Saturday, January 01, 2011

Smartphone for the visually impaired

VOIM is the brand for the a Smartphone intended to be used by people who are visually impaired. Using the special camera embedded in the Smartphone enables the person using it to identify the object. The information is then shared by translating it into Braille. The visually impaired person can then read it by touch and listening to it. There is a connection for an earpiece that can be used, enabling privacy.

This device can be worn around the neck, using a strap. This helps the visually impaired person to view obstacles ahead of them, in their path. This device will prove to be very practical. It will also increase the safety of the person using it, as well as their level of independence.

This is another great technological tool that can be used by visually impaired people. Here is a link where you can view this device.

Smartphone VOIM

Sunday, June 27, 2010

New non-profit hotel targets the need of the visually impaired!

A new not-for-profit hotel group has been launched to specialise in accessible travel. Rebranded as Vision Hotels, the group’s four AA three-star hotels are run by national charity Action for Blind People and are already equipped with all the needs for disabled guests, as well as families and couples. As a not-for-profit group, all the money is ploughed back into the hotels. “The charity has operated the hotels for many years and some time ago we wanted to market them to people with disabilities, so we rebranded” Head of Vision Hotels Paul Morrison told Travel Daily.

“Because our hotels have the facilities and are fully-accessible it makes commercial sense to market them this way”. Although the group is not exclusive to accessible tourism, each hotel features a range of facilities for different guests. “If you benchmark our facilities to other accessible hotels then they are the same, including flat level access and wide-fitting doors,” said Morrison. “We are different because as Heritage properties, we have tonal contrasts between the walls and floors, which is more pleasing for visually impaired guests. There is also special tactile flooring so people can feel the difference underfoot.” Other facilities include liquid level indicators, information in various formats and a place for pet and guide dogs. However, the group has also launched a new website, which was custom-built to help visually-impaired users. “Lots of leading hotels have websites that are not DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) certified and these are not suitable for some users,” said Morrison.

“We have set up our website from scratch which meets the criteria and we have invested in online booking solutions to meet our client base.” Through the new booking system, users can change the size of font or background colours to their needs. Looking towards the future, Morrison said the group has no plans to acquire new properties yet as a lot of money has been invested into the website and rebranding. However, it is looking to train agents in accessible tourism and build its available resources. “We work with Creative Travel in Devon and all its staff has gone through visual awareness training so they can manage clients needs better,” he revealed. “We feel we have a lot of information to give the industry so we will be looking to develop those.”

A mother's courage!

While roller skating at a friend's birthday party, my 7-year-old, Emma, wiped out.

One leg twisted behind her, another bent in front and both arms splayed.

"Are you all right?" I gasped.

"Just practicing a yoga move," she said, and might've pulled off the cool-girl act had she not found herself to be hilarious. "I crack myself up, just like an egg!"

My kids definitely get their sense of humor from their father. Jon can make me laugh in even the toughest situations.

When Emma was just a baby, a doctor told us she was visually impaired. Later that same day, I snickered through tears -- and knew we'd all be OK -- as Jon blithely told Emma about the "Three Visually Impaired Mice."

Benny, our 3 year old, has his own standup routine. "I'm an old lady!" he croaks as he walks around the house stooped over. "Want to see my slow run?" Then he launches into a slow motion jog in place, complete with exaggerated wiping of his brow.

These jokes were deliberate, but there are just as many times when the children are unintentionally funny. Having entertaining kids is a blessing, but trying to keep it together when the laughter would be "at" rather than "with" is tough.

I can't begin to count the number of times Jon and I have had to turn our backs to the children's wrath to choke back our laughter. There is just something so funny about half-pint brimming over with fury after walking full force into a sliding glass door.

But that would be laughing at instead of with, so we try to restrain.

A friend who is the mom of an 8-year-old girl told me about fighting back laughter during her daughter's first time chewing gum. "Today," the serious-minded girl said, "my goal is to chew gum and walk at the same time. Do you think I can do it? OK, here goes."

And then there are the times as a parent where you either have to laugh or cry.

Such as while I was interviewing someone for a York Daily Record/Sunday News article.

"I have to make an important phone call while you watch 'Sesame Street,'" I told Benny. "I need you to be very polite while I'm on the phone."

To me, this meant he shouldn't demand snacks and sing along to "Elmo's World."

To Benny, it meant leaning into the phone about five minutes later and politely stating: "In a minute, I'm going to need you to wipe my butt."

Total silence on the other end of phone. "Um, excuse me while I help my son with something," I muttered.

As soon as possible, I picked up the phone. "Sorry about that," I said in my best professional voice, just in time for Benny to call out, "I'm not wearing any pants!"

Laugh or cry? I had to laugh.

Again, I chose laughter when Emma scolded me for calling our dog a "dummy."

Jasper had taken a flying leap off a small walking bridge to chase a butterfly, landing in thick mud that he proceeded to shake over all of us.

"It's not nice to say 'dummy,'" Emma said with as much righteousness a mud-streaked 7-year-old can wield. "When I'm angry with someone, I just think 'dummy' in my head."

Then she glared at me so I would know exactly what she thinking about me just then.

And I turned my head, hoping she wouldn't see my shoulders shaking.

Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 7, and son, Benny, 3. For more Smart Mama columns visit

Get it now!

The Smart Mama Handbook, a mama-approved reference guide for parents in southcentral Pennsylvania, is now available.

The handbook answers parenting questions such as: Where can we go on a rainy day? Which fairs and festivals are coming up? Where are kid-friendly restaurants?

For details, go to or call 767-6397.

The courage of a visually impaired little boy!

The Iraqi child doesn’t remember color or light.

He was blinded before he arrived in America, the victim of a horrific attack when he was 2.

Now 7, Muhammed “Hamoody” Jauda might change his name to something more American. He uses his legal guardians’ last name – Smith – but is far from settled on a first. He kind of likes Simon.

“We’re waiting, because we want to make sure he makes a good decision, what he really wants,” Julie Robinett Smith said. “He was telling me last year it was Dylan.”

