FSCast #245

May,  2024

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 245, I’ll show you how Picture Smart just got smarter thanks to the new chat feature.  Alice O’Reilly and Tamara Rorie from NLS talk about the array of free services and devices available to people living in the United States.  And we’ll get to know Gordon Legge, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Minnesota Laboratory for Low-Vision Research.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon here.  Thanks for joining me for the May 2024 edition of our podcast.  By now, most of you are probably aware that freedomscientific.com/training is the starting point for all learning resources related to JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.  What you might not be aware of is that we repackage many of those things in podcast form.  And that’s the Freedom Scientific Training Podcast.  Episodes release once a week.  They are usually less than 30 minutes long, often less than 15 minutes.  So information does come in bite-size pieces, and we kind of spread the wealth.

We cover a little of everything.  It’s not usually podcast-specific content; but by putting it into podcast form, it allows you to listen on one device while you practice on another.  So it’s free.  You have nothing to lose by giving the training podcast a try.  Search for “Freedom Scientific Training,” and you can sign up in your favorite podcast app.

Another great training resource, which we have nothing directly to do with, are the books written by David Kingsbury.  He is quite the prolific author in the blindness screen reading space, having written several books.  His most recent is “The Windows Screen Reader Primer.”  It just came out as the third edition with coverage of a whole variety of apps, including the Microsoft Office Suite, Google Docs, Zoom, Teams, OneDrive, Dropbox, basic audio editing, and a variety of other things, including Picture Smart and Face in View.  Even though we cover all this material as relates to JAWS on our website, it’s often nice to read the explanations from someone else because they may explain something in a slightly different way that kind of solidifies our own personal understanding.  One of my favorite parts of the book is in the Appendix, where David combines keystrokes for all of the apps he discusses into a single document.

If you’re interested in reading the book, you can search for “Windows Screen Reader Primer” in your favorite search engine.  When I did it, there were two links that both pointed at the Carroll Center.  You want the one that doesn’t talk about free 30-day returns.  And on the book’s page, there’s also a link to a webinar that David did a couple of months back talking about what’s new in the third edition.  You can download the book for free, though the Carroll Center would appreciate a donation if you find it useful.  You will need to provide some basic demographic information, but you don’t need to sign up for any mailing lists or sign up for any of their services if they wouldn’t be useful to you.  So, “Windows Screen Reader Primer,” third edition, another resource that you may find useful.

Revisiting Picture Smart

GLEN:  It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than three months since we first introduced the AI-powered Picture Smart.  I say that because so many of you have found creative uses for it, and it’s become a regular part of your workflows.  The feature that we’ve been asked for more than any other is the ability to ask follow-up questions.  And I’m pleased to say that, as part of our May product updates, JAWS now has the ability to ask Picture Smart questions.  And I’m going to show you in just a second how much more powerful that makes the feature.  Now, if you’re not one of the people who’s tried Picture Smart yet, and you haven’t yet listened to my demo back in FSCast 242, I encourage you to do that because what I’m about to show you picks up where that demo left off.

I have open a PowerPoint presentation.  Of all things, it’s about how to become a barista.  And no, I have no idea where it came from.  If you’re interested in barista as a career, let me know.  I can pass this presentation on to you.  But the significant part is a picture on one of the early slides of the Chemex coffeemaker.  So with that slide in full screen view, I brought up Picture Smart with JAWS Key+SPACE P and W to get Picture Smart results for the current window.  And those results have already arrived.  So I’ll do JAWS Key+DOWN ARROW for a Say All.

JAWS VOICE:  The image shows the Chemex coffeemaker filled with brewed coffee positioned on a counter.  The Chemex is a glass vessel with a wooden collar around its neck, secured with a leather strap.  Next to the image of a coffeemaker, there is text which reads “Chemex coffeemaker.”

GLEN:  I stopped this because there’s nothing more in the description that talks about the Chemex itself.  I’ll press U to go to Unvisited Link.

JAWS VOICE:  Link ask questions about this image.

GLEN:  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Type a question.  Edit.

GLEN:  And I’ve paused long enough to type, “Describe the structure of the coffeemaker and how water flows through it.”  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Describe the structure of the coffeemaker and how water flows through it.

GLEN:  I’ve cut out a little of the pause.

JAWS VOICE:  Absolutely.  Here is a detailed description of the structure of the Chemex coffeemaker and how water flows through it.  Structure, one, glass vessel material made from heat-resistant borosilicate glass.  Shape, hourglass shaped with a wide top and a narrow bottom that opens up slightly.  The glass body is entirely transparent, allowing you to see the coffee as it brews.  Two, wooden collar.  Position, located around the neck of the vessel between the upper and lower sections.  Material, made from polished wood and provides insulation, serving as a heat-proof handle.  Attachment, secured with a leather tie, which typically forms a knot or bow.  This collar can be removed for cleaning.  Three, paper filter.  Design, Chemex-specific filters are thicker than standard filters to ensure a slower brewing process.  Placement, the filter is folded into the shape of a cone and placed in the wide top section of the glass vessel.  Water flow process.  One, setting up.  Place the Chemex on a flat surface and insert the paper filter into the wide top opening.

GLEN:  I’m going to stop this here because the description of how the Chemex works goes on for a bit longer.  A couple of things I want to point out.  One of them is that read automatically.  And when I’m finished hearing that answer, I am still left in the edit field where I can ask follow-up questions.  And the other thing that I think is so important about this is the Chemex was not the most predominant feature of the image; but by asking questions, all of the details of that particular item were brought into the forefront.

