GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 209, Ryan Jones is here to talk about the process of putting on his annual Christmas light show involving thousands of lights, all choreographed to music. He’ll show us how he uses sequencing software with the help of JAWS. Then we’ll meet Pedro Zurita, who’s spent his life advocating for blind people around the world and served for 14 years as Secretary General of the World Blind Union.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon with you with one last edition of FSCast for 2021. As you hear this, the December updates of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion have been released. Most of you who have auto updates turned on will have been offered them already.
A couple of highlights to bring to your attention. If you were listening to FSOpenLine, either live when we did it on December 2nd or through the replay a week or so back, you probably heard us talking about the status bar in Word. Pressing INSERT+PAGE DOWN to hear the status bar should read the contents of all the different parts. And several people reported that we were leaving out the announcement of Word count. Fortunately, that was a quick thing to fix, and it’s gotten snuck into the December update, so available now.
Last month when we talked about Windows 11, seems that I left out something kind of important, something that many of you may use as the deciding factor as to whether or not you’re going to update quickly. Graham Pearce unfortunately was my unfortunate guinea pig because he noticed this problem right off when he updated. And that is that in File Explorer in Windows 10 and earlier, there were lots of hot keys for doing things. In particular, Graham relied on pressing ALT+V to go to the View menu and then O to sort. And you could easily sort the window that was open by size or filename and so forth.
Those features are still there in Windows 11, but the hot keys have gone away. So now you need to press ALT, and that’ll take you up to the top-level menu. And you can RIGHT ARROW and eventually get to Sort and press SPACE to expand it and arrow down to the way you want to sort it. But it involves more steps. So Graham, I’m really sorry. Did not intend to omit this. But thanks for pointing this out. And other people may find this useful.
Many of you are undoubtedly already familiar with our JAWS and ZoomText certification program. I remember a few years ago Eric challenged me to take the exam for JAWS. And he said, “Oh, it’s very difficult. I’m sure you won’t pass.” And fortunately my reputation did remain intact. I did reasonably well on the exam. And lots of you have done well, both people who are trainers and want to make sure that others know that they understand the software they’re training on, but lots of us who just use it and want to make sure we know the concepts that are important. These exams work for that, as well.
It’s absolutely free to take them. And if you pass, you get a digital certificate. If you don’t pass, we’ll tell you that. We don’t tell you exactly which questions you’ve missed, but you can take it as many times as you want. You’ll probably get some different questions because we pull from a reasonably large pool. But do not sweat it. If you know our software, and you have the willingness to learn the things that are a little unclear to you, you’ll have no problem passing either our JAWS or ZoomText certification. All the details at FreedomScientific.com/training. And there’s a link to the certification right on that main Training page.
When you’ve passed, we’ll send you a digital certificate, and you’ll have the option of being listed on our directory of people who have successfully passed the JAWS or ZoomText certification. If you want something a little more official in print, for $49 for the first time you get it we’ll send you a printed certificate and also a digital image that you can use as part of your email signature. If you want to update that in subsequent years, get a new printed certificate, it’ll only be $29. Again, all of that on our Training page under Certification.
GLEN: Back in October Ryan Jones was on the podcast demonstrating McDonald’s Accessible Order Kiosk. Ryan has a secret life. Every year he turns into the Christmas genie, putting on a really elaborate light and music show for his neighborhood and any people who drive through. And I thought it would be great to hear about the mechanics of how that all comes together. Ryan, welcome back to FSCast.
RYAN JONES: Thank you, Glen. Glad to be here with you.
GLEN: So as a guy who was born blind, I broadly understand the concept of lights being played in time to music and so forth. But it doesn’t, you know, sort of relate emotionally for me. I’m assuming that once upon a time you had some vision.
RYAN: Yes. When I was younger I was legally blind, so my vision was about 20/400 when I was growing up. So I had enough sight to see very good distinguishing between light and dark, and I could distinguish colors, movements of course. I could recognize faces if they were close enough. So in regards to Christmas lights I was able to see them, especially if I was reasonably close. And that concept of lights and synchronization to music does still ring true to me, even though my vision now is significantly worse than it was at that point.