In many ways, Hamoody has become a typical American boy since arriving in Snohomish, Wash., in 2006. He just finished first grade at Riverview Elementary, loves shooting Nerf guns, goes to church at Bethany Christian Assembly in Everett and keeps a baseball glove draped from his bedpost.

But he also makes calls home to Iraq, keeping in touch with his Shiite family. He hopes one day to go to Kuwait to visit them, but he said he has no intention of going back to Iraq itself.

“I don’t want to remember all the bad times,” he said.

“There wasn’t a lot of bad times,” Robinett Smith said. “Just one.”

The attack happened in 2005. Sunni insurgents shot his mother, killed his uncle and turned a gun on Hamoody at close range.

His right eye was a complete loss. He now keeps the empty socket covered with a flesh-toned bandage. He lost vision in his left eye. It was replaced with a brown lifelike prosthetic.

He came to the Smiths through Healing the Children, a Spokane-based international aid group that provides medical treatment to children from poor countries. His stay lengthened from one year to three as doctors rebuilt his face.

By the time he turned 6, the Smiths were as attached to him as he was to them.

Randy and Julie Robinett Smith won approval from his Iraqi family to become his legal guardians. All agreed he would have a better chance of survival here. In 2008, the U.S. government granted him asylum.

He now calls the Smiths Mom and Dad and wants to become a U.S. citizen after he turns 18.

“I just thought it would be a little bit cooler,” he said.

Hamoody also has adapted to life as a blind child.

He runs upstairs to his room and can walk straight down aisles at Fred Meyer, barely using his cane as he makes a beeline to the toy section.

Mary Ann Graham helped him develop those abilities through her role as a Snohomish School District teacher for visually impaired children.

Now about to retire, she has taught him how to navigate the world.

She calls him “exceptional.”

She showed him how to buy groceries and read Braille. He’s at 60 words per minute, reading above a third-grade level. She also helped him develop a sense of echolocation. He uses sound like a bat, identifying large objects – people, cars, pillars.

Graham said she’s not sure what would have happened if Hamoody had stayed in Iraq.

“He would not have had the opportunity for the schooling, and to develop the skills” that he has, she said.

Graham and the Smiths agree the boy still faces challenges. He is scheduled for more surgery in July, to keep damaged nasal passages open.

Someday, he also will have to convince people that he can cope in a sighted world.

Julie Robinett Smith said Hamoody is up to the task, happy and fierce in his approach to life.

And he’s ready to take risks. It’s OK if he gets hurt, Hamoody said.

“I just tough it out.”

Courageous visually impaired girl competes in Braille challenge!

Before she was 2, Annette Lamas had undergone 10 operations on her eyes.

Born with congenital glaucoma that left her with a prothesis in her left eye and severely impaired vision in her right, she was so sensitive to light that she and her family had to live in darkness, curtains drawn throughout the house, for a year.

``I was very insecure not knowing what the future held,'' said Annette's mother, Ivette Moreno.

But the future seems bright for 7-year-old Annette.

On Saturday, the Miramar girl will join 56 competitors, ages 5 to 19, in the Braille Institute of America's 10th annual Braille Challenge in Los Angeles. The only South Floridian, Annette is one of 12 finalists in her age group.

The competition, which brings together winners of regional preliminaries held throughout the United States and Canada, is often described as the National Spelling Bee for the blind.

``It's meant to motivate children to take Braille seriously, to encourage them to work hard,'' said Nancy Niebrugge, Braille Challenge director. ``It's the one area these kids can truly compete in with no extra accommodations. It's a means of pride.''

The competition consists of five tests: reading comprehension, proofreading, spelling, speed and accuracy and chart and graph reading.

Annette began learning Braille when she was 3.

``She's picked it up super amazing. She's quite smart,'' Moreno said of her daughter, who is now reading at a fourth-grade level.

``Mom, you're talking for me,'' Annette interjected from a yellow swivel chair in the playroom of the family's Miramar home.

The second grader reads her favorite Junie B. Jones books in Braille by tracing over the bumps with her right hand, reading the words aloud and using her left hand to catch mistakes.

To write, she uses a Perkins Brailler, which looks like an old-fashioned typewriter, and a Braille note taker, a lighter, faster and more sophisticated device that stores files and can search the Web. Each machine has six keys for the six dots that form a two-column cell of raised dot combinations to represent letters and words.

Annette and her mother work on homework together for five or six hours each night, and she practices the violin daily. She is a proficient violinist who learned by ear and likes playing Spanish pop songs she hears on the radio more than Mozart.

Since the school year ended, mother and daughter have devoted themselves to preparing for the Challenge.

``Her mom works with her so hard,'' said Karen Tardif, Annette's teacher at Silver Shores Elementary, who added that Annette's skills go beyond the norm.

``She knows a lot about life. She's not quiet. She voices her opinions,'' Tardif said. ``[She has] such high self-confidence and makes jokes about herself.''

While there are other visually impaired students at the school, Annette is the only one who is legally blind. A vision teacher works alongside Tardif to transcribe or collect materials in Braille. Annette used to have a mobility teacher, but she's mastered her two-story school and maneuvers ``excellently'' through the hallways, Tardif said.

``She's very open and conscious of her condition,'' said her mother, noting that Annette gave a presentation to a cousin's 10th grade class about what it is like to be visually impaired.

``She's 7 going on 30,'' Moreno said with a laugh as she brushed Annette's bangs to the side of her forehead.

``Mom, I like them long,'' Annette protested. ``I'm growing them out.''

The vision in Annette's right eye is about 40/200. The glaucoma produces a far-sighted effect that forces her to sit extremely close to a television or computer screen to read large fonts and distinguish colors.

But Annette makes do. In fact, she loves playing computer games.

``If it was up to her, she would stay at home on the computer all day,'' her mother said.

The Braille Institute is paying for the family's room and meals at the Hilton Universal in Los Angeles, where the awards ceremony will be held Saturday night. The top prize in Annette's division is a PAC Mate similar to her Braille note taker and a $1,000 savings bond.

``No, I'm not nervous,'' she said. ``We're going to try to win.''

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Visually impaired man hit by a car dies of injuries

A visually impaired man who was struck by a car while walking to work last week has died, police said yesterday.