This is a learning process for me, as it likely will be for you in terms of how to best phrase questions to get the amount of detail that you actually care about.  For instance, if I were doing this again, I would use the same question or prompt, but I would precede it with the word “briefly” so that the description of how the unit looked and how the coffee flowed through it was enough to give me a good idea without overwhelming me with lots of detail.

If you don’t yet have the May update installed, either accept it when it’s offered to you as part of our automatic updates feature; or, if you have automatic updates disabled, go to freedomscientific.com/downloads and select JAWS.  I encourage you to try asking questions of Picture Smart; and, if you find some creative answers and ways that it has even further enhanced your productivity, write to us at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  We’re always interested in hearing your experiences.

The National Library Service for the Blind

GLEN:  Some of my best memories as a child are of getting books from the National Library Service for the Blind.  Back 60 years ago, they all came in containers strapped closed.  The big ones had braille books; the slightly smaller ones had records recorded at speed eight with audiobooks.  We’ve obviously come a long way, through the world of cassettes, and now to BARD, where we can each download books and listen to them immediately.  No need to call our library, order the books, and wait for them to arrive in the mail.  So there’s been lots happening through the National Library Service over the last 60 years.

If you live in the United States, and you don’t take advantage of this service, you are missing out; and we will talk about how you can get signed up before this next segment is over.  But as an NLS user for so long, I have built up a whole array of questions, and I’m hoping some of my questions will be close to those that you may have.  I’m very pleased to welcome Alice O’Reilly, who’s Chief of the Collections Division, and Tamara Rorie, who’s Head of the Patron Engagement Section of the National Library Service.  Welcome to both of you.

TAMARA RORIE:  Thank you.


GLEN:  This may not be at all relevant, but I noticed that both of you have law degrees.  Is this coincidental, or does it play nicely into the jobs that you have?

ALICE:  Well, why don’t you go first, Tamara, since you’re actually a practicing lawyer.

TAMARA:  I think it’s coincidental, but it does play nicely into the job.  You know, those skills are good for a lot of things, so.  But yeah, it’s strictly coincidental.  This is kind of my second career because, as Alice said, I did practice and did a lot of things in the legal field for years.

ALICE:  And I never practiced.  I really enjoyed law school, though.  I think it’s a great education.  Helps you think through problems logically.  Helps you identify gaps in logic.  Helps you, like, you know, work through a solution and find where the holes are.  So I think that that’s useful whatever you’re doing.  It just happens to be that.  It’s also a nice shortcut for Tamara and I to be able to, you know, talk about things.  So I appreciate – I appreciate that as a commonality for us.

GLEN:  How did you each come to NLS?

ALICE:  I, after I finished law school and realized I did not want to be a lawyer, I went to library school at UT.  And I always loved the law librarians, and I had it fixed in my head that I was going to be a law librarian.  So I went to UT with that in mind.  And then I got a job at the same time, and it was digitizing documents.  It was a company that digitized documents for the state of Texas so that they could be retrieved using you know, metadata, kind of like a library, and I got a lot of great experience that translated pretty directly to a job that had been posted at the Library of Congress.

And it was always my dream to work at the Library of Congress.  I had it on my, you know, like my list of things to manifest.  And it turned out that I was able to move up to Washington and get the job.  And it’s like 20 years now that I’ve been working at NLS.  It’s been a great place for me to work.  You know, it’s got a lot of opportunity for growth and creativity with a really kind of like strong foundation in library service.

GLEN:  And how about you, Tamara?

TAMARA:  Well, I was practicing law in Georgia, and a friend of mine wanted me to help with a project that he got involved in, and it was converting texts for college students.  And these were going to be students with learning disabilities, but he wanted to be able to convert books into braille for the blind students.  And so we started a braille department, and before you know it I was working for them.  And then, you know, I ended up closing my practice, although I was still doing some on the side because, once you have a case, you can’t just drop it because you want a new job.  Eventually, though, I did finally finish all the cases and was working for this group and happened to see a posting.  And like you, Glen, I had been an avid user of the library since I was six years old.  And my dream was to work at the Library of Congress.  I mean, I idolized...

ALICE:  So we have two things in common.

TAMARA:  Yeah, I idolized NLS.  And so I applied for the job.  It was as a braille specialist.  And then, of course, after I got into that job, then eventually I applied for this particular position that I’m currently in.

GLEN:  So I know people who are longtime library users, you know, continue to use the service because there’s so much available.  Do you think you’re reaching younger readers, people who could benefit from the library and who might not be using it?

TAMARA:  I don’t think we’re reaching them as much as we’d like.  I definitely think we need to be reaching.  We have lots of ideas about, in fact, I’m going to be doing – funny that you should mention this.  Or maybe you didn’t.  I’m going to, though.  But we have a school program that we’re going to start, and we’re going to start talking about it in June at my quarterly Patron Corner on June 10th.  But we’re going to actually officially start it in August for the back-to-school with NLS, and we have a lot of different activities that we’re planning to do.

Our summer reading program, this is the second year we’re doing it.  It starts in June, and it’s geared toward younger people.  But the average NLS patron is in their 60s.  We need the average number to go down.  It needs to be people in their 30s, 40s, 20s because, once you are a reader, you’re a lifelong reader, as Glen, as you and I, and I’m sure Alice can attest.

ALICE:  That’s true.

TAMARA:  But if you don’t start reading young, you probably won’t start reading.