GLEN: So what got you interested in doing something that mixed music and lights?
RYAN: Well, I love music. I’ve played the drums, played the drums since I was a kid and in many different settings. So I’ve always really been – I’ve always really enjoyed music. And when I was younger I enjoyed going with the family around Christmastime, and we would drive around town and look at Christmas lights. It was a tradition that we had. And I always enjoyed it, especially for me with the vision that I had. The black darkness of the night contrasts so distinctly with the bright Christmas lights that that helped me be able to see it more. So I just enjoyed it because it was something I could see and could participate in with the family.
So I used to put up some Christmas lights in different places that I lived. But when I moved to – my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky a few years ago, and we had a house of our own then. We weren’t living in a townhouse or an apartment somewhere. I said, oh, I’m going to put up some Christmas lights. And then I started to learn that you could do more than just up Christmas lights. You could use computer software and electronic hardware to synchronize them to music. And it wasn’t something that only a really high-end lighting guru could do. They actually made this for regular people like myself to be able to do this. And so I said, “Well, let me just give it a try.” And I tried it out the first year with just a little bit, just to see if it would all work. And lo and behold it did. And so every year I’ve just grown it a little bit bigger and a little bit different each year from then.
GLEN: I’m trying to think of whether we should start by talking about the electronics and the lights or the software. What do you think?
RYAN: Well, I think the lights are – that’s a good place to start. I mean, what I use is mostly just regular Christmas lights like you could buy at any big box store. I use the incandescent lights mostly which are like $3 for a hundred-count box. So they’re fairly cheap. I know a lot of people use LEDs now. LEDs are about five times the cost, so I’ve stuck with the less expensive choices. And then over years I’ve added in some other types of lights, as well, some pixel lights that can change in different color. So if you think of like a 20-foot ribbon that’s about a half-inch wide that has lights embedded inside of it, and those lights can all change to different colors. I’ve got some of those now. I’ve got some big floodlights that are really, really bright. They can also change to different colors and do different things.
So it’s mostly just off-the-shelf things that you would use at your own house. I just have them, they’re all connected to these controller boxes which are run by the computer software. So each controller box, let’s say, has about 16 different plugs. So I could run 16 different channels, is what they call them. And a channel could be one set of lights, or it could be a hundred set of lights that’s all going to do the same thing, depending on how they’re connected together. And then the lights that are these pixel lights, those are plugged into different controllers. So they’re really powerful because you can literally make one set of lights be whatever color you want at any given time. So it were up to me I’d probably have a lot more of them. But they’re a little bit costly to implement, so I have to gradually add those up into the show.
GLEN: I’m fascinated by blind people on roofs, mostly because when I was young I would happily go up onto our family’s rooftop with my uncle because I couldn’t think of all the possibilities of things that might go wrong. And as I have gotten older, I’ve thought about more and more possibilities and decided I’m not going up on the roof.
GLEN: So how do you feel about it, and what do you do to make yourself feel secure?
RYAN: Well, I think the way I think about it, there’s only one thing that can go wrong, pretty much, and that’s to fall off. And so if I always keep that in mind and do whatever I need to do to ensure that I don’t lose track of where I am. I think one thing that helped me is growing up I was allowed and encouraged to do a lot of different things. And so I would even get on the roof and help my dad put up Christmas lights when I was growing up. And he would supervise me and help me make sure that I was spatially oriented to my surroundings.
And so I kind of learned over time how to just be very aware of where you are in space. So I know for example the roof slopes. And the roof slopes – the highest point is in the middle, and it slopes to the front edge, for example. So I know if I’m moving down the slope, I’m moving towards that edge, for example. So mostly it’s just about being very aware of where you are and then just being extra cautious. I don’t typically walk upright around the roof like I would around the house or anywhere else. I typically will sit down and scoot if I’m in a place where I think I could be anywhere near the edge. And that way I can stick my legs out or use my hands to ensure that I find that edge and then know where it’s at.
So I go slower than what most people would do. I don’t feel that a roofing career is in my future. But I’m comfortable enough to get up there and do what I need to do to get the lights up every year.
