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Blind Student Checks Tech for College's Accessibility

Barrie--Georgian College student Matthew Campbell identifies--and removes--barriers many can't see. That's because he's blind.

A graduate of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, the 22-year-old Parry Sound man is now enrolled in Georgian's computer systems technician program. In addition to his studies, he's completing his first co-op placement as an accessibility specialist in the information technology department.

He chose Georgian because the college was already more accessible than others--but that's only encouraging him to make it even more so.

"Georgian seemed to have a lot of information on its website about helping students with disabilities and a lot of colleges didn't," he said. "I had a hard time finding a computer technician program. I found 'help desk support', and I don't want to do that. I want to be the guy who runs around the building fixing things."

Like others in the I.T. (information technology) business, Campbell loves technology and exploring how various devices, programs and applications can work together. He has both an Apple Mac laptop and a Windows notebook--and is awaiting the arrival of an iPhone.

His focus as an I.T. co-op student has been the same website that attracted him to Georgian in the first place.

"I'd like to see the college move a little quicker away from Adobe's flash technology, which is being used to display video on a web page. Adobe has a very sad attitude when it comes to accessibility, especially for the Mac user," he said. "Flash is a nightmare to navigate and work with using a screen-reading program." Screen reading is built into Apple computers, he noted, while on Windows-based systems the accessibility tool must be purchased separately.

He has suggested the college give blind students a tour by adding better audio descriptions of the campus, rather than relying so heavily on the camera. "If someone developed a website with descriptive labels for images, we could get an idea of what the image is showing," he said, adding that in many cases--from email links to websites--any text on the page, rather than an icon, would give information to the visually impaired.

Graduating from the Macdonald School, Campbell has more experience with other adaptive technologies, and is working to make the college's website work with those specialized devices as well.

He's also excited by the possibilities of mainstream technology--and making it even more useful for those with disabilities. Applications for the iPhone abound (not to mention the phone has a screen-reading "voice"), and he's looking to explore how to make them work with specialized programs and devices. "I'd like to get into that, too," he said. "There are lots of possibilities.

His supervisor, web usability analyst Monika Bernolak, said that experience is a valuable asset. "We have all kinds of reports and he's given us numerous suggestions. We're listening to him, to learn and improve our pages accordingly," she said. "He tests projects for us before they go live and lets us know how we can improve. It's very important in light of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which Georgian College is strongly committed to."

Made law in 2005, the AODA sets out a series of targets to break down barriers: customer service, the built environment, employment, communication and transportation. Municipalities and public agencies must, by January, offer good customer service to all--regardless of ability or disability. Stores and others in the business of customer service have until January 2012.

Just after that, information and communication must be accessible by 2013 in the private sector. All other compliance dates have yet to be determined. The goal of the AODA is to make the province totally accessible by 2025.

"(More) companies are thinking about accessibility and how to build it into mainstream products. It's pretty sad a lot of other (technology companies) are not following Apple and making it accessible," Campbell said. "(People with disabilities) may be a minority, but we do make up market share."

As part of his co-op placement, Campbell also has an accessibility blog, at www.georgianc.on.ca/accessibility.

In September, Campbell returns to his in-class studies. One thing he will depend on isn't technical at all--but critically important in helping him make his way around: his guide dog Lillibelle.

"You'd be surprised at how many people have dogs," he said, adding he asks people not to pat the black lab while she is working. "Ask, don't assume, you can (pat the dog). Petting a dog that's working is unwise, potentially dangerous," he said, adding he's fortunate he's had no close calls due to Lillibelle being distracted from her duties.

In January, in his next co-op placement, he may be back focusing on accessibility at Georgian. At least Bernolak hopes so. "He's been a great asset," she said.

Reprinted from The Barrie Advance, Simcoe.com, Ontario, August 25, 2010.

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.

Accessibility at Universities is "A Moral Obligation"

"Disability is one element of the identity that makes a person whole," says Rabia Kedhr, speaking in Brock's Sankey Chamber. As a university student, Rabia Kedhr was accommodated, but she wasn't always included. And that's something higher education needs to change, she says.

In a May 14 speech in Brock University's Sankey Chamber, the well-known accessibility advocate recalled, as a blind student, having to study alone in a room in the library. There was equipment to accommodate her, she said, but she was excluded from the normal study tips, gossip and other student bonding.

"No one knew why Rabia went back to the secret room in the library," she said. "While the rest of them went to study hall, I missed out on building those relationships. It excludes you from the norm."

