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Blindness Skills

Acoustic Maps to Aid the Blind

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England have developed a new method to convert images from lasers and digital cameras into real-time, three dimensional acoustic maps that help the blind navigate around obstacles in their path. The images are converted to sounds that get louder as objects get nearer, accurately reflecting their orientation with respect to the user. Coupled with related work from the University of Laguna in Spain and several other institutions, these maps could result in a workable assistive technology for the sight-impaired in the near future.

The Bristol system integrates real-time image processing with new algorithms designed to identify specific objects like trees, furniture and people. The algorithms can also identify objects in motion and predict their trajectory and speed. The images and related data are then transformed to sound using a method designed by scientists at the University of Laguna in Spain. The resulting acoustic maps are fed to blind people through a pair of headphones and thus enable them to navigate successfully around both static and moving obstacles.

The headphones use stereo sound to pinpoint a location in space. The principle is similar to the location tests frequently included in standard hearing tests where sound is fed into only one ear as the patient is asked to identify which side the sound came from. Here, the directional abilities are significantly more robust and take into account the rotational position of the wearer's head at any given moment using an integrated gyroscope developed by scientists at the University of Marche in Italy. Distance is tracked using an intensity factor--the closer the object, the louder the sound created. Imminent collisions cause a loud warning sound to ring, alerting the user to get out of the way.

Two prototypes currently exist--the first prototype uses infrared lasers mounted on the inside of a pair of glasses. With a 60-degree field of view it detects objects up to 5 metres away. The second prototype adds digital cameras on the side of a test helmet worn by users, and by so doing greatly increases the field of view covered by the map. Although not currently integrated into the device, researchers are also exploring the use of an onboard GPS (global positioning) system to help direct wearers away from known, unchanging obstacles. This could free up additional processing power for more applications and allow for improvements in the speed, distance, or angular precision of the detected data.

Considerable testing with both of these prototypes has been very successful, but researchers say more testing is needed before bringing the device to market. In particular, extensive reliability testing must be performed to ensure that the device won't suddenly stop working as a user crosses a busy street or is in some other dangerous situation.

TFOT (The Future of Things) has previously reported on other innovative assistive technologies including a new robot that can open doors for people with problems turning handles, a wheelchair that can react to the thoughts of its users and move accordingly, two devices from Honda that help people walk with a more even stride and to lift and squat more easily, and a personalized user interface that adopts itself to the specific visual and motor abilities of its users.

Read more about the new assistive technology and view a video of it in use in this news site, designed to promote research findings funded by the European Union.

Reprinted from The Future of Things, August 5, 2009.

Project Takes Eye Health to the People

Snuneymuwx First Nation, British Columbia--How long does it take for a Mobile TeleOphthalmology Project to go from dream to reality, asked Norman Lewsey, executive director of the Inter Tribal Health Authority (ITHA) on Vancouver Island. Five long years, he said. Not so surprising then that the launch of the project would be turned into a big event, complete with feast and speeches from some of the people who had devoted considerable energy to seeing the dream come to fruition. The celebration included the blessing of the teleophthalmology mobile units and traditional First Nations drumming and singing.

Gathered at Snuneymuwx near Nanaimo on April 16 were health representatives full of the hope that their project would bring some equity to First Nations in the area of health services. Vancouver Island residents living in 51 rural and remote First Nations communities at high risk of developing diseases of the retina related to diabetes would soon benefit from a new mobile retinal screening service. The technicians were trained, nurses hired, and two highly motivated doctors were standing by in Victoria ready to make assessments.

Rural and isolated patients have trouble accessing the same levels of health care as other people in British Columbia. Some can't afford to travel to urban centres. Others refuse to leave home. The danger of not getting tested is that diseases that could be treated are left undetected. Patients with diabetes are particularly prone to eye disease that can lead to blindness, and there are more incidences of the occurrence of diabetes in the Aboriginal community than there are in the mainstream population across Canada. The British Columbia First Nations Health Plan estimates that prevalence of diabetes among First Nations people is up to 40 percent higher than for other British Columbians.

Dr. Stanley Shortt, one of the retinal specialists on the teleophthalmology project team, said people born within the past 10 years have a one in three chance of developing diabetes. Worldwide, by the year 2030, 438 million people will (have) the condition. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people ages 21 to 74. Getting tested allows doctors to treat issues before they become problems.

