Thursday, September 28, 2006

Visually impaired woman keeps her independence

Close your eyes. Now imagine crossing the street.

Sound like a risky venture? For Eleanor Loomans of Waupun, it's just a fact of life.

Declared legally blind in 1996, Loomans has come to terms with a life filled with major adjustments.

"I miss my freedom and mobility the most," Loomans said. "People take for granted things like getting into the car at the spur of the moment and running errands. For me, I have to plan everything out."

While she depends on family, friends and the local taxi service to get her around town, Loomans still maintains her independence in leading an active life.

She credits her feisty, can-do attitude and faith for pulling her through the challenging times.

An uncertain future
Referred to an eye specialist during what she thought was a routine physical before returning to college to finish her bachelor's degree in nursing at the age of 29, Loomans was stunned to learn that she had the progressive eye disease retinitis pigmentosa.

"They couldn't tell me how far the disease would progress and to what extent it would affect my eyesight. All they could tell me was there was no treatment," said Loomans, who had brought her concerns about decreased peripheral vision and night blindness to a physician five years earlier only to have them brushed aside.

Although her world was turned upside down, she was determined to complete her education.

"If there was nothing they could do, then there was nothing for me to do but go on," she said.

Maintaining independence
As the years passed, Loomans' eyesight continued to deteriorate until she gave up her driver's license in 1996. However, she continued to work at Waupun Memorial Hospital until 2004.

In the meantime, Loomans adapted her lifestyle and home.

"A lot of people wonder how I put on makeup or fix my hair by myself," she said with a laugh.

As a nurse she was organized, but Loomans admits that bringing strict order to her life at home wasn't as easy. Using a Braille machine she labels file folders and boxed dry goods and has placed raised stickers on the dial of her oven to determine temperature settings. She continues to do all of her own washing and ironing.

"These flat control panels on new appliances are so hard to use," Loomans said.

Since losing her eyesight, Loomans said her sense of touch and of hearing have become more acute.

"Visually impaired people become very dependent on verbal stimulation," said Loomans.

She has a talking alarm clock, a color indicator machine that helps her select matching clothes from her closet.

"Some days the machine mixes everything up and it gets a bit frustrating," she said.

An advanced system on her home computer reads aloud Loomans' incoming e-mails.

Helping hands
She still depends on friends and family to help her sort her mail and keep abreast of her financial records.

Loomans credits the continued adult education programs offered through the Wisconsin Institute for the Blind for improving the quality of her life.

"It also allows me to be here in my own home," she said.

Not one to sit still, Loomans continues to be active in her church, organizing the annual citywide choral benefit concert and launching a parish nurse program.

She has become an advocate for the blind and visually impaired population by sitting on the advisory council to the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I represent the consumer base by sharing my input with organizations that serve the blind about the availability, accessibility and quality of services available to us," Loomans said.

The former nurse was among many blind and visually impaired adults that were able to use the new handicap accessible voting equipment in the recent primary election.

"The last 12 years I've needed assistance with voting," Loomans said. "It was nice to be able to sit down with a pair of headphones and a keyboard and be able to cast my vote independently and in private. It was almost like a victory."

Visually impaired individuals are always looking for opportunities and devices that are easy to operate, she said.

According to the Wisconsin Institute for the Blind, there are already 200,000 blind and visually impaired individuals living in Wisconsin — a number that's expected to increase. And with early detection and treatment, a devastating diagnosis could be avoided.

"Don't take your sight for granted," Loomans said. "Be sure to get regular check-ups because once you start experiencing visual problems it may be already too late."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Internet game for the visually impaired

Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who has been named a 2006 recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," has invented an online, multiple-player game that could help make the Internet more accessible to the visually impaired.

The game, called Phetch, is an Internet scavenger hunt available at in which players use a search engine to look for images that fit certain descriptions. In the process, the players produce and verify captions for unlabeled images from the Web. These captions could be used to enhance the Web-browsing experience of blind people.

This innovative use of online games was one of the reasons cited by the MacArthur Foundation for naming von Ahn one of 25 new MacArthur fellows. Each fellow receives $500,000 in "no strings attached" support over the next five years. Millions of blind people surf the Web every day with the help of text-to-speech translation programs. But these translation programs are of no help when Web sites feature unlabeled images.

Only a small fraction of major corporate Web sites are fully accessible to disabled people; personal and small-business sites are even less accessible. Phetch is designed to eliminate this obstacle. The game is the latest in a series of "Games with a Purpose" that have been developed by von Ahn, assistant professor of computer science, and University Professor of Computer Science Manuel Blum.

The first such game, The ESP Game (, produced key words for images that could be used to aid image searches. Another game, Peekaboom (, produced images with objects labeled and highlighted in a way that could be used to train computer vision systems. These games, like Phetch, employ a technique called "human computation" -- harnessing the human brain to collectively perform tasks that digital computers have yet to master.

"By making these games enjoyable, we can tap into the millions of people who play online games every day, worldwide," said von Ahn, named one of the "Brilliant 10" young scientists in the October issue of Popular Science magazine. It's the same trick the fictional Tom Sawyer famously used to get his friends to whitewash a fence for him, only multiplied millions of times. Phetch, which von Ahn and Blum developed with students Shiry Ginosar, Mihir Kedia and Ruoran Liu, is designed for three to five players.

One serves as the narrator, writing a description of an image that has been randomly retrieved from a set of one million images gleaned from the Web. Only the narrator can see the image. The other players, the searchers, then use a special browser program to search for it within that set of a million images. Each round lasts five minutes. The narrator receives points for each successful search and loses points if he decides to pass on describing images believed to be too difficult. The first seeker to find each image receives points and becomes the narrator for the next round. Pilot testing has shown Phetch to be an engaging game.

Players spend an average of 32 minutes with the game and some have played for 10 hours or more in a single session. The researchers calculate that 5,000 people -- a modest number compared to the number of players at popular game sites -- could produce explanatory descriptions of all of the images indexed by Google in just 10 months. Phetch might also be used to locate hard-to-find images on the Web, von Ahn said.

This might be useful for people who don't have the time or skills to find such an image themselves. In that case, the game could be played without a narrator; the description of the desired image could simply be plugged into the game and the searchers would use a browser that could access the entire Web. Also, by recording the description of each image and the search terms that proved successful in finding it, researchers might use Phetch to develop automated methods for converting natural language descriptions into keyword-based queries.

Tactile map, a great feature to help the visually impaired

Variety of textures help distinguish places and landmarks

Shut your eyes in a dark room, says Lois Lawrie, president of the Tactile Colour Communication Society, and you'll understand her level of blindness.

Although confident in her own long-cane skills, Lawrie says blindness of that severity usually creates shut-ins.

