Here to Help: Meet Steve Jordan, Director of Orientation and Mobility

Steve Jordan guiding an individualBy Brian Klotz

Steve Jordan has devoted his career to helping others achieve their goals. As the Director of Orientation and Mobility for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), Jordan helps to train individuals in how to navigate their environments safely and as independently as possible.

This desire to assist and motivate others can also be seen in Jordan’s other passion: coaching youth sports. A Massachusetts native currently living in Walpole, Jordan received his Bachelor’s from Framingham State University, and afterwards worked at Newton North High School as both a special education aide and a coach for football, baseball, and wrestling. Today, in addition to his duties at MABVI and as the proud father of five children (including a set of triplets born last February!), Jordan continues to coach all three sports at the Nobles and Greenough School in Dedham.

Jordan always knew he wanted to help people through teaching and coaching, but it wasn’t until he was working at Newton North that he discovered exactly how. As a special education aide, Jordan found that one of the students he was working with one-to-one would leave for 45 minutes twice a week, and Jordan never knew why until he asked if he could come along. Continue reading

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Giving Back

Cindy WentzBy Brian Klotz

Like many people, Cindy Wentz entered college unsure of what her career path would be. A New Jersey native, she moved to Massachusetts to attend Brandeis University, initially as a Psychology major before switching to Sociology. After graduation, Cindy worked at a bank, but was still unclear on her ultimate career goal until she decided to go back to school, obtaining a Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling from Boston University.

“I remember in high school I always thought I wanted to work with people,” she says, at first thinking she would become a teacher like much of her family, before deciding it wasn’t for her.

Both Cindy’s desire to help people with disabilities and her tireless work ethic can perhaps be traced back to the discrimination she faced trying to gain employment in her younger years.

“In high school, when everyone else was getting their summer jobs, I had such a hard time,” she explains. Having been blind since birth, Cindy recalls how many employers rejected her because of her disability – and would say so outright. Continue reading

Eyes in Your Pocket: “BlindTool” App Represents the New Frontier of Assistive Technology

A screen capture of the BlindTool app identifying a banana, with less likely predictions listed belowBy Brian Klotz

FastCompany calls it “a peek at an inevitable future of accessibility,” a new app called BlindTool that allows users to identify objects in real time using only their phone, and it was created right here in Boston. Developed by Joseph Paul Cohen, a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Bay State native, it aims to increase the independence of individuals who are blind or visually impaired by putting an extra set of eyes in their pocket.

“I’ve had a desire to do this for a while,” says Cohen, whose initial interest in assistive technology came from working with a colleague who was blind during an internship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., inspiring him to think of the ways modern technology could improve the lives of those with vision impairment.

The app runs on Android devices, and identifies objects it is pointed at in real time using a “convolutional neural network” that can understand 1000 “classes” of objects. While the technology behind it may be complex, its usage is simple: wave your phone around, and the app will cause it to vibrate as it focuses on an object it recognizes – the more it vibrates, the more confident it is. Once it’s fairly certain, it will speak the object aloud.

“It always has a prediction,” Cohen explains, regardless of where it is pointed, so the vibration function allows the user to zero in on objects the app has more confidence in identifying. Continue reading

Ready to Launch: Assistive Technology Helps People with Visual Impairment Enjoy Public Places in a New Way

A photo of a smartphone in the LaunchGuide location, with a sign reading "BRAILLE TRAIL START" pointing to the phone in the wire guides and a caption on the photo that reads "[smartphone:] Welcome to the Dennis Braille Trail"

LaunchGuide in action at the Dennis Braille Trail

Post by Brian Klotz

If you’ve been to a number of locations in Massachusetts, including the Dennis Braille Trail in Dennis, MA, you may have noticed something new: a device with a QR code that can be read by your smartphone. Called LaunchGuide, this new device was created to help people with visual impairment enjoy public places with content that not only helps them navigate, but adds to the experience, and it is yet another example of the creative ways assistive technology is becoming more prevalent.

