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Universal Design

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: (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.

Builders Urged to Consider Future Mobility Issues

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Sunday Herald, March 11, 2007.

Universal Design a Growing Trend as Population Ages

Winnipeg--Build today for a mobility-challenged future tomorrow.

That's the message a couple of occupational therapists are trying to get across to new home buyers, home builders and real estate agents. They want them to consider that today's health and agility may not outlast a person's desire to stay in their home.

Statistics suggest that's often the case: late last year, a Royal LePage study looked at how one-third of Canada's population is over 50 and how the vast majority of those pentagenarians have no desire to move into so-called "senior's housing."

While some of that market is looking to condominiums to ease lifestyle, as the human population's longevity increases and the desire to hold off moving into assisted-living homes for as long as possible, the likelihood that more homeowners will face mobility challenges before it's time to leave the home is high.

That is the force driving what's emerging as a new philosophy: universal design. And at the new-home stage, it's something that can be incorporated at little extra cost.

"We used to work in the spinal cord unit at Health Sciences Centre, and as occupational therapists we are trained to look at the way people function," says occupational therapist Corinne Klassen.

"When our patients were sent home, we quickly realized that most homes are not accessible for patients convalescing from injuries that impaired their mobility. Standard homes have stairs, small doorways and other barriers that make it extremely difficult for mobility-impaired people to do the day-to-day tasks we take for granted."

Many of the changes behind universal design are almost invisible to the average observer: a 91-centimetre (36-inch) main entrance door, 81-centimetre (32-inch) interior doors (instead of the standard 76 centimetres/30 inches), a step-free entrance and wider hallways.

"The main issue here is that we're all getting older," says Angie Maidment, Klassen's partner in Therapy First.

"For example, one of my clients just had a stroke. So he now has mobility problems, and his wife has memory problems. They didn't want to move, so they had to spend about $25,000 for a lift to help him negotiate a set of stairs. It's just not cheap to retrofit a house."

But designed in at the beginning, a plan for the future is quite inexpensive, she said. And to the casual observer, it appears simply as good design precepts, not necessarily concessions to any physical impairment.

Klassen adds that another client, wanting to prepare for the physical challenges that come with aging, was looking to enlist a builder to build him a home with universal design features.

"It turned out to be incredibly difficult to find a builder that would build that kind of home from scratch," she says. "Out of five builders, one responded. That--by necessity--was the builder he went with."

Edmonton architect Ron Wickman says that's not surprising.

"The reality is that most of today's housing communities are built for able-bodied people ... We have to educate the general public, various levels of government and the private sector (builders) about the merits of universal design concept homes."

Wickman said, like it or not, old age is coming. "A huge tidal wave of seniors with mobility issues is coming, and it's going to hit hard," he warns.

While universal design is the ultimate goal when designing a home for persons with limited mobility, there are actually three levels of user-friendliness: visitable, accessible and universal.

Making a home visitable means that a mobility-impaired individual can get to and through the front door without incident, and then can negotiate their way around the main floor without encountering any major obstructions.

Winnipeg realtors' market analyst Peter Squire says the universal design concept makes sense.

"It makes sense that universal design will be a growing trend--older people with knee, hip and back issues would benefit tremendously from the user-friendly features."

Copyright Winnipeg Free Press.

My First Secret Ballot

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLV, No. 4, November 2006:

It is March 21, 2006, the day of the primary election, and there is anticipation in the air as I get ready to go vote. I will be voting by secret ballot for the first time in my life and I have been voting since 1980.

I went downstairs to wait for the bus shortly before 9:30. I did not want to be late as I had no idea how long it would take. Finally, around 9:35, the bus arrived and I was on my way to a new experience.

I arrived at the polling place after being let out of the bus at the entrance where people were going in to vote. I walked down the hall to where I heard voices and was eventually met by an election judge. He asked me if I wanted to use paper or vote electronically. I told him that I wanted to vote electronically.

I got in line to check in and waited behind at least one other person with a disability. I got to the table and met Mary, who checked me in and helped me get started.

She was required to ask me which ballot I wanted since Illinois is a closed primary state (meaning you have to declare which party you are taking a ballot for). I told her that I wanted a Republican ballot. She made a card for me, then we went over to the machine.

The first card did not work; it came up "ballot cancelled." I had requested audio only, but this did not seem to work. I did hear a comment about having to call the Election Commission about the problem.

