Sightseeing. A periodic tour of CVI news, views and events.

CVI's SightSeeing Blog

Welcome to CVI's SightSeeing Blog! Here we discuss topics of interest and importance to the community.

Some of the information posted here includes personal stories from CVI clients, perspectives from CVI's expert staff, hot topic issues in government, the latest trends in technology for the visually impaired, and much more. Our desire is that this blog is a useful tool to enlighten, educate and provide needed information in a meaningful dialogue for both the blind and sighted communities. Join us as we invite you to share and discuss the topics with us.

Please note: Blog comments are not to be interpreted as a direct endorsement by the Center for the Visually Impaired.

Ms. Thomas Goes to Washington For Vacation

Submitted by Empish J. Thomas, CVI’s Public Education Manager

Empish and FDR statueEvery year my summer vacation is usually a trip back home to see family or a staycation reading and relaxing in my air-conditioned house. But this year I decided to make a change. I have been to Washington, DC several times for work or disability-related events. While there I never had time to see the historic sites or tour the Capitol and surrounding Mall. I kept telling myself I will come back and do a vacation to DC so I can see everything. So when the opportunity to travel with a tour group came up I took advantage.

I decided to take my vacation this way because friends and family are not always available. Also, I have discovered since losing my vision that traveling alone can be a bit overwhelming. Another reason I chose the travel tour group was because everything was already pre-arranged. The travel packages were clearly outlined and displayed on the website with a daily agenda and use of a sighted guide. The company is called Mind’s Eye Travel and they specialize in group travel for the blind and visually impaired. All I had to do was pay the fee and show up. You can’t get any easier than that!

The first night we met at the hotel restaurant in Old Alexandria for a dinner meet and greet. My 7-member group plus guide dog consisted of sighted, blind and visually impaired travelers from across the country. Our personal backgrounds were just as diverse from age, career status, race and vision level.

In the morning, following a delicious breakfast buffet, we all met for a private bus tour of Empish standing by Slave MemorialDC. As the guide drove by each location he gave the main highlights. We road by the Vietnam Memorial, The FBI Building, the Washington Monument, The Pentagon, and of course the Capitol. We stopped at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. There we were able to see the statues of him, both the one exposing his wheelchair and the one that did not. We also walked by numerous water fountains as Roosevelt was fond of water and springs. During his lifetime, he traveled often to Warm Springs, for what was believed to have therapeutic properties for his polio. But what I found most interesting about this section was the braille display of some of his speeches. I was able to place my fingers directly on the stone and feel Braille letters.

After our guided bus tour we came back to Alexandria for a food walking tour. The weather was mild and breezy which made it nice for a long stroll through town. As we walked along the cobble and brick sidewalks and streets, our guide gave details of buildings and houses in Old Alexandria. She explained that many of the houses are historical sites and the outsides are preserved in their original state. Between viewing these houses we stopped at several restaurants to sample a variety of cuisines. Along the walking tour we visited Christ’s Church, the place that the late President George Washington worshipped. Inside the church you can actually see the pew where he sat for services.

The next day we were up and at it again. This time we took a water tour to Mount Vernon. We boarded a small ferry boat and then took a short bus ride up. There we walked through Washington’s mansion. We toured his dining room, bedroom, study and tomb. We also walked down to the slave memorial which exhibited his written emancipation freeing his slaves. We next toured the slave quarters. I have to admit, I was surprised when I saw them. I was envisioning the typical slave quarters of a small, old dilapidated wooden structure with a dirt floor. But they were roomy and made of brick.

On the last day of vacation we visited the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian. Our personal tour guide gave interesting facts about the creation of the American flag, and tidbits about the Civil War. Unfortunately, that was all that I saw because I was too tired. Who knew you could become exhausted on your vacation? LOL! After two full days of walking I was feeling the effects and sat down to rest.

Empish holding DC replicaBut later that evening we boarded the King’s Trolley for a ride up to the wharf by the Potomac River for dinner. We stopped first for a little musical entertainment by Jamey Turner, who plays a glass harmonica. With his fingertips he created beautiful musical sounds through a series of glass bolls filled with various amounts of water. He invited people from the crowd to join him, and of course, I had to try! He instructed me to wet my fingertips in the water and run them quickly around the rim of the glass bowl. As I did that a tinkling melodious tone came out. Afterward we ate dinner where I sampled, for the first time, clam tater tots and fired lava cake. Very delicious!

