I miss Parkrun… the free Saturday timed 5K runs, enjoyed regularly by millions around the world before we entered these strange times. One of the things I really enjoyed about Parkrun (as well as getting rid of some excess calories and building up an appetite for more cooking) was that I quite regularly acted as guide-runner for Naqi, a blind engineering student. This was a lot of fun. As Naqi and I ran – and I did my best to warn him of potholes, kerbs and other obstacles – he told about his some of his other pastimes. Naqi is an extremely proficient and competitive tennis player, for example (the ball is audible, in case you were wondering).
I realized from getting to know Naqi that smartphones have helped to give the visually impaired much more autonomy. Thanks to assistive technologies like VoiceOver built into modern phones, it was no trouble for Naqi to coordinate with me by text message to meet up, and I could message him if I was running late.
Something I hadn’t thought about too much, though, was some of the areas which remain problematic for those with visual impairment. One of these, it turns out, is cookbooks. Few cookbooks exist in braille form – perhaps because, if sticky fingers are a problem for regular cookbooks, they are even more of an issue for braille!
eBook/Kindle versions are one possibility, but these are generally only available for the most recently published cookbooks. In any case, the eBook format, while excellent for reading a novel, is not a great fit for navigating a collection of recipes. Even worse, the text-to-speech functionality is disabled on many eBooks for rights reasons, rendering them of little use to a blind cook.
We were first made aware of how much difference ckbk could make for the visually impaired when blind cook and technology enthusiast Adrian Higginbotham chimed in on this Twitter conversation with TV food historian Dr Annie Gray.
We were thrilled to hear that ckbk had such potential to help blind cooks, and Adrian kindly helped us with feedback to further refine various elements of the ckbk website to maximize accessibility, something which has been a continuing focus as we have rolled out the ckbk iOS and Android apps.
Adrian’s original tweet about ckbk caught the attention of blind cooking blogger and Paralympian athlete Lora Fachie, and we were delighted when Lora wrote a blog piece about her own experiences with the ckbk website. In the piece Lora name-checked five authors she said she would especially like to see added to ckbk’s collection. From the responses to Lora’s tweet it was clear that there was enthusiasm from authors too and relatively quickly we were able to sort out a licensing arrangement for two books by Mowgli Street Food founder Nisha Katona, the top author on Lora’s list.
On Sunday Feb 7, Lora was interviewed as part of a special edition of The Food Programme looking at the experience of blind cooks. In addition to Lora, the programme features 73-year-old blind veteran Simon Mahoney, whose recent book First Catch Your Rabbit!: Or Cooking Without Fear builds on his own experience of learning survival skills in the kitchen after losing his sight. If you missed it, you can listen to the program on the BBC Radio 4 website.
Lora’s blog Blindingly Good Food, is a great starting point, together with Simon’s book, which is fully screen-reader compatible. In the UK, the RNIB Shop has a Kitchen section featuring many useful products including talking scales and even talking thermometers!
For more tips, including kitchen organization tricks to keep track of which ingredient is which, the visual impairment charity Henshaw’s has produced an excellent series of YouTube videos.
Adrian Higginbotham encourages blind cooks to be adventurous, saying: “The main thing I've learned is not to be frightened of making mistakes. It's the only way to learn. I know when something has gone really wrong because the kids will insist it goes on to the banned list, but thankfully there aren't too many things that have earned that distinction.”
He also notes areas where technology could help further: “I set the oven by memorising the most frequently used positions on the dial and control the hob by counting beeps so I can turn the back left ring from setting 8 to setting 4, say. Being able to do that by voice is coming slowly, but it needs to be affordable, in a package that suits the rest of my family, and be there when we update our kitchen, which of course isn't something people tend to do very often.”
ckbk’s ongoing work with makers of “smart appliances” to automatically set the correct oven temperature, time and mode is hopefully a step in the right direction.
As a starting point, here are some of Nisha Katona’s most popular recipes on ckbk – now equally accessible to both blind and sighted cooks.