Mary made another card, which worked. I heard the directions and was told that my ballot was displayed on the screen. I wasn't happy with this, but did not fight the matter due to the problems with the card in the first place. I would later find out that there was a bug in the software involving the message displayed on the screen.

Mary did what she was required to do; she was prepared and well trained. She showed me where the keypad was and I was on my way.

I went through each race and made my choices, using the six key to move forward and the five key to make my selection. I rarely had to use the four key to move back. When I was done, I was able to get an audio summary of my ballot and went through to make sure it was right. It was right the first time and I submitted it and the machine printed it.

At that point, I was done voting. I checked out and got a little sticker that said "I Voted." This sticker didn't last long; but the memory of my first secret ballot will last a lifetime.

I went back to the door where I had come in so that I could wait for my ride. While waiting, I got to see some other people come in, as well as students pass to the next period. Since our polling place is in a school, I must say what a herd of elephants on the latter activity!

What I love most about today is the fact that no one knows how I voted. I was explaining this to a colleague at work, who was happy for me. Mary, the election judge, commented afterward that Ray (my husband) and I had done a lot of work to make sure this happened; I told her that there were a lot of others involved at the national level. She thought it was neat that we could now vote via secret ballot just like everyone else.

Due to a moderate hearing loss, speech and volume are important issues for me. These issues include the quality of the reading, as well as the volume of the voice. The person who read the ballot did an excellent job; I had no problems understanding what was being read. I could understand it as each name was pronounced clearly and distinctly. It helps to have a local person read the ballot.

Volume was the other issue. I was able to turn up the volume easily when I needed to do so. I did not have to do anything with the rate of the speech. They also had over-the-ear headphones there.

After I voted, I listened for the returns to come in and, along with my husband, tracked the local returns online. It was nice to know that my vote truly counted. I knew that my vote was among the numbers being read on the screen. My vote affected the total. This was neat!

The first step has been taken and there is no turning back now. I eagerly await the general elections on Nov. 7.

Party Politics Exclude The Disabled Political Party Websites Discriminate Against People With Disabilities

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from (New Zealand) and is dated August 26, 2005.

A recent survey by W 3 A Limited of the accessibility of the big 6 political party home pages has revealed that all of them fail to provide even the basic facilities to make it easier for people with disabilities to access their sites.

Bruce Aylward, CEO of W 3 A Limited, comments: "Coming up to the elections, one would expect the parties to shout their policies from the rooftops. Their websites are ideal vehicles from which to inform everybody of their policies and promises for a brighter future.

"Unfortunately, it seems that one sector of our community has been forgotten again."

The sector that Mr. Aylward refers to is the community of people with disabilities. They cannot always access a website in the same way that an able-bodied person might, and have special needs that must be considered when building a website.

An international standard has been around since 1999, which describes the things that a web designer can do to make it easier for people with disabilities to access a site. It is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

Mr. Aylward again: "The WCAG defined three levels of accessibility: levels A, AA and AAA. Yet all 5 of the party websites that we have surveyed did not even meet the minimum requirements.

"This is particularly despairing in the light of the Labour Government's commitment to make ALL government sites accessible by January 2006, as well as the fact that they are breaching the Human Rights Act."

The survey was done against all the level A checkpoints of the WCAG on the entry page for each of the following parties: Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First, Maori Party and ACT New Zealand.

Below is a summary of the problems that were identified.

  • Images are missing ALT attributes: Blind internet surfers cannot see the images on a site and rely on a technology called screen readers to read out any text on the site in a computer voice. If a site uses images with ALT attributes, then the screen reader can read out the text in the ALT attribute in the place of the image. This is especially important when images are used for links, for example, on the Labour party's entry page.

Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First and the Maori Party are all missing ALT attributes for at least some of their images.

In fact, this is what the page looks like if you disable all images.

Picture with Article: Graphic of what the website looks like without images.

  • ALT attributes missing from input elements: Input elements are the areas on a web form where a user can input, for example, their name or select items from a list. On the screen, it is easy to see which label relates to a particular field and, thus, what information to enter into that field. But if you cannot see the label, then you need some other way to identify the purpose of the field, AKA the ALT attribute on the input field.

Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First and ACT New Zealand all failed to provide the ALT attributes on their input fields.

  • Most of the parties also had audio and video clips of their various speeches. In some cases, transcripts of those clips are provided. Unfortunately, most of the speeches still remain totally inaccessible to people with severe hearing impairments, as no transcripts or subscripts for videos are provided.