In the morning after a well-needed restful sleep, I said goodbye to my roommate, ate breakfast and headed to the airport. As I flew back to Atlanta, I reflected on my vacation. It was an incredible experience for me because I learned so much historical information about Washington, DC. I also reflected on traveling with a tour group and found it a wonderful experience.

So are you ready to go on your summer vacation? Will you be traveling away from home or having a staycation? Are you traveling with friends and family? Have you ever consider traveling with a tour group? Share your summer vacation plans in the comment section below.

CVI’s SightSeeing Blog Needs Your Help

Client walking in MARTA station with white cane.The CVI’s SightSeeing Blog is celebrating its second year anniversary this month. Since its inception, SightSeeing has been providing news, information and resources to our subscribers. We have posted stories on different aspects of travel, how to participate in sports and recreational activities, and best ways to manage daily living skills. We have had guest posts on navigating Social Security disability benefits, favorite iPhone apps for the blind and the importance of audio described programs for visually impaired children. We have also shared information about what goes on here at CVI; from bringing our children to work, to new services in our low vision clinic, to various activities in our STARS and BEGIN programs. But now as we gear up for the new fiscal year and look forward to even more interesting and informative post, I am reaching out to you, our subscribers, with a request.

I am asking for you to share your thoughts and ideas with us. What type of posts would you like to see on SightSeeing this year? Is there a topic you are interested in that we have not explored? Do you have a pressing issue you want to share and discuss with others? Are you interested in writing a post yourself? Please let us know. We want to hear your thoughts and ideas so that we can make SightSeeing the best blog ever!

If you have questions or need our blogger guidelines, please contact me at 404-602-4277 or by email at

Celebrating Independence Day

Picture of fireworksAs part of our American history we celebrate July 4th as our national day of independence. Family and friends gather for festive parades waving American flags and listening to high school marching bands. During the day we also enjoy cook outs of hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad. Ending with large crowds gathering for bright sparkly firework displays. But more importantly, we remember the men and women who fought so bravely to solidify our nation’s freedom.

While we celebrate this day of independence one time out of the year, CVI celebrates independence all year round. By providing services and programs that focus on independence with dignity CVI helps those with vision loss regain their lives. From learning how to safely and confidently cross the street, to cooking and preparing meals, to using a computer with assistive technology, our clients gain the skills they need to live more productively. So, while celebrating the red, white and blue, take a minute to share with us an example of how CVI has helped you or someone you know achieve independence with dignity.

STARS Honors 2014 High School Graduates

Picture of STARS graduates and Alumni membersEarlier this month, the STARS staff celebrated with 6 blind and visually impaired students as they turned their tassels and graduated from high school. The STARS annual Graduation Ceremony, held at CVI, is a way to support and encourage seniors as they transition from high school to college or employment. “Each of the graduates was able to speak on what STARS has meant to them over the years, which was incredibly heart-warming and encouraging,” said Heather Ferro, STARS and Volunteer Services Director. “Seeing the graduates welcomed by the CVI Alumni Association added to the warmness of the celebration.” The students graduated from schools such as the Georgia Academy for the Blind, Pickens County High School, Tucker High School, Kell High School and Drew High School.

CVI staff, Alumni Association members, parents and friends were all in attendance as each student was given an award and a $200 scholarship check from the CVI Alumni Association. The scholarship award started six years ago with a goal of financially giving back to the youth because they wanted to see each graduate leave CVI with a hand up in getting started on their journey in life. During the year the Alumni Association hosts two major fundraising activities to collect monies for the scholarship. They host a Superbowl drawing for a big screen television in January and an Entrepreneurial Showcase and Hot Dog sale in April.

STARS has held this ceremony since 2003. Initially it was called the STARS award brunch and was for any student receiving an award highlighting their accomplishments in the after school program, summer camp and mentoring program. It later blossomed into a ceremony recognizing seniors graduating from high school.

