blind individual for whom I have a great deal of respect. Like me, he is one of those “high partial “kids who never got Braille instruction in school and struggled over the years to “get by” with some of the strategies I mentioned above. Anyway, he introduced me to the idea of using a VictorStream as a kind of “audio teleprompt. for those of you who are unfamiliar with what a VictorStream is, you can learn more at the product website, but it’s basically a portable book player that can play digital audio files. You can also record audio files with the Stream. This individual shared with a group of us how he’d been practicing using his Stream to read aloud publically and had become pretty proficient at slowing the speed to the right pace for reciting along with it while listening to an ear piece. Because of some other features on the Stream, he could navigate to verses or pages just as quickly as if he was reading it and had become pretty proficient at using this technique for presentations. So, I decided to test it out.

This might sound like more work than it was worth, but I have to say, this method worked out really great for me as an alternative for not being a proficient print or Braille reader. So, first, I wrote out my talk on the computer like anyone would do. (BTW, I use JAWS on my computer). Then, after I got the talk to sound the way I wanted it to, I used the record function on my stream to record myself dictating my talk. Basically, I put headphones in my computer and had jaws read my document to me as I read it into the stream. I could have just uploaded the word file and listened to it as a text to speech file on the stream,(with a computerized or synthetic voice) but I wanted to put in voice inflections, pauses, etc. and have a more natural thing to listen to. Then, after a couple of run throughs with JAWS, I had a pretty good recording of myself “reading” my talk on my stream as an audio file. It sounds complicated, but it really wasn’t, especially if you’re used to using audio as a means of reading like so many of us blind or low vision people are. Then, I practiced listening and talking along with the audio recording on the Stream about a dozen times to get comfortable with the speed and listening to the talk in an ear piece. –just like how someone would read through or practice giving their talk aloud. . Going through it several times helped too because I became pretty familiar with pauses or tricky phrases so that I could anticipate them when I was “giving the talk.”

I have to admit, I was feeling very self-conscious about giving a talk this way since I’d never done it publically before, and as this method is a little unorthodox—especially wearing an ear piece in front of a congregation at church. But, I felt like I’d written a really good talk, and I knew there was no way I could memorize it well enough or in time to speak for fifteen minutes or to convey all the examples or quotes I had chosen . So, there was no turning back.

This strategy turned out to work fabulously for me and I have to say, I felt like I nailed my talk that Sunday. My delivery was great, and I got so many complements afterward for it. Some friends of mine even said they didn’t realize I had the ear piece in. One lady told me her teenager was blown away that I didn’t even mess up the whole time I was speaking. Several people told me they thought I must be a professional speaker—I wish. It’s been several weeks since I gave it and I am still hearing things about it. It was the first time in a long time I actually felt confident in my delivery and message. My husband—one of those great Braille readers who writes out his talks and delivers them flawlessly and who has brought audiences of 1000+people to their feet on more than one occasion even gave me more props than he usually does for my presentations which brought a smile to my face.

So the take away from this post is not that audio is best and that we should throw out all uses for Braille. I’m still a huge proponent for Braille, even by those of us with some vision who may be able to read large print in various circumstances –that’s a whole other argument for another post. But, I just thought I’d share how this alternative technique worked out for me as I’m never going to be a great Braille reader since I didn’t learn it earlier—unless I spend hours each day practicing , but as a busy mom, I can tell you this isn’t too likely. My print reading abilities are also limited, so having another strategy that is effective is comforting. I’m just introducing one more tool for the tool box. It’s definitely a tool I’ll be using again.

FYI, I’ve included the talk below. Keep in mind, the content will be spiritual or gospel centered, but I did use some personal blindness experiences to illustrate some points, so if you’re interested, feel free to read it.

