Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ignorant remark about service dog puts restaurant owner in trouble

An Auckland restaurant owner is under fire after asking a visually impaired woman if her guide dog "had fleas" before seating her.

Christchurch woman Julia Aguilar, 26, was out with fiance Jonathan Mosen, 39, who is also visually impaired, two American friends and her guide dog Reggie. The group had made a reservation at Tony's in Lorne St, Auckland.

Aguilar told the Herald on Sunday that when they entered the restaurant, the owner asked if the dog had fleas.

"He said he was afraid it would be a problem for the other patrons to have the dog in the restaurant."

She assured him the dog was clean, and the party was seated at a table near the bar, which they found too noisy. They left the restaurant after a dispute about the seating arrangements.

Mosen, who is a past president of the Foundation for the Blind, claimed they had received inferior service because of the guide dog.

"I felt like standing up in the middle of the restaurant and saying, 'Excuse me, does anyone actually mind us having the dog here'?"

When the Herald on Sunday approached owner Damon Ropata, he agreed he had asked about the dog's hygiene, but denied the party had been given poor service.

"My main concern was the comfort of our other customers. The tables are so close to each other, we don't want anybody tripping over anything. We are not discriminatory to anybody. We gave them a table, but they chose to leave ."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Braille converter helps the visually impaired

A free, e-mail-based service that translates text into Braille and audio recordings is helping to bridge the information gap for blind and visually impaired people, giving them quick and easy access to books, news articles and web pages.

Developed by European researchers, the RoboBraille service offers a unique solution to the problem of converting text into Braille and audio without the need for users to operate complicated software.

“We started working in this field 20 years ago, developing software to translate text into Braille, but we discovered that users found the programs difficult to use – we therefore searched for a simpler solution,” explains project coordinator Lars Ballieu Christensen, who also works for Synscenter Refsnaes, a Danish centre for visually impaired children.

The result of the
EU-funded project was RoboBraille, a service that requires no more skill with a computer than the ability to send an e-mail.

Users simply attach a text they want to translate in one of several recognised formats, from plain text and Word documents to HTML and XML. They then e-mail the text to the service’s server. Software agents then automatically begin the process of translating the text into Braille or converting it into an audio recording through a text-to-speech engine.

“The type of output and the language depends on the e-mail address the user sends the text to,” Christensen says. “A document sent to would be converted into spoken British English while a text sent to would be translated from Portuguese into six-dot Braille.”

The user then receives the translation back by e-mail, which can be read on a Braille printer or on a tactile display, a device connected to the computer with a series of pins that are raised or lowered to represent Braille characters.

RoboBraille can currently translate text written in English, Danish, Italian, Greek and Portuguese into Braille and speech. The service can also handle text-to-speech conversions in French and Lithuanian.

Christensen notes that the
RoboBraille partners are constantly working on adding new languages to the service and plan to start providing Braille and audio translations for Russian, Spanish, German and Arabic. They are also working on making the service compatible with PDF documents and text scanned from images.

Up to 14,000 translations a day

At present, the service translates an average of 500 documents a day, although it could handle as many as 14,000. RoboBraille can return a simple text in Braille in under a minute while taking as long as 10 hours to provide an audio recording of a book.

As of January, the RoboBraille system had carried out 250,000 translations since it first went online.

The team have won widespread recognition for their work, receiving the 2007 Social Contribution Award from the British Computer Society in December while in April they were awarded the 2008 award for technological innovation from Milan-based Well-Tech.

“We initially started offering the service only in Denmark but to make it viable commercially we needed to broaden our horizons. Hence the eTen project which allowed us to involve other organisations across Europe in developing and expanding the service, not only geographically but also in terms of users,” Christensen says.

In addition to the blind and visually impaired, the service can also help dyslexics, people with reading difficulties and the illiterate. The project partners plan to continue to offer the service for free to such users and other individuals, while in parallel developing commercial services for companies and public institutions.

“Pharmaceutical companies in Europe will soon be required to ensure all medicine packaging is labelled in Braille and we are currently working with three big firms to provide that service,” Christensen explains. “Banks and insurance companies are also interested in using it to provide statements in Braille as too is the Danish tax office. In Italy there is interest in using it in the tourism sector.”

The RoboBraille team, which recently received an €1.1 million grant over four years from the Danish government, expect the service to be profitable within four or five years.

And although they are not actively seeking investors, they are interested in partnerships with organisations interested in collaborating on specific social projects.

RoboBraille was funded under the EU's eTEN programme for market validation and implementation.

Newspapers for the visually impaired may vanish soon!

A unique Barron County program that brings the simple joy of hometown news to the visually impaired is in danger of disappearing.

The Barron County recorded newspaper project started in 2001 as a way to help the visually impaired "read" their local newspaper. The program is operated by the Barron County Library Service and serves those who read the Barron News-Shield, The Rice Lake Chronotype and The Chetek Alert. Volunteers from around the county are recorded reading news stories from the paper, the tape from which is sent to the Barron County Library Service office, duplicated, and dispersed to those requesting copies of the audio paper.

Barron County Library Service Director Lori Bock explained she began looking at ways to get local news to the visually impaired after attending a conference in Madison. Speakers at the conference discussed methods of delivering a larger metro paper to individuals who were visually impaired-such as a telephone dial-up service-but there really was no method of bringing small town newspapers to those who struggle to see.

Bock then came up with the idea to record newspapers.It did not take long for the recording project to catch on, and soon, the library service and volunteers began preparing and sending audio versions of the local papers. When the program initially began, as many as 40 individuals participated in the program. The program was so successful, that the library service received an award from the Wisconsin Council of the Blind in 2003 for their service to the visually impaired. The project is also a unique service in Baron County.

Bock noted that while other counties have called to inquire about how Barron County set up the program, she is not aware of any that have actually instated it."It is a fun project," said Bock. "The people participating appreciate it, and the volunteers enjoy doing it. We just got a note back from one nursing home that said one gentleman has lost interest in everything else, but still enjoys listening to the newspaper."For Bock, the project also became personal, as her mother struggles with macular degeneration, a condition in which the center of the inner lining of the eye begins to waste away. As she began noticing the problems with her mother's sight, she also realized that her mother missed their local paper.

A similar story is told by Kathy Rudd, of Rice Lake, who typically records The Chetek Alert. She, too, began seeing the importance of the project as her mother's sight began to deteriorate. That personal connection to the project has made the importance of the project clear."Our eyes are valuable," said Rudd. "We take our sight for granted. It became clear that this is a special project. Hometown newspapers are special, and it would be a shame to know people could miss them."Rudd said she typically spends about two hours recording stories on the 90-minute tape she is given. Not every story is able to make the tape, but she highlights the news stories and reads as much of the first section of the paper as she can.

Some individuals often make special requests for stories they would like to hear, like the Sand Creek News and obituaries, and Rudd does her best to incorporate them on the tape. "I think it is a neat project," said Rudd. "It is fun to be involved because you know someone is getting the news in Chetek who may not normally be able to get it."Unfortunately, there is a good possibility in the near future that those participating in the program will no longer receive the recording, as the Barron County Library Service itself may soon no longer exist.

Bock foresees the dissolution of the Barron County Library Service in the next year or two, as several of the libraries in the network will be joining a larger library network based in Eau Claire. At one point, most of the libraries within Barron County were part of the countywide network. Within the last couple of years, both Rice Lake and Chetek libraries merged with MORE, a regional library system in Eau Claire.

In 2009, five of the libraries left in the bi-county Barron/Rusk system (Cameron, Bruce, Ladysmith, Cumberland, Barron) will also be merging with MORE to provide easier access to library collections. This will leave only the Turtle Lake Public Library left in the Barron County system.In addition to grants, the county libraries involved in the service helped fund the countywide organization provided.

With no libraries in the system, the funding for the service will be minimal, and will likely no longer exist."The project is a pretty big deal," said Bock. "Now it is on the verge of going away. We'd love to see it keep going, but I don't see the possibility of the county libraries funding it anymore."Because of the tenuous situation of the project, Bock explained those in the service have not actively been promoting it.

This could explain why the numbers of participants have decreased over the years. There are now only 12 individuals who receive taped versions of local papers-three for The Chetek Alert. Despite declining numbers, there is still hope the project will continue. The library service board met Thursday to discuss options for the recorded newspaper project.

According to board president Rhonda Tisdell, of Barronette, the board will be presenting their situation to several local organizations to see if any would be willing to take over funding the project."It is not a project that has to fall by the wayside," said Tisdell. "There are lots of other volunteer organizations that could continue the services, and hopefully we can find one."

For more information on the recorded newspaper project, contact the Barron County Library Service at 637-6870. The library service is located at the old courthouse in Barron.

New technology will help the visually impaired to surf the Internet

Audiopoint will launch an exclusive new Voice Terminal Service ( VTS) that will give instant access to Internet content in real time via any telephone.

Designed for both the visually impaired, as well as users with limited internet access, VTS uses a first of a kind text-to-speech technology so subscribers can listen to and respond to email messages, surf and access web content anytime, anywhere.

This aims to give the visually impaired access to content like never before as there are no limitations like other services – if its online, its full accessible. This also makes VTS a safer, more convenient alternative to PDAs while on-the-go.

Certainly sounds like an interesting idea, doesn't it - sometimes even mass-market devices and services don't take in to account the needs of small but significant minorities - in this case the visually impaired - so anything that makes life easier has got to be a good thing.

If you want to find out more, check out Audiopoint's

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Sioux Falls are helping families with visually impaired children

Like many parents, Erin and Jeff Hortsmeyer spend most of their time caring for their son, Samuel.Except for this Sioux Falls couple, their 6 1/2-year-old requires one-on-one, around-the-clock attention. His care is getting more intense the older he gets.But access to the latest information regarding his health issues just got a little easier.

A new Web site, launched this week, features the Hortsmeyers and several other families that are raising children with visual impairments. It is a project the American Foundation for the Blind hopes will link families together, giving them support.The couple felt compelled to be a part of Website and are shown through a video about their family.

With connections and support, families may feel more empowered to help their children reach their full potential, says Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the organization from his office in New York.Augusto, who's blind himself, says, "There was nothing like this when I was born. My parents had no hope. People had the lowest expectations for blind people. They didn't know where to turn."The Website puts people in touch with each other, but more than that it offers hope.

Hope is a good thing for the Hortsmeyers. They live a challenging life with Samuel.While he goes to kindergarten at John Harris Elementary, is fond of books and loves being read to, any similarity to a normal family ends there. His health issues are overwhelming and the challenge is growing as Samuel gets bigger. He is blind, non-verbal and has a seizure disorder, says Erin Hortsmeyer, his mom.

"He takes meds 12 times a day. We spend a lot of our day feeding him. He'll eat, then take a bath. We do a lot of reading. It's one on one at all times."The American Foundation for the Blind Website ( has provided an outlet "to share information and support as families, to raise children that are blind and vision impaired," she says.The couple found out Samuel was going to have problems when Erin was 28 weeks pregnant. "His head was four weeks behind in development. The doctor said he had a five percent chance of survival at birth."

It was a terrible irony—Erin had had two previous miscarriages. "I spent the first part of the pregnancy fearful of losing it. Then to find out...we felt disbelief and were scared. But we never thought of terminating."Despite Samuel's extensive health problems, learning of his blindness was another blow.

"We had concerns about his vision very early on. He didn't respond to light, didn't track things. We found out he was blind when he was four months old."Overcoming the isolation was a monumental task. "We felt like an island. We wanted to connect with people whose kids had the same things."That's where the Website comes in.

There are 93,600 school age kids who are visually impaired in the United States. "Many of the families (that have blind kids) in South Dakota have never met a child similar to their own," says Marje Kaiser, superintendent of the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Aberdeen."It's painful to watch your child not meet milestones. It's an ongoing grieving process. You cannot understand what a family goes through trying to raise a disabled child," Hortsmeyer says.
The Website empowers parents through tips such as giving recommendations on how to build a good foundation to help your child with school readiness to simply sharing experiences, Kaiser says."By just being able to talk to other parents, it becomes a powerful tool."The Website can be accessed by age group or disability and includes resources available in states and communities. "The site is rich. There's so much information, videos and tips," Kaiser says.

Besides the parent connect, there's another site geared to seniors who are blind or are losing their eyesight. It includes information on how to set up a kitchen, for example."The Website is a wonderful portal to get you to where you want to be," Kaiser says.

"The beauty of the Website is the community we're creating. They're going to find a parent of a similarly disabled child," Augusto says.The Website was established with help from the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI), the Hilton foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Lavelle Fund for the blind, Augusto says.It's one day at a time for the Hortsmeyers but the Website helps.

"Sam was given to us for a reason. God gave me the ability to speak out on his behalf. It's a way to reach out about Sam and share some of the emotions and concerns we have about him," Hortsmeyer says.

Reach Dorene Weinstein at 331-2315