The Blind Leading the Sighted

My cousin Peter this morning at his home computer in Austin, Texas

I was working at my cousin Peter’s dining room table here in Austin last night when I heard him call for help from his computer room.

“I think it died,” he said as I entered the room. “What do you see on the screen?

“Nothing,” I said. “It’s black with a flashing cursor in the upper left corner.”

Peter, who is a year older than I am, has been blind since birth. We didn’t think much about it when we were kids. His inability to see was an unexamined fact of our lives. We called him Corpse and Dead Body — D.B. for short.

“Who came up with those nicknames?” I asked Peter this morning. He was listening to Alexa play a speech by Theodore Roosevelt.

“I think you did,” he replied without judgment from across the room.

That was a surprise. I thought I had just gone along with crowd that comprised my sister and his brother, both younger than we were. I thought Kevin had come up with the nicknames. I don’t enjoy thinking of myself as the author of them.

“Why did we call you that?” I asked Peter.

“I guess maybe you thought I was lazy.”

“You don’t think it was children being cluelessly brutal about your blindness?”

“Could be,” he replied.

After Peter’s decade-old Hewlett Packard desktop PC died last night, I helped him navigate the screen as we tried to fix it. The crash had rendered silent the JAWS screen reader that he relies on to control his computer. He is a PC wiz who helps other blind and sighted people with technology.

“What’s on the screen now?” he asked. As the crippled PC stumbled through blue error screens, black screens, and a desktop that briefly looked normal before disappearing, he told me what to type on the keyboard and what to click with the mouse.

We figured out how to get to Safe Mode, but from there we couldn’t restore the computer to normal operation. We turned in for the night planning to lug the big gray box to a repair place he knows, Discount Electronics.

At about 4 a.m. I heard Peter in shower downstairs. During breakfast at Kneaded Pleasures Bakery he said he had not slept much, partly because of the PC crash. It turns out his sleepless night did not go to waste.

We returned to Safe Mode after breakfast. “Search for Restore,” Peter told me. He had remembered that there is a program in Windows 7 that might enable us to restore the operating system to its settings before he had updated JAWS several days ago.

It worked! I told him what I was seeing on the screen as the PC breezed through a normal startup. When I opened a web page in Chrome, the disembodied, fast-talking voice of JAWS joined us again, like a long-lost friend.

“Unbelievable!” Peter exclaimed. “I thought it was dead for good.”

“That was a nice bit of work you did while you weren’t falling asleep,” I told him.

With his computer working normally, Peter showed me a problem that Amazon needs to fix in its Amazon Music application for PC. On his screen, I could see Amazon’s music choices, but JAWS was not able to navigate from category to category or to specific songs using the keyboard’s arrow keys.

By comparison, the Kindle app for PC works fine with JAWS. Peter can move among the book covers visible on the screen and hear JAWS state their titles. I hope Amazon fixes this accessibility flaw in a future update of the Amazon Music app for PC.

I always look forward to my stay with Peter each year during South by Southwest Interactive. Last night he grilled Chilean Sea Bass for us, served with baby carrots and white rice.

“A friend said I should grill the fish in tin foil,” he told me, “but that takes the fun out of it.” He cooks year-round on a big Weber grill on the back patio, and I am now used to the scary sight of his testing the doneness of a steak or fish with his fingers hovering just above the hot grill.

Last night Peter surprised me by accepting my offer to do the dishes. The reason is that he fell down his stairs a couple of months ago, badly injuring his arm. The pain was so bad it took him four hours to reach the phone in his study so he could call for help.

His arm is healing well after surgery. Kevin’s partner Deb traveled from Massachusetts to spend two weeks here helping him to get back on his feet. After she left he injured his knee, pulling a ligament while on the floor fixing his stereo.

Despite these difficulties, my cousin is in good spirits as usual. He made sure there was a towel and facecloth on my bed in the guest room, Perrier in the fridge, working lightbulbs throughout the house, and a tasty meal to begin our week together.

When I was a boy, I was clueless about many things. But I always knew that Peter was going to be okay in the world and that we would be friends forever.

This week in Austin I know both of those things are still true.

ADDENDUM:

It’s the evening after I wrote this post, and I just heard from Deb with Kevin’s memory of how Peter got his nickname. It’s with considerable relief that I pass it along:

Kev said that you were the one who came up with Pete’s AKA. It originated from the fact that Pete slept so soundly that you both found it interesting and akin to a corpse or dead body. So you had a good reason and it wasn’t slamming the fact that he was blind. Just a sound sleeper.

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Len Edgerly

Len Edgerly

Host of the weekly Kindle Chronicles podcast