  • When a blind surfer uses a screen reader on a website, they have to listen through the menu for every page before they get to the content. Things can be made a bit easier by providing a "Skip to Content" link before the menu. That way, the surfer can decide when to listen to the menu and when to go directly to the content.

Most of the sites did not provide such a link. ACT New Zealand did provide a "Skip Navigation" link, but it did not work.

  • The Maori party used frames to implement their sites but did not provide titles for each of the frames, making it difficult for a blind surfer to find their way around and to understand what each of the frames are for.

  • Some surfers may disable JavaScript on their browsers. For example, people who are susceptible to epileptic seizures may disable JavaScript to prevent animations, which could trigger their seizures.

The Greens, National, New Zealand First and the Maori Party all have functionality on their sites, which does not work at all if JavaScript is disabled and they have no other mechanisms to access the same information.

Even though the Labour party provides a text-only version of their site, there is no way to access that version from the entry page.

Mr. Aylward concludes: "The political parties should be setting an example for the rest of the country and not exclude anybody, particularly as they are supposed to represent the entire population, not just the able bodied sections of the community."

About W 3 A Limited

W 3 A Limited is an independent website audit company based in Wellington, NZ. Services offered include a range of audits to ensure that company websites and intranets comply with the NZ Human Rights Act, as well as training courses in how to develop accessible websites. The company aims to promote the issue of website accessibility, as well as helping website designers to design more accessible websites.

N.B.Needs Ballots For The Blind; Visually Impaired Voters Still Can't Cast

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Times & Transcript, Moncton, April 13, 2006.

Advocates for New Brunswick's visually impaired hope steps are taken for the next provincial election so everyone has the same opportunity to cast a secret ballot. The constant speculation surrounding a spring election is drawing to light any existing shortcomings in the voting process.

The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer is supposed to provide braille overlays in each polling station around the province, so those who are visually impaired can vote in secret. But Duncan Williams, executive director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in New Brunswick, said the reality in individual polling stations is quite different.

"That may be the theory but it hasn't been the practice," Williams said. When Williams last voted, he said he did not have access to either a large-print ballot or a braille ballot. And if there was a braille ballot in the polling station, the CNIB director said the volunteers weren't aware of its existence.

Williams did not want to criticize the volunteers, citing what may be a "communication gap" at the polling stations.

Electors who need assistance in voting, Williams said, should ask the polling station volunteers to see what alternatives are available.

Annise Hollies, the province's chief electoral officer, said her office tries to make sure everyone can vote privately.

"We don't have the large-print ballot. But we do have braille ballots for the visually impaired and that has been here since about 1998," Hollies said.

Along with braille ballots, visually impaired individuals can have a person assist them in marking the ballot if they wish.

The legislative assembly is debating amendments to the Elections Act. New Democratic Party Leader Allison Brewer said yesterday she was wondering why there weren't changes to ensure visually impaired New Brunswickers had the ability to vote in secret.

"It's time, we have the technology," Brewer said.

The braille overlays are placed on top of a regular ballot so the voter can read who the candidates are and then they are guided to mark the actual ballot. So when they deposit their vote, the ballot looks like every other one cast in that polling station, which upholds their privacy.

The CNIB director said the Braille ballots, when available, are a positive step but he still would like to see the elections office provide large-print overlays for voters.

"While it is great to have those (Braille overlays) out there when they are found and put in use, it is only a piece," Williams said. "We are still missing 90 percent of the people who could use the large print."

It is important to rectify voting problems for the visually impaired, Williams said, because more voters will need such assistance in the future.

Access Not Equal For All

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Kelowna Capital News, February 20, 2005.

Chantal Oakes and her husband were planning to take in the local dinner theatre production of The Odd Couple when they ran into a snag.

There was a buffet.

Not an onerous dining issue for most people, but Oakes and her husband are blind and there is no easy way to get through a buffet on their own. They might have stayed home, but Oakes, the president of the local Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, decided to see if there might be a way.

When she explained the situation to the theatre staff, they were happy to oblige. The couple was served food and drinks by just telling the staff what they wanted.

"The help was wonderful," said Oakes. "They provided a wonderful service. Very dignified."

It was a simple gesture but it was the difference between the Oakes being able to enjoy the evening or being left out.

Another welcome deed by another business made a significant difference to her, too.

