Saturday, October 27, 2007

Web access for the visually impaired

The AT&T Foundation, the corporate philanthropy organization of AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T), announced today a $25,000 grant to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) to expand access to affordable speech and screen-magnification products for adults with vision loss or low vision. “In an era in which we rely on the Internet for almost everything — from finding doctors to paying bills to filling prescriptions — it is critical that we provide affordable, user-friendly ways for people who are visually impaired to surf the Web,” said Judy Scott, director, AFB Center on Vision Loss.

“We are thrilled that AT&T is helping make that a reality.”Traditional screen-access technologies for reading computer output aloud and/or magnifying the text on the screen have revolutionized the way that blind and visually impaired individuals are able to use the Internet. However, the technology is often priced beyond people’s means and requires specialized instruction that is expensive and difficult to obtain.

The AT&T grant will allow AFB to evaluate and identify low-cost, easy-to-use technology that helps visually impaired people and people with eye diseases, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma, access the Internet.“AT&T believes that all people should have access to technology, no matter their physical situation,” said Holly Reed, senior vice president of External Affairs, AT&T. “We are excited to aid the American Foundation for the Blind’s effort to help visually impaired adults access the Internet with ease.”

AFB TECH experts will evaluate 10 of the newest, most affordable screen-reading technology programs. The two or three highest-rated programs will be sent to the AFB Center on Vision Loss in Dallas, where they will remain available for visitors to test and explore what works best for them. “Technology is an important part of our daily lives, and, unfortunately, many go without access to valuable tools because of physical restrictions,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía.

“Thanks to programs implemented by the American Foundation for the Blind, those obstacles can be removed to allow individuals the benefit without affecting their pocketbooks.”By finding affordable, user-friendly technology, AT&T and AFB are committed to improving the Internet experience for visually impaired adults and enable them to use the Web to expand their possibilities in their everyday lives.

Cooking like the visually impaired

There are cookbooks, online recipes and of course, TV shows that help you become the next great chef, or at least pull off a great meal.

Now there a show that teaches people about cooking without looking.

Sabrina Deaton loves spending time with her son, Alexander. One of their favorite places to hang out is the kitchen. They crack open the eggs, cook the bacon and make sure all the ingredients are in place to cook one of their favorite dishes -- quiche. "He's often my helper at home," Deaton said.
Of course she enjoys her son's company, but there is something we didn't tell you about Deaton -- she is also visually impaired.

But just because she can't see much, doesn't mean she can't whip up a great meal. She dropped into the Center for the Visually Impaired to show off her culinary skills for the taping of a TV show called, "Cooking Without Looking."

"Just wanted to get that recipe out there and show everybody what blind people can do," Deaton said.

Many sighted people think those who are visually impaired can't do things like cooking, but there is a lot of new equipment that helps the blind.

"Through CVI, through the National Federation of the Blind, NFB Newsline, it gave me hope through my visual impairment. Made me realize I can still do all the things that I used to do, I just have to learn to do them differently," Deaton said.

All of these organizations provide services to the blind, helping people to gain their independence and know what options are available to them, despite their visual impairment -- such as cooking
Now in its second season, "Cooking Without Looking" only airs on a PBS in South Florida for now, but producers are trying to bring the show to the Central Florida area.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The visually impaired have a lot to offer others

Speakers at a discussion yesterday reiterated the need for building awareness about the use of white cane by visually impaired people to ensure their safe movement. They also called for adequate supply of necessary equipments for blind people to help turn them into manpower.The discussion was organised jointly by the Ministry of Social Welfare, National Foundation for the Development of Disabled Persons and National Forum of Organisations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD) at the auditorium of the Directorate of Social Services marking the World White Cane Safety Day.

In his welcome address, AHM Noman Khan, general secretary of NFOWD, said the celebration of the Day across the world symbolises a common platform for people with all forms of disabilities along with visually impaired to raise voice for their rights.He urged all to extend their helping hands in ensuring adequate supply of equipments like braille books, special educational institutes, white canes and reservation of seats in public vehicles.

He congratulated the young people with disabilities who earned laurels through their outstanding performances at the special Olympic held in China recently.In his keynote paper, Monsur Ahmed Chowdhury, NFOWD chairman of Policy and Legal Affairs Committee, explained the background of the Day.He said leaders of the International Federation of the Blind organised an international conference for the first time in 1969 in Colombo, Sri Lanka where different proposals were adopted regarding social development, education, training, and safe movement of the blind people.