Kedhr's talk was sponsored by the Office of Human Rights and Equity Services and the University Accessibility Coordinator. She recalled an Economics professor who told her that, because of her blindness, "My style won't work for you." In the end, she managed to demonstrate to the university that her poor grade wasn't because of her ability to learn, but because she wasn't accommodated.

She only knew about social events from her friends, she said. The events were mainly promoted through print advertisements, which weren't accessible to her.

These are examples of struggles students with disabilities face every day. The province's Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is part of creating a more accessible world, she said.

"Equality in the context of disability means we have to create campus conditions that serve all of us," she said. "We have to accept that people with disabilities and people without disabilities are, in fact, the same. We have to start from that common ground of belonging."

Kedhr is a consultant with DiversityworX, specializing in accessibility and social inclusion. She has more than 15 years of personal and professional experience in accessibility, community development and outreach with persons with disabilities.

Future decisions on accessibility need to include people with disabilities, she said. And each organization needs "internal champions" who will fight for it.

"In doing so, you contribute to the ultimate quality of life of every student," she said. "Education is the true foundation of peace and prosperity. It's the bedrock of any civilized society. We have a moral obligation to make it accessible."

Reprinted from the Brock News, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, May 19, 2010: http://www.brocku.ca/brock-news

Planting Seeds

Editor's Note: Valentina Gal is Secretary of AEBC's Toronto Chapter. She spends her time doing consulting work, looking for employment, writing a novel and attending continuing education courses at Ryerson University.

When one thinks of passion, one pictures an upstart comedian, loud preacher or aggressive athlete, not a part-time teacher of the blind and deaf-blind. But that was what Mary Randall was for many years. I first met her when I was six years old at the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford (now the W. Ross Macdonald School), where we were classmates. We also spent many hours together at her family’s home in Guelph. I believe the love and support of Mary’s parents set the groundwork for the compassionate teacher she later became.

Mary attended Western University and considered pursuing speech therapy at one point, but that door didn’t seem to open for her. During her final year at Western, however, she ran into our second-grade teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Chorniak, who had become the Principal of the Junior School at WRMS. “Come and teach at our school,” she encouraged, and then mentored Mary while she tried out the Teacher’s Assistant and Residence Counsellor positions at WRMS. After a year, Mary went back to Western to earn her Teaching Certificate. There, she met Murray Porte, a professor, who had the reputation of a bear. He demanded excellence, and got it. Though she was intimidated by his reputation, she found him to be a mainstay of support. “He helped me work my way through things,” remembers Mary. “We’ll work through it together,” he would say, and together they did.

Mary went on to teach at the W. Ross Macdonald School for 15 years, where she went above and beyond the call of duty. She recalls a time when a deaf-blind student’s sister was going to get married, but his family didn’t know how he could be at the wedding and enjoy it, as he had many challenges. Mary, along with her parents, got dressed up and went with him to help him be part of his sister’s big day, and not be an extra concern for his family. Mary also worked for a time at the Saskatchewan School for the Deaf, “for a change of pace,” she says. When Mary and her husband settled down in London, Ontario, where they raised a family, she taught part-time at the Catholic School Board for 17 years. Today, her students still come to visit regularly. They enjoy her company and support. She reads the writings of one and encourages them in their university endeavours.

Mary reminds me of the wonderful teachers I had, the loving ones who are interested in what you do. “It’s like planting seeds,” she says. “You plant them and hope for the best.” But Mary never just plants them. She goes back, waters and tends them, and even props them up as they grow. It’s a joy to be with Mary and her former students, as they look back on the long and successful road that they have travelled together.

Canada's Programs for Disabled Too Complex, Says OECD

Canadians with disabilities or health (issues) are caught in a complex web of federal and provincial programs that make it almost impossible for them to join or remain in the workforce, says a new OECD report. Few programs lift the disabled out of poverty and many seem to work at cross-purposes, says the report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which looked at the major disability benefits and services offered by Ottawa and the provinces.

To improve programs and make it easier for the disabled to get help, the report recommends better federal-provincial coordination and "one-stop shopping" offices.

The 85-page report comes on the eve of a promised Ontario review of social assistance and mirrors many of the recommendations of a provincial expert panel that called for more coordination of federal and provincial programs for vulnerable working-age people.

"Even with better coordination, there is considerable room for streamlining by making provinces fully responsible for all employment measures and programming," says the OECD report, released this week.