Kurt Vaughn Bellingrath, 57, was struck March 18 while walking from his apartment at Crowne Oaks to his job at Industries for the Blind off North Point Boulevard.

He died Thursday at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Bellingrath was crossing the street at the intersection at Bethabara Road and North Point Boulevard about 7:30 a.m.

Carolyn Mickey Adkins, 59, of King was driving west on North Point Boulevard when she came to the intersection and struck Bellingrath, according to a police report. No charges have been filed against Adkins.

Winston-Salem police Sgt. Keith Redmon said witnesses told police that Bellingrath was in the median and was crossing the street diagonally, not straight across.

Adkins had a green light when she came to the intersection, police said.

After being struck, Bellingrath was taken to Wake Forest Baptist.

His death was the third traffic fatality of the year.

Bellingrath moved here from New Jersey in April to take a job at the Industries for the Blind, said Annette Clinard, the director of work-force development.

Clinard said that Bellingrath was visually impaired but not completely blind.

He worked in the optical lab, where he made eyeglasses for veterans, Clinard said.

She said that Bellingrath enjoyed doing a job that made a difference in peoples' lives.

"He was very valued by all of us, and we are saddened by the whole situation," she said. "We cared about Kurt, and he did a good job for us." | 727-7327

Charity event raised funds for the visually impaired!

SINGAPORE: About 500 people attended a charity gala dinner on Friday night to raise funds for the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped.

Among them were President S R Nathan and his wife.

It was even more special for Mrs Nathan when she met three former students who are visually impaired.

She was their teacher at the Johor Convent School in 1965.

The evening also showcased the special talents of the visually-impaired through performances and their artwork.

The association is raising funds to serve its 3,100 visually-impaired clients who require rehabilitation and aftercare services.

The national voluntary welfare organisation, which provides such services in Singapore, needs S$150,000 monthly to run its programmes.

Egg hunt for visually impaired children


Children with impaired vision will have the chance to participate in an Easter egg hunt today.

They can hunt for 100 eggs that emit a beeping sound at Bayville Farms Park this afternoon, according to a news release from the police department. The plastic eggs can then be traded for a treat.

The event will start at 3 p.m. at Shelter #1 and continue until 5 p.m., according to the release. The park is located at 4132 First Court Road.

The International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators and the Hampton Roads Regional Metropolitan Bomb Squad are hosting the event in support of the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Virginia Association of Parents of the Vision Impaired, according to the release.

To participate, call Irene Conlin of the parents association at (757) 495-8995 or Lee Ann Armbruster at (757) 523-2708. The siblings of children with visual impairments may also participate.

The visually impaired can now experience driving on tracks

BLIND and partially-sighted drivers will be able to get behind the wheel of a car and put their foot down in an annual challenge.

The fifth annual Guide Dog’s Blind Drive Challenge takes place at the Nissan factory on Wearside on June 6.

The event allows visually impaired drivers to try out the test track with the help of BSM driving instructors in dual control cars.

In previous years, some drivers have reached speeds of more than 90mph during the event, which aims to raise around £14,000 for charity.

Sighted drivers can also try out the track while wearing a blindfold.

The event is thought to be unique and gives people with vision problems the chance to drive again or even for the first time.

Claire Devine, district fundraiser for Guide Dogs in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear said: "This is a unique and exciting event which is a fantastic experience for both visually impaired and sighted participants.

"Guide Dogs receives no funding other than that provided by donations and legacies so every penny raised is vital in maintaining the independence and confidence a guide dog affords their visually impaired owner."

Participants, who must be over the age of 14, are asked to raise a minimum of £50 sponsorship.

To book a place, contact Claire Devine at or 07990 540176.

Computer training now available for the visually impaired

COMPUTER training is being provided for visually-impaired people in Chester and Ellesmere Port.

Sessions run by the Chester & District Federation of the Blind are taking place at The Hope Centre in Western Avenue, Blacon, Chester on Tuesday afternoons but groups also meet at Ellesmere Port and Neston.

The IT sessions are provided in collaboration with West Cheshire College. Various social clubs are also affiliated to The Federation and provide activities in line with the wishes of the members like walks and trips.

The charity, which was only set up recently, hopes to open a charity shop in Ellesmere Port in the near future to help finance its services.

More than £1,000 was raised during a recent street collection in Chester and other fund-raising events are planned.

Secretary Mike Fair, who used to work for the Vision Support charity in Chester, said the two groups may be able to collaborate in future.

He said: “At the end of the day we are both providing services for people who have got no sight or very little sight.”

To find out about the group’s activities and for more information contact Mike, who is also a trustee of the charity, on: 07804 855 834.

Newly improved Reality smartphone application is great for the visually impaired

Two mobile solutions companies, Ipplex and LinkMe Mobile, have partnered to create mobile applications for elderly and vision-impaired consumers.

The companies unveiled their first augmented reality application, LookTel, at the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas.

"LookTel allows users to instantly interact with their world through their mobile phone - recognizing everyday objects such as text, money, packaged goods, CDs or medication bottles, even signs and landmarks," explained Ipplex in a March 24 press release.

"The app combines precision image recognition technology with text reader capabilities using full featured Optical Character Recognition (OCR). By simply pointing the mobile device at what the user wishes to 'see,' LookTel pronounces the name of the object or reads text in clear and easy to understand speech."

The application also provides additional support to the vision-impaired by way of live video, audio chat, push-to-talk audio, and GPS-tracking data.

Their groundbreaking application was selected as a finalist in the CTIA Wireless Emerging Technology Awards Healthcare/Public Safety/Transportation Category in 2010.

Augmented reality-like technology has previously been used to help vision-impaired and blind people see with their ears. Almost 10 years ago, a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands developed a "seeing" system called The vOICe.

The vision technology offered totally blind users a sonic representation of visual sensations by way of image-to-sound renderings. The technology is now available as an Android application from the Seeing With Sound website,

A video of the LookTel technology in action can be viewed here:

More information about LookTel can be found on the LookTel website, located at:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Special computer to meet the special needs of the visually impaired

The Vadodara-based Society for Training and Vocational Rehabilitation of the Disabled has become the first institution in the state and one of the four in the country to have a specially developed computer system for the visually-impaired people.

