Assistive Technology

Living DeafBlind in Iowa | Clip
Oct 18, 2021 | 7 min

Technology plays an essential role in accommodating and empowering DeafBlind Iowans to live, work and interact in society.



(A title appears against a shimmering white background: Living DeafBlind in Iowa.)

(A black and white newsreel shows Helen Keller visiting the White House.)

Male Narrator: At the White House, President Kennedy receives Helen Keller. Deaf and blind since childhood, Miss Keller's hands tapped by her companion, Evelyn Seide, in the finger code provide her chief perception and communication with the world around her.

(Kennedy holds Keller's hand.)

A lot has changed since Helen Keller visited the White House in 1961, including the ways we communicate.

(Images of phones, screens, and tablets appear.)

What about the deafblind community? What has technology done for them?

(A woman with dark blond hair is interviewed.)

Audiologist Linda True says each case is different.

Linda True: When we say deafness and blindness, you know, a lot of people say, oh, they see nothing, they hear nothing. And that's not always the case. Not every single person with deafblindness is the same. There's not a set of rules that you can follow. There's a spectrum just like it is for anybody with any kind of difference from another person.

(In a home office, Laurie McBride, DeafBlind Specialist at the Helen Keller National Center, operates a laptop with the use of screen reading software.)

Laurie McBride: So it can spell out everything that you type.

Narrator: Mason City resident Laurie McBride was born deaf / hard of hearing.

Screen Reader Software: "Right arrow key."

(Outside, she strolls with a walking stick.)

Narrator: But in 2012, at the age of 41, Laurie was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type II, a genetic condition marked by hearing loss with progressive loss of vision.

(Back at home.)

McBride: Helen Keller was completely deaf, completely blind. But I'm also deafblind, but I have a lot of usable vision and hearing. There's a multitude of combinations in between.

Narrator: No longer able to drive, Laurie was forced to reinvent her career. She went back to school and excelled, relying heavily on modern technology.

McBride: Cool part with the technology today is in fact, the hearing aids themselves. The app that I have in here (on a smartphone) connects directly to my hearing aid so I can stream all the calls. Now, textbooks, they have them as a PDF file, and you can bring them up on your computer, your iPad or a tablet and have VoiceOver (screen reading software) read it.

So that technology piece really helped in my schoolwork. It still helps on the job, if you have a lot of documents to read. Having that VoiceOver feature is excellent.

(VoiceOver screen reader navigates a website.)

Screen Reader Software: "Tool bar, address and search bar..."

McBride: It's changing how I see my disabilities and the sense that now, instead of relying on my vision, I get to rely on my hearing that I have.

(In a school, a teacher shows flowers to a student.)

Teacher: Flowers. Flowers.

Linda True: Sometimes as professionals, we forget we're making assumptions about a population and about their experience, and we don't have that experience. So we're experts perhaps on how to remediate some things, how to make some things accessible, how to facilitate some communication. But we're not experts on being deafblind. So that can be a problem when you don't include people that are in the deafblind population as part of the people thinking up the solutions.

(In a kitchen, a man stands by a fridge.)

Chad Brown: A button on a refrigerator, one is ice and one is water, I think the - let me think, the left one is water, the right one is ice.

Narrator: Chad Brown is the Assistive Technology Consultant for the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Brown: I do a lot of grilling, so I have talking meat thermometers.

Meat Thermometer Speaks: "Seventy two point nine degrees."

Brown: People who are blind will use regular technology like anybody else would. My iPhone has built in VoiceOver from the factory. You just have to know how to engage it.

VoiceOver: "Photos, camera, weather, clock..."

Narrator: Formerly a teacher, Chad now helps visually impaired students to access their curriculum.

Brown: Being blind myself, I think the Braille display technology has come a long way.

This is an electronic e-reader. So you can load books right on this. I use this other one that's laying here. This one is basically an Android tablet with the Braille software loaded over the top. You're able to download all the different apps that anybody would with an Android tablet. You can put Facebook right on here.

We once had to rely on hard copy Braille to be produced for our students. Now it can be instantly downloaded, such as a book off the Internet. I always use Harry Potter as an example. If that came out at midnight on October 31, then students who are blind would have to wait a year to get that book in Braille. Now, with the advent of technology and sites like Bookshare, students are able to have that 99% of the time the next day or the same time as their sighted peers.

(Chad’s tablet is fitted with braille pins.)

Linda True: What technology does allow us to do is to have better ability to communicate with each other, because that's the goal. But we're always going to have to be mindful and have some empathy towards another person and really put ourselves in their shoes. You know, is this a person that I can just start talking in the middle of the sentence and they can understand or do I have to say, "Hi, my name is so-and-so and I'm going to talk about this?" So they have some context of what's going to be discussed. And I think that's the most important thing is allowing people to just be who they are.

(Chad sits in his kitchen.)

Brown: I always try and tell my students that I work with throughout the state about the things that I am able to do in my life and try and encourage them to want to succeed, want to go to college, want to have a job, have a family, be a productive member of society, try and lead by example for the kids around the state of Iowa.

(Laurie joins a zoom call.)

"Corey is now ready and we can start our meeting."

Laurie McBride: Communication in our world is needed. Learning those skills, running their own computer, you know, answering their own emails, sending text messages and receiving text messages, communicating as they want, when they want without having to rely on somebody else. It is a big deal. Very important. It's freedom.

(A title appears against a shimmering white background: Living DeafBlind in Iowa.)