The mobile teleophthalmology units will travel to the patients and send the images of their eyes via a secure link to retinal specialists who will examine, investigate, monitor and treat any problems long-distance. Nanoose First Nation Chief David Bob is the ITHA co-chair. He explained that the units didn't test for vision but for disease and urged everyone to take advantage of this technology when the units are in the communities.

About two million Canadians have diabetes mellitus, one-third without knowing it. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause many health problems, including coronary heart disease and renal failure, retinal damage or retinopathy. People with diabetic retinopathy are 29 times more likely than the general population to become blind.

Diabetic prevalence among the 35,000 First Nations people living within the Vancouver Island Health Authority region is estimated to be 2,200. This population is geographically distributed among some of the health authority's most isolated communities. Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and Canada Health Infoway jointly funded the $1 million teleophthalmology project, contributing $404,000 and $636,000 respectively.

"Improving the health status of Aboriginal people on Vancouver Island is one of VIHA's key priorities, as identified in our five-year strategic plan," said Jac Kreut, Vancouver Island Health Authority board chair. "We are delighted to be a part of this innovative project that gives residents living in remote and rural Vancouver Island communities who are at risk of developing diseases of the retina the same access to retinal screening services that are available to people living in urban centres."

Four primary screening clinics are located on Vancouver Island in Sooke, Nanaimo, Port Alberni and Alert Bay. The screening equipment used in the clinics is portable, and will be taken to remote and rural First Nations communities where needed.

Said Snuneymuwx Elder Bill Seward, he was pleased to have witnessed the launch of the technology in his community. "It's good for our people. It's good for our children."

© Windspeaker. May 1, 2010. All rights reserved.

Braille Illiteracy is a Growing Problem

Ronnay Howard is 9 years old and legally blind with cornrows in her hair and a smile on her face. She sits in front of a keyboard in the resource room for the visually impaired at Engleburg Elementary School, her small hands moving methodically over six large keys. She is writing in braille, spelling out a single word--furious. “I know I'm really good at it,” she says.

This is how braille is learned and how it is preserved, one student at a time, one word at a time. Technology has been a great leveller, a blessing in this modern age for those with visual impairments. It has enabled tens of thousands of people to access written material quickly, to hear what they cannot see. But there is an underside to the use of technology, to all the cassette tapes and digital recordings of everything from romance novels to textbooks to government forms. It is called braille illiteracy.

The National Federation of the Blind has been waging a campaign to ensure that those who are visually impaired learn how to read braille. According to a report issued last year by the advocacy group, fewer than 10% of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in America are braille readers. Reasons for the low rate of braille literacy include a shortage of braille teachers, schools not offering braille to students who have low vision, and a so-called “spiral of misunderstanding” that the system is slow and difficult to learn.

The report also zeroed in on the “paradox of technology,” which makes braille more available than ever before yet also makes more audio available, too. Now, people routinely use audio to read, with digital technology or computer software that translates the written word into speech. “Every time a new technology came along, they said this is the thing that can replace braille,” says Marc Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.

Braille Takes Back Seat: Riccobono, a Milwaukee native who was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 5, says that during the 1960s and 1970s there was an influx of blind students into the public education system. With a shortage of braille teachers, a convenient way to educate the children was with audio devices. “You had a whole generation that grew up without braille,” he says.

The bicentennial of the birth of braille’s creator was celebrated last year. A blind Frenchman named Louis Jean-Philippe Braille created a system of raised dots to allow the blind to read. He did it by modifying a French military code that was used by soldiers to communicate in the dark without using lanterns.

Braille opened up a new world of possibility and education. During the middle of the 20th century, about half of visually impaired school-age students in America read braille. Now, it’s around 1 out of 10.

In Milwaukee Public Schools, about 20 students--out of 130 visually Impaired--read braille. Some students in the system have multiple disabilities.

“People realize that braille is literacy,” says Hope Good, who works in program support at Engleburg Elementary. “You can't spell or punctuate with a tape recorder.”

Marilyn Harmon, who teaches the visually impaired, says most braille readers “catch up with their sighted peers by the fifth grade.” For adults, it’s trickier. Harmon took a semester-long course in braille and needed two tries to pass a state certification exam. “Braille is making a comeback,” she says. And Milwaukee provides a key to that resurgence.

At the central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a remarkable collection of transcribers and technicians keeps braille alive. This is the home of Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement Inc.--known as ABLE. The non-profit group provides braille transcriptions as well as audio items for those unable to use print materials.

Cheryl Orgas is ABLE’s executive director. Blind since birth, Orgas was the first member of her family to graduate from college. For her, braille is a cornerstone of education. “Seventy percent of the blind are unemployed in this country,” Orgas says. “Of the remaining 30% who have jobs, 80% of them know braille.