So, hats off to our graduates. We are proud of you and all that you have accomplished. Out of the eight seniors that graduated 6 were in attendance at the ceremony. Below is a listing of their names and their ambitions for the future.

1. Ali Lawson will be attending Young Harris College in the fall majoring in religious studies. She plans to become a minister.
2. Malik Wilson will be attending the National Federation of the Blind training center and then go to college. He wants to pursue a degree in marketing or business.
3. Alexandria Gooch will be attending Bobby Dodd Institute and wants to become a Spanish translator.
4. Kajain Sheppard is hoping to attend Georgia Perimeter College in the fall.
5. Ashley Robinson will be attending Mercer University in August for a work-study program.
6. Julius Lindsey just accepted a job at Kroger and will be working in the produce department.

Giving Back to My Community is Not Just My work But My Passion

When I launched my professional career in May 1995, my mind was set on working for a prestigious company as a public relations practitioner. Working in the non-profit industry was nowhere on the radar and neither was blindness. I had volunteered in the past both during my high school and college years. I had even sat on a collegiate board for the March of Dimes and found the work rewarding and enjoyable. Immediately after college I worked at a local public relations firm where we did pro bono work for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s “Bowl for Breath” fundraising campaign. But little did I know that in a few months I would be going blind and that my whole life and career would drastically change.

Empish sitting at Coke exhibit tableI first came in contact with the Center for the Visually Impaired as a client. I was losing my vision to retinal detachment and optical nerve damage. I was currently working at a national corporate company and wanted to continue working but I needed help. CVI assisted me with the education and training that I needed to continue not only working but continue my life as well. I learned about assistive technology, traveling safely with a white cane, reading braille and completing household chores.

After losing my corporate job to downsizing, I was rethinking my career path and decided to volunteer at a non-profit. Since I was now a part of the disability community, I wanted to learn more and give back. I worked on a newsletter for a disability non-profit agency. This led to an AmeriCorps position which led to a resource position which finally led to sub-contract and freelance writing work. Before I knew it I had been working with local non-profits for several years. These opportunities allowed me to use my public relations and journalism experience while serving my own population. Then in 2008 the economy took a major nose dive and I had to rethink my career yet again. A visually impaired friend told me about an opening position at CVI and thought I would be perfect for it. The position included educating the public on vision loss, writing, editing and public speaking. Well, that sounded just like me! So here I am almost 6 years later doing exactly that.

What makes working at CVI so rewarding and fulfilling is I am not just a blind person representing my community but that I use my skills and talents every day. Through my speaking engagements, writing and editing the SightSeeing Blog, that you are reading, maintaining a blind community events calendar called InfoLink and more, I am able to promote our mission-independence with dignity. My visual disability enhances my position here because when I interact with the public I am a walking, live example of what a blind and visually impaired person is capable of doing. I am like the guy on the Hair Club for Men commercial. He says that he is not just the president but a user of the product. I find this motivating because people get a better understanding of the blind community when they interact with me. Seeing the reactions from people is encouraging and inspiring. It helps me to believe that what I am doing and the agency I represent are making differences in the world and in the lives of those with vision loss.

Being a Blind Father is Not a Different Experience

We often hear adults identify the birth of their child as one of the most meaningful and impactful events of their lives. This is certainly not any different for parents who are blind or visually impaired. Blind parents experience the same kind of emotions, both of anticipation and later of joy and ecstasy upon hearing that first baby cry which often signifies a successful delivery. Yet, for some people, it always comes as a surprise and a shock when they realize, together with my wife, I have been able to raise a beautiful and successful young lady.

Picture of Anisio, Julia and Agnes at Julia's graduation.This is not to say that I was not nervous the first time I had to change her diaper or give her a bath. But then, what father has not really felt a bit nervous and apprehensive the first time he was called to handle his seemingly frail and beautiful baby! Fortunately, while in the hospital where my wife delivered, I encountered a nurse who observed me handle my baby daughter with such careful movements. She reassured me of her durability and resiliency. I think that observation, more than anything, helped me begin to realize that all I had to do was use my fatherly instincts and develop adaptive ways to accomplish the various baby care tasks, as I had always done in other situations.

