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Canadian Council of the Blind Newsletter
“A lack of sight is
not a lack of vision”
Happy New Year!
A warm and wonderful welcome to 2022. Let us bring in the New Year with some optimism as we move into a year which will no doubt be full of celebration and medical and technological breakthroughs.
It was wonderful that many of our chapters and clubs were able to reunite for a short period of time to celebrate the Holiday season together, many in person, some virtually. The overwhelming peer support and hope for the upcoming season although short lived, was important and fulfilling to our members across Canada.
Speaking of Canada, 2022 will be an incredible breakthrough year for the many organizations, who began their work on the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) which rolled out pre-election and late last year. This year will offer no shortages of advocacy opportunities, and inclusion in beginning to see Canada kick start the process to break down many barriers we have faced in the disability community. As we begin rolling out the ACA, many of our members of CCB will be key players in the process to foster change.
This year will also offer many celebrations for the Council and its members, as we will spread out our White Cane events from February through May this year which will offer many more opportunities to showcase our abilities and how we as persons living with vision loss continue to champion and highlight our abilities.
We must remind ourselves, it is important to stay positive in a true time of uncertainty. As we roll in a New Year, we must also look to it as a fresh start to our continued vigilance, and recognize the importance of our efforts to ensure we all keep our guards up to overcome the challenges before us. It is important to remember we have all overcome many challenges in our daily lives in the past to bring us to this point in time.
On behalf of the National Board, committees, volunteers, and staff, I wish everyone a very happy and safe New Year.
CCB National President
Get ready for a different, but still fun and exciting awareness week from February 6 to 12. This year’s events will have to be limited due to the pandemic, but will still include countless local activities. Please visit the CCB website to keep yourself updated on the many exciting events that will be taking place this year across the country. And stay tuned for reports on events in upcoming newsletters!
White Cane Week Scheduled Events – February 2022
February 12 Virtual
Expo Forum: Reforming Ontario’s Assistive Devices Program
Release of findings from patient survey on Ontario’s Assistive Devices Program designed to give the present state of this important program and provide recommendations on, whether or not, it needs to be reformed and/or updated.
White Cane Magazine publishing date
February 22 Virtual
Preventable Blindness Summit
A discussion on preventable vision loss and blindness for over 8 million Canadians, including the need for eye examinations, eliminating the COVID-19 backlog, cataract surgery and the need for reducing wait times, requirements of vulnerable seniors and children and investment in research to reduce the number of people living with uncorrectable vision loss by 2050.
Introducing the CCB Virtual Youth Chapter!
A new year means new goals! This year, CCB’s youth ambassador, Emilee Schevers, is working hard to put together the first-ever CCB Youth Chapter to support youth advocacy, projects and social activities. The group will provide a youth voice within CCB while supporting the needs of youth who are blind or partially sighted.
The CCB Virtual Youth Chapter is designed to bring together youth ages 16 to 30 from across Canada. The chapter will focus on youth advocacy, the connection amongst members, supporting youth initiatives and education on the vision loss community.
We are still looking for passionate youth to join this group who wish to connect with like-minded peers. If you or someone you know is interested, please email Emilie at [email protected]
As well, if you are unsure if this is something for you, come out to the information session on January 18th at 7pm EST to learn more or ask questions. To register, email [email protected]
GTT: Exciting New Upcoming Workshops
We are planning a series of upcoming workshops. These will be 3-4 weeks long depending on the topic. They will take place on Wednesdays at 2:30 PM EST (11:30 AM PST) for one hour.
These will be small group explorations of topics. The group will work together with hands on practice of apps, programs, and devices.
We are limiting participation in each group to ten people. This way, everyone gets their questions answered and can help each other in a small group. The number of participants at these smaller groups will be limited to help ensure quality control and meaningful participation by all. We encourage only those individuals with a vested interest in the topic and/or product to participate to help ensure that instruction is awarded initially to those most in need.
Our first series of workshops will begin on Wednesday January 26 at 2:30 PM EST and will explore using the dolphin easy Reader app on your idevice.
