Does poetry rhyme with retinopathy?

Post date: 
Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Poetry book with Orcam glasses

Connect member Giles L. Turnbull shares his sight loss journey and how he has adapted to continue writing and performing poetry using accessible technology.

My trajectory towards blindness was sadly very predictable. I became diabetic at age 13 and a half. Despite keeping very good control of my blood sugar levels during the first year, when I started a morning paper round from a newsagent that had dozens of jars of boiled sweets on display, my sweet tooth developed. By the time I reached the sixth form where there was a vending machine stocked to the gills with chocolate bars, my sugar addiction was established. It's only really since turning 40 that I've kicked the habit (yes, sugar is a drug) and got my diabetes more or less under control.

The sight in my left eye went first while I was living in Bristol in 2004. I had no depth perception as a result and fell down roadside kerbs fairly frequently. I moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 2007 and was working as a transportation planner when the sight in my right eye also began to fail. All things considered, this could not have happened at a more opportune time.

When life changes for the better

I had begun to struggle crossing the road between my bus stop and my office block downtown, which was a dual-carriageway in each direction. The crossing was not an audible one and I often couldn't see whether the sign was illuminated to indicate to walk or not. Thankfully, the company I worked for was taken over by a firm who already had an Atlanta office, so they promptly began closing my office down and me, being last in, was one of the first employees out.

Georgia has an insurance system for employers to ensure that redundancy payments are made to laid-off staff, so I was entitled to benefits for a few months. When I went to register with the Department of Labor, I told them I was struggling to read their forms and they sent me to be assessed by the Centre for the Visually Impaired.

I fell into the category of legally blind, so after being accepted to their vision rehab program I spent a whole year undergoing training to help me adapt. This covered mobility, daily living activities (such as cooking and laundry), computer skills, braille and finally job readiness. I feel very fortunate to have had that training, because I'm not aware of any comparable training for newly blind adults back here in the UK.

My pleasure for poetry

I've been writing poetry for almost as long as I've been diabetic. I only wrote for pleasure until I returned from America and began sending out a few exploratory poem submissions. It's been a successful venture so far, with poems being accepted in several magazines and making the shortlists of a few competitions.

 

My big break came through the Cinnamon Press' 2016 poetry pamphlet competition, where my pamphlet Dressing Up was one of three winners and published by Cinnamon in January 2017.

Not having a good memory or being able to read something printed does present some poetry performance challenges. I live my life electronically, reading books in Word and PDF formats, so I figured there was no reason why I shouldn’t bring my assistive technology into use at a poetry reading.

Performing with assistive technology

I splashed out on a pair of OrCam glasses, intending to print out copies of the poems I hadn't memorised and use the glasses to read those poems to the audience. You can hear how the glasses work on a simple children's poem I wrote for a creative writing class exercise.

I recorded it using two of the four OrCam version 8 voices. The first thing you'll probably notice is that the "Brian" voice struggled with the word "tin" in the line that includes "salmon tin", whereas the American female voice, "Kendra", works much better (my writing class colleagues always wondered why I used the American voice rather than the British one).

The bigger problem, as with any optical character recognition system, is that they are dependent on good lighting and simple fonts. There was no way I could guarantee the lighting levels at a venue would be adequate for my poems to be read satisfactorily by the OrCam glasses. I'm sure, like me, if you're listening to screen reader programs reading text every day of the week, the occasional strange pronunciation of a word is something you barely notice. But if you're using talking tech to perform poetry to a sighted audience who may never have heard talking tech before, it needs to be as close to spot on as possible.

It was important to me to perform all my work myself, some from memory and some using technology, so I decided to use the system that speaks to me pretty much all the time when I'm not sleeping!

I use the NVDA screen reader, which I find fantastic. I was trained on JAWS back in America and although it's great, it is a heck of a price! NVDA does everything I need it to and I've been using it since 2014.

For poetry performances, I use NVDA with the Microsoft voice Hazel. I format each poem I want to use NVDA to perform so that they are delivered as best they can be. I often talk a little about the difficulties getting the computer voice to pronounce individual words correctly, and all my audiences so far have been very interested and even asked about it.

The one thing I didn’t want was to use technology if it was hard for the audience to appreciate the poetry. I don’t want to be humoured because I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. I want everyone to be blown away by the incredible tech we have nowadays.

Further information

  • Giles performed at the Putney Library in London in October 2017, you can hear him read one poem from memory and one with a NVDA screen reader from his half hour set - listen to his reading.

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