Making D&D accessible to blind players

When I met one of my partner’s friends for the first time and he asked me whether I played Dungeons and Dragons, I had no idea what he was talking about. Some kind of computer game maybe? I’d never heard of it.

No, it wasn’t a computer game – it was the Monday night thing which involved S and some of his friends getting together online talking about dragons, elves, goblins – and doing a lot of maths! So I was curious and listened in a couple of times.

After a while, he asked me if I wanted to join the group. So it would be a bit like drama, but without all the physical running around bits that I didn’t like at school. A bit like creative writing where you get to design a character and create their story, but you do it with spoken words and as part of a team. I could do that.

Ok, I would be the beginner in a group of people who weren’t, but we had something else to think about as well. How could we make the game accessible to me as a blind player?

Getting information

The first part was quite straightforward. I can’t read any of the hard-copy books that line the shelves at home, but a lot of the information is available online. This means I can access it with my laptop and screenreading software, which reads aloud what’s on the screen. Some websites are easier to navigate than others, which comes down to the web design, how well links are labelled, and how many adverts I have to get round before I find what I’m looking for. I’ve also got a bunch of people who have been playing for years who can answer questions because they just know the answers. Still, if I wanted to look something up, I can either go online or ask in one of the D&D Facebook groups that I have joined. I can’t understand some of the jokes and graphics posted there, because I can only read text, but I can learn from the discussions.

I do read Braille, but I have no idea how many Braille books there are about D&D, and in any event, sometimes looking things up online is just quicker. My “pocket dictionary” for German at school was 10 volumes and it took forever to find the right one!

Another really useful resource has been podcasts. Some are made specifically as podcasts, whereas others are pulled from a Twitch stream, but in terms of the ones that I listen to, I don’t miss anything by not being able to see the action. Some don’t even use a map, so everyone is in the same position.

Following along with the characters and their adventures has helped me to understand more of the rules, see how different people build their characters, and learn more about what adventurers may encounter along the way. It’s audio content and totally accessible. I’m used to listening to fast speech, so I play most podcasts at double speed, which means I can learn, and enjoy them twice as fast! I’ll post links to some of my favourite podcasts at the end of the article.

Creating a character

I can’t use a hard copy character sheet, so S helped me to design online ones using Excel. I already love Excel and use it all the time at work, so this was an obvious choice for us. We did look at some online character templates, but I didn’t like any of them. S may have taken inspiration from them, but he built one specifically for me after I’d explained how I use Excel as a blind person and what was particularly unhelpful for me about the templates we found online. You can find out more about how we made the character sheet here.

I don’t use a mouse, so I use the cursor keys to move between the different squares. If you merge a bunch of cells to make it look pretty, the cursor then jumps to the other side of the merged area, and it’s annoying. Also, we have all of the tables and information up against the left-hand side of the page, because if you put something in the middle of the page, I might not even find it. Simple things, but this customised template ticks all my boxes in terms of being able to get information fast!

Using the find function in Excel helps me to jump quickly to the thing that I need, and there’s also a big space for me to take notes. I take a lot of notes. Partly because I don’t have the visual information in front of me, but also that’s just a thing I’ve always done – at school, in meetings at work etc. Then I have something to trade! I don’t feel so bad about asking the players for extra information about things that I can’t see, when I know I’ve stopped the party from going the wrong way because of something I wrote down a couple of weeks before!

Using my laptop also means I can keep track of spells used, hit points etc because I know I wouldn’t be able to keep it all in my head!

Rolling the dice

I have played on Roll 20 before. I basically used a slimmed-down version of it and focussed on the box where you type your commands and the chat area. This meant I used to type all my roles, rather than clicking them on my character sheet. There are some quirks on the system that drive me crazy, and I’d love to be able to turn off the function that remembers your last entries, but I can do it when I have to.

When we’re playing at home, I have some tactile 24mm dice. The D20 is still a bit hard for me to read, but I can make out most of the other numbers and just check if I’m not sure. We got them from DnD Dice.

S did find me an enormous D20, but sadly we realised it’s a life counter, and not as reliable for rolling as a normal D20 because of the position of the numbers combined with the weight of the dice, which meant it rolled consistently badly!

One of S’ friends got him a collapsible material dice tray for Christmas, and I went onto the All Rolled Up site to get one too. It’s nice to have a specific place to roll the dice into.

We did try some 3d printed Braille dice. I thought it was a great idea, but just wish they could have been a bit bigger because there is a raised border around the edge of each face, and this is very close to the Braille number, which made it difficult for me to read.

Imagining the world

Whether we’re playing at home with the map projected on the TV screen, or with the map in Roll 20, I can’t see the diagram, so the places we encounter need to be described. I think a certain amount of description is good anyway because it helps the players to visualise what places look like, but I’m aware that I need more in terms of describing where things are in relation to each other, and where I am in relation to allies and monsters. This can take more time in combat situations.

I tend to create and play characters that don’t have to be in the thick of things, so the exact positioning is less important. You don’t have to be leading the way if you can just as easily call down lightning on some evil beast from your place at the back of the party! This wasn’t a conscious decision, but more of my characters are spell casters with ranged attacks, so I don’t have to be as concerned with exactly where people are.

Also, maps and fighting are only a small part of it. When it comes to developing my characters’ stories, understanding why they do things, deciding how they would interact with the people and world around them – you don’t need to be able to see for that. You just need your imagination!

S has an extensive miniature collection, and although I can’t see the pictures in the books, he can show me what things look like using the 3d miniatures.

What’s it like for the GM?

I asked S if he could comment on what it’s like running a game with a blind player and whether there is anything that he does differently. He said:

“Running a table top RPG with a visually impaired person doesn’t really affect the game very much. Sure there are a couple of things I need to be aware of, i.e. not being lazy with the descriptions and just showing a picture which sometimes I have done in the past, or allowing the miniatures on the map be the description of the scene. I do end up having to describe these things in a bit more detail than I normally would instead of relying only on the visual aids but this not only helps Kirsty to understand the scene but also helps stimulate the imagination of the other players.”