And so, I quickly discovered ways to, yes, change her diaper and ensure she was clean. Give her a bath; feed her the bottle and later solid food. Take her outside for a walk in her stroller and holding my hand; help her practice her first written words. And later help her gain the confidence to let go of her training wheels.

So, you see, besides perhaps doing some of these things in a slightly different way, being a father as a blind person is not a different experience from the one enjoyed by every dad. We experience the same joys and excitement with every milestone achieved and, of course, we also agonize about their safety and their ability to make the right decisions as they grow and we begin to let go.

Each Father’s Day has been special, including those when my daughter would write her own poems to me and often managed to include a message in braille. She always knew what gift would make me smile! Seeing her progress through elementary, middle and later high school, I often marvel at those times when she reminds me so much of myself and/or my wife. Observing first-hand the impact we have had in the formation of her values and norms is obviously a huge responsibility. It is also obvious and reassuring to see how she is her own person, not so different but rather complementing us.

This Father’s Day marks my daughter’s graduation from high school. It also marks the incoming preparations for her moving from home to her college dorm, far away! My wife and I will miss her, but we also know she has the tools and the smarts to succeed and we are very proud of her.

Editor’s note: As Father’s Day quickly approaches On June 15th; we encourage you to take the time to honor the special men who are fathers, grandfathers and stepfathers in your life.

Bookshare Offers Another Option to Accessible Books

Picture of CVI staff member, Empish, reading brailleMany people who are blind and visually impaired know that books can be accessed in Braille, large print and audio. These alternative options can be found at your local community library and/or the NLS Talking Book Library. Some might even purchase books through on-line resources like or Traditional book stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are good choices too. But another option that people may not be fully aware of is Bookshare. For several years Bookshare has been offering the world’s largest library of
on-line copywrited books, magazines, newspapers, textbooks and periodicals to people with print impairments.

According to a recent Hadley School webinar I participated in, Bookshare has more than 268,000 Student Members. More than 10,000 schools and other organizations participate. More than 216,000 titles are available. More than 1,000 new books are added every month. These large numbers clearly show that Bookshare is another great option to access books for those who have vision loss.

I had known about Bookshare for a while but never participated in its offerings because I was accessing my books from other sources. It was not until a few months ago when I participated in a book discussion group at my local community library that I started to use Bookshare. I got a copy of the list of books in advance but was disappointed when most of the books on the list were not available through the NLS/Talking Book Library. A friend suggested Bookshare because they list mostly academic books and books recommended by their readers. I went to their website to search for the titles. After doing a very simple search I found just about all the titles except two and decided to subscribe and become a member.

The membership process was very easy. First I created a user name, password, and my profile. Next I had to gather documents to prove that I had a print impairment. When completing this step you can either use your eye doctor, a vision rehabilitation center like CVI or your membership at the NLS/Talking Book Library. Bookshare will then send you a confirmation e-mail when they have gotten your verification of your disability. After that you just pay your membership fee and you are set. The annual membership fee is currently $50 and there is a $25 one-time startup fee.

One very cool feature of Bookshare that I liked was that I could create a folder to store all the books associated with the book discussion I was attending. This is a great feature because as you select and download the books you can immediately place them in that folder. This helps with keeping your books organized and in one place. Many school teachers and students use this feature as well. When a teacher selects books for the students to read they are placed in a folder where the student can just go to that particular folder for their book assignments. Other nice features include tutorials and easy ways to search for books. You can go to the training section and find a variety of tutorials from getting started to informational webinars, videos and quick guides. You can search by title, author or ISBN number.

Once I had my books downloaded, I transferred them to my accessible book reader. I use the Humanware Victor Reader Stream; but MP3 Players, phones and tablets are also devices that can be used with Bookshare. Or if you don’t have access to a book reader, like the ones I have mentioned, Bookshare allows you to read the book immediately on your computer through an Internet browser. IT is called the Bookshare Web Reader and is a fairly recent feature. All you have to do is select a book and click on the link that says “read now.” The current version is optimized for Google Chrome and provides text-to-text speech, word highlights and more.

