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In Search of Braille Product Labelling

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) has advocated for accessible product labelling for many years. Joan Yim is owner of Universal Braille Dots (ubdots) Inc., a small Toronto-based company that had an exhibit at the 2011 AEBC Conference in Brantford, Ontario. The company has reached out to the business community to promote and sell what it considers a valid and valuable commodity--braille.

Consider this. There are currently around one million Canadians living with vision impairments. Like all consumers, people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted should have access to, and information about, an infinite number of products. However, this is not currently the case.

People with significantly restricted vision are all too aware of the number of items that can be difficult to identify or use, due to inaccessible commercial labelling. Is it toothpaste, muscle rub or hand/facial cream? How often do I take this medication? Is this dinner microwavable? Whether it be an over-the-counter drug or a box of Kraft dinner, these potential buyers are forced to rely on the shopper beside them or sales clerk in order to decipher information on product packages. Or they have to depend on friends or family members to go shopping with them.

Braille labelling is not a difficult process. It could even be considered trendy in a socially conscious world that promotes accessibility. Ubdots, for example, offers more than the traditional braille equated with perforated punctures through paper. Its unique style of braille involves a process that leaves the original label unaltered save for discrete transparent dots as overlay. These dots, in turn, can be applied to various surfaces.

Unfortunately, not many businesses have warmed up to braille labelling. Strange, given how normalized braille has become in the consumer world outside North America. Blindness-related organizations and anti-discrimination advocates have paved the way to better access to information in the form of a braille-labelling imperative on over-the-counter drugs in Europe. Fostered by the Disability Discrimination Act of the United Kingdom (1995), the trend is being embraced by businesses, evidenced by braille labelling on other consumer products like food, wine and health/beauty aids. And the trend seems to be spreading.

Interestingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act preceded Europe's anti-discrimination legislation by a full five years, yet braille is rarely found on consumer products on the North American continent; this, despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities declaration of equal rights to education and access to information, and the identification of braille as the communication method of the blind. So what's the story?

The fact of the matter is that supports for the blind have been eroded to such a degree as to make braille virtually obsolete. Once upon a time, braille was afforded a special place in our educational system, and offered as the written communication alternative taught to people who are blind. In the 1960s, for instance, a full 50% of blind American school-aged children were literate in braille. The fact that these educational provisions exist no longer parallels the social invisibility and growing marginalization of the blind. Currently, only 10% of America's blind children can read braille. With regard to braille product labelling, why bother, when nobody reads or writes it anymore?

Some would argue that new technologies are replacing the need for braille, but statistics prove otherwise. Most would agree that, despite the technological explosion, literacy remains imperative to social advancement. Cuts to funding for braille education demonstrate social costs in terms of employment rates among America's blind; a full 80% of braille-literate people are employed compared with 33% of those who cannot read or write braille (National Federation of the Blind, Bicentennial Silver Dollar and Literacy Campaign, 2008-9).

To show how far Canada is lagging, ubdots' latest advertising campaign consists of a postcard with an image of a pair of prescription glasses. Everything through the lenses is clear as day, but beyond the rims the world is a blur. A slogan reads, "You won't see the difference until you've brailled your product line." It goes on to explain the benefits of braille to all, in ubdots' bid to braille consumer products--the juncture where business and blind consumers meet. The campaign proved pointless when I started receiving sympathetic letters from established businesses stating that they were not providing donations at this time!

Whether company staff could not be bothered to read the promotional ditty or are completely illiterate, the response was clear: in Canada, people with vision impairments--who could be you, me, company executives or even those hired to write the reply letters--are not to be considered in the work of "business as usual". The blind community are not considered consumers or even social equals, with the same universal rights to education and literacy, not to mention entitlement to goods and services. Unlike our European counterparts, Canada's blind population is considered merely a charitable cause, seeking a handout from the business community.

And yet, where there's political will, there's hope. In a 2006 landmark standard-setting decision, the National Federation of the Blind in the United States pulled the Americans with Disabilities Act out of a hat to win a class-action lawsuit against Target Corporation for failing to make online shopping accessible to the blind. This goes to show what can be achieved when individuals bring their seemingly singular frustrations together to evoke greater social inclusion.

New Resources

Editor's Note: Compiled by John Rae, AEBC 1st Vice President

- A growing number of Canadians are realizing that success in combating poverty depends on action being rooted in a strong human rights framework. To watch a 9-minute video entitled The Story of Human Rights, go to:

- Critical Disability Discourse (CDD) is an online, bilingual, interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles focusing on disability experiences. Access the journal at:

- "The Consumer Vision" is a publication covering topics of interest to people with disabilities. To read past issues, visit For information, contact Bob Branco at or 508-994-4972.