Player interaction

I guess I do take more advice from the other players about the best place to stand, where I’ll be in least danger, or where to go so that I’ll have most effect with my spells whilst at the same time not squishing any allies. That part is kind of in their interest anyway!!

But then I’ve heard other people advising one another on podcasts too.

One of our players said: “I was listening to the Critical Role podcast, with them in combat that is how I imagined it must be for you Kirsty as a player. I could get a rough idea what was going on thematically, but couldn’t really think how I would be able to position/act as a character specifically. To be honest I think D&D works well in all non-combat situations as it’s all descriptive and imagination-based, so there haven’t been any differences there.”

So, the biggest thing we’ve identified is that descriptions and combat situations do take a bit longer when it comes to my turn. However, my character does bring skills to the party and I’d like to think that in years to come when I’m at a table with people who know less than me, I’d be able to help them too, if in some other way!

For now, I’m happy that we’ve found a way to make one of S’ hobbies accessible to me, that I can enjoy the game and play an active role.

If you have any questions or experiences of blind people participating in your roleplay groups, let us know in the comments!

Some of my favourite podcasts

Here’s a list of some of my favourite actual play D&D podcasts. I’ve linked to Apple Podcasts, but if that’s not your thing, just use the names and search wherever you prefer to get your podcasts!

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15 myths about blindness that I would like to get rid of

Not knowing something is not as bad as thinking you know something that turns out to be untrue. Or maybe it is true, just not in all situations. I’m here to debunk the 15 myths about blindness and blind people that annoy me the most.

If you have any questions, go ahead and write them in the comments. I usually answer – unless they are too way out, like the random guy who came up to me on a train to ask something really inappropriate. As a general rule, if the question would shock your grandma, it’s not appropriate to ask a complete stranger! In those cases, a stern “why do you feel that you need to know that” usually embarrasses people enough to get them scuttling away! But as I said, if people genuinely want to learn something, I don’t bite when they ask questions.

So here are the things that aren’t true, or aren’t always true…

1. All blind people touch people’s faces when they meet for the first time

Really, for me, that’s just weird. I hate the way that old films portray this as normal. I wouldn’t want anyone getting into my personal space like that. It’s an intimate gesture, and anyway I don’t want anyone ruining my make-up.

Also, it doesn’t give you that much information. I’d much rather focus on all the other information that many sighted people miss – what people actually say, when their tone of voice doesn’t match the message they want to give, the intonation, the hesitations, or the things they don’t say. That gives you much more information to work with than whether someone is wearing glasses or trying to hide a massive spot on their chin.

People who have asked to do this in my experience have tended to be a bit creepy anyway, and I would never say yes – so don’t feel obliged to either. Some people just use this as a way to get up close and personal with strangers, particularly those they might fancy.

2. We have better senses

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “but all your other senses are heightened, aren’t they?” I think actually what’s happening is that we get used to using them more. So it’s not about being born with super-hearing or a sense of smell as good as the nearest Labrador, but if your hearing and sense of smell are what you have to work with, then you work with them.

If person A just notices the smell of the roses because it’s pleasant, and person B knows that smelling them means he’s nearly home – well Person B is probably more likely to tune into it.

If person A doesn’t hear the cyclist approaching from behind, and person B does – just because they know that some cyclists don’t care about pedestrians and the sound of the bike is the only clue to keeping out of their way, it’s not super-hearing that helped, but a trained sense of hearing – probably due to previous near-misses with cyclists!

3. We like loud things because we can hear them

It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard of blind children that were terrified of their Christmas presents because everyone got them something loud! For example, Lego wasn’t loud, but I enjoyed it as much as my auditory toys. So if buying for a blind child, try to find out what he or she likes, rather than just assuming that they would like something because it makes a noise.

Far from liking noise, some blind people have noise sensitivity and don’t like to be in loud places with a lot going on. Apparently in the infant school I clamped my hands over my ears and yelled “let me out of here” because I wasn’t a fan of the volume of noise in the dinner hall. The adult Kirsty doesn’t do that any more and will find her own way out if it gets too much, but the temptation to do what the 5-year-old Kirsty did is still there sometimes!

4. We are all good at music

Just because there have been a couple of famous blind musicians, it doesn’t mean everyone will be good at music. Perhaps music is appealing to many blind people because you can fully appreciate the end result without sight. But there are other skills for which a good sense of hearing can also give you an advantage. At school, I was always good at languages because I really listened. I wasn’t expecting subtitles or visual clues in the listening test and I found it easy to memorise the sounds. But someone else might hate both music and languages, and it’s never good to generalise.

5. We all read Braille/large print

It’s cool if people offer me a Braille menu in a restaurant, but a large print one would be of no use. The energy company saying that they can’t email me my letter and insisting on sending all future correspondence in large print was not helpful. Some blind people read Braille. Others can read large print. Others only use audio. Assumptions don’t help because everyone has different skills, experience, and reading preferences.

6. We don’t care how we look

It’s true that there are some people who couldn’t care less about their physical appearance, and this attitude generally doesn’t serve them well at job interviews! We live in a world where most people can see us, and that’s a thing. Some people may try to rebel against this, but personally I don’t see what good it serves.

It’s the same with everyone else – take any group of sighted people and you’ll find some care more about their appearance, others less so. Blind people are no different.

But it’s not true that because I can’t see myself, I don’t care how I look. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a make-up article on my blog.
I can’t see the end result, but who doesn’t enjoy being told they look good after they’ve put some effort into getting ready for a night out? I like to try and make the best of my appearance – partly because people treat me better, but partly because if you feel good, you give off more confident vibes and really I want to make the best of what I have, whether that’s by using clothes, make-up, or accessories such as jewellery or my owl bag.

7. We can tell how old people are by hearing their voice

Just don’t. It’s not a cool game. I refuse to play, but if you insist, you had it coming if someone adds 20 years on to your age!