“Braille is attached to literacy and to success in employment.”

For audio material, the group uses 24 volunteer readers. For braille, there are 12 volunteer transcribers. Most of the volunteers work at home. It takes around 20 hours to transcribe, proofread and then print 69 pages of braille. The organization transcribes around 1,000 items into braille each year.

“We're doing estate plans, tax returns, opera librettos and symphony orchestra programs,” Orgas says. “The budget for this organization is in braille.”

Cheri McGrath, ABLE’s board president, has been blind since birth. She recalls that when she was a child she knew she needed to learn braille. She remembers being in a bathtub and discussing with her mother the various spellings and meanings for teddy bear, bare arms and Bayer aspirin. “If you didn't have a written language, you'd be the odd man out,” McGrath says. “Spelling brings us together.”

Reprinted from the Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, February 2, 2010.

Introducing Mike Yale

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: Since this article, AEBC members Mike Yale and his partner Marcia have moved back to Huntsville, Ontario.

Mike Yale has dedicated his life to making things better for marginalized people. "I'm very political," he says. "If I have a defect, it's that I take things too seriously. I probably don't laugh as much as I ought."

Born in Hollywood, California, Yale was blinded in an explosion at age five. When he returned home after a year and 30 surgeries, the doctor told Yale's mother to encourage independence. "He said to let me make mistakes, even if I got hurt, and she did," he says. "My mother was a phenomenal woman."

In one of the first integrated school programs for blind children, Yale learned side by side with sighted classmates, excelling as a public speaker and member of the debating society. He also played classical piano before audiences of up to 5,000 people. In his teen years, his interest shifted from Beethoven to rock 'n’ roll, and today he has a 3,000-record collection to attest to his continuing love of music.

Yale spent the early 1960s at Berkley, majoring in journalism with minors in political science, history and comparative literature. He also became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements--and found true friendship. "The hippies were the first group who accepted me for who I was despite my blindness and the scars on my face," he says. "I consider myself a hippy to this day."

After college, Yale travelled in Russia and Europe, then decided to leave the United States permanently to protest against the Vietnam War. He moved to Toronto and began studying law at Osgoode Hall. Although he decided not to write the bar exam, Yale says he's used those studies in many ways.

Over the next 20 years, Yale had many different jobs ranging from dairy and pig farmer to radio show host to investigator for provincial and federal human rights commissions. He also wrote a book called No Dogs Allowed about his European travels. The sequel, Golden Reflections, was recently accepted by a small Toronto publisher.

In 1986, Yale and his then-partner bought the Huntsville Pet Shop and ran it for about three years. Ever since, work has been sporadic and typically required a commute to Toronto, like his five years at the provincial information and privacy commission.

"It's tough to get work," he says, noting that the unemployment rate among blind people is 75 percent.

Yale has been very involved in this community. He was Chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, served on the library board, and participated in the Visually Impaired Peer Support Group.

"Blindness is a total pain in the butt, but it's not that bad," he says. "Life doesn't end. There's always a way to accommodate your disability."

Since his ex-wife, Doreen, returned to England a year ago, Yale has been living alone with his guide dog, Narella. However, that changed earlier this week when he moved to Toronto to be with the new love of his life. "Marcia brings me such joy," he says.

There's another reason for Yale's move: It will make it easier to continue his work as Co-Chair of the Ontario Disability Support Program Action Coalition. "We are trying to get McGuinty's government to live up to the promise he made to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy," he says.

Yale explains that the provincial disability pension is less than $1,000 a month. "Nobody can live on that," he says. "Even if they raised it to $1,460 a month, it would only put recipients at the poverty line. There's so much wealth in this country, there's got to be a way to make sure everyone has enough to live reasonably."

After 22 years, Yale will miss Huntsville. "I know everyone here and have a whole network of friends," he says.

And he has a message for those staying behind: "Protect the lovely, quaint character of this town. Don't turn it into just another non-descript place on the highway, and don't let the politicians decide everything. Take an interest, get involved and protect what you've got."

Reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, August 27, 2008:

CNIB Cane Prices Cut After Protest: Charged $85 for Stick That Cost $36 Elsewhere

Protests by a blind Winnipeg man of price gouging have caused the CNIB to slash prices on its mobility canes across the country.

"We change prices all the time," said Geoff Fitzgibbon, CNIB's national director of business operations. "Prices go up and down all the time."