- The American Foundation for the Blind is offering a reduced rate for its individual subscriptions to the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB). For $65 (U.S.) individual subscribers receive 12 print issues of the journal and online access to more than 10 years of content. A one-year online individual subscription costs $25 (non-U.S. subscribers will be charged an additional $36 for shipping&handling). Contact AFB Press at 800-232-3044, email or visit:

- ABISee offers the Eye-Pal SOLO, a self-contained device that instantly reads from newspapers, books, magazines etc. Simply place a document face up on the device, and it reads the printed material aloud. It can also output magnified text to a screen. Requires no computer skills or sighted assistance. Learn more at:

- HumanWare recently released its Orator software for BlackBerry Smartphones. This screen reader application enables blind users to access and operate BlackBerry Smartphones. For further information, visit:

- The Audio Dart Master is a fully speaking electronic dartboard featuring talking menus and game instructions, announcements of every hit, inside and outside indicators, large buttons and more. Dart games offered include various countdowns, high score, golf, baseball and cricket. Also available are a portable stand, roll-out carpet and tactile toe line. Visit or call (763) 383-0077.

- "Stitch by Stitch: Sewing with Low Vision" is a 185-page book providing detailed descriptions and large images of adaptive techniques and tools for such crafts as sewing, knitting and embroidery. Also included is a chapter on locating low vision aids. Available in large print only, for $25 (U.S.). Contact Horizons for the Blind at (815) 444-8800, or email:

Making Home Improvements Count: Six Steps to Safe and Easy Homes for Older People

In 2008, Thomas Pocklington Trust launched a groundbreaking publication called "Housing for People with Sight Loss--A Design Guide". It was the first guidance to use research among people with vision impairments to influence design and was aimed primarily at architects and designers. Now Pocklington, in conjunction with the Wilberforce Trust, has released "Housing for People with Sight Loss--A Practical Guide to Improving Existing Homes", which suggests ways to make homes safe and easy to live in-quickly, at low cost and without upheaval. The guide lists simple measures in a series of checklists, so that everyone involved in adaptations, refurbishments or basic maintenance of properties can note priorities and tick them off when they have been carried out. Underpinning the guide is research among people living with sight loss, as well as managers and support staff working in both general and specialist housing. Since most of the 13 million people in the United Kingdom who are aged over 60 will have some degree of sight loss, almost all housing schemes could benefit from making these changes.

1. Involve People. People know what needs to change in their homes but not how to change it. Their input is vital if they are to enjoy the home they live in. Their priorities may be different from those of housing, support and care staff, and taking them into account can avoid costly mistakes. The most important way to involve people is to demonstrate that their views are taken seriously and to provide clear information on what can be done, why, and what will happen. Each individual needs to have information provided in their preferred format--large print, electronic files, audio, DAISY or braille.

Support staff needs to help people think about their needs and express their views. To do this, they need to know: What is the impact of sight loss? How can homes be improved to deal with it? Where are there opportunities (such as maintenance or refurbishment plans) to make these improvements? How can they help people to consider the changes and make their views known?

Contractors also play a major role. Whether they are working in people's homes or in areas shared by many occupants, they need to understand the impact of sight loss and appreciate the importance of people's views, priorities and preferences about their homes.

2. Improve Lighting. Lighting can dramatically improve people's vision and should be adjustable, like with dimmer switches. "Task lighting" helps to focus on specific activities. Lighting inside cupboards and wardrobes makes finding things easier.

3. Colour and Contrast. Choose paint colours that reflect light. Use contrasting shades of colour to highlight the position of objects. Contrast colour strips used on the edges of doors, bins, appliances and stairs will show where these are and highlight potential hazards. Contrasting handles and knobs on doors and appliances, and on grab rails or equipment, make it easier to locate and use them.

4. Avoid Clutter. Plenty of space and logical layout for routes, furniture and equipment make it easier to move around. Accessible storage space is essential. Pathways should not be overhung by plants or trees or obstructed by garden furniture.

5. Avoid Glare. Use non-reflective materials, such as matt tiles and flooring, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. Use lampshades and vertical blinds to prevent glare from lights and windows.

6. Appliances. Controls should be clear and, where possible, tactile or audible. Put simple tactile stickers on equipment, from cookers to kettles.