GLEN: It’s funny that you mention scooting because that’s my recollection of being up on the roof, not walking upright, but rather mostly sitting down or kneeling down and moving that way, feeling like I had more control of knowing where I was.
GLEN: So I’m glad to see it wasn’t just me being afraid.
RYAN: No, it’s just kind of, yeah, keeping that situational awareness. It’s funny, I have a set of old work jeans that I wear all the time when I go on the roof because after sitting and scooting around they tend to get tore up pretty good. So I don’t wear my nice regular jeans out there on the roof. I have a special set that I call my “roofing jeans.”
GLEN: What do you do to mark the cables so that you have hope of getting the right lights plugged into the right controllers?
RYAN: A lot of braille labeling. That’s what I will say. So like when I store the lights every year I have some braille labels on some plastic bins. And then when I use the controllers, I actually have braille labels for every plug on the controller with a number. So the channels are numbered one to 16, for example. And so I’ve got braille labels on those pigtail plugs so I can tell this is the cord for number two, or this is number five. And then I’ll put braille labels on the end of the light strands sometimes, as well, so that when that cord comes down off the roof, I’ve got it labeled that this is channel number one, so I need to plug it into channel number one on that controller box.
GLEN: Does this mean you need to sort of visualize in advance what lights are going to do which? Or that you can delay that because the controller box can decide what a particular strand does as long as you know what’s plugged into which?
RYAN: So I pretty much have to do it all by complete imagination and visualization in my head. The controller will only do what I tell it to do with the software. And so I have a mental image in my mind of the front of our house and the bushes and the different things, the trees and things that I have lights on. So I have that mental picture. And I visualize where I want the lights. So if I want the star to be on at this particular time, then I’ll program that in the software.
But it’s all about kind of having that mental vision. And the truth is I don’t know a lot of times if that vision is 100% correct. And I’ll probably never know unless I’m – if I miraculously get my vision back one day, then maybe I will. But a lot of this is really in my mind. And I’m pretty sure that what’s in my mind translates to other people pretty close. But it can never be the same because I can’t step back across the street and look at the whole thing and see it all as one image.
GLEN: But you’ve been with your wife long enough that she’s probably brutally honest.
RYAN: She is. And she knows what I’m looking for and what I want. So if something is off, she’ll tell me. And I’ll ask her a lot of times: “Hey, I need to check this. Is that particular thing on? Are those windows on upstairs right now? Because I know they’re supposed to be in the song because I programmed it that way.” And she’ll say, “Yes, they’re on”; or, “No, one of them is off.” And so, yes, I use her a lot to help balance out and make sure that what I think is happening is actually happening.
GLEN: How are you at chess?
RYAN: I might should pick up chess. If I don’t do roofing, maybe I’ll pick chess up.
GLEN: No, I ask because I’m wondering if it’s the same skills that would allow a blind person to be good at chess that would allow you to do this kind of thing with lights where you have to keep a lot of stuff in mind.
RYAN: Yeah. You do have to keep this mental map. In fact, when I do the programming for a song, it probably takes me anywhere from 50 to 60 hours to program a song. And when I do it, what I learned is that I really need to do it all within a couple of weeks’ time period because I found that if I program for a little bit and then come back to it a few weeks later, I’ve sort of forgotten what my mental map was during the first part of my programming, and I have to go back and try to figure out what was I doing in the first part of the song. So I’ve definitely found that keeping things consistent and doing things in the right sequence is important because of that whole thing. I can’t just go back and watch what I programmed in two minutes to refresh my memory on what I had been doing several weeks ago, for example.
GLEN: And that’s probably a good lead-in to talking about the software. Did you have many choices for what software to use?
RYAN: When I started out there was really only one main option. It’s a software called Light-O-Rama. And they make the software and the physical controllers that actually control the lights based on what the software says. There are other choices now. There’s a freeware application, and I’ve tried it, as well. But I’ll say that the Light-O-Rama software that I started with I think is still the most “accessible.” And I say that in quotes because they didn’t intend for it to be accessible, I’m sure. I seriously doubt they thought, hey, we need to make sure that visually impaired people can use this thing. I think it’s just accessible by accident. It has good keyboard support because a lot of people doing sequencing like to use the keyboard because it’s faster than clicking everywhere with a mouse.