ALICE:  In the collections division, you know, we’re really trying to add more children’s content, more of stuff that kids want to read, like there’s always those, like, “I Survived” books or, you know, “Who Was Blah Blah Blah” books, the series books, books that, you know, kids are reading in print we know are going to be popular in audio and braille, too.  And on the library side, we’re really trying to reach out to school librarians and to people who are, like TVIs or braille resource room, people who have those like in their school offices, so that kids can have more of that experience, but an expanded experience of having lots and lots of content available to them.

I have a dream of having NLS be the nation’s accessible school library, where if you are a kid who has a print disability, then just like, you know, I went into the library on library day, you can access BARD, or you can browse Braille on Demand, or you can use your ereader to connect and find out what’s new in the BARD book, or in the braille books on BARD.  So I think that I would love for those opportunities to be available for everyone because that access moment really is, you know, super important.  I say all too often that 50% of your education happens in the classroom, but the other 50% happens in the library.

So if you have access to an accessible version of that library, then you can get that, you know, much more full spectrum of what you’re interested in can be explored.  You know, you can find out if you’re interested in, I don’t know, mermaids or volcanoes, or whatever happens to be the thing of the week.  So we’d really like to make sure that kids have that opportunity.  We’d really like to lower the age, you know, of NLS; and we’re trying on the collection side to do that.  And, you know, Tamara’s got great programming, but we’re trying to kind of back it up with actual books, so you don’t come to NLS and find out, oh, all they have is like “War and Peace.”

GLEN:  I used to think that NLS was the old stodgy collection.  And if you were dealing with controversial subjects, or you were dealing with anything that had any explicit sexual content, it was unlikely for NLS to put the books out.  And it seems like NLS is becoming much more contemporary and matching changes in cultural mores and ideas.  Is that true?

ALICE:  I hope so.  Gosh, I hope so.  One of the values that we have been able to kind of glean from our relationships with some of our publishing partners – you know, we work a lot with the audiobook publishing industry to provide accessible versions of the content that they create – is, number one, we’re able to make that available to patrons.  But then we’re able to use the money that we get in our appropriation to narrate things that might not make it, you know, into the marketplace, essentially.  And sometimes it’s things that, you know, might be a little less conservative, or sometimes it’s things that are super conservative.  But we are working very hard to expand what we have to offer.  We have very sophisticated patrons who have a lot of diverse reading interests, and I want to make sure that everybody has a chance to discover things that they might be interested in.  So, yeah, I would really hope that we have expanded what’s available, and we’ve expanded, you know, what’s possible to find at NLS.

TAMARA:  We have something for everyone.

ALICE:  Yeah.

TAMARA:  And the reason for that, I think it’s really important that we state that we’re not trying to be overly controversial about...

ALICE:  Unh-unh.

TAMARA:  We’re just trying to give a very wide breadth of materials so that people can find anything that they want.  You know, the other part of that, Glen, that you didn’t say because you were being nice, is that even the bestsellers would take six months to a year to show up in our library.  Now they are in our library within the month of coming out because we have access to all these commercial books, as well.  And like Alice said, because she can get so many commercial books, she can also now have more books that aren’t readily available because we can use our narrators to read those books.

GLEN:  My informants tell me that you, Alice, were one of the movers and shakers to make these deals with audio publishers.  How did this all happen, and how did you convince them that their content was safe with NLS?

ALICE:  Yeah, so that was about, gosh, maybe 11 years ago at this point.  We had worked with some of our audiobook producers who were sourcing commercial masters and then creating accessible versions for us, but at a very low scale.  And we decided to try to see if that was an option to work with those publishers more directly.  And so when we were starting negotiations, we decided that we would ask to have it as a no-cost agreement, and it seems like a lot of publishers were amenable to that suggestion.  Some took longer than others, but that’s no problem.  We just had to go through their different legal offices.

But we were very lucky to have a really good Office of General Counsel here at the library who helped us work through what those memorandums would look like.  And it was pretty easy to describe the level of care that we use with copyrighted materials, largely because we had, for so many years, you know, been working either under copyright, like book-by-book copyright allowances, or most recently under the Chafee Amendment for a copyright exemption.  So we had a lot of systems in place that gave the publishers confidence that we could be trusted with this copyrighted material, and it’s been fantastic.

It’s been a real change, I think, for our program, both in what we’re able to make available, but then also, you know, kind of how quickly we’re able to make it available.  I think that was another point that Tamara made that’s super relevant is that,  you know, if you don’t have to wait until the book gets published in print form and then start narrating it, you know, then you have a much better chance of releasing something very close to the release date in the marketplace.

GLEN:  Is it that there are fewer books read by the traditional NLS readers, or that the collection is growing so much faster that they seem to be sort of minimized by the latter?

ALICE:  It could be the latter, yeah.  I think it is, largely because, you know, we continue to produce the same number of, like, narrated titles.  Not exactly the same number, because it’s a good problem to have, but there are so many titles that are produced in audiobook format.  Finding things that are in print that are also desirable for the collection can be a bit of a challenge.  But we’ve been consistently producing narrated books.  We produce also narrated titles in Spanish.  So it’s probably somewhat less for lack of material, but I hope that people can still find their favorite narrators.  And lots of narrators do both.  You know, they do a commercial narration, and they also work for NLS narration.  So, you know, I think that if you look in the catalog you’ll be able to find narrators, you know, on both sides of the aisle.

GLEN:  Within the Marrakesh Treaty or any other laws, is there any provision for collaborating with other libraries, like RNIB, for instance, where you send them U.S. content, they send you RNIB content, and so what’s available to patrons is improved and increased?