They went down this time, after Eric MacKinder realized he could get a graphite cane from the Winnipeg company that produces them at half the price the CNIB was charging. MacKinder, who originally wanted to get his graphite cane repaired, was told by the CNIB last week it couldn't be fixed. They said a new cane would cost him $85 plus taxes.

MacKinder called the St. Boniface-based Ambutech and learned they charge $36 for the same cane. He was outraged and called the Free Press to complain.

When the CNIB read MacKinder's story, they re-examined their pricing policy.

"The CNIB dropped the price of the canes to $45 plus tax," MacKinder said this week. "They should be commended for doing the right thing at last."

Ambutech was also able to repair his old cane for $12.

CNIB provides its clients with their first cane free.

Fitzgibbon said the price was set at $85 because the CNIB was initially ordering them from Ambutech "in onesies and twosies." As the graphite canes became more popular, they started buying them in bulk. The organization purchases the canes in Winnipeg, has them shipped to Toronto and then distributes them across the country. Part of the markup goes to cover shipping costs.

"It's ironic that this particular client happens to live in Winnipeg," said Fitzgibbon.

MacKinder says he feels vindicated, because local CNIB employees first claimed he was mistaken as to which type of cane he'd purchased.

Susan Dewalt, Winnipeg CNIB associate director of service, said the cane he bought was not graphite but a standard aluminum model they sell for $32. "They look almost identical," Susan Dewalt, the local CNIB's associate director of service, said last week. "The difference is the graphite (canes) are lighter and more durable."

But MacKinder bought a graphite cane and had an invoice to prove it. "I think it's horrible that they're marking up the canes more than 100 percent," said MacKinder, a former industrial chemist who is now living on disability.

Fitzgibbon said the CNIB would like to sell all their products more inexpensively, but what they make in profit goes directly into services for the visually impaired. The non-profit organization has approximately 120,000 blind clients registered with them.

Reprinted from the Winnipeg Free Press, June 25, 2009.

Hoping to See Change: Eastend Resident Brenda Cooke Involved with AEBC

Completing the most basic of daily tasks--whether it's crossing the street in safety or placing a pot on a stove burner--can sometimes be a discouraging and disabling challenge for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. But that's exactly the situation faced by citizens across the country who are vision-impaired and struggle to accomplish what many people would consider everyday routine.

Brenda Cooke of Eastend, who has been legally blind since birth, is well acquainted with the struggles associated with limited eyesight through her own experience, as well as the work she does as a volunteer with the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). For about 10 years now she has been a member of AEBC, a national organization that is working towards promoting rights and opportunities for those who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

Her involvement has included a stint on the group's volunteer board of directors. For the past couple of years, though, she has served as the editor of the organization's magazine, the Canadian Blind Monitor (CBM), which is published annually. Brenda says she accepted the editor duties after stepping down from the national board.

"I wanted to take part in the work that the organization was doing, but I preferred to do something behind the scenes," she said, before laughing at the fact she still found herself sitting on various committees. One of those committees, however, is connected with the operations of the magazine.

"The committee members take a big part in making decisions about the magazine and making sure it is representative of the goals of AEBC and the membership as a whole," said Brenda. "Actually, that's one of the big differences between AEBC and most service agencies and some other consumer advocacy groups. It has a working board and is controlled from the bottom up instead of the top down. All policies are developed by the grassroots membership."

AEBC was founded to increase awareness of rights and responsibilities, so blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted individuals can have equal access to the benefits and opportunities of society. But AEBC isn't interested in generating any sympathy or pity for its members. Instead, its primary objective is to help initiate progressive, meaningful and--above all else--obtainable change within society.

AEBC is comprised of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, whose work focuses on improving public attitudes and influencing policies, programs and legislation that affects members of its community. Even in these more modern day "enlightened" times, the group continues to fight an ongoing battle to have their voice heard. There is very little government support for blind rights issues and a lack of awareness among the general public about the everyday challenges faced by vision-impaired citizens.

AEBC is involved in a myriad of issues affecting persons with restricted vision, including access to regular household products, access to safe travel on community streets, access to printed information, access to employment and income, and access to voting. While technological advancement have helped make life easier for a generation of Canadians, Cooke says that some new innovations have also caused problems for those with limited vision.

