Saturday, October 11, 2008

UK: Football for visually impaired children

THE Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) have announced a new programme of football for visually impaired 9VI) kids in Londonderry.

The programme will begin at Templemore Sports Complex on September 27. Under 15's will take place between 12pm-1pm and Over 15's from 1pm-2pm.The programme is a joint venture between the RNIB and the Irish Football Association (IFA).

To find out more or to book a spot please contact Mal Donaghy at the IFA on 02890669458, Niall Dempsey at RNIB (NI) at 02890329373, or Martina O'Neill at RNIB (Foyle Branch) on 02871320167.

Polish museum developed accessibility to the visually impaired

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is set to become more accessible to the visually and aurally challenged. Guides will be published in two new versions – Braille and extra-large lettering.

The museum will provide these new services free of charge under the sponsorship of Krakow’s Center and School for the Blind and Deaf.

Barbara Plant, the director of the school stated, “Previous opportunities were very limiting […] up until now, we could only tell visually impaired people about Auschwitz.”

A press liason for Auschwitz, Pawel Sawicki, said that, “It was most difficult to create a Braille map of Auschwitz that would be understandable for the visually-impaired. However, the teachers from the school in Krakow were instrumental in helping us.”

One of the specialists from the school, Leszek Ogorek, highlighted the fact that “it was most important to convey the magnitude of this place and not necessarily make the most exact map […] The map of Auschwitz is quite accurate and legible. However, due to the enormous size of Birkenau, it was impossible to make such a map perfectly accurate. I was more focused on conveying the size, scope and span of the place.”

So far, the maps have been received very positively by the visually-impaired community. Przemek Kielar, a blind second-year student at the Vocational School for Piano Tuners, claims that “the maps are very well done and there is tons of information on them […] It’s possible to learn a lot from them, and blind people who have yet to go to Auschwitz will now be able to get a clear picture of the history and look of the concentration camp. Now, if someone is to go there, the experience of their visit will have a lot deeper meaning.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is one of the first in Poland to publish such a guide for the disabled. The museum opened in 1957. They publish catalogues, maps and guides in over 20 languages.

Noor Dubai offers a lot to visually impaired children

Abdullah Awad, a 15-year-old Emirati, recalls being shouted at in a mall while taking a stroll with another visually impaired person. The accusing voice had demanded to know why the two friends were "pretending to be blind" and walking around with canes.

"The woman walked away before I could explain that I am really blind and that I need my cane to get around," he says, making a case for greater social awareness about the visually impaired.
Awad was born with his impairment. His 11-year-old sister is also blind but both siblings have adapted to their condition and are studying in a public school.

"Public schools are improving and trying their best to accommodate children with special needs but still there is a long way to go," says Awad. He faced difficulties while growing up with schools rejecting him because he was blind, but eventually it all worked out with persistence and immense strength of will.

Delay in issuing books

The major problem for children like Awad is lack of attention and supervision and their difficulties are compounded when public schools issue books printed in Braille way into the academic year.
"In rare cases we get them two weeks after the beginning of the term or academic year; sometimes we get them just before the exams," said Awad.

Abdullah Bin Thahir from Dubai, who is in his final year of high school said: "The ministry should invest more effort on our needs and wants."

Bin Thahir was integrated into a regular public school in Grade 5. He points out the challenge of moving from an environment where everyone is the same to an environment where he is conspicuously different.

Public schools provide study material for all subjects in Braille except for maths. Private schools in the UAE do not offer aids for the visually impaired except for private Arabic schools that follow the Ministry of Education curriculum.

Mohammad Sha'lan's mother is gripped by anxiety each new academic year as she struggles to secure her child's books and to collect class notes from his classmates to help her son with his studies.

Although most visually impaired children have specific devices to type in their class notes, for 13 year-old Sha'lan that is not an option - overeager classmates damaged the device and his parents are not in a position to afford a laptop specifically for the visually impaired.

His mother struggled to find a private school that could accommodate her son and continuously worries for his future.

"I have given up my career for him and spend sleepless nights worrying about his education. My son is very smart and talented; if only he had more options to achieve his dreams," says the Ajman resident.

Sha'lan's mother, originally from Lebanon, had to type out all his subjects in Braille when he was in Grades 1 and 2 in the absence of other means. Nowadays, she tries her best to assist him with his English and Maths for lack of proper study material in Braille.

Another issue for visually impaired children is that they are left out of computer classes and physical education sessions for lack of facilities for them.

Mohammad Mubarak, from Sudan, is both visually impaired and suffers from severe osteoporosis that has confined him to a wheelchair.

"During his lower secondary education, he was carried all the time by support staff at the school to his classroom on the second floor and when boarding and getting off the school bus," recalls Mubarak's mother.