ALICE:  So we have been working with other countries, both in international languages, but also countries who speak English, like Canada; and we’ve been able to really grow our collection of materials.  It’s been a wonderful development for all libraries, you know, around the world; but NLS has really benefited from it, as well.  We have shared our collection, everything we’re able to, to other countries, and then we’ve been, you know, downloading and processing and making available to our patrons lots of great titles in lots of different languages.

We were excited to be able to share “Game of Thrones,” and we were excited to be able to download the “Outlander” series.  So there’s been a real augmentation, I think, of our collection, using other libraries across the world who are making this type of accessible material.  So that’s been really fantastic for our collection.

GLEN:  What happens when NLS has, you know, eight out of 10 books from a series, and there are a couple of books missing?  How do you encourage NLS to add the final two?

ALICE:  Anything missing in a series, I want to know about it.  So first thing you can do is call your network library and tell them that they, you know, to recommend it to us.  We have a very direct path for network libraries to be able to make recommendations to our collection development section.  And then if you follow up with them sometimes, or they’ll follow up with you, you can get information about whether that book, if there’s a reason that that book is not available.

So like right now there’s some books that have James Patterson published in a series.  And unfortunately, they’ve only been published in the UK, so they haven’t been published here yet.  So they exist, but they’re tantalizingly, you know, over the ocean.  We’re not able to get them yet.  So we’re waiting for those to be published.  Sometimes another reason might be that it’s an older series, and we can’t source the print material.  So we are always looking to close those gaps.  If you find them, let us know.  We want to make sure that all series are complete.  Sometimes there’s a reason, and sometimes we just need to, you know, be aware.

GLEN:  I have a feature request.  Doesn’t everyone?

TAMARA:  Of course.

GLEN:  My feature request is to get previews of books before I download them.

TAMARA:  Yeah, we’ve been talking about that, actually, as a possibility, as we’re getting ready to roll out what we’re calling BARD 2.0, which is a major BARD update.  So look for that.  We’ve talked about it a little bit on my Many Faces program, and we’ve been demonstrating it.  And when that rolls out, it’s going to give us the ability to offer a lot of things.  And so one of the things that we’re hoping to be able to implement, not at first, of course, would be the ability to preview a book, like you can with some of the other services.  Audible, for example, you can listen to a sample of the book.

GLEN:  Yes.

TAMARA:  So that’s one of the things that people have been asking for that we’re hoping that we’ll be able to offer.

GLEN:  And does BARD on Alexa go along with this BARD 2.0?

TAMARA:  That’s something we’ve been working on, and that’s going to be rolled out in the next few months, as well.  There’s a large beta right now going on with that.  A “field test” is what that has been coined.  And so we’ll be doing what we call an open beta, which means a lot more people will be able to get in on it.  So you can look forward to being able to listen to your BARD books on Alexa within the next few months.  Of course, with Alexa, you can hear a sample of the book by just starting it, and that’s all streaming.  So there are no 250 download limits or anything there because it’s all just streaming.

GLEN:  Have there been initiatives at NLS, parts of the program that have been expanded because of very creative and interested staff members?

ALICE:  I think that’s why we have Braille on Demand.

GLEN:  And is that the same as what used to be known as Web Braille?

TAMARA:  No.  Braille on Demand is totally different than Web Braille.  Web Braille is now Braille on BARD, so when you go to BARD, and you’re searching, and that’s what you’re getting.  The only difference is now you’re downloading a zip file with the books instead of each book individually.

GLEN:  Okay.

TAMARA:  Braille on Demand is a new service that we have where you can find a book that is available in braille on BARD.  If you’d like to receive a soft-cover physical copy of that book, you just fill out a form, send it in, and within three weeks or so you receive that book for your personal use for as long as you need it.

ALICE:  It’s a really great, like, complement, I think, to having so many electronic braille books available on BARD is that, you know, you can browse them on BARD and then decide you want to read it on your ereader, or you decide that you want to have a hard copy book because, you know, some books lend themselves nicely to hard copy, I think, so...

GLEN:  Like cookbooks.

ALICE:  Yeah, exactly, or reference material, or music.

TAMARA:  Or a lot of people have downloaded a lot of books that – like my favorite childhood book.  You know, I loved this book when I was a kid.  I want to have this so I can read it to my children.  I want to always have it, that kind of thing.

ALICE:  A lot of rereads, you know, the things that you want to go back to.  So that’s – it’s been a great program.  I’m really excited that we are able to offer it to patrons.  And any braille reader out there who’d like to try it, it’s just, it’s a free service that just is included.  You don’t have to do anything special.  You just let us know that you’re interested.

TAMARA:  You have to be a patron.  And so if you’re not a patron, and you’d like to get a book, you will need to go ahead and be a patron.

GLEN:  Something else that I think is fairly new is giving out free ereaders, which are 20-cell braille displays on which you can load books and also connect to your computer.  Who had the idea to make that happen?

TAMARA:  That was the brainchild of Karen Keninger.  She was our former director.  And, yeah, she was a braille reader and very strongly believed in braille literacy.  And I’m really glad that somebody finally decided that we braille readers needed to have a free device that we could get from the library to read our braille books.

GLEN:  Are the ereaders issued by the regional libraries, and it really depends upon whether or not they’ve spent their allocation?