8. Everything needs to be huge

It took me ages to find a nice tactile watch that wasn’t the size of a saucer. It used to be better, and I guess demand has gone down because more people are using smart watches. The one I have now was from a friend in Germany, but if it breaks or stops working, I’m not sure what I’ll do because most of the other ones now are enormous.
I appreciate that some low-vision aids have to be larger so that people can see the large print, but we don’t all need telephones with huge buttons, clock faces as wide as our wrist or things that are big and clunky just because they’re for someone who is blind.

9. We all use the same tech

My phone and my laptop make life so much easier for me, and I couldn’t do anything with a magnifier.
Someone once commented on my kitchen that it looked normal. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like, but it turned out they meant it wasn’t full of talking gadgets or special things to make cooking easier.

I have tactile markers on the washing machine, dishwasher, and oven. I have a jug with raised measurements on the inside. But that’s about it. Other people have talking microwaves and all kinds of stuff from specialist shops – and that’s ok.

Just because something was designed with blind people in mind, it doesn’t mean that all blind people will find it useful.

Imagine you brought out a skincare range for women in their 30s. Great, I might be interested. But then I discover it’s for people with oily skin and you’ve lost me right there, because I don’t.

10. We never watch tv or go to the cinema

This isn’t true. I don’t go to the cinema often, but when I do, I go to audio described performances, where the additional information about what’s going on is given through a headset.
I don’t watch a lot of tv, it’s true, but I do have Netflix and S and I sometimes watch films together. I’m more interested now that you can filter by programmes, so I only see the ones with audio description, but some blind people really enjoy tv.

11. The people with us must be our carers

“No, it’s not her girlfriend, it’s her mum!” My friend, only about 10 years older than me, was horrified. She was neither my girlfriend, nor my mum, nor my carer, which is what people often assume. She was just my friend and we were walking along, arm in arm, because she was guiding me.

Another friend was stopped when we were in the supermarket by someone who wanted to know about caring for disabled people. It’s kind of insulting to assume that the only reason someone would be hanging out with a disabled person is because you are their carer.

12. We all know each other

I was walking down the steps to my train platform, only to be told that my friend was “over there”. Apart from the fact that “over there” wasn’t massively helpful, it turned out the guy talking to me had just assumed I knew, or wanted to hang out with, another guy with a guide dog. I heard the other guy talking to his dog and had no idea who he was.

I understand that some people who have gone through the specialist school system and attended schools for the blind might know a lot of blind people, but I went to mainstream school.

It’s like if you meet someone of a certain nationality and are really surprised that they don’t know some obscure person from the other end of the country who happens to be of the same nationality.

And it’s not just sighted people that make this assumption – blind people do it too, which I find a bit bizarre!

I think that some of it comes down to the fact that some people socialise predominantly with other blind people – but some of us don’t, so don’t be surprised if we don’t know your aunt’s friend’s next door neighbour from 50 miles away who happens to be blind!

13. We all have guide dogs

I loved my golden guiding girl, but I know blind people who don’t even like dogs, and have met people who couldn’t take responsibility for looking after an animal. Guide dogs are fantastic, but they aren’t right for everyone. They’re a big commitment – totally worth it if you love dogs and can make that commitment, but not everyone’s character or lifestyle are suited to having a four-legged friend.

Also, as smart as they are, the doggies can’t read – so please don’t try to give directions to them or show them a map. Yes, it happened to us!

14. We all sit in the dark

I can function as well in the dark as I can with the light on, but I don’t sit in the dark because I can see the difference. The light doesn’t help me to see anything else, such as shapes or colours, but it looks nicer than darkness. I love to sea the sun streaming in through my window, and it’s handy that I can see when a bulb needs changing. Also, when I lived on my own with my dog, I wouldn’t have wanted her to sit in the dark all the time!
I guess it may be different for people who don’t see light at all, but still I think they should make sure they’re not inviting sighted friends into a house of darkness because even for me, it was a bit strange when someone did that!

If I want something quickly from another room, I don’t bother turning lights on and off as I go, but if I’m going to be anywhere for a period of time, I’d rather put the light on.

15. When we’ve finished eating, it looks like feeding time at the zoo

I have a real issue with the dining in the dark experience, but that’s a post for another day.

I’m not denying that some blind people have more difficulty eating. Some people have dexterity issues. Others lose their sight suddenly or later in life, which means they have to gain a whole new set of eating skills and learn to do things differently. A bunch of fully-sighted people plunged into darkness probably wouldn’t make a very good job of their first meal … but it’s not fair to assume that someone who’d been eating without sight for the last 30 years would have the same problems.

Of course anyone can drop something or spill something – nobody is perfect. That has nothing to do with whether you can see or not.

S and I go for meals out as a fun thing to do. We go out for dinner with friends. On average I don’t tend to drop, spill or knock things over as much as other people, partly because I am very mindful about where things are and don’t make sweeping hand gestures, and because I have a thing about not wanting to look clumsy. I’m also a bit more relaxed than I was in my 20s – if the food comes out in a dish in the middle of the table and someone offers to serve me, that’s fine. I know I could do it myself, but don’t need to prove it on every occasion!

Some things are easier to eat than others. But I don’t approach the task with a sense of dread or leave a trail of food, broken glass and food on my clothes. I’ve learned how to use a knife not only to cut, but to measure how big chunks of food are. I’ve learned how to guess how much food is on my fork by how much weight is on there. Occasionally I underestimate, but that’s better than overestimating and approaching your mouth with something that won’t fit!

Anyway back to what I was saying. It doesn’t mean I’ll never make a mistake, but I’ve had years of learning to develop strategies for eating without looking, so I don’t have the same problems as someone who suddenly tried to eat in total darkness. It’s not accurate for someone who’s eaten without the lights on to think they know how it is for me.

Are there any more myths you think we should explore?

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If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in these other posts about visual impairment too:

  • My riding story – horse-riding with a visual impairment
  • World Braille Day – why I’m grateful for the invention of Braille

    Today is World Braille Day. If you haven’t come across Braille before, it’s a system of raised dots that blind people use to read. It was invented by Louis Braille, who was born in 1809, and whose birthday was 4th January.

    So, when others my age were learning to read and write, I was learning to read letters and abbreviations made up of combinations of 6 dots, and write them on a machine, a bit like a manual typewriter, which punched the dots into thick paper. I learned to type as well, but all of my school books and worksheets were in Braille.