An increasing range of regular household products, for instance, are now operated by touch panels without buttons that make them difficult if not impossible for blind persons to operate independently. Imagine trying to place a pot on a stove that no longer has raised burners. What about setting a timer on an oven that is fully digitalized? Or try navigating the instruction menu on a DVD movie, or the cable/satellite program guide on the television. Even new hybrid cars pose certain dangers. They aren't as loud as older models, making them more difficult for blind people to detect on community streets--not knowing when it is safe to cross. AEBC is calling on manufacturers to use today's technology to make their products independently usable by the widest possible number of customers.

"Accessibility goes beyond ramps and making bathroom doors wide enough for wheelchair users," said Cooke. "We just want manufacturers to make items that are universally designed for everyone to use," she added. "What we propose is that manufacturers make these products accessible in the first place so there is no added cost to the people attempting to use them."

At the moment, however, it is Canada's blind residents who must adapt to machines, instead of the other way around. Usually, the vision-impaired must cover the added cost of adapting these products to meet their needs. Unfortunately, statistics show that between 60-80 percent of all blind Canadians are living in poverty. "They are the people who have to come up with the extra money to pay for items needed to make products useful to them," said Cooke. "But there is very little assistance for blind people who have to buy those extra items."

Reading material is another concern. While technology makes it easier than ever to produce materials in multiple formats, only about 5% of print materials are produced in these formats--which affects knowledge, education and independence. AEBC calls for increased availability of materials in audio and braille formats, websites to be accessible to the screen readers that blind people use and the use of a text equivalent on all websites wherever a PDF file is included.

Right now, Cooke points out, a blind person cannot walk into a library--funded by the public--and enjoy the same access as that of their fellow sighted citizens. "That is a very serious inequality in our country," she stated. "And, right now it could take up to five years to produce a book in a format that a blind person could access, and most times that material is provided through charity dollars rather than the tax base."

Amazingly, Cooke says that even access to voting is an issue for blind Canadians. The most important act a citizen in any democracy performs is to vote independently and in secret. AEBC wants the same right for blind people by developing alternative methods of voting so that blind Canadians can independently verify how they voted.

There are about 600,000 people in this country who are blind. (Legally blind means a person has 20/200 vision in the better eye with correction.) But the group has a hard time getting the attention of politicians. "We can't even get equal accessibility to voting," she stated. "The 600,000 or 800,000 of us out there don't seem to count."

"And I don't mean that in an emotional way, I mean that in a political way."

Despite the ongoing struggle to be heard, Cooke says she is committed to her work with AEBC. Last year, Cooke organized a small 50/50 raffle, with the proceeds going to help produce the Canadian Blind Monitor in braille format, an expensive procedure. The magazine is currently produced in braille, print (and) on audio CD at no cost to readers and is available on the internet. The winner of the first draw was Doreen Stewart of Eastend, who took home about $360. Cooke is considering another 50/50 draw this year and a possible art auction to raise more funds for the magazine project.

Anyone interested in more information is welcome to call AEBC at 1 800 561 4774 or visit their website at:

Reprinted from The Shaunavon Standard, Saskatchewan, February 2, 2010.

The New Vision of Artificial Sight Technology

Millions of people in North America have vision (restrictions) glasses can't correct but that electronic devices might help. Vision aids that use electronics and software to enhance images have been cumbersome in the past, but they are getting easier to wear and more powerful.

An Ottawa start-up called eSight is one of the companies bringing computer-assisted vision technology to market. It hopes to complete a prototype this summer of a vision aid that looks like a pair of stylish sunglasses, with the addition of an electronic device that clips to your belt.

The glasses have a built-in miniature camera and image processing software running on the belt-mounted unit that will manipulate the camera's image in different ways to help people with various vision impairments see better. For instance, the software can enhance contrast, make the edges of objects more visible and even zoom in on a specific part of the field of vision. This helps patients with conditions like diabetic retinopathy that make vision blurry.

ESight expects a functional prototype of its vision aid to be ready this summer. (eSight) Ordinary optical lenses can enlarge an image and improve its contrast to a point, but that's the limit of the improvements they can offer, says the company's president, Rob Hilkes. With software, "we can quite dramatically play with brightness and contrast, so that the image that you see is quite different from what you would see with an optical lens," he says.

The eSight system can also perform special tricks aimed at solving other (sight limitations). For instance, advanced macular degeneration creates a blind spot right in the middle of the patient's field of vision. It's as if a cloud was hovering right in front of you, blocking your view of whatever you look at directly. People with this condition often learn to compensate by looking to one side of whatever they actually want to look at, so the object is outside the blind spot.