Like many OECD countries, the report notes Canada's benefits and services are focused on what the sick and disabled cannot do rather than on what meaningful work they are able to do. Before the recession, just 60 per cent of Canadians with health (issues) or disabilities were in the workforce and their unemployment rate of more than 16 percent was twice as high as the general population, the report says.

A spokesperson for federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the Harper government has taken "unprecedented action to support Canadians with disabilities" including the new Registered Disability Savings Program, Employment Insurance sickness benefits for the self-employed, and the Working Income Tax Benefit.

Mary Marrone, of Ontario's Income Security Advocacy Centre, welcomed the report's recommendation that Canada and other countries need to focus on people's abilities, not their disabilities. But she is concerned about the report's suggestion that countries should tie disability benefits to a person's efforts to work, even part-time. "We need to be providing real opportunities for people to work through employment support and accommodation and not make work an obligation for people with disabilities," she said in an interview.

Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy said Canada would be unwise to adopt one-stop shopping for the disabled before reforming the various federal and provincial programs. "Creating an integrated service as a Band-Aid over a dis-integrated system would just create one more layer of bureaucracy," he said. "The issue is the coordination of programs," said Mendelson. "We need to try to develop our income security system as a whole."

Reprinted from The Toronto Star, October 3, 2010, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Scholarship Winners for 2010

Editor's Note: Besides being on AEBC’s committees for Scholarship and the Canadian Blind Monitor, Valentina Gal is Secretary for the Toronto Chapter.

This year, the AEBC Rick Oakes Memorial Scholarship for $1,000.00 is being presented to Mr. Tommy Leung of Richmond, B.C. He completed his B.A. in Psychology in June 2010 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and will be entering the Masters Program at Trinity Western University in January. His goal is to become a Disability/Crisis Counsellor.

The onset of Glaucoma and its consequences disrupted Tommy’s studies but did not discourage them. He met his mobility challenges by learning to travel with a guide dog and now volunteers with several Christian Ministries in his community. He also volunteers on crisis lines where he can share how he overcame his challenges and grief. His experiences have motivated him to help others by supporting and encouraging them.

Mr. Daniel Huang of Victoria, B.C. wins the Alan H. Neville Memorial Scholarship for $1,000.00. He is attending the University of Northern British Columbia where he intends to complete his Master of Arts in Disability Management in May. His goal is to develop a career in the field of Human Rights and the Duty to Accommodate.

Mr. Huang’s vision loss is a result of a motor vehicle accident. In overcoming his loss, Daniel not only learned to use adaptive devices such as Zoom Text and JAWS, but also learned braille. He continues his pursuits in sports by relearning to golf and ski with assistance. He is an active member of blind curling and ran the Boston Marathon. Snow boarding is on his list of what he is going to do next. He has worked with the CNIB as a volunteer and is a member of B.C.’s Human Rights Coalition.

Congratulations to our scholarship winners and my humble thanks to the AEBC for allowing me the privilege of sitting on the selection committee for another year. I am encouraged and thrilled with the quality of our applicants and their desire to improve the lives of blind Canadians.

Our Rights, Our Future: A Rights-Holder Perspective

Editor's Note: The following are notes for the President's Report delivered by Robin at the opening of AEBC's 2010 Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Montreal, Quebec.

I would like to welcome all of you to our Conference and AGM in Montreal. I am sure you will enjoy your visit here. I hope you meet some old friends and get acquainted with some new folks from across the country. Please join me in thanking the organizing committee--Anthony Tibbs, Marc Workman, Natalie Martiniello, Heather Rupert, Rosie Arcuri, Ezra Chitayat, Paulo Monteagudo--and the rest of the Montreal Chapter for working hundreds of hours to make this weekend a success.

I would also like to thank the 2009-10 Board of Directors for their commitment of valuable time and hard work to the AEBC. Each National Board member devotes many hours each week to promote the goals and objectives of our organization. Denise Sanders is leaving the Board after serving four terms, two each as Treasurer and Director Without Portfolio. She plans to stay involved on the Communications Working Group and will continue to participate with the Kelowna Chapter.

Welcome to all the new members who have joined AEBC during the past year.

To all the Chapters, I thank Executive members for their commitment to the work of AEBC. Also, I would like to thank the Affiliate for all its hard work in British Columbia. Further thanks go out to our National Committees, including scholarship, finance/fundraising, human resources, membership and policy development, and their many working groups.