    I continued to use the manual typewriter, known as a Perkins Brailler, for subjects such as maths, but as I grew older, I moved on to an electronic Braille notetaker, and later a laptop for my schoolwork. Still I printed out a hard copy of my work for my teachers, and every file, whether it was a piece of work or revision notes, was sent to a noisy Braille printer, so that I had a hard copy of everything. All my work was in big folders, one for each subject, and my “pocket German dictionary” was 10 thick A4 volumes!

    Braille takes up a lot of space. My grandad put up a big, sturdy set of shelves in my bedroom. They went up to the ceiling and were strong enough to take all my books – and I had many books!

    I loved to read. People bought me books as gifts, and I borrowed them from Braille libraries. When I got older and became interested in German, a library for the blind in Germany let me borrow their books too.

    Then, when I started learning French and German at school, I discovered they had their own Braille codes. It’s true, the letters are the same, but there were additional symbols for letters with accents. If you want to borrow books from the library, you need to learn the short-hand versions because as I mentioned before, Braille books take up a lot of space, so most books are written in the short-hand version. In English Braille, this means that there are single letter signs – p = people, t = that etc. There are also single character signs for words like the, and, and which. Then there are double character signs for longer words such as mother, question and every. Finally there are signs for groups of letters when they form part of a word such as th, ch, st, and er.

    Unfortunately, these signs aren’t universal, so the English th sign is the German ch sign, and the English ch sign is the German au sign – so you basically need to learn a completely different code if you want to read Braille in another language! But, if you take the time to learn this, it opens up a whole new world of books.
    I was late to the party with refreshable Braille displays – a board that sits under or next to your keyboard and displays a line of text in Braille created by tiny pins that move up and down. I got my first one when I got my first job, but many blind people use them for reading information or checking what they have written, either alongside or instead of speech.

    Life has changed now and I don’t have the same relationship with Braille as I did when I was younger. Hours of commuting into London meant that I swapped Braille books for audio books, because the audio books could be loaded onto my phone, and there was no chance of bopping someone with a heavy Braille book on the train! Still, I don’t believe that children can learn to read effectively with only audio. The reason I was so good at spelling is that, like the sighted children in my class, I knew exactly how the words were formed and could imagine their shape in dots. Think of the English language and how many ways you can pronounce the same letters. Take OUGH – words like cough, through, thought, plough, though, and rough all use OUGH, but they are pronounced differently. If you can’t imagine how words are spelled because you’ve only heard them, you are likely to make more mistakes.

    I don’t have this problem now because I’m an adult and I know how to read, but I only recently discovered that Netflix is spelled with an X – after all, flicks is a word and flix isn’t. The reason for this? I’d never seen it written down! I’m so grateful that Louis Braille’s system taught me to read.

    It’s now a legal requirement for medication to have labels in Braille. Yes, I could label things myself – I do have a dymo gun type thing that prints out Braille letters onto clear tape, but it’s so much easier not having to worry when I have a pounding headache which tablets are for headaches. Let’s hope we don’t lose this when we leave the EU – that would definitely be a step backwards. The leaflets inside medication boxes aren’t in Braille, but knowing how the name is written means that I can look up any information online.

    Also, some cosmetics and food companies incorporate Braille into their packaging design to make their products identifiable to blind readers – see the posts I wrote on L’occitane and The Co-op.

    I do have an app on my phone that can read what things are in the kitchen, but we’ve labelled all our spices in Braille because it’s so much quicker for me to identify the one I want by touch.

    To be honest, I mainly use online banking and online payment services now, but when these things weren’t available, I got all my bank statements, credit card statements, gas, electricity, and phone bills in Braille. I lived on my own for about 10 years, and it was liberating to be able to manage everything without having to ask for assistance with reading the printed letters, or the somewhat tedious task of having to scan everything so that I could use a character recognition programme on my laptop to find out what things were.

    I have found Braille controls on lifts, Braille room signs in hotels, and more than once I’ve been to tourist attractions and been presented with information that I could read for myself, without having to rely on my friends or family to read things to me.

    A number of restaurant chains such as Wagamama provide Braille menus. I really appreciate this, partly because it means I can browse the menu without having to ask for help, and although it is now possible to pull up menus from a restaurant’s website on my phone, it’s often really noisy in restaurants and hard to hear what the phone is saying. So having my own copy of the menu in Braille makes things so much easier.

    It’s true that not every blind person can read Braille. Some people have enough site to read with a magnifier. Some people lose their site later in life and use other solutions to get information. Some maybe aren’t interested or never had the chance. Offering these people a Braille menu is about as useful as offering me a large print one – so it’s important to remember that everyone’s needs and preferences are different.

    If I’m given the chance to have something sent to me by email or in Braille, I’ll probably opt to save the trees and not wait for the postman. But it’s important that the choice is there along with other formats such as large print and audio.

    Some organisations offer a service where you can have Braille messages added to greetings cards, and it’s much nicer when you can read the message yourself, rather than receiving what feels like a blank card. Even more so when I lived on my own, and had to take pictures of the card or Facetime with someone to find out who it was from – handwriting recognition software is a very new thing.

    For some people, Braille is their primary source of information. This isn’t the case for me – I rely on my laptop and phone for most things, but I certainly appreciate the Braille labels and Braille information that I come across, and I’m grateful to Louis Braille for inventing it. Whilst technology has replaced some of the functions for which I used to use Braille, I think the two should exist alongside one another, and it is vital that children are taught to read for themselves. What they choose to do after that is up to them. I type everything on my laptop, but some people prefer to input information entirely in Braille.

    To sumarise, I agree with the title of this blog post from Victarnews – Braille or computers – I’ll have both please!

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    Blogmas day 16 – let us howl

    Our visit to the Wolf Conservation Trust near Reading, whom we met there, and what we learned!

    So, I’m going to break with the Christmas posts to tell you about what I did last night – because it’s cool, and also I’d like more people to find out about the Trust.

    Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that S and I are interested in Wolves. I published the walking with wolves post earlier in the year. While I was researching that trip, I also discovered the UK wolf conservation Trust website, and last night, S and I went with some friends to their Howl Night!

    The first part of the evening is a presentation about wolf communication. We learned about ways in which they communicate with other wolves using long-distance communication, such as howls, as well as other verbal forms of communications, such as barks, growls, whimpers, yips and woofs! We then went on to look at body language – the positioning of the ears, tail, and posture, as well as the eye contact. Real footage from the centre’s wolves was used to demonstrate points about what was happening and what the wolves were trying to communicate.

    The centre is home to 10 wolves in four packs – two packs of 3 and two packs of 2. After the presentation had finished, we went outside to see, and howl with them!

    The first pack we saw was my favourite – Mosi and Torak. Mosi is one of the older wolves at 11 years of age, but that didn’t stop her being the most vocal with her howls! She deposed her sister Mai as alpha female, which led to her sister being moved out of the enclosure when they were younger. She was eager to respond to us with howls and interested in her visitors! Torak is a tall and proud wolf with a handsome, masculine head and the most mournful howl that you have ever Heard! He was more aloof and stayed to the back of the large enclosure, but that didn’t stop him joining in with a howl!

    The next pack we came across was the arctic wolves, Massak, Pukak and Sikko. Sikko is the only female in this pack, where she lives with her brothers. They were born during a severe snowstorm in Park Safari, Quebec, and abandoned by their mother, who got out of her den with one other pup, but didn’t accept these three back as they had been touched by humans, who revived them from severe hyperthermia. Pukak loves his food and sometimes paws at the fence in anticipation. Massak is the dominant male and often lets his brother and sister go to greet visitors first. All of these wolves have thick, white coats to protect them from freezing arctic temperatures.

    The next pack we saw was Mai and Motomo. Mai was separated from the pack with her sister and now lives with Motomo, an unsocialised wolf from Devon. Though partially spayed now, Mai and Motomo had been getting on better than expected as, soon after they were put together, Mai was found to be pregnant. We saw their offspring in the next enclosure. Apparently Mai likes to howl to Motomo when she is away on a walk. Motomo was only hand-reared for two weeks of his life, so he can’t be handled by the volunteers as he is still very scared of humans.

    In the last large enclosure are Mai and Motomo’s offspring, now 6 years old. They were very playful when we came up, chasing and growling at one another. Nuka is the dominant male and the most adopted wolf at the trust. He already knows which humans he doesn’t want to have around him! Tala is a very friendly and inquisitive wolf, who is often put in her place by her sister Tundra, the dominant wolf in the pack. Tala’s inquisitiveness sometimes leads to the destruction of things such as Christmas trees put in their enclosure for children’s events! Tundra is a wary wolf who is less likely to come and greet visitors. If her brother and sister do silly things like playing in the pond, Tundra just looks on and doesn’t join in.

    The wolves are well-cared for and have plenty of space to run around. As well as looking after the wolves in its care, the trust also supports other projects to help wolves in other parts of the world – both in terms of caring for captive wolves and educating the local population. The centre is also involved in research projects to enable people to better understand these wonderful animals.

    If you’d like to support the Wolf Conservation Trust, there are plenty of different ways for you to get involved. If you can get to Reading, there are Howl Nights or wolf walks throughout the year. You can also make a donation, adopt a wolf, give a child a junior membership, or buy a wide range of wolf merchandise from the store. I’d already got myself a pair of earrings and a necklace online, but last night I also came back with a mug, a keyring, another pair of earrings and a hoodie! All for a good cause, so that’s ok 😉

    Are there any nature or conservation organisations that you like to support?

    Christmas tree in Stockholm

    Listen to the podcast episode

    I’ve also produced a podcast episode about the wolves. You can look for Unseen Beauty on Apple podcasts (previously known as iTunes), or wherever you get your podcasts. Alternatively, you can listen to it here:

    The calendars

    Going back to Blogmas and the advent calendars- what was behind your door no. 16?

    L’Occitane – this time it was another soap – the last of the 3!

    M&S: this time I got a hair spray, which I won’t use, so that’s something for Mother Christmas!

    We still haven’t finished our Christmas shopping, so you can guess what we’ll be doing later!

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    I share my own experiences and a list of tips that bloggers can follow to make sure that they create an accessible experience for blind visitors to their blogs.

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    Find out in this guest post that I wrote for the Blog Herald website.

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    I got in the media by accident – twice

    Two stories of accidental media coverage

    I got in the media by accident – twice

    They say you never know who’s watching. This is especially true if you are blind and can’t see who’s watching!

    Now that I have my own business, some positive media coverage is always welcome, but I managed to get myself in the media twice without even knowing it – first by gatecrashing a statement on national TV, and then because I asked a policeman a question nobody had asked him before.
    I’m not proud of these things, but they did make me laugh – that is after I’d got over the embarrassment of the first one.

    So, you need to know that I used to work in central London, where there are sooo many people. My guide dog and I got around well, but tourists were a constant problem for us. Not because I’m against tourists in general, but when they get into big groups, they have a habit of taking up the whole pavement, even when it’s really wide, and not letting anyone through. This is a pain when you have to get to work, and it makes a guide dog’s job even harder. I did on occasion let people know my frustration, especially when I worked at an office close to the London dungeon, which always had massive, sprawling queues outside.

    Anyway, on one cold, rainy morning I was making my way into the office and as was often the case, there was a crowd of people outside my office. Sometimes big busses used to let people off there, so this was nothing too unusual. I just jostled my way through, a bit grumpy about people who were hanging around the entrance so other people couldn’t get in.

    When I got to my office, my colleague said she knew I had arrived because she had seen me on TV. One of the senior staff had been giving a live press statement outside the building and I had had no idea! Oops! If I’d known, I would have gone and got a coffee instead of marching straight through – but I didn’t know!

    After that, a cab driver near to my home said he’d recognised me from the TV, as did a journalist that I met on the tube a few months later! Not really what I wanted to be known for – my hair was a bit wild because of the wind and rain – but after that I was always more cautious when approaching our front entrance!

