Category Archives: resources for the Blind

Take it all the way to the Bank

Sometimes, it pays to persevere. For years, I and other individuals have requested, pleaded with, and even demanded that the Halifax Shopping Center branch of  RBC (formerly known as Royal Bank of Canada) install an audible  banking machine. This branch has gone through several managers over the years, and all were less than responsive to the suggestion that accessibility  in banking would be “a good thing” (to borrow a line from Martha Stewart). The branch  went through a major retrofit last year, (INCLUDING INSTALLATION OF A NEW BANKING MACHINE), and despite reminders to the deadheads in charge of the dough (AKA the last manager) to order and include an audible machine, the branch ended up putting in a new, regular INACCESSIBLE machine. People who can’t see the keypad and display, cannot use it for quick, everyday banking, like other bank patrons. Instead, our options included going to the stand-up tellers while trying to juggle papers, guide dogs and privacy, or the grim death march-like wait with the ‘seniors’ at the sit-down service. The latter is the default choice of most blind people who bank alone.  Many a time, I have sat…and sat, and waited for my turn to come. It  irritated me beyond belief to wait endlessly for the privilege of depositing money into the coffers of an already obscenely profitable bank. Tic-toc! My time is valuable too! And to boot, any blind person in need of cash or depositing funds to cover bills etc after banking hours? was screwed! So one day, as I sat vacantly at  the ‘sit down’ service,  eavesdropping on some old geek’s long winded  financial and personal history (in excruciating minutia) , the new branch manager came over to introduce herself. A big sigh went off  in my head, but a cordial greeting coming out my mouth…and within  two minutes, I redirected the conversation. I asked her if  we might open  the dialogue about accessibility problems with this RBC branch one more time.   Result?  Darlene, the new manager, just telephoned  to announce  (a mere three weeks or so after  I sent her a detailed e-mail  about  accessibility, Accommodation, rights and obligations blah, blah, blah), that the RBC Halifax Shopping Center branch will, by April, install AT LEAST THREE AUDIBLE BANKING MACHINES AT THE BRANCH ITSELF AND WITHIN THE MALL!

Now, I can  look forward to cruising  over to the mall at any time,  and being able to go the bank machine (the audible ones) , slip on my headphones, plug in, and listen to ‘bank guy’s’ voice croon his instructions to me, thereby allowing me to conduct transactions quickly….such as depositing my money…. into the coffers of an obscenely profitable bank. Nice going, though,  RBC. 

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Louis Turns 200

January 4th 2009 will mark the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. Louis is the guy who poked himself in the eye with an awl at age three, then lost sight in the other eye, just to make things symmetrical (actually it was caused by sympathetic ophalmia). He went to the Royal Institution for the Blind Youth in Paris which turned out to be a major hell-hole kinda place with the usual bad food, tyranny and general beatings and abuse that gives residential schools a bad name. The kid had smarts, no doubt about it. He  fiddled with the cello and played organ all over gay Paris. In school, he got bummed out about the raised letters they taught him to use for reading, so he improvised a bit with Barbier’s (French soldier dude) 12 dot and dash code used for passing tippy-top military secrets in the field.  Louis came up with a  6- raised dot  cell system to represent letters of the alphabet. Voila! Braille was born and would later become  the revolutionary method of communication for the blind. Louis  later dreamed up Braille music notation (being a music buff and all) and years later, a guy named,  Nemeth would create a code for mathematics . The really sad thing about this great achievement, is that Louis died of Tuberculosis at age 43 BEFORE BRAILLE CAUGHT ON!

Look for Braille 200 events in your community. Regardless of whether you have vision or you are blind, if you use Braille or not, support Braille 200 Day activities! Buy that lame demo bookmark! Pretend you understand the explanations given by the volunteer at the mall display of Uncontracted (grade 1) and Contracted (grade 2) Braille and how they differ. Ooo and ahh when you are asked to ‘read’ sample Braille sentences and say, “This is so hard to do” in genuine amazement. Make like it matters! ‘Cause it does. It is critical to promote and maintain the teaching of Braille to blind children and adults all over the world. Why? It’s a neat method of communication.  Example; You can write obscene Braille messages all over your boss’s memo’s and he’ll never know what you said…PLUS you can read in bed without waking your sweetie (no audio, and no lights)…AND  maybe someday, it’ll come in handy when there’s  a global power shortage and all the talking book machines and computers will grind to a halt…like now!

