Reading My Own Phone Bills Empowers Me as a Person Who Is Blind

Editor’s note: This week the 30th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference is underway. We will be hearing much more about it from AFB staff who are attending as they report on the latest and greatest technology coming down the pike. To get us started, Mary Hiland reports on how the invention of a flatbed scanner and optical character recognition in 1975 by Ray Kurzweil has transformed lives and continues to do so, in many different and exciting ways!

Being in Control of My Personal Business

Who would ever think that being able to read my own phone bills would make me feel empowered? Until today, I had the opinion that people who loved to spend hours scanning their mail and then reading by using their text to speech software were wasting their time. I hire a woman who comes to my house once a week to read to me such necessary evils as bills, forms to fill out, ads, and a variety of other print. Sometimes, I even ask her to read the expiration date on my mayonnaise jar, or check for stains on my tops, or find a missing dog toy. All these things require sight, so I put everything that needs to be identified or read to me in a box, and we go through the to-do box once a week.

I always thought it would be a waste of time to read the entire bill, when I have a sighted person here to look for the important parts, i.e. how much I owe and when it’s due. Today, however, I discovered the joy of being in control of my own papers.

Using Scanning Software for Taking Care of Business

Last week, my friend downloaded a program made by Kurzweil, which allows me to scan a letter or document, and then it reads it back to me, in a clear, pleasant, and understandable voice. By adjusting the settings, I can change the pitch, the volume, or the rate of speed with which it reads. I still think it would be a more efficient use of my time to have my human reader help me with the bills, but I started practicing with my new toy on the inch-thick stack of documents and papers I have in a folder for my mother’s affairs. In that folder are a copy of her living will, her assisted living bill of rights, a letter from Social Security, and all sorts of things that I really needed to sort out. I had been putting that chore off, because, first of all, who really likes doing that? And secondly, doing it myself, in private, allows me to think about how I want to file it and whether or not I really need to keep it. It takes a while to scan each piece of paper, but it’s worth it, and I know I’ll get faster at it, once I learn to use the program with all its features.

It’s not cheap by any means. It costs a thousand dollars, and at first, I was horrified at the thought of spending that kind of money so I could read my mail. It’s doesn’t seem right that it is so expensive to make life doable for people who are blind, but that’s the way it is. Then I began to plan the next project. After I get all of Mom’s stuff in order, I’m going to attack my own file drawer and clean out stuff I haven’t been able to identify for years. Most things I’ve labeled in braille, but there were times when I was in a hurry and just stuffed them in the drawer. Then, after I get good at this scanning thing, I’m going to read my own toastmasters manual, and then I’m going to scan at least one of the many books my aunt and my mother wrote together. Those books have been sitting on the shelf for about 40 years, and I’m finally going to get to read them. Of course it’s not the same as having a real live person read to me, but I don’t happen to have a staff of half a dozen people hanging on trees ready to read to me whenever I want.

What I Do for Pleasure Reading

For pleasure reading, I use the talking book library, from the National Library Service, and for newspapers, I use Newsline, a telephone dial-up service, but for everyday reading needs to keep up with important information, like the instruction booklet for cleaning my oven, I’ll be thanking Mr. Kurzweil.

More About Scanning

The K-NFB Reader Mobile from K-NFB Reading Technology

Scanning has come a long way with many alternatives available. For example, read about the KNFB Reader for IOS.