"I don't face much difficulty in school but wish I can get my books on time to catch up with the rest of my classmates,' said the 15-year-old.

Marwa Ali Saeed used to journey daily during the summer from Fujairah to Dubai to attend classes at Tamkeen, an institute that provides essential programmes such as computing and English courses for the visually impaired.

She also goes every weekend to the Blind Association in Sharjah in the absence of proper facilities or programmes for the visually impaired near her home.

Marwa says even treatment sessions to restore her vision are unavailable in Fujairah.
Lack of such options is a major challenge for the 15-year-old, especially since the young UAE national has more than 50 per cent chance of regaining her sight.

"My parents are thinking seriously about registering with the Noor Dubai initiative of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai," she said.

The biggest worry for Marwa as of now is when she will get her study material. "I don't want to be left behind in my studies. In previous grades, the IT course was only considered an activity but now it contributes to our overall grade percentage. I don't know how I will be able to take classes in the absence of computers that don't suit the needs of visually impaired pupils," she said.

Most of the pupils were enthused by the Noor Dubai campaign and spoke of how it had revived hope that their needs would be addressed from a social, educational and medical perspective.

Court to decide money's appearance to help the visually impaired

The next generation of dollar bills may not look or feel the same as the ones in your pocket.An ongoing federal appeals court decision may phase out the current design of American paper money, switching it to a revamped paper currency that is more accessible to the blind and those with limited vision.Judge James Robertson of the Federal District Court in Washington D.C. ruled in 2006 that the U.S.

Treasury Department failed to "design, produce and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired" people, which violates federal law under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.The currency designs in use are the same size and shape, said Sue Ann Hansford, a counselor for the Division for Blind Services located at Texas Tech.She said there is no inherent way to distinguish between the different values of paper currency.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals returned the issue back to the district Court for further consideration, Judge A. Raymond Randolph said in his dissension that it would cost $3.5 billion to replace food and beverage vending machines and ATMs.No final decision about whether or not to change U.S. paper currency has been made, but Jeff Lovitky, an attorney for the American Council of the Blind, said he expects Judge James Robertson to issue an order in the next few weeks that will develop the case further.

"I think the only real opposition to it in the past is that it will be a tremendous expense to fix a situation for a small population," said Larry Phillippe, managing director of Tech's Student Disabilities Services.The 2006 National Health Interview Survey reported a total of 21.2 million people in the United States responded that they were blind or unable to see at all or had trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported an estimated U.S. population of less than 300 million people in 2006. Thus, blind and visually impaired individuals comprised about 7 percent of the population in that year.Faith Penn, a visually impaired senior public relations major from Dallas, said she has been able to function adequately without currency that has different sizes, shapes or colors.Penn was born with glaucoma and lost her working vision in 2006.

She said she has been cheated by dishonest cashiers in the past, but she used the experience to become a stronger, more assertive customer."If you're getting change back from a cashier," she said. "and you don't know what you're getting back, ask the cashier."Also, she said she folds her money so she can recognize the difference between bills of different values."I don't think the world needs to cater to us," Penn said.And it may not.Lovitky said nothing is certain because the council is "in the middle" of a legal battle.

Scamming couple must pay back for taking advantage of the visually impaired

A former state worker in charge of helping the blind pleaded guilty along with her husband Wednesday for falsely billing the state nearly 500 times for transportation they never gave to visually impaired people in the state's care.Now the couple are repaying $115,000.

The scam was tripped up when the state official, Martha Juarez, 44, complained that the state was taking too long to pay. A whistleblower thought something was amiss and tipped off the state's executive inspector general's office.Martha Juarez was a coordinator for the Illinois Department of Human Services Bureau of Blind Services at its Milwaukee Avenue office in Chicago.

Juarez and her husband, Carlos, 46, agreed Wednesday to pay restitution for the theft and were sentenced in Cook County court to 4 years' probation. Authorities found Martha Juarez submitted vouchers for up to $300 each on behalf of her husband for providing rides to visually impaired people from 2001 to 2005.

Voting "sounds" great to the visually impaired

As 19-year-old Cecilia Milligan pointed out during a brief speech Wednesday at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, all Americans have the right the vote, but for some that right is difficult to execute.

Rick Moses, 33, of Spartanburg, center, gets help from Hampton Miller in using technology that helps residents who are hearing impaired or visually impaired vote. The systems were introduced Wednesday in Spartanburg.

Milligan is in the deaf school at SCSDB and a senior at Dorman High School. This election cycle is her first opportunity to vote, and thanks to new technology she easily can.