So she created a map of downtown Victoria, using the international tactile colour system. The society debuted the map for the first time last week at Victoria City Hall.

Designed by artist Raya Jayne Peters, the map uses different pieces of textured paper to delineate obstacles like railings, bushes and fences.

A legend on the side of the map helps users determine not only what each piece texture represents, but also the colour. The map easily folds and can be carried in a bag. There are also Braille and raised-print versions.

It's the second map of its kind to come from the local society.

They produced a similar reference tool for Beacon Hill Park using the same technique last year.
Previously, Peters hand-made maps for visually-impaired locals, but this newest addition can be printed and mass produced.

Even though Lawrie can't see the colours, she says it's an important component to map.
"When I lost my sight I was a printer and a graphic artist and I didn't want to lose my reference to colour," Lawrie said.

Some people are born blind, but the majority gradually lose sight due to illnesses or accidents.
Lawrie lost her sight 22 years ago, but learned to navigate bigger, more confusing cities before moving here. "I got very good training having come from cities in Europe. But that's not the same story for everybody," she said.

She said the audio crossings help alert visually impaired when it's safe to cross, but if you hesitate you lose your right of way.

Traffic dangers are but one obstacle to getting out and about. Another disincentive is unwanted help from well-meaning sighted pedestrians.

"The public want to help, but it's not always wanted help," Lawrie says, adding that visually-impaired people resent the infringement on their independence and find a sudden hand on their arm or shoulder alarming.

Lawrie is hoping the map will signal well-meaning pedestrians that the visually-impaired user is making out fine on their own, thank you very much.

For more information on the free map contact the Tactile Colour Communication Society at 480-1610 or go to their website at

Reading machine donated to help the visually impaired

A big donation to the Lions Learning Center will help visually impaired people see better.

A magnasight reading machine was donated to the center by the family of Verna Belflower, an Albany woman who died recently.

The machine magnifies words up to 1,000 times.

It also helps with lighting, focus, and zooming in on words and photos.

"Made it bigger, it helped me read the words a little better," said Jennifer Houser
"Without this machine persons who are visually impaired are unable to read as the sighted read," said Collie Robinson.

A new reading machine like this can cost up to $5,000.

Friday, September 22, 2006

U3 Key allow the visually impaired to use any computer!

People with visual problems can now plug into and use any PC without having to download any special software they may require using a U3 key.

U3 keys are often called smart keys because they can hold software programs and settings, as well as data files. Because software remains on the U3 key and is not downloaded to a PC, not only does this open access to any computer, but it ensures privacy.

The host computer remains completely unaltered and the user has the full assurance that no personal information will be left behind.

A combination of FreedomBox Internet Suite and the System Access software that has been designed for these drives allows the visually impaired to use many mainstream applications.

System Access performs many of the functions of a screen reader. Because it taps directly into Microsoft's standard Windows controls via Microsoft Active Accessibility, it gives the user access to utilities and applications such as Microsoft Office, Notepad, Windows Media Player and Adobe Reader. It also lets users access VoIP service Skype .

FreedomBox offers internet access including web browsing, email, streaming media, and instant messaging. Users may also customise FreedomBox.

Steve Nutt, who is a blind computer technician, said for the first time he now has the flexibility to use any computer.

"I can now plug in this U3 key and help my customers with their computer problems because I can make the computer talk with this software," he told Computeractive.

The cost of the software, complete with a 1Gb U3 key is £382, but people who don’t need a key can download the software for £312 . Annual subscriptions then cost £70. PCs must have a USB port, a sound card and speakers, and must be running Windows XP.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Visually impaired sailors to enter sailing competition

A concentrated effort by all members of a team produces exceptional results, and never will that be truer than next week when the 2006 IFDS Blind Sailing World Championship gets underway in Newport, R.I. From September 20-27, the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), assisted by Sail Newport, will host competitors from eight nations who will sail in three divisions with the following vision classifications: B1 (blind), B2 (visually impaired) and B3 (least visually impaired).

Regatta rules mandate that only a blind sailor can steer, while the other blind crew trims the sails. Verbal information provided by two sighted guides allows the blind skipper and crew to tactically position the boat as it navigates the race course. This will be the sixth world championship for blind sailors since the 1992 inaugural event in Auckland, New Zealand.

Competition Preview

B1 Division:

At the last blind world sailing championships, in 2002, the gold, silver and bronze medals in B1 division went to Italy, Norway and Northern Ireland, respectively. Without the defending champions on hand, sailors representing France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and USA-Massachusetts will vie for a place in the record books. New Zealand, three-time winners of this division (’92, ’94 and ’97), will surely be motivated to reclaim the title. The NZL B1 team, with Rob Aislabie (Rotorua) on the helm, includes Dave Allerton (Waitara), a former oil rig engineer who has had reduced vision for about six years.

A volunteer firefighter, he sailed a Laser in open competition in the 2004 World Firefighter Games in England to win the silver medal. Sighted assistance will come from Wayne Holdt, a two-time New Zealand national champion in both the Nolex 22 and 25, and his son, Simon Holdt (both New Plymouth).

B2 Division:

New Zealand also has seen great success in the B2 division at past world championships, taking the top spot on the podium four times. 2002 visually impaired defending crewman Dick Lancaster (Taumarunui) will sail with skipper Paulien Eitjes (Tauranga). Gary Smith (Tauranga), who helped the duo successfully defend their 2005 New Zealand Blind Sailing National Championship title, will assist as sighted tactician. Eitjes has achieved great success in a short period of time since attending a blind sailing school open day only four years ago.

This past season she received the Bay Hardware Cup for winning a centerboard open class race series -- sailing solo on a Topaz dinghy with the aid of a radio clipped to her suit to receive remote guidance from a sighted tactician. Scott Burling (Tauranga) a member of the Yachting NZL High Performance Youth Squad rounds out the sighted crew.

Hoping to improve upon their bronze-medal performance in 2002 are GBR B2 skipper Lucy Hodges (Southend) and visually impaired crew John Simpson (Bassingbourn). Hodges, a Commercial Manager for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, became involved in the sport through RYA Sailability in Southampton. Simpson, an Employment Adviser for the Royal National Institute of the Blind, was introduced to sailing by a friend at age 14 on the Norfolk Broads.

Close to giving up dinghy sailing because of his failing sight, he responded to a BBC Radio appeal recruiting sailors for the 2002 world championships and was selected to the team. Chris Sinclair (Oxford) and Gary Butler (Rochdale) are the sighted members of GBR B2. Teams representing Canada, Finland, Japan, Spain and USA-Massachusetts will round out the competition for the B2 division title.