I am pleased to report that, for the 2009-10 academic year, AEBC awarded three scholarships and two bursaries: The AEBC Rick Oakes Scholarship for the Arts to Mr. Allan Angus; The AEBC National Achievement Scholarship to Mr. Anthony Tibbs; The Alan H. Neville Memorial Scholarship to Ms. Helen McFadyen; The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for the Performing Arts to Mr. Koceïla Louali; and The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for Vocational Training and Trades to Ms. Stephanie Berry. Congratulations to the winners. We wish them all the best in their studies and future plans.

AEBC has been very active during the past year. Discussions have taken place over the past several months between representatives of consumer organizations of blind Canadians, CNIB, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. These discussions have been aimed at drafting recommendations on how a new network hub responsible for coordinating access to library services for print disabled Canadians should be designed and operated. Final recommendations were submitted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which is drafting a proposal to be sent to Cabinet. There will be future opportunities for AEBC and individual members to have further input into this process.

AEBC’s National Board of Directors has approved these recommendations with one exception: we have a membership resolution in place stating that any entity like the one being proposed be government run and operated. This resolution prevents the AEBC from endorsing that particular recommendation; however, the Board supports the remaining recommendations.

AEBC has also been meeting with other national rights-holder organizations and CNIB to attempt to form a national coalition that will work collaboratively on common issues. The main purpose of these meetings was to build on some of the momentum established over the last several months as these and other disability groups worked on the library issue.

Everyone seemed to agree that the working relationship was positive and productive, but if it is to continue operating as anything more than an ad hoc coalition, we needed to determine and clearly articulate the structure, roles and operations of the coalition and its various member organizations. In May, the groups met for two days in Toronto, and developed terms of reference for the Coalition. Each participating organization is to discuss the outcome of these meetings, and indicate its participation in the coalition. It is expected the groups will not meet again until the fall of 2010, and in the meantime work is to begin on access to PIN-and-card and point-of-sale devices.

A resolution will be introduced to you, the members, at this Conference to endorse AEBC's participation in this coalition.

Over the past year, the AEBC National Board has been engaged in a comprehensive review of our activities. Our goal has been to determine those areas where we are most effective, and those in which our performance or effectiveness could be improved. Discussion of this review will take place at this Conference.

We also need to work on our communications strategy. The present redesign of the national website will go a long way toward addressing this concern, by collecting information on each “issue” (elections, quiet cars, education, etc.) into a central location; however, our internal communications (among Chapters, members and the National Board) also needs an overhaul. This Conference will give you the opportunity, as members, to participate in determining how AEBC will go about communicating our future activities to you. The final plan will need "buy-in" from all levels of the organization--Chapters, committees and the National Board--to be successful.

Several years ago, Donna Jodhan, our 2nd Vice President, launched a Charter case in which she is challenging the Canadian government over inaccessible websites and unequal access to information. Donna, with her lawyers and supporters, including AEBC, has been fighting to force the federal government to make its websites and information accessible and usable. Unfortunately, to date, the Canadian government has ignored all requests to settle this ongoing action. Donna's case, on behalf of all Blind Canadians, will be heard in federal court on September 21-23, 2010. The AEBC fully supports this landmark access case, and we urge members of our community to come out and show their support. (Editor’s Note: Please see “Challenging the System” elsewhere in these pages for further details and an update on the case.)

AEBC continues to submit briefs and make presentations on issues of concern. More and more, we are being recognized by all levels of government as the real voice of Canadians with significant vision impairment.

Our activities over the past year (2009-10) have included: meeting with representatives from the Office of Disability Issues re a national ID card; hosting Michel Grenier, Director of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) at our November Board meeting; making a presentation to the review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); a presentation on poverty to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development (HRSD); presenting Webzine on the AODA and the Accessibility Standards development process for Citizens With Disabilities-Ontario (CWDO); a presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario; meeting with HRSD Canada Special Advisor to Minister to discuss funding, hybrid cars, electronic voting, library issues etc.; participating in Canada Transportation Agency Advisory Committee meetings; Speaking on advocacy and facilitating a workshop at the annual Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) Action Coalition Conference, entitled Leading the Way: Developing a Poverty Reduction Strategy for People with Disabilities; speaking on a panel at Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Taking Action on Poverty, Poor Health and Bad Jobs, sponsored by the Toronto Social Planning Council; and attending the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on the introduction of the Blind Voters Rights Bill.

Briefs and position papers we have submitted include: Electoral Accessibility: A Key to Equality, to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; Status of the AODA; Copyright Consultation; National Economic Strategy, to the Standing Committee on Finance; Review of the Municipal Elections Act, to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario, to the Standing Committee on Social Policy; and Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS), to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.