Designed by an assistive technology company called COMMplements (the brand name of products of Peacock Communications), LaunchGuide can be used by anyone with an Internet-connected device capable of reading a QR code. Each LaunchGuide location is equipped with a wire guide that helps the user position their smartphone so it can read the code. This takes them to a webpage with content unique to that location – for example, information about the exhibits in a museum or the stops along a trail, which the user can have read to them using text-to-speech as they explore.

An example of a QR code

An example of a QR code

By housing content on a webpage, users can select how and in what order they experience it, as opposed to a linear audio tour. Continue reading

I Won’t Know Unless I Try

Post by Brian Klotz

Ellie Leach at MABVI's Senior Connection 2014

Ellie Leach at MABVI’s Senior Connection 2014

Ellie Leach had never used a computer. No email, no games, no web browsing – as she puts it, “I had never even used a typewriter!” Over twenty years ago Ellie, now 78, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a medical condition that causes vision loss, putting yet another obstacle between herself and tech-savviness.

Today, however, Ellie is the proud owner of an iPad, which she uses to email friends and family, play games, and listen to her favorite music.

“It’s like I’m alive again,” she says. “I feel like I’m a part of everything again.” Continue reading

Why Not?

Post by P. Nina Livingstone

Nina Livingstone

Nina Livingstone

Growing up, I always enjoyed my sighted life; I saw blue skies, the exquisite ocean and its waves embracing their shores, the colors of the seasons in New England and the colors of my socks, the expressions of others in all conversations… bliss! Now all the visuals, the beauty of nature, people, animals, the earth with its fields and farms, the flowing rivers and printed New York Times, magazines and books – everything remains dormant in my mind’s vault. Everything around me relies on memory, the reels of “film footage” from the past. I lost my sight completely in the year 2000 from a hereditary eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

Adjusting to the world sight-lessly entails time and patience – both of which I find irritating, because time is precious and short, and patience – well, I have little patience. Perhaps I am infinitely in denial about my sight loss. My door remains open to the possibility of seeing again – why not? Continue reading

Visually Impaired? There’s an App for that.

Want to know how much money you’re holding? How about the color of your shirt? Or maybe you just want to curl up with a book? If you’re one of the over 20 million adults in America alone who suffer from vision loss, these everyday actions can be cumbersome and difficult. What can you do to help with these daily tasks while retaining your independence?

Reach for your iPad, of course.

As technology becomes increasingly intuitive and user-friendly, more and more visually impaired people are embracing high-tech solutions for their everyday needs. And while of the 20,000 apps developed each month, many are, shall we say, less than useful (for only $1.99, “Melon Meter” uses the iPhone’s microphone to measure the ripeness of watermelons!), several developers are using the capabilities of modern technology to aid visually impaired individuals in innovative ways. We’ve taken a look at just a handful of such apps now available for iOS (most of which you can get for the low, low price of FREE!): Continue reading

Using Technology in Our Everyday Activities

Jennifer Kaldenberg at Senior Connection giving her keynote talk on technology

“How many of you use technology to complete your daily tasks?”

The speaker is Jennifer Kaldenberg, MABVI Clinical Director & Clinical Assistant and Boston University Professor. She has also worked for the New England College of Optometry and their clinical affiliate the New England Eye Institute, specializing in working with individuals with visual impairment. She is an expert in vision loss, facing a room of hundreds of low vision support group members, many of them seniors. Only about 25% of the adults in the room raise their hands.

“If I told you using a magnifier, or even a bump dot to identify the start button on the microwave is technology, how many of you would now answer that they use technology on a daily basis?” She asks.

All of the adults in the room raise their hands.

