WBU-NAC region(Senior group) Excellent Work
Steppingstones And The Art Of Thriving
U.S.A. Jessie Kirchner(28/Female)

Frostbite—an all-too-imminent threat for those souls reckless enough to brave Michigan's winter weather with inadequate attire. Yet "I stand at an outdoor ATM, THROWING CAUTION TO THE BITTER, SHRIEKING WIND AS I doff my gloves and don headphones under my parka hood. After plugging them in, I deftly slip my ATM CARD INTO THE SLOT ABOVE A HANDY Braille label reading, "Insert card," then follow the spoken prompts to de- posit my check. I am heedless of the inviting aroma from the coffee shop next door and the pain seeping into my chilled fingers as I marvel anew at the ability to do this independently without sight.

ATM's and voting machines with built-in audio feedback are classic examples of universal design—the idea that mainstream devices should be inherently accessible to all. I particularly appreciate these two because they afford me the privacy that sighted people take for granted during their financial and political activities. I use these machines only sporadically, but I still benefit from universal design every day. In fact, I proudly employ one of the world's most popular and sophisticated devices that embodies the theory at its best.

It is a breezy summer morning and I stride down a crowded sidewalk, long white cane in one hand, iPhone in the other. Despite my unfamiliar surroundings, I have no anxiety to distract me from my pre-bar examination jitters. I am confident that my good travel skills and my iPhone's voice-guided GPS WILL GET ME TO THE TEST LOCATION IN PLENTY OF TIME. Sure enough, I arrive with a full twenty minutes to spare.

Besides enhancing my travels, my iPhone identifies Christmas money from relatives, tunes my flute, shows me the latest headlines, and more. In short, it opens the floodgates to a deluge of practical information that I can use to become productive and achieve my goals. Yet it has occasionally beckoned me into even richer dimensions of independence in ways bordering on the miraculous.

No deluge this time, just waterfalls bedewing a couple in love. We sit hand in hand on the edge of a majestic outdoor fountain, lost in our togetherness and the merriment cascading from the mouths of two stone figures that tower above us. Neither of us can see them, yet we know they are crouching lions thanks to an evocative description from a sighted stranger hundreds of miles away. We gain the information merely by sending a picture and a query from an iPhone out into cyberspace, requesting visual details not because we needed them, but purely for the sake of curiosity and the satisfaction of knowing.

This incident crystallizes for me the contrast between living and thriving, between passively consuming and creatively seeking it out. Further, it reminds me that independence is inseparably entwined with interdependence. While I see universal design as the ultimate expression of this principle, adaptive technology plays an equally important role in my engagement and inclusion in society.

Weekends find me leading my church choir with the aid of service texts downloaded on to my Braille notetaker. My adjustable music stand sinks gradually below my waist under its weight, prompting sotto voce giggles from my fellow singers as I heave it back into a comfortable position. Weekdays find me pairing my MacBook with a dedicated Braille display to interview my clients more smoothly and proofread my compositions more thoroughly. Both weekends and weekdays mind me consulting my Braille watch, which reliably keeps me on task at work and lets me secretly time my escape from awkward or tedious social situations.

"You must feel awfully lucky to have such incredible technology!" is a frequent response to public demonstrations of my gadgetry, and for the most part, I whole- heartedly concur. How could I possibly feel otherwise? I enjoy instant access to a staggering array of digital media that unveils new prospects at every turn, and whenever I desire to leave the virtual world for the real one, I have all kinds of information to help me discover it. I am fortunate to have earned graduate degrees in law and social work, and I can participate in professional and community life as actively as anyone else. I stay in touch with friends and family all over the country through a host of convenient communication methods. I have no doubt that all this would be substantially more difficult if it were not for recent advancements in Braille and audio technology.

Insofar as I admit this, I do feel blessed and privileged, but some people presume outright worship on my part rather than healthy appreciation—and here is where we disagree. They imply that my cutting-edge devices have not only shaped what I do, but who I am, and that hence my talents, beliefs, and personality could not flourish without them. On the other hand, I view my equipment—though highly beneficial, as merely means to an end. It is not the tools at my disposal that define me, but my determination and ability to make the most of them. If I lived in a pre-digital age, I would not necessarily be any less accomplished or adventurous; I would simply find other steppingstones on my path toward fulfillment.

As I write this essay, I am packing for a move next week. I will find myself once again in unfamiliar surroundings, relying on my iPhone for directions and bus schedules. I will search out an ATM TO STOCK UP ON CASH FOR TAXI FARES. I will feel for the reassuring hands of my watch before stepping into my new office on my first day of work. Then I will use my laptop and Braille display to begin a research project that I hope to publish with my colleagues. And so my path winds on.


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