Entrances, Halls and Stairways. Change door handles to a lever type with an inward curve at the end and in a colour that contrasts with the door. Fit a textured surface or coloured strip in the middle of stairs and steps. Fix a floor indicator at the top and bottom of stairs, and in shared accommodation outside lifts. This can be as simple as placing drawing pins to the wall to denote the floor number. Fix letter cages on the backs of front doors.

Kitchens, Utilities and Laundry Areas. People who like to cook may want better cooker controls; others may want better lighting in cupboards. Reduce the risk of bumping into cupboard doors by removing them to create open shelves or add a colour paint or tape strip to the leading edge. Install shaded lighting immediately above work areas.

Living and Dining Areas. Clear and logical layouts make movement safer and allow easy access to windows, switches and controls. Position furniture to make best use of light and space and to make easy routes in and through the area. Install vertical blinds. Keep windows clean and clear of obstructions.

Bedrooms. Ease of moving around is especially important and different uses of the room might require different lighting or furnishings. Position furniture to make best use of light and space to make getting in and out of bed easy, and provide clear routes in and through the room. Change lampshades, light fittings and bulbs to make the best use of light and reduce glare. Ensure that switches and electrical sockets are not obstructed by furniture or curtains.

Bathrooms. Fit a magnifying mirror, a toilet seat in a contrasting colour, and/or taps that are easy to use and are clearly marked for hot and cold.

"Housing for People with Sight Loss: A Practical Guide to Improving Existing Homes" is available from (research).

Adapted from NB, the Sight Loss and Eye Health Magazine, Issue 45, August 2009.

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.

Boomers Are Renovating With "golden Years" in Mind

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, May 29, 2003.

It can happen like this: Looking in a store window, you find yourself staring at a middle-aged woman who reminds you of one of your parents. But it's March, and your parents are in Florida. The realization dawns: That parental look-alike is you. Aging is inevitable, and DNA will do its work.

At least you're not alone. Canadians as a whole are getting older. In less than two decades, half of all Canadian households will be headed by people over 55. Like generations of oldsters, this bulging demographic group will want to grow old in their own homes. With a little foresight, that's a reasonable option, especially for the large number of homeowners who plan to renovate over the next few years.

Victor Helfand is the owner of Barrier-Free Architecturals, a Toronto company that sells senior-friendly home-improvement products, such as raised toilets, grab bars and shower seats. He's been in business for three and a half years, and he says that his clients increasingly include middle-aged people renovating with an eye to the future.

Jim Wolff, owner of Wolff Construction in Thornhill, is now installing grab bars in about half the bathroom renos he does now for boomer clients. That's a huge jump over the last five years.

Helfand says that more and more people are opting for shower stalls without lips because, in 15 years, the room may have to accommodate a wheelchair. Shower seats are also becoming more common. (Admit, even pre-old age, wouldn't it be nice to sit down in the shower to shave your legs or attend to foot care?) Other senior-friendly options include tilted mirrors (better for those in wheelchairs), or a "soft" bathtub made of acrylic and foam, so that a fall in the tub won't be deadly.

Cathy Solman is only 50, but when she decided to renovate the main bathroom of the Pickering home she's had for almost 20 years, she chose to add a grab bar, raised toilet and whirlpool. "The whirlpool isn't really that senior-friendly, although it's awfully good for relaxing tired bones at the end of the day. But the raised toilet and the grab bar are for safety and comfort--things you need to be aware of past a certain age," she says.

In the kitchen, Helfand suggests adding extra lighting in work areas for weakened eyes, and installing lower light switches and non-slip flooring. If money is no object, about $2,000 will buy you a mechanism that will raise and lower five feet of cupboards at the touch of a switch. "It's a great idea for seniors," says Helfand. "I certainly thought about installing one for my mother when I found out that she was climbing on top of the kitchen counter to reach her Passover dishes!"

Other tips include making doorways wider, eliminating thresholds, and ensuring that entry to the house is level. Faucets should have central controls; they're easier for arthritic hands to move up and down. Knobs that glow in the dark can be added later.

While adding the basics needn't add inordinate costs to a reno, Jim Wolff says not everyone is ready to renovate for their golden years. "I try to convince people that it's a good idea to install a grab bar, or at least lay down a piece of plywood under the drywall and tile," he says. "Some aren't sure. But it makes sense. A kitchen or a bathroom renovation can cost a lot of money. Middle-age people who have paid off their mortgage can spend money like crazy on extensions or refinishings. Why not make it work for you for a long time?"

Barrier-Free Architecturals is at 2700 Dufferin St. (at Castlefield), 416-783-5331.

Wolff Construction in Thornhill can be reached at 905-509-5048.