To register, e-mail [email protected]
Other future topics may include:
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Happy Braille Day
World Braille Day, celebrated on January 4th, is observed to raise awareness of the importance of the accessibility and independence that Braille allows. Braille is a code – a tactile system through which letters and words are represented using sets of six raised dots, or cells, in various combinations. It is not a separate language. In fact, there are different braille codes for different languages, mathematics, and music.
Prior to the 20th century, a person who was blind had no common means to read or write. In the year 1900, the Tactile Print Investigating Committee was appointed to resolve the problem of numerous competing tactile reading systems and establish a common one. In 1907 Helen Keller, who had learned four embossed codes, pled for a single code.
After trial versions of raised letters such as Moon Type, and other embossed dot systems, like the New York Point proved ineffective, Braille emerged the victor in what some blindness historians dubbed “The War of the Dots.” The braille code used today was invented by Louis Braille, while he was a student at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France in the 1820s. He wrote: “Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
In the 1800s, children diagnosed “handicapped” were institutionalized with little opportunity for education. In 1898, Alexander Graham Bell stated: “Handicapped children have a right to an education in the public school.” The first recorded legislation providing for the education of “handicapped children” in British Columbia was in 1890.
Yet segregated schooling, which separated vulnerable children from their families, was the norm until the 1980s, when the Ministry of Education developed policy and procedures for including children and youth with special needs in regular classrooms. It wasn’t until 1990 that the School Act was revised, in response to the Royal Commission on Education, to entitle all school-aged children to a full educational program not separated from other students and in their neighbourhood schools.
When I was six years old, after being diagnosed as “legally blind,” I was sent almost 1000 km away from my home and family to reside at Jericho Hill School, an institution for deaf and blind children established in 1915 in Vancouver, BC. Though I have few positive words about my time at Jericho, I am grateful for having learned Braille so young. With this fundamental skill, I was able to progress in a mainstream school, actively participate in my community, attend college, raise children and secure gainful employment. I think of Braille as my key to independence.
My passion for Braille inspired me to start a business with the mission to translate the printed world into Braille. The reality is that many everyday establishments — restaurants, hotels, hospitals — aren’t equipped with braille menus, room guides, safety protocols, etc. That means people who are blind aren’t given the freedom to choose their own dinner, read what services are available or to keep their personal needs private. Imagine having to ask somebody to read a menu or complete your personal medical forms. For a couple of years, my guide dog and I went from business to business attempting to convince others of the importance of inclusivity by simply adding Braille as one of the formats of their printed material.
I am often asked: “With technology and screen readers becoming such a common feature, has Braille become obsolete?” My response is: “When the printed word becomes obsolete, braille will become obsolete.”
Braille is literacy and essential in the context of education, freedom of expression, opinion, and social inclusion, as reflected in article
2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted on December 13, 2006. Studies show that braille literacy is directly correlated with academic achievement and employment among people who are blind.
In order for an individual to have intellectual freedom, personal security, independence, equal opportunities to study and work, one must be literate. Technology has brought with it many ways to access print but that does not make braille obsolete. There is no substitute for the ability to read and therefore no digital alternative can replace braille completely.
There will still be a need for braille for as long as there is a need for print and there will still be a need for hard copy braille for as long as there is still a need for pen and paper.
Furthermore, a person who only uses speech output misses out on the reinforcement of spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization and formatting. It is more efficient to deal with subjects such as mathematics in braille. Imagine trying to do complex calculations, or remember series of numbers using only audio. For this reason, I prefer to read bank statements, follow knitting patterns and keep a calendar in braille. It also draws less attention than speech.
Using a tactile watch allows me to subtly check the time, rather than a talking watch making an announcement when I want to know the time. I choose braille when giving presentations, conducting interviews and performing music rather than wearing headphones and listening to notes spoken by a screen reader.
For some tasks, I don’t want to rely on battery powered devices so I braille. This is particularly suitable for labeling CDs, DVDs, spices, tags I safety-pin to clothing, etc. Braille offers an ideal solution for the modification of games and books. I have converted myself and/or purchased many braille games and books so that I can fully participate in playing card games or reading with the children in my life.
While there are many ways to receive and share information using auditory and electronic methods, braille remains an essential tool to independence for those who are blind or unable to read print.