Stuff They Don’t Teach At Guide Dog School

Guide dogs receive extensive training that includes many aspects and exposure to many situations. Ideally, these dogs are raised with people who consistently expose them to ‘stuff’ as pups: all types of walking surfaces such as gravel, pavement, grates, escalators, wood, grass…, all kinds of noises; example: traffic, bangs, shouting, music, clapping, machines…, all kinds of people (kids playing, people in wheel chairs, runners, people performing….), many different types of venues like restaurants, malls, churches, office buildings…., numerous modes of transportation such as cars, trains, subways, buses, airplanes, boats…, and other animals, including cats, dogs, cattle, birds…. and so on. Then they leave the puppy walker and go off to a guide dog training center to practice the skills they will need to help the  blind person with whom they will eventually be matched. Trainers and apprentices harness them up and spend months teaching  them to walk around obstacles, to stop at the top and bottom of staircases, to ignore other people and animals, to respond to verbal commands, arm signals, and foot positions. They learn to disobey or over ride a  command in any situation that would put the handler in danger (Intelligent Disobedience). They practice and practice and are exposed increasingly to more types of routes (busy downtown streets, country roads, suburban areas…) and situations to which they must respond appropriately (stopping when cars back out of driveways, walking through construction zones, ignoring food on the ground, ducking around shopping carts, remaining calm when fire alarms are sounded, ignoring off leash dogs that come up to them….). Trainers try everything they can think of to season these dogs. Umbrellas are popped open, stacks of books are dropped, fans blown and more, all to prepare them for the numerous situations they will face as guide dogs.  They train in hot and cold weather, in the pouring rain and driving snow. All training centers have a resident cat or two because it is likely that some of the dogs will go home with handlers who own a pussycat, or at the very least, will occasionally visit someone who has one.  Once the guide dog school has selected or “matched” their blind client with a dog, they train the dogs some more with the client’s specific size, gait, walking speed, home environment, activity level and lifestyle in mind. The residential (and usually final) part of formal training involves multiple daily training ‘walks’ with the handler, the school trainer and the dog. This month-long period of mind and body-numbing activity concludes (hopefully, but not always) with ‘qualification’ and the blind handler returning home with their guide dog.

But there is ALWAYS stuff that Guide dog schools don’t teach you or your dog. It’s impossible to cover everything. For example, Opal and I once encountered a woman walking a pet rabbit on a long leash. A sighted observer explained to me why Opal was so eager to pause; she was watching a bunny going for a stroll. Then there were the beaded curtains in the hallway of  a local restaurant (I thought  those went out in  the 70’s). It WAS an obstacle, albeit one that she could see through…we figured it out. There was a Halloween costume contest last year at the local supermarket that really grabbed her attention. In fact, she went nutty the first time I put on my balaclava (the woolly thing worn for heists, not the Greek pastry). Then, there was the time a kid vomited on the bus,  and the OTHER kid who dumped a chocolate milkshake over her when we were on the ferry to Dartmouth, a horse on the sidewalk (don’t ask), and the time we wandered into the annual pride parade by mistake and were pelted with silly string. We nearly got pepper sprayed as we innocently tried to get to the library…where a political demonstration was in progress nearby. Opal knew something was wrong when a fist fight broke out between two kids as we walked by them (I yelled at them to stop, or I would command my dog to attack—grin). I discovered that Opal also has a tap dancing  fascination (we saw ‘White Christmas’ on stage and I put on my own tap shoes now and then). One day, a couple of cars crashed as we walked by and left us showered in broken glass. I tore my quad muscle last year and had to walk at a snail’s pace WITH A SUPPORT CANE FOR THREE DAYS (and Opal), because I had no one to care for her. Fortunately, I managed to keep moving at least enough to get her outside to relieve. I’ve heard about one handler who was IN HOSPITAL WITH his guide dog for several days. Totally unfair to staff, the patients, and the dog. Other things?  You discover how to cope with them as they come up. Guide dog schools don’t tell you how to work out the strategy required for intimate times at home with that  new ‘significant other’ without one or the other (dog or partner) getting their nose put out of joint (physically, but more often, emotionally).  Opal put herself to bed at 6 PM the first time my sweetie and I… There might be any number of unusual or unique situations that a handler will face and need to figure out during their guide dog’s working life. Life with a guide dog is ever-changing and a relationship with a working dog is an endless ‘work in progress’.hen t

Hey! Taxi Drivers

Listen up cabbies! I’m going to say this once. Here is the not-so-definitive list of things you need to know when you pick up a customer who is blind or partially-sighted.