So the same things that we talk about in accessibility in my career sometimes actually help out because it’s just faster for people to use the keyboard. And that’s why they have keyboard support. So some of the other programs out there I’ve just found are a little bit more visual, and there’s a lot more dragging and dropping and things that you have to do that cause a lot of challenges.
GLEN: Can you walk us through part of programming a song?
RYAN: Yes, definitely. So the way that I program a song is I think about everything in a grid. So if you think of like an Excel spreadsheet, and you have rows and columns. So the rows are the different channels of lights that I have. So in this grid that I have in my mind here there’s a row for the left front bush. There’s a row for the star. There’s a row for one of each of the garage floodlights. So there’s different rows. And in my show I’ve probably got, I don’t know, 25 different rows or channels here. And across the row, the song is broken down into one half of one tenth of a second increments. So .05 of a second.
So if you think of a spreadsheet that’s got like 25 rows, and then that every column is one half of one tenth of a second. So a four-minute song is roughly 4,800 columns of where I could turn each of those different rows of lights on or off, if you kind of visualize it that way. So it can be a daunting process. Now, I’m not doing that all manually. If I think I want a bush to fade down for two seconds, I’ll select across that row for two seconds and then tell it to fade down. So I’m not necessarily going to every single column there and programming it individually. I can do effects over different time ranges.
GLEN: Just knowing the time doesn’t really tell you, you know, if the measure is about to crescendo or exactly what the music is doing. And I assume what the music is doing impacts how you program the lights.
RYAN: Yeah. And what I need to mention is that when I start sequencing, I go and map the entire song and write down every single time that something important happens that I need to use later. So every big hit or every crescendo, every decrescendo, I go and write it all down in a big Notepad file so that when it’s time to sequence, I’ve got it, you know, this is, all right, 121.40. I need to know that time. Then when I’m listening to it I realize, okay, that’s a big hit right there. So that is part of what I do is write all these times down ahead of time. So I kind of have that ready when I go to actually do the sequencing of it.
GLEN: Will you go over to your light computer and give us a demo of a little bit of how the software works?
RYAN: Right now my show consists of six different songs. They’re all Christmas songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. And in between each song there’s narration that my wife has done in conjunction with me of part of the Christmas Story from the Bible. And so between each song there’s, you know, anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds of some narration that happens. And that show, it probably lasts about 30 minutes almost, if you were to sit and watch it from start to finish. Most people stay for a few minutes here, a few minutes there. But that show just cycles throughout the entire evening.
So I usually run it for anywhere from three to four hours per night during the entire month of December. And it just cycles around. When it finishes, it starts back over. So people can come at any point, and they’ll stay for as long as they want and listen and watch.
So I’ve got the Light-O-Rama software open, and I’ve got JAWS running. And I’ve got a song open here. This is from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It’s a medley of different parts of “The Nutcracker.” And this is a song that I’ve already done the programming for. And so I’m about a minute and 13 seconds into the song where I’m at right now. And I’ll just play a few seconds of it, just so we can kind of get a sense of where we are. And then we’ll check out what some of the lights are doing in this song. So I’m just going to play just a few seconds of it.
RYAN: Okay. So I’m here. And let’s just see, if I want to know exactly which part of the song time-wise that I’m in, I’ll press a command that I’ve got a JAWS script for to tell me exactly where I’m at.
RYAN: So it says I’m at a minute 21.35, so one minute, 21 seconds, point 35. That’s where I’m at in that grid, if we think of that, those columns of time. And if I want to find out what lights are on – so I’ve scrolled down. I’m on – we’ll see what row I’m on here and what the lights are doing. I’ve got a JAWS script I wrote that’ll tell me that.
JAWS: Tree, white, fade up from 0% to 75%.
RYAN: So JAWS said “Tree, white, fade up from 0% to 75%.” So this channel is the “tree, white.” It’s labeled that way so that tells me this is the Christmas tree that I have, and it’s the white lights that are on that Christmas tree. And right now at this moment in time it’s in a fade up from 0% to 75% brightness. Now, if I want to see how long that fade up is from when I programmed it, I’ll...