While our society is increasingly utilizing electronic communication in many aspects of our lives, the printed page still plays a major role: from magazines, menus, and manuals to piano, choral and orchestral scores.
Braille music and text allow braille readers to have the complete access to print information that their sighted peers may take for granted.
At the same time, it is sobering to recognize that the number of children being taught this crucial reading and writing tool in North America is at an all-time low. Statistics from the American Printing House for the Blind suggest that only about 8 percent of K-12 students who are blind in the United States are Braille readers.
Considering the Braille literacy crisis, it is imperative that we continue to make the case for Braille – the only method that allows blind people to read and write independently. While other tools such as recorded or text-to-speech audio are useful to blind people, only Braille provides us with true literacy.
A correlation has been demonstrated between knowing how to read and write Braille and better educational and employment outcomes. Yet because of the false perceptions that Braille is hard to learn or that new technologies can replace it, Braille instruction continues to decline. The irony is that technology – such as Braille note takers and displays that can connect to computers and smartphones – has made Braille more available than ever before.
Braille and technology can actually complement each other. Not only does Voiceover make the iPhone accessible through text-to-speech software but the user can input using braille. Technology is advancing at a quick pace and there are now many ways to access braille through tech devices.
Unfortunately, this advanced technology comes with a hefty price tag and the majority of people who are blind are on a limited income.
A person who reads braille is better equipped to navigate the world as braille is increasingly showing up everywhere. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by over 150 countries in 2008. It recognizes persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others worldwide. Coupled with increased awareness, this has led to more and more public spaces offering tools and aids for all disabilities, making it possible to find braille in elevators, on airplanes, in restaurants, on bank notes, etc.
I get very excited when I find Braille in unexpected places. If a restaurant has a braille menu, even when I know what I want to order, I often read the entire menu. A friend brought me some throat lozenges from her travels overseas that had braille on the packaging. I kept that box, long after the candy was gone.
The most exciting surprises I found were in my travels to Egypt, where I had the opportunity to lay my hands on Arabic Braille. In the Egyptian city of Alexandria is a major library and cultural centre called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
This library complex houses a specialized library for people who are blind and visually impaired named after a great Egyptian writer named Taha Hussein. He was blind himself and yet one of the prominent writers of his time, affecting the cultural life in Egypt as well as the Arab world, stating: “Education is like the water we drink and the air we breathe.”
This library offers a new approach to library services for the blind and visually impaired, making it possible for me to read books and access all the resources of a library in Braille for the first time in my life.
Every day, thousands of people who are blind, like me, use Braille for everything from shopping lists to labeling CDs, from reading novels to solving equations, from learning a piece of music to composing one.
The increasing availability of Braille signs makes it easier for us to get around. You’ll find braille on ATMs, elevators, and even Lego.
Innovations are constantly changing the way that Braille is used. That being said, there is much that needs to be done to combat the decline of Braille literacy.
The most important first step is to create awareness of how Braille makes it possible for people who are blind to live independently. On World Braille Day, let’s commit ourselves to demonstrating how this versatile code helps us all live the lives we want.
By Kristi Lee Ardell
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In The News
Marburg in Germany prides itself on being a Blindenstadt – a city adapted to make life for the blind and partially sighted as easy as possible. But it owes this reputation and its inclusive social structure to a particularly innovative school.
At the age of eight, Leon Portz was gradually losing his eyesight due to a congenital condition when he was given his first computer. By the age of nine, he had figured out how to speed up the machine-generated voice that read out websites and other electronic texts, allowing him to grasp the information faster. He now listens to texts at five times the standard speed, which is unintelligible to an untrained ear.
But his love of science only truly flourished when he moved from his hometown in central Germany to the nearby town of Marburg, a leafy, medieval university town, to attend a specialist school for the blind.
As it turned out, that move transported him into a hotbed of inclusive innovation.
Marburg proudly calls itself a “Blindenstadt”, a city for blind and visually impaired people, due to its long history as a hub for accessibility. A ground-breaking educational institute for the blind, the Blindenstudienanstalt (or Blista) in German, was founded here during World War One, to provide opportunities for young men blinded in the war. The institute has spawned countless inventions for blind people since then, including a tactile mathematical font. It has also profoundly shaped the town around it, turning it into a place where, as Portz puts it, “everything is ideal for blind people”.