TAMARA:  No.  They are issued by the regional libraries.  It does not relate to their allocation at all.  Some regional libraries don’t provide braille.  And if they don’t provide braille, then they have a contract with another library to do it for them.  So in those cases, that other library provides their ereaders.  But any regional library should be able to help you get an ereader, either by sending you one or putting you in contact with who’s responsible for sending out their ereaders.

GLEN:  So there is not more demand than there are ereaders available.

TAMARA:  That’s an interesting way to put it.  No, I would say at this point no.  At this point, we have ereaders for everyone who wants one.  And we do have people who want a different ereader than their state is providing.  We can’t do that, but we can provide you with the ereader that your state is providing.

GLEN:  If you have listened to a book and downloaded the book, and you say, “Show me other books by this author,” that often does not actually turn up all the books by this author in BARD.  Is that a known issue?

TAMARA:  It’s not known to me, but I’m not the BARD expert.  It should show you the books in BARD.

GLEN:  Yeah.

ALICE:  Mm-hmm.

TAMARA:  By that author.

GLEN:  It does not.  And I thought it was just me, and then a colleague mentioned it.

ALICE:  If you have that instance, you know, you can let us know, and we can at least see if we expect that behavior or if it’s a little weird.

TAMARA:  You know, this is exactly what we do with the Many Faces of BARD program.  People ask questions, all kinds of questions.  And we want people to be able to get the answers that they need directly from the source, the source being us.

GLEN:  So what is Many Faces of BARD?

ALICE:  The best.

TAMARA:  Many Faces of BARD is another program that we have every second Thursday of the month.  It happens every month.  And we usually start with a presentation about some new thing or some, you know, something new about BARD, maybe first 10, 15 minutes.  And then we just, for the rest of the hour, people can ask any question they want about BARD-related issues, and we answer them.  And so it’s...

ALICE:  It’s really fun.  You should come.

GLEN:  I’m thinking about this, yes.


GLEN:  So how does one get connected with that program and your Patron Corner, which I think happens every quarter, and all the other specific ones?

TAMARA:  We have a listserv, or an announced list that people sign up on.  And whenever any announcement about that, or any particularly important announcement about magazines or anything to do with the catalog or anything I think patrons might have an interest in, I send that information out on the list.  So I send the Zoom links out on that list, and many libraries across the country post the Zoom links when they get them.  It’s also posted on our web page.  Because of security, we have to actually change the Zoom link each month.  So we do post a new link for the program each month.  But we tell you the topic, and we post the link, and then you can come to the program.

GLEN:  And how do you get on the email list?

TAMARA:  Oh, send an email to nlspes@loc.gov.  And just say you want to be on the announced list.  We monitor that mailbox closely.  In fact, our new Assistive Technology Specialist, Liz Bottner, has taken over the monitoring of it, thank god, because it actually is quite a bit of work.  But she monitors it very closely, and she does a great job of keeping, making sure people are subscribed who want to be, and making sure that she responds to all the questions that come in and all that stuff.

ALICE:  Yeah, she’s great.  And, you know, Liz isn’t shy also about asking other people if she needs some input from other sections or something.  You know, we sometimes get forwards or questions or stuff like that.  So even if you want to use it to ask questions – sorry, Liz – about, like, NLS, but it’s not necessarily related to BARD or patron engagement, you know, there’s always a chance for us to engage.

TAMARA:  Anything you send to that list will be forwarded to whoever is the rightful owner of it.

GLEN:  Is there anything else that you guys want to focus on or that I should have asked you?

ALICE:  I really want everybody who’s a patron or who’s listening or thinking about becoming a patron or maybe thinking about coming back to the library to know that, you know, we’re really – I’m really interested in making sure that the library’s collection reflects,  you know, the diversity of people’s interests, basically.  So if you’re interested in something, and there’s not a book in the collection, you know, we’d like to know that you have that interest.  But, you know, rest assured we spend a lot of time trying to make sure that there’s a lot of materials to choose from.  And there are a lot of options for reading, and that you have a chance to read, you know, the content that you want in the format that you prefer.

TAMARA:  I really want to encourage those people who are not patrons of our service to give us a try.  And if you want to give us a try, get an account.  It is free.  You get the books for free.  You download them.  You get to keep them.  So there’s really – it’s a win-win proposition.  If you want to try us out, all you have to do is fill out an application.  You can go to our website for the application, or you can go to your regional library’s website, and you fill out the application.  You have to get someone to say that you are an eligible person with a disability and send that in.  That will get you access to our services.  You can sign up for BARD.  You can get a player if you need one.  So sign up, give us a try, and then let us know what we can do to keep you there.

GLEN:  And your main address is?

TAMARA:  Loc.gov/nls.  That is our actual main website address.  Now, if you want to go to BARD, it’s nlsbard.loc.gov.  That’s the BARD web address.

GLEN:  Thank you both very much.

ALICE:  All right, well, thank you.

TAMARA:  Well, thank you, Glen, for having us.  We love talking about NLS.  We really do.

ALICE:  I know, it’s really just fantastic.

Interview with Dr. Gordon Legge

GLEN:  Joining me now is Dr. Gordon Legge, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota.  He is also Director of the Minnesota Laboratory for Low-Vision Research.  Despite the fact that my last name is his first name, that we live in adjacent states, we both use JAWS, and that we are both associated with blindness and low vision, we likely never would have met had it not been for Steve Cutway, who put us together.  Gordon, thanks for being here.

GORDON LEGGE:  Great, thanks, Glen.  I appreciate being here.  I’m glad to hear that Steve passed on my name to you.  So I thank him, as well.

