Saturday, April 26, 2008

See the courage of visually impaired marathoners

Carrying his collapsible white cane, Adrian Broca is running along the Pacific coast but dreaming of Boston. The pale gray concrete bike path ahead is invisible to him, blending into the surrounding sand. He can make out the dark blur of black pavement when he's on it, but little else.

Sounds come through loud and clear, however. He hears the hum of cyclists speeding closer, but can't tell if they have enough room to safely pass. Suddenly, he feels a sharp tug on the tether he grips in his right hand. A training partner guides Broca out of harm's way. Near the end of the 10-mile run, Broca drops the tether and races to the finish, his guides giving chase.

"When I run with my legs really turning, I feel alive," Broca said. "It's liberating."

Broca, who lost his sight at 18 to a hereditary condition that damaged his optic nerve, is the fastest blind marathoner in the country. Tomorrow, the 31-year-old hopes to defend his title in the Boston Marathon's visually impaired division and meet the "A" qualifying standard for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics of 2 hours 46 minutes. That would place Broca roughly 35 minutes behind the Boston finish times of the world's top male marathoners.

"Once I hear the gun go off, I forget about being visually impaired and feel like any other runner out there who has one goal in mind," said Broca. "When I started running around my neighborhood after losing my sight, bumping into light posts and bus stop benches, I was fighting off my blindness, telling myself that this is not going to stop me."

He leads a field of 19 runners - 15 men and 4 women - who will run the 26.2-mile course without being able to see it. Among them are three totally blind runners, who are categorized as B1. Broca falls into the B2 classification because he can just barely make out the vague shape of a hand when held close. He will be allowed four guides to assist him through the race.

The logistics alone are daunting. Each guide will cover roughly one-quarter of the course.

Depending on how many other runners are crowded around him, Broca either will use an 18-inch modified dog leash as a tether, gripping one end with his right hand, or ask his guide to just run alongside. Finding guides fast enough to keep up can be a challenge.

Broca's toughest competition will come from Kurt Fiene, the second-fastest visually impaired US marathoner, with a personal best of 2:52:55. Like Broca, Fiene knows the Boston Marathon is his last, best opportunity to qualify for the Paralympics.

Born with a condition that left him without irises, Fiene, 46, has no vision in his right eye and 20/400 vision in his left, putting him into the B3 category. B3 runners are prohibited from using guides.

During the later stages of a marathon, Fiene struggles with vision in his good eye.

"My eyes get tired and a little blurrier because I've got to watch a little more than most people do for cracks or holes or people cutting in front of me," said Fiene. "But who can see straight at 20 miles?"

Advantages, obstaclesNothing is the same for these runners - nothing except the determination to run at a champion's pace.

While anyone attempting to run the Boston Marathon averaging 6 minutes 20 seconds per mile expects physical and mental challenges, Broca and Fiene lose time at places most runners pass with ease, though there are some unexpected advantages. They cannot, for example, see Heartbreak Hill rise in front of them, missing the view that instills fear and dread and slows many runners. But Broca and Fiene agree it is a poor tradeoff for the obstacles they face.

In the packed starting area and through the first few miles before the crowd of runners thins, Broca remains reluctantly tethered to his guide. The leash inhibits his arm movement, making it difficult to establish a rhythm. It does, however, allow Broca and his guide to maneuver more efficiently around runners. With a tug here, a few verbal cues, a tug there, they can make their way into a small open patch, and repeat the process as Broca picks off other marathoners.

"I'm OK holding onto the tether, but I feel I can go faster without it," said Broca. "I've gone ahead of my guide in Boston, dropping the tether when I feel I need to push the pace."

The relatively straight, point-to-point layout of Boston's course allows Broca to run faster when he wants, though he needs his guide nearby, especially for right-angle turns. To get Broca safely through turns, his guide serves as a human GPS. When the right turn from Washington Street onto Commonwealth Avenue approaches tomorrow, Broca's guide will warn him. Then the guide will shout, "Right, right, right" until they have completed the turn.

Fiene relies on his good eye and the crowds lining the course to keep on track. In smaller, more rural races, Fiene has missed turns and gotten lost many times.