Some of the innovations that make Marburg so accessible also exist elsewhere. But the way they are joined up here is unique, Portz and other blind people who have lived in the town say. The clattering sound of guiding canes is ubiquitous in Marburg, as blind people navigate the town aided by beeping traffic lights, pavements and floors with ridges and bumps that act as tactile signals of hazards or barriers. Buildings often have raised maps and floor plans, while detailed miniature bronze models of major sights such as Marburg’s castle and town square allow blind visitors to feel the entirety of each landmark.
Other convenient features are a result of the town’s natural shape.
Marburg is small and hilly, making it easy to orient yourself simply by noting if you are going up- or downhill. A web of accessible leisure facilities spans the city, such as a horse-riding school for the blind, and blind rowing, football, climbing and skiing clubs. The town’s university has Germany’s highest proportion of blind students, and the widest range of degrees taken by blind people.
The Blista and its students have driven many of these innovations, developing everyday aids such as a foldable cane, but also, working with the university to improve accessibility across departments. Law and psychology are among the most popular course choices, as the materials are text-heavy and can be studied easily with aids such as screen readers. Now teachers and pupils from the institute are prying open another field: the natural sciences, which have long been beset by barriers for blind people.
“I don’t feel like a pioneer, but I guess I am one,” says Portz, who is studying biochemistry and computer science in Düsseldorf. He is the first blind biochemistry student there, and by his own estimate, one of fewer than a handful of blind chemistry students in all of Germany.
Chemistry remains relatively closed to the blind, due to the hazards of laboratory work, and the ubiquity of images, charts and graphs. But chemistry teacher Tobias Mahnke, who taught Portz at the Blista-associated Carl-Strehl-School in Marburg, argues there is no reason why his subject should be so restricted.
“No human being can see molecules, no human being can see atoms, and yet, chemistry education is so visual. Why? There shouldn’t be any disadvantage for blind people, given that sighted people can’t see all this, either,” he says.
Mahnke, who is sighted, started working at the school in 2013. At the time, it didn’t offer an advanced chemistry class. Since then, he and his colleagues have developed an array of multi-sensory tools and methods for teaching natural sciences, supported by the chemistry faculty at Philipps University in Marburg, as well as funding from the charitable Reinhard-Frank-Foundation. Mahnke has written a master’s thesis on developing inclusive materials for teaching chemistry, and published some of his findings.
Unlike conventional science models used in classrooms, the Blista models are designed to reveal entire processes and wide-ranging relationships. For example, a three-dimensional model of a water molecule, developed by a group of chemists at different universities, can be squashed flat, to encourage students to think about how it is depicted in two dimensions. A 3D-printed plastic model of a curving river bed, developed by Mahnke’s colleague Tanja Schapat, is intended to be held under a tap. Students can feel where the water flows faster or slower, and how this shapes its contours. They then learn that where the bed is flatter, the water is shallower and therefore gets warmer in the sun, attracting fish and reeds.
The laboratory is adapted to blind pupils’ needs, with electric burners in perforated metal cases, instead of Bunsen burners with naked flames “Most scientific experiments go far beyond seeing. You can touch things, something becomes warm or cold, you can smell and hear things, and in experiments with food, taste them,” says Mahnke as he shows the models via video. “In regular teaching, we focus on vision because it means I can demonstrate an experiment within five seconds, and it can be seen by 30 students. It’s fast and efficient for the teacher, but not for the pupils.”
In 2017, the school offered its first advanced chemistry course, and in 2019, demand was so strong that it offered two classes. The laboratory is adapted to blind pupils’ needs, with electric burners in perforated metal cases, instead of bunsen burners with naked flames.
Mahnke and his colleague Tanja Schapat have developed a method for teaching pupils about heat and fire, using heat-sensitive swelling paper to allow them to explore the properties of a burning candle. A special sensor, developed at the school in the 1990s, emits a high or low beep when a liquid brightens or darkens during a chemical reaction.
By Sophie Hardach
This story will be continued in the February 2022 Visions newsletter.
Happy New Year! From the Canadian