Enabling Seniors to Live Independently

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the National Organization on Disability's website and is dated July 1, 2005.

As we age, assistive technology will play more of a role in our lives than in the lives of our parents. Living safely, independently and comfortably are important to us and technology can assist us in these areas.

To provide a safe home environment for a person with low vision, poor manual dexterity or difficulty remembering, there are monitoring products that can turn off devices that have been on too long, can emit warning alerts, measure temperatures, watch for movements in a room and activate switches. Privacy is important, but where alerts are triggered, cameras can help relatives or care professionals to communicate and respond.

Help systems can activate reminders, control heating and entertainment systems and many other devices that will enable people needing care to live independently and yet feel safe and in touch.

Sixty-nine-year-old, visually impaired widower Jonathan Boyd has programmed his kitchen to help him maintain a "desirable quality of life." "The screen on my help system reads my messages for the day. And when need be, I can contact my friends and relatives for assistance."

Boyd invested several thousand dollars to program his house. Boyd has a telephone that responds to voice commands and so when he says, "Peggy," the telephone automatically dials his daughter's office.

Boyd lives in a rural area and is investigating the smart house and telecare and telemedicine in rural areas. He wants to be sure that living in a rural area does not prevent him from having immediate access to health care. For example, Boyd has high blood pressure, and he needs to check it daily.

"I am investigating how monitoring devices can transmit information to my doctor's office if my blood pressure level is rising. If a problem occurs, my doctor can respond quickly. A quick response could save my life," says Boyd.

The concept of monitoring raises a number of ethical and legal issues. Any monitoring system should only be implemented with the full agreement of all parties involved, including relatives.

Boyd is not alone in using technology to give him a peace of mind. Seventy-four-year-old Marilyn Horne, a former medical technician, says, "I am worried about being alone and losing control of my life and so I have become an investigative sleuth in the technology area."

A diabetic, she has a talking glucose monitor, a talking computer to help her read, and a voice activated program that will turn appliances on and off on command. Pressure sensitive switches turn the lights on and off in her kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room.

Was she afraid of using computers at her age? "No," she says with a laugh. She's used computers for 24 years. She uses her laptop to watch movies and to listen to songs.

Mobility is important to her. She does not drive anymore. Instead, she takes public transportation, taxis or her children pick her up for shopping and pleasure events. When she goes to movies or plays, like Boyd, Horne asks for Assistive Listening Devices.

How does her family view her use of technology? Horne's daughter Emily Cressey says, "Mom has become a rabid fan of technology to maintain her quality of life. We are proud of her. She is trend setting for my brother and me when we are her age."

When doing business with the bank, Horne uses a Talking ATM and receives her bank statements in large print.

Horne estimates she has spent close to $2,500 from her savings for her technology. She firmly believes the investment is worth it. "I still control my life. As long as I can, I want to live," she says.

Useful Assistive Technology Resources for seniors


SeniorNet is a non-profit organization of computer-using adults, age 50 and older, whose mission is to provide these older adults education for and access to computer technologies to enhance their lives and enable them to share their knowledge and wisdom. SeniorNet supports over 204 Learning Centers throughout the country, and provides online opportunities for learning and discussion amongst older adults.

American Foundation for the Blind

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that the ten million Americans who are blind or visually impaired enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other citizens. AFB promotes wide-ranging, systemic change by addressing the most critical issues facing the growing blind and visually impaired population--employment, independent living, literacy and technology.

Their technology web page has information on assistive technology, web accessibility, electronic books, how to get an accessible telephone, buying a computer. It also has screen reader tips, and tips for computer users with low vision.

Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc.

TDI (also known as Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc.) was established in 1968 originally to promote further distribution of TTYs in the deaf community and to publish an annual national directory of TTY numbers. Today, it is an active national advocacy organization focusing its energies and resources to address equal access issues in telecommunications and media for four constituencies in deafness and hearing loss, specifically people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened or deaf-blind.

Their Telecommunications Access web page provides information on wireless telecommunication devices, internet relay services options, TDD & TTY modem and software manufacturers, and video relay services options.

CTC Foundation

At this website, one can order the directory Assistive Technologies: Creating a Universe of Opportunities for People with Disabilities. This directory lists hundreds of assistive technology manufacturers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Employers, educators and rehabilitation workers looking for information on products benefiting speech impaired, blind, visually impaired, deaf, hearing impaired, physically challenged and mobility challenged individuals will discover it in the book.

Additional contents include: summaries of federal legislation passed on disability issues; an overview on the status of assistive technology today; key Supreme Court decisions on the Americans with Disabilities Act; 12 columns by author John M. Williams; articles by IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Deque, Kurzweil and their philosophies behind accessibility policies; and definitions of assistive technology terms.