GLEN:  What was your journey with low vision in the early part of your life?

GORDON:  I was born and grew up with normal vision until age six.  I had a very serious, life-threatening disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that left me with very, very low vision.  And then I went to a residential School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario, which is near Toronto.  You know, in those days at schools for the blind, they discouraged use of any vision.  I remember there were kids there that I would say had pretty decent low vision, who would easily be able to read with magnifiers.  But in those days they discouraged any kind of visual reading.

You know, we as Canadians played hockey, and they had two levels of hockey at the School for the Blind.  The kids that we would now say have low vision would play against each other and could use their vision.  And the kids who had basically no vision or too little vision to see the puck would play what we called blind hockey.  And I was in that group.  They actually made me wear a blindfold because I had a tiny bit of vision.

And I always remember those hockey games being very rough and very exciting.  You can imagine a bunch of blind kids on skates wielding hockey sticks.  And we used a tin can that would rattle around so we could hear it.  So you have all these blind kids whacking away at each other and at this tin can on the ice.  So that was kind of a vivid memory of those days.

GLEN:  Do you think you would have been served better had they taken advantage of your residual vision?  Or do you think being educated as a blind person was the best for you?

GORDON:  That’s a good question.  I mean, my general philosophy as an educator and researcher on vision is maximize the use of whatever vision you have.  And even very low vision can be useful.  On the other hand, you know, I learned braille.  I learned to deal sort of with educational materials.  I learned to touch-type.  So I learned things there I might not have learned or might not have been as proficient with, let’s say I’d been mainstream from the beginning.  So yeah, I have sort of mixed feelings about that.

GLEN:  And as best you can remember, what were your initial experiences being mainstreamed?

GORDON:  I went to a prep school in Toronto.  It was connected with the University of Toronto.  So it’s kind of a merit-based school, a very, very good school.  But they didn’t quite know how to handle a visually impaired kid.  And the first day it came up, we had to do a French exam.  And they took me in, and they had the principal – we called him the headmaster in those days – administer this French exam as an oral French exam.  This  was pretty intimidating for me.  So there were a lot of little things, nuances like that, that made the adjustment, I guess, challenging on both sides, both for the school and for me.  But they were generally very willing to accommodate.  And I think back on it in a very, very positive way.  Those were days when kids with impaired vision weren’t really mainstreamed very, very much.  It was in the very early days.  So challenging transition, but it worked, I guess, is what I would say.

GLEN:  The fact that you have an undergraduate degree in physics says to me that you potentially were interested in science early on.

GORDON:  Even at the School for the Blind, I was interested in science.  They had a couple of braille books, one on topics in astronomy.  I remember going through it avidly.  This was in the early days of the U.S. space program.  I remember being thrilled by Alan Shepard and John Glenn and, you know, the early astronauts.  So I had a very strong motivation for science or engineering.  My older brother was, you know, seven years older and was already in university taking math and physics courses.  So, you know, I was probably influenced by him, as well.  So I had a very strong wish to somehow get into science or engineering.

GLEN:  And what were the logistics of that?

GORDON:  Okay, so this is an interesting story.  So now I’m getting near the end of high school and thinking about applying for college.  This is late ‘60s now, mid to late ‘60s, 1967, I guess.  And kind of naively, I wrote to a number of pretty high-profile universities, both in Canada and the U.S., saying, you know, “I’m visually impaired.  I’m about to graduate from high school.  I’m interested in majoring in science or in some kind of science or engineering.  What do you think?”  So I acknowledged that I was visually impaired.  And I got basically some flat rejections from some pretty well-known places.

I remember one very well-known university in Canada wrote back and said, well, we don’t really know how you’d do lab studies.  But maybe we’d consider it if you were willing to stick to theoretical physics.  And one of the places I did apply to or wrote to was MIT.  And unlike most of the other places I approached, they wrote back and said, “Yeah, you’re a pretty strong candidate.  We haven’t had that much experience with blind or visually impaired students, but we’ll make it work.”

And they did.  They followed through.  They were really great.  This is way back in the reel-to-reel tape recording era.  And they sent their, you know, IT people of the day, they literally recorded basically all my lectures on magnetic reel-to-reel tape.  And I’d go in and get it.  And then they would also help me recruit readers.  You know, I would solicit volunteer readers.  I got them from staff and students.  So they were helpful in that way.  And when it came to doing labs, they helped me find lab partners and made sure the TAs that were running the labs, you know, were kind of sensitive to that, you know, I would have some special needs.  So they were actually really good.  But it was a partnership.  It wasn’t me waiting for them to figure it out.  It was, you know, what will work.  And they would help me find the solutions.

GLEN:  Did you know or think you knew at the time you did a physics degree how you wanted to use it?

GORDON:  When I was, you know, majoring in physics at MIT, I had a very good experience.  I was sure I wanted to go on to grad school.  So again, I went through the process of approaching various grad programs.  I was interested in astrophysics, basically, physics associated with astronomy.  So I approached several places.  I got, actually, more receptive responses.  But they were very competitive places.  I ended up going to Harvard and in astronomy, started in astronomy.

I’ll give you one little side note, though, that’s kind of interesting and fun.  One of the other places I applied to for grad school was Cornell.  And I visited Cornell, was taken around to visit faculty there.  And one of the faculty I visited with and who tried to recruit me was Carl Sagan.  So I take that as – I take that as a rather interesting little anecdote.