The project has been initiated by the Information and Technology Department, New Delhi and IT company Webel Mediatronics Ltd has been assigned the job to develop the computer system.

Around 60 institutions for the visually-impaired people across the country will be supplied with the new systems. Purshottam Panchal, the president of the Vadodara institute said, “We had been training the visually-impaired for last many years and our students have won several state and national awards for their extraordinary achievements.”

The new computer systems were handed over to the students by well-known kathakaar Rameshbhai Oza at the Seva Tirth campus located on the outskirts of the city.

“The new computer system will bring a big change in the way visually-impaired use a computer as it includes not only voice mechanism but also a special software which will even have a special keyboard in Braille. Even the printouts will be in Braille,” said Panchal.

Oza, who inaugurated the training centre for the visually-impaired, said: “It is an irony in the society that there are people who are physically fit but into bad habits and on the other hand we have physically-challenged people who are setting examples for all of us by becoming earning members of their families without anybody’s help. In today’s world, where computers have become a must, such initiatives will go a long way.”

Braille provides independence to the visually impaired!

I've taken a lot for granted in my life, but never my sight. Born with a crossed eye, a condition known as strabismus, I started wearing eyeglasses at the age of 20 months, had surgery on my right eye at the tender age of 4 and spent countless hours in therapy, trying to combat what became my lazy eye, a condition known as amblyopia in which the brain for some mysterious reason doesn’t fully acknowledge images seen by the amblyopic eye.

The result has been a life with left-eye-dominated vision and a right eye that would be defined as legally blind if not for the miracle of prescription eyeglasses, which bring the eye back to 20-60 vision.

But if something ever were to happen to my left eye, I would be in deep visual trouble.

I don’t think about it all that much these days, but I did for two reasons last week. First, I spent a few hours with some of the 25 visually impaired people who gathered Tuesday in the state Legislative Building to celebrate Braille Awareness Day.

Did you know that Louis Braille, the French inventor of the pathway to literacy for the visually impaired, was born the same year (1809) as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, and Charles Darwin, the English naturalist and father of the theories of evolution and natural selection?

Or how about this: Blinded by an eye infection at age 3, Braille by age 15 had invented the Braille alphabet and the raised-dot reading system that fits letters under a fingertip.

But he wasn’t recognized for his achievement until two years after he died from tuberculosis at age 43.

This and so much more information about his incredible life is on public display on the Legislative Building’s third floor through March 15 as part of the National Braille Press’ Louis Braille traveling exhibit, hosted in part in this state by the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, an arm of the Washington State Library.

The 20-panel display in print and Braille touches on the highlights of Braille’s life and reminds us why Braille remains important in today’s high-tech information age.

The National Federation of the Blind issued a report last year on the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth that said more than 70 percent of blind Americans of working age are unemployed. But more than 80 percent of the blind people who are employed read Braille.

Reading Braille gives a visually impaired person a better chance of finding a job and pursuing a college education, said Danielle Miller, program manager for the Talking Book and Braille Library.

“It’s the key to literacy for blind people – that’s all,” said Alan Bentson, a visually impaired employee at the Talking Book and Braille Library in Seattle who attended the Olympia ceremony honoring Louis Braille.

Sitting at a table next to the exhibit, Bentson was reading a Braille edition of an autobiography of Louis Braille at a rate of about 200 words a minute, about one-half to one-third the speed of a sighted person reading a book.

“It’s not speed reading, no doubt about it,” Bentson quipped.

The NFB report also states that only 10 percent of America’s blind children today are taught Braille, compared with 50 percent in the 1960s.

Reasons for the decline include a lack of teachers and the public perception that Braille is obsolete.

As Secretary of State Sam Reed stood by the Braille exhibit and read to the gathering some of Braille’s life story, the rounds of cheers and applause that echoed through the Capitol Rotunda convinced me Braille’s path to literacy should be fostered, not forgotten.

The day after Braille Awareness Day happened to be the date for my biennial eye exam. Brian Sullivan, my optometrist at Olympia Eye Clinic, ran me through the paces and proclaimed that my eyes were disease-free. There was more good news: I don’t need a new, stronger prescription for my eyeglasses.

More than 60 years after being born with defective eyesight, I’m blessed to simply be visually impaired.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

Visually impaired skier inspires people!

This isn't a sad story. It isn't. It isn't one of those stories, one of the stories that are supposed to mean something, to say something, to show something bigger and grander about "sports and the society we live in." No unthinkable tragedy occurs in this story. No one dies here.

It's just a story about a girl who likes to ski.

The girl's name is Lexie Jordan. A few months ago Lexie was having lunch with her dad after finishing a run during a junior ski team event at Sundown mountain up near Hartford, Conn. Lexie is 12, lives in North Salem and skis for the Thunder Ridge team, and she had been the first racer down the course that day because she always is the first racer down the course. It is one of the only concessions the racing tour makes to the fact that Lexie is legally blind.

Understand, she doesn't want your pity. This isn't about that. Lexie was born with albinism, a genetic anomaly that affects about 1 in 20,000 newborns. Because of it, her skin is pale, her hair is milky and her vision is in the neighborhood of 20/400 (meaning that what a full-sighted person sees at 20 feet she sees as being more than a football field away). Most skiers are taught to look four or five gates ahead during a race; Lexie struggles to make out one or two. By rule, she is allowed to follow another skier down the hill and track their path; she's not interested. She could also compete in events with other visually impaired athletes; she'd rather not.

"I know it might sound crazy," Lexie says, "but I like my vision. I was raised to accept who I am. I'm not angry, I'm not mad. I've got a great life. And I want to compete here."

She started skiing seriously about a year ago, and this was her first season with Thunder Ridge. The team competed in a series of regional events all over the Northeast, and Lexie's goal was simple: Don't finish last. At each event, the skiers compete in the Giant Slalom (where the gates are spaced farther apart) and the slalom (where tighter turns are required); Lexie posted better times than other racers on several occasions but was rarely able to make it through both events without missing at least one gate, meaning that, technically, she was disqualified.
"I only fell down one time all season, though," she says cheerily. "I thought I'd fall a lot more, and other kids definitely fall, but I only went down once. That's pretty good!"