Lufkin Residents Teach Visually Impaired How to Be Handy Around The House

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Lufkin Daily News, October 27, 2002.

It's truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

Lufkinite Phil Parr, who is totally blind, teaches other blind folks how to fix things around the house as a part of his weekly internet radio show, "The Blind Handyman," recorded in Lufkin and broadcast around the globe.

With the help of fellow Lufkinites Don Shaw and Don Patterson, who also are visually impaired, and Tom Houston--"our token sighted guy," as Parr jokingly refers to him--the foursome tape their one-hour radio show from Parr's home recording studio once a week. The show airs Mondays and Tuesdays on the American Council of the Blind's radio website:

With listeners from 70 countries around the world tuning in, Parr and his friends talk about how to build and repair "from a blindness perspective," as Parr puts it. "Mainly, how to keep from cutting our fingers off!" he emphasized.

Parr said they also have a guest on each show--"someone who's done woodwork or a special project"--to talk about such issues as how they measure and what tools they use.

ACB Radio features four separate channels: Radio Mainstream, which airs "The Blind Handyman," in addition to shows like Cooking without Looking"; Radio Cafe, which showcases blind musicians; Radio Treasure Trove, for classic drama and comedy; and Radio Interactive, with blind cyber-radio personalities playing requests.

Prior to a recent taping, Houston gathered some last minute emails from the show's listeners to address on-air while the show's hosts assembled in Parr's kitchen to shoot the breeze, providing a fascinating glimpse into the world of the visually impaired.

When Patterson asked, "What time is it?" Shaw pushed a button on his watch and it intoned the time. When Parr's phone rang, a talking Caller ID let him know who was placing the call. And Parr's JAWS (Job Access with Speech) screen reader enables him to navigate his computer and surf the web.

"We get together every week anyway," Parr said of the group. "And we actually stand a chance of disseminating some useful information. Who knows? Once we start, we just do it. And if we have a problem, we just go on."

A few minutes before taping for the show was scheduled to begin, the group trekked through the back yard to Parr's studio across a wooden walkway he constructed with help from Shaw. "It looks like a couple of blind guys built it!" Patterson yelled. "It's a little crooked," Parr admitted, "but what the hell. It's a good blind handyman's project."

The comfortable studio is outfitted with a couch, a player piano, a coffee/wet bar and a few guitars, in addition to a state-of-the-art mixing board and four microphones for the show's hosts, whom Houston introduced before heading to the mailbag.

One listener had written in to thank the show for sharing their tips and tricks before detailing the enormous project he had recently undertaken--renovating a condominium. Another email was sent by a listener who had purchased a storage building and wondered "if a blind person could put a window in it."

Shaw had pre-recorded the interview with their guest, Steven Stewart, who builds birdhouses out of cedar picket--"a pretty blind-friendly project," Parr said.

He added that previous guests have discussed such projects as unstopping drains and replacing the innards in a toilet tank.

Following the interview, Parr instructed listeners on how to install storm doors and Patterson closed the show with a few fall fireplace maintenance tips. Before signing off, Parr offered this parting shot to his listeners: "'I see,' said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw."

"The Blind Handyman" airs at 9 p.m. Monday, then replays every other hour through Tuesday, at: The shows also are archived in the website's "on demand" section.

Adaptive Gardening Techniques For The Visually Impaired

Editor's Note: This item is used with permission of Oregon State University Extension Service, Publication EM 8498-E, available only online.

Most people with visual impairments are not totally blind, but they do have various kinds of mild to severe visual problems. According to the National Eye Institute, only 10% of the 14 million visually impaired people in the United States are completely blind. Because a portion of the gardening public in Oregon has some visual impairment, this publication provides several adaptive methods and suggestions to make gardening simpler for these gardeners.


Avoid curved pathways because they make orientation difficult. Path segments should be straight, with changes in direction marked by a shrub or with a change in the texture of the path material. Steps should be accompanied by a rail that begins several feet ahead of the steps.

Make flower borders and planted beds no more than three feet across so the gardener can reach the plants while kneeling and working with short-handled tools. Island beds, with access from two sides, can be wider, as long as the gardener can easily reach the centre of the bed from either side.

Arrange plants in beds in groups of three to five, in straight rows, to make specific plant types easier to locate.

Group colours with the help of sighted friends or from memory. Variety in texture and shape of foliage give added satisfaction in terms of touch.

Distribute scent in the garden to various locations and at different times of the year. Individual fragrances can help the gardener locate particular areas.