Oakes heads to Shefields coffee shop on Queensway Avenue for a caffeine fix because she knows her way around and the owner and staff are accommodating. Just lining up the coffee pots so she knows which is decaf and which isn't makes her quick trip easier.

Owner Terry Bourbonnie said it's just good customer service. He had the coffee jugs and bathroom keys labelled with braille to help out as well.

Unfortunately, not all accessibility issues for people with physical disabilities are solved that easily.

Sometimes it requires refiguring a bathroom so someone in a wheelchair can get in. Sometimes it means less clutter on the street so blind people can get by.

And--the toughest project of all--sometimes it means changing people's attitudes.

It is, however, an issue that affects more than just those currently with disabilities. Merchants, employers and those getting greyer all need to take note.

As it stands now, about one in seven Canadians over the age of 15 has some form of disability, according to figures from the national 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). Of those, 71 percent involve mobility, 30 percent hearing and 17 percent sight. With the aging population swelling, there are more and more people losing sight, hearing and mobility.

About 1.1 million of the 3.6 million Canadians aged 65 and older reported having mobility problems, one million had hearing problems and 600,000 had vision impairment, according to the PALS report.

Women make up 58 percent of the seniors with disabilities, largely because they live longer.

As well, more than 1,100 new people are added to the list of spinal cord injured in Canada every year. Eighty percent of those are aged 15 to 34.

Is Kelowna a good place to live if you have a physical disability? That depends.

Jay Douglas, a businessman and quadriplegic who jets around in an electric wheelchair, says Kelowna is so wheelchair friendly, he actually encourages people in chairs to move here.

While some places downtown, up long flights of stairs, will never see Douglas' face, he said, most shops and restaurants are easy enough to maneuver to and from. "If I can get around anywhere," he said, "anyone can."

But, for Deborah Perry, who is deaf, there are other hurdles. Physically, she can walk to places Douglas can't, but she's limited in communicating with most people. It's almost as if she speaks a language no one else does.

She can't just drop into a bank or restaurant and explain quickly what she wants. She can't pick up the phone and call someone and she can't tell if there is a fire alarm going off right behind her.

There are ways to help, but in Kelowna, and many communities, there are few resources for the deaf. Perry, a care provider who works with a deaf person with autism, would like to see some effort to have more businesses and public facilities employ people who can use sign language to translate.

"Where people are serving the public," said Perry through a sign-language interpreter, "I feel they should have somebody, when you go to the bank or a business or city hall.

"They say there's equal access, but it's not true."

If Perry needs an interpreter, she has to hire and pay for one herself. Kelowna only has two freelance interpreters and they work mostly in schools.

American Sign Language interpreter, Melinda Hamming, said there's just no funding for better assistance, even though there is a demand for interpreters and there are qualified people to do the work.

"There are a lot of jobs done on a volunteer basis, but it's difficult," she said. "There does need to be a service."

It would also help the public perception to see more people signing. Watching someone rapidly moving their hands to communicate can--and has been--misinterpreted.

After hearing about an incident when people were animatedly signing on a bus and the driver was concerned and asked them to stop, Perry was not surprised.

"People assume when you're signing, you look violent," she said. "In the hearing community, raised hands are a sign of violence."

While some are understanding and patient as Perry tries to express herself, it's still frustrating since many just don't understand.

"I'll make faces, since that's my only form of communication, and I'll use paper, but it's sad," she said.

The voices of the deaf in Kelowna have not been heard as loudly as those visually impaired or with mobility problems, but that's changing. Rather than just vent her gripes, Perry has joined the Central Okanagan Access Awareness Team, to represent the B.C. Association of the Deaf.

The team was started about 18 years ago to make it easier for physically impaired people to live in the community. They have been given solid support over the years and the group is clearly making its mark.

As it stands, many changes the city plans on doing to facilities, roads or parks that may affect people with disabilities heads to the access awareness team first for suggestions. And, there's no shortage of ideas from the group.

Chairwoman Sherri Newcomen, a paraplegic since her "first and last motorcycle ride" in 1982, knows that not much gets done if people don't beef about it. Formerly a city councillor in Invermere, she learned how to lobby.

When the provincial courthouse was built in Kelowna in the early 1990s, Newcomen went for a field trip to check out the access. She was surprised to find it sadly lacking. The ramps were too steep for her in a manual wheelchair and getting in was an ordeal befitting a criminal.

"The wheelchair access was through the bottom where they take the inmates," she said. They had to notify the guard to let them in and out.

