Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos

Breaking Barriers: How Molly's Using Tech to Hear and See the World Differently

March 02, 2023
Breaking Barriers: How Molly's Using Tech to Hear and See the World Differently
Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
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Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
Breaking Barriers: How Molly's Using Tech to Hear and See the World Differently
Mar 02, 2023

This episode features Molly O'Brien,  a Senior Research and Insight Advisor at Activity Alliance, a charity that promotes disability-inclusive sports and activities.

Molly has hearing and visual impairments. She has first-class degrees in sociology and research methods. She is a qualified yoga teacher and a ballet dancer and enjoys outdoor activities.

Molly's impairments mean that she uses a range of devices; hearing aids, portable microphones, magnification technology, and tactile watches, all designed to make her life easier. She's particularly excited about the Bluetooth technology on her new hearing aids, which means she can stream audio directly from her laptop. Molly also loves using Apple products because of their great accessibility features. 

It's all a far cry from her early experiences with the clunky kit she had to use as a child.

Handheld and desktop electronic magnifiers I have from both these companies:

Phonak Roger FM system assistive hearing technology:

Phonak Roger Radio Aids & Hearing Aid Accessories | Connevans

Low Vision Products and Solutions | Enhanced Vision
Enhanced Vision. 0800 145 6115 Unit C, Plot 5, Merlin Way Quarry Hill Industrial Estate Ilkeston, Derbyshire DE7 4RA

Activity Alliance

Show Notes Transcript

This episode features Molly O'Brien,  a Senior Research and Insight Advisor at Activity Alliance, a charity that promotes disability-inclusive sports and activities.

Molly has hearing and visual impairments. She has first-class degrees in sociology and research methods. She is a qualified yoga teacher and a ballet dancer and enjoys outdoor activities.

Molly's impairments mean that she uses a range of devices; hearing aids, portable microphones, magnification technology, and tactile watches, all designed to make her life easier. She's particularly excited about the Bluetooth technology on her new hearing aids, which means she can stream audio directly from her laptop. Molly also loves using Apple products because of their great accessibility features. 

It's all a far cry from her early experiences with the clunky kit she had to use as a child.

Handheld and desktop electronic magnifiers I have from both these companies:

Phonak Roger FM system assistive hearing technology:

Phonak Roger Radio Aids & Hearing Aid Accessories | Connevans

Low Vision Products and Solutions | Enhanced Vision
Enhanced Vision. 0800 145 6115 Unit C, Plot 5, Merlin Way Quarry Hill Industrial Estate Ilkeston, Derbyshire DE7 4RA

Activity Alliance

Phil Friend  0:11  
Hello, once again, everyone. And thank you for taking the time to listen to Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos a podcast where I talk to somebody who's got various conditions but they're using gadgets or devices in some way which help them overcome some of the difficulties their impairments throw up. So that's what we're about. Now today, I've got somebody called Molly O'Brien, who I met through the work that we both do for an organisation called the Activity Alliance, which is about helping disabled people be more physically active. And if they want to be they can win gold medals at Paralympics and things of that sort. So Molly does a role there. Molly, you're very welcome. How are you?

Molly OBrien  0:50  
Good. Thank you.

Phil Friend  0:51  
Good, good. Good. So Molly, tell us a little bit about your role at the Activity Alliance; what is the work that you do there

Molly OBrien  0:59  
Well, I am one of the senior research and insight advisors, I work in the research team. We do lots of work on data and evidence gathering and research projects, all about basically trying to include more people to have access to physical activity and sports covering a whole range of different topics. But I've also got a background working in other charity sectors and the deaf community as well, and charity-based work, mixed background and more disability-focused charity sector as well.

Phil Friend  1:29  
Okay, which is a seamless link to talking briefly about the impairments you have because you have two major issues that you're trying to manage all the time, haven't you, Molly, so tell us a bit about that.