For most of the season, her visual impairment wasn't known by racers and parents from the other teams; she was just another kid wearing ski suits and snow pants and goggles. But Jenna Pogozelski did know. She had heard another skier talking about it and watched Lexie ski a run at Thunder Ridge with tears in her eyes.

Jenna is a few years older than Lexie, a freshman at Cheshire High School in Connecticut. She is arguably the best skier on the junior circuit. "She has so many medals," says Lexie's brother, Liam. "She wins everything."

Jenna skis for the Sundown team, and so, on the day that the tour was at her home mountain, she walked through the cafeteria looking for Lexie. "I actually sort of followed her for a little bit," Jenna says, "because I wanted to get myself together and make sure I knew what I wanted to say. I went past her a few times. It probably looked weird."

A few moments after Lexie and her father had sat down to eat, Jenna approached. She introduced herself — "I mean, I knew who she was," Lexie says — and then she held out a medal. It was a silver medal from a race that Jenna had won at Thunder Ridge — Lexie's home mountain — back in January.

"I'm totally inspired by what you're doing," Jenna, her lip quivering, told Lexie. "And I think you deserve this medal more than I do."

The fear, says Karen Jordan, is exactly what you would expect. As a mother, Karen worried that her daughter would always be seen as different. That people wouldn't be able to get past her skin and her hair and her need to have reading assignments blown up to size 26 font. That was the fear. The reality, Karen says, isn't anything close. Lexie has friends. Lexie acts in school plays (she just did "Oliver"). Lexie used to be a cheerleader. "She isn't an outcast at all," Karen says. "And a lot of it is because of who she is. Her attitude, her personality."

It's "an incredible perspective," her dad, Chris, says, that allows Lexie — at age 12 — to be realistic about what matters. "How many 12-year-olds do you know who wouldn't care about winning a race?" Chris says. "She doesn't want to beat everyone. She just wants to beat someone. She knows what is important to her."

Ask Lexie if she ever gets angry about being visually impaired, and she laughs and says, "Angry? Why would I be?"

Ask Lexie what her dream is, and she says, matter-of-factly, that she's "given this a lot of thought: I want to go to Georgetown and become a lawyer, because I think I'm pretty persuasive."

Ask Lexie if she ever thinks about dying her hair as a way to make it less noticeable, and her eyes go wide. "Oh, no," she says. "I love my hair! People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they love it."

Then she mentions that, nowadays, you see rock stars and celebrities dying their hair to get it the color of Lexie's. Singer Gwen Stefani, for example. "I would never dye my hair," Lexie says. "I mean, never."

Earlier this winter, the Jordans were on a family ski trip at Stratton Mountain in Vermont. There was heavy snow falling, and it was a "whiteout," with so much precipitation that it was almost impossible for anyone to see.

Because of the conditions, Karen told Lexie that it would probably be better if she didn't ski that day; it was too dangerous. "She wasn't interested in that," Karen says. "She knew she'd be careful and she knew she'd be fine. And you know what? She was. It was a reminder that I need to back off sometimes. She's fine. She really is."

That is what Lexie wants, what she focuses on. There are actually benefits, she says, that come with having one of the body's senses lessened and others heightened; her memory, for example, is nearly photographic. "I once forgot my math homework at home," she says, "but I was able to prove to my teacher that I'd done it because I remembered all of the answers. So I just said them out loud."

She laughs then. "Not bad, right?" she says, and then she laughs again.

"She just has fun with everything," Liam says.

It is something to admire. There is no time for sorrow with Lexie, no time for frustration. She's just a girl who likes to do things, to try things, to experience things. She's just a girl who likes to ski.

It's "an incredible perspective," her dad, Chris, says, that allows Lexie — at age 12 — to be realistic about what matters. "How many 12-year-olds do you know who wouldn't care about winning a race?" Chris says. "She doesn't want to beat everyone. She just wants to beat someone. She knows what is important to her."

Ask Lexie if she ever gets angry about being visually impaired, and she laughs and says, "Angry? Why would I be?"

Ask Lexie what her dream is, and she says, matter-of-factly, that she's "given this a lot of thought: I want to go to Georgetown and become a lawyer, because I think I'm pretty persuasive."

Ask Lexie if she ever thinks about dying her hair as a way to make it less noticeable, and her eyes go wide. "Oh, no," she says. "I love my hair! People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they love it."

Then she mentions that, nowadays, you see rock stars and celebrities dying their hair to get it the color of Lexie's. Singer Gwen Stefani, for example. "I would never dye my hair," Lexie says. "I mean, never."

Earlier this winter, the Jordans were on a family ski trip at Stratton Mountain in Vermont. There was heavy snow falling, and it was a "whiteout," with so much precipitation that it was almost impossible for anyone to see.

Because of the conditions, Karen told Lexie that it would probably be better if she didn't ski that day; it was too dangerous. "She wasn't interested in that," Karen says. "She knew she'd be careful and she knew she'd be fine. And you know what? She was. It was a reminder that I need to back off sometimes. She's fine. She really is."

That is what Lexie wants, what she focuses on. There are actually benefits, she says, that come with having one of the body's senses lessened and others heightened; her memory, for example, is nearly photographic. "I once forgot my math homework at home," she says, "but I was able to prove to my teacher that I'd done it because I remembered all of the answers. So I just said them out loud."

She laughs then. "Not bad, right?" she says, and then she laughs again.

"She just has fun with everything," Liam says.

It is something to admire. There is no time for sorrow with Lexie, no time for frustration. She's just a girl who likes to do things, to try things, to experience things. She's just a girl who likes to ski.

Reach Sam Borden at

Friday, January 22, 2010

Premature babies can be visually impaired

Cynthia Romero Torres scoots around the room, chasing brightly colored balls. She grabs a black crayon, then a chunk of neon orange Play-Doh.

Everyday stuff for an 18-month-old.

But for Cynthia, these simple tasks mean major progress. She was born at just 25 weeks' gestation, weighing 1 pound. Her eyes were so underdeveloped at birth, she's had seven surgeries.