One of the proposals was to observe the World White Cane Safety Day every year on October 15 to promote awareness about the basic needs of people with visual impairment, he added.The Ministry of Social Welfare has been observing the Day since 1996 in association with the NFOWD. Hafizul Islam Mia, director general of social services directorate, laid emphasis on raising awareness about the use of white cane.He also called for comprehensive approach for the overall development of people with disability.

Social Welfare Secretary MA Hai Howlader, Bangladesh Blind Mission Visual Trainer-cum-Braille-in-charge Fahima Khatun and NFOWD Assistant General Secretary M Khalilur Rahman also took part in the discussion presided over by NFOWD President Khandaker Zahurul Alam.A total of 200 white canes were handed over to 12 member organisations of the Directorate of Social Services, University of Dhaka and NFOWD for distributing among the blind students and persons on the occasion.On account of Eid-ul-Fitr vacation, the World White Cane Safety Day was not observed on the due date.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A new world comes to life when readers volunteer to read for the visually impaired!

Their dedication to others starts on the pages of the Globe Gazette and ends by illuminating the world for those who cannot see it for themselves.Kathy Jones and Jan Rasmussen, both of Mason City, are readers for the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service for the Blind and Print Handicapped, Inc.

Thanks to them and other IRIS readers, the visually impaired are able to audibly “read” the newspaper.For that service, the pair will receive the 2007 Governor’s Volunteer Award on Oct. 31 in Storm Lake.“If I couldn’t read, how awful it would be not to be able to read the newspaper,” said Rasmussen, 69. “That’s all I thought of, how much I would miss the newspaper.

So I volunteered.”Twice a month, the women come to KCMR studios and join a fellow IRIS volunteer to read articles from 8 to 9 a.m.Those who use the service have special radios to hear the broadcast, sent over a frequency that only they can receive. The radios are given free of charge.Jones, 66, heard about the service through a friend.“I tried it and ended up liking it, so I kept going,” she said.Reading of the news is “traded off” between two readers for an hour. Articles on the front and North Iowa pages are read, as well as the Opinion page, obituaries and some sports stories.

Both Jones and Rasmussen most often read with Ralph Cassady.Cassady — who earned the award last year — called both women “faithful” in their service.“We work together so well,” he said. “It really does go like clockwork. They come in at 7:45 a.m., we chat a few minutes about who will do what, and off we go,” he said.Rasmussen said she was a bit apprehensive during her first few turns at the microphone, but “I made it through,” she said with a chuckle.

“What’s really nice is that it’s actually pretty easy — but it doesn’t take a large amount of time. But you’re still doing something worthwhile for someone else,” Rasmussen said.Jones counted herself doubly lucky to be able to read. Shortly after she began, she suffered a brain aneurysm that required surgery.Several months later, however, she was back at the microphone.

Jane Ginapp, volunteer coordinator for the service, was astounded to see Jones return to service.For Jones, it was a way of giving back.“I am so appreciative of my sight, since my optic nerves were damaged during the aneurysm,” she said. “By the grace of God, I made it through.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A magnifying glass help the visually impaired with their reading

The Pikesville Library has capped the refurbishment of its Large Type Lounge for the visually impaired with the gift of a new Optelec text magnifier.

A $10,500 gift by Pikesville's Sylvan and Isabelle Ribakow Foundation was used to outfit the large-type section of the library with large-print books, seating and better lighting; $2,500 was used to purchase the text magnifier, library manager Allan McWilliams said.

The machine has a flat bed where books can be placed, the text can then be blown up and projected onto a screen, similar to a computer monitor, directly in front of the user.

The equipment at the Pikesville Library can blow images up anywhere from two to 50 times their original size.

"The resolution is just amazing," McWilliams said. "It's hard to imagine if you don't have vision problems. Just trying to read something simple can be extremely difficult. This equipment allows someone to read their mail or the newspaper or a book when even larger print isn't enough."
Before the donation by the Ribakow Foundation, the library had what McWilliams called a dated magnifying machine and a computer with adaptive software to help magnify text. Both, he said, were tucked away.

But the new machine is proudly displayed at the end of the row, looking sleek and refined. The adaptive software is still available, and McWilliams hopes it will soon be updated.