SCSDB and South Carolina Election Commission representatives were at the school Wednesday to unveil a video demonstrating the voting process for the deaf or hard of hearing community. The event also included a voter registration drive and demonstration of touch-screen voting systems equipped with headphones and Braille for visually impaired voters.

"The deaf have that right," Milligan signed, "the right to vote for whomever we want to vote for. So thank you."

Scott Falcone, SCSDB director of the Midlands regional outreach center, represented the school on the South Carolina Disability Voting Coalition to help create the video. The DVD, which will be available at all handicap-accessible polling locations, will run on a loop, taking voters step by step through the voting process.

It features audio, sign language and closed captioning communication.

"It provides a sense of independence," Falcone said. "I'm very happy and proud of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, the South Carolina Election Commission and everybody else who was involved in this."

Those who viewed the video for the first time also had the opportunity to participate in a demonstration of the touch-screen voting systems to be used in November. Visually impaired voters receive audio confirmation of their vote, and Braille directs them to buttons instead of the touch screen.

Elaine Sveen, SCSDB director of research and accountability, talked briefly about the challenges her son Rick, who is blind, has faced while voting.

"He had to trust me, as we debated political issues, to vote the way he chose to vote," Sveen explained. "I am so thankful that today he can go to the voting booth independently and do it with privacy."

The machines, which are battery operated, can also be removed from stands and taken to voters in their wheelchairs, cars or any other easily accessible place.

The video can be viewed online at Click on the "voters" link then scroll down to "voters with disabilities."

Visually impaired children learn all about baking!

Ten visually impaired children cooked up a storm during a day in the kitchen with bakers.

Bakehouse, a pastry-making company, is supporting the work of Berkshire County Blind Society and invited youngsters from the county to its Surrey offices for a special cookery experience.
Teenagers got to learn how to make yummy pizzas with Bakehouse staff, while younger children made and decorated biscuits.

Rachel Saunders from Bakehouse said: “Decorations and toppings for the pizzas and biscuits were selected for their smells, colours and textures.

“We wanted to make the event as interesting as possible for the visually impaired children and, because the day was so hands-on, it was perfect for them.”

Bluetooth technology helps the visually impaired to find their way!

A new Bluetooth system designed primarily for blind people places a layer of information technology over the real world to tell pedestrians about points of interest along their path as they pass them. The Talking Points urban orientation system was developed at the University of Michigan. Researchers will present their work at two conferences on Sept. 24.

"Blind people can get from point A to point B. They learn to count steps if they have to, but they miss the journey because they don't always know what they're passing. The idea behind Talking Points is to enhance the journey," said James Knox, adaptive technology coordinator for the University's Information Technology Central Services and one of the system's developers.

"Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful to the sighted community as well," Knox said.

For the sighted community, the system could give passersby a peek at the specials or sales inside a business. It could offer on-the-go access to customer reviews. For blind pedestrians, it could do the same, but it would also fill those gaps in knowledge. Talking Points could help visually-impaired people find public restrooms, police stations, public transportation and restaurants with Braille menus, for example.

"If it caught on, this would be an effective way to tag the whole world," said Jason Stewart, a master's student in the School of Information who is involved in the project. "Anyone with a reader could use it to find out more information about where they are."

Similar systems exist, but Talking Points is the first known to use Bluetooth, cater to both the sighted and the visually-impaired, allow people to operate it entirely with voice commands, and incorporate community-generated content through a website.

Knox and collaborators in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science created an early version of Talking Points years ago.

A group of master's students and undergraduates has given the project new energy. They shrunk the receiver and switched the transmitting technology from RFID to the more popular Bluetooth. They are also exploring other technologies such as GPS.

Stewart and fellow School of Information master's students Jakob Hilden and Michelle Escobar will present papers about Talking Points on Sept. 24. Stewart and Hilden will present at the Ubicomp 2008 conference in South Korea. Escobar will present at the Accessible Design in the Digital World conference in the United Kingdom.

The Talking Points system includes several components:

A mobile device picks up the Bluetooth signals and speaks or displays information to the user. In the future, a cell phone could be the receiver, but this prototype isn't a phone. It is slightly larger, about the size of a paperback book. If a user wants more information about a beacon, she can tell the device by voice or touch.

Bluetooth beacons, or tags, would be located at points of interest where owners wish to give information to Talking Points users. Businesses could purchase these beacons, which cost less than $20. Cities could tag information centers, parks or other buildings, for example.

A website would allow Talking Points beacon owners to program their tags. They could update their messages regularly. Once a beacon is added, other community members could add their comments about the point of interest. Pedestrians using the system could then choose to get those comments.

"This project enables a type of augmented reality," said Hilden, one of the students who will present the research at Ubicomp. "It shows how we can take user-generated information from the Internet and lay it over reality to help people make sense of where they are in their environment and what the possibilities are around them."

In addition to developing a prototype receiver, the students tested their system in field simulations with visually-impaired and sighted people and conducted focus groups.

"Location-based guide systems of one kind or another have been built and re-built by academic researchers for over a decade now, but this is the first project that has really focused on the needs of the visually impaired and gone out to make sure the system is being developed to meet those needs," said Mark Newman, an assistant professor in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Newman is a co-author of the papers that will be presented.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Technology, a visually impaired person's best friend!

Even if you can read this, chances are you know somebody who can't. More than 16 million Americans report some form of visual impairment even when wearing glasses or contacts.
That number is expected to double by 2030 as the aging population brings rising rates of macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and other eye diseases.

But "low vision" (technically, worse than 20/60 in the better eye) doesn't have to mean darkness and dependence. An ever-growing array of devices can help people maximize their remaining vision and, in many cases, compensate for what they've lost.

Some of the new offerings: free software that can tailor the text on any Web site to your personal visual needs, and a cell phone that can snap photos of text — including signs and restaurant menus — and read it back to you.

Here's a look at some of the newest technologies:

● Reading on the go. The knfbReader Mobile is a cell phone with a camera. Take a photo of any text, and the phone reads it back to you aloud or via headphone. The device, which costs $2,195, can store thousands of pages, and you can adjust the speed and pitch of the computerized reading voice.

● You are here. Another handheld helper is the Trekker Breeze by HumanWare, a global-positioning system that announces the names of streets and intersections as you are walking or riding. With the press of a button, it tells you your location. The cost is $895.

● Customizing a computer. You can download a free software program from Lighthouse called LowBrowse. As you read any Web page, the line of text beneath your cursor appears in a banner across the top of the screen. The software lets you select the type size, style, color and spacing of the text that appears in the banner. Your preferences travel with you as you surf the Web, so you have to set them only once. LowBrowse, which also can read the text aloud and magnify images, is available at or at the add-ons site for Mozilla Firefox. It requires the Firefox browser.

● Mini-magnifiers. Desktop devices that magnify reading material, photographs and even your hands as you sew or write checks have been around for years. New portable versions come as small as paperback books. They cost from $220 to $1,300 but promise much more clarity, contrast and flexibility than an ordinary magnifying glass.

● Real reality glasses. Like a virtual-reality system, the Jordy glasses by Enhanced Vision can magnify objects as much as 30 times and display them on a tiny, embedded TV screen. The focus can be adjusted so users can see faces, watch TV or follow ballgames in a stadium. It's $2,995 and converts to a desktop viewer. Specialty eyeglass makers can also insert telescopic lenses into regular glasses and adjust the focus with different caps for different distances.

● Staying connected. Cell phones can help the visually impaired maintain mobility and independence, but can be difficult to use. The Jitterbug, by Samsung, has extra-large buttons and display. And its cousin, the Jitterbug OneTouch, has only three buttons — one for 911, one for any number you program in and one for a dedicated phone operator who will place other calls for you. Both are $147. Monthly contracts run from $10 to $40.

A visually impaired woman goes mountain climbing

THE idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro would seem daunting to anyone, but spare a thought for Toowoomba woman Janet Etchells she's been blind her whole life.

Ms Etchells and her friend Janet Wilson are hoping to conquer Africa's highest peak in March next year as part of the High Sight Expedition in which 14 visually impaired people will climb the mountain, each with a sighted companion.

They will be the only all-woman team attempting the climb which will be filmed for an international documentary.

Ms Etchells, who is 99 per cent blind, applied for the adventure and was chosen as one of seven visually impaired people from Australia to make the journey with another seven coming from South Africa.

She asked her friend Janet Wilson, whom she met just 12 months ago at a Toowoomba gym, to be her sighted guide and that was when this remarkable partnership began.

The Toowoomba team, or "Partners in Climb" as Ms Etchells described them, have already started their training.

They successfully climbed Tabletop Mountain just last week.

"I like to try to challenge myself as often as I can," Ms Etchells said.

"And with this trip I want to show other visually impaired people that they really can do what they want."

The trip is a 100 kilometre trek each way, taking five days to go up and then another two to come back down.

"We're very determined. We're going to do this together and get to the top," Ms Wilson said.
However, before they attempt to conquer Mt Kilimanjaro they have to overcome the first hurdle they must each raise $9000.

The money will go directly to the Prevent Blindness Foundation to further research while also covering the team's costs.

"We've really got nothing yet. We've certainly got the enthusiasm, now we just need the funds to get the gear," Ms Wilson said.

If anyone is able to help, Janet Etchells can be reached on 0407 784 835, or donations can also be made at