B3 Division:

Defending their B3 division world title will be the United Kingdom’s GBR B3 skipper Gary Kirby (Falmouth), diagnosed at age nine with macular dystrophy; visually impaired crew Toby Davey (London), who learned to sail at age 23 through a national sailing charity; with sighted crew Martin Moody (Southampton) and Ian Shirra (Rochdale). They will be pushed hard by the 2002 bronze medallists – the USA-Massachusetts team skippered by Duane Farrar (Watertown, Mass.) with visually impaired crew Jay Kronfeld (Roxbury, Conn.).

Both have lost their vision from retinitis pigmentosa. Farrar, who was declared legally blind by the time he had turned 30, was 35 when he took his first sailing lesson -- in 1996 at Boston’s Community Boating. Two weeks later, he was sailing competitively on Boston Harbor. Charlie Zechel (Pawtucket, R.I.) and Hart Kelley (E. Greenwich, R.I.) are the sighted crew, who each became involved with blind sailing while working for Community Boating -- Zechel is the organization’s current Executive Director, replacing Kelley who stepped down from that position in 2002.

The vision classification of the skipper determines in which division each four-person team will compete. The totally blind B1s and the vision-impaired B2s will race in the New York Yacht Club’s fleet of 23’ Sonars, and the least vision-impaired B3s will race in Sail Newport’s J/22s. Opening ceremonies take place at New York Yacht Club’s Harbour Court on Thursday, September 21. Racing gets underway Friday, September 22 and concludes on Wednesday, September 27, when awards will be followed by the closing ceremony at the conclusion of the day’s racing.

Sponsors of the 2006 IFDS Blind Sailing World Championship are Best Western The Mainstay Inn (Newport, R.I.), The Carroll Center for the Blind (Newton, Mass.), the Rhode Island Sailing Foundation and The Sailing Foundation of New York. Also, Harken, Koch Eye Associates, Narragansett Beer, Nasiff Fruit Company, Newport Specialty Foods, Newport Tent Company, Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic, Herreshoff Marine Museum, Crystal Spring Water Company, Seaman’s Church Institute, Rolex Watch U.S.A., North Sails, Nautor’s Swan, Newport Community Band at Salve Regina University and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. The championship is organized by the NYYC, IFDS, Blind Sailing International and US SAILING, the United States' Member National Authority (MNA) of the International Sailing Federation.

Chicago Lighthouse provides adapted education for the visually impaired

Education can be adapted for all children to meet the special needs their disabilities require.

Children who are blind or visually impaired with additional disabilities require specialized curriculums that fit their needs. Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired is the place to go. More that 30 children from the age of 3 to 21 attend the self-contained special education day school at Lighthouse.

"It's a five and half hour school day and there here everyday we have a long school calendar because the students need a lot of therapy services and we want them to make program and gain skills," said Director Mary Zabelski.

"The primary is actually considered the blindness and visual impairment and the severe and profound cognitive limitations or multiple disability," said Zabelski.

" All of them have been in public schools but they weren't making adequate program because they really needed smaller class sizes al ot of intense therapeutic services."

All of the students are provided one-on-one instruction.

"The students can bet occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, orientation and mobility, vision and hearing services, nursing services," said Zabelski.

"The teachers are trained you can't get their kind of training in colleges although they come out with a certification in visual impairment and many of them have three or four special education certificates working with cognitively impaired children or children with behavioral program you really learn on the job," said Zabelski.

Nikki Lopez has been teaching at Lighthouse for two years. She has a bachelor degree in special education.

"We take what their needs are and we re-do the curriculum for each student every hour every minute so what ever their needs are we just work with it. If it's math and we're trying to reach them to give us one that could be their whole goal is to hand me one and just learn what one is then we could move on to more and do two," said Lopez.

There is no cost to parents if the public schools pay the tuitions.

" We have mostly children from Chicago but we do have some children from suburban school districts," said Zabelski.

Some of the students go back to public schools.

"Because they've made enough progress where they can go back into the classrooms," said Zabelski.

The most important thing about teaching these children is patience.

"I have friends who are teachers and they say, 'Oh, I could never do what you do.' But, I think you have to have a big heart and instead of sympathy you have to have empathy," said Lopez.

For more information on Lighthouse's day school call (312) 666-1331. Or visit

Pilot dogs for the visually impaired

After two weeks of intense training and lots of practice, Jane Dickard and her new Pilot Dog have returned home to a life of greater independence and mobility. Pilot Dogs are trained to help guide blind and visually impaired individual. A non-profit organization based in Columbus, Ohio, Pilot Dogs provides free, in-residence training for blind and visually impaired individuals who seek this unique form of mobility. During their stay, the dog and master learn to navigate busy streets, use public transportation and more. To complete the training, it is vital that the two work as one and are able to face any situation they may encounter once they return home.This is Dickard's seventh Pilot Dog. She received her first dog in 1967 at the age of 17. She previously worked at the Pet Behavior and Training Center and now spends her time enjoying being a homemaker and grandma. Her household includes dogs, including her retired Pilot Dog, birds and a cat."I've been blind since birth, and the first time I used a dog guide, it's hard to describe the freedom it gave me," Dickard said. "I could never go out by myself before. I traveled with my sisters, or would go around the neighborhood by myself because I was familiar with it, but that was it. It's definitely a faster way of travel for me too, because I don't really like using a cane."Dickard explained that one of her teachers at the Ohio School for the Blind had a Pilot Dog and her goal was to get through school and get one herself. When talking about the bond and trust established with each dog, Dickard laughs, "I've been wrong plenty of times where my dog was right. It's a good feeling to know they will help you stay safe."Some of those incidents include avoiding construction on a sidewalk, tripping into a hole and the scariest one, when a car ran a red light and her dog moved her out of harms way.Dickard's Pilot Dog is a Doberman Pinscher. Pilot Dogs has been using the smart, working breed since the organization began. Dickard likes using the Doberman, although she has used German Shepherds as well.According to Pilot Dogs, individuals should not approach, talk to, stare at or pet the dog if met in public. "It's important for the dog to stay focused on the task at hand, which is to guide its master" said Jay Gray, Executive Director. "While people want to be nice and pet the dog, it is a distraction for the team."Access laws guarantee a blind person the legal right to be accompanied by a specially trained dog guide in all public accommodations. Public facilities include restaurants, libraries, office buildings and more.Established in 1950, Pilot Dogs provides its trained dogs to the qualified blind at no cost. The organization is supported entirely by public contributions and support from Lions International, individual donors and other organizations and companies. "Some of the new students at Pilot Dogs don't have the slightest idea about the bond they will have with the dog," Dickard explained. "It just becomes part of who you are. And the dog is a good ambassador too. You are much more approachable with a dog at your side, you almost have to fend people off."The organization depends on volunteers to raise puppies used to become Pilot Dogs. Individuals from throughout Ohio and neighboring states provide foster homes for nearly one year, at which time the dogs are ready for formal training. During the time in their home, raisers are asked to socialize the puppies and take them to an obedience course. Pilot Dogs pays the cost of veterinary expenses and up to $75 for an obedience course. A variety of individuals have provided their home for this program including youth, families, adults and 4-H members and high school seniors who raise puppies as a project.For more information, call 614-221-6367 or visit

News on the phone for the visually impaired

Audible newspapers are available for Austinites who are blind or visually impaired.