So I started off in grad school basically doing astrophysics at Harvard.  But this was in the time of student unrest, like it is now.  But it was student unrest concerned with both civil rights, but I’d say mostly the Vietnam War.  And although I wasn’t a leading activist, I was quite engaged in student activism.  And at some point during my first year of grad school, I decided the theoretical work I was doing on astrophysics, while exciting, challenging, worthwhile, was just too removed from human nature and the human condition.  So I took a couple of courses in psychology, cognitive psychology.

And at some point during that year I came to sort of a personal crisis that I needed to change my career goals.  And at the end of my first year of grad school, I switched from astronomy to psychology.  And I tell people that it seems like a pretty dramatic, you know, fork in the road, and it really was.  But it was really motivated by some kind of internal need to work more closely with, I don’t know, I’ll put it this way, human nature or the human condition.

And then I started getting interested in perception, particularly visual perception.  And I realized there was actually a lot of overlap with what I’d learned in physics.  They were – vision, we call it “vision science” or the study of visual perception, how the visual system works, requires knowledge of the anatomy of the eye, light and physics of light, optics, Fourier transforms.  These are all things I knew about from my physics background.  And I was surprised to learn that I could carry that into a field of psychology that actually built on my background in physics.  And maybe not so much astronomy, but certainly the physics side of it.

GLEN:  And then how did you get connected with the University of Minnesota?

GORDON:  Okay.  So then when I finished my PhD with – this is pretty common now in people who are in research fields.  They’ll do postdoctoral research somewhere.  They’ll find a lab or get a fellowship.  And I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship to go to the physiological laboratory at Cambridge University.  At that time, it was sort of the Mecca for studies of vision, both on the perception and the neuroscience side of it.  So I got very lucky and fell in with a top-tier group.

And then I started applying for real jobs.  And one that came open was at the University of Minnesota.  I didn’t know anything about the University of Minnesota except that, as a grad student and TA, I’d had a student in my class who’d been from Minneapolis.  And he told me, well, the Twin Cities are the Athens of the Midwest.  So that stuck with me.  And I said, okay, I’m going to apply for this university post in the Athens of the Midwest.

And for whatever reason, they brought me in for an interview.  Somehow, the interview went well.  And they offered me a position as an assistant professor in the psychology department, which is a very good psychology department.  So I went there fall of 1977, a long time ago now.  And basically I’ve been there ever since, with a few, you know, sabbatical visits and so on to other places.

GLEN:  What about actual lectures, where you’re wanting to make something available on the board or the equivalent?  How did you do that early on, and how did that evolve?

GORDON:  I would literally – by the way, I always used braille lecture notes.  In the early days, like hand-created on the Perkins Brailler.  Later on, they’d all be stored as Word documents.  I’d just edit and print them out, you know, as needed.  And I still do that.  My early years as a lecturer, I had enough sight that I could make – I could use the blackboard.  I could take white chalk on a blackboard.  I could kind of see what I was drawing.  And I could at least – I think I made it legible for the students.  And then at some point I started using transparencies.  I would need a TA to help with those.  And eventually I got all of that converted into PowerPoint, which is much easier to deal with.

GLEN:  Everything I’ve heard is, if you’re at a university like this, and you want to get tenure, it’s publish or perish.

GORDON:  Yeah.

GLEN:  Where did you start out with your research?

GORDON:  I was doing pretty basic research on normal human pattern vision, how the eye accepts very simple patterns, how that information is conducted along the visual pathway to the brain.  And at some point, pretty early on, I started thinking about, does this stuff apply to people with impaired vision?  The term “low vision” was actually pretty new in those days.  And it turned out that there’d been very little research directed specifically at impaired vision or low vision.  So at some point, shortly after I’d come to the University of Minnesota, I decided to submit a small grant to National Institutes of Health, NIH, which are the main funding source for vision research.  And I decided I’m going to do some basic studies on what kind of visual factors help us to understand the limitations of reading with low vision.

So I submitted what I thought was a small grant.  And I figured, okay, maybe they won’t even be interested in this because nobody studies this kind of stuff.  But it turned out that NIH was actually waking up to the possibility of applying their funds to study impaired vision or low vision.  Suddenly, here comes this grant application from this young whippersnapper at the University of Minnesota.  But he has some pretty good ideas, and he has low vision himself.  Maybe we should invest in him.  So they did something that I think is almost unprecedented.  They took the grant I submitted, and they doubled the funding and said, “We don’t think you’ve asked for enough.  We’re going to double your funding so you can hire a postdoc to work with you because we think this is so important.”

GLEN:  How much of your work over the years has been towards learning things that can help people directly cope, as opposed to just research for understanding things better?

GORDON:  A lot of the work I’ve done has to do with vision and reading.  And one of the outcomes of that research is a vision test called the MNREAD Test, MN for Minnesota and reading for – because it’s a test of reading vision.  So it’s a kind of eye chart that’s used by research and clinicians to assess and understand reading of people with low vision.  It can be used for prescribing magnifiers.  It can be used in clinical trials.  So it’s kind of a specialized eye test, let’s put it that way, different from the standard letter chart that many people have, you know, been used to.

GLEN:  And what’s wrong with the letter chart, fundamentally?

GORDON:  Okay, that’s a good question.  The letter chart tells you the smallest print you can see, doesn’t really tell you much about how well you can read or what size print you need to read and how well you can read, even given enough print.  So this MNREAD Test provides several measures of vision reading that you can’t get off the acuity chart.  And the research has shown that, although there’s some correlation, some predictive value from the typical letter chart, it doesn’t tell you the capacities that people have, how quickly they can read, what appropriate magnification they need, and so forth.  By the way, there’s a chart version of this MNREAD Test and also an iPad app version, which has been fun to work on.