    The second time was another wintry day, but this time there was snow. The outer London boroughs generally get more of the stuff than Central London. I worked in Central London, and as it took me about an hour and a half to get home, there was already a nice, thick, blanket of snow on the ground. I was wearing my office shoes – so not the best – but I was happy enough to tackle the walk home! Cindy, my guide dog, loved the snow, especially when we got home and could play snowball games in the garden.

    Anyway, as I was walking out of the train station, a guy stopped me, said that he was a policeman, and asked if I wanted a lift home! I was happy about the idea, but I wasn’t about to hop in the car with any random guy claiming to be a policeman, and I knew that the Met Officers carry Braille ID cards. (I knew this because an officer had stopped me to ask what the Braille on his badge actually said!)

    I think the police officer was a bit taken aback that someone had asked him for ID, but he produced it, I was satisfied, and we hopped into the back of the police car to be driven home. I was glad of the ride because the snow had started to melt with all the people trampling over it, and then it had frozen over again, becoming quite slippery in places.

    I told my colleagues about my ride home and we thought no more of it until the story appeared in the local news! Of course it had been hyped up a bit – something like “police rescue blind woman stranded on her way home” rather than “police offer lift to woman who was minding her own business walking home”, but I was fine with their raising the point about the Braille ID cards, because it’s important that blind people know about them. You don’t want to just let anyone into your house or take you somewhere claiming that they work for the police. The only thing I wasn’t so impressed about was the fact that they said “a woman in her 30s” when I was only 29 at the time!

    Do you have any accidental media stories? Let me know in the comments!

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    Tips on style, products, and organisation from Jane – a Rehab Officer for Vision Impairment

    Tips on style, products, and organisation from Jane – a rehabilitation officer for Vision impairment

    You may remember Jane from my article about a holiday with a difference article. I decided to do a more in-depth article with Jane because she works as a Rehabilitation Officer for Vision Impairment and I thought she would have some good tips in relation to style, clothes, and appearance for people with different levels of visual impairment. My tips work for me, but I know very little about what tips and tricks people with partial sight use, or what other low-tech solutions are on offer. If there’s something that I’ve hated with a passion since I was a child, it was a one-size-fits-all mentality. In this interview, the answers are all from Jane, apart from the paragraphs in brackets, which are my thoughts.

    1. Can you tell us something about yourself and your job?

    “I work as a Rehab Officer for Vision Impairment (ROVI). I work for a local authority and have been in the job for 5 years.In preparation for this, I completed two years vocational training at Birmingham City university.
    I assist people who have sight conditions in maintaining their independence. This can be people who are new to sight loss, or people who’ve never been able to see. There are many ways in which people can be referred to us, such as through the hospital system or they can refer themselves. We don’t work with children, because that’s a different department, so all of my service users are 18 and over.”

    2. What are some of the most common questions that people ask you about looking after their appearance, clothes, hair, nails, shopping etc?

    “Many clients are frustrated that they can’t check their own appearance. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, and in other cases there is nobody around who can give the help.”
    (Kirsty: I can believe this. I lived on my own for over 10 years, and my dog never got into style and fashion feedback! Now my boyfriend does check my make-up if he’s around, but I can understand that many guys wouldn’t be interested in helping with this task! Even if they were interested, some friends and relatives aren’t comfortable about giving really honest feedback – and let’s be fair – some blind people aren’t good at taking it! But when I say “do I look ok?” I mean it – I’d much rather fix anything that wasn’t right before I leave the house, than wander round looking odd.)
    “If people have some useful sight, a magnifying mirror can help, particularly for tasks like shaving or applying make-up. Some of my clients use this one. Try to avoid really cheap mirrors because I’ve found they can have a distortion in the glass.
    Also, good lighting above the bathroom mirror can make things much easier.
    I also get questions about hair styles. My advice is usually to start with something simple that’s easy to manage. You can always build up your skills when you have some free time, or else go to the hairdresser for something more elaborate if you have an important occasion coming up.”
    (Kirsty: I would say this applies to make-up too. I know I’d rather do a simple look well, than attempt something really complicated and do an average or a bad job of it. The time for building up your skills is not half an hour before an important night out – it’s those evenings in when you are not under any pressure. When I want to try something new, I get feedback on it first before incorporating it into a look for going out.)
    “If you’re learning make-up, or even if you’re not – you could stick to paler colours, because then mistakes would be less noticeable.
    If you’re on your own and you aren’t sure what colour something is, or whether something looks ok, there is a phone app called “be my eyes”, which puts you in touch with a sighted volunteer. Video apps on your phone also mean that you can call a friend on Skype or Facetime and ask for some advice. If you don’t want a video call, you could send a selfie.”
    (Kirsty: This is true – I had a friend checking outfits, make-up and jewellery with me once when I was planning for a date. It didn’t matter that she lived miles away – the video conference made it feel as though she were in the room with me!)
    “If you would rather rely on image recognition than a person when you want to find out what something is, you could try the TapTapSee app. This won’t tell you whether you look ok, but it can help you tell the difference that feel similar by identifying what they are.
    Matching clothes is another issue that often comes up. People don’t want to go out wearing outfits that don’t match, and there are a number of things that you can do. For example, there is a device called the Penfriend. You record messages on labels to say what things are, and the device replays the message when you scan the label in the future. This can also be useful when you want to know the washing instructions. You have to have someone read these out the first time, but then the job is done, and there are special labels for the Penfriend that can go through the washing machine.
    Some people buy a lot of black trousers or skirts, and then any top or shirt that they put with them will look ok. Some people sew different shaped buttons into clothing so that they know what colour the garment is. Others make a habit of not buying a lot of the same item in different colours. In addition, there are colour detector devices, which identify the colour of clothes, and even apps that do the same thing.
    Some people keep certain types of clothes together to make them easier to find (all the jumpers together etc), and others keep going out clothes and scruffy clothes separate. If you have shoes of different colour that feel similar, keep them apart, or keep them in shoe boxes. ”
    (Kirsty: I have never seen colours. I understand the concept of light and dark, and that’s about it. Still, I think it’s useful to learn what colour things are, even if the colour names are just words to me, because then I can learn which ones can go together, or which ones suit me.)
    “Other people ask questions about how to know when clothes are clean.”
    (Kirsty: I don’t struggle with this, but it is annoying if you get a coffee stain on something and you don’t know whether it came out in the wash. I once took a red-wine-stained dress to the dry cleaner’s, and they didn’t tell me they hadn’t got the stain out when I picked it up. This was really annoying! I guess really all you can do is ask if you can’t be sure. On the subject of washing, we have different baskets for the different colours. I do the washing, but my partner has to put his clothes in the right basket!)
    “As a sighted person, it can be hard to bring up that someone doesn’t look ok. Most people would want to know if their skirt is tucked in their underwear, but what about if someone’s top is inside out, or if they have lipstick on their teeth? Do you point this out? How will the other person respond?”