The National Federation of the Blind, a group dedicated to helping people who are visually impaired, created a phone number in which a synthetic speech engine called Newsline reads the news over the telephone.

The line is free of charge to anyone who is unable to read print. The Austin American-Statesman offers a free subscription.

Subscribers can call a toll-free or local number to hear the news all day, every day. Content is taken electronically from the newspaper through a direct feed.

About 50,000 subscribers across the country listen to their newspapers.

"The NFB line started in 2002, but a dramatic number of papers in Texas have come up in the past few months. . . . We've had a lot of people requesting the Austin paper. The fact that we have the state capital paper now participating, it really is a break through for the blind people in the state of Texas," said John Pare, director of public relations for the NFB.

Close to 230 local and national newspapers are available, including some Spanish-language ones. Popular magazines also are on the list.

For more information, call the National Federation of the Blind at (866) 504-7300 or visit

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Talking sugar level monitor is a great feature for the visually impaired

Vision loss is a painful reality for so many diabetics. A talking blood sugar monitor could mean a lot of independence for many who have lost their sight.

HealthFirst reporter Leslie LoBue explains that it's smaller in size and drastically smaller in price.
Any diabetic will tell you - monitoring blood sugar closely is key to managing the disease. So this is an essential piece of equipment.

On top of his many volunteer duties at the Visually Impaired Center, in Flint, Jim McKee is a guinea pig of sorts, trying out the latest devices, like the talking blood sugar monitor.

"By telling you exactly what your sugar levels are, you know, you know if you are having a sugar problem or if you are having some other difficulty. And without being able to tell this, bad things could happen."

This much smaller monitor is not only more convenient, it only costs $30. The next alternative comes in at almost $500.

So, how does this cost-effective version compare to the deluxe model? "I've experimented with the cheaper model and I really prefer it, because it's easier to use, it's a lot smaller," McKee said.
Insurance covers the more expensive model, but as of yet, the new model is not covered. The low cost makes it possible for most people to afford it on their won, without the help of insurance.

Having a talking monitor, no matter what the dollar value, offers benefits that are truly priceless.
"A lot of people don't understand how important this is, but that's the key to diabetes control. If their blood sugars are well-controlled, then they might keep some of the vision that they still have," said Lisa Marshall, a nurse and certified diabetes educator.

Jim says having a talking monitor offers so much independence, it's easier to keep track of blood sugar and manage his diabetes.

The Visually Impaired Center is located across the street from Deaf and Blind School and right next door to HealthAccess, in Flint.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Portable technology available to the visually impaired

A software suite designed to increase accessibility for visually impaired and other computer users has been released for the U3 platform, which allows programs to be run on most Windows PCs directly from a USB flash drive.

Serotek's FreedomBox, which includes web browsing, email, streaming media and instant messaging applications, is bundled along with the company's System Access software in the package. The company says this will allow users to implement a text-to-speech and speech-to-text command interface for Windows and applications including Word, Firefox and Skype by plugging in a USB drive.

Members of the FreedomBox Network, which costs $129 (£69) a year, can download the full package from Serotek's website.

"I can walk up to a computer and access the device manager and control panel and repair a computer with System Access loaded," said Stephen Nutt, who is the founder of UK distributor Computer Room Services and who, like several Serotek developers, is blind. "It's like having your screen in your pocket," he added.

Rising fees for the visually impaired

A ROYSTON charity has slammed North Herts College for a whopping increase in class fees for blind students.

As reporterd in last week's Hertfordshire on Sunday, the courses - teaching braille as well as vital life skills such as cooking and sewing - have risen from a flat rate fee of £32 per year to £20 per course, per term.

With many visually-impaired residents retired or unable to work, many take sev eral courses per term, so they will have to find more than £100 to continue their stud ies. John Blundell, chairman of the Frank Letts Blind Fellowship of Royston, said: "Politicians are investing in young people and their vocational courses and the costs are being passed on to other members of society.

"Visually disabled people rely on these courses for basic life skills and I think it is a moral outrage that they are being cashed in on.

"I think at a time people are campaign ing so hard over car parking charges there should be more of an outcry over this." Cllr Bill Prime, who raised large sums of money for the fellowship when he was mayor, said: "The vast majority of people who are blind or visually impaired are pen sioners.
"How they are expected to find this kind of money? It's absolutely outrageous."

North Herts College said the increased charges were the result of Government spending cuts and fees had increased across the board.

"For 2006-7 we will need to rely on adult community learning funding from Hertfordshire County Council and, in line with Government and Learning Skills Council recommendations, adult learners will be expected to contribute to fees," said a spokesman.

"The college operates a concessions policy for learners who need financial sup port. "Fees for this year for the visually dis abled have been set at £20 per course inclusive of the administration fee.
"This can be reduced to £10 if the learn er is eligible for concessions.

"The college has welcomed visually- impaired learners from across the country for the past 15 years and acknowledges that in the past it has been able to provide these programmes free of charge. Unfortunately this cannot continue due to circumstances beyond our control."

Tony Edwards, chief executive of the Hertfordshire Society for the Blind, said: "Obviously, we do not want to see an increased cost to visually-impaired people and we're unhappy that they have to pay more.

"Having said that, this is not exclusive to North Herts College and the problem has to do with a drop in Government funding. "Without increasing charges the college cannot meet the running costs of the course and, as it offers the widest range of courses for the blind in the county, we would rather see courses running than not." Mr Edwards said people in the North Herts had told the society they would have difficulty meeting the new costs. It is offer ing them advice on potential funding opportunities.

Services offered to the visually impaired

New Stage Theatre now offers a special service to enhance the theater experience for the visually impaired.

For the second season, visually impaired patrons can reserve an Audio Descriptive Device to use during the play. A volunteer attends the play’s rehearsals, and during the performance, sits in the lighting booth and provides a description of the onstage action that feeds into an audience member’s earpiece through the device.With 10 Audio Descriptive Devices, the theater can accommodate up to 10 patrons requesting the service at one performance.

The audio description service is offered on the second Friday night and second Sunday matinee of the shows’ runs.The program has five volunteers now and could use more. For training, call Virginia McGrane at (601) 829-2919 or (601) 953-9428. On a different frequency, the devices can be used to enhance the audio for the hearing impaired.