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A time to prepare to meet God

I’d like to take a few minutes to introduce myself and my family to you as we are still fairly new to the ward. WE moved in to this ward a little over six months ago. Prior to moving here, we had been living in downtown Baltimore for the past seven years. I am originally from Utah and my husband is from Louisiana. WE have been married for about three and a half years now and have a little girl who will be two in April. My husband and I met back in 2002 when we were both scholarship winners for the National Federation of the Blind. Later that year, our paths crossed again when I was accepted to graduate school in Louisiana and it was there that we became netter acquainted with each other. AS luck would have it, our paths crossed again after I graduated from Louisiana Tech in 2004 and after Jesse finished an internship for Congressman Kingston of Georgia in WashingtonD.C. We both ended up getting jobs at the national headquarters for the NFB located here in Baltimore in 2005. Jesse is still employed there as a government programs specialist and works on passing legislation related to blindness issues on a national level. I am a certified teacher of blind students and up until our daughter was born, was serving as the Director of Education for the NFB. . In case you hadn’t realized yet, both Jesse and I are blind. My vision loss was caused accidentally when I was 12 years old. Jesse has a genetic degenerative eye condition called RP which he has had since birth. Usually the next question people ask us is whether or not our daughter can see. She is sighted and truly a blessing to us, not because she is sighted, but because she is ours.

WE consider ourselves to be your average All-American family with two parents that just happen to be blind. In short, we’d rather be known as just “Mary Jo and Jesse” rather than “The blind couple.” We’ve learned that our blindness doesn’t have to be a big tragedy and that life can go on. That being said, we always welcome questions about how we do things. We just want to help educate people on how we try to lead normal, meaningful lives just like all of you are striving to do.

Speaking of our lives, I’d like to talk for a few minutes about one of life’s important purposes. In Alma 34:32 we read, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God, yea behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” From this scripture, we are taught that it is the little things we do today, choices we make, and experiences we are having now that will help prepare us for the time when we will meet God. I hope you will indulge me as I share some personal experiences which I think may help illustrate this point. I was reluctant at first to do so, because I try not to make everything we always talk about to relate to blindness, but this seemed like such a perfect example that I felt like I should share it.

Since Jesse and I are blind, we both had the opportunity several years ago to attend one of the top blindness skills training centers in the country. In this program, blind and low vision individuals participate in a full emersion blindfold training program for six to nine months to learn skills of daily living, technology, Braille, cane travel, and positive attitudes about blindness. I would liken this a little bit too how we as members of the church are spiritually trained through church attendance, scripture study, prayer, and guidance of church leaders. Just as we were taught blindness skills each day that would help us in our lives, the gospel can teach all of us on a daily basis important skills that will help us throughout our life’s journey. Our goal as blind individuals was to prepare to meet the challenges blindness may bring our way. AS Disciples of Christ, our goal is to prepare for the time when we will meet our Savior and our Heavenly Father.

A couple of summers ago Jesse and I encountered a big test on our skills to travel as blind individuals. WE had been helping out at a summer camp one night which was held at TowsonUniversity. At the time, we were still living downtown. We wrapped up that night around 9 p.m. and headed out to catch a bus home. WE got directions from a friend of ours on how to get to the closest bus stop along York Road which would take us back to the light rail station so we could catch a train home. He had told us that the stop was a good ways away from where we were at the dorms, but that it was walk able and that he’d done it before. So we headed out to find the bus stop. I should also mention that we also had our three month old daughter with us. WE are no strangers to finding our way in unfamiliar areas, but that night, after about twenty minutes into the walk, we started to get a nagging feeling that we were going the wrong way, despite the fact we had followed our friend’s directions. WE got to the intersection where we were supposed to turn and should have found a bus stop, but there was no bus stop. We were also supposed to now be on York Road, which as most of you know is quite a busy road, but this road was nothing like that. At that moment, back behind us at the intersection, we heard a bus come by and turn the other way. WE knew then that we were on the wrong road and needed to figure out not only where another bus stop was, but which area we needed to get to to catch the bus going the direction we wanted. So, we headed back to wards where the bus had come, not even sure it was the number we wanted, or whether this was York Road. A few minutes later, we flagged down a passer-by pulling out of a parking lot to confirm what street we were on, only to find out we were blocks away from York road. We continued in the directions this driver gave us, but again found ourselves no where near any kind of major intersection or bus stops or near York Road. This same situation happened three more times with passers by assuring us that York Rd. was just another light down, or just a few blocks down, but somehow we never seemed to find the elusive York Rd. By this point, it was really getting late and starting to thunder and lightning. We were growing exceedingly more frustrated and concerned about getting home. WE surveyed our options again trying to figure out what to do. The most logical thing would have been to call a cab, but seeing as a cab driver would want something silly like an actual pick up address, this option was out. We also contemplated calling some trusty friends who may be willing to go on a wild goose chase to try and find us, but given that it was getting late, and that most of our friends live downtown, we ruled this out as well. So we did the only thing we could—just plodded along hoping that sooner than later we’d figure things out. We are no strangers to traveling in unfamiliar areas. IN fact, part of our skills training included drop routes which basically require you to be dropped off in an unfamiliar area and to find your way back to a designated location. So, we just looked at this like another drop route. My concern was however, the fact that it was getting late, less people were out to get directions from, and that we had our baby with us. I said a little prayer that Heavenly Father would help us be safe and figure out how to get home, before the rain started too if possible, and put my faith in mine and Jesse’s skills. . By 11 p.m. we somehow found ourselves near the Towson mall, having walked almost two miles from where we first started. Originally our plan had been to catch the bus from the dorms back to the light rail and then take the light rail home. Now that we were near the mall, we had an even better option as there was a bus that ran passed the mall which would take us within a block of our apartment. This was such a relief to us and worked out to be an even better solution than we hoped. WE found the right stop and prayed that a bus would come soon. Fortunately, we boarded a bus just as the rain began to come down harder and made it home safe and sound that evening around Midnight. (For the record, after chastising our friend for his crummy directions, he admitted that he had left out a turn.)