Molly OBrien  1:42  
Yeah, I have severe hearing and visual impairment; I was born with my condition. And my hearing loss I have what's called a severe to profound bilateral hearing impairment to give it its full fancy name. So it basically means that the profound element is I don't have any high pitch frequency sound whatsoever. And I'm pretty much profoundly deaf without my hearing aids. And a lot of people will tell you they can't tell how deaf I am by the way that I speak, which is quite funny, really. And then, I have a severe sight impairment my eye condition to give it its full name, is retinitis pigmentosa. And then I also have cataracts on top of that as well. Oh, joy. That is essentially a degenerative condition that causes the loss of peripheral vision to start with. And then it can affect central vision accuracy, also affects lighting sensitivity. So glare blindness,  night blindness as well as low lighting and darkness and accuracy vision, that just a quick overview of my sight loss is quite complicated. And it has changed dramatically over the years. And it probably will change more over the years to come.

Phil Friend  2:56  
The sight loss issue is progressive. And will worsen. Is your hearing loss stable? Or is that also

Molly OBrien  3:04  
relatively stable? Yeah, I think it'd be relatively stable since I was in my early teens. And I'm 31 now and my hearing loss ha been quite stable. Although interestingly, an audiologist once said to me, it because my sight loss is progressing, it may appear that your hearing loss is progressing and getting worse, because obviously, so much of the hearing is also a visual, you pick up and pick up on so many visual cues. And over time, I won't pick up on the same visual cues because of a sight loss. And it affects your hearing about how they're in some ways. deaf blindness is a combination of a two hearing and sight loss together. But it's not always about the level of hearing and sight, somebody's got a common definition of deaf blindness will also refer to how that affects communication, access to information and your ability to get around or mobility is sometimes termed, although sometimes people think mobility is physical, whereas the more referring to their navigational ability. So sometimes it's not necessarily about the level of hearing that someone got even though it's important, it's how it affects those three key three core elements, if that makes sense.

Phil Friend  4:07  
Yes, no, makes perfect sense. And I suppose a question that I have asked a number of people, either blind people or deaf people is how that, you know, which of you can sometimes say to non disabled people, persons blind or a person's deaf, so I couldn't manage that, you know, I'd much prefer to be that or the other. Now, here you are. You've got deafness and blindness, which one would you say? As a 31 year old doing a job and all the rest of the life you live? Which one of them is the most difficult to manage? Would you say?

Molly OBrien  4:44  
I couldn't answer that. I couldn't answer that because I don't think it depends upon what you're doing. And the what life situation you're in. What you're trying to access it, but I can get those situational, I think 

Phil Friend  5:00  
That's a brilliant response, isn't it? That's a really good response. Because actually, when I think about it, as you know, I'm a wheelchair user. So walking is a real issue, but I don't have to do it most of the time. So it's not a problem. If I'm sitting down answering the phone, the fact I can't walk doesn't matter. Yeah, so you're saying, and absolutely, rightly, I think that, depending on what it is you're doing, so if you're in conversation with a lot of friends in a pub, your hearing loss might be a major issue. Whereas if you're, you know, trying to read a newspaper, then maybe your sight loss is that big. Yeah, I get that. That makes perfect sense. So happily, we live in a time, don't we, where there's an awful lot of stuff out there. Now, that really helps you, me and all of a lot of other disabled people. But here you are with your sight and hearing loss issues. And I know you've got two or three things that you use that really make a big difference. So let's start with those, shall we? I think the first one you mentioned before we started was to do with hearing aids and the way that you use those. So tell us a bit about that and how you use them really?

Molly OBrien  6:06  
Well, for me, hearing aids are absolutely crucial. I mean, I first thing that I put my ears in the morning, and the first thing that I laughing, I don't know how to take my hearing aids out, I can't manage and function without my hearing aids at all. I mean, I've had them I think since I was four years old. And you can as you can imagine, on all that time, the way hearing technology has progressed is massive, and I can hear things now that I could not hear as a child, which I find fascinating. And I also find it really scary, as well, because we're going to have to learn to hear every time that I have new hearing aids. And I mean, I think in the last 10 years alone, I've had four sets of new hearing aids, and it's learning to adapt with them is a challenge, particularly the last set of hearing aids I progressed to 10 years ago, it was called recover something like recovery frequency, they are Phonak set of hearing aids what they do the Phonak range will take the frequencies that you can't hear and mix them up in a way with some frequency that you can hear and give you an indication of those sounds. I didn't realise how loud crisps were when you're eating there until about 10 years ago.