Use sound makers, such as wind chimes, flutter mills, and moving water, which can help the gardener locate special parts of the garden.


Seed sown in individual containers or spaced individually in a tray make thinning, which is difficult without vision, unnecessary. Try these tips:

A board with holes drilled in it helps space seeds in a tray. For example, a plastic board with five rows of eight holes works well when planting larger seedling trays or flats. Holes 1-inch in diameter allow room for the gardener to cover each seed with a thin layer of soil.

To sow tiny seeds, have small 3/4-inch pieces of toilet tissue ready. Spread a few seeds on a plate. Pick up one or two seeds on a damp finger, then rub the seeds onto a piece of tissue and wad it up. Drop the tissue through one of the holes in the board. The tissue will disintegrate quickly when covered with soil.

To form straight rows in the vegetable garden, stretch a cord between two pegs and use it as a guide when sowing seeds. The cords help mark the rows until seedlings grow. Rows of vegetables can be identified with braille labels or wooden vegetable shapes on pegs.

When potting plants, there is an easy way to centre the plant in a medium-sized pot. Put a layer of potting soil into the new pot, then centre a smaller pot on top of the soil. Fill the sides of the larger pot with soil, pressing the soil down a bit. Remove the small pot from the centre, put the plant into the resulting hole, and add enough soil to hold the plant in place.


Long-handled tools, such as rakes, forks and spades, are best for preparing the garden. Tools with short handles (8 to 30 inches) are better for cultivating because they allow the gardener to touch and cultivate at the same time.

Use "one-handed" shears for pruning. They leave one hand free to feel the plant.

Paint tool handles a light colour to contrast with the soil. Colour contrast can also be used for containers, pathways, fences, gate latches, table edges in the greenhouse, steps and other things the gardener might have trouble finding or noticing.

Keep tools in a bucket or gardener's apron. Place weeds and garden debris in a bucket.

Knee pads are helpful, since much of the work will be done while kneeling.

A wheelbarrow with two wheels, a resting leg and one handle is ideal for visually impaired gardeners. It can be pushed with one hand and is more stable than a regular single-wheeled barrow. A portable radio attached to the wheel-barrow makes it easier to locate.

The gardener's problems range from difficulty in reading a pesticide label to finding the lawnmower. Gas-driven and large electric mowers are unsafe for visually impaired gardeners. A hand mower is best; a quiet, battery-powered mower is next best. Blades should be well guarded, adjustments easy to make, and the power should stop automatically when the operator releases the handle.

Make a guideline from a cord stretched between two stakes, one at each end of the lawn strip to be mowed. The stakes can be moved to mark each new strip. Pegs, garden forks, a long strip of wood on the ground and a sound beacon are among other types of marking that can be used.


Correct growing conditions help keep plants healthy. If detected early, pests and diseases can be controlled with such mechanical means as barriers, traps, spraying with a jet of water or removing damaged parts of plants.

If the gardener has no sight, it is difficult to detect pests and diseases in their early stages. Assistance from a sighted friend is helpful.

Other, non-chemical, pest control measures include encouraging beneficial insects, using soaps, spray oils, or botanical insecticides, and accepting a certain amount of damage. It's best to leave mixing and applying pesticides to a sighted friend.

Use syringes with raised markings to measure liquid fertilizers and similar products. Some liquid products are measured out in the container cap, which is difficult to do without spilling.

Shape, texture and sometimes smell distinguish weeds from desirable plants.

Use short-handled tools instead of chemical herbicides to remove weeds. Use landmarks to divide an area. Then weed one section at a time.

To prune thorny plants, wear gloves with a hole cut for the pad of the index finger. This allows the gardener to use that finger to find thorns and avoid scratching the rest of the hand. Large trees and shrubs are the most difficult to prune.

Others shouldn't work in a visually impaired person's garden. That way the gardener can maintain a consistent mental image of the garden's condition and needs.

Mowing The Lawn

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Monitor, June 2000:

When I was ten years old, I didn\'t care who mowed the lawn as long as it was someone else. My parents had a different idea about it, so I pushed the lawn mower around and cut the grass. Yes, that was in the days of the boy-powered lawn mower, and I felt very much "put upon." After all, I had two older sisters living at home, but that was before the days of women\'s liberation.

When I was thirteen, we lived in a different house with a bigger lawn, and, even though I got paid, I discovered too late that I had underestimated the price I should have asked. Result: bad feelings. Blindness came along in my late teens.