  • If you drive a radio cab, or if you get your calls through a computerized dispatch system, chances are that the customer will have specified that they are blind (they should ’cause they can’t expect you to guess). So, when you get to the pick-up location, do not sit in your car and expect the blind person to know that you have arrived.  We are not physic.  It is impossible to know if the nearby idling vehicle I hear is ‘my cab’ or just some other vehicle at this busy location (like a pimpmobile or a  Fed Ex courier or a cab from the wrong company). You must get out of the car and identify yourself as the driver from XYZ cab company. If there is something wrong with your legs, attempt to crank open the window and announce yourself from the comfort of your car.
  • Notice the guide dog with the person? They will have specified this too upon telephoning. Unless you have a medical certificate which exempts you from having a dog in your car (you would croak from the allergic reaction), then  YOU MUST, BY LAW, ACCEPT THE DOG IN YOUR VEHICLE!!! THERE ARE REPERCUSSIONS FOR PEOPLE WHO REFUSE ACCESS TO GUIDE DOGS…AND FINES.
  • Do not charge an ‘extra passenger’ or ‘baggage’ fee for transporting a guide dog (I have experience d this before). If you do so in Halifax, you could lose your taxi permit.
  • If the person with the guide dog wants to sit in the front with their dog, do not freak out. It is my practice to do so, as recommended by the school where I received my dog. I know that other schools have differing philosophies, but this is what I choose. Notice (as you always do) when we get in, that there is actually much more room for the dog in the front between my legs…yes, even (especially) in those monster luxury cars… than in the back behind the seat.  The big hump in the middle of the floor in the back is very constricting. Back seat? No way. If we crash, she will not go flying off a back seat, or be hurled to one side of the cab. It is more comfortable and safer for us both to sit in the front. this works for all cars, even the smallest. She is always well-behaved and will not touch you. (she may sneeze, though, ’cause your car is dusty)
  • Do not think that because your passenger is blind, that you can travel the most indirect route to get to the destination (boosting the fare), ’cause most of us will notice that you have taken a side trip to Ecum Secum on the way to the corner of Barrington and Duke.
  • I miss the old days. Taxi meters ticked back in the day. Now, there is no possible way to determine if the requested fare is what actually appears on the meter…however, do not get the idea that charging $17.50  for a one mile ride is something you can get away with.
  • If your client has a charge slip, or you have a charge slip for them, and you want a signature, then think about how tricky that might be to sign. Me? I won’t sign one. “You sign it”, I say… (you  could be asking me to sign up for donating a kidney for all I know)
  • When you  get to wherever the passenger wants to go, ask if they need assistance to get to the entrance of the building, or at the very least, give precise directions…”the is 5 meters straight ahead”. As I suggest to everyone, saying “over there”  while pointing is useless (and a bit brainless and thoughtless)
  • Alert your passenger if you are dropping them off in a puddle or ice patch. (I once stepped out of a cab, slipped on an icy patch, did a pirouette, landing on my knees, resulting in a bruise and torn jeans)

Yikes! It’s Hurricane Season

Opal and I live in Nova Scotia.  If there’s one thing Easterners really get into, it’s talking about , preparing for , and experiencing hurricane season. It must be that inbred Canadian love of imminent danger and disaster arising from weather conditions.  We are now in the midst of Hurricane season. Most hurricanes do not reach us, but we have had some over the years that did make landfall (Hurricane Juan, for example) and many tropical and sub tropical storms which can pack a mean punch. For people with disabilities, there are significant challenges involved in preparing for bad weather.  Just like the boy scouts, my motto is, ‘Be Prepared’. The Nova Scotia Disabled Persons Commission wrote a guide for PWD called “Are You Ready?”.  Voiceprint released a CD version of the guide.  It is full of helpful hints for PWD and seniors.   Other organizations in all jurisdictions have similar resources available. Consult the web sites or call the Red Cross, the Independent Living Resource Centre, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, National Organization on Disability,  Emergency Management Nova Scotia, VON (Vial of Life Program) or any EMO in your area.

Opal is a hurricane veteran. She was raised in North Carolina and was evacuated more than once, including during Katrina. Service animals, by the way ARE allowed into shelters (pets are not). I had no Guide dog at the time Hurricane Juan blew through Halifax some years ago.  I do recall my cat being terrified, especially when one of our windows blew in.  The power was out for five days. The streets were dangerous and impassible because of fallen trees and power lines. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to experience Juan with a guide dog.  In the last 12 months, Opal and I have dealt with bad weather, including tropical storms packing 120km hour winds and 150 ml of rain.   It’s important to listen to weather forecasts. It is helpful when planning your dog’s opportunities to relieve, because you can’t expect your 60 pound animal to be willing and able to squat in a gale (there’s always the bathtub…grin).

Plan your strategy for an upcoming storm. Obviously, you must have enough food and water on hand, for yourself and your animals. You should have a pre-determined   disaster plan for home, work or school. Create a communications and evacuation plan. and develop a support network of people. Your service animal’s kit must include food, dish, labeled medication, identification, papers, toy, bone, play collar, small blanket.  Fill your bathtub with water. Make sure you have the following on hand: non perishable food, water, batteries, portable or crank radio, medication supply, important papers including a list or audio tape of phone numbers and insurance information, first aid kit, warm clothing, sleeping bags, and items specific to your disability. Remember that phones and  power may go out (have mechanical can opener). There is often a lot of noise and confusion during building evacuation which makes it difficult for people who are blind who can no longer rely on familiar audio cues. Be familiar with your plan and practice regularly.