That service, which doesn’t require a live volunteer, is available for any performance.Call the theater’s box office, (601) 948-3531, to reserve a device; they are available on a first come-first served basis.New Stage’s 41st season opener is the musical comedy revue, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. It runs Tuesday through Sept. 24.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Service dogs more easily available to the visually impaired

Colleen Wunderlich struggled with when to get a dog guide, if her lifestyle would allow for one, and how to care for one.

If Wunderlich, who is blind, knew the pros and cons of having a dog guide, it would have lessened the anxiety she felt about getting one years ago.

But, thanks to the Hounds for Hadley Dog Walk, a one-mile walk for dogs and their owners through Winnetka on Sept. 16, more people who are blind or visually impaired may get the chance to learn what goes into owning such a service dog.

The Hadley School for the Blind is urging dog owners to collect pledges and turn them in with the $30 registration fee to help fund the development of a course that teaches the benefits and challenges of working and living with a dog guide.

Dog walkers will start at 9 a.m. at the school at 700 Elm Street and will end at Starbucks coffee shop on Chestnut for refreshments and prizes. Volunteers will help with directions and street crossings.

The $30 registration fee deadline is tomorrow, but walkers can register after tomorrow for $40. Registration includes a T-shirt, doggie bandana and goodie bag. There's a $5 charge for each additional dog.

Jackie Sabien, development associate and chairwoman of the dog walk, said the Hounds for Hadley Dog Walk is perfect for Winnetka because there are so many dog owners.
"Hadley people are all about dogs," she said. "People in the community are passionate about their pets."

The walk, she said, will go on, rain or shine.

Wunderlich is a regional manager for Freedom Scientific, a company that develops software that enables computers to talk to blind or visually impaired users. She is working with Hadley and the Chicago Lighthouse for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired to provide training to teachers who will teach students about the software.

She spent six years trying to decide if she should get a dog.

"A course would have lessened the ambiguity," she said.

When she finally got her first dog guide Ike, she wasn't prepared. She didn't know it would take so long for the dog to warm up to her because the dogs develop a strong bond with their trainers before forming one with their handlers. She didn't know she'd have to keep the dog on leash in her home for the first two weeks to get used to each other. She didn't know there'd be more training involved and that she'd be the one doing the training.

"When I actually got one, it was totally different than what I expected it would be," she said. "It would have been nice to know what I'd have to go through. It's important to have a realistic perspective."
But, getting dog guides turned out to be the right thing to do. She eventually formed strong bonds with her dogs, which she wishes she was better prepared for.

"It's a spiritual relationship," she said. "These dogs work because they want to work, not because they have to."

Ike saw guarding Wunderlich as part of his job too. Wunderlich said when she went to the doctor for a cut finger, Ike stood between her and the doctor. Once, when she skinned her knee, Ike was the first to offer help by licking her wound.

But, one day after Wunderlich got engaged, Ike stopped working. He didn't want to pull or guide her anymore. She wonders if Ike felt like he wasn't needed anymore.

"They're very in tune to how we feel inside," she said. "A course would help people understand the special relationship that exists."

Michael Rydel, dean of curricular affairs at Hadley, said seven dog guide schools have helped subsidize the development of the course at $100,000. He said Hadley will use that money to conduct focus groups, design a course students can take at a distance and develop material in large print, Braille, audio and online.

"However, this amount only gets the course off the ground," he said. "We are raising money to fund operational costs of the course once up and running."

He said the course will consist of five lessons: Defining the dog guide and presenting a history of their use by people who are blind; characteristics and behaviors that contribute to a successful dog guide; issues related to applying to a school; the special relationship between dog and handler; and daily life with a dog guide, including practical and wider considerations.

PDA for the visually impaired

Marc Mulcahy was 9 when he realized how technology could revolutionize his life.

Blind since birth, Mulcahy's first computer liberated him from writing in Braille and waiting days for his teacher to transcribe his work.

Now he hopes to create the same kind of breakthrough for other visually impaired people through LevelStar, a Louisville-based company he founded two years ago with his brother, Matt.

LevelStar's first product, a wireless pocket-sized personal digital assistant that's also a book reader and note taker, goes on sale this month.

"There's a need for some new blood in the industry and products that understand how we really use the Internet," Mulcahy said.

Mulcahy, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango with a degree in computer science and business administration, co-founded LevelStar after working at Sun Microsystems for nearly four years on a desktop for Linux computers. Mulcahy is LevelStar's chief product engineer, and Matt is in charge of product marketing and operations. They have one other employee but expect to expand as their product hits the market.

LevelStar's personal digital assistant, called the Icon mobile manager plus Docking Station, isn't the first PDA designed for visually impaired users.

Companies like Florida-based Freedom Scientific have worldwide distribution and long track records offering PDAs and other products designed to help people with limited sight.
Mainstream PDAs also can be adapted for visually impaired users.

Mulcahy says LevelStar's Icon is different because it comes with a detachable Braille or regular full-size keyboard, which is easier to use for taking extensive notes and was designed "with the Internet at its core."

For example, Icon offers a function called "news stand" that lets users subscribe to online newspapers every day, rather than go through the process of entering passwords and linking to Web sites as required by most book-reading technology, Mulcahy said.

The Icon's Linux operating system gives users flexibility to add functions that aren't on most Microsoft Windows-based PDAs, said Steven Booth, an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.

The 50,000-member nonprofit consumer group, which buys and evaluates every kind of technology intended for the visually impaired, has seen a preliminary version of LevelStar's Icon but waits until a product hits the market before reviewing it, Booth said.

The government buys a majority of the technology either for its employees or through special funds to help the visually impaired, Booth said.

Mulcahy hopes LevelStar's products, which will be sold through its Web site, will find a niche as affordable devices targeted at individual buyers. The Icon Mobile Manager sells for $1,395, and the keyboard docking station for $395.

Booth said Mulcahy's strategy is promising, but he cautions that selling technology for the visually impaired is a difficult business.

"Most of these companies don't make a lot of money because it's a very limited market," he said. "But I hope they're successful because we need more competition."

LevelStar at a glance

• Product: The Icon Mobile Manager, a wireless, pocket-sized personal digital assistant that is also a book reader and note taker. It comes with a detachable Braille or regular full-sized keyboard.
• Cost: $1,395; the keyboard docking station costs $395.

Hands-on art for the visually impaired

Bloomington resident Marilyn Kittredge sees the world through a slice of Swiss cheese. That is how she describes her macular degeneration. She has no central vision and cannot read or distinguish facial features, so she was very excited when she heard about the new set of tours the IU Art Museum offers. She registered for the first audio description tour, which took place Saturday with six participants, and got to experience art in a whole new way.