That wouldn't do, so Newcomen and others pointed out the flaws and they have since been rectified.

Douglas, who became a quadriplegic after a truck accident 20 years ago, said it makes more sense for businesses to do it right the first time when they consider handicapped access. While they can look at the outdated building code, Douglas suggests anyone looking at installing wheelchair facilities talk to someone in a chair first.

One of the reasons he believes Kelowna is so accessible for people in wheelchairs is because of all the new construction. It's easy to put in a handicapped washroom or ramp at the design stage, but it's not so easy to convert an old building, up two flights of stairs with no elevator.

He points to the Capital News Centre as an example of a new building with easy access and lots of parking and pick-up areas for people in wheelchairs. When that was being built, consultation was done with the access team.

In the city, curbs are cropped at corners so wheelchairs can get on. But those decorative interlocking brick sidewalks have been a problem. Uneven and with gaps, they're tough on wheelchairs, canes for the visually impaired and even skateboarders and people in spike heels.

For businesses, it just makes sense to be easy for everyone to get in, said Douglas. "The more things people can use, the more money businesses can generate," he pointed out.

As an example, when Douglas went to and from his boat at the Kelowna Marina at the foot of Queensway Avenue, it used to be a bit tough. He made a simple suggestion about making a ramp that's easy for him to roll on. The owner complied and Douglas said it's been helpful for other marina users who load up buggies of munchies from the store and head to their boats.

"I used to sit in the background but, if you don't get out and say something, no one is going to do anything," he said.

Darryl Harand, a local representative from the Canadian Institute for the Blind with 10 percent vision, said he's had a few issues getting around, especially on public transit. While the routes are OK, it seems the drivers are always in a hurry to get to the next stop and jolt out before everyone is seated or hanging on.

If he complained every time something happened, he said, "I'd be on the phone every day."

He also notes that there should be more crosswalks with the birdie sounds to alert those visually impaired that it's safe to cross. The crosswalk in front of Kelowna General Hospital along Pandosy Street is one that should be added to the list, he said.

Denise Sanders, who is totally blind, said even with the audible signals there are problems because there's no consistency with where the buttons are on the poles at the crossings.

"I can spend a fair amount of time finding the pole to push the button," she said.

She stands at the curb and listens carefully for traffic to stop before she heads out on the crosswalk. Someone turning right can be a problem, but so far she hasn't had any close calls.

"At least not that I'm aware of," she joked. And, she's not about to be worried about it. "It's important to keep getting out in the community," she said, "so you keep your confidence up. As well, you're out there getting the public to see what you can do."

Arlene Pilgrim, a rehabilitation consultant for the B.C. Paraplegic Association, Okanagan region, said, "Overall, Kelowna is doing very well for accessibility, particularly compared to the south Okanagan communities."

Handicapped parking is adequate or better at most places and many building owners in the community are now aware that cutting the speed the elevator doors close helps people get in more easily.

Housing is an issue, she said. Older apartments are more difficult and basement suites with stairs are out of the question for many. New buildings have to meet codes for handicapped access, but they're not always designed with the greatest efficiency for wheeling through.

As well, Pilgrim said there is a strong need for accommodation for people just out of the hospital who need assistance. Most of the assisted-living homes are for seniors and have long waiting lists.

Then, there's the issue of work. As Douglas pointed out, being in a wheelchair isn't cheap. Getting services and equipment for the hearing- and sight-impaired is also costly. But, when it comes to earning an income, people with disabilities tend to be down the scale.

According to the PALS survey, more than half of the Canadians with disabilities are not even in the workforce, compared with 16 percent of the able-bodied population.

Those who are working earn on average substantially less.

It's not that people with disabilities don't want to work. It's actually the opposite. Most would prefer to be independent financially and physically.

It's just not that simple.

"Employment has proven to be quite unattainable in Kelowna due to narrow-mindedness and archaic beliefs," said Perry. "It's an old attitude which assumes deaf people are unemployable because they cannot hear or speak.

"When they realize a deaf person uses sign language, they automatically think they are incapable of intelligence and reason.

"Therefore, the popular presumption is deaf people should not be employed."

(John) Rae, national president of the National Federation of the Blind, said, "For us, poverty is the reality."