JAWS: O B. Context menu. Channel button checked. C. Leaving menu. Cell info dialog.
RYAN: I’ll use some JAWS cursor here.
JAWS: JAWS to PC. 1:21.15-1:21.40: fade up from 0% to 75%.
RYAN: So this fade up is lasting about a quarter of a second. So it’s a very fast fade up right here.
JAWS: ESCAPE. Light-O-Rama sequence.
RYAN: I’ll scroll down a few more lines and just see what another channel’s doing.
JAWS: Left window, fade up from 0% to 75%.
RYAN: So there’s a left window. So that’s one of the windows on my upper roof. We’ll scroll down a little bit more.
JAWS: Roof one. Completely off.
RYAN: So that said roof one. This is one of the lines of light that sits on the roof. And it says completely off. So I know at this point in time that that is off. And I can tell with the software if I want to know how long is it off for, like between what two times is it off for. I can bring up that dialog box up that’ll tell me that it’s off between a minute 13.25 and a minute 20.75, for example. So it’s a very tedious process to kind of go and review what you’ve done.
That’s why I mentioned that, when I do the sequencing, because I can start to build that out of what’s supposed to be happening when, I try to do it all within the matter of a couple of weeks for a song so that I don’t forget what I did and have to go back and literally kind of hunt and peck around this song and tell what the lights are doing.
GLEN: But you’re not able to play the music and actually know what’s going on in real-time; right? The only way you can tell if stuff is right is by reviewing frame by frame or group of frame by frame.
RYAN: That’s exactly why it’s so tedious. Somebody who can visually see could just look right here on the screen and kind of glance down those rows and see, okay, at a minute 23, here’s all the things that are happening. I would literally have to go row by row and have that JAWS script tell me this light is on, this one’s at a fade up, this one is twinkling, this one is shimmering, and try to remember that in my head so that when I go to the next little bit of time, that I know what those lights were doing beforehand.
GLEN: So do the lights connect using USB?
RYAN: So there’s a small little controller box that has an SD card in it. And I copy the show onto an SD card, and it goes into this little box. It’s about the size of like a deck of cards times two. So it’s not real big. And that is what actually controls the whole show. That connects with Ethernet cables and DMX cables to the different controllers that I have. And it also has an audio jack where I plug in the FM transmitter that I have that actually plays the music.
So when someone comes to our house, I don’t have the music playing over speakers in the yard. The music is playing over an FM radio transmitter that I have that transmits about a mile from my house. So we have a sign in the front yard that says “Tune to 89.5 FM.” And that’s what my transmitter transmits on. So they can hear the music in their car radio and sit in their car and watch the lights.
GLEN: So the audio is on this little box, as well, from the SD card.
RYAN: That’s right. Yeah, it’s one little – it’s like the brains, kind of like a CPU. It’s just this little controller box. And then that connects to the physical light controllers that have all the plugs and everything. So it’s kind of like a computer network. Everything’s run with network cables. And then there’s another lighting technology called DMX. And I have a snow machine actually in the show that puts out fake snow at certain times, and that’s controlled by DMX. And I actually programmed that with this Light-O-Rama software, as well, so I can say between these points in time of the music I want that snow machine to be on, or I want it to be 50% snow coming out, or 75%.
GLEN: Do you know other blind people who are doing this?
RYAN: To be honest, I don’t. I think that I heard of someone who might be in Canada who did this. Someone messaged me one time. But I’m not sure how much they were doing. But I really don’t know of anyone else doing this to this degree. But I’d love to know if there are.
GLEN: Well, you may have inspired someone to do it next year. It’s probably a little late for this Christmas.
RYAN: Yeah, I would say start early. I would start something like this in the summertime. It takes me about six weeks to actually put all the lights up. You try to work in the evenings or on the weekends. And so I start in October putting the lights up. But the earlier the better. You don’t want to try to do this at the last minute. My wife and I, we like to go outside and try to talk to people some, especially if it’s a warm evening, and just say hi to people that are sitting out in their cars watching and thank them for coming. And they see my white cane, sometimes they don’t know who I am or what I’ve done.