Now an otherwise healthy toddler, Cynthia illustrates a double-edged trend: While survival rates of extremely preterm babies are rising, so is the incidence of vision problems related to prematurity, including blindness.

Eye doctors and others who serve the needs of the visually impaired worry that they won't be able to handle this new wave.

"We're not equipped," Pinellas ophthalmologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz said. The technology exists to help children like Cynthia, but costs are high, the number of specialists is limited and many mothers who have preterm babies don't have health insurance, he says.

"The issue is access," adds Dr. Jonathan Mines of Bay Area Retina Consultants. "There are patients that get through the cracks because they are indigent and don't have appropriate care."

And Dan Mann, president and CEO of the nonprofit Lighthouse of Pinellas, worries whether groups like his — which rely on government money — will be able to provide training and therapy to the growing visually impaired population, particularly now as the state wrestles with a budget deficit.

"Across the board I'm concerned," Mann said.

• • •

Advances in neonatal care have helped doctors save more tiny babies than ever before. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed markedly higher one-year survival rates for infants born at less than 27 weeks between 2004 and 2007 compared with similar babies born between 1990 and 1992. (Full term is considered to be about 40 weeks.)

But early preterm infants, those born before 27 or 28 weeks, are at greater risk of many medical problems, including hearing loss, cerebral palsy and vision impairment.

A Swedish study found a higher incidence of retinal damage, called retinopathy of prematurity, in babies born before 27 weeks. These babies also are at greater risk of glaucoma and amblyopia, more commonly known as lazy eye.

Much of the eyes' development takes place in the last 12 weeks of a 40-week gestation. So in cases of preterm babies, "the retina hasn't had time to develop," Schwartz said.

Retinopathy of prematurity is the abnormal development of blood vessels in the retina, which is the tissue that lines the back of the eye. Retinopathy can occur when a preterm birth halts the normal growth of blood vessels to the edges of the retina.

The disorder is treated by using laser therapy or cryotherapy to destroy the outside of the retina, which will slow or reverse the abnormal growth of blood vessels.

Essentially, the smaller a baby is at birth, the more likely the baby will develop vision problems. Of the approximately 28,000 babies born each year that weigh 2¾ pounds or less, more than half have some degree of retinopathy. Some cases are mild and require no treatment, but others require surgery, and about 400 to 600 infants each year become legally blind from the disorder.

What's more, the number of children born preterm is increasing. Nearly 13 percent of all U.S. births are preterm, compared with 11 percent 15 years ago.

Babies arrive too soon and too small for many reasons. But Schwartz says proper prenatal care is key to helping more babies make it to full term and lessen the chances of visual impairment.

"If you're born before you're fully developed, you may not fully develop," he said.

• • •

Doctors say the earlier the eye disorder is diagnosed, the better the child's visual prognosis.

Marisol Torres, 30, said her daughter faced many medical challenges when she was born extremely preterm at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Cynthia was bleeding from her heart and lungs, and Torres said doctors told her the baby had little chance to survive.

But she did, and when Cynthia was 1 month old, doctors discovered she had retinopathy of prematurity in both eyes. She has since had seven surgeries to treat the disorder. Though her vision is good now, it's uncertain whether she'll need eyeglasses or have substantial vision loss in the future.

"The doctor says there's a big chance she will not be totally blind," Torres, a Clearwater resident who is from Mexico, said through a translator.

Cynthia and other visually impaired children get aid from agencies such as Lighthouse of Pinellas, which works with them in developing cognitive skills, motor skills and speech.

Lighthouse serves about 30 to 40 children a year, and Mann expects that number to grow as the visually impaired population increases.

Anna Kiefriter has been using Lighthouse services for much of her son Nicholas' life. Nicholas was born at Bayfront when Kiefriter, who experienced complications through her pregnancy, was only 24 weeks along. Doctors soon learned Nicholas had retinopathy of prematurity.

Now two months shy of his sixth birthday, Nicholas is a kindergartener at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, where his mother is a music teacher.

Nicholas is legally blind in his right eye, and his left eye is only slightly better. He has limited peripheral vision, caused by the damage to the outer portions of his retina.

He has had surgery, and has worn glasses since he was 10 months old. Kiefriter says she has lost count of how many pairs he has gone through.

But, she says, he never takes them off. Even when he sleeps.

"He always wants to see," Kiefriter said.

Richard Martin can be reached at or (727) 893-8330

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New portable phone for the visually impaired

Squibble is a portable device concept that provides tactile audio and high contrast visual feedback for the visually impaired. It also features a braille reader. There are 779 ultrasonic motors used to generate the tactile feedback! Other features include Bluetooth connectivity.

Apart from the fact that this is intended to help the impaired, this phone is quite a stunner. Definetly thicker than most phones but has got the looks to kill. Feels like it’s taken from a Sci-Fi movie. What are your thoughts?

Can Braille be now listened to?

AT 4 O’CLOCK each morning, Laura J. Sloate begins her daily reading. She calls a phone service that reads newspapers aloud in a synthetic voice, and she listens to The Wall Street Journal at 300 words a minute, which is nearly twice the average pace of speech. Later, an assistant reads The Financial Times to her while she uses her computer’s text-to-speech system to play The Economist aloud. She devotes one ear to the paper and the other to the magazine. The managing director of a Wall Street investment management firm, Sloate has been blind since age 6, and although she reads constantly, poring over the news and the economic reports for several hours every morning, she does not use Braille. “Knowledge goes from my ears to my brain, not from my finger to my brain,” she says. As a child she learned how the letters of the alphabet sounded, not how they appeared or felt on the page. She doesn’t think of a comma in terms of its written form but rather as “a stop on the way before continuing.” This, she says, is the future of reading for the blind. “Literacy evolves,” she told me. “When Braille was invented, in the 19th century, we had nothing else. We didn’t even have radio. At that time, blindness was a disability. Now it’s just a minor, minor impairment.”