It’s not a good idea to use a land line when there is lightening ( My friend was knocked over while talking on the phone during a thunder storm as lightening hit the wires).  Unplug stuff, particularly computers.  Modems, monitors and so on, which can also become toast during a bad storm. On that cheery note, I am shutting down, unplugging and hunkering down as the weather begins to rage and we await the remnants of Hurricane Hannah.

Opal Goes On a Photo Shoot

Opal and I took over a local hospital today. We had an entourage that included; two AEBC (Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians) Halifax chapter members, three Halifax Infirmary staff people, and my friend, Anita a photographer who was armed with camera equipment. We were on a photo shoot for a pamphlet which AEBC Halifax has created in collaboration with the Diversity team at CDHA (Capital District Health Authority).  This pamphlet is being developed for some of the front-line staff of CDHA.  CDHA is made up of several hospitals and clinics in Halifax (10,000 employees in total).  The information in the pamphlet is designed to inform them on how to assist patients or clients who are blind or partially sighted. It includes information on the types of things to say to a blind person in the hospital/clinic setting (identify yourself…offer assistance…explain a procedure…) what NOT to say (“Over there”, “you don’t look blind”…), what to do (elementary guiding,  provide audible cues ie tapping a counter), what NOT to do (grab a blind person, touch a guide dog….), some general information (blind people have different types and levels of vision…some blind people use aids such as long white cane, or white support cane, ID cane, walker,  or guide dog…) information about the AEBC (see link on blogroll) and the Diversity Initiative at CDHA.  This is a phenomenal achievement for AEBC Halifax, a new chapter that no one knows much about yet.  CDHA wanted ‘realistic’ photos for the pamphlet instead of my cheesy Clip Art.   I convinced them to hire my favourite photographer. I also asked Randy (who has a standard long cane) and Joann (who uses a walker, but also brought along her white support cane) to meet us for some ‘action shots’.    The hospital provided three volunteer staff people to ‘ease the pain’ and chaos arising from our little  photo shoot with the ‘hospitalish’ looking staff and employees I needed in the pictures. I wanted Anita to take shots of us in various settings. We posed at the information counter, though we stalled there until confirmation with ‘Security’ about ‘permission’.  We also shot pics in the blood collection services area,  the Infirmary’s hallways, and in the Occupational Therapy department.   Fortunately, I am familiar with the blood lab staff and managed to sweet talk Glenda and Cathy (Cathy stopped long enough to put on her lipstick) to allow us into their department. They took time to pose with us, pretending to draw blood samples. Ya gotta love a phlebotomist! It also doesn’t hurt that I have the ability to steamroll a situation before anyone knows what is happening. A  lovely young woman from New Zealand who works in OT seemed a little camera shy at first, but when she realized that it was her chance at Canadian immortality (she is going back to the land of kiwis soon) she acquiesced and posed too.   We had some technical glitches.  Not the photography equipment…Randy’s cane fell apart and we had to stop and get it taped  up before he could continue. Opal led the parade all over the 4th floor of the Halifax Infirmary, and appeared in a number of shots. You can’t have a pamphlet without a guide dog on the front of it, can you?!

Don’t Sit On the Cat! and Other Advice For Blind People

People ask me all sorts of questions about how I manage to do this,  that and the other thing. Here’s a sample: “How do you cook without burning yourself?”   “How do you know when your period has started?”   “How do you know if the lights are on or off?”  “Do you ever step/sit on the cat?”  “How do you know if the food in your ‘fridge is still good?”   “How do you know what bus to get on?” Sigh.  Frankly, I worry about the people that ask these questions. For their benefit, and that of those people with vision loss out there who haven’t quite ‘got it together’ yet, here are a few more tips.  Cooking is fun for me. Sure, it is a bit of a different process. I do not attempt to multi-task when cooking for safety reasons. It is one thing for a sighted person to roam away from a stove-top full of pots to make a phone call or balance their check book, but I like to stick with the task at hand. It is safer to be by the stove and avoid potential a disaster…like setting the kitchen ablaze and ruining dinner in the process. I use larger pots and pans than sighted people might.  This helps avoid overflow when things boil. I use fewer pots, preferring to make many recipes that can be made with one or two pots instead. I prepare ingredients beforehand so that they are ready to add when I need them. My experience as a chef comes in handy some days. I cook effortlessly for the most part. I seem to have an internal guidance system which helps me time things right; set water to boil in huge pot, chop garlic and vegies while waiting, cook pasta (keep lid off and metal spoon to stick in pot  handy to prevent ‘pasta eruptus’ on the stove), drain pasta (into large colander IN sink), put pot back on burