Sprite for the blind

Susan Flanagan
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Adding a few helpful aids for the vision-impaired would be so easy, says advocate

Before you read the rest of this column, pick up a phone and look closely at the No. 5 on the keypad. Feel it. It has a bump.

Terry Kelly (back) and friend Tim Tremain on the bike leg of a triathlon they competed in July 2012.

Did you know that almost all phones, adding machines, even keypads on debit machines have this bump to allow people to navigate the numbers without looking at them? Just like a computer keyboard has raised dashes on the f and j to allow typists to know they have their hands correctly positioned without having to look down.

Anyone involved in data entry knows this, but you’re talking to someone who didn’t learn how to type until university (take a third science, the nuns at Holy Heart insisted) and who didn’t touch a computer keyboard until she was 21.

So, this was not common knowledge to me. I only learned it recently from my friend, Terry Kelly, a Newfoundland musician and inspirational speaker who now lives in Halifax.

Terry is blind — has been since the age of 18 months — so things like raised bumps on keypads make his life a lot easier.

The reason I called Terry was to ask him about something that has been bothering me. At least three times a week, I go on my eight-litre milk run. I often run into the same customers while I’m at the store. One of these customers is a man who drinks Sprite.

The reason this man makes such an impression on me is not so much because he is blind (he wears an orange vest and uses a white cane), but because he has to ask one of the clerks to get his Sprite from the cooler for him. Although he knows where the Coke cooler is located and is ready and able to open the door to retrieve a tin, there’s no way for him to distinguish a tin of Coke from a tin of Sprite.

It got me to wondering why huge international multibillion-dollar companies can’t put a mark on cans to distinguish one flavour from the other. Can it cost that much extra to indent the cans? Or is it because there are just not enough blind people drinking the product to worry about profits?

This is what led me to call Terry Kelly.

“My philosophy is there is a corporate responsibility to do certain things,” he explains.

But he always looks at the bigger picture and says, “Is there something I can do first?”

In the case of the Sprite, Terry says he would ask the store manager to ask the soft drink stocker to please make sure the Sprite is always in the same place, like the top left, so the man can get it himself without having to ask the clerk.

“What can I do to be an advocate without screaming and shouting, unless it’s something that’s totally wrong?” asks Terry, who, like most people, values his independence.

“I travel a lot. It drives me crazy when I’m in a hotel. I go to the workout room (did I mention Terry is the third blind person in history to run a mile in under five minutes?), but if there’s no braille on the room doors, I have to hang a plastic bag on my door,” he says. The bag is to find the room when he gets back — supposing no one takes it.

“Braille (in hotels) should be standard,” he says. “The U.S. legislated braille in elevators in public places. If I’m travelling by myself (in Canada) I often have to get the concierge or bellhop to count the buttons in the elevator (so I know what button to press for my floor).

“I’m not saying no hotels in Canada have braille. Lots do. Lots don’t,” he says. “Now I carry my own markers. I travel with those little sticky round things to prevent door handles from hitting the wall. I can even stick one on the treadmill so I know which button is the up and down speed and the quick start.”

In the meantime, Terry explains that it’s much cheaper to fix something for someone who’s blind than for someone in a wheelchair. Carpets can be landmarks, he explains. Strategically-placed carpets can let a blind person know where the elevator is.

Some hotel chains take advantage of what’s known as universal design. With universal design, the hand dryer in the washroom will always be on the left, he explains.

“I never know where the paper towel dispenser is,” he says. “The soap is usually to the left or right of the sink, but the towel dispenser is a roll of the dice. In the washroom, I’m always listening to hear where a person is taking paper towel and for the garbage.

“That’s corporate responsibility,” he says. “Regardless of the number of people who need it, I’m paying $200 (for the room). I expect the same service. The first inclination (of front desk staff) is to give me an accessible room designed for people in wheelchairs. I don’t want to take an accessible room from someone in a wheelchair. Accessible rooms have a bunch of things people in wheelchairs want that I don’t want,” he says, such as a door that opens out or a sink at thigh level.

Despite his frustrations with travel and hotels, Terry is optimistic about certain advances for blind people.

“Canada is the only country with braille on its bills,” he says. “And Royal Bank machines have a plug-in for earphones. Some bus stops have screen readouts to let you know where the bus is.”

And although technology is amazing at interacting with other things — like a camera on a phone that can read text and then read the text out loud — not everyone can afford the technology.

A blind person can pay $6,000-$7,000 for a device for braille readout, says Terry. You can pay $400 for a Hitachi computer, but then it’s another $2,500 for a screen reader program.

