Saturday, May 27, 2006

Latest technology available to the visually impaired

The people at Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind don’t refer to their students as having disabilities.

Many of them are totally blind, some are legally blind and others are totally deaf, but instead of dwelling on what students and employees can’t do, the school focuses on what they can do.
And with the introduction of new technology, the list of things they can’t do is growing smaller every day.

On Thursday and Friday, the school was host to a technological symposium sponsored by the Alumni and Workers Association of Alabama School for the Blind.

The event, which brought everything from talking calculators to Braille printers to the school, was a collaborative effort among the alumni association, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and AIDB.

Vendors displayed a wide range of assistive devices — from low-technology goods such as raised markers visually impaired can use to mark places on clothes dryers or microwaves to highly expensive goods such as Braille printers that convert charts from a computer to drawings composed of a series of dots used to feel the graph instead of see it.

As far as the importance of technology goes, "How important is your car to you?" said Joel Marler, alumni association president. "It allows us to have communication. We depend on community to stay in contact with other people and learn. It’s not like we can pick up a newspaper and read. … It’s independence, that’s what it is."

Marler, an ASB graduate and alumnus of Faulker State Community College in Montgomery, has used technology to help him since his vision began fading 10 years ago.

He uses a device much like a personal data assistant equipped with an audio box to organize his day, a Braille watch to tell the time and relied on graphs converted to Braille when he was working his way through economic classes in college.

"Technology isn’t something that’s brand new," he said. "It just keeps developing, enhancing and getting better. … It has just saved my life."

Many people, students and members of the local community, toured the ASB auditorium Thursday and Friday to get a glimpse at the latest technology for blind people.

Closed-circuit televisions were displayed to show citizens how documents can be magnified for better understanding, files can be translated to Braille and NewsLine allows blind people to read about 200 papers from across the state using a toll-free number that dictates articles through a standard telephone.

One device, which looked much like a digital camera attached to a PDA, allows people to take pictures of documents while it reads them back.

"I can sit in my recliner, put my mail in my lap, take a picture and it reads it back to me," said Michael Jones, National Federation of Blind in Alabama president. "I don’t have to fool with computers. It’s just that easy."

Jones also showed off a walking cane that uses sonar to detect nearby objects, sending a vibration through the cane that can be felt by whoever is holding it.

The product isn’t even on the market yet, he said.

"Technology has opened doors for individuals who are blind or have low vision that have never been opened before," said Debbie Culver, coordinator of blind services for ADRS. "Technology often paves the way for independence, employment and empowerment."

Most everyone — college students, employees or those who just like to read the newspaper — can benefit from specialized products for visually impaired people, but they are not available to everyone.

"The only downside is this technology is that it is terribly expensive," Marler said. "It’s not only because of the research and development, but you just don’t have the wide-open market you have with other products. Their sales are limited."

Closed-caption televisions can cost about $3,000, and Braille notebooks, which are similar to PDAs, are usually priced at $4,600 to $5,000.

But considering all users can get from the devices, such as the ability to play MP3s or have audio-equipped access to the Internet, it’s worth it, Marler said.

Organizations such as ADRS and the federal government can offer some assistance when the devices are used for school or work purposes, but many people simply have to go without.
"I wouldn’t know what to do without it," Marler said.

Bank offers new service for the visually impaired

Bank of Valletta has introduced a new service to support the special needs of its customers who have a visual impairment. Following discussions with the National Commission for Persons with Disability, BOV is now making available special, large format, bank statements to its customers who suffer from a degree of visual impairment.

This service, which is provided free of charge, is available from any BOV branch. "At Bank of Valletta we are supportive of our customers' needs and always seek to tailor our services to the specific requirements of our customers," said Igino Xuereb, Chief Officer Operations at Bank of Valletta when introducing this new service.

"Indeed, mutuality is a core value of Bank of Valletta's brand promise. These large format statements are the Bank's response to facilitate and make more straightforward the services we offer to persons with such special needs and shows how BOV understands the value of truly genuine and caring service and how we take a personal interest in its customer's individual requirements," concluded Mr. Xuereb.

For further information, customers may call at any BOV Branch or contact the BOV Customer Service Centre on 2131 2020.

A "Seeing Machine" for the visually impaired

A U.S. scientist has created a small "seeing machine" that allows blind or visually impaired people to view faces, visit the Internet and more.

The machine, designed by a visually impaired Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, has received positive feedback from a recent pilot clinical trial.The research was led by Elizabeth Goldring, a senior fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. She developed the $4,000 machine during the last 10 years, in collaboration with more than 30 MIT students, scientists and some of her personal eye doctors.

Goldring developed her machine along the lines of a diagnostic device known as a scanning laser opthalmoscope, or SLO. That machine projects an image directly onto the retina of an eye to determine if there is any healthy retina left.

"We essentially made the new machine from scratch," Goldring said. The new seeing machine replaces the laser of the SLO with light-emitting diodes, another source of high-intensity light that is much cheaper.The research was detailed earlier this year in Optometry, the Journal of the American Optometric Association.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Volunteering is part of a visually impaired woman's life

Barbara Mattson doesn't know what she'd do if she didn't have at least five meetings to attend a week.
She's probably been a part of a least 15 organizations (and counting), taking on leadership roles in
At 58, Mattson jokes that if her mother, who will turn 80 at the end of the month, can stay so busy volunteering, then she has a lot to look forward to.
Mattson's hectic schedule is even more remarkable because she is visually impaired.
"My feeling is that because of my disability, there are a lot of times when I have to depend on the help of others, and I feel in some way I need to return to others what others have given to me," Mattson said.
In recognition of her work,
Converse College will present Mattson with the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award at commencement exercises today.
Born with optic nerve atrophy, Mattson can make out colors but depends on the use of a cane to help guide her movements.
"I feel that people believe I'm capable of doing things, and I've gotten a lot of support from my family and friends," Mattson said.
Always a meeting to attend
Mattson is a familiar figure traveling along East Main Street.
She walks to all the places she needs to go.
It helps to give her exercise (she walks three times a day), usually cutting across the campus of
Converse College.
In addition, she walks to her various meetings, usually within walking distance of her home.
She has participated in amateur radio for more than 20 years, helping groups such as the Piedmont Chapter of the American Red Cross with communications.
Fritz Nitsch, has helped Mattson to maintain equipment over the years, says her diverse interests make her more versatile than the average ham radio operator.
She's a member of the Democratic Women's Disabilities Task Force and is the editor of a publication for the Tape Recording and Conversation Club.
Being the secretary of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, Mattson is now grateful that she can e-mail materials.
To keep her meetings straight, she checks her calendar in a special voice-activated word processor.
Easy-going and personable, Mattson has no trouble chatting about the issues she finds important.
She's particularly concerned about women's issues (including access to legal abortion) and discrimination toward any group.
"I have a lot of empathy for other groups who are trying to educate others about who they are," she said.
A life outside of meetings
What makes Mattson the happiest of is the joy of writing.
"When I'm feeling gutsy, I like to write poetry," she said, smiling.
She has written how-to guides using Braille Lite. In addition, she just submitted her second fiction story to the Hub City Writers Project.
Playing computer games like Tile brings a big smile to her face.
She likes music, and if she ever has any spare time would like to learn how to play the keyboard.
Mattson said she is embarrassed by the Sullivan award because volunteering is something she likes to do.
"In a way, I feel like I have a lot to live up to by getting this award," she said.
Douglas Jensen, assistant professor of biology and chair of the biology department of Converse, said Mattson's reaction is not surprising.
"She seems to find personal fulfillment in helping others and is always willing to take on a different challenge and I think she feels good when she has done a good job helping other people."
They've known each other for almost seven years through the Unitarian Universalist Church of
Jensen said Mattson does not like to be in the limelight.
"She is much more likely to do something that's important but behind the scenes," Jensen said.