ESight is working on software--it won't be in this summer's prototype but should be in the final commercial product, Hilkes says--that maps the image captured by its camera to fit around the blind spot, so the words on a printed page would appear to curve around a central hole in the person's field of view.

Hilkes says eSight, which has backing from the government-run Ontario Centres of Excellence program, has already built a "proof of concept" of its vision aid. The bulky early version, built last year, "makes you look more like Darth Vader," he says, noting the prototype coming later this year will look more or less like regular sunglasses. The belt-mounted control box for the prototype will also be a bit bulkier than the final version, he says.

Hilkes says the company hopes to offer a "commercial prototype" in limited quantities by early next year and mass produce it by late 2010. Initially, he expects the cost to be in the $3,000 range.

He is also eyeing a large market of potential customers. Across North America, there are about 1,000 specialists working in around 500 clinics, whose primary practice is helping people with low vision, Hilkes says. "It's through those facilities that we believe the majority of our sales will occur," he says.

Most patients will have to pay for the devices themselves, though Hilkes is hopeful insurance plans and government programs may cover them in the future.

Other E-Vision Aids: Hilkes says the eSight unit is the first system of its kind--no existing device does quite the same things in as compact a package. One that comes close, though, is the SightMate from Vuzix Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., Vuzix' SightMate LV920 magnifies images up to 10 times. It also detects edges between objects and makes them clearer, it can freeze images, and its software can help compensate for colour blindness.

The current version of the SightMate, just introduced and available direct from the company at for $1,999 US, is a black visor that fits over the wearer's eyes, which has a camera in the middle. Gary Van Camp, vice-president of medical products for the company, says the next version will look more like designer sunglasses, with tiny cameras mounted in the frames at either side.

Vuzix also offers handheld add-ons for magnifying print, which can be used with the SightMate or an ordinary television set as the display.

“The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone.”--Dr. Rejean Munger, chief scientist for eSight

A veteran among head-mounted electronic magnifiers is the Jordy, from Enhanced Vision Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif.

The Jordy can magnify objects up to 30 times, far more than is possible with a traditional magnifying glass, and provides a wider field of vision than any optical magnifier, says Michelle Williams, Enhanced Vision's director of sales and marketing. It can be strapped on the head or fitted into a desktop mount that increases the magnification and provides added light. But the head-mounted portion is noticeably bulkier than a pair of glasses, and it projects three or four centimetres out from the face.

Williams says the technology exists today to shrink the unit into something that looks like a pair of sunglasses, but the cost would be too high for most of the market. She predicts a glasses-like version within about five years. The current Jordy sells for $2,795 US.

Dr. Rejean Munger is chief scientist for eSight and a senior scientist at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute at the Ottawa Hospital. He says making electronic vision aids lighter and less obtrusive will mean more people will wear them and for longer periods.

"A lot of these people don't want to appear like they're wearing a space helmet when they're in public," he says, adding many find the bulkier units too heavy to wear for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

Devices like these can't help everyone with vision (restrictions), Dr. Munger warns--they will do nothing for people who are entirely blind, and those with limited vision shouldn't expect to start driving or playing soccer. But, he says, "The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone."

Reprinted from CBC News, August 13, 2009.

Evolving Disability Discourse: Is it making a difference?

Editor's Note: Danielle Laplante is a member of AEBC’s Montreal, Quebec, Chapter.

When I went out recently in my neighbourhood to take a short walk with my guide dog, a lady approached me and said, "You are the person I must absolutely speak with today." She then proceeded to tell me about her best friend, who had called her in tears, because he had received a medical diagnosis that he was going blind. Having no history of blindness in either of their families, she did not know what to tell her friend to reassure him. She said that she and her friend could only imagine a future full of suffering, due to negative stereotypes about blindness and the fact that they had little knowledge of this social group, which had been historically isolated from mainstream society. After hearing about her fears, I quickly reassured her that people who are blind and partially sighted are just like everyone else. To stay socially integrated, however, her friend would have to advocate for his individual and diverse needs, in order to assume his rightful place in society.

With the transformation of social policies in Canada, governments at the federal and provincial levels are pushing for full integration of people with disabilities. We are also progressively hearing more discussion about equal and equitable rights, and that Canadians with disabilities need to be able to assume their citizen rights and responsibilities. But even though legislation seeks to render various environments more inclusive, we still must consider that historically there has been a lack of social awareness in Canada about the reality of vision loss and the functional needs of people who are blind and partially sighted. Therefore, it may be difficult to push for full inclusion without first dealing as a society with the negatives stereotypes traditionally associated with blindness.