Phil Friend  7:15  
Eating crisp? So So I mean, here we are having this conversation and you are hearing me pretty well. Aren't you through your hearing as well. When you when you said you got your last pair 10 years ago. So what what sound Did you hear for the first time that most excited you? Can you remember?

Molly OBrien  7:35  
Well, the one actually the one that I'm using now I got last August so these are my newest ones but I'm so excited about because finally Bluetooth hearing aids are available on the NHS, whoo. Because a lot of people say Bluetooth technology is quite old. But it really been around for years and your private sector for hearing aids. But it's only really coming into the NHS in the last couple of years. And the area that I'm in got them from last summer. And I was lucky enough to be one of the first ones to get fitted with Bluetooth hearing aids. And what's exciting about that, for me, it's a connectivity like right now I have got the sound stream directly into my hearing aid from my laptop. And previously I did do that but I used the hearing loop setting on my hearing aids but I still do you I use I have hearing loop enabled headphone but the sound quality for Bluetooth, it's a massive step up like a big improvement to be on that opens up so much more potential to be able to access things like on my phone, certain phone calls, I really struggle with that I can I'm trying to try. But speaking to different people on the phones, I can hear for some people, I will always still struggle with it not going to solve everything hearing aids don't solve everything. I think that's the big myth for hearing loss and deafness that they don't give a deaf person hearing aid they'll hear everything. I will never hear everything. And I've accepted that.

Phil Friend  8:56  
I mean, I know that. I know that it work. You also use a support worker, don't you? Francis is one I've met Francis. But how does your how does this improvement in tech lessen your dependence on the human interaction from someone like Francis, for example.

Molly OBrien  9:16  
It makes it a lot easier to be able to have a conversation with people doesn't solve all problems. And it depends, again, it depends on the situation that you're in. And you're not been able to have a one to one discussion with somebody on a zoom call like this or like a small group meeting without having to rely on somebody having to repeat because that is the one of the roles that support worker, whether it's a friend or family if I'm not hearing something. Sometimes what I have to ask someone to do is just repeat it and it helps if the person that does that. It's a person whose voice that I know really well because your brain develops familiarity with familiar voice that it will naturally pick up a verse voice that you can hear back in a noisy environment rather than one anyone brain will do that but I think person with a hearing loss even more So you'll hear familiar voices in a noisy place, like you wouldn't hear unfamiliar voices, I think when you have a hearing loss, you start to notice that. So that, for example, is where I would still rely on someone to support if it was really noisy, even with my hearing aid. And like, I can't hear differences, if someone sat far away from me, I wish to I will not hear that they've spoken to me. So in that case, I would use a small portable microphone, I got about five but different microphones and they work on the FM setting, on my hearing aids the range of it is Roger Phonak not sure why it's called Roger, but it's a larger Phone X range of microphones. And I've got quite a few of them now, partly through access to work on them at work. And some of them are social care funder that you can imagine they're quite expensive. But they are very useful for work purposes for in person meetings. And they're also useful, I've got a small microphone, that I'll give to my yoga teacher, and she would clip it on what I've taught whether she's wearing a top or a jumper. And she can still walk around the room and teach the class, and I got the sound going straight to my hearing aid and still be able to follow what she's saying without having to look around, you're going to hear what she's saying.

Phil Friend  11:09  
Then that removes the need for there to be an induction loop system actually in the room. So yeah, that's really flexible work. Yeah, no, no, I've found out to my cost when I've been doing training places where they never worked. So okay, so we've got the hearing loss, we're using the hearing aids for that Bluetooth is a massive step forward for you its meant it's open up all sorts of interesting dimensions, like crisps are actually quite noisy to eat. And you've still got your support worker in place to help you with situations where hearing might still be problematic. So that's brilliant. Now, in terms of your sight loss, you mentioned magnification and magnifiers. Tell us a bit about what that's like what that's about.