Visually impaired people are trained in technology

A MANILA-BASED training program that teaches the visually impaired how to operate computers and access the Internet using a text-to-speech application may soon be reaching the cities of Davao and Cebu, its organizers said.

Mayette Regala, chief coordinator for the six-year old Computer Eyes program, said partners and potential investors for the regional expansion were still being sought.

At least 60 visually impaired individuals have graduated from the program, she said.

The training program makes use of a text-to-speech application known as JAWS or Job Access with Speech.

JAWS reads aloud the contents of a webpage or an open desktop application. Visually impaired users press pre-programmed hotkeys to move the cursor, instead of a mouse.

"We have a lot of ground to cover especially for other visually-impaired individuals in the provinces. Computer Eyes is a very good program to give the visually impaired opportunities and make them productive members of the society,"

Regala said.

In this year's Computer Eyes, about six of the 20 participants are from areas outside Manila.Computer Eyes is a joint project of Resource for the Blind, Inc,, IBM Philippines and Overbrook-Nippon Network on Technology. For the last six years it has been conducted at the IBM office in Libis, Quezon City.

Teacher teaches art to visually impaired student

Fifth-grader Sarah Metz carefully molded clay into the shape of leaves Friday during her art class at Nichols Elementary. She first shaped the pieces, and then used her fingernail to give them texture. After choosing a shade of green, Metz painted her leaves.

Sarah Metz, 11, has been blind since birth. With her long, blond hair, petite body and bubbling personality, Metz once formed a challenge for art teacher Marisa Main. Main had only been a full-time teacher in the county for two years, and she had no prior experience with teaching art to a blind student.

"The most important thing wasn't just figuring out a way to teach Sarah art. It was coming up with a way of maintaining the integrity of the curriculum," Main said.

Two years later, the relationship Main has with Metz has motivated the art teacher to go beyond what her job requires. She keeps her art projects binded together and began writing about how Metz has changed her classroom -- and her teaching abilities.

"Sarah is such an intelligent, creative student," said Main, also a adjunct professor at Marshall University. "She has been the highlight of my teaching for the past two years. She certainly makes it more interesting, and working with her makes me a better teacher."

In April, Main was published in SchoolArts Magazine, a national publication with about 20,000 in circulation. Her article highlighted ways of teaching art to visually impaired students through the means of touch.

Her second article, published in the May edition, teaches readers an activity to allow other students to see what it feels like working on an art project without sight. With the permission of classroom parents, Main did this in her own classroom and documented its results.

Main has since contracted to publish two more articles and has a verbal contract for a fifth.

Metz feels her way to her own creations. Among them are sculptures and paintings. Main says it is important to find a way to adapt each class project for Metz to gain accessibility to learning from it.
Main contributes her success with Metz to a large cooperation between Nichols Elementary Principal Barbara Carlton, representatives from the central office and Patti Paugh, Metz's visually impaired aide who helps during art class.

"If I am painting the right colors, I think of a sunrise. That makes me think of beauty," said Metz, whose favorite color is purple. "Or makes me think of the morning air smell. You know, the moisture in the morning air. It's my favorite."

Visually impaired workers rewarded!

Lorna DesRoses was presented with the Carroll Society Award at a May 11 ceremony at the Carroll Center for the Blind to honor and recognize outstanding achievement in the workplace by a person who is blind or visually impaired.

Lorna DesRoses, director of the Office of Black Catholics was honored with a Carroll Award for Blind Employment May 11. Pictured left to right are: commissioner of Massachusetts Commission for the Blind David Govostes; DesRoses; president of Carroll Center for the Blind Rachel Rosenbaum; and associate director of the archdiocese’s Ethnic Apostolate Office Sister Mary Corripio, SND. Pilot photo/courtesy Carroll Center for the Blind

DesRoses has worked for the Archdiocese of Boston since April 2004 as director of the Office of Black Catholics. This office provides pastoral services in the community, representing the needs of black Catholics throughout the archdiocese and presents such needs to the archbishop, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, and Church leaders. Working closely with leaders in the black community, she also develops and administers programs that address their spiritual and pastoral interests and is the personal representative to the archbishop on matters concerning the black community.

A resident of Dorchester, DesRoses is legally blind from congenital cataracts that left her with some limited vision in her early childhood, which gradually diminished as she grew older. As a vision-impaired person she had to make the personal adjustments to living with vision loss. To use her computer she has special software with speech output that also allows her to use a scanner to read print.

DesRoses was the only woman among the five individuals selected throughout the state to receive the Carroll Society recognition for outstanding achievement as a blind or visually impaired employee. Speaking with The Pilot May 16 DesRoses said she was humbled by the accomplishments of her fellow award recipients.

“I got a chance to hear other people’s stories and find out how they overcame challenges and obstacles,” DeRoses said.

It was also very encouraging to have a contingent of co-workers accompany her to the award ceremony.

“It was nice to have people I work with there to celebrate with me,” she added.

The Carroll Society Awards are part of a campaign sponsored by the Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to publicly recognize the achievements and contributions to the workforce that are being made by persons who are legally blind.

“Many people don’t realize that with the latest technology training, a person who is blind can work in almost any occupation in today’s employment market,” said Rachel Rosenbaum, president of the Carroll Center.

The Carroll Center for the Blind provides rehabilitation and technology training for persons who are blind or visually impaired of all ages. The Commission for the Blind is the state agency which coordinates benefits and services to all legally blind persons in the Commonwealth. This jointly run campaign since 1983 has been a long and successful effort of private and state agencies partnering for a common cause.

