Accessible computers open up a whole new world for the blind

Barry Carver will be the first to say he was just wasting time. He spent his days listening to audio books, had nowhere to go, and no hope for his future.

But then the box from Computers for the Blind (CFTB) was delivered to his home in Tennessee.

“They’re life changing,” says Carver of the Texas non-profit that has shipped more than 12,000 free computers to blind people across the U.S.

“Computers change peoples’ lives, and the people at CFTB gave me hope,” he says. “They let me know that blindness is just an inconvenience. It’s not the end of the world. I just have to do things a little different.”

Now Carver and his wife, Debra, who is also blind, run Mountain Crafts, a successful online business, from their home. An ordained preacher, he shares his message around the world through a website for the blind, and he conducts seminars over the phone, telling blind listeners that they too can start their own business.

They just need a computer.

“ Computers change peoples' lives... ”

“Positive. Everything I have to say about that organization is positive. Positive,” says Carver. “It’s because of what CFTB did for me that I’m able to tell others there are a zillion things you can do. You can be economically successful.”

From their facility in Richardson, Texas, about 50 volunteers at CFTB refurbish donated computers and send them to people who cannot see well enough to use a computer and cannot afford a new computer with the expensive technology that makes them accessible. Blind recipients get computers with added text-to-speech software. Clients who are low vision get screen magnification software with their computer. Some people need both.

Lion Bob Langford, a member of the Dallas [Texas] White Rock Lions Club, started the organization [first known as Texas Services for the Physically Impaired] from humble beginnings in 1995. Although he lost all vision in an accident at age 16, Langford never let blindness stop him. He saw computers as a way of becoming more independent and self-sufficient.

“Dad realized pretty early on that computers could be a real life changer for blind people,” says Langford’s son, Mark Langford, in Texas, who remembers when he and his siblings helped their Dad by reading computer manuals aloud so he could transcribe them into Braille.

“I’m amazed sometimes when I think back to what he did,” says Langford. “Could I have done all he did? I stand back amazed. When he got an idea into his mind for something he had to do, all obstacles melted away.”

Langford, 89, is retired and living in Virginia now. Colleyville Texas Lion David Jeppson is CFTB’s executive director. Most of the used computers they receive are donated through north Texas Lions clubs in districts 2 X1 and 2 E2 by members who have an unused computer, know a friend with one, or have a corporate connection to a computer no longer in use.

PDG Tom Hayford, a Lewisville Texas Lion, is a loyal CFTB volunteer, refurbishing computers after work twice a week.

CFTB volunteers, some of them Lions, work in shifts to refurbish them, and Lewisville Texas Lion Tom Hayford, past district governor in 2 E2, is one of the leaders, donating about eight hours a week to the nonprofit. A component engineer, he has repaired enough computers in his lifetime that if left alone he can refurbish one in 90 minutes, he says. The limiting factor is the age and processing speed of the computer.

“I like doing this because I personally feel like I’m making a difference. In Lions we do so many great things, but you don’t get the immediate feedback,” Hayford says. “With this, you pack it up and you know who the computer is going to.”

CFTB’s computers come with detailed instructions for recipients, and CFTB has a blind technical support person in Minnesota who troubleshoots problems.

“For the blind, the two biggest obstacles are transportation and accessibility to media,” Jeppson says.

“ I like doing this because I personally feel like I’m making a difference. ”

“A computer makes it so they don’t have to find transportation to go out to a store. They can buy online. They can take college courses online, and they can communicate with the world online.”

Although the computer is free, recipients pay a US$100 to $130 processing fee for a computer that would otherwise costs them US$1,000 or more, says Jeppson. Carver says this is one thing he likes about CFTB. “You get this computer for free, but you put a little skin in the deal. It’s a fact that if you have something involved in this, you will cherish it that much more.

The organization also works with Alphapointe, a Missouri nonprofit that supports and empowers people with vision loss. CFTB provides the laptops for Alphapointe’s weeklong summer camp for visually impaired youth, and at the end of the week the students get to take their computers home.

“Lions gave us white canes,” says Carver. “They take us to retreats and do all these things for us, and that’s awesome, but they can’t open the world up to us like a computer can. That’s why this is so important.”