Not only does the IU Art Museum now offer audio description tours, but it is also now one of the first university museums in the low vision Tours for the visually impaired, both audio and touch, can now be scheduled at any time. Patrons wishing to take the tour must call 855-1045 three weeks in advance to answer a series of questions to help the museum determine their individual needs. The touch tours are restricted to two patrons per docent. It's too difficult to see what is going on when there are only X's in these boxes.

e United States to offer special "touch tours" for the visually impaired. The touch tours will be available with a reservation made three weeks in advance. They can be taken in conjunction with an audio tour. Only the audio tour was offered Saturday.Kittredge has taken advantage of several audio tours offered to visually impaired patrons throughout various museums but explained that most of the tours are recorded. IU offers personalized tours given by real people.

"I enjoy museums," Kittredge said, "but it is hard for me to get a lot out of them."After taking the IU tour provided by docents Eleanor Jones and Becky Hrisomalos, Kittredge remarked that it was much more detailed than her previous experiences. She said she can hardly wait to reserve a spot for the first touch tour.Graduate student Marie Clapot, who is visually impaired herself, education curator Ed Maxedon and museum staff have been working for more than a year to put this program together.After moving from France to do her undergraduate work in Michigan and then moving to San Francisco for an internship, Clapot began searching for a museum that would support what she calls the "connection between her handicap and art.

" She found Maxedon and began an internship under his tutelage at the IU Art Museum. The touch tours have been her pet project."The audio description tours create a three-dimensional reality for people without that access," Maxedon said. He said they can be used in conjunction with the touch tours to help translate visual information into a discernible mental image for people with visual disabilities.

The touch tours will consist of artwork that conservators have deemed appropriate for handling. There will be a heavy focus on statuary. Paintings that have not been primed and can therefore disintegrate with prolonged exposure to the oils found on human skin will not be allowed in the exhibit, even though all patrons will be required to wear provided gloves.

During Saturday's tour, the docents described four diverse pieces. Jones pulled a slinky from her bag and passed it around to the patrons to help them get a feel for "Floor Slinky: 32 Elements" in the museum's gallery of Art of the Western World. She played soft jazz music in the background while she described the abstract painting, "Swing Landscape."

She said the artist, Stuart Davis, often played jazz while he worked. Kittredge commented that this piece was particularly hard to visualize because of its abstract nature. Even Jones said: "I am not going to try to describe all of the shapes. It is way too intricate."Hrisomalos had better luck with the sculptures "Torso with Panther Skin" and "Nkisi N'Kende," both of which will be featured on the first touch tours.Sighted patrons can also add another dimension to the tour for the impaired.

During the description of "Swing Landscape," Kittredge's husband Frank remarked that it looked like a jigsaw puzzle that "hasn't been put together yet, obviously," causing laughter and seemingly, a better understanding of the piece.Clapot said it was extremely difficult to train the docents how to describe the art to someone who does not have the capacity of sight and to fully understand each patron's needs. The comments from the sighted patrons, therefore, can be very helpful. "Hearing, touching and seeing are complementary events," Clapot explained.

The program will now be a permanent fixture for the IU Art Museum, but the collection will change based on the availability of new pieces and the individual needs and desires of the patrons. "I think it is going to open the museum up to a whole new audience," said the museum's Manager of External Affairs Emily Powell. "There is a whole new world open to them, a whole new leisure activity. It will also open our eyes to other possibilities. We are moving beyond building accessibility and focusing now on how art can be more accessible."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Canada receives medals at IPC World Championship thanks to visually impaired athlete

France Gagne of Quebec City won a silver medal, while Diane Roy of Sherbrooke, Que., raced to a bronze Sunday, on the opening day of the International Paralympic Committee world track and field championships.

Gagne won silver in the men's javelin for visually impaired athletes with a toss of 47.44 metres, despite struggling with a back injury and jet-lag.

"This is a case of I'm happy with the result, but not my throwing," said Gagne. "I only arrived here on Friday because of commitments at home, so I didn't have time to get accustomed to the venue, which is crucial when you're visually impaired.

"And my back continued to bother me enough that I'm still not 100 per cent sure I can do the discus later this week."

Roy won a bronze in the wheelchair 5,000 metres in 13 minutes 41.52 seconds for her first world championship medal. Edith Hunkeler led Switzerland to a 1-2 finish with Sandra Graf taking the silver.

"It was a slow race, but generally I was pleased with my performance," said Roy. "There were some areas where I wasn't fast enough tactically, but I have other races this week so this is a confidence builder."

Eric Flemming of Oshawa, Ont., was ninth in the men's javelin for visually impaired athletes.

Several Canadian athletes moved on to finals: Mark Ledo of Maple, Ont., in the wheelchair 10,000; Brent Lakatos of Dorval, Que., Andre Beaudoin of Montreal and Dean Bergeron of Quebec City, in the wheelchair 400 metres; Dustin Walsh of Coquitlam, B.C., in the men's 400 for visually impaired runners; and Jason Dunkerley of Hamilton in the men's visually impaired 1,500.

Fund raising on wheels for the visually impaired

KEEN cyclist Patrick Reynolds will be embarking on a 100-mile sponsored cycle over two days in September.

Patrick, who has a visual impairment, will cycle solo for the “Around Laois Sponsor Cycle” on September 16 and 17 to help raise funds for the National Council for the Blind of Ireland.
The sponsored cycle is in aid of acquiring funds for one, maybe two, GPS navigating systems for the county.

This navigating system can help blind and visually impaired people find their way around Ireland’s urban areas.

As well as providing an area map of a city or town, already downloaded onto the device; on the spot information about distinctive new changes made to a street can also be keyed in.

Patrick told the Laois Nationalist this device increases a person’s mobility and enhances their confidence by giving them more independence and freedom to travel wherever they wish.

“The GPS navigating system is a relatively new piece of technology. With this system a person can download different urban maps. I want to bring a least two systems into the county which can be rented for a day at a time,” he said.

‘I have a visual impairment and I intend to cycle independently around Laois without the aid of a tandem or guide cyclist. This is a first for a visually impaired person so I will need all the support I can get,” said Patrick.

To raise further aware-ness about the campaign Patrick will take part in a ‘on the spot’ cycle at Laois Shopping Centre on September 2.

All are welcome participate in the sponsored cycle by contacting Patrick on 0879351886.

Lion's Club helps the visually impaired once again!

"This we are going to take and run with it, as they would say, because we think this is something very meaningful for Lion's Club, as we have always been identified with sight (and) it would be beneficial to the respective countries where you have Lion's Clubs," Carmen Chen, the public relations officer for the Caribbean Lions, told the Observer.

She was speaking following the club's first cabinet meeting, held recently in Ocho Rios.
She did not give a specific timeline for the completion of the project, noting that the clubs would have to liaise with their respective territories and make the necessary arrangements. She was hopeful, however, that it would get underway shortly.

"We have visually impaired persons in the government now and we should do all we can to get this database so we can promote and develop persons with this physical disability," she said.

Minister of Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, Aloun Assamba has, meanwhile, urged the club to take on bigger and more meaningful projects and to become more visible.

"I challenge you to be more visible, to do projects that will impact a wider community than what you now serve. You might think that I am pulling you out of your comfort zone, but that's my challenge to you. I challenge you so our country can see more of the work you are doing," she said.

Chen, for her part, said that the Lions Club movement in Jamaica has been looking at sustainable development projects and she identified the Heart Foundation of Jamaica as one institution started by the Lion's Club of Kingston. Her own club, the Lion's Club of South St Andrew Central, has been involved in promotion of a basic school in that area, she said.

"We are doing the good work, but we are hiding it under a bushel and we don't intend to do that anymore, we want to give full visibility to our projects," Chen said.

The Euro, also meets the needs of the visually impaired

A person's ability to deal easily with money is fundamental to one's ability to lead an independent life. For thousands of Maltese living with some form of visual impairment it is essential for the introduction of the euro to be recognised as a good opportunity to ensure that this ability is achieved with confidence and ease. Inclusion is fundamental to the changeover process.

This essentially means that the visually impaired be consulted to effectively gauge their needs with regard to the euro changeover process and meanwhile empowering them to manage this change. From the early stages of the design of the euro notes and coins, associations for the visually impaired in Europe were consulted and played an active role in the development of the new currency's features.

This inclusive approach resulted in a currency that is much more disability-friendly than the Maltese Lira. This was incorporated in the physical characteristics of euro notes and coins themselves. Coins are of a different size and weight, each having a different pattern milled on the side. This effectively allows the visually impaired to differentiate between each denomination with ease by feeling the rim. Euro notes on the other hand are also of a different size, with increasing size related to increasing value.

In addition, large contrasting print aids recognition, along with the use of raised print on the corner of the notes. In Malta, the preparations for the articulation of the euro communications campaign, the National Euro Changeover Committee (NECC) also engaged in dialogue with different stakeholders including disability groups. Consultative mechanisms have been set up in order to serve as a platform for dialogue.

The aim is to identify the needs of the visually impaired and persons with disability in general when it comes to the provision of information concerning the euro and the delivery of adequate training and familiarisation to enable persons with disability to use the new currency without apprehension. Despite the fact that the euro changeover information campaign is in its initial stages, two issues have already emerged.

The first is that of accessibility to information. All necessary preparations must be taken to ensure that information is accessible to the visually impaired. This requires the development of audio facilities through which practical information about the changeover can be disseminated. The NECC website and other audio aids shall be developed to this end. The second issue that has emerged is the need for practical, 'hands-on' training and assistance. The training will be held well before the adoption of the euro, as trainees need to become accustomed to the new currency. The role of civil society in the delivery of this training is of critical importance.

Organisations and associations representing persons with disability need to take a proactive role in partnering with the NECC to deliver information and training for their members. Intensive training is essential in this regard, and much can be learnt from institutions that have a great deal of experience in this field. The European Blind Union is providing ongoing support and advice in this area, backed by its unparalleled experience gained through the introduction of the euro in 2002. Slowly but surely a framework is being set up with the aim of delivering effective and adequate training tools.

The cascading 'train the trainer' scheme will also be applied in this case, whereby a number of persons will be taught how to deliver the training to other trainers who in turn cascade it down to trainees. Persons with visual impairment will also be participating in the delivery of these training sessions. Representatives of organisations for the visually impaired are also responsible for ensuring that these sessions reach all members and that our collective aims are being achieved. A successful changeover depends to a large extent on its ability to reach the most vulnerable of groups.

The NECC is committed to provide the necessary resources and tools to ensure that persons with disability feel confident and well informed about the new currency. It is our belief that we can achieve this through the support and engagement of all those concerned.

Sad predictions for the potential visually impaired people in the future!

On a sunny day in 1994, Fred Lopez was walking to his car when he stopped to read a sign a few feet away. All of a sudden, "it was just blurry and out of focus," he says. An eye specialist told him that blood vessels had ruptured under his retina, a complication of wet macular degeneration, and that low vision was inevitable. Mr. Lopez, then an attorney in Berkeley, Calif., with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, underwent two laser surgeries but his eyesight worsened, forcing him give up driving and switch to a desk job. In 2000, he decided to retire.

"It is like a dimmer where you keep turning down the light," Mr. Lopez, now 57 years old, says of his condition.

Mr. Lopez is one of millions of Americans who are sidelined by incurable low vision, leaving everyday tasks -- like doing laundry, reading a novel and cooking dinner -- challenging. Though the condition mainly afflicts the elderly, younger Americans are increasingly at risk of irreversible vision loss, particularly as cases of diabetes -- whose side effects may include low vision -- continue to rise.

The debilitating vision impairment isn't correctable with eyeglasses or surgery and typically is caused by diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract and diabetic retinopathy.
As the U.S. population rapidly ages, the number of visually impaired Americans age 40 and over -- including the blind -- is expected to jump two-thirds in the next two decades, to 5.5 million from about 3.3 million, according to the National Eye Institute. The institute says injuries and the lack of mobility caused by low vision cost the government about $4 billion a year in benefits and lost taxable income.

Those affected often sink into depression, suffer hip fractures and other injuries, and become socially isolated, as their movements become more awkward and familiar faces are harder to recognize. Not much can be done to prevent the diseases that lead to low vision, but experts say not smoking, an early diagnosis and a diet rich in antioxidants such as zinc and vitamins A and C may help slow the loss of eyesight. Vision rehabilitation therapy is also crucial in helping those with low vision lead independent lives.

The rising epidemic of obesity and diabetes also troubles vision specialists because it can lead to glaucoma -- which breaks down optic nerve cells, causing tunnel vision -- and diabetic retinopathy, which the NEI estimates will affect 1 in 12 diabetes patients. Nearly 21 million Americans suffered from diabetes in 2005 -- 6.2 million undiagnosed -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of low vision in older Americans, according to the NEI, and there are few treatment options. Laser therapies have proved effective at slowing vision loss from the disease, which damages the part of the retina responsible for sharp central vision.
People with low vision often struggle through it on their own at first, unaware there are free clinics that specialize in rehabilitation therapy and that can help them live as independently as possible.

Mr. Lopez coped with low vision on his own until he retired and took a rehabilitation class at the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a San Francisco nonprofit, where he says he learned skills like how to operate a microwave oven by using bump dots on the buttons.
A Congress-mandated five-year demonstration project began in April in six areas around the country, giving tens of thousands of Medicare beneficiaries who suffer from low vision perhaps their first chance at treatment.