Visually impaired people need to stay in shape too!

The gym at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is not the kind of place you'd find "Lost" hunk Josh Holloway on the elliptical flinging sweat.

But, for those using it, it may be the most valuable room in the world.

This is where people like Claire Anderson, blind since a stroke damaged her optic nerve last August, work out under the guidance of volunteer personal trainers Joe Castillo and Brian Singer.
''A blind person should learn the correct way to strengthen the body so that they can be more capable of self mobility,'' said Henry Trattler of Baptist Center for Excellence in Eye Care and the team ophthalmologist for the Miami Heat. ``This is critical for them.''

Trattler offers an example. ``You see someone walking with a cane. They use their feet to feel the differences in levels of walking. But they have to be strong enough to bump into something and not immediately fall down.''

Teaching the visually impaired the basics of strength training should be ''a global concept,'' he says.

Global has come to the Lighthouse, now celebrating its 75th year helping the blind.

''We're trying to give them the tools to feel independent; balance is a big issue with the blind,'' Castillo says.

Just ask Virginia Jacko, the not-for-profit organization's blind CEO. She was doing fine one day not long ago until five steps sprouted in her path. Jacko, her vision stolen in 1995 by the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, was a prime candidate to take the plunge.

''I remember clearly going to my sister's apartment; it was a new place to me, I didn't have my guard dog and I didn't know there were five steps,'' she said.

As she stepped forward she lost her footing but managed to use her body's core strength - stomach muscles, agile legs - to execute some fancy footwork to remain erect.

"My sister said, `You danced down those steps!' I had enough balance that I didn't fall over.''
Jacko credits working out with saving her from what could have been a nasty spill.

Jacko also credits the workouts with her positive attitude.

After losing her sight and leaving her job as director of affairs for Purdue University in Indiana, Jacko went to the Miami Lighthouse as a client in 2001, at her daughter's urging. At the time it was like many facilities around the nation caring for the blind, ''a typical place'' that ``will teach a blind person how to put toothpaste on a toothbrush, how to prepare food safely, walk down the street, ride the metro as a blind person - none incorporate fitness.''

Five years ago, a volunteer took a handful of clients to a spinning class at Miami Jewish Community Center. Jacko's reaction: ``Wow! A blind person can have fitness classes!''
She became hooked.

``For blind people, balance and strength and awareness of body will improve the quality of life. Guide dogs work on the left side, your shoulder drops - that's 90 pounds always pulling on my left side. By going to the gym you are focusing on posture, balance.''

Trainers at the Lighthouse work with simple equipment such as resistance bands, fitness balls and hand, ankle and leg weights. One reason for keeping it simple is the need for students to practice what they learn at home. Few can afford pricey fitness equipment. Resistance bands, at $15 or so, are within the means of most and offer a viable workout.

Training the blind requires constant physical and verbal cues, Castillo said. Touch and placing the body in proper position are part of the training. With the blind, heads tend to droop. Posture is stressed.

''When you get on the bus, when you lift your leg to take that step, if you don't contract your abdominal muscles it will hyper-extend the back,'' Castillo says, citing a common example. ``We are giving these people cues and feedback so they can understand what they are doing and how injuries can be prevented. That's been most challenging.''

The program is proactive, too.

''One of the major causes of blindness we see in our society is diabetes, and one of the things in adult diabetics is that there are not many skinny ones,'' Trattler says. ``The healthier a person can be with weight control, the easier it is for a diabetic to take care of themself.''

Beyond the obvious pluses, the program can reduce stress.

Anderson, a club administrator and event planner, lost most of her vision as the result of a stroke damaging her optic nerve in August 2005. ``I went from 20-20 to 20-800 in an instant. I was driving. My mind shut down. What's going on? For two weeks I sat around crying. Then I went to the Lighthouse. They don't have space for crying.''

Anderson, who lives alone with a blind Siamese cat - ''we're both blind but she's not as well adjusted as I am'' - relearned the essentials of daily living. With the help of modern advancements, like scanners, computers and even talking bathroom scales, ``Now I can do everything you can do except drive.

''I'm very smart, but Braille ...,'' she says, bristling, clearly not her favorite activity at the center.
Exercise, however, is a joy. ``Exercise releases endorphins. You feel so much better after exercise. People who are blind have more stress than the average person just getting around from here to there. Eating food off a plate and getting it into your mouth is a challenge regular folks don't have.

``I take Braille (classes) and that makes me cry. Exercise makes me laugh.''

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Visually impaired from Nicaragua get treated in Venezuela

The first 85 Nicaraguan eye patients operated on in Venezuela returned to their country, visibly grateful for the treatment they received as part of the South American nation's "Mission Miracle" program.

That initiative is being sponsored over the next 10 years by Cuba and Venezuela to assist more than six million low-income Latin American and Caribbean people who suffer from eye disease.
After arriving aboard a flight chartered by the Venezuelan government, patient Rosa Tremino, like the rest of her fellow travelers, wore a peaked cap which read "Mission Miracle," as well as a red shirt with an inscription in Spanish saying "A People Coming Out of the Darkness."

I am very happy to see again, said the patient, who was also sporting a new pair of glasses, a gift to all those operated on for cataracts and terigium under the Mission Miracle program.

Upon their return, the patients and their companion were received by Venezuelan Ambassador to Nicaragua Miguel Gomez and Managua city officials.

During the homecoming celebration, program coordinator Reverend Sixto Ulloa stated that the next group will go to Venezuela within the next few days. It is projected that through this effort more than 1,000 Nicaraguans will recover their eyesight before the end of the year.

Visually impaired child wins competition

A thirteen year old visually impaired girl has beaten off the opposition to win a special competition to design a Christmas card for National Book Tokens.The competition, which was run by the National Library for the Blind (NLB) in conjunction with National Book Tokens, asked visually impaired children from across the UK to design a 'Reading at Christmas' National Book Token card.Kirsty Hill, 13, from Port Talbot, was chosen as the winner of the competition by Oscar winning animator Jan Pinkava, and was presented with her prize by author Michael Morpurgo at a special event in London last night.

The winning artwork will be used on a Christmas National Book Token card later this year and will be available in over 3,000 book shops with over 100,000 copies produced in total.Kirsty said: "I'm really excited that my drawing will be used on a card and that so many people will be able to buy it. My friends will all be really pleased and I can't wait until Christmas!"Claire Briscoe from the National Library for the Blind said: "We had lots of entries for the competition and our judges had a really difficult time choosing the winner.

We are very excited about Kirsty's design and are sure that it will be a favourite with shoppers next Christmas."She added: "Only 5% of books published in the UK each year ever make it into a format that visually impaired people can read such as Braille, audio or giant print. This is due to the fact that charities such as NLB, who do not receive any regular government funding, are the main producers of books in alternative formats.

