Saturday, September 15, 2007

Visually impaired tourists use GPS to visit BC

Twenty-five blind tourists are bound for B.C. today, armed with talking global positioning systems that can make four senses feel tantamount to five.

The technology, developed by the California-based Sendero Group, emits a satellite signal connected to a worldwide mapping database. The signal tells the database what direction the GPS user is heading, and the mapping system routes an auditory message back to the user advising of attractions, services and restaurants in the area.

"Most people think this technology is for finding your way, but actually it's so you can get lost, and then it allows you to get un-lost," said Mike May, the visually-impaired president and founder of the Sendero Group, who began developing GPS technology for the blind in 1994.

He started the technology-based travel program for the blind, called WayFun Adventures, in 2003. This year's tour, which involves 25 adventurers and 15 guide dogs, begins in Victoria today and will wind up in Vancouver on Sunday.

"This is a great opportunity for blind people to go out. It's a chance to explore and push your limitations, and to travel in a totally new place using . . . the talking GPS," said Jim Kutsch, president of the Seeing Eye, a New Jersey-based charity that is co-sponsoring the event.
Kutsch went on his first WayFun tour last year with his wife, Ginger. He explained that travelling is as rewarding an experience for the blind as it is for sighted people, especially when its joys and challenges are met by a group.

"There's more to touring than just sight. There's the climate differences, there's the different smells, the different feel, the different sounds," said Kutsch. "There's lots of things in the environment for somebody who's used to paying a little more attention to non-visual cues."

May said demand for his trips already exceeds capacity, and has had to turn down 20 applicants for this year's tour, so he's thinking about scheduling more tours.

"The group aspect is great because we learn from each other and we also set the bar higher by pushing each other to do just a little bit more than what we're used to from our normal comfort zones," he said.

The Kutschs are going next year, too.

"We've been looking forward to it all year long,"said Kutsch, whose wife is also visually impaired.


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