Because Sylvan Ribakow suffered from macular degeneration, in which the macula of the eye deteriorates, greatly weakening vision, the foundation has a special interest in donating to pursuits for the vision impaired. The foundation also donates to the arts, primarily opera.

As the library readied for its 3,500-square-foot expansion and renovation, the foundation was looking for an outlet to donate to locally, Isabelle Ribakow said. A member of the Pikesville senior center, which is located above the library, Isabelle Ribakow suggested updating the large-type section.

"We like to keep some of our donations local, and it just so happened that this was the right time and place to do that," she said.

Library staff said there has been a positive reception of the new equipment.

One patron, a patient at the Wilmer Eye Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, raved about being able to read the newspaper, said Melissa Gotsch, assistant library manager. He kept trying to pay for the service, she said.

"It was extremely moving that this man was so happy and excited about being able to read again," Gotsch said. "It brought a tear to some of us. We've received very positive feedback about the new magnifying equipment."

Sylvan Ribakow wasn't able to see or use the equipment installed at the library. He died Sept. 12 of heart failure.

Isabelle Ribakow said she will continue to lead the couple's foundation and explore local projects.
"I'm very proud of what we were able to do at the library, and I intend to keep going," she said.

E-mail Mike Fila at

Fundraiser: Concert for the visually impaired

Pianist Ho Dac Thuy Hoang and Darius troupe will perform in a concert in Hanoi and HCM City to raise funds for visually-impaired children, the “Bright Concert”.

The press conference to introduce the concert.

The quartet Darius gathers talented artists Nguyen Huu Nguyen from Vietnam, Junko Senzaki from Japan, Faiha Zalmat and Marlene Riviere from France. They and pianist Ho Dac Thuy Hoang, a master’s degree holder in the piano from the US, will play some famous works of Anton Dvorak.

The concert will also see the participation of artists from the Hanoi Music Conservatory like Manh Hung, Quoc Hung, Lan Anh, Phuong Uyen, Viet Dung and Minh Tuyen.

All income from tickets will be transferred to the “Sustainable Charity” Foundation, which will be presented to two schools for visually-impaired children in Hanoi and HCM City and to victims of the Can Tho bridge collapse.

The concert will take place at the HCM City Theatre on October 11 and the Hanoi Opera House on October 14. Tickets are available at VND450,000, VND600,000 and VND800,000.

The concert is co-organised by AA Corporation, Khaisilk Corporation and Vidatour.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hybrids deemed unsafe by the visually impaired

With gas prices the way they are, hybrid vehicles are becoming a popular choice among motorists, but visually impaired pedestrians say the cars are possible safety hazards.For a blind pedestrian walking a busy intersection is no easy task.

Other senses, especially hearing, are heavily relied on.Peggy Lee reports Maryland's Federation Of The Blind rallied outside the state's Department Of Environment Wednesday demanding the agency require auto makers to design hybrid vehicles to produce sound."The Maryland Department Of The Environment is about to adopt regulations to get more low emission vehicles on the street, which is fine with us, but these cars are silent.

Blind pedestrians cannot hear them when they approach and the Maryland Department of the Environment is not addressing that," said Chris Danielsen from the Federation Of The Blind.Hybrid vehicles run quieter than regular cars. In a test, the visually impaired couldn't hear hybrids running on battery power approaching the intersection.When a Toyota hybrid runs on gasoline, it sounds pretty much like a regular car.

But when it switches over and runs solely on battery it's practically impossible to hear.The Department Of Environment says while they can't regulate the safety devices on vehicles, they promise to work with the auto industry to research possible options."Devices that emit a noise that a blind person might be able to hear or a technology that would involve an electronic signal that would be emitted from the vehicle to a pager or other device that a person might wear," said Shari Wilson from the Department Of Environment.

Under the 2007 Clean Air Act, the Department Of Environment must consider the needs of the visually impaired when drafting hybrid vehicle regulations.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cooking for the visually impaired

''If you and I wake up blind tomorrow, we're still who we are,'' says Ren'ee Rentmeester, creator and producer of Cooking Without Looking, the first television cooking show for the blind and visually impaired. ``We have to take that disability and find a way to live with it.''

Rentmeester, 47, isn't disabled and says she had no formative experiences with blind people. It was a belief that ''we all get hurt by being left out,'' she says, that led her to create the VisionWorld Foundation, the nonprofit behind Cooking Without Looking, and put her TV expertise to work for the visually impaired.