Now that I am the home owner and feel some pride in home ownership and the appearance of the yard, things are different. For too many years I didn\'t think I could really do the job because I was blind. Then I went to my NFB state convention and heard Fred Schroeder tell about his experiences mowing his lawn as a blind man. It was a good story; he told it well; and I knew I had run out of excuses. At this writing several years later, Fred Schroeder is the Federal Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Yes, some people, blind or sighted, cut their own grass, and some people, blind or sighted, get someone else to cut their grass, but I decided that my time had come.

The principle of mowing the lawn is quite simple: cut a swath. Move over, and cut another swath. Keep doing that until the job is done. With some practice you can learn how far to move without either cutting the same space again or leaving some grass uncut. Anytime I am in doubt, I hold the mower with one hand to keep the engine running and lean over to feel the area I think I have just cut. If there is tall grass that I missed, the only thing to do is to move back and make another pass at it, feel again for assurance, and then go on.

The most efficient approach would be to cut long, straight strips which waste less time in turning around. My trouble is that I don\'t walk straight for more than six or eight steps while pushing a mower over slightly uneven ground. The grass between the sidewalk and curb is just right, ten feet wide and level. That is the easy part. The hard part is all the rest of it, about five thousand square feet. That is a moderate amount by suburban standards.

The thing that makes the rest of the lawn hard is this: Even though the lot, the house, and all the areas covered by concrete are rectangular, there is a moderate hill along one side, and the house is set at an angle on the lot. In spite of all the straight lines, the lawn area has a very irregular shape. As you might expect, there are trees, flower gardens, and other things to bump into or avoid. I deliberately bump into trees and cut past them from all directions; then I put one hand on the tree and walk backward around it while pulling the mower as close to the tree as possible.

There is a plastic strip marking the edge of the flower gardens which serves two purposes. It helps to keep the grass from invading the garden area, and I find that I can slide one foot along the strip as I walk backward while pulling the mower. With the first pass up against the plastic strip and the next pass a little farther out as I hold the mower by the corner of the handle, I have enough space to stand while I cut straight away from the garden. In case you wonder about my walking backward, I find that I am leading the mower when I go backward and can direct it better that way.

Since I have a corner lot at the intersection of two streets, I have plenty of straight edge along the sidewalk to use as a straight starting edge. I can tell by feel if the two front wheels of the mower are going onto the grass at the same time. Then, as my feet come to the edge of the grass, I check again to make sure I am facing straight in. I walk in six or eight steps and back out as straight as I can. Sometimes I do move over a bit and try to cut some new grass on the way back, but I know I may be missing something, so I lean over and check the cut. Fortunately for me I can reach all the areas of the lawn by going in six or eight steps from each of the borders. The hill is the worst part, so I get plenty of exercise by going straight up and holding the mower as I back down.

How do I know where I am? I first learned the shape of the yard while raking leaves in the fall. Raking covers the same area as mowing. I can hear the rustle of the leaves and feel the pull of the leaves against the rake, but it is not quite as critical in spacing as mowing is. With the lawn mower the grass must be very high for me to hear the swish of the grass as it is cut, but listening over the roar of the mower engine is one of the least efficient ways to know what I am cutting.

One of the things I learned about moving over at the inner end of a cut is that, when I turn to move, I usually leave a small area right at the corner between the two cuts, so I angle back, go forward to be sure that the cut is square at the top, and then back out.

When I am finished, or think I am, I usually walk along the more critical areas while leaning over to feel for spots I may have missed. I also usually have a sighted critic, my wife, check for spots I have missed. If I really did miss some small area and I didn\'t know about it, the worst thing that could happen is that it would keep growing until the next time. I think I would be unlikely to miss the same spot twice in a row.

I am sure by now you have decided that some of my techniques would not work well for you, and you may even have thought of some others of your own that would work on your lawn. Happy lawn mowing.

Furnace, Speak to Us!

Editor's Note: Chris and Marie Stark are long-time advocates for increased access, universal design and true inclusion for persons who are blind. They live in Ottawa, Ontario.

"It\'s 6:30 a.m. Please hurry," the talking alarm clock tells us. Picking up the bedside phone, we disarm the home alarm system and are told that the internal temperature is 18 degrees and outside it\'s minus ten. We figure it is much too cold to get out of bed, but a couple of telephone keystrokes later, the furnace speaks through the phone and tells us it is now set to 21 degrees and rumbles into life.

Welcome to another day in the Stark household.

When our children left the nest, and we decided to purchase a newly built bungalow in an adult lifestyle community, our desire to live independently was our guiding principle. We were seeking a level of integration where technology would enhance our abilities and would contribute to our quality of life. In our dream home, we wanted to obtain an array of services that met our needs, and that we could use efficiently, and at the same cost as our sighted neighbours.