GLEN:  And is that available to just anybody, or is it for clinicians?

GORDON:  Yeah, I mean, it’s available to anybody through the app store.  But in practice it’s used by clinicians, I would say.

GLEN:  What do you think you brought to low-vision research that someone who was not low vision and had the same background as you do wouldn’t have brought?

GORDON:  Ah, that’s, yeah, a really interesting question.  I brought motivation interest.  So there were, of course, there were people interested in low vision before I came on the side.  But they were mostly coming at it from the clinical practitioner side.  I came at it as someone trained in kind of a scientific field.  I’ll call it “vision science,” or “visual neuroscience” people call it now.  But I also had low vision, so I had the personal perspective.  So I was in a fairly unique position to sort of see this problem from both sides, not – I can kind of straddle the bridge.  I’m not sure I can build the bridge or I can imagine the bridge.  Let’s put it that way.  So maybe that’s a little bit what I’ve been able to contribute.

I’ve helped to build the field to some extent with the students I’ve brought in.  So I take pride in that.  I’ve had some very wonderful students, many who are out doing good things now.  I think I’ve raised the profile of low vision as a sub-area in the field of vision science and, you know, maybe some practical things along the way, like the MNREAD Test and some stuff I’ve done on architectural accessibility and so on.

GLEN:  And has your research come to any recommendations in terms of how to make spaces easier to navigate by someone who’s low vision?

GORDON:  My work in this area mostly is focused on visual enhancement.  In fact, we use the term “visual accessibility.”  How can architects design a space so it’s more usable, more visually usable, by people with low vision?  Light level, arrangement of lighting, not just overall lighting, but arrangement of lighting and how it can be used to enhance contrast of objects in the scene.  I have a student who’s finishing his PhD who is doing testing with very low vision, and how lighting arrangements enhance or detract from the ability of somebody with very low acuity to see obstacles or identify objects in the path.

GLEN:  You did a study about tactile ability and how being a braille reader may help you prolong that as you age.

GORDON:  I sort of had the intuition that there are lots of older people who continue to be braille readers.  And this seemed to be sort of inconsistent with this prevailing idea that tactile acuity declines over the lifespan.  Shouldn’t everybody lose the ability to read braille as they get older?  So we did a study, this is quite a few years ago now, where we measured tactile acuity.  We had a couple of different ways of doing it.  But we basically measured it for groups of blind subjects and sighted subjects across a wide range of ages.

And the sighted subjects, we replicated the prevailing finding.  Yes, the older subjects had poor tactile acuity to the point where you would expect they would not be able to resolve braille characters properly.  But the blind subjects maintained good tactile acuity into old age.  This is excluding people that had special issues, like maybe neuropathy from diabetic conditions.  But it’s a little bit of a puzzle what the underlying explanation of this is.  But it seems to be the case that blind people retain good tactile acuity into old age, whereas sighted people show this typical progression of decline of tactile acuity in old age.

You know, you hear about how difficult it is for late-onset blind people to learn braille.  And I think it’s – there are probably lots of reasons, you know, motivation, whatever.  But I think there is a component.  Maybe they just don’t have the tactile acuity.  You know, if you start learning braille when you’re 60 or 70, you’ve kind of maybe lost the tactile acuity to be a proficient braille reader.

GLEN:  What should I have asked you?

GORDON:  Can I give a plug for my book?

GLEN:  Absolutely.

GORDON:  The kind of working title is something like “Vision Loss:  What It’s Like to Live with Low Vision.”  So what I’m trying to do is describe the visual experience or perceptual experience of living with low vision.  Of course I bring in anecdotes from my own experience, but also a lot of the research.  I describe what kinds of tests are used – acuity, contrast, sensitivity fields – and what that means about what people can see.  So if you’re told that you have an acuity of 20 over 200, 20 over 400, that’s a number.  But how does that translate into real-world experience?  It has an academic tone, but I’m hoping it will be used by students in a wide range of fields, whether medical or rehab or even engineering design.  But I’m also hoping it will be accessible to people with low vision and their families.

So I’m trying to write it, not to require a lot of background, but to have meat on the bones, as well.  So anyway, I’m hoping maybe some of the FSCast listeners will be interested at some point when this book comes out.

GLEN:  Excellent.  And as a blind guy, maybe I’ll learn more about vision.

GORDON:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.

GLEN:  I want to encourage people to go to your website, both to cover some of the things that we’ve discussed here, but there’s some fun stuff there, as well, including talking about the kind of movies that cats would like, your science fiction novel, and some word puzzles.

GORDON:  Yeah, yeah, I need to add a few.  I haven’t updated those for a while, but I’ll get back to that at some point during my phased retirement period.

GLEN:  And what is your web address, or how do people find you?

GORDON:  I think the easiest way is just my name, L-E-G-G-E, legge.psych.umn.edu.

GLEN:  Well, Gordon, you’ve more than lived up to everything that I was promised when I invited you to be here on the podcast.  So thank you very much. 

GORDON:  Thanks, Glen.  Thanks to Steve for putting us in touch.  It’s been a lot of fun.

Signing Off on FSCast 245

GLEN:  That does it for FSCast 245.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks for joining me.  We’ll see you next month.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com



edigitaltranscription.com  •  05/27/2024  •  edigitaltranscription.com