There are other applications like ZoomText or JAWS to read out loud whatever is on the computer screen. And Apple iPhones have screen readers built in and make technology totally accessible to blind people (for example the swipe to open). There’s even an app available that lets blind people know what colour a thing is so they can co-ordinate wardrobes.

Still, the cost is prohibitive to many.

“Seventy per cent of blind people are unemployed,” says Terry, quickly adding that 90 per cent of all his classmates at the School for the Blind in Halifax are working.

“I have to pay extra to access technology. In Ontario (the government) pays three quarters of the cost through the Department of Health.”

Not so in provinces such as Nova Scotia or Newfoundland and Labrador.

But assistance is available, says Duane Morgan, manager of programs and services at the CNIB in St. John’s.  

“You can apply for funding for the assisted devices program for education or employment,” he says. “We sell a lot of devices through our online catalogue (cnib.ca). The most popular are talking watches and talking weather thermometers. We also have a level liquid indicator that hangs on a cup and when you’re pouring hot tea, it screeches to let you know it’s time to stop pouring.”

Of course, it’s only a device that would be directly linked to education or employment that might apply for a rebate through the Labour Market Agreement for Persons with Disabilities (LMAPD) or the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Sidewalk safeguards

Duane Morgan told me that the CNIB has been working with the City of St. John’s on integrating what they call tactile warning signals for blind and visually impaired people at certain intersections in the city. It’s similar to a sound signal for crossing the street, except it’s at surface level.

He directed me to the intersection near the Holiday Inn, a hotel which, by the way, has braille on room doors as well as outside each elevator landing. I run by this intersection all the time. I hadn’t noticed anything different about the concrete sidewalks.

But sure enough, there it was on each corner before you get to the pavement of the street. A rectangular piece of sidewalk had been cut away and a 2 x 4 LEGO block type of surface added in. When a blind person reaches this bumpy surface, it feels and sounds different. They know then there will be a change coming up immediately, i.e. a busy intersection that will eat them whole if they enter it unawares.

Duane also mentioned hotels in the province are trying to offer more sound-activated elevator signals to let blind people know what floor they’re on.

All I know is that my Sprite-drinking friend has opened my eyes to a lot of issues that perhaps people, both seeing and blind, should be more vocal about.

Next time you’re out walking, take note of these things. When you’re in a hotel, look for the braille. Who knows, you might run into Terry Kelly attaching sticky pads to the door knob or to a treadmill. Just don’t challenge him to a mile, because I think I know who might win.

Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

• Dick Murphy from Maryland writes: “My wife, daughter and our daughter’s spouse visited Grates Cove as we were touring the Baccalieu Trail on Aug. 22.  We met Terrence, Courtney and Courtney’s mother from Louisiana, and had a delightful lunch at the studio. We also toured some of the walls there. The day was beautiful — sunny and warm, but the wind was howling at a speed of about 100 km/h.  What a spectacular place.”

• Susan Snelgrove writes: “I saw your recent article in The Telegram about the Cabot Rock. I am the owner of Beyond Baccalieu and wrote the information you quoted about the rock.  I know a lot about it, if you are truly interested in learning more. I too heard the rumours about it being taken by the media, and somebody else said they saw it in Joey Smallwood’s fireplace. They said Joey was best friends with a certain NL media mogul.  I actually wrote to this gentleman several years ago, and told him the whole story, and unbelievably he actually called me.  He was a real gentleman, considering how outrageous the whole thing was. We had an amazing conversation. He assured me he didn’t give the rock to Joey. Even if I didn’t find the stolen rock, it is a very interesting example of how folklore begins and is perpetuated through storytelling. … “I have my own theory about the rock and it being ‘stolen.’ I have the photos of it from the 1920s taken by Leo English.  I haven’t posted them on my website because of copyright. But it is interesting to compare the 1920s photo to now. … “I am also involved in the Cabot Project, which would take me a long time to write down if you are not familiar with it. There is work going on in the Carbonear area which would be of interest to your readers. You can find some information here about the Cabot Project: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/history/research/cabot.html.”

• Katie Harris writes: “I am a student who is doing Duke of Edinburgh, but am at a school that does not run a Silver Hike. I was wondering if you know of a program that will run a journey that is acceptable for Silver, or if you know of a school program willing to take outside students.”

Organizations: CNIB, Hitachi, Apple School for the Blind Department of Health Holiday Inn

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland, Halifax.Terry U.S. Halifax Ontario Nova Scotia Maryland Grates Cove Louisiana Carbonear

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