Blind World Magazine

Seeing the world through technology.




Greeley Tribune, Colorado.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006.




CAPTION: Lana Van Horn checks her e-mail using a computer without screen that talks to her at her house in Greeley. The 59-year-old has been blind since birth and uses technology to easily access information that would be hard to get otherwise. DJAMILA GROSSMAN / gtreporters@greeleytribune.com


Half a laptop is all she needs to surf the Web. No screen, no mouse - she's just fine without them.


While she's checking documents and Web sites, her laptop murmurs strangely, reading out loud their content.


Lana Van Horn has come a long way with a computer that's missing what some might regard its most important tool for visual navigation.


The curtains in her office are shut. Only a streak of daylight slips through the gap in between them, highlighting her silhouette in the dark.


Van Horn was born without eyesight and is one of many blind and visually impaired people who rely on computers and adaptive technology to boost their independence in life. She is one of more than eight million people nationwide who live with low or no vision at all.


But thanks to adaptive technology, Van Horn visits places guide dog Frizbee can't lead her to.


Being Tech-Savvy


In a few steps, the 59-year-old Greeley resident has scanned the day's bills and leans back to have them read to her by the computer. The monotonous voice can be accelerated until it's an indistinguishable babble for the untrained ear, providing a way to skim over text.


Now retired, Van Horn used adaptive technology while working at the Internal Revenue Service for more than 30 years. She now marvels at the strides developers have taken since the fledgling stages of converted computers and Braille machines.


"They didn't have any speech software," she said about her first years at the job. "What existed was very primitive."


These days, Van Horn pays bills and shops online, checks e-mails and listens to audio books she downloads from the Web - all with a computer that is adjusted to meet her needs.


Away from home, her Braille note taker saves bits of information such as phone numbers or addresses and displays them as moving Braille dots that pop up from the reading surface.


Van Horn says adaptive technology makes her life easier. But it's not the technology itself she likes, it's where she can get with it.


That's just not enough for Tina Ektermanis, who cracks computer programs and rewrites them simply for the joy of it. Technology for daily chores is one aspect, but she wants to carve deeper, understand how it works.


The 34-year-old Greeley resident is on the board of directors at the Computer Users Group of Greeley, where blind and sighted people become tech-savvy together.


Ektermanis has a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's degree in special education. She has taught Braille and adaptive technologies at the Colorado Center for the Blind, a training center in Littleton, and has worked as an assistant on a grant project at the University of Northern Colorado.


"I couldn't independently do a lot of things without computer technology," she said.


ON THE NET


Braille and audio books, newspapers, magazines: www.audible.com, www.loc.gov/nls, www.rfbd.org, www.bookshare.org.


Computer ware and other adaptive technology for the blind and visually impaired: www.beyondsight.com, www.independentliving.com, http://telesensory.com.


Income and Expenses


People with skills in handling adaptive technology often have greater chances of landing a job, said Scott Labarre, a lawyer and Colorado president of the National Federation of the Blind, a national advocacy organization.


But despite training centers and federal incentives to obtain those skills, employment has been low.


More than half of the several hundred Federation of the Blind members in Colorado qualify for federal aid, meaning only a few make their own living. National numbers reflect the same picture.


Unemployment among surveyed people with sensory disabilities is almost twice as high compared to those without disabilities, according to the nationwide 2004 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census. More than half of those surveyed with sensory disabilities are unemployed.


But grants, low-interest loans or job training can give blind and visually impaired people a leg up in the job market and the income provides the necessary funds for adaptive technology.


Screen reading software starts at about $500, Braille note takers can cost up to several thousand dollars, and screenless laptops are about $2,000. Costs can soar for special orders on household appliances, because what is modern to the sighted, can be impossible to use for the blind. But some developers take strides with blind people in mind.


Public Places


Not too long ago, Ektermanis couldn't vote in private and had someone at the polling station fill out the ballot. With electronic voting machines, she can vote independently - a leap toward autonomy, she said. Weld County introduced those machines for early voting about four years ago, and starting in August electronic voting will be the only method available.


ATMs with speech function also have become more common, partly because the blind and visually impaired raised their voices in complaint. The National Federation of the Blind for example used the Americans with Disabilities Act to file lawsuits against Pennsylvania banks.


Wells Fargo upgraded all of its 6,500 ATMs nationwide with a speech function about three years ago, five of which are located in Greeley. The Bank of America has one talking ATM in Greeley and Chase has five, according to their Web sites.


Using talking ATMs, computers or Braille note takers is second nature to Van Horn and Ektermanis, who have lived all their lives without eyesight. But those who lose their vision over time have to get used to the new condition.


Age-related low vision


The Curtis Strong Center for the Visually Impaired in Greeley teaches adaptive technology to people with low vision, who need to reach out and ask for help with their daily routine, said Donna Benson, director of the center.


"The amount of people born blind is much, much smaller than those who become blind later in life," Benson said. "And we are definitely able to help those folks."


One of the most common age-related causes for vision impairment - macular degeneration - left Joe Stultz, 82, almost blind.


His eyesight kept fading away over several years and at some point the Greeley resident acknowledged he needed help. He joined the National Federation of the Blind, which was an important step toward improving his life and learning to use computer technology, he said.


With a program called ZoomText, Stultz can magnify letters on a computer that has also speech software.


Most of his computer knowledge comes from Computer Users Group of Greeley, where he learned to use different applications or to chat with friends.


"Before I had a computer that talks to me it was hard," he said. "Now it's marvelous."


Van Horn's everyday life reflects just that. After checking bills and e-mails, she visits another Web site and downloads a book. Via cable, she transfers it to a reading device and plugs it into speakers.


At last, Van Horn relaxes in the recliner with Frizbee at her feet, an iced tea in her hand and an afternoon to spend.


Today she'll listen to a romance novel, tomorrow maybe marvel over a book on dog breeds.


"It's a fun world of computers. They do what you tell them to most of the time," she said, getting comfortable in the chair, her silhouette highlighted in the dark.



http://www.greeleytrib.com/article/20060726/FAMHEAL/60726011




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