We still need to ask ourselves if Canada has really evolved overtime as a society. Even though the political discourse on disability has changed in accordance with new governmental directions, and we now speak of disabled people’s rights, there is still little awareness in today’s society about the daily life experiences of those with vision impairments. This lack of social consciousness means each of us has to advocate, on a more regular basis than the non-disabled, for our right to function “differently” in mainstream society. Perhaps, instead of asking if Canada has really evolved, the question should be, “Why do we still have to advocate at all?” Is this continuous need to assert our rights fair? Is it equal? Is it equitable? Why do people who are blind and partially sighted still have to do all the adapting? Is society itself ever going to change? Has the evolution of disability discourse in Canada really changed anything over the years? Based on my conversation with the lady, one has to wonder.

Blind Still Rely on Braille: High-tech advances can't entirely replace system

Daytona Beach, Florida--Two students sat across from a teacher in a darkened room. Their fingertips rolled confidently across the bumpy text of the books during the one-hour lesson. “I love languages, so this is my opportunity to learn another,” said Berline Mercy, who lost her eyesight after surgery to remove a brain tumour last year. “It's the language of braille.”

Mercy, a 30-year-old registered nurse, started learning how to read again last November at the Division of Blind Services on Dunn Avenue. Even with major technological advancements, braille remains the foundation of communication for the blind, although some studies indicate the use of the traditional reading system is on the wane.

Amy Williams, a blind braille instructor at the Daytona Beach facility, said computers, voice activation and large print can make life easier, but it will not replace the dotted code invented by Louis Braille almost 200 years ago. “What happens when the computer dies for people who can see? You go back to pencil and paper,” she said. “When the computer goes out for us, it's braille.”

Williams lost her eyesight 30 years ago and remains a “visual learner”--someone who finds it much easier to retain information by reading it on paper rather than hearing it on an audio disk or tape. “If you were a reader, your medium is braille,” she said. “And with high-tech you can't read things like labels on cans of food to determine whether it's (a) can of soup or peas.” Without braille, a home-cooked dinner often could turn into a “mystery meal.”

But the National Federation of the Blind recently reported that only 10 percent of sightless people today read braille, compared with about half in the 1950s. That doesn't bode well for employment. The organization reported that 80 percent of blind workers with good jobs are proficient in braille.

Reasons attributed to the decline include advanced text-to-speech technology, less emphasis on teaching braille to blind school children, and the expense of producing braille books. The American Printing House for the Blind in 2007 also reported that less than 10 percent of the nation's 58,000 sightless youngsters use braille as their primary method to read, compared to half in the 1960s.

“People talk about braille dying and that it's outdated,” said Ike Presley, national project manager for the American Foundation (for) the Blind, after a recent training session he held in Daytona Beach Shores. “It's not going to be outdated until print is outdated.”

For the sighted world, Presley rhetorically asks: “Would you be willing only to hear things?” He said day-to-day living for a blind person still requires braille. Just reading a business card, or checking a phone number or unusually spelled name, would otherwise be impossible out in public.

“Braille allows a person to have a reading and writing medium for both information access and for personal use,” he said. “Technology is not replacing braille. It increases the availability (of) braille, making it easier to produce and less expensive.”

Presley, who has lived with low vision his 56 years, said that in many places there's not enough classroom time dedicated to braille, with children receiving training once or twice a week. He said the parents of sighted children would be outraged if their youngsters received such minimal time learning to read and write.

He said the numbers regarding the use of braille are deceiving, since more babies are surviving difficult deliveries because of medical advancements. Sometimes these children are blind, but many also (have) other physical or cognitive impairments that leave them incapable of learning braille. “Twenty years ago, they might not have lived,” he said. “So the numbers are skewed because many people who are blind cannot actually learn braille.”

Edward Hudson, 55, the centre director at (the) Daytona Beach facility, gradually went blind as a child and didn't learn braille until sixth grade. “If you have a child with a vision (limitation), the earlier they start learning braille the better,” he said. “The repetition and practice to learn the shapes and forms, the tactile feel, is important. It's a matter of literacy.”

Hudson said a strong advocacy movement exists among educators and professionals in the field to keep braille a fundamental part of teaching for the blind. “Everything else is built upon it,” he said, adding that math is next to impossible to do without braille.

Kay Ratzlaff is on the front lines of education, as the coordinator of resources for the Florida Instructional Materials Center for the Visually Impaired. She said braille remains the foundation for learning. “Just listening is not the same,” she said. “You've got to have the foundation. It's like saying other (sighted) kids don't need print. Braille is the same thing as print for our kids. They can't do without it. Listening is so passive.”