A few decades ago, commentators predicted that the electronic age would create a postliterate generation as new forms of media eclipsed the written word. Marshall McLuhan claimed that Western culture would return to the “tribal and oral pattern.” But the decline of written language has become a reality for only the blind. Although Sloate does regret not spending more time learning to spell in her youth — she writes by dictation — she says she thinks that using Braille would have only isolated her from her sighted peers. “It’s an arcane means of communication, which for the most part should be abolished,” she told me. “It’s just not needed today.”

Braille books are expensive and cumbersome, requiring reams of thick, oversize paper. The National Braille Press, an 83-year-old publishing house in Boston, printed the Harry Potter series on its Heidelberg cylinder; the final product was 56 volumes, each nearly a foot tall. Because a single textbook can cost more than $1,000 and there’s a shortage of Braille teachers in public schools, visually impaired students often read using MP3 players, audiobooks and computer-screen-reading software.

A report released last year by the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group with 50,000 members, said that less than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind Americans read Braille. Whereas roughly half of all blind children learned Braille in the 1950s, today that number is as low as 1 in 10, according to the report. The figures are controversial because there is debate about when a child with residual vision has “too much sight” for Braille and because the causes of blindness have changed over the decades — in recent years more blind children have multiple disabilities, because of premature births. It is clear, though, that Braille literacy has been waning for some time, even among the most intellectually capable, and the report has inspired a fervent movement to change the way blind people read. “What we’re finding are students who are very smart, very verbally able — and illiterate,” Jim Marks, a board member for the past five years of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, told me. “We stopped teaching our nation’s blind children how to read and write. We put a tape player, then a computer, on their desks. Now their writing is phonetic and butchered. They never got to learn the beauty and shape and structure of language.”

For much of the past century, blind children attended residential institutions where they learned to read by touching the words. Today, visually impaired children can be well versed in literature without knowing how to read; computer-screen-reading software will even break down each word and read the individual letters aloud. Literacy has become much harder to define, even for educators.

“If all you have in the world is what you hear people say, then your mind is limited,” Darrell Shandrow, who runs a blog called Blind Access Journal, told me. “You need written symbols to organize your mind. If you can’t feel or see the word, what does it mean? The substance is gone.” Like many Braille readers, Shandrow says that new computers, which form a single line of Braille cells at a time, will revive the code of bumps, but these devices are still extremely costly and not yet widely used. Shandrow views the decline in Braille literacy as a sign of regression, not progress: “This is like going back to the 1400s, before Gutenberg’s printing press came on the scene,” he said. “Only the scholars and monks knew how to read and write. And then there were the illiterate masses, the peasants.”

UNTIL THE 19TH CENTURY, blind people were confined to an oral culture. Some tried to read letters carved in wood or wax, formed by wire or outlined in felt with pins. Dissatisfied with such makeshift methods, Louis Braille, a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, began studying a cipher language of bumps, called night writing, developed by a French Army officer so soldiers could send messages in the dark. Braille modified the code so that it could be read more efficiently — each letter or punctuation symbol is represented by a pattern of one to six dots on a matrix of three rows and two columns — and added abbreviations for commonly used words like “knowledge,” “people” and “Lord.” Endowed with a reliable method of written communication for the first time in history, blind people had a significant rise in social status, and Louis Braille was embraced as a kind of liberator and spiritual savior. With his “godlike courage,” Helen Keller wrote, Braille built a “firm stairway for millions of sense-crippled human beings to climb from hopeless darkness to the Mind Eternal.”

At the time, blindness was viewed not just as the absence of sight but also as a condition that created a separate kind of species, more innocent and malleable, not fully formed. Some scholars said that blind people spoke a different sort of language, disconnected from visual experience. In his 1933 book, “The Blind in School and Society,” the psychologist Thomas Cutsforth, who lost his sight at age 11, warned that students who were too rapidly assimilated into the sighted world would become lost in “verbal unreality.” At some residential schools, teachers avoided words that referenced color or light because, they said, students might stretch the meanings beyond sense. These theories have since been discredited, and studies have shown that blind children as young as 4 understand the difference in meaning between words like “look,” “touch” and “see.” And yet Cutsforth was not entirely misguided in his argument that sensory deprivation restructures the mind. In the 1990s, a series of brain-imaging studies revealed that the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input.

These imaging studies have been cited by some educators as proof that Braille is essential for blind children’s cognitive development, as the visual cortex takes more than 20 percent of the brain. Given the brain’s plasticity, it is difficult to make the argument that one kind of reading — whether the information is absorbed by ear, finger or retina — is inherently better than another, at least with regard to cognitive function. The architecture of the brain is not fixed, and without images to process, the visual cortex can reorganize for new functions. A 2003 study in Nature Neuroscience found that blind subjects consistently surpassed sighted ones on tests of verbal memory, and their superior performance was caused, the authors suggested, by the extra processing that took place in the visual regions of their brains.

Learning to read is so entwined in the normal course of child development that it is easy to assume that our brains are naturally wired for print literacy. But humans have been reading for fewer than 6,000 years (and literacy has been widespread for no more than a century and a half). The activity of reading itself alters the anatomy of the brain. In a report released in 2009 in the journal Nature, the neuroscientist Manuel Carreiras studies illiterate former guerrillas in Colombia who, after years of combat, had abandoned their weapons, left the jungle and rejoined civilization. Carreiras compares 20 adults who had recently completed a literacy program with 22 people who had not yet begun it. In M.R.I. scans of their brains, the newly literate subjects showed more gray matter in their angular gyri, an area crucial for language processing, and more white matter in part of the corpus callosum, which links the two hemispheres. Deficiencies in these regions were previously observed in dyslexics, and the study suggests that those brain patterns weren’t the cause of their illiteracy, as had been hypothesized, but a result.

There is no doubt that literacy changes brain circuitry, but how this reorganization affects our capacity for language is still a matter of debate. In moving from written to spoken language, the greatest consequences for blind people may not be cognitive but cultural — a loss much harder to avoid. In one of the few studies of blind people’s prose, Doug Brent, a professor of communication at the University of Calgary, and his wife, Diana Brent, a teacher of visually impaired students, analyzed stories by students who didn’t use Braille but rather composed on a regular keyboard and edited by listening to their words played aloud. One 16-year-old wrote a fictional story about a character named Mark who had “sleep bombs”:

He looked in the house windo that was his da windo his dad was walking around with a mask on he took it off he opend the windo and fell on his bed sleeping mark took two bombs and tosed them in the windo the popt his dad lept up but before he could grab the mask it explodedhe fell down asleep.

In describing this story and others like it, the Brents invoked the literary scholar Walter Ong, who argued that members of literate societies think differently than members of oral societies. The act of writing, Ong said — the ability to revisit your ideas and, in the process, refine them — transformed the shape of thought. The Brents characterized the writing of many audio-only readers as disorganized, “as if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table.” The beginnings and endings of sentences seem arbitrary, one thought emerging in the midst of another with a kind of breathless energy. The authors concluded, “It just doesn’t seem to reflect the qualities of organized sequence and complex thought that we value in a literate society.”

OUR DEFINITION of a literate society inevitably shifts as our tools for reading and writing evolve, but the brief history of literacy for blind people makes the prospect of change particularly fraught. Since the 1820s, when Louis Braille invented his writing system — so that blind people would no longer be “despised or patronized by condescending sighted people,” as he put it — there has always been, among blind people, a political and even moral dimension to learning to read. Braille is viewed by many as a mark of independence, a sign that blind people have moved away from an oral culture seen as primitive and isolating. In recent years, however, this narrative has been complicated. Schoolchildren in developed countries, like the U.S. and Britain, are now thought to have lower Braille literacy than those in developing ones, like Indonesia and Botswana, where there are few alternatives to Braille. Tim Connell, the managing director of an assistive-technology company in Australia, told me that he has heard this described as “one of the advantages of being poor.”

Braille readers do not deny that new reading technology has been transformative, but Braille looms so large in the mythology of blindness that it has assumed a kind of talismanic status. Those who have residual vision and still try to read print — very slowly or by holding the page an inch or two from their faces — are generally frowned upon by the National Federation of the Blind, which fashions itself as the leader of a civil rights movement for the blind. Its president, Marc Maurer, a voracious reader, compares Louis Braille to Abraham Lincoln. At the annual convention for the federation, held at a Detroit Marriott last July, I heard the mantra “listening is not literacy” repeated everywhere, from panels on the Braille crisis to conversations among middle-school girls. Horror stories circulating around the convention featured children who don’t know what a paragraph is or why we capitalize letters or that “happily ever after” is made up of three separate words.

Declaring your own illiteracy seemed to be a rite of passage. A vice president of the federation, Fredric Schroeder, served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton and relies primarily on audio technologies. He was openly repentant about his lack of reading skills. “I am now over 50 years old, and it wasn’t until two months ago that I realized that ‘dissent,’ to disagree, is different than ‘descent,’ to lower something,” he told me. “I’m functionally illiterate. People say, ‘Oh, no, you’re not.’ Yes, I am. I’m sorry about it, but I’m not embarrassed to admit it.”

While people like Laura Sloate or the governor of New York, David A. Paterson, who also reads by listening, may be able to achieve without the help of Braille, their success requires accommodations that many cannot afford. Like Sloate, Paterson dictates his memos, and his staff members select pertinent newspaper articles for him and read them aloud on his voice mail every morning. (He calls himself “overassimilated” and told me that as a child he was “mainstreamed so much that I psychologically got the message that I’m not really supposed to be blind.”) Among people with fewer resources, Braille-readers tend to form the blind elite, in part because it is more plausible for a blind person to find work doing intellectual rather than manual labor.

A 1996 study showed that of a sample of visually impaired adults, those who learned Braille as children were more than twice as likely to be employed as those who had not. At the convention this statistic was frequently cited with pride, so much so that those who didn’t know Braille were sometimes made to feel like outsiders. “There is definitely a sense of peer pressure from the older guard,” James Brown, a 35-year-old who reads using text-to-speech software, told me. “If we could live in our own little Braille world, then that’d be perfect,” he added. “But we live in a visual world.”

When deaf people began getting cochlear implants in the late 1980s, many in the deaf community felt betrayed. The new technology pushed people to think of the disability in a new way — as an identity and a culture. Technology has changed the nature of many disabilities, lifting the burdens but also complicating people’s sense of what is physically natural, because bodies can so often be tweaked until “fixed.” Arielle Silverman, a graduate student at the convention who has been blind since birth, told me that if she had the choice to have vision, she was not sure she would take it. Recently she purchased a pocket-size reading machine that takes photographs of text and then reads the words aloud, and she said she thought of vision like that, as “just another piece of technology.”

The modern history of blind people is in many ways a history of reading, with the scope of the disability — the extent to which you are viewed as ignorant or civilized, helpless or independent — determined largely by your ability to access the printed word. For 150 years, Braille books were designed to function as much as possible like print books. But now the computer has essentially done away with the limits of form, because information, once it has been digitized, can be conveyed through sound or touch. For sighted people, the transition from print to digital text has been relatively subtle, but for many blind people the shift to computerized speech is an unwelcome and uncharted experiment. In grappling with what has been lost, several federation members recited to me various takes on the classic expression Scripta manent, verba volant: What is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into air.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

World Disability Day

On World Disability Day, physically and mentally challenged students from across the district participated in a sport's event at Dadoji Konddeo Stadium. The event, which was graced by civic dignitaries, the district collector and other important persons, saw 651 students participating.

The events ranged from a 400-metre race to a chess competition, where visually impaired individuals participated. The enthusiasm of the students was overwhelming and those who witnessed the event were moved with the never-say-die spirit of the participants.

"The students set an example for all of us. Apart from the students from the schools, there were also several adults with disabilities who showed us that despite their difficulties, they are as good as anyone else. We were overwhelmed with the response as there were participants that had come from Dahanu as well," said Mary Ann Scott, one of the organisers of the event.

Scott adds that the TMC offered them the stadium as there were several participants. "The civic commissioner was very supportive of our endeavour and provided us the stadium for the day," she said.

In all, 16 schools for the mentally challenged, 18 schools for hearing impaired, two visually impaired schools and one physically handicapped school participated in the event.

The event opened with a march, which was followed with the singing of the National Anthem. Following this, the athletes took an oath before competing against each other.