Molly OBrien  11:55  
Again, as you can imagine, I use a whole range of different types of magnification technology. So I've got handheld electronic magnifier, I've got desktop based magnifier, and I use the magnification technology on my laptop, though, again, it depends on what situation that I'm in. But a handheld magnifier is something that is always in my bag. And that's an electronic one. And again they varied over the years. I mean, I remember the side of Electronic Magnifier when I was a kid that was huge. They still are very expensive. I mean my my desktop magnifier that I've got costs four grand, and that will show social care funded support, I applied for funding for them, because it just it makes a big difference. With a handheld magnifier, it's brilliant. But as you if you've been using it for free, our you wrist strain is quite quite, can be quite painful. And I like to read even though I love what I love audiobook, because that's another thing with my hearing aids, I'm swapping technology here, but with my hearing aids I can stream my audiobook straight to my ears on my phone. But then I also still love reading a book, not a massive book. But I still love actually holding a book and having a magnifier, which is great. But actually the  wriststrain can be difficult. But then the desktop magnifier is wonderful because its plugged in all the time, I don't have to worry about it being charged up cos it's plugged in constantly. And if I would call it a little tray on the bottom, and then you've got like a look like a computer screen. And it just whatever, then you put on your book on the tray, and it comes up on the screen in front of you, you can change the colours, and you read white on black, increase magnification as much as you need to and can move a tray left and right, forward and back. And it just so much easier to use for longer purposes of reading printed material.

Phil Friend  13:46  
But does that does that help? I know one of the greatest challenges with that kind of technology has been handwriting does that.

Molly OBrien  13:54  
Yes, you can be able to see handwriting I don't use much handwriting I've not been able to see handwriting clearly for 10 years now. So I don't do any I really don't I can sign my signature and I can do handwriting. But it's not my strongest strength at all I usually give paperwork to somebody who can see fully§. But yes, me I wanted to be allowed to do what I can do to do what I can and I want you a desktop magnifier, it'd be a lot easier. It's really hard to do handwriting with a handheld magnifier that did not get very basic really to do it at all. So

Phil Friend  14:28  
when you say a handheld, and it's electronic, I'm guessing therefore that it's using batteries of some sort to charge too enlarge whatever. Do you was that would you tend to use that, for example when you're shopping to read the labels on things or would it? What sort of Yeah, yeah,

Molly OBrien  14:45  
yeah, I would use it for samll things like that. I just use it for reading packages in the kitchen for cooking. Again, you could do that. To be fair, it doesn't depend on the original colour if your packaging for example can be quite shiny and because magnifiersd work by shining a light on something that reflects the light back. Even though the technology are brilliant, I'd be lost without them. They do have their faults if you like, or how you, you got to learn how best to use them to get the best out of them. And I'm planning to charge them in my handheld ones have about four hours worth of charge and making sure you're planning ahead, when when you know you're going to use them extensively. So

Phil Friend  15:27  
Well, it sounds sounds fabulous. And I guess one of the ways that people could assist people with your situation is to produce packaging that isn't shiny. What, I should say to our listeners, by the way is, we will put in the show notes, the various things that that Molly's telling us about so you can look them up for yourself. Right, so Okay, now, we now come to item number three. And by the way, everybody, Molly says she's got a fourth, so we might stretch it a bit, but we'll see. The third one seems to be a universal truth for people with sight impairments. And that's the good old iPhone or iPad. But yeah, what does it do for you? What is it? How are you using that very, very common now device?

Molly OBrien  16:11  
Well, I think a lot of visually impaired people say because iPad, Apple devices, my laptop for personal use and work use is Apple as  well. But I love that Apple have the inbuilt magnification software. And that is one of the earliest memories of having an inbuilt software ready in there for you to use. I didn't have to go and buy a separate piece of software. I remember having to use Zoomtech software when I was a child, I think there's a way that you can use. But Apple software is far more advanced. And even when I first started using it 14 years ago, it was amazing. And it is amazing. The fact that it is already there, the magnification, and the fact that I could pick up someone else. For example, my mom gave me her phone to check a message as long as she's enabled the magnification, I know the gesture because she's got an Apple phone. And I can just zoom in and read the message to her. And then take the magnification off, I can give her the  phone back. Whereas if she had a standard phone wouldnt be able to that

Phil Friend  17:11  
that's a really interesting. Isn't that wonderful? You see, this is what I love about these conversations. Here's your mum. Who could see presumably, turning to you to tell her what something says on her phone. Brilliant. But you're right Apple have but it's a kind of reversal of roles, which is so lovely. But Apple as you say rightly I was an early adopter of phones but not for the reasons you were but for all sorts of other reasons. To stick accessibility at the top of your list of priorities makes such a difference, doesn't it? Do you use do you use your iPhone or iPad in specific ways other than just using the accessibility apps? 