The NFB has fought for legal protection to establish the concept of "duty to accommodate." Rae said that means rights such as allowing seeing-eye dogs to go into buildings. It means people visually impaired are entitled to access. But, Rae admits, there's still work to be done. "We have a lot more expectations than results," he said. "

"We'd like a hand up to equality. We'd rather work and participate in the community.

"Then we'd have increased purchasing power to do all things folks like to do."

While access rights are entrenched in the Charter of Rights, reality may be something different.

For employers, restaurants and coffee shops, if access is tough it could mean losing out on hiring a valuable individual or lost revenue.

For everyone, it's a matter of what happens when life rolls the dice. At any moment, there is another person facing a physical impairment, whether by age or accident. It's an issue that affects everyone.

"We all know someone with a disability or we could be there," said Douglas. "You never know."

Copyright 2005 Kelowna Capital News.

Dundee Talking Bus Shelters

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted by permission of the Evening Telegraph & Post, Scotland, October 17, 2005.

A new system to provide sight-impaired people with information about bus services in Dundee was launched today. Audio units, activated by Dundee Discovery Cards, have been installed in some bus shelters and voice messages give the times and details of departures.

Planning and Transport Convener, Fiona Grant, was joined by members of the Dundee Blind and Partially Sighted Society for the start of the system.

She said, "We hope this new facility will be of benefit to people who have sight impairment and want to use buses in the city.

"There have been tremendous improvements in public transport in Dundee over the past few years as a result of the council using Scottish Executive funding to invest in a range of upgraded facilities, such as new bus shelters, Ninewells interchange, interactive journey planner kiosks and new routes."

The audio system is activated when people place their card against a yellow band.

The council will monitor the network with a view to increasing the number of shelters that have it.

Arrangements are in place to issue all those registered with the Dundee Blind and Partially Sighted Society with a Discovery Card.

European Public Sector Fails on Basic Web Accessibility

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, Issue 72, December 2005:

Just three percent of public sector websites in the European Union (EU) reach accepted minimum international standards of accessibility, according to United Kingdom government-funded research published last month.

The results were obtained by carrying out automated and manual checks on 436 public sector websites across all 25 member states of the EU (European Union). The checks were designed to show how well the sites measured up to the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG,, that grade sites "A", "AA" or "AAA", in rising order of accessibility.

According to the research, only three percent reached "A" status, although a further 27 percent narrowly missed out, either because they passed all automated checks but failed a manual inspection, or failed a small number of automated checks. No sites were found to reach "AA" or "AAA" status.

"I had expected and hoped that governments were doing better," accessibility expert, Helen Petrie, Professor of Computer Science at the University of York, told E-Access Bulletin. "Such a low level of conformance is disappointing and shows that we have a mountain to climb."

The report, "eAccessibility of Public Sector Services in the European Union", (, was commissioned as part of the UK's presidency of the EU. It revealed that few member states know how well they are doing in the accessibility field: of the 25, only six felt able to estimate the proportion of their websites meeting "A" requirements, but all six were found to have overestimated.

The poor showing may partly be explained by the fact that the WCAG are not available in all EU languages. At present, the guidelines aren't available in the national languages of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Malta and Slovenia; and a number of other minority languages. Translations are in progress for the languages of Poland and the Slovak Republic.

Copyright 2005 Headstar Ltd.

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Enabling The Blind to Vote in Albania's National Elections

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe website (OSCE), and is dated August 12, 2005:

The national elections in Albania on July 3, 2005, marked a major step forward for the country's blind and partially sighted: For the first time ever, they were able to exercise their constitutional right to vote in person.

Thanks to a nation-wide project by the National Association of the Blind (NAB), supported by the OSCE Presence in Albania, all eligible blind people who chose to participate were able to cast their ballots in a transparent and effective manner.

The extraordinary interest shown by the blind in the process was reflected in the very high turnout of blind voters in the elections, which was estimated at around 80 percent.

Equal Democratic Standards for All Voters

"This has been a breakthrough in ensuring equal democratic standards for all voters, including people with disabilities, and in eliminating the barriers that prevent willing blind voters from participating in elections," said the Head of the OSCE Presence, Ambassador Pavel Vacek.

Positive action to promote the rights of the blind was long overdue in Albania, and it proved to be no easy task. The NAB therefore agreed to coordinate a national effort to enable all blind persons to vote.

There are 8,400 blind and vision-impaired people registered with the NAB as eligible to vote, but until now the necessary preconditions to allow them to do so were not in place.

