Blind World Magazine

Tiny computer means big change for traveling blind.




Midland Daily News, Michigan.
Sunday, May 14, 2006.




Ever since I moved to Midland in 1989, there's been a little part of me that has said, "This isn't really my home." Now, that attitude is changing.


The reason? So many streets change names, curve and merge into each other that I haven't felt comfortable walking routes I haven't practiced. I walk downtown, to Kroger, to the library and along Eastman Avenue. But as for the Circle, Eastlawn Plaza and many parts of Saginaw Road, forget it.


As a person who is blind, I learned to imagine my surroundings in a big grid - here's north, south, east, west. Midland just isn't like that, so I've felt uncomfortable walking new routes, especially because I hate, HATE getting lost. Especially at night.


Then, on March 31, Trekker came into my life. It's a talking global positioning system that's lightweight enough to wear around my neck. The computer, about the size of two cell phones, swings jauntily at my waist. The Bluetooth radio rests on the front of my shoulder, and a speaker to amplify the computer's voice is close to my ear.


The computer is a Dell unit with a touch screen. For blind users, the screen is covered by a sleeve, which has buttons with tiny plungers that tap the screen when each is pushed. Leader Dogs for the Blind is the first guide dog school in the country to train people to use it and, since all four of my guide dogs came from there, I was geeked to go!


The "home" key is my favorite; it's the "geographical where am I." Push it and it might tell me "heading north on Eastman Ave" - pronounced "ah-vay" and give me the street address I'm nearing. For someone who can't read street signs or mailboxes, man, this is heaven!


The Trekker user chooses a starting point on the route menu, then the destination. Like all GPS units, there are points of interest already plotted on the map that was downloaded into the small computer. There's a category called "points of interest, personal" where I've added my own route points: my house, my church, the Daily News, my brother's house and other places where I've ridden in cars. I add these points by recording them as I stand in front of them or by choosing the streets and addresses from a set of menus.


I also can "browse," or rehearse, the route off line before I ever walk it. This all is very cool! I'd much rather walk, even for an hour, to get to a place rather than passively ride the bus. And, even if I ride the bus, I can put in the route, put Trekker on motorized mode and give the bus driver directions. (Won't they like to hear a funny little voice from the back of the bus!)


Now, if I want to walk to my favorite North Saginaw Road Taco Bell for the first time, I can be pretty sure that, when Trekker announces "Taco Bell" and a little chime sounds, I'm close to the door. I could give a little sniff of the air and go for it.


There are caveats to this system. Depending on how the route is set, Trekker might not tell you on which side of the street your point of interest is located. When I walked to my brother's house, Trekker said I was walking past a higher house number than I in fact was, so the last turn it gave me was a left and it should have been a right.


But here's a happy thing! If I divert from my created route, Trekker will tell me I'm either "off route" or "significantly off route." From anywhere at all, I can press a key and create an instant route from the point where I stand to my chosen destination.


Trekker doesn't replace a white cane or a dog. I still need to know how to cross streets safely, and there's still no way to know, except possibly by listening to the traffic, whether a corner is a right angle or something more interesting. But upgrades are promised.


So, if you see me walking to and fro, back and forth, in front of my house or some business, don't think I'm crazy. I'm just face-to-keypad with my little computer, trying to get a signal.



http://www.ourmidland.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=16637077&BRD=2289&PAG=461&dept_id=472539&rfi=6




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