That night as I put our daughter to bed, an overwhelming feeling of love and inspiration came over me. I remember never feeling so happy to be home as I was at that moment and thinking that this is what it would be like when we finish this life and return to our Heavenly Father someday.

So what does this example have to do with our theme today of “A time to prepare to meet God?” Well, it is this. We are all working to find our way home, our spiritual home that is. Along the way, there are always challenges and “bad directions” that will come up and test our abilities. But it is our preparations or “performing of our labors” each day that will help us be successful in returning to him.

From the experience I just shared with you, I’ve come up with the following three lessons which I think each of us can apply in this time as we prepare to meet God:

First, developing important skills: Jesse and I weren’t exactly born knowing how to travel independently as blind people. WE had to develop these skills through practice and application. With respect to our travel training, we were taught how to problem solve, cross a variety of intersections, recognize traffic patterns, use cardinal directions, and so forth. As children of our Heavenly Father, each of us have important skills we need to develop in order to help us on our spiritual travels. Such skills include practicing meaningful personal prayer, learning to recognize personal revelation, learning how to study the scriptures, practicing repentence, cultivating a serving heart, and exercising faith and discipline, to name just a few. Our Heavenly Father sent us here to learn these valuable skills much like we as parents send our children away to school to learn and develop their own knowledge and abilities, and we would be remiss to return to him without them.

Second, our Heavenly Father has blessed us with families and other influential individuals in our lives to help encourage, teach, and guide us on our path home. While Jesse and I were trying to find our way home that night, it was easy for me to become frustrated with him because I was frustrated with the situation. Part of me was upset with him for being a cheapskate and not wanting to pay for a cab to take us from the dorms home in the first place. WE also disagreed from time to time on which direction to go. But, the bottom line was that we were in this together and being upset or frustrated with him was not going to help the situation. We both had valuable skills and perspectives to contribute to solving our dilemma. Our Heavenly Father has blessed us with family members, friends, and church leaders to be our companions along our path. Our goal is to value and seek out those who are well-meaning individuals as we perform our labors. These relationships also can require us to humble ourselves, be more forgiving, slow to take offense, and to admit that we may not always know what is best for us.

Lastly, we need to learn to see things as our Heavenly Father sees them. Even though I am considered legally blind, I do have a fair amount of residual vision. However, this vision sometimes is not the most reliable. I’ve been known on occasion to walk up to windows thinking they are doors, mislabel colors, or to say “excuse me” to manikins in a store. , Sometimes I find myself trusting my Swiss cheesy vision more than the blindness skills I’ve learned, which the majority of the time gets me into an awkward situation. How many of us find ourselves thinking we see the whole picture and know where we are going only to find out our Heavenly Father’s vision is far better than our own? . Just as I am learning to rely on my blindness skills in conjunction with my usable vision, we each need to learn to rely on our Heavenly Father’s vision or will for us in conjunction with our own agency.

I know that if we will truly do our part to prepare ourselves today by performing the labors outlined by our Heavenly Father, there will come a time when we find our way home and are reunited with our loving Heavenly Father.

I’d like to close by sharing my testimony with you.

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