Enabling them to exercise this right required the engagement of civil society, constant support from international organizations, and a constructive stance from the Albanian government.

The OSCE decided to join forces on the project with the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the NAB, after the CEC and the Association signed an agreement on May 11 this year laying out their joint responsibilities with regard to elections.

Numerous Training Sessions

The NAB held numerous training sessions on the voting procedure for the blind in the 94 election zones (out of a total of 100) where they were registered to vote, and distributed 4,200 informational tapes and 200 sample ballot papers in braille and high relief.

The NAB also printed input masks based on the format of the official CEC ballot paper for the 8,400 eligible blind voters, and distributed them in all 94 electoral zones.

These input masks, which had special openings enabling blind people to identify parties and candidates by their corresponding numbers and to vote accordingly, were the main tool for enabling the blind and vision-impaired to cast their votes.

The idea behind the project was to ensure a significant improvement in the status and civic participation of the blind and vision-impaired in Albania. It was partially funded by the OSCE (35,488 euros) and the NAB (7,000 euros).

The specific aims of the project were:

  • To ensure that the necessary conditions were fulfilled so that the vision-impaired could vote;

  • To ensure that blind voters were informed about their opportunities to vote; and

  • To ensure that the blind were in practice able to vote in the elections.

"Thanks to the support of the OSCE and the cooperation of the CEC, blind people were given the chance to cast their vote on a national level for the first time in Albania," said the head of the project, Ermir Kapedani.

"The success of the project lays the foundation for the sustainable participation of blind voters in the next national elections," he added.

In the longer term, the overarching goal is the full integration of the blind and vision-impaired into Albania's civic and political life.

Europe's First Talking Cash Dispenser

Editor's Note: The following item originally appeared in Access, the magazine of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), Northern Ireland. It is reproduced here from RNIB's website:

Getting cash from bank machines has always been difficult for blind and partially sighted people because the information is displayed visually. Now a cash dispenser has been unveiled with revolutionary speaking software, designed specifically for people with sight problems.

Northern Bank, together with its former sister bank, Clydesdale, are the first banks in Europe to use the new software, which will help transform thousands of people's lives. This pilot project, running in Belfast and Glasgow, was launched in May.

Using the Cash Dispenser

The cash dispenser is used by plugging a set of headphones into a jack, which is fitted to the front of the ATM (automated teller machine). The machine uses an automated voice to give instructions about the exact location of items such as the numbers on the keypad, the cash dispenser and all other devices on the machine. It also talks through each stage of the process, whether a user wants to check a balance or withdraw cash. Sighted users can also use the machine following instructions displayed on screen.

RNIB's campaigns officer, David Mann, said: "ATM's are really difficult to use for blind or partially sighted people. I have learned to use my own bank's machines by memorizing the sequence of instructions. But that still doesn't help me if anything goes wrong--if there are insufficient funds in my account or if the machine is not dispensing ten-pound notes etc. And I can't use the ATM's for any other bank.

"This is great news for people with sight difficulties--a real breakthrough. I'd call on all the other banks to follow suit. The service is great--there's a very thorough guide, which leads you through all the functions, but after a while you are able to skip through the process very quickly."

Rosamond Bennett, marketing director of Northern Bank, said: "We're really proud of this new facility and delighted to be the first in Europe to be rolling it out. We've planned it very carefully and consulted with blind and partially sighted customers and staff before going live with it."

Pilot Scheme in Belfast and Glasgow

To date, three ATM's have been fitted with the new technology. The pilot scheme will run for six months and if successful the banks will consider extending the service. The technology was developed whilst Northern Bank was still part of the National Australia Group, so the project is also being piloted by its former sister bank, Clydesdale, in Glasgow.

The Technology

The technology, known as Text to Speech, was provided by Canadian software company, Phoenix Interactive.

"Phoenix Interactive is extremely proud to celebrate Europe's first Text to Speech implementation," said Ms. Kyle MacDonald, CEO of Phoenix Interactive. "This enhanced functionality will open the door to new ATM users and ensure that everyone has equal and easy access to their accounts.

"As this is the first audio ATM implementation in Europe, we're certain everyone will see the tremendous benefit it offers to all banking customers. Phoenix has already worked with many of our other clients around the world in introducing this technology in various languages. Our Text to Speech technology is currently running in the United States, Australia and now Europe. As Phoenix firmly supports ATM access for all, we will continue to work with our clients around the world to support audio-enabled ATM's."


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