We wanted to know about smart house design techniques such as programmable thermostats, environmental and security equipment that can be operated without visual prompts, audio house locators, intercoms and phones whose features were not screen dependent, appliances with accessibility features, lighting considerations, and other cost effective design hints for persons who are blind.

We were disappointed in the lack of information available from the building industry about the choices that could help homeowners who are blind. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, for example, did not have any relevant information for people who have disabilities, besides that for people who use wheelchairs. Organizations for the blind, like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), had no experience or advice to offer in this area.

This lack of information made us feel like we were experimenters--on our own, once again.

One of our biggest problems was obtaining information such as operating manuals, satellite or cable channel guides and feature sheets in formats we could read. We need electronic information files without columns, graphics and charts. Compared to braille, or printing costs, for that matter, meeting our customer service need for information is simple, within the capability of most companies and relatively inexpensive.

We set out to equip our new house with smart home technology, without the accessibility barriers of visual only on-screen programming and menus, or keypads we cannot feel.

We did lots of research and talked to many persons who are blind, in search of solutions to annoying barriers. We thought that the simpler the solution, the more effective and usable it would be. Solutions that work would be a mix of traditional devices and experimental technology, together with ingenuity. We did find some solutions, but often at a higher cost than our neighbours.

The outside lights are now integrated into our talking smart home security system. We can program them ourselves, so they are turned on and off at the appropriate times, according to changes in daylight or dark.

We considered using a home sound emitting locator device to help us find our house, but opted for a low-tech solution. A wind chime provides confirmation that our guide dogs are on the right track.

The integrated automatic garage door opening system gives us quick access to the garage, where we dry our guide dogs and clean the mud off them before entering the house.

A front door voice intercom allows us to check who has rung the doorbell, from speakers located in key places within our home. This system also announces when a door or window is opened, and which one. Being surprised in your own home, or having to open a door without knowing who is there, are legitimate security concerns. Looking through the window or peephole to see who is there is something most homeowners do automatically. We can now also choose to send the unwanted salesperson away, without opening the door.

The intercom system allows us to communicate without having to yell from one end of the house to the other, and not really hearing the message clearly. The call for supper now comes over the intercom, which has replaced the old dinner gong.

We continue to have difficulty with phone service accessibility, including call answering, voice mail and call display. We did try a small talking caller ID device, but found it did not provide all the information we need, at the same cost as those who can see. No two phone models have the same key layout, and function key labels are neither tactile nor audible. Speed dialling features, furthermore, require the operator to use visual prompts on the screen. We are still seeking solutions to some of these phone barriers.

As alluded to earlier, we can use our telephone to control the security system, some lights, heating and air conditioning, with voice prompts and action confirmations via voice or beeps. This can also be done through telephones outside our home, which is a convenient feature.

We have high speed internet connection with multiple computers simultaneously and independently accessing the world, using email, surfing the web and listening to online radio. We can scan documents, such as operating manuals and product directions, and then read them with our refreshable braille display or talking computers.

In-house email and file transfer capacity between computers is important for us as no two persons use the same equipment configurations. We have a Residential Universal Network (RUN) box for distributing computer, phone and video signals throughout the house.

Our VCR has talking on-screen programming that lets us set the event timer, by ourselves, to record programs. We only wish that the new digital television and DVD player on-screen programming had been introduced with an audio option, which would have given us easy access to this entertainment information.

Since we have access to multiple independent computer, television, radio and internet capabilities, we both can watch different programs at the same time--Marie her hockey or football game, and Chris the news. We have hooked up a small transmitter to one of our computers, and we can now broadcast internet programs through the house and pick them up on any radio, even in the backyard!

We have acquired a new clock that sings to us on the hour with different bird melodies, but which mercifully has a sensor that stops it from singing after dark, just like the real creatures in the trees!

Our electric stove has a numeric keypad that has been labelled in braille, which enables us to set oven temperatures and other functions like self-cleaning and timers by ourselves, with accuracy and confidence. The stove also beeps when dinner is ready. There are now some talking microwaves available, but we will use our old one until it gives up the struggle.

There are still some kitchen challenges we have not totally solved. For instance, we still have to label some products with braille, in order to identify them, and package directions are still inaccessible. The braille cookbook provides good recipes, as long as we get the right ingredients from the packages, with print-only labels and instructions!

One type of information we have and need is the weight given us as we step onto our talking scales. On second thought, maybe we could do without that information, after all!


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