More details on our activities can be found by visiting our website: http://www.blindcanadians.ca (Editor’s Note: Also see “Headlines & Highlights” in these pages for updated information).

Finally, some AEBC members believe our organization would be more successful if we concentrated our efforts on fewer issues. This is an understandable view but potentially problematic, due to the vast number of other barriers blind Canadians continue to face daily. We, as a national organization and the voice of the blind, cannot ignore these issues. However, I believe that becoming more focused on a few issues can be achieved, as long as we still recognize there are many issues related to blindness that need to be addressed, albeit at a lower priority.

Over the past few months, the AEBC Board has been discussing the idea of trying to find three to five "issues" that we, as an organization, can prioritize so that our actions are focused and more effective. A large list of issues that matter to blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted members was drawn up primarily from the brainstorming session at the face-to-face Board meeting that took place in Toronto. We started out with a list of more than 20 items, which we then proceeded to merge and eliminate, combine and rewrite. We also recently conducted a poll among the membership to ascertain which issues you consider the most important. The results will help guide the discussions at this year's Conference.

The outcome of these discussions, in many ways, will be a difficult task for each of you to consider. The issues are all very important, and it will be hard to choose a few that deserve to have a higher priority than others. However, we need to face the question of whether we can achieve more by becoming focused.

An AEBC member is a rights-holder who inspires empowerment and addresses our rights for the future.

Each member of this organization needs to advocate and be part of the common voice of the blind. We, as a community, need to work together, speak out, and take action. We must work in our local Chapters, through our National Committee's, and as a national voice to ensure our rights are entrenched. Our advocacy must become focused, and yet we must continue to address the wide range of barriers we face.

Our rights and our future are in your hands.

UK's First Educational E-Book Library Launched Online

The UK's (United Kingdom) first online library of educational textbooks in a range of digital formats accessible to visually impaired students has been launched. ”Books for All” is a joint project between The Seeing Ear (http://www.seeingear.org/), a website which provides electronic books for visually disabled people, and the University of Edinburgh. It allows authorized and registered teachers and students with visual impairments to access an online catalogue of alternative format educational books for free.

Accessible books are uploaded to the database by teachers, and can then be freely downloaded by other schools or registered users in formats such as plain text, Word and PDF. Tony Dart, chief executive of The Seeing Ear, said the system should eliminate the problem of people across the UK having to convert the same book into a format accessible for visually impaired students many times. "If a book is a set text, it's very often converted locally, with varying degrees of quality. This way, we can have one person upload an e-book to make it available for everybody."

Dart said that if successful, the project would have a "vast and positive impact" on accessible e-learning. There are currently around 100 educational titles available through the service, and Dart says he hopes this number will increase as more schools join. Around 250 schools are already registered.

Future plans to improve the service include a collaborative editing system to correct any mistakes to uploaded texts, and an online converter to automatically switch between accessible formats as required.

Reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, ISSUE 120, December 2009, the free email newsletter on access technology by people with impaired vision: www.headstar.com/eab

Getting There - Past and Present

Editor's Note: Valentina Gal is Secretary of AEBC's Toronto Chapter. She spends her time doing consulting work, looking for employment, writing a novel and attending continuing education courses at Ryerson University.

As a blind child, I realized very quickly that, if I wanted independence, I'd have to LEARN to get around. My friends and siblings took me from point A to point B. When I travelled to school, my brother would put me onto a bus and the driver would hand me over to a taxi driver who would drop me off at school. I was not expected to be responsible for the transportation part of my life; most blind people weren't. I still remember the shock in my mother's voice when I came home to Hamilton, unannounced, from my school in Brantford all by myself. Since then, my travels have taken me from the grid patterned streets of central Hamilton and the crescent streets of its suburbs to road trips with a sighted husband, to airplanes which took me to a number of different cities, and finally to the dreaded Toronto subway, which I now couldn't live without. Each style of "getting there" has its own challenges, as well as good points, and while there are some changes, the blind and partially sighted face pretty much the same difficulties they always have.

I'll never forget how excited I was when, after two mobility lessons from the CNIB rehabilitation teacher, I sported my first white cane and stumbled up the steps of the city bus. I could still see a little and, though I liked the newly found independence, I hated the white cane. It took ten years of inner struggle and getting hit by a bus for me to come to terms with the cane's enormous importance. During those ten years, the educators of the blind changed too. They discovered that giving blind children white canes at an early age and teaching them how to use these tools properly improved blind people's mobility and confidence at a much greater level than the previous practice of waiting till a person was in his late teens. Also, in the eighties, Mohawk College began training mobility instructors of the blind so they were easier to come by. Personal mobility is the most important aspect of being able to negotiate any mode of transportation. It is imperative for blind people to understand how the cane gives them information about where they are and what's around them. The same can be said for those who choose to travel with a guide dog. We haven't yet fully seen how far people with GPS (Global Positioning System) devices will go on their own. The confidence that personal mobility offers is the platform on which GOOD transportation coping skills ARE BUILT.

