American-born Grace embraces life in Perth

04 December 2018

Grace King says there’s a lot to like about living with blindness in Perth - even though the beer is better back home.

Grace, an assistive technology assessor with the National Disability Insurance Agency, says there are many supports for people who are blind or have low vision in Australia that aren’t readily available in the United States, where she hails from.

She has Leber’s congenital amaurosis, an inherited condition that inhibits the development of her retinas. She has been blind since birth.

In 2009, Grace came to Perth from Madison, Wisconsin, to volunteer at the Cisco Academy for the Vision-Impaired, teaching people who are blind or have low vision to build and maintain computers along with customer service skills.

“That’s why I came over, and I didn’t leave,” she says.

“I love it here. We are really lucky to have things like audible tactile signals (at pedestrian crossings and intersections), the NDIS and accessible currency – things we take for granted.

“There are very few audible tactile signals in the US. It’s a given here, almost.”

Picture: Vision Australia Perth occupational therapist Shelagh Burger stands behind the right shoulder of Grace King, who is seated.

Grace says that it was tough initially to settle in Perth.

“I couldn’t get services here when I first came, because I wasn’t a permanent resident, but I had some good GPS training. I had to use my GPS and talk to friends so rthat I could learn my way around,” Grace says.

“Fortunately, travel is much easier here. We have the Passenger Assistance Team (in Perth) to help with transport but I didn’t have any of the half-price taxi books. I couldn’t even get a transit card, so that was really difficult.

“But I got through. I got my permanent residency and my citizenship. I got into Blind Citizens WA and through Vision Australia I was finally able to get a travel pass organised.”

Grace has a support worker who guides her to work across a dangerous intersection near her office but otherwise uses a long white cane to get around and takes pride in living and working independently.

She uses JAWS software on her computer to read text to her and has a BrailleSense Polaris braille notetaker.

“I also use that when rehearsing and I’m also into essential oils, so I go to training and I get all my notes on the BrailleSense Polaris for that,“ Grace says.

When she cooks, Grace uses an i.d. mate talking bar code reader to identify goods in her pantry and has scanning/reading software on her home computer.

Grace is a fan of her Amazon Echo virtual personal assistant. “I can ask Alexa (the Echo’s PA voice) what the temperature in my house is and get it to turn the air conditioner on or off. I have my lights hooked into Alexa, Google Home and Siri. It will answer my phone.”

Grace says she “wired” much her apartment as a project for a course she has undertaken to become an assistive technology mentor, and uses a Ring video doorbell that allows her to speak to visitors via her phone.

It’s Grace’s first time living by herself. 

“I didn’t think I’d like it but I really like it. I live in a nice, gated complex in a two-bedroom unit. It’s going well,” she says.

Grace is also investigating Aira, a system in which a sighted guide sees and describes in real time what the user views through a tiny camera mounted on a spectacle frame.

It can be used for everything from reading text or matching clothes to supporting a user to navigate an unfamiliar environment.

Grace is an avid user of the Vision Australia Library and envisages a closer connection with the organisation in the future.

“As more Vision Australia services come up here in Western Australia, I’m sure I’ll get to engage with you more,” she says.
Grace says she loves Vision Australia’s regular client outings, which gives clients and other members of the blindness and low vision community the chance to meet and experience an activity they might not otherwise take up.

“These events are really good. We did a food and wine tour on one of the client events, and we have done some indoor skydiving, which was fun,” she says.

Talk of wine reminds Grace of something she misses from home – beer. She says one brand beats anything in Australia.

“My dad owns a brewery over there, Capital Brewery in Middleton. If I lived in America, I could get care packages of beer,” she says.

“My dad makes better beer. It’s German craft beer. It’s amazing. I’m such a beer snob. But I do love wine, and I live right near the Swan Valley.”

Grace is also a talented singer. The award-winning mezzo-soprano will appear with newcomer Chelsea Gibson and Little Birdy gold record-awarded musician Fergus Deasy in Playtime with Grace and Fergus: The Musical, at the Fringe World Festival 2019.

She describes the show as an intimate, uplifting, funny musical journey in which she and Fergus are friends searching for love and for the best mating and dating song.

The show will be performed at the King’s Lair at His Majesty’s Theatre, 850 Hay Street, Perth, from Thursday, January 31 to Saturday, February 2. All shows at 7pm. Go here for tickets