Donna Ross teaches a braille course to future teachers at Florida State University. She said the state requires braille to be taught in public schools, “unless you can prove something else is better” for a student. “We want our teachers to know it and teach it,” Ross said. “It's not going anywhere. There's always going to be a need for braille.”

Reprinted with permission from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, January 27, 2010.

Technology and Independence?

Editor's Note: Mitch Pomerantz is the President of the American Council of the Blind.

Recently, I was thinking about all of the tasks I perform as ACB president and how many of those tasks are done via computer and email. The catalyst for such thoughts was the failure of the primary ACB server and the resulting crash of our website. I then began musing over how ACB presidents prior to Paul Edwards handled their duties, particularly those which could be considered time-sensitive in nature: reviewing contracts, approving press releases, commenting quickly on governmental policy documents, to mention only three. Of course, we've conducted business on the telephone for as long as ACB has existed, but where printed material is involved, the phone is not a great option.

Next came the discussion on both Leadership and ACB-L of the announcement of the iBill, the low-cost electronic currency identifier. Would such a device help make blind and visually impaired people more independent? Does it further increase our dependence on technology? And would introduction of this device jeopardize ACB's efforts to get the Department of the Treasury to implement a non-technological solution to inaccessible currency? As a result, I've been engaging in an internal debate over whether the proliferation of such devices promotes or inhibits our independence.

Before going further, let me offer my disclaimer. Yes, I use a computer, but by no means do I consider myself a techie. Those who know me at all call me a dinosaur, a moniker which I grudgingly accept. My perspective is that I want the computer (or whatever the technology being utilized) to work when needed; I could care less how it functions. I don't want to be like those early operators of automobiles who not only had to know how to drive their horseless carriage, but also how to repair it when it broke down, something which occurred frequently. I neither have the time nor the inclination for that.

Having provided the foregoing as background, I'd like to explore whether the growing use of technology by blind and visually impaired people enhances our independence, or whether we are substituting one form of dependence for another. Clearly, widespread use of access technology has lessened--but certainly not totally eliminated--our need for sighted assistance to accomplish some tasks. Devices such as talking calculators, global positioning systems (GPS's) and microwaves allow us to do many more everyday tasks with minimal or no help from family members, friends, co-workers or strangers.

In the late 1970s, my employer purchased one of TSI's Speech-Plus talking calculators, which I used regularly to do the budget work that was a part of my job at the time. That device made it possible for me to perform what was an "essential function" of the job. Incidentally, several of my co-workers liked to borrow that calculator to do their own work as it meant they didn't need to keep glancing from the screen to the paper upon which they were writing. They simply listened and jotted figures.

Over the intervening decades, I've used a VersaBraille to draft reports and maintain records, and the omnipresent computer for reviewing and editing the work of my staff and communicating with employees in other departments. I am absolutely certain that I wouldn't have had the nearly 34-year career I recently concluded without access technology.

My reservations concerning our increasing dependence upon technology don't relate only to blind and visually impaired people, but to society as a whole. I can recall a number of occasions during the past several years at my former office when the city server went down and all our computers with it. What did I and my co-workers do during those two or three hours of non-connectivity? Absolutely nothing! We've all heard someone almost panic when discovering that their cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) wasn't with them. These days everyone must be connected at all times!

For blind and visually impaired people, more and more of us are going into serious debt in order to buy the latest and greatest access gadget. We feel compelled to keep up with the proverbial Joneses--in this instance, our friends who are snapping up accessible iPods, talking GPS units and cell phones that allow us to listen to music and browse the web, exactly like our sighted peers.

I question whether this rush to own ever-cooler technology is helping to make us truly independent. Can we do simple math without a calculator or spell a word correctly without spell-check? Can we get from point A to point B without relying upon something telling us where we are every block? Must we carry yet one more electronic gadget to identify our money? Have we traded one form of dependence for another? Personally, I believe that's just what we've done. And by the way, my misgivings apply to the broader society, not only to our relatively small community.

What I'm advocating here is that no matter how many talking devices we choose to buy, we must maintain those skills which technology is making easier for us to perform. Keep up your braille, O&M, math and spelling and old-fashioned daily living skills. Don't become too dependent on technology; after all, power fails, batteries die, and devices stop working. Remain or become as self-reliant as possible. Let's distinguish between necessity and convenience.

Reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLVIII, No. 6, December 2009.


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