And so you ask, obviously, how do you do this? And I say part of what I want people to know is that a disability, in particular blindness, certainly does not have to be a limitation for you. If there’s something you want to do, something you like or think you would enjoy, go after it because there’s probably a way to do it. So it’s been a real good tool for me to talk about not only technology and visual impairment, but just also about not letting limitations stop you.
GLEN: Well, this was a great way to end the year for FSCast. I’m really glad you joined us and talked in detail about how you do what you do every holiday season. Thank you, Ryan.
RYAN: Thank you, Glen. I’ve enjoyed it.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip. It’s courtesy of Sim Kah Yong. And it’s an oldie but a goodie, a feature that I thought had been put in mothballs. But it turns out that in Zoom the JAWS Frame Manager has a new purpose in life. Apparently when you’re putting on a webinar, one of the things that’s in the Zoom window in approximately the same place each time you do it is the remaining time. A quick way of being told just how many minutes remain is by creating a JAWS frame around the area to be spoken, attaching that to a key, and then when you press the key, that information will be spoken without actually having to do any scripting.
If you’re interested in doing something similar, in an app where the JAWS cursor works, that’s the key. If the JAWS cursor works, and you’re not on the web, then Frame Manager might be a good option for you. To get more details, go to the JAWS Help Menu, choose Help Topics, then press ALT+S, which will get you into a search field. Search for Create Frame, and you’ll get to all the details. Thanks to Sim Kah Yong for sending in that tip. In exchange, we’ll add a year onto their JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license. If you, too, have something you know about that you think might not be well publicized, those are the kinds of things we’re after to feature on the Power Tip segment. Write to me at email@example.com.
GLEN: I’m very pleased to welcome to FSCast Pedro Zurita. He’s someone who I’ve known for the last few years and has been profoundly active in the world blindness movement for the majority of his life. He served as Secretary General of the World Blind Union from 1986 to 2000. He speaks a dozen-plus languages, has traveled to many, many countries around the world, like 30-plus, and has essentially been a luminary in the blindness community for his whole life. Pedro, welcome to FSCast.
PEDRO ZURITA: Thank you. I’m very pleased to be with you. Let me tell you that when you said that I know 12-plus languages, I would say probably seven, eight. But you said 30 and plus countries, and there I put a big plus because according to my counting I visited 99 countries.
GLEN: Oh, my god. You have been – you are a world traveler.
PEDRO: Yes. And a world citizen, as well.
GLEN: We were born about six years apart. You were raised six years earlier than I was, I in the United States, you in Spain. What was your childhood like?
PEDRO: Well, I was born with congenital glaucoma, but I had good residual sight until I was seven. And I happened to be born in a small village in Spain, 200 people. But my father was the village schoolmaster. And so he took me to school when I was very young, and he was very proud of how clever his son was and so forth. But then at the age of seven I started having big problems with my sight.
And finally, when I was 10, I was then sent to a residential school very far from the place I was living. I really enjoyed being there because the first year I was there they considered that I did the equivalent to the first four grades of the primary school in Spain because as I told you when I was a child my father took me through the school. And even when my sight was no longer very helpful, I could somehow learn.
GLEN: Did you learn braille early on? Or were you relying on your memory in those first years?
PEDRO: I started learning when I went to the primary school, when I was 10. But you probably know that I am a big fan of braille. I try not to be fanatical, but I am a great lover and user of braille. I still read braille on paper, but I also read a lot with the Orbit Reader, which I find very friendly for reading.
GLEN: Did you master it early as a kid? I mean, by the time you were 11 and 12 were you really good at braille and relying on it?
PEDRO: I remember when I was in the primary residential school that I spent hours and hours copying books and so for myself, using at that time the stylus and the braille slate.
GLEN: That must have taken a really long time. The braille slate, even if you’re fast, you’re slow.
PEDRO: Yes, but at that time that was what I had, and I tried to make the most of it I could.
GLEN: Somewhere I read about you that you discovered very young that you had a flare for learning languages. How did you discover that?
PEDRO: The second year I was in that residential school they offered French as an optional subject. And I discovered that I had a special love and ability to learn French. I went to the school in 1958. But six years later, when I was in the second residential school in Madrid doing secondary education, I went to France to a place where they organize a sort of summer camp for the blind. Then in 1966, the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind organized a camp and summer school in Vermont which was called Camp Wapanacki. And I was very, very happy that I had that opportunity because that was really the chance of learning and seeing for the first time too many things.