At water stations, Fiene must slow almost to a stop and grab a cup by both hands, otherwise he doesn't get enough water and risks dehydration. Although Broca relishes the independence running provides and ran his first seven marathons without assistance, he recognized he needed guides to retrieve water during the sweltering 2004 Los Angeles Marathon. Running by himself, he missed several water stations and nearly suffered heatstroke, though he still finished the race.

"I knew I was limiting myself without guides, not only with all the turns, but getting water and having to ask runners what mile it was," said Broca. "That race I realized I was putting my life in danger by not letting people know I was blind. As I got more competitive, I wasn't enjoying running as much doing it myself. I knew I wouldn't be able to reach my full potential."

While guides tell Broca his pace, Fiene often runs without the benefit of knowing his mile times. Sometimes he simply can't see mile markers and therefore doesn't know when to check his watch. At Boston, Fiene benefits from rubber mats placed across the road every 5 kilometers to record data from timing chips used to track runners' progress. The mats, in combination with a talking stopwatch that announces elapsed time with the push of a button, will enable Fiene to better pace himself.

"Running is a sport I can do on my own and that's why I got into it," said Fiene, who was a medalist at the International Paralympics Committee World Championships in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters before focusing on the marathon. "I play golf, but I can't go to the golf course by myself because I can't see where the ball goes off the tee. If I know the area where I'm running, I don't need somebody with me."

On the path around Lake Zorinsky in Omaha where Fiene regularly runs, however, he doesn't mind company. He sets an impressively steady pace for other runners. For that reason, women's Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Christy Nielsen calls Fiene the "perfect training partner." While Fiene keeps workouts on target, his training partners alert him to random icy patches, dogs, and speed bumps.

"When I tell people my training partner is blind, they say, 'What?' " said Nielsen. "But what's funny about Kurt is that when you go anywhere with him, he's the one who tells you where to go. He's so in tune with what's around him. I'm wowed by him when he kicks my butt all the time."

Fiene will cheer Nielsen to the finish of the women's Trials today. Then, they will switch roles for the Marathon. Nielsen believes Fiene has the talent to run a 2:45 Marathon, which would have placed him among the top 25 sighted Masters (ages 40-49) runners last year.

A long journeyApproximately 300 yards from the Marathon finish line, Broca plans to fully extend his cane and hold it aloft, showing his pride in representing visually impaired athletes. It is also a way to underscore just how far he has come.

When he first lost his sight, Broca tumbled into a deep depression and thought about suicide. He walked around without a cane, preferring the bruises he got bumping into everyday obstacles to the appearance of a disability. On his first training runs, Broca ventured out alone and returned home with cuts from the times he tripped and fell. Still, running made Broca feel normal.

"I did contemplate suicide, but my family would have been so hurt," said Broca, who is Mexican-American. "I couldn't cause them that harm. They had always been supportive, encouraging me to focus on what I could do. When I ran into things, they patched me up and just said, 'Be more careful out there.' "

Broca ran cross-country in high school, but he was an average runner who never took the sport seriously when he could see. As his vision declined, he became increasingly frustrated in class, and cross-country offered a refuge until he no longer could see where to run.

Getting lost on courses embarrassed him. It took several years before Broca found his way as a blind man, mastering adaptive technologies, enrolling in college, then finally returning to running. He figured marathons would be easier to handle by himself than shorter road races with more participants and more turns.

In 2001, when Broca finished his first marathon following only three months of training, he fell in love with the sense of individual accomplishment. He kept entering marathons and kept improving.

Hopes and dreamsAfter finishing his training run, Broca enters the Santa Monica Beach Club with his training partners. He feels for the door frame with his right hand.

Then, extending his cane, he pokes at the set of stairs leading to a back patio, where he sits and speaks of his hopes like any other athletic star - for ever improving times, for finding a sponsor, for the day when there will be prize money for visually impaired athletes.

"I've worked hard for what I've achieved, and I feel whatever time I end up running was the best time I could do on that day and wasn't because I couldn't see," said Broca.

"I don't think I'd be running if I hadn't lost my sight. I wouldn't be pushing myself."

Shira Springer can be reached at .

Train to commute will help the visually impaired

As an organization that is dedicated to the creation of a seamless, statewide, intermodal system of transportation in the state of Florida, the Florida Council of the Blind, Inc. has been monitoring the forward progress of the Central Florida Rail Project. Approval of the deal will greatly benefit members of our organization, as well as all visually impaired citizens of our state.

The goal of the Florida Council of the Blind is to better the lives of Florida's citizens who are blind and visually impaired through public education, legislative action and the distribution of statewide information and referral services. The implementation of the Central Florida Rail Project is an important first step in the creation of a seamless, statewide, intermodal system which contributes greatly to an enhanced quality of life for the blind.

I presume all Floridians would agree that people who do not drive because of fiscal constraints, disability, illness, age or choice, have the right to access the state's streets and highways. Supporting this project is both morally and fiscally responsible, as it will help to meet the transportation needs of citizens who do not drive.

The commuter rail project not only enhances Central Florida's economic viability and transit alternatives, but offers important benefits for the entire state. Additionally, the Central Florida project could provide future connections to other areas in the state, including connecting rail passenger services between Tampa and Orlando -- and beyond. This is especially important in light of the dwindling transportation options for people who are blind and visually impaired, as bus operators are reducing service in our state.

By providing a mode of transportation that is accessible to the blind community, we are in fact allowing these Floridians to pursue their vision of the American dream. While the ability to go to and from work, to doctor's appointments and recreation activities is taken for granted by many, the opportunity that the rail project will provide will not only improve our members' lives, but will enable them to participate fully as citizens of this great state.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Helen Keller, an inspiration for the visually impaired in Australia

SIXTY years ago this month, world-famous disability advocate Helen Keller arrived in Australia as the guest of the Royal Blind Society of NSW.

Six months later, after visiting organisations, schools and hostels for the blind throughout Australia and being feted at public and private receptions in every city she visited, Keller who 34 years earlier had become the first blind and deaf person to gain a university degree shocked her hosts when she told them that services for blind Australians were substandard.

Her comments were taken to heart, however, and led to the beginning of a major shift in Australian blindness agencies away from a charitable model to one of promoting empowerment and independence.

Helen Keller had a different message for the 13-year-old boy she met at a public reception in her honour at the Sydney Town Hall on April 4, 1948.

The meeting was to have a lifetime influence on him.

Manly resident Bob Hinds recalls the meeting as if it were yesterday. "My father had been invited to the reception as a representative of St John Ambulance, and he took me along," he said.
"The ovation Helen Keller received when she entered the packed town hall was tremendous everyone wanted to meet her."

Hinds was one of the lucky ones. He said Keller spoke to him for three or four minutes. She ran her hand over his lips and nose and throat, and announced "this boy will go a long way".
"It was a great honour for me to meet her and it came at a difficult time in my life," he said.
The previous year he had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition of the retina, and was going blind.

He was still attending a mainstream school but was becomingly increasingly isolated, was continually referred to by teachers and fellow pupils alike as "the blind boy" and excluded from many mainstream activities.

He recalls having had his face pushed against the classroom blackboard because he couldn't read what the teacher had written.

Keller gave him encouragement at just the right time. When he met her, his reaction was that of a typical teenager he was amazed and inspired by the fact that a person with such disabilities could command such respect from so many important people.

"She was the only famous blind and deaf person around at the time she was a celebrity," he said.
Later, as he worked his way through the braille or large-print version of the many books written by Keller or about her, he discovered a much deeper source of inspiration.

"People with blindness are always looking for something to lead them onwards," he said. "Helen Keller brought with her a revolutionary approach to disability. In an age when she could have sat back and taken it easy, she never stopped achieving and wanting to learn."

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. At 19 months, before she had learned to speak, she was stricken with an illness (diagnosed at the time as "brain fever") which left her deaf and blind.

She was a wild and unruly child, with little real understanding of the world around her. Learning of another blind and deaf child who was being educated, her distraught parents engaged 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, to teach their seven-year-old.

Miss Sullivan began her daunting task with a doll she had given Helen. By spelling the word "doll" into the child's hand, she hoped to teach her to connect objects with letters. It took Helen two days to learn to form the letters correctly, but she was still to grasp the concept that all objects had names, and that these could be communicated by touch.

This realisation came to her when Sullivan placed the child's hand under the spout of an outdoor pump at her home.

Keller later recounted the incident: "As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word 'water'. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."