Two of the guests at Senior Connection raising their hands in response to Jen Kaldenberg's questions

Two guests at Senior Connection raising their hands in response to Jen Kaldenberg’s questions

It seems these adults with vision loss use technology every day without even realizing it. Furthermore, it seems many have not been shown or assessed for what technology is appropriate for them. The key is training, according to Kaldenberg: individuals can be trained to use new tools to help maintain participation in the things that are important to them and improve their daily lives. Equally important is an eye examination by a low vision specialist. Yet only 75% of the audience self-reports having ever had a low vision exam. For individuals who have not had a low vision exam or know someone hasn’t, there are many barriers that may limit someone’s ability to access services including: o Lack of awareness of services or assistive devices o Giving up hope that there is help o Having heard “nothing can be done” o Other health issues like cognitive deficits o Lack of financial resources to afford or think they can’t afford technologies Additional barriers may include age, gender and ethnicity. Some of these barriers are the perception of the individual and others are placed on them by a healthcare practitioner, family members, or society. Of the 75% who have received a low vision exam, only 1/10 say their doctor has asked them what they want to be able to do. So how are visually impaired adults supposed to find the technology they need to remain independent?

“Be proactive and ask your doctors about technology,” Kaldenberg says.

Emerging technology is becoming more task specific and requires more training. Research indicates that the average person with a visual impairment uses 6.1 assistive devices, many which are task-specific. Often times, these devices are purchased by the individual through a catalog or are given to them by a family member of friends and not recommended by a low vision specialist. Recent studies report a high rate of assistive device abandonment, nearly 20%, among those with visual impairment. Reasons for device abandonment include the devices are ineffective, they are using other devices, they do not like the device, the device is defective, they have had a recent change in their vision, they do not have the space to accommodate the device, or they are unable to use the devices. Over the next 20 years, the number of individuals with visual impairments is going to increase greatly, so we need to explore new strategies to assist people in remaining active and help them retain their independence. “If individuals can be trained to use new technological devices properly, they will be able to do everything they could with sight.”


More adaptive technology resources: Adaptivision The Carroll Store Freedom Scientific ABISee Let’s Go Technology Check out this video of Jennifer Kaldenberg discussing OT/vision rehabilitation from our YouTube channel:

My Trekker Breeze and I

Adrian

The fear of getting lost was one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome when I lost most of my eyesight 19 years ago. It took me months to feel comfortable just walking around my familiar neighborhood.

Once I had gained some confidence, I began to jog farther away from my home. My expeditions often led me to asking other pedestrians for directions in order to find my way back. It was frustrating to many times get ignored or get the wrong information.  This all changed a couple of years ago when I got the Trekker Breeze talking GPS device from my local Department of Rehabilitation.

The Breeze has made a huge difference in my everyday life. This amazing handheld device audibly lets me know my exact location, as well as upcoming intersections, and location of landmarks and shops nearby. Gone are the days of guessing my stop when riding the bus. The Trekker’s step-by-step directions make it incredibly easy to find any address or place.

Earlier this year, while training for my first American River 50 mile Endurance Run, I relied on my Breeze to guide me to my favorite fire road trail which is in the Santa Monica Mountains. Although my wife and a friend were more than happy to give me a ride there, it was incredibly rewarding to navigate the meandering route to the trail by myself. As a result, I have now gained back a great deal of the independence I had when I was fully sighted.

The Breeze was designed as an orientation aid. It detects your location through the Global Positioning System, GPS, and relates it to the digital maps of your area.  The GPS system uses electronic maps, saved in the SD card, to provide detailed and handy information about all street names and ranges of addresses, as well as points of interest such as banks, restaurants and pharmacies.

photo

Using the Breeze, you can record new routes while walking them. The system then provides step-by-step instructions on how to navigate them. With Breeze you can explore your surroundings and let the system describe them as they’re found along the way. If you wish to return to your point of origin, Breeze can help you retrace your steps. The system also allows you to record landmarks and reference points along your route, and they’re announced as you go by them.

Taking all of these into consideration, I only have a couple of criticisms about the Breeze. This device already comes equipped with a digital map of your home state. If you travel out of state, however; you’ll need to purchase an additional DVD with the rest of the United States. Although the DVD is only $100, the SD card can only hold four state maps at a time. My second concern is how long it sometimes takes the Breeze to acquire the GPS signal. Depending on the sky conditions, it can sometimes take up to 10 minutes. This slight inconvenience, however, is no big deal when compared to the many benefits it offers. At a retail price of $499, this device is a worthwhile investment for any visually impaired individual seeking more independence.

This post was written by Adrian Broca.