One small challenge I found is that all Bookshare books are in text-to-text speech. This format does take getting use to as it is not a human voice but a computerized voice. I was able to work around it by decreasing my speed on my reading device and not multi-tasking while reading. But getting access to the books I needed for my discussion, which allowed me to fully participate, was well worth enduring the speech quality. So, if you are looking to expand your library and reading options Bookshare might be an excellent option for you. For more information go to Bookshare’s website at

So, let’s talk about reading books. Do you use Bookshare? Have you found it helpful when accessing books not found through other sources? Would you recommend Bookshare to a visually impaired friend?

Me, Braille and the Heart of Applebutter Hill

Picture of Donna Hill with her guide dog in the woodsIt was a steaming July day in Smithtown, New York. I sat at the dining room table at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind examining a Braille slate. "This is a stylus," said my classmate Marian Edson, placing a strange object into my hand, "Start from the right side. We write each letter backwards. Place the point inside the first cell and see if you can feel where the six dots go."

Marian and I were from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I had just bluffed and blundered my way through college. She had a teenage daughter. We were part of GDF's grand experiment in 1971 to determine whether guide dogs were appropriate for people with some usable vision.

Marian learned Braille as a young child at the Overbrook School for the Blind. I was the first blind child mainstreamed in Pennsylvania's Easton Area School District. Despite being legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa or more commonly known as RP, Braille was never discussed.

Was this a mistake? My experiences doing without it and then trying to learn it as an adult suggest that it was. When I met Marian, I had already fallen through the cracks. If it hadn't been for six dots and a dog, both of which allowed me to focus on something other than physical sight, I may have never found my way.

In 2010, I wrote articles on Braille literacy for the online magazine American Chronicle. Mothers of blind kids told me horror stories about trying to get Braille education for their legally but not totally blind kids. The children were spending far more time on their homework than their peers and often had chronic headaches. As they grew older without Braille, their love of reading diminished, and they were falling behind socially as well as academically.

"You can't expect the same thing of him as you would if he were sighted." Why not? Some blind kids have already become doctors, lawyers and engineers. "If you teach him Braille, you are going to make him blind." Excuse me? These were medically-certified legally blind kids. Braille is still the only system that provides true literacy on a par with print; spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are observed as you read.

My "aha" moment came in 2006. I'd been using contracted Braille for to-do lists, journals and song lyrics. I was an atrocious reader, but Braille allowed me to live alone for decades. That independence, however, did not include being employable. I supported myself as a musician, and I lived on the fringes of society.

I finally got a computer and wanted to write about the Harry Potter series. I submitted an essay to the fan site Mugglenet. The editor was not happy. The quotes I included were from the audio version. How could my interpretation of Rowling's sentence structure have been that off-base? I fessed up about being blind. My editor helped me with the quotes, and I wrote several essays on the boy wizard.

I improved my Braille skills, but I am slow. My spelling and grasp of homophones is better than it was, but I'm always double-checking and often wrong. I wish I had learned Braille in early childhood. Algebra was deemed necessary, and I've never used it. Why not teach Braille?

My braille journey is reflected in my fictional novel, “The Heart of Applebutter Hill.” A picture of a hand holding a blue heartAbigail, my 14-year-old heroine, is legally blind. She bears the scars of having been forced to use her remaining vision to read print. She's starting to learn Braille and assistive technology, and the reader witnesses her struggles and triumphs as the plot unfolds. An upperclassman, Susan, who learned nonvisual adaptations in early childhood, is far more accomplished. I've tried to include all of this unobtrusively. The point of the book was to place a blind kid in an exciting adventure.

Abigail and her friend Baggy are making their way in a new land, when they learn a dangerous secret. Abigail, a shy songwriter, isn't learning to accept her limitations. Like Rutherford, the animated acorn who acts as her muse, she's learning to stand her ground.

Not everyone will write a novel about braille literacy like I have but we can still share and discuss the journey. So, do you read braille? If so, how has braille enhanced your life? Would you recommend another person with vision loss to learn braille? Share your comments in the section below.

For more information on Donna’s book go to her website or download a copy at Book Share.