We are a small charity so we need all the help we can get to transcribe more books into Braille and be able to loan them to visually impaired people. Support from organisations such as National Book Tokens is vital to enable us to continue our work."The competition is the second collaboration between the National Library for the Blind and National Book Tokens - a special NLB Book Token card is already on sale in book shops.

Alex de Berry from National Book Tokens said: "The standard of entries for the competition was very high and we are really pleased with the winning entry. We are delighted to be working with the National Library for the Blind on this initiative and are very excited about making the winning design into a National Book Token Christmas card."

Adapting to the use of a guide dog

UCB announced that the European Commission has approved the use of Keppra® (levetiracetam) as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of myoclonic seizures in adults and adolescents from 12 years of age with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME). Keppra® is the first and only newer anti-epileptic drug approved in Europe for the treatment of myoclonic seizures in JME. "Keppra® has over one million patient years' experience and continues to help many people with partial-onset seizures.

This new indication supports Keppra®'s established efficacy and we are pleased that Keppra® is now available to patients with myoclonic seizures in JME", said Troy Cox, President CNS Operations, UCB. JME is a common epilepsy syndrome that usually starts between the ages of 12 and 18 and accounts for about 10% of all cases of epilepsy.

1 It is characterized by myoclonic jerks that occur in 100% of cases, with many patients also experiencing generalized tonic-clonic and absence seizures.

2,3 JME is frequently mis-diagnosed and this can lead to inappropriate treatment choices.

4,5Dr Soheyl Noachtar, Head of the Epilepsy Centre, University of Munich, Germany, welcomed the new indication for Keppra® (levetiracetam): "In JME there is a need for AEDs that are well-tolerated and do not aggravate seizures. Keppra® helps to fulfil this niche with its proven efficacy and tolerability in treating myoclonic seizures in patients with idiopathic generalized epilepsy.

In the well-controlled trial supporting this indication, 22% of Keppra® patients achieved complete seizure freedom throughout the 12-week evaluation period compared with only 2% of placebo patients. With seizure freedom being the ultimate goal of epilepsy management Keppra® may be a valuable addition to the clinician's armamentarium." This data supporting this new indication in Europe provides the first and only phase III, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled evidence on the safety and efficacy of an AED in patients with idiopathic generalized epilepsy experiencing myoclonic seizures. This data was reported at the 26th International Epilepsy Congress in Paris in August 2005.

6 The indication for Keppra® in the U.S. is still under review by the FDA. About Keppra®In Europe, Keppra® (levetiracetam) is indicated as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of partial onset seizures with or without secondary generalization in adults and children from 4 years of age with epilepsy and as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of myoclonic seizures in adults and adolescents from 12 years of age with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy.

7 In Europe Keppra® is also indicated for intravenous administration and is available as 100mg/ml concentrate for solution for infusion. In the U.S., Keppra® is indicated as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of partial onset seizures in adults and children 4 years of age and older with epilepsy.

10 Keppra® is associated with the occurrence of central nervous system adverse events including somnolence and fatigue, behavioural abnormalities, as well as haematological abnormalities. In adults, Keppra® is also associated with co-ordination difficulties. In paediatric patients 4-16 years of age, the most common adverse events associated with Keppra® in combination with other AEDs were somnolence, accidental injury, hostility, nervousness and asthenia. In adults, the most common adverse events associated with Keppra® in combination with other AEDs were somnolence, asthenia, infection and dizziness.

Please consult local prescribing information. For the U.S., prescribing information is available at UCBUCB ( is a leading global biopharmaceutical company dedicated to the research, development and commercialisation of innovative pharmaceutical and biotechnology products in the fields of central nervous system disorders, allergy/respiratory diseases, immune and inflammatory disorders and oncology - UCB focuses on securing a leading position in severe disease categories.

Employing over 8,500 people in over 40 countries, UCB achieved revenue of 2.3 billion euro in 2005. UCB is listed on the Euronext Brussels Exchange with a market capitalisation of approximately 6.0 billion euro. Worldwide headquarters are located in Brussels, Belgium.

About Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy and Myoclonic SeizuresJME is classified as a type of idiopathic generalized epilepsy (IGE), in which seizures result from excessive electrical activity in the whole brain.3 JME requires life-long treatment with anti-epileptic drugs.1 Myoclonic seizures are short, jerky muscle spasms that can occur once or repetitively, on one or both sides of the body.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

School gives hope to visually impaired children

HCM City’s Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for Disabled Children has been making the dreams of visually-impaired children come true for the past 30 years.

Located at 184 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street in District 4, the school has been preparing disabled children to contribute actively in society since it was established on February 24, 1976. The teachers are dedicated to imparting important knowledge and skills, and make it a point to adapt suitable teaching methods to each individual student.

In February 1976, the school opened its doors to its first 17 pupils. In addition to lessons, teachers travelled regularly to remote areas to persuade families to send their children to school.

At that time, teachers had the challenge of finding suitable materials and the proper methods to reach their disabled pupils.

The second hurdle came when children finished the special primary education programme and had nowhere to advance to.

To resolve that problem, in 1988 Nguyen Dinh Chieu began to set out plans for a secondary education programme for visually-impaired children.

Since 1992, the programme to provide integrated education for visually-impaired pupils in secondary schools has been carried out nation-wide.

Under the programme, visually-impaired children are placed in classes with seeing pupils. Based on the programme’s positive results, the school has begun to apply integrated education on an even higher level.

Today, there are more than 1,000 visually-impaired pupils studying in 30 schools from kindergarten to university level.

To encourage their students’ scholastic success, the school’s teachers have made it their mission to give visually-impaired children a leg up in life. They travel to other schools to guide teachers on how best to help their visually-impaired pupils, and offer assistance with creating Braille-based exams.

In addition to its educational programmes, the Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for Disabled Children also carries out a number of other social activities. Instructors teach massage, software development and transcribe texts into Braille.

The integrated education approach for visually-impaired children has proven that the blind can lead a normal and productive life, provided they are given access to employment.

"Even after finishing a course at the school, it’s still difficult for the visually-impaired to study further or find a job," said Nguyen Thanh Tam, principal of Nguyen Dinh Chieu.

Despite the progress made in the social and education sector, the domestic job market still discriminates against the visually-impaired and disabled.

"The current working environment doesn’t have a place for the visually-impaired," commented a former student.

Though some firms may hire the blind, it’s often as part of a quota or to promote its own ‘Charity’ policy.

"Don’t look at the visually-impaired as being useless. Let them live and work according to their real abilities," Tam added.