In 1966, the difference between Spain and the U.S. was very important in many, many ways. At that time for me to go to the states, it was like going to another planet. And I discovered many, many things. And I remember for instance that in Camp Wapanacki in the summer school I was staying, they had a braille library. And there I discovered that they had a world encyclopedia in 145 volumes, which was printed by the American Printing House for the Blind. And I spent many, many hours reading material in that encyclopedia. For the time for me it was really something unique.
The main teacher in that program became very fond of me, and he was the teacher in the private school there in Vermont. And he told me that it would be very good if I could stay there to do the last year of high school, and then probably I will have the opportunity to do a university education in the states. And for me at that time that was really a challenge and so forth. But a few days before I left he told me that in the school they told him that I could not be admitted because they have already filled their quota of problem students.
GLEN: Of problem students? They called you a “problem student”?
PEDRO: Yes, yes. Because he told me that in that quota they included Native Americans and a few others I don’t remember.
GLEN: Oh, lovely. Did they reverse it? Or you never had the chance to finish high school there?
PEDRO: No. No, no, I never had the chance. I just returned to Spain, and I continued my schooling in Spain.
GLEN: We haven’t really talked about how well European countries were willing to accept and embrace blind people in society. And I realize it’s different country by country. But what was it like in the ’60s and ’70s, as you recall?
PEDRO: Well, to start with, I will tell you that the experience in my own country was unique in the sense that in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish National Organization of the Blind, ONCE, O N C E, was created. And since the government was very poor at that moment, they couldn’t give important subsidies for the organization to work. They had the idea of ONCE to exploit a daily lottery which would be sold by blind people, and that could serve two purposes: first, to give employment to a lot of blind people that otherwise would have no opportunity; but from the lottery there was also an important fund that served to create schools and rehab centers and vocational training centers and so forth. So there were people who worked as lottery sellers, but then there were also many people that could work in other jobs.
And then in the ’80s, when there was a big stride forward of the organization, it was democratizing its running, and there was very important change in the lottery itself because instead of having 33 regional draws, there was a national draw. And that created the opportunity to have much bigger sale and much bigger prizes and so forth. And that also created the opportunity of continuous campaigns in all the media, including TV. And that was also very important in bringing blindness close to people.
GLEN: ONCE was your employer for most of your work life, 30-plus years. What were the kinds of things you did for them when you weren’t doing WBU work?
PEDRO: Well, I started first being an English teacher in one of the residential schools for the blind here in Madrid. Then when I was still quite young I was given the opportunity of heading the International Relations Department in the central office of the Spanish National Organization of the Blind. And then I was given the opportunity of becoming the head of their section on Social Welfare.
And then in October 1986 the position of Secretary General of the World Blind Union was vacant because the Secretary General died. And so I presented my candidature for being elected Secretary General, and I was elected with all the votes for me except for the members of the European Blind Union because, according to their strategy, I was not the one that would serve their purpose. But after I was in the job, two years later, we had the Second General Assembly of the World Blind Union here in Madrid. And I was then overwhelmingly reelected as Secretary General of the World Blind Union.
GLEN: As Secretary General, how much control did you have over setting priorities for the WBU?
PEDRO: At the very beginning, I was not the one that submitted the main priorities because that was more the role of the President. But after a while, since the President changed every four years, I grew knowing quite well the organization and the people involved and so forth. There was a time when for instance we wanted to choose nominations for committees and so forth. I always had at least ready to suggest so-and-so. And a person from Pakistan, he created the word “Zuritarize.” He said that the organizations were very Zuritarized.
GLEN: So what did that mean? What kind of changes did you try to bring about, and improvements for the organization?
PEDRO: I think I contributed as best as I could for the organization to be present everywhere in the world. To give you a idea, when I was elected in 1986, I think there were about 60 member countries. And when I left there were 150-something. Because my policy was that I never left a mail unanswered. It was also very important in my getting nearer to people the fact that I could speak many languages, and that also created a wonderful opportunity for me to befriend people from different parts of the world.