From that point, her learning proceeded rapidly, as she mastered the alphabet, both manual and in raised print, and reading and writing. At 10 she began the difficult task of learning to speak, using her fingers to examine the vibrations of the larynx, lips and nose of her teacher as she spoke, and striving to imitate those vibrations with her voice. Her formal schooling ended in 1904 when she graduated from Radcliffe College at Harvard University as a bachelor of arts "cum laude" the first blind and deaf person to gain a degree.

Her writing career, which began in 1903 when her autobiography, The Story of My Life, appeared in book form, continued on and off for 50 years. However, she never lost sight of the needs of other blind and deaf-blind people, campaigning for legislative changes, giving lectures and writing articles and showing by example what could be accomplished.

Her efforts acquired a national outlet in 1921 with the formation of the American Foundation for the Blind, and it was as this body's counsellor for international relations that she visited Australia in 1948 on one of a series of trips that took her to 35 countries in seven years. Keller died in June, 1988, aged 87.

At her memorial service, Senator Lister Hill from Alabama said in his eulogy: "She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."

On the desk in the office of Bob Hinds' apartment on Manly's eastern hill sits a photograph of Helen Keller, who, when his world was crumbling, gave him the courage to go on and continued to inspire him. Beside the photo is one of his more recent acquisitions a scanning and reading device which, at the touch of a button, reads aloud the text of printed material scanned into the machine. It all seems light years removed from those dark days when the blind boy was given the will to "have a go" through a fleeting encounter with someone who had it tougher than him.

Hinds has been a remarkable achiever in his own right. At a time when basket-weaving and switchboard operator were about the only occupations available to the visually impaired, he completed a technical college course in french polishing and got a job in the NSW Education Department workshops.

In a career spanning 40 years, he worked in various capacities in several departments. His last appointment before retirement was a PR job with Public Works.

His voluntary work on behalf of the visually impaired and others with disabilities has been acknowledged with several community service awards.

As well as being convener of the Manly group for Vision Australia (the former Royal Blind Society of NSW), he has been chairman of the Manly Access Committee for many years. His current project is to persuade Manly Council to establish a "scented garden" of Australian native plants in Ivanhoe Park for the benefit of visually impaired people.

It would have had the full support of Keller, whose highly developed sense of smell helped form the many impressions of Australia she took home with her the "fragrances of the bush" which she later wrote about with great nostalgia.

Meeting address issues related to the visually impaired

State officials from the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired held a public forum Tuesday evening in an effort to better understand the concerns of residents from around the region dealing with the loss of vision.

More than 40 residents, service providers, job developers and division officials filled the American Legion hall in Brattleboro to discuss the needs assessment of the visually impaired in an open door environment.

"I'm very proud with the turnout and the people's ideas," said Fred Jones, director of the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has four regional offices to cover Windham, Windsor and Orange counties. The division will hold similar events in other communities.

Because of transportation issues, the division thought Brattleboro would receive the best turnout, said Rebecca Bezanson, rehabilitation associate with the division.

By bringing people together for the needs assessment session, the division can explore options on what to improve and what to focus on for the future, she said.

"We want to be able to do (our jobs) the best we can," said Bezanson. With awareness of some of the programs offered, hopefully more residents will be able to take advantage of them, she added.
One of the major themes brought up during the discussion was that motorists were not yielding to people with white canes as they crossed the street.

"It has become a concern," said Bezanson. "People don't know what to do when they see a white cane."

Recently, a motorist in Rutland came close to striking a visually impaired person, destroying their white cane as they crossed the road.

According to officials in the division, it is Vermont state law to yield as a motorist to a white cane. To help spread awareness of the number of visually impaired residents out walking around the country, there is a nationwide White Cane Awareness Day held each October.

The main concern discussed at the meeting revolved around the educating the general public about the issues directly effecting residents with visual impairment.

Audience members said they wanted to see more education in the schools starting at a younger age, especially in the driver's education courses.

"The general public makes a lot of general assumptions," said Jones. "We want to change that."
Many audience members felt satisfied as they departed the meeting.

Springfield resident George Adnams said he thought it was a very informational session that will allow the state division to continue to make positive strides in the future.

"It is great the state is sponsoring this kind of event because it really gets down to the grassroots," said Brattleboro resident Jeffrey Rathlef, who has been legally blind since 2003.

This meeting helps give the state a sense of the different angles to address some of these issues, he said.