"Fifty per cent of students graduating from university have good jobs. That signifies there is a good future out there for the visually-impaired," added Ha Van, Nguyen Dinh Chieu vice principal.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A lesson that could change the lives of visually impaired people

Former Boeing engineers, retired school principals and firemen, mothers, fathers, spouses, the elderly and the youthful are all present in the cross-section of North Carolina society taking part in an opportunity that will teach them to live with partial vision loss or blindness.

ìWe all just assume amongst us that all of us here have some sort of visual impairment,î says Dorothy Frye, a participant at the Mini-Center. ìBut we all have one thing in common. We have had to make a change in our lives.

The North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind is conducting a workshop for independent living and rehabilitation services in the form of ìMini-Centers for Persons with Visual Lossî at Southern Pines United Methodist Church.

The Mini-Center is a community-based learning center for individuals with severe visual impairments. Classes are usually held once a week for a 12-week period of time, providing a variety of services for the visually impaired.

Karen DíEmo, an independent living counselor from the North Carolina Division of Health and Human services, is overseeing this workshop. Mini-Center classes are created to help individuals maintain their independence.

ìSome of the real successes are when someone learns something in class and then goes and successfully does the same thing at home,î says DíEmo. ìThere is such a feeling of accomplishment doing it themselves and not asking for help. If we can offer some tips or different ways of doing things that can reduce frustration, it gives something to get them through.

It was becoming too dependent on my husband,î says Sheryl Smith, a participant. ìWe all have to go on. You have to. Here you learn for yourself, and you ask people to help you less and less and less.
Classes include cooking and using a crockpot or microwave to prepare meals easily, eating techniques, and diet and nutrition. Students are working in small groups in order to solve problems together while learning to measure liquid amounts safely, use a stovetop and safely cook for themselves in a group setting. They can then carry this knowledge with them and use it in their own homes.

ìYou learn the safety features of getting around in the kitchen,î says Frye. ìThere are other things you can do besides using your stove top. We learn how to make easy recipes, but the main thing is safety. We learn how to do things we did before, but just in a different way.

Students are also learning labeling and writing techniques. Many have figured out how to use bright colors or large, adhesive letters in order to organize their belongings.

Mobility, traveling safely with limited vision and learning to use a white cane are also being taught. One-by-one, Mini-Center participants are being led into an unfamiliar room in order to practice using a sighted guide.

Sighted guides are done by locking arms with visually impaired persons and leading them while utilizing subtle arm signals that can cue those with impaired vision into their surroundings. For example, moving the guiding arm behind the body will notify the guided person to walk behind you because of a narrow passage way.

Cleaning, laundry and repair techniques are also being taught. Visually impaired students have adapted and learned how to sew buttons onto clothing, and use tools such as hammers in order to do something as simple as hanging a picture, made complicated by loss of sight.

The Mini-Center will teach participants how to shave safely and apply cosmetics, as well as learn grooming techniques that can make their lives simpler.

Mini-Center participants may also take advantage of adaptive devices made readily available to them, low vision magnifiers, leisure activities and special library services such as signing up for audio books from the North Carolina Library for the Blind. The center may also provide sun shades to eliminate ultraviolet rays, telephone directory services and telephones for the blind.

People with visual impairments are compensating for their loss of sight by pushing the development of their other senses.

ìYour fingertips become your eyes,î says Frye. ìMy vision impairment, to me, is just an impairment. I never claim blindness because a blind person can see with fingers and hands.

Peer support, sharing ideas and feelings with other people with vision loss, and creating friendships are among the many goals of Mini-Centers.

ìMost of these people didnít know each other before this program, but now they call each other all the time and have developed a network,î says DíEmo. ìItís amazing the changes you see in people throughout the program. Some of the people get very shut-in in their homes. Transportation is not available. Of course their family sees them, but their contacts are very limited. As a result they get comfortable cut off from the world. They may not see how the program will work for them until they get here, and then it becomes the highlight of the week for them because they get out and do something. They have gotten really excited and look forward to the program.

ìI realized I wasnít alone,î says Frye. ìThere are other people who have the same difficulty. Your attitude changes. Iím no longer depressed. I come in here and I feel normal. Here you can lose track of time, itís never been boring. I look forward to this every single week. I always learn something, and you donít learn unless you are challenged. I want to attend all of them and see what else I can learn.

There is no charge to participate in a Mini-Center. Instructors are supplied by the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind. Transportation, and supplies are provided for all participants.
For more information on Mini-Centers, contact the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind at (910) 733-4234 or 1-800-422-1884. Jamie Perkins, social worker for the Blind in Moore County, can also be contacted at the Department of Social Services at 947-2436.

Martha Tyree, a recent graduate of Appalachian State University, is an intern for The Pilot.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

About 6% of Americans over 12 years old are visually impaired!

An estimated 14 million Americans -- slightly more than 6 percent of the population -- over age 12 are visually impaired.

But most of these people -- about 11 million -- could have vision that's nearly normal if they wore corrective lenses, such as glasses or contact lenses. About 3 million have vision problems that can't be corrected with contacts or glasses, because they have medical problems, such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration or glaucoma.

Those are the latest estimates from a study by researchers at the National Eye Institute (NEI). The results appear in the May 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Periodic eye care is important. For the majority of people with visual impairment, spectacles or contacts could alleviate the problem. For a smaller fraction of people, there are medical eye issues that should be identified so they can be treated," said Dr. Paul Sieving, director of the NEI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Vision problems can seriously affect quality of life, according to the study. People with vision problems are more likely to fall, have a higher risk of fractures and other injuries, and they may be more likely to limit their driving or stop driving altogether.

According to the study, the last time the federal government assessed the prevalence of visual impairment among Americans was in the mid-1970s. Since that time, the U.S. population has gotten older and more diverse. Rates of nearsightedness -- called myopia -- also have been reported to be increasing worldwide. For those reasons, measurements of visual acuity were once again included in the large National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, beginning in 1999.
The new study measured the visual acuity of 13,265 people who visited a mobile examination center between 1999 and 2002.

Those who had distance acuity of 20/50 or worse were defined as visually impaired. That means a person is nearsighted and can't clearly see objects at a distance. When vision reaches 20/50, many states no longer allow a person to continue driving without corrective lenses, according to Sieving.

This study didn't include an assessment of people who have trouble seeing nearby objects and need reading glasses as they age.

Nearly 1,200 people in the study had visual impairment. More than 83 percent of those people could achieve nearly normal vision simply by using glasses or contact lenses, the researchers found.

For the other 17 percent, Sieving said more serious problems, such as glaucoma or cataracts, caused their vision difficulties.

