July 22, 2011

Letter from WBRC Alumnus

Image of a pile of metered envelopes
We received a wonderful e-mail from a WBRC Alumnus who asked us to share his story on our blog.  Please read the following to learn more:

Hello Friends,

My name is John Martyn and I am a 100% blind veteran. I served in the Marine Corps as an Avionics Electronics Technician for Cobra and Huey helicopters. 7 years passed after I got out of the military and in August 2008 I lost my vision in a sudden accident related to a mental illness called schizophrenia. It was a rare diagnosis and there were no warning signs to prevent my total impairment of mind and body. This happened so quickly, nobody could react or know what was going on.  I woke up in the hospital not knowing what happened or what reality I was in. After a month in the hospital, and another month in the psych ward, I was released under treatment and had to start my life over.

Not only did I have to now struggle with a mental illness, but I was blind and scared out of my mind. I can't really describe the horrors I have had to face in reclaiming my life back, but I did it one step at a time. During my first month out of the hospital, as a blind man, I went to see one of the blindness coordinators at the VIST clinic to assess what I was interested in and how the VA could be of service to me during this difficult time. I didn't know what a blind person could do and was very crushed by the idea that I couldn't do much of anything at all. The days and nights were hard enough even with the support of my wife. The counselor started asking me questions on what I was interested in and I replied back with, "I don't know. What can a blind person do?" I thought not much at all without being blind since birth or at some young age. I was already resolved that my life was over. He replied back with some strange ideas of accomplishment that I thought quite useless. "There's a blind guy that climbs mountains, or this other guy that trekked across the desert with his wife," he suggested. I laughed and said, "That's all fine and good if you have a death wish, but what can a blind person really do?" I didn't know at the time, but he was new at the job and finally responded with, "Well, the sky is the limit." I grabbed a few devices to make living easier and went home disappointed. I was also scheduled to go to the Blind Rehab Center in Palo Alto, CA.

I turned what the counselor said around in my head for a few weeks. It must have been extreme boredom or just pure frustration and sick of feeling sorry for myself that made me react in a way I never have. I decided there were no rules as to what I was and wasn't capable of doing. The only thing I could reason was the sky really was the limit. I began to build my life back one task at a time. It was simple stuff at first. Make the bed, fold the laundry, put your dishes in the sink, followed by make coffee, take out the trash, and do the dishes. It was small stuff but I held onto those chores like it was the most entertaining thing I had going. I slowly began to find reasons to leave the house instead of being locked down to one place. I learned to get the mail, and go to the pool and hot tub. It stayed this way for a while. I still wasn't able to use the computer and I didn't even know how I would accomplish this task. All of my background was in programming and computers, and that was all taken away. I had to ask my wife to play music on the computer for me which made me feel all the more helpless.

I finally left for the BRC in Palo Alto, Ca to learn how to get around again. I didn't really know what I was in store for, but I had to go it alone because my wife was diagnosed with cancer a couple months before I had to leave her. Alone, scared, and next to helpless I started the training. Thankfully my sister was there on weekends to take me to her place to relax. The training was difficult at first as I had to get used to using my senses I had previously ignored for navigation. I almost left the first week because I just couldn't handle it emotionally. My wife convinced me to stay and tough it out at least for a little while. This put the program on overdrive and I had to suck up as much information in a short time. My instructor, Dave, was very understanding of what happened to me and slowly began to help me understand all the tricks and technique of navigating in such open areas. That was very scary and I felt totally exposed. Eventually, I started to get used to open areas and listening for things I never knew were there. Once I got the idea on the hospital grounds, I felt a little better about walking around and lost some of that fear of open areas. We then started navigating residential areas. It was funny because the first place he chose was a peaceful place that was suddenly overrun by work trucks and jack hammers blasting away at pavement so loud I was practically running off the sidewalk. He felt so bad and said, "I swear it wasn't like this yesterday. We'll find somewhere new." Wasn't his fault, but kind of a crash course in street navigating. He gave me my life back. Little by little he showed me how to navigate into the darkness. I eventually got so good I could even cross the busiest of intersections. I had never felt so excited, scared, and liberated before.

Many of the other classes taught me how to use my other devices in order to make my life easier. I started getting back into technology and reclaiming more of my independence. I eventually could do most everything on my own. All these skills brought me to a whole new world of accessibility.
When I returned home to help my wife battle cancer, it was a good thing I had learned to be more independent because my wife needed my help badly. I was able to show her how far I had come in such a short time. I still wasn't able to use the computer so I asked the VIST clinic if they could help. Indeed they could, and provided me with a new computer with screen reader software. I had no training with it, but remembered that you could navigate with only the keyboard when I was still a systems engineer. I could navigate a little without training but I was still unable to access my favorite programs as they were not blind accessible. I learned as much as I could and tried to click on things on the screen in a music program called Rhapsody to play music again. I finally learned to listen to a little of my old music, but it was still a chore and I was lucky if it worked at all.