Prior to the discussion, Marianne and Sean Kelly entertained the group with their blend of Irish folk music. Prizes donated from a number of local businesses, including Harlow's Sugarhouse, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Halladay's Florist and Gift Shop, The Book Cellar and Allen Bros, were also given out to participants.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Visually impaired students evicted by UCC

Some visually impaired students at the University of Cape Coast are in limbo as they have no place to lay their heads.The students are part of over 1,500 students resident in the Caseley Hayford Hall that were asked to vacate the hall by the university authorities.The decision of the authorities followed violent clashes between residents of the hall and those of the Atlantic hall.It was precipitated by a misunderstanding arising from hall week celebrations in the university.

The stranded visually impaired students and many of the other students have been putting up in obscure corners in the school.They sought refuge in the university’s cafeteria but they were ejected by the authorities who argued the cafeteria is not a place of residence.The university authorities tried to make alternative arrangement for accommodation for the 14 visually impaired but only eight of them could get places.

The remaining six are still reeling under the eviction which the students say is harsh.Reports say days of torrential rains have made life unbearable for them.The Vice President of the Association of visually and Physically Challenged students of the university, Mr. Seth Kwame Ativor said a number of their members are stranded.

He said even those who have been given places are not finding things easy because some of the rooms allocated to them are too small to contain them.Mr. Ativor said some of the members of the association who had examinations to write on Thursday, April 3, 2008 could not write the exam well under the circumstance.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Math are now accessible to the visually impaired

Washington, Mar 30 (ANI): A professor at the Indiana University has developed a software that may help overcome the obstacle of understanding math for visually impaired students.

Associate professor Elizabeth Jones has spent past seven months working along with ViewPlus Technologies, a company that creates hardware and software for the visually impaired in Corvallis, Ore.

However, she hopes that the software would help in making math accessible to all students from deaf to blind, gifted and talented students.

I feel very lucky to be doing this, Jones said, adding that it has been an amazing experience.
According to Jones, presently, many visually impaired children are taught math using an abacus.
Were trying to move away from the abacus and get blind kids doing arithmetic the same way as sighted kids, she said.

The software provides the voice for the typed words and figures that are on a computer screen. An embosser creates print outs, with not only Braille, but also graphics that the students can feel.
The blind can touch it. It can also be used by the learning disabled who can see and feel it, she said.

Students can take the printed page and place it on a touch pad, which is connected to the computer.

They can touch on the printed page and the computer will voice what it is, she added.

The technology focuses on addition, subtraction and multiplication while future editions will focus on division, fractions and eventually higher levels of math.

Right now, were focusing on the lower levels of math. If they dont get the lower levels, they wont be able to use high-level math, said Jones.

Soccer league for the visually impaired in Germany

Germany's newest sport -- soccer for blind and visually impaired players -- kicks off this weekend with a tournament. The organizer told DW-WORLD.DE how the game works and why he wants it to take off it Germany.

The tournament on March 29-30 in Berlin and Stuttgart marks the start of the first season for Germany's brand new Blind Soccer League. Manuel Neukirchner is the director of the Sepp Herberger Foundation, a co-sponsor of the project. The foundation was originally created in 1976 to advance the social and socio-political role of soccer in Germany.

But blind soccer is an established sport in 21 countries and our goal, together with our partners, is to establish the sport here in Germany. An organized tournament is very important for this, and we've planned one on March 29 and 30 in Stuttgart and Berlin with eight teams. We hope that this will help launch this very exciting sport.

Does blind soccer have the same rules as soccer for seeing players?

Of course blind soccer differs from soccer for seeing people. The teams are smaller -- there are four players on the field and one goalie. Much of the game functions via acoustic signals. The ball is designed with rattles inside of it. The players kick by ear, you could say.

Guides stand along the outer boundaries; these are people that guide the blind and visually impaired players and warn them if a collision is about to occur. They control the game from the outside. The goalies also help guide their fellow players on the field.

Your foundation is a co-sponsor of the tournament. What does it hope to achieve?

The Sepp Herberger Foundation, which was founded 30 years ago, is the oldest soccer foundation in Germany. Former national trainer Sepp Herberger initiated it together with the German Soccer Association.

Sepp Herberger's wish was always to use the integrative power of soccer for the good of the society. And that's what we want to achieve with this project as well -- to better integrate blind and visually impaired people into society.

Soccer is an element that joins people together, especially for people with impairments and handicaps.