Extrapolating that data to the U.S. population as a whole, the researchers reported that about 14 million people have uncorrected visual impairment and about 11 million of them could see significantly better with corrective lenses.

"I was surprised at the number of people who weren't corrected better than 20/50," Sieving said.
Hispanics, Asians and other minorities were more likely than whites or blacks to have uncorrected visual impairment. The rates of visual impairment were higher for people who were poor, didn't have private health insurance, had diabetes, and had fewer years of education, the study found.

Dr. Robert Cykiert, an ophthalmologist at New York University Medical Center, said, "The sad thing is a huge part of the population has visual problems simply because they're not wearing glasses."
In some cases, he said, people don't realize they have a problem with their vision, but in others ready access to health care is a problem, as is paying for glasses or contacts.

Both Sieving and Cykiert recommend routine eye care. Sieving said people over 60 should have a yearly eye exam and that younger people, including children, should have an exam every few years. Along with correcting visual problems, regular eye exams can also uncover potentially sight-stealing diseases, such as glaucoma, that can be treated or managed when caught early enough, Cykiert said.

Young visually impaired girl sets an example for runners!

While about 9,000 runners and walkers were finishing up the Trolley Run to benefit the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, I took a peek at the much smaller kids’ run that was getting under way.
That’s when I saw 5-year-old Carleigh La Voy, who has cerebral palsy and limited vision, being pushed in a stroller by her cousin while another cousin ran alongside her. Other children were rushing by her, but Carleigh didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

The cheers for her at the finish line were deafening.

“We came to the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired when Carleigh was 6 months old,” her mother, Carrie La Voy, said. “The doctors told us she wouldn’t see, hear, talk or walk, all these devastating things. Without CCVI she wouldn’t be where she is today. She can hear, she started talking, and her speech has improved dramatically.”

Carleigh’s older brother, Jake La Vo y, 7, took part in the run, too. He also has been part of a “sighted peer program” for the last three years at CCVI. “My son was exposed to children who were deaf and couldn’t see or couldn’t walk, all kinds of problems,” Carrie La Voy said. “To him they were really no different that he was.”

While the main Trolley Run this year will raise more than $300,000 with sponsors such as Sabates Eye Centers and Perceptive Software Inc., the 500 participants in the kids’ run also had a sponsor for the first time — JP Morgan, which donated $15,000 to the children’s center.

Parents of children at the center also have raised thousands of dollars over the years by taking pledges for the kids’ run. “We are fortunate that I can drive Carleigh to the center and pay her tuition,” Carrie La Voy said. “But there are lots of families that cannot and really need our support.”
The kids’ run is a celebration for everyone involved, including graduates of the children’s center who return each year to see old friends and support CCVI. This year Kansas City Chiefs player Ronnie Cruz was in charge of the starting line, and there were face painting, a baseball toss and a magician for the more than 500 children who participated.

Lucinda Hall and her husband, Darin, brought their 8-year-old triplets, Hunter, Haley and Harrison, to the run this year, as they have done every year since they were 1-year-old. Hunter, who is blind, graduated from CCVI and now attends Hazel Grove Elementary School in Lee’s Summit with his brother and sister.

“The center is still like our extended family,” Lucinda Hall said. “We will always be a part of CCVI. When we had no other place to turn to, they were there for Hunter.”

This was Hunter’s first year to also run the main Trolley Run. He used a cane and walked alongside his mother for the 4-mile walk/run. When it was over, he headed to the kids’ run.

“He didn’t quite finish the loop, I think because he was too tired from the big race,” Lucinda Hall said. “But every kid gets a blue ribbon, no matter if they take one step or finish. This day is just so special to any child at any age.”

CCVI, 3101 Main St., currently provides therapy, schooling and other services for more than 200 visually impaired children from infancy through kindergarten. Mary Lynne Dolembo, executive director, said that when she began working there in 1980, most of the children who were blind were premature babies or children with genetic eye conditions.

“The eyes are one of the last things to develop, like the lungs,” Dolembo said. “So many babies are being saved early now, so we’re seeing more of those kinds of problems.”

Today the other half of the children at the center have cortical visual impairment, a condition where the eyes appear fine but the brain has been damaged in some way so that it can’t process what is being seen, Dolembo said.

“And that requires a totally different approach from the teacher when compared to, say, a child who is blind and needs stimulation,” she said.

Dolembo said the first kids’ run was organized 15 years ago by families at the center who wanted their children to be involved. “I remember someone saying that the children from CCVI should run separately in their own heat, and the parents said, ‘No, no, no, we want our kids to be included.’ ”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Technology allow the visually impaired to live and independent and fulfilling life!

Business owner Connie Leblond can multitask with the best of them: a computer for e-mails, a personal digital assistant for scheduling, a voice recorder for memos. Her other tool? A white cane.

Leblond is blind, and for years has used an array of items to make her way in the world. Now, she owns a business centered around the very tools that have helped her own life.

Leblond sells assistive technology - products created or modified to help people with disabilities. Her business - Assistive Technology Center on Power Inn Road - focuses on the blind and vision-impaired, offering such things as computers that talk or scanners that "read" documents out loud. Many consider it a largely untapped market ready for entrepreneurs.

What once was mostly a specialty area for nonprofit groups has grown into an industry where businesses can thrive and do good at the same time. Just in the past five years, the number of documented assistive technology service providers has nearly quadrupled, according to one social service agency that helps disabled individuals find help.

The potential audience for assistive technology for the blind is huge. There are an estimated 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, with about 1.3 million of them legally blind, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

Most - about 7 million - are jobless, said Michelle Bruns, assistant director of programs for the Sacramento Society for the Blind.

"The statistics are pretty dismal," she said.

Leblond, who has worked within the blind community for most of her life, said she started her 3-year-old business because she believed visually impaired individuals need a central place to learn about the newest products. While a nonprofit group like the Sacramento Society for the Blind may offer people training for day-to-day living, her business fills a different niche: gadgets.

"We're technology-based," she said.

Part of her business is educating the public about what's out there, she said. Many mainstream products and applications are difficult for the blind to use.

The state's Department of Rehabilitation said Leblond's business and the Sacramento Society for the Blind are the largest vendors to the blind in the area. The department does business with both groups, and they serve different needs, said Marta Bortener, a spokeswoman for the department.
The nonprofit organization helps with product referrals and assistance for people to adjust to their blindness, she said. Assistive Technology Center, on the other hand, specializes in supplying the actual products.

"We're not just people who get into the business and sell stuff to people," said Robert Leblond, Connie's husband. "We are people who understand the visually impaired because they are our family and friends."

Robert Leblond is sighted. The couple's children are blind.