While bus entrances were lowered and street crossing signals were installed, along with elevators for the disabled, the public attitude also changed. The two-for-one fares that were won by our veteran predecessors, as charitable ways of helping the blind, were challenged. Today, only those who need personal attendance in-flight may have the two-for-one ticket on an airplane. Their guide dogs, however, have to be accommodated. On the other hand, bus and train fares have stayed the same. The front seats of busses that were voluntarily given to us as a kindness became a matter of policies that promoted our rights. Sensitivity training is a part of bus and taxi driver training--whether it is always followed is another matter. Preboarding the disabled is a standard practice, unless you get stuck in a backlog and have to fight your way through. Society moved from a charitable attitude of "looking after the blind" to one that treats them more equally.

Are we better off now than we were then? It depends on the day. When I sit on the subway in Toronto, or on a bus in Hamilton or London, and hear the stops called out, I'm grateful to David Lepofsky--a blind lawyer in Toronto who advocated for audible announcements on public transit--for his court battles. I learn where all of the streets are and know where I am. Certainly, I appreciate the notion of free public transit for the blind. For the seventy percent or so of us who aren't working, this privilege is the lifeline to an active lifestyle. However, when someone ignores me when I'm lost and only want to get home, I'm as frustrated as I always have been. In a small town or suburb where there is limited or no bus or train service, I'm as dependent as I ever was.

So what's my point? Transportation issues for the blind and partially sighted are very complex and have as many solutions as the number of disabled people who want to get around. As we move forward in this new decade, we need to tread carefully as we advocate so that we don't lose some of the basic things we take for granted, whether they come from a charitable source or not.

Photo: Valentina Gal

'It Takes a Village'

Editor's Note: After attending kindergarten at her local school, Mary Randall was educated at the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario. Today, she is a retired teacher of the blind and deaf-blind, whose 30-year career included working in both residential and community settings.

The most important aspects of education for any child, blind or sighted, are related to self-actualization--discovering skills and talents, and then developing independent expression of them. If you look at educational curricula, such underlying skills as conceptual/perceptual development, body awareness/movement through space, self-care and social development must be learned before children are taught academic subjects. In the 1950s, when I was a child, parents of blind children were flying by the seat of their pants, doing their best with the information they could get from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Most tried to teach their preschoolers the regular milestones of walking, talking, dressing, eating etc. In the process, most blind children learned a little body awareness, O&M (orientation and mobility) and language. Many, however, did not, and needed extra help in the early years at school. Things have not changed much in the 2000s, with early intervention for blind and low-vision preschoolers still not being universal.

Those of us who attended a residential school for the blind had an enriched academic program throughout our educational careers. Although we lacked social and emotional support, as well as life-skills development, in our early years, rudimentary O&M and life skills were being developed by high school. I have since advised many parents of blind children being educated in their home communities that if they don’t reinforce these types of skills by providing daily opportunities to practice them, their benefits will be negligible.

My time at the Ontario School for the Blind was punctuated with community outings and artistic achievements, including music, drama and other arts. Public schools offer some of these enrichment experiences, but Blind students are often overlooked for such things as leading roles. However, if specialist teachers, along with O&M and rehabilitation instructors, are creative, blind kids will get these opportunities. Parents who have the time and resources to take their children to museums, parks and libraries, furthermore, understand the importance of a broad and exciting learning experience. Community facilities such as swimming pools and recreational programs like skating and gymnastics are sometimes welcoming, but lack expertise. Ontario Blind Sports and other organizations like it could be of great assistance to cities and private service providers. Physical development and movement are essential for all learning.

The primary advantage of a residential program is that child-development experts, as well as those skilled in arts/cultural and high-tech education, are readily available on a regular basis to deliver an integrated and enriched program for blind students, but children educated in their home communities can also benefit from equally rich inclusive programming. The important element common to both is communication and cooperation between parents and educators. They, and others, help to develop and teach children, enabling them to succeed in our evolving world. It’s said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It was as true in the 1950s as it is in 2010: Our programs are only as effective as the people who implement them.

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