    3. What tips could you give someone who wants to know more about current trends if they can’t see the pictures in adverts?

    • It’s good to ask your friends, someone the same age, and definitely someone you trust and who can distance themselves from what they like or would wear.
    • Youtube is a good source of information. Some Youtubers are better than others at describing things, but some go into detail about what clothes or make-up products look like.
    • Well-written blogs are the same – you won’t get much information if people only post a load of images, but some are quite descriptive.
    • There are personal shopper services at places like House of Fraser or Debenhams – the service is free and they are not pushy about whether you buy.
    • If you find a brand that you like, you might like other things from them and it’s easier to choose the right size.

    4. What things are still good to know, even if people don’t ask?

    “I think sometimes, whether or not they have a visual impairment, people don’t think about the way things change as you get older. Some of the lipsticks that you wore in your 20s might not look as good in your 50s. Your skin changes, so as well as needing different skincare products, the tone can change as well. Do you still want to keep the same hairstyle? This isn’t just limited to blind people, but not seeing people of your own age ageing around you can mean that you don’t think about these things as much.”

    5.What advice do you give people about shopping for clothes/make-up/accessories?

    • Find someone who will give you an honest opinion – whether that’s a personal shopper or a trusted family member or friend.
    • Dresses can be easier, because you don’t have to find a top to match!
    • Try to pair things that are the same style – don’t mix formal trousers with a scruffy top.
    • Some things can be dressed up, others can’t
    • Have input on the things that you can decide. You might need advice on colours, but you know which fabrics feel good to you and how long/short you want things to be.
      • 6. What tips have you come across for marking things in the bathroom or organising toiletries?

        • Some people stick labels on products, although this can be a pain if the products get wet. Others mark the packaging in some way, or use an elastic band to make the shampoo feel different from the conditioner
        • If you share a bathroom, have your own space, so you only have to think about identifying your products.
        • This wouldn’t work if you want to keep to the same brand, but you could make a point of buying bottles that don’t feel the same.
        • Some products are already tactile – such as the raised letters on Radox bottles.
        • Some companies, such as L’Occitane, put Braille labels on their products.
        • I’ve already mentioned the Penfriend – I’ve seen someone using it to label smaller items such as lipsticks.
        • Don’t have too much stuff out

        (Kirsty: I would really struggle with the last point – I’d rather have to remember a lot of stuff than not have too much stuff out, but everyone is different and you have to do what feels right for you! If you do want different products that feel the same, you could buy the shampoo one week, mark it, then buy the conditioner. I don’t do this now, but I used to do it all the time when I had nobody to ask!)

        Band-It products are An alternative to regular elastic bands. You can also buy the Band-Its from RNIB.

        Here’s a note about the Band-its from Hannah who designed them: “Band-its are thick elastic bands with distinctive tactile shapes around the edge, such as cubes, cylinders and lines. This makes them easy to tell apart by touch and not just by colour, which is particularly useful if you have very limited sight. The thickness of the bands also means the colours are very prominent on the bottles. They are also suitable for use in a wet environment, such as a bathroom.”

        7. What are a couple of common frustrations, either from people who have lost their sight or who have always been blind, and what solutions have you found?

        (Kirsty: When I asked this question, I was thinking about my experiences with powder make-up products, and how I’m not too fond of them. I solved this by using cream products. ~Also, at school, I was hopeless at painting my nails, but I got other students to do it for me in exchange for help with homework! I didn’t do the homework for them, but it was a bit like extra tuition in exchange for something I couldn’t do myself.)

        Problem 1: not being able to find things.
        Solution: having designated places for things, having your own space where other people won’t move things, and remembering to put things away. The iPhone has the “find my iPhone” app, and you can also get devices to attach to things such as keys. The devices can be tracked so that you can follow it to the keys. Maybe you could also declutter!

        Problem 2: where can I go if I need help? There isn’t always someone around
        Solution: it’s good to build up a network of friends with similar interests. Not just so that you can ask them things, but if they are your friends anyway, they won’t mind helping out once in a while, and you can find ways to help them too. Also having a network means that you’re not asking the same person all the time. There is also the “be my eyes” app.

        Problem 3: I’m not good at taming my brows.
        Solution: if you don’t feel confident about plucking your brows, you could have them plucked for you, in the same way that people get their eye lashes tinted or a professional wax or tan. Work out which things you want to do yourself, and which you want to get done professionally.

        8. What kind of questions come from the men in terms of looking after the way they look?

        “Sometimes men are concerned about shaving. If you don’t feel comfortable with a razor, an electric shaver can be a good alternative. A magnifying mirror can help if you have some vision, but also don’t be afraid to rely on your sense of touch to feel whether you got all the hairs.”
        (Kirsty: Blind people can use shavers – I do – but it’s about finding out what people are comfortable with and getting the job done in a safe and comfortable way.)

        9. Do you ever get asked about tanning?

        (Kirsty: I asked this because this comes up in so many beauty discussions, but I’m really not interested. This is the colour my skin is, and that’s ok for me.)

        “I understand why some people would be worried about self-tanning, especially if you can’t see if it’s gone on easily. I know people that have had success with spray tans, where the tan is applied for you.”