The Leblonds purchase mainstream products and "tinker" with them by adding new software to adapt to their customers' needs. That gives clients a chance to use a range of devices - computers, a personal digital assistant, Global Positioning System gear and scanners.
"We kind of marry a lot of different technology," he said. "We make a lot of things off the shelf work."

This technology comes at a price. A speech program could cost about $1,000. A top-of-the-line reading machine could cost up to $6,000.

But the customers are there. Marie Rudy is 50 and has been blind since she was 5 years old. She recently spent about $2,400 on equipment that includes a computer, scanner and a voice recorder. The newest technology is a "far cry from what we needed to deal with in the 1990s," she said.
With her mail and bills read out loud by the machines, Rudy said she's found independence.

"I don't have to depend on others to read for me," said Rudy, who lives in Sacramento. "I've gained more privacy."

Steven Levene, project director at the Sacramento-based AT Network, a nonprofit group that provides information on assistive technology, said vast improvements in technology have been made in just the past decade.

The biggest changes have been in computer technology, he said. A few years ago, most computers were not powerful enough to smoothly handle the type of software needed to aid disabled individuals. Now people with a physical disability that wouldn't allow them to type can use reliable dictation software, while those who are vision-impaired have access to much more accurate reading software programs.

"We're seeing a huge interest in assistive technology," Levene said. "It's definitely an expanding industry. There are a lot of startups now that deliver assistive technology and products."

Five years ago, Levene said, AT Network listed 600 California businesses or service providers in its system. Now it has 2,300 on its list.

Nonprofit groups once provided all the information, but that is changing with the growth of businesses.

"I think it's a good thing," he said. "They bring more awareness to the community."

The Leblonds often invite blind and visually impaired individuals to the Assistive Technology Center's sparsely decorated shop hidden away in a strip mall in south Sacramento.

One recent day, Winnie Bachmann, 81, was there while Robert Leblond placed a phone book under a machine with a monitor. With a flip of a switch, the tiny print loomed onto the screen. There was a collective gasp among the gathering of seniors.

Bachmann has Parkinson's disease. She said her vision is changing and she came to Assistive Technology Center to learn about the latest equipment.

"I don't think people know enough about it," she said. "When they demonstrated that last gadget, it blew my mind away."

Connie Leblond said some people with limited vision have wept when they realized they could read by using a powerful magnifying machine.

"People are often told they could do less, but we give them something that would help them do a little more," she said.

The lack of understanding from employers often creates a frustrating and uphill battle for the blind, she said. But the fears go both ways. Sometimes people are afraid that if they start working, they may lose their benefits, she said.

Early on, the Leblonds had their children use a talking computer and learn to read Braille.

"No one out there knew what was going on for blind people," said Robert Leblond. "I had to learn how to use that information for my kids."

After working from home and moving around the country, the Leblonds came to Sacramento in 2003. They saved $100,000 and moved their garage-based business to their current location in October 2005. But two days after opening, a thief stole four of their computers. They were devastated.

"It was so disheartening, and we felt so violated," said Connie Leblond. "After all that hard work, we had to start all over again."

Since then, Connie Leblond said she's been busy letting people know about the latest technological advances.

As someone who is blind, she said it's tough to work with vision disability. But not impossible.
"The less vision you have, the more you have to build your bag of tricks," she said.

How to help visually impaired people in everyday life!

The blind and visually impaired can be sure they will always experience difficulties of one form or another, and although most people try to be sensitive to issues that are obvious difficulties, many family and friends (for one reason or another) aren’t aware of some of the more awkward situations, and consequently miss out on good opportunities to help out. It’s my hope here that after reading about my own vision related difficulties, you will be more aware of these and other problems, and be better able to find ways to help if you know someone in this type of situation.

To begin with, in a perfect world there would be no such things as leggos, jacks or little metal cars. But this is not a perfect world and sometimes I end up either screaming and jumping up and down on one foot while holding the other, or writhing in pain on the floor after stepping on such God forsaken items. Here, loved ones could be on the look-out for their impaired’s feet and try to keep these booby traps picked up.

Some foot dangers can’t be avoided though, and because of their relative immovability, they present a stubbing danger of the highest caliber. Items such as coffee table legs, dresser legs, kitchen table legs, door ways and even stairs can leave a visually impaired person either screaming bloody murder, or for the tougher visually impaired person, unable to exhale while turning five shades of red. Have you ever stubbed your pinkie toe? Hurts, doesn’t it?

Well helping your loved one avoid these painful ‘stubbings’ could be as easy as encouraging your blind loved one to either slow down, or put something on his/her feet. If, however your loved one seems to ignore your advice, it is preferable to avoid badgering and calmly state, “You’ve been warned.”

In my home, the kitchen is a great place for my family to assist me in avoiding difficulties. I say this because I spend a lot of time in there and have experienced situations that could have been avoided with minimal effort. For one, I have an extremely hard time detecting glasses of water or milk that are left sitting on the counter, and chances are that if one is left there, that some way, somehow, I’m going to knock it over. The simple solution in this instance is not to leave glasses, empty or otherwise, sitting out in the open.

When out on the town, as well as in the kitchen, something else that the blind might avoid with the help of loved ones is a trauma associated with eating. I say this because when eating meat, sometimes I think I’m going to bite into a nice meaty, juicy and tender piece of steak only to find that it’s a nasty hunk of fat, or I just about break my teeth on a hunk of bone. All that need be done to help your impaired loved one avoid these discomforts is let them know if you see either of these about to be placed in the mouth.

One of the most important things I think you can do for your visually impaired or blind friend or relative is to give the person a good-nonjudgmental-look-over before going out in public. Think about it, how would you feel if you couldn’t see for yourself, and someone told you that you had spaghetti sauce on your neck or fore head, told you your shirt was on in-side-out, or that you had a “huge honkin’ booger hangin’ out” after allowing you to walk around like that all day?

I know when it happened to me, I was glad to finally find out, but I was also mortified that a stranger had to tell me.

If your visually impaired loved one begins accusing people of stealing his belongings, the best thing you loved ones can do is relax. It may be that he has figured out something that I have learned. It seems that when I can’t find something of mine, I amazingly find it seconds after wrongfully accusing someone of taking it! The way I deal with this problem is to skip the searching and I go directly to accusing; claiming with an angry voice that some one stole my what ever.

Something unusual that would make me happy is if my loved ones would do me the favor of keeping the toilet lid in the up position. I can’t tell you how many unexpected knee and thigh showers I’d given myself before learning that just because the toilet seat lid looks up (to me), it might really be down. Lazily, though I should always check the lid position, I hardly ever do.