Molly OBrien  17:54  
mainly I think the fact that the accessability is so strong that you can just zoom in and it just you can change the level of magnification as well which is what I like about it my previous magnification technology was set at like four times bigger no matter where you want it so depending on what the original text that you were looking at, you can zoom out a little bit zoom in further if it's smaller print and then likewise you can change the colours quite quickly with the reverse of colour like so I read both white and black text and I can just click triple tap the Home key and it's just it's their video waiting we can zoom out and the fact that it's a bigger screen makes it a bit easier I personally find navigating some areas on the phone a lot harder Could you ask you certain magnification gesture man actually I have my phone is not Apple on my phone is actually an Android based I prefer it as a phone because because my phone I've got at the moment is the only way I can still keep some handwriting skill because I can hand write out my text messages and it converts it to text. Which I like but its difficult to see the keyboard on an Apple phone? Although I've a friend who is blind convinced me about a year and a half ago to get a Bluetooth keyboard I wish I got it sooner it makes such a huge difference in being able to use I could use whatsapp I could never use whatsapp before because I couldn't see the keyboard well enough and I am struggling with a screen reader to be able to hear it although that's something my new hearing aids are going to open up the ability for me to be able to use a screen reader more so that I can get it read information read to me when I'm visually tired because a screen reader you can slow down the speech now would you what you wouldn't couldn't be able to do years ago you can change the tone of the speech. So I'm gonna try and find a speech tone that I can hear better that might make it easier to do things like access the keyboard which which will be really cool but I like I love my bluetooth keyboard from my phone and my iPad as well but it just makes it really quick. It sounds weird, but I learned touch typing as a child at school instead of language because of my hearing loss so don't bother with languages.

Phil Friend  20:01  
What a good idea that's proved to be my goodness me.

Molly OBrien  20:05  
Just amazing learning to touch type and its one of the best skills that I have.

Phil Friend  20:10  
There are so many things you're telling us we should have done or we should be doing now. And I can imagine when you rock up to a meeting or something, yeah, then you open I'm guessing you do have a bag that you carry around with you. What comes out? Yes, what comes out of that bag isn't sort of lipstick or, you know, this is full of tech, you know, oh, magnifiers and keyboards and all sorts of stuff.

Molly OBrien  20:37  
My work my work bag when I go to the office, I've got my iPad to my work laptop, I've got a separate keyboard and mouse as well. My charger if I take my iPad with me for personal use, and my keyboard, my phone my Electronic Magnifier  batteries I don't go anywhere without hearing aids batteries oh and anti glare glass to wear?

Phil Friend  20:55  
Of course, never go anywhere without them. Absolutely. Do you go with a small portable generator as well to make sure

Molly OBrien  21:02  
I take so much stuff when I first started at Activity Alliance, last year, one of my colleagues said to me have you got a big enough desk for all that technology, desktop magnifier now where I've got one at home as well. So you can imagine the tech setup that I've got,

Phil Friend  21:22  
It's coming over in waves that obviously you love all this stuff and and it makes makes such a difference to you clearly it does. But I guess for many people who don't get tech and don't understand it and so on so forth It must seem pretty daunting. But you're a brilliant advert for how it can liberate you if you apply it properly. Now, okay, because you've been such a starring guest, you have a fourth item, I'm going to allow you a fourth. Tell us what that is. 