        10. Do you know any good resources (blogs, magazines, accessible books etc) for blind or partially sighted people looking for style tips?

        Tell us in the comments if you are aware of any other links and resources that you think should be added to this list!

        Thanks to Jane for her time and tips!

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    How accessible is healthcare?

    My experiences of healthcare – a post from the perspective of someone with a visual impairment

    I find it much easier to write product posts, which in a way are more impersonal, but I do also want to have some opinion pieces on the blog that tackle issues around accessibility and the challenges and solutions I’ve found as someone with a visual impairment.

    Healthcare isn’t something that I really think about much. I do have a health condition that I need to be aware of, but generally I’m reasonably healthy and I haven’t spent much time in hospitals or at the doctor’s.

    Still, a recent trip to the hospital got me thinking about the accessibility of healthcare for people with a visual impairment. These experiences are my own, and this isn’t an investigative piece to represent the views of other blind people.

    I think the worst experience I had was when I was about 14 or 15. I went to the doctor or nurse, I can’t even remember now, for a general check-up.

    Doctor: Do you need contraceptives?
    Me: NO.
    Doctor: Oh, no, I suppose it would be more difficult for you.

    What exactly? Surely not the physical act! Or did she mean it would be more difficult for me to find someone who would want to be in a relationship with me? I was incensed!

    “No”, I said, in my “you’re-tedious-stop-wasting-my-time” voice, with the disdain that only a teenage girl can pull off. “I just don’t need them”.

    I have never usually held back, but at that moment I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had said more. I certainly would now, but you know how it is when something takes you by surprise and you’re lost for words. Still, that could have completely destroyed someone’s self-confidence if it had happened to someone else. I was just annoyed, but I still remember it 20 years later. You know the saying – people may forget what you did, they may forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

    I don’t think any kind of training could have fixed that. Any reasonable person would know that’s not a cool thing to say.

    Just to clarify, I am not complaining about teenagers being offered contraceptives, but those who don’t need them shouldn’t have to justify why not!

    However that was a long time ago now. The care that I received in the hospital recently was great. Everyone I met explained what they were doing, and when I needed to go somewhere else, people just guided me there. Prior to the operation, there were forms that needed to be filled out by hand, but someone was available to do that.

    I don’t have a guide dog now, but when I did and I was visiting someone in a hospice, nobody tried to prevent my dog from coming in. I think they were happy to see her and a waggy tail was welcome in a place where people were going through a sad and difficult time!

    Technology makes it easy for things to be accessible. For example, my doctor’s surgery and my dentist send out appointment reminders by text (the dentist does email as well). This means that the information is automatically accessible to me because I can read it with the speech software on my phone or laptop. Access to the internet also makes information available that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access without help, and this helps in terms of being able to read up about anything related to my health, animal health, or the research being carried out into sight restoration. More about that in another post.

    In terms of patient letters, I did have to ask for it specifically, but I got the preparation letter about the operation and the surgeon’s letter by email. This wasn’t standard practice (it would save so many trees if it were), but I just had to request them so that I could have them in a format I could read. It would be helpful if this could be extended to all correspondence, not just the letters that you are anticipating and can request by email. I take it for granted that my business is paperless and it will take a while before large organisations catch up!

    When I moved to a new area, shopping around proved to be the best way to find a new dentist. I initially registered with one practice, but I found the guy so dismissive and unhelpful, that I decided not to let him loose on my chompers. I don’t think that had anything to do with visual impairment though, just poor customer service. Still, I’m glad it happened, because I then went somewhere much better. My dentist is kind and helpful, and she shows me what she is going to do, the tools that she is going to use on me, and the plaster moulds of my teeth so I can feel the difference between how they were and how they would be after the treatment.

    My eye condition is stable, but I do have check-ups at the eye hospital. The consultants are great, but to be honest some of my more frustrating experiences have been there whilst going through the preliminaries. If I can’t see you at all, then it makes no sense to make me do the “how many fingers can you see” exercises. Fortunately one of the doctors has put a note on my record so I don’t have to do that, but some more initiative at the beginning would have been nice! If I can’t make my eyes look in a certain direction because I have nothing to focus on, repeating the instruction won’t help. I understood the first time! I just can’t do it! I do find these visits kind of tiring, but they are worth it because at the end you get to speak to someone who knows a lot about your eye condition and current research.

    Generally I attend appointments on my own, but I did take my partner in once because he had some pictures of an allergic reaction I’d experienced. I also took him to the appointments about my operation for moral support. Most of the time it was fine, and people still addressed me because I was the patient, but I think many people with disabilities know what a pain it is when people start talking to the person with you, when they should be talking directly to you. We don’t go along with that, and they soon learn that they need to speak to me!

    Perhaps this is something that people could learn in some kind of awareness training, although as someone who has grown up in a world where most people I meet, including my teachers, colleagues, and new friends had never met another blind person before meeting me, I think most people are smarter than we give them credit for, and I don’t believe that awareness training necessarily solves every potential problem. If everyone followed the rules of not making assumptions about people, asking questions when they’re not sure, and talking directly to the person, whether or not they have anyone with them, that would be a great start! I often feel more comfortable with people who’ve had no experience of visual impairment, than those who have been working in the field for so long that they think everyone is the same in terms of how they do or perceive things.

    The systems used in some surgeries for letting people know when it’s their turn are not accessible. I mean the ones where you have to wait for your number to come up on the screen. I can’t see those, so in those cases I asked someone from reception to let me know when it was my turn. I guess there is the risk that you could be forgotten, but this never happened to me and my current surgery doesn’t do that – you just have to wait for your name to be called.

    I am very happy about the ruling that requires medication to have Braille labels. This makes life so much easier for me to know what things are without having to label them myself. Hopefully we won’t lose that when we leave the EU – that would definitely be a step backwards in terms of accessibility to information. The information leaflet is not in Braille, but as long as I know the name of the medication, I can go online to look for the leaflet.

    Overall I’d say my experience of the healthcare system has been good. I think that people with disabilities have a responsibility to be approachable and explain what they need or what would be helpful, rather than expecting other people to know – because seriously, how can they? Everyone is different.

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