I learned to be more and more independent as each day progressed. My goal was to do one new thing each day no matter how small and insignificant it seemed. After 8 or 9 months I got the invitation to go back to the Blind Rehab Center again, this time with my wife. I was excited to see what else I could learn and take advantage of. I learned with a GPS device to navigate the streets and intersections in finding my favorite places. This also enabled me to navigate school campus on my own so I could begin my degree and make a career happen again. My instructor was Laura and she was also very understanding of where I had come from. She added a huge amount of skill to navigating in really difficult areas without getting lost. It was a challenge to listen to my surroundings and then listen to a mini computer tell me more information about what is around. It doesn't tell you everything, but to use navigation skills to this extent was a miracle. My confidence grew even more and my wife was so proud of me and so thankful to the VA and their talented and caring instructors showing me the way.

During this stay, I had an old laptop that was barely working and was missing keys to connect this device to, but it was really a lost cause. My training instructor, Dan, which I had met previously during my last stay had trained me to use a new type of talking phone and other devices. He was in charge of the computers at the BRC and offered to get me a new laptop to better work with. I readily agreed and soon he gave me a new powerful laptop to work on. I began to learn more on the computer and further develop my independence with a new light. I finished training once again, and went home to use all my new and cool toys.

With the aid of many devices, I put up shelves and put together tables from IKEA all on my own. I learned to move about in my environment like never before, and was very independent. I was also going to school and navigating around on my own a bit more. There was still one thing missing though. I couldn't use the programs on the computer the way I used to and there was no possibility of doing so unless I had the program experience.

On my 31st birthday, I decided that I was going to learn how to program blind accessibility to use one of my favorite programs, Rhapsody, which is an online music subscription service with over 10 million songs. I spent months and months going to school for a degree in computers and learning to program on my own. It took me 6 months of coding to make the first accessibility script for Rhapsody, and many more months to make it available free online to others wishing to expand their lives. I got in touch with all the blind organizations out there and publicly announced its availability. I didn't know at first what I had created and didn't realize what an impact this would make for others. It was a huge success and more than a thousand users use it today. I even had an interview with a blind accessibility radio show called Main Menu talking about the script and what it means for the blind. The website can be found at www.RhapsodyBlind.com and it even features an audio tour of the script in action. This has opened up the world to online music for the blind and it is still going strong.

After completing the project for Rhapsody, I decided to get some input from others in the blind community to see what else needs to be accessible. The most requested application was iTunes, another music program that lacked a lot of functionality and ability to do what the sighted users could do. I began coding this program as well, and the project has taken off with tremendous results. In just over a month 1000 users downloaded the scripts and started making playlists, organizing their music collections, listening to internet radio stations, podcasts, and accessing new music, and being able to shop in the online store. Quite a few people are working with these jaws scripts and giving me their feedback on a regular basis so I can keep improving them and adding capabilities. There are blind music fanatics all over the world helping me find all the bugs, and we are also working on multi-language support. It's cool that everyone wants to contribute their mental energy to solve this tricky problem. iTunes is a music program that allows you to organize, buy, and sort all your music in one place. There are radio stations and many other features to the program which makes it very simple to use with the scripts. This website can be found at www.BlindTunes.net and the download is free, and there are audio demos available for both scripts.

I'm truly proud to offer these scripts, because I feel that I’ve corrected an injustice...or at least an oversight. It is my hope that people will appreciate having a more equitable experience.  I designed the scripts to be very easy to do, because the whole point of listening to music is to relax, and enjoy it. This is personal for me because music is such a powerful part of our lives, and being able to be my own jukebox was liberating after having to ask for help so many times.

These projects marked a turning point in my life, where I realized that I have the tools, skills, and determination to improve my own situation and become an innovator. There are exciting projects on my plate, and I can't wait to tackle them. My next project won't be a music player-- most likely it will have more to do with finance and bookkeeping applications. I am actually staying in this type of work because it fits me well. I have a talent with computers, so I'm going to make this world a bit easier to live in.

Thanks to all my instructors, had it not been for the new laptop that I code with, and so many of the skills I have learned, I would not be able to bring the blind community closer together in accessibility. I have had so much help in gaining my life back, and now I'm returning the favor in helping the blind become more independent. I wasn't sure the sky was the limit, but sometimes the miracle has to be the one you make yourself.

Thanks for reading,

John Martyn

And more to come...

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