Molly OBrien  21:50  
Well, the fourth item is based on more tactile technology, because I actually think that tactile technology is an area that's going to develop a lot of particularly for people who are deaf blindness or dual sensory loss, people typically think of Braille and braille is equally valid, even though sadly, some people say it's a dying art. But there are so many different forms of tactile technology that is amazing. I mean, I have two tactile watches that I love. And one of them is a bit weird to try and explain it, but it looks like a little pebble and you put it in the palm of your hand and it tells the time through vibration. And then another watch that I have a bit more than like a conventional watch. And it tells again, it's tactile, it tells the time by two ball bearings like tracks. So you've got a track around the face of the watch and a track around the edge of the watch the one is the hour, and one is the minute you could feel where it is along the clock face, which is all tactile as well. So in some ways, they're very discreet to be able to keep track of the time. And it helps when you're giving presentation. So you're not going over time or anything like that. And but if I love the one on the wrist, because it looks a lot of people say it looks smart. And it looks like an actual conventional watch until you look at it closer whereas pebble one is a little bit more complicated to explain even though it's cool, but you can tell the time through a series of vibration pattern. A short by vibration is a one. 5 short vibrations would be five o'clock. If it's two long vibration, that'd be 10 o'clock because the long vibration of the five. But it's a bit complicated to explain. But once you get your head around how it works, cuz I think that most thing, once you learn how to use technology and your mind about how it works, I sometimes do and that's fine. I have a friend or support worker to help me to learn how to use something and then I'm, I know what I'm doing. I'm confident with it, it's fine. But particularly with anything like that tactile technology takes a little bit of getting used to. I tend to find people want to look at it or listen to it and I'm like, no, no, no, feel it and you can tell by the feel of it. And I think tha's   quite unique. I really like it.

Phil Friend  23:47  
I think you've got a beautiful blend of things haven't you've got Bluetooth for hearing you've got the magnifiers and obviously your iPads and so on for the sight side of issues. And the tactile watches, I should say to our listeners that I've sat with Molly we were at meetings and then we had a little party in the evening and she and I sat together and she showed me this watch the one that she wears. And it is actually quite a work of art really its the sort of thing that anybody would like to wear I think regardless it looks really interesting. And the colours are great you know it looks very fashionable actually. I remember it and that's the other side of all this isn't it that an iPhone and an iPad It's a sexy gadget. It doesn't look like grab rails you know or Zimmer frames when are they going to learn that we want design you know design stuff that looks nice

Molly OBrien  24:40  
The assisted hearing technology I had at primary school it was like a huge box that I would have to wear around my waist with a strap round my waist wired up to my hearing aids well it was blooming awful

Phil Friend  24:55  
And of course you fitted in. Nobody noticed this at all is so good. Mind you I bet but you had, I had you a bit you had massive shoulders and muscles on your back, back and biceps sort of Personal Workout.  Anyway, well look, Molly, this, this has been a joy because not only am I fascinated, and I hope our listeners are to the technology you're using and the way you're deploying it, but just the sheer energy and joy that comes off you the enthusiasm for it. And I suppose a serious point about that is that without this, you wouldn't be able to do so many of the things you do now. So you're an independent woman doing your own thing, earning your living you know, you're enjoying life to the full, in part because of this. And I guess in part two, because you're just so bloomin stubborn, I guess.

Molly OBrien  25:47  
I want technology to work for me, and I want to be able to find the best way to use it and its not easy. There have been times when I've struggled with it. But I think find what works for you. And I think that the thing if you have dual sensory losses as well, or you have multiple impairments you to find what works for you, whether that's access or whether it's technology enjoy it. Because otherwise what's the point in using that just make the most of the technology that you've got, because there's just so much more I could have talked about, I do think technology is the way forward for disabled people. But I strongly think that dual sensory impairments as well, I think, in the next few decades to come, I think they're going to be a big change in technology. 

Phil Friend  26:26  
Well and I think, you know, to finish you, you've given us some really very full, let me say it like this, we've got on the one hand, you using technology that's cutting edge, you're always looking for the newest thing to make sure that you can do more and more and more, that's brilliant. You have a support worker who fills in some of those gaps and acts in all sorts of ways that facilitate your ability to work and so on and do other things. And then you've got that rather lovely side of things, which is that tactile, if I'm going to use certain equipment, I want it to feel right and look right and do the job as and be sort of sexy in a way not just about function and so on. So it's a great kind of bringing together of all these things and put them all together. And you've got Molly O'Brien. I mean, what more could there be? Thank you so much, Molly. It's been a joy. I hope our listeners find that as fascinating as interesting as I do. But I'm very grateful for your time. So thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us today. 

Molly OBrien  27:25  
Thank you, it's been great I've loved it.

Phil Friend  27:32  
if you'd like to share your stories about how you use technology to overcome some of the barriers that your disability puts in your way in please contact me at Or you can look up the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) details on their website, which is Thanks very much and I look forward to hearing from you

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