Another difficulty I have in the bathroom is when people leave just a little tissue paper in the commode. When I go #1, I use my sense of hearing to find and stay on target, and when there is tissue paper in there, it muffles the sound making me unsure of my aim. In this situation, I have to aim by using the force, and shamefully,, I don’t think this is always accurate. To solve this problem, loved ones could simply flush the toilet when they are through. Yes I know sitting down would also alleviate this problem, but being a hard-headed guy, I simply don’t always take the time to do that.

Another issue worthy of discussion is my cat that, like other living things, eats. Well, all last week every time I went to pour the cat food into the dish, as I tipped the bag back up to close it, about 15 or 20 pieces of cat food would fall and scatter on the floor.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why that was happening. I thought somehow food was getting hung up at the mouth of the bag and dropping to the floor as I rolled its top closed. Determined not to be messy, one evening, I was extra, extra careful and it happened again! So I felt around the bag and discovered a small tear in the bottom of it, undoubtedly cause by a cat claw.

If you are wondering why this is such a problem, then you probably never stepped on a single piece of hard cat food before. Let me tell you it sticks to the bottom of your foot. So when you think you flicked it off you step away to painfully find that it’s still there! That said, if there is a hole torn in your bag of cat (or dog) food, please, for the love of God and your blind loved one, tape it closed!

As I’ve tried to illustrate, some of the things that blind people do or experience can seem quite comical. That said, sometimes an accumulation of seemingly silly harmless and comical situations can sadly become traumatic and have a real negative effect on the blind persons self esteem and confidence, especially if the surrounding loved ones aren’t sensitive to this possibility.

Imagine if you did all of the following: Over fill glasses of milk or water, then as you take it from the counter, slosh it all over, attempt to pour coffee into an up-side-down coffee cup, or miss the cup and instead pour coffee onto your lap, all of which results in a huge embarrassing mess.

Surrounded by sensitive people, these are nothing more than funny little inconveniences. But if, as stated above, the impaired person is surrounded by people who get angry and judgmental every time an accident occurs, the visually impaired person could decide to internalize difficulties figuring that it’s easier for everyone involved to simply withdraw (and stop interacting) than it is to continue causing more problems. That said, there are no problems that can’t be conquered when loved ones care enough to help.

Mission Miracle, a great opportunity for the visually impaired!

The first 85 Nicaraguan eye patients operated on in Venezuela returned to their country, visibly grateful for the treatment they received as part of the South American nation’s “Mission Miracle” program.

That initiative is being sponsored over the next 10 years by Cuba and Venezuela to assist more than six million low-income Latin American and Caribbean people who suffer from eye disease.
After arriving aboard a flight chartered by the Venezuelan government, patient Rosa Tremino, like the rest of her fellow travelers, wore a peaked cap which read “Mission Miracle,” as well as a red shirt with an inscription in Spanish saying “A People Coming Out of the Darkness.”

I am very happy to see again, said the patient, who was also sporting a new pair of glasses, a gift to all those operated on for cataracts and terigium under the Mission Miracle program.

Upon their return, the patients and their companion were received by Venezuelan Ambassador to Nicaragua Miguel Gomez and Managua city officials.

During the homecoming celebration, program coordinator Reverend Sixto Ulloa stated that the next group will go to Venezuela within the next few days. It is projected that through this effort more than 1,000 Nicaraguans will recover their eyesight before the end of the year.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Visually impaired children will benefit from new technology

Supporting learning for blind and visually-impaired children in schools is the goal of a system that offers collaboration, data exploration, communication and creativity based on a common software architecture. Already interfaces and application prototypes are being tested. Partners in the IST programme-funded MICOLE project, the teams responsible are working in close contact with national and local associations and organisations of visually-disabled persons, as well as schools. Their main task is to design the system itself.

However, project coordinator Roope Raisamo, University of Tampere, Finland, describes several supporting activities emphasising users and their real needs. “We are experimenting with how to use different senses to partially replace missing visual capabilities, especially in tasks that are central in the construction of the system,” he says. “Empirical research of collaborative and cross-modal haptic interfaces for visually-impaired children is one of the most important research activities.”

Haptic technology interfaces with the user through the sense of touch. This emerging technology adds the sense of touch to previously visual-only solutions. MICOLE’s software architecture and applications are multimodal, that is, they use hearing and touch to complement different levels of visual disability. Their work extends beyond developing an assistive tool. “In addition to MICOLE’s immediate value as a tool, the system will have societal implications by improving the inclusion of the visually disabled in education, work and society in general,” explains Raisamo.

Initial field studies involved interviews with teachers, children and related user organisations as well as observations of actual group work in schools. The objective was to determine how visually-impaired children collaborate in school with peers and teachers, and to understand to what extent they engage in group work. “The interaction among the pupils, with teachers and with their peers is very important for learning,” says Raisamo. “We know that collaborative learning has benefits because the pupils learn through a dialogue with their peers and construct their own knowledge by doing tasks together with others.”

Field study results from Austria, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden and the UK showed major differences in the education of visually-impaired children, however, they revealed many similarities regarding aspects of collaboration. Based on these results, a prototyping workshop was held in Stockholm where the school situation for such pupils was addressed. Various hapitc and auditory applications developed within MICOLE were assessed and new designs formulated.

He notes there are no specific requirements for the users of the system. “The system adapts to the users. It is aimed at visually-impaired children, but because it facilitates collaboration among sighted and visually-impaired children, it also supports sighted children.” A multimodal system with visual, audio and haptic feedback can support many kinds of users with disabilities because missing one of the modalities does not make the system unusable, Raisamo adds.

Project partners have developed or tested 16 different interfaces and application prototypes, such as explorative learning of the earth’s internal layers, rhythm reproduction, a tactile maze game, virtual maracas (percussion instruments), post-its with a haptic barcode, an electric circuit browser, a haptic simon game, memory games, a haptic turtle and a haptic game of the classic first video game, pong. For example, to better teach natural phenomenon, such as seasons, gravity and the solar system, project partners constructed a system using proactive agents that offer the pupil help when necessary.

The user decides whether to accept help comprised of visual, auditory and haptic feedback to present content. Project partners include European and world leaders in the area of haptics and multimodal-human-computer interaction. For example, Reachin Technologies AB is a world leader in haptic technology; France Telecom has experience in developing applications for the blind. “MICOLE offers an outstanding opportunity and the critical mass for the consortium to integrate and realise results of their earlier work and to test the most novel ideas to meet the needs of the visually impaired,” says Raisamo.

“The results are expected to make a valuable European contribution to the development of the information society and real-world equality for visually-disabled children, empowering them as future citizens.” The multimodal software architecture to create new applications is under construction. Scientific results from multimodal navigation and cross-modal presentation of information are being fed in to the team’s work. The three-year project is scheduled to end in August 2007.