Now in its second season, Cooking Without Looking airs on Palm Beach's WXEL-PBS 42, where Jerry Rosenberg, chairman of Boynton Beach's Macular Disease Association, is often in the studio audience.

''It's a whole new social network,'' Rosenberg says. 'Ren'ee's doing a great job. She's a very, very `up' lady.''

A TV show for people who can't see may sound like an oxymoron, but a technique called descriptive audio makes it work.

''It's like a play-by-play,'' Rentmeester says, in which a voice-over narrator describes each step the show's three visually impaired hosts perform in preparing a dish.

In the episode airing next weekend, the subject is a seven-layer salad and the setting is Miami's Lighthouse for the Blind, Cooking Without Looking's first on-location shoot.

At the July taping, Rentmeester gently steers the hosts around light poles and knots of cables in the unfamiliar kitchen. She makes sure all the ingredients are laid out in order and within the hosts' easy reach. She also heads off potential hazards -- sharp knives, hot burners, even open cabinets.
Still, there are occasional flubs, and at one point, hosts Allen Preston, Annette Watkins and Celia Chacon get the giggles.

''We have a blast,'' Rentmeester says between takes. ``People have a hard time realizing blind people have a sense of humor, too.''

The energy on the set goes beyond the cast's fondness for jokes and bad puns.

''I believe we are doing something good for blind people, encouraging them to stay independent,'' says Preston, who gets around with the help of his guide dog, John T. ``I'm glad to be part of it.''
Preston and Watkins are partially sighted and can read the script in 30-point type. Chacon is blind and must memorize her lines ahead of time.

''Even in the studio, we can't use a teleprompter,'' says Rentmeester, who believes the challenges of her show are also its strengths.

``Instead of using cooking teachers who were sighted, I wanted to use real blind people. They were the ones who would be able to give the best tips. Every single show, I'll learn something.''
Working in television was Rentmeester's dream even as a little girl growing up in Green Bay, Wis. She majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and worked at a local TV station as a production assistant.

It was far from glamorous -- she put herself through school by working as a pickle packer -- and Rentmeester was hardly star-struck. She always kept in mind what her parents taught her: ``You help people out and make them feel welcome.''

She left Wisconsin for Miami in 1983, following and soon marrying her college sweetheart. (That marriage and a second one ended in divorce.) The next year, Rentmeester became a promotion assistant at Channel 4-WTVJ, displaying the same ambition she brings to Cooking Without Looking. After finishing her day job in promotions, she would stay after hours to work on special projects, including a show about youth gangs that earned an Emmy nomination.

She also jumped into volunteer work, serving on local boards for Save the Children, the Women's Business Development Center, the American Heart Association and the March of Dimes, which named her its volunteer of the year in 1998.

In 1996, Rentmeester left Channel 4 to start her own public relations firm.

''I wanted to stretch,'' she says. ``I had the feeling I could do more on my own.''

She did a lot of online research to find an underserved group she could help. ``I surfed till I found good things.''

And those good things became VisionWorld. The nonprofit gets along on a $50,000 annual budget, and Rentmeester, who doesn't own a car, travels to tapings at WXEL's Boynton Beach studios via MetroRail and TriRail from the Kendall home she shares with her 14-year-old daughter.
''You don't need a lot of money to do good for people,'' she says.

Besides producing the show, she has used VisionWorld to assist individuals, intervening on behalf of a blind man whose condo board threatened to evict him for keeping a guide dog and helping an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration get the low-vision equipment she needed.

''The technology out there is just amazing,'' Rentmeester says. ``If people knew more about it, there would be less fear about going blind. It makes the challenge a little easier.''

Her own challenges include getting more public television stations to carry Cooking Without Looking.

''I'd like to go national,'' she says. ``We just have to change some more minds.''

And she sees more potential for using TV -- where ''you can reach out to millions of people at a time'' -- to do good in the world.

''I want to have all sorts of shows for people with disabilities,'' she says, including one she's developing now called Traveling Without Trouble.

``The biggest challenge is always in getting the funds.''

VisionWorld's underwriters include Nova Southeastern School of Optometry, the Florida Division of Blind Services and the National Federation of the Blind Newsline, but Rentmeester would welcome more. And she wouldn't mind having a car, but ``it's not big deal.

''You can get the car later. The bank account comes in the future. I feel better than I ever have before. I feel like I'm doing good for people,'' she says.

``If I know I can help someone, I can work around the clock.''