Blind World Magazine

Technology to help the blind is impressive, but very costly.

February 6th, 2006.
Brandon Sun - Manitoba, Canada.

WINNIPEG — Glen Sepke loves his computer. He spends his days developing software for Great West Life, while online shopping, chatting and reading about current events are some of his favourite after-hours activities.

But unlike many of his fellow tech fanatics, Sepke has never laid eyes on a computer screen. He is completely blind, and part of a growing trend where the blind community is keeping up with their vision-equipped counterparts.

“I saw the technology was going to level the playing field and we could be productive and compete with everyone else,” he says. Twenty years ago, the technology began making it possible for the blind and visually impaired to use computers.

More recent developments have paved the way for user screen reader software for cellphones, pocket PC products and GPS systems.

But despite the advances in adaptive software, Dan Monchak, executive director of Canadian Council of the Blind Manitoba, says most people are still largely unaware of how the blind can use computers and other gadgets.

“The general public, the majority hasn’t even heard of these kinds of devices or seen them in action,” he says.

“It gives people an idea that these people can function in the community but (also) contribute in the workplace.”

In an effort to promote awareness, the CCB is hosting an event on Feb. 11 at Winnipeg’s Grant Park Mall as part of White Cane Week — which celebrates the independence of the visually-impaired from Feb. 5-11.

Monchak says the event will give the public a glimpse into the technology that has helped the blind and visually impaired get computer savvy both at home and in the workplace.

Although the technology is as sophisticated as it has ever been, access is still a problem.

According to a report released by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in November 2005, An Unequal Playing Field: Report on the Needs of People who are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada, only 25 per cent of working age blind are employed, and many feel that employers don’t fully recognize their potential contributions.

“It is such a technical world, if you can’t type on a keyboard there’s a lot of jobs you can’t do,” says Geoff Fitzgibbon, national director of access technology program for CNIB.

Fitzgibbon says the high cost of the technology is one of the major barriers for most people.

Magnifiers, screen reader software and scanning software are some of the most widely used technologies, but most retail for more than $1,000.

The screen reader uses a synthetic voice to read aloud what is written or typed onscreen, and users have control over how much or little they would like to hear by using special keyboard commands.

Magnifiers like ZoomText and MAGic allow users to select how large they would like to make their screen.

Out of CNIB’s 100,000 blind and visually impaired clients, Fitzgibbon says about 10 per cent use magnifiers and five per cent use screen readers.

Provinces like Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan all have funding programs that cover 75 per cent of the cost for qualified individuals, but Fitzgibbon says that still leaves many Canadians in other provinces like Manitoba at a disadvantage.

Recently, Vic Pereira completed a project management course at Red River and says his experience was far different than it was when he was completing his computer science course in the early 1980s.

Instead of relying on a volunteer to help transcribe notes or read him the study material, he was able to access online texts and electronic handouts at the same time as his classmates.

Pereria says while technology also eliminated the time-consuming need of translation into Braille, there are still many electronic barriers for the blind.

“It’s still a challenge for me as a blind person in a sighted environment,” he says. “They still don’t know what I can do.”

As the baby boomers and their parents continue to age, Fitzgibbon also says there will be more of a demand for these kinds of devices, and says it’s up to manufacturers to respond to the need.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he says.

Meanwhile, the CCB also offers an annual scholarship to blind or visually impaired people to help them further their education. The L.P. Ings Scholarship is named after Lawrence Ings, a blind Brandon resident who was tragically killed when he was struck by a vehicle while walking to work in 1985.

Ings was completely blind and used a guide dog to get around Brandon.

The scholarship was first presented in 1990. Legally blind Manitobans pursuing a secondary, post-secondary or technical education are eligible to apply.

—with files from Robson Fletcher, The Brandon Sun

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