GLEN: What were some of your most memorable experiences working in the WBU in terms of people you met and experiences that you had?
PEDRO: I always said that the effect of what we do does not become immediately visible. It becomes visible after some times. And for instance I consider that the first time I went to Thailand, I think that was in 1987, I found that they were a very close grouping. But then in successive years I started meeting blind people that were successful in business and professions and so forth. That is only one example, but that is something that could be applied to other places, as well.
GLEN: You’re saying that when you first met them, that you didn’t see that many blind people? And over time more and more were integrated into society?
GLEN: What role do you think technology has played in your life over the years?
PEDRO: That was very, very important. And I remember the time when I was in the office in Madrid of the Secretary General of the World Blind Union. And I remember still writing the drafts of my letters using the typewriter. And I remember when I started I was given the opportunity to use a computer. Immediately I had the computer with a braille display. And that was really a change. For many people, technology has improved their life possibilities. But in the case of we blind people, it opened many doors that were practically closed. So if we compare access to information in the last years to the access to information I had when I was a child or a youth, that is not comparable.
GLEN: It’s almost January 4th, which is World Braille Day. As someone who has loved braille all his life, what do you tell people who wonder if they should be learning braille these days?
PEDRO: Maybe sometimes someone will invent something that will replace braille. But so far nothing has been thought of or created that replaces braille. For we blind people it’s unique. And the ideal thing is to combine braille reading with synthetic speech and other things. But when people forget about braille, they do miss something. Even if they can achieve good results not using braille, but if they could use braille they would have more possibilities to do things adequately when they do certain things. For instance, when people talk, some people used to have an earphone. But it is much, much easier if under your fingers you have the slip with the guiding nodes and so forth.
GLEN: You also have, at least for a portion of your life, back in the late ’90s, were writing letters to people who had passed on to another dimension. And one of the ones you wrote was to Luis Braille. And I mentioned this to my friend Gyöngyi in Hungary, and she said she read that for the first time in Hungarian back in ‘96. So it must have made its way around the world.
PEDRO: That open letter to Luis Braille I presented as a paper in a World Literacy Forum held in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1996, organized by the World Blind Union. And my open letter to Luis Braille had an unexpected success for me because then many people translate it into other languages and publish it in their own area and their own country. And I have a collection of all the translations, and I have it in I think it is 46 languages.
GLEN: And if people go to our website for the podcast, which is blog.freedomscientific.com/fscast, on the page for this episode will be a link to that letter, at least the English version, so you could read it. One of the things that it mentions is a lot of the people who from your teachers on forward did some really special things for you, things that they didn’t have to do, but they saw a spirit in you and a desire to really get things done that they jumped to your assistance. Do you recall any of those?
PEDRO: I recall very especially a catering service in Madrid. And when they discovered that I was blind, they decided to do something for me to distinguish the dishes. And they started by putting circles or squares or something. Then I, seeing that goodwill, I said, “Well, I send you a small Braille slate that in the back of it it has the alphabet, how the letters appear.” And then I was surprised because after that I received all the dishes with the tax written in braille with that slate.
GLEN: That’s pretty impressive for someone who didn’t know anything about braille before, to start doing that.
PEDRO: Yes. Yes, yes.
GLEN: Well, Pedro, thank you very much for joining me on the podcast. It’s been nice hearing about your life and your experience and your zest for life in general.
PEDRO: And I can also say with pride that I am a JAWS user, and I have been using JAWS since probably two something, I think.
GLEN: So a long time.
PEDRO: Yes. And I suppose you give me the permission to add you to my list of good friends all over the world.
GLEN: I would be honored. Thank you very much.
GLEN: As we come to the end of 2021, I want to thank all of you for being such loyal listeners to the podcast and just generally being so kind to me as host. I’ve been doing this for about 20 months now, give or take. And I’ve gotten some really nice mail from many, many of you. It’s sort of a solitary pursuit, putting together these podcasts. And so hearing from you really makes the difference.
I hope you have a delightful holiday season, however you may celebrate it. We will be back with more FSCasts in January of 2022. I’m Glen Gordon. Thanks for listening.