Medicare covers some rehabilitative therapy through local coverage decisions in about 20 states, and the project aims in part to see if increased Medicare reimbursements can cut down on other medical costs as a result of vision-related falls and injuries.

Lloyd Barnard, 80, a retired mechanical engineer in Atlanta who has wet macular degeneration in his left eye, has benefited from the project. In June, Mr. Barnard visited the Center for Visually Impaired in Atlanta, one of only a few clinics currently billing Medicare for rehabilitative therapy under the project. The center's therapists helped him find an illuminated magnifying glass for reading and writing, greatly improving his quality of life, he says.

As they learn how to handle their condition and live as independently as they can, those who suffer from low vision pick up their own ways to cope along the way. "I have learned to enjoy each day and to see a lot more with my mind," Mr. Lopez says.

State provides helpful resources for the visually impaired

The N.C. Department of Health & Human Services' Division of Services to the Blind presented "Services For The Visually Handicapped" last Tuesday at Moss Memorial Library in Hayesville.
This statewide program has established medical eye care and living services programs for visually impaired persons.

Their mission, in short, is threefold:

+ Prevent (Teach preventive steps that may be taken where possible.)

+ Rehabilitate (Offer medical care to improve sight when possible.)

+ Facilitate (Improve daily challenges for the visually impaired for better life quality.)

Many of us are aware of available services, perhaps through reading or hearing about them.

However, many visually impaired people are either new to North Carolina or perhaps too isolated, especially if they live alone, to have heard about the availability of help for their visual impairments.
Susan Hart, Social Worker for the Blind, explained that Medical Eye Care assistance can in some cases be based on income levels. Some services, such as eye surgery or medicines, will need to be paid for in part or in whole by the individual, depending upon income. The Blind Services Division also, however, offers many free, non-income related services.

Individual Living Services care is provided regardless of income level - to help the visually impaired fulfill daily tasks usually taken for granted by non-visually impaired people.

For example, they will send an Individual Living Aide into your home (at no fee) to evaluate your situation: Is it safe for you in your home environment? Do you have family capable of assisting you with needs such as transportion or shopping? Do you need to be made aware of all the community services available in your state?

Individual Living Services offers visual evaluation. Then, appropriate visual aids to correct vision as much as possible will be provided as well.

They will also come to give indepth training within your home ranging from safe ways to cut up vegetables to budgeting and check writing.

Other free assistance provided by the Individual Living Services section includes orientation and mobility training.

They will send mobility instructors to your home, who teach you various aids ranging from how to select the right size walking cane to special safety technique instructions. They also give referrals to specialists and rehabilitative centers.

Judith Harris, District Rehabilitator Supervisor, spoke on the wide range of workrelated assistance offered to state residents.

They arrange vocational experience for students. They also help visually impaired persons from age 14 and up to achieve work-related goals, whether to obtain a job or to help a newly visually impaired person achieve the capability to maintain their employment.

The help offered includes such things as software training; one-on-one training in confidence gaining skills; resume development and job placement assistance. A staff member will even go and speak to prospective employers.

Assistance for diabetes related visual problems is also offered. Again, there are no fees to the clients, however, if medical treatment is called for, then budget guidelines may come into play.
Carole Williams, Deaf/Blind Coordinator, discussed among other topics some common causes of blindness, including Diabetic Retinopathy, which is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
Retinitis Pigmentosa, which has definite hereditary tendency, is a degeneration of the rod and cone layer of the retina. A chief sympton is night blindness that increases as the rods along the peripheral retinal areas are more affected. Another effect is tunnel vision. Retinitis Pigmentosa begins in youth and may result in total blindness by the mid-forties.

Cataracts may occur at any life stage but mostly occur with aging. The clouding of the eye's lens blocks out light needed for good vision. Today, Cataracts are normally treated with outpatient
surgery, which usually includes the insertion of intraocular lenses.

Macular Degeneration is characterized by damage to or deterioration of the retina's macula, the eye's area of clearest vision. Macular Degeneration causes loss of central vision. Most persons will retain peripheral vision with which to navigate and may benefit from low vision aids.

Glaucoma initially affects peripheral vision and results from buildup of fluid pressure inside the eye in adults. Its onset may be hard to detect, since Glaucoma is usually painless, and vision loss is gradual. When diagnosed and treated, vision loss can be halted, although lost vision cannot be restored.

Acute Glaucoma, less common, presents with severe pain and requires immediate treatment to prevent blindness.

Williams described other causes of bindness and even brought in goggles that can be used to simulate the different eye conditions.

Charlie St. Clair, Assistant Technology Consultant, covers 23 North Carolina counties. He teaches and helps visually impaired clients with information access.

St. Clair said that, normally, about 85% to 90% of all information received from the world around us comes through our eyes. With impaired eyesight, information access becomes difficult. However, much help is available.

St. Clair gave a lively and informative demonstration of some of the newest technology for visually impaired computer users. He demonstrated software such as ZoomText that magnifies computer screen, icons and text.

You can change cursor size and color and cause your computer desktop appearance to be of a higher contrast, making it easier to read. You can experiment with extra large font sizes. He recommends obtaining the largest screen monitor possible.

The Division of Services to the Blind group emphasized in their presentation the generosity of the Lions Club over the years. Since just after WWI, the Lions Club has helped at state and government levels to set up visual aid programs.

The Lions Club is and has been one of the greatest financial aid resources for the visually impaired in North Carolina. They also offer a program wherein you can learn to help visually impaired persons and even get paid for it in some cases.

The Lions Club sometimes provide necessary eye surgeries and medicines or other eye treatments.

In North Carolina, The Lions Club sponsors the annual Camp Dogwood trip for the visually impaired. This is one week of assisted fun including swimming, horseback riding, fishing, bowling and more, plus skills training for $85 per attendee (includes travel and food). Camp Dogwood is on Lake Norman near Charlotte.

The Lions Club sponsors an annual fishing tournament at the Outer Banks each October. Fifteen persons from seven counties are going this year. Susan Hart travels and stays with trip participants, helping them all along the way.

The N.C. Health and Human Resources' Division of Services to the Blind holds a monthly support group for the visually impaired (and caregivers or other interested parties). The support group meets the first Thursday in each month at 10:30 a.m. at Peachtree Baptist Church in Peachtree.
In Hayesville, The Moss Memorial Library is a valuable visual impairment assistance resource. In the library you will be able to use their "superlarge" monitor as well as the latest enlargement software.

You can obtain more information and receive help and guidance at the Clay County Department of Social Services in Hayesville. You may call Susan Hart at 828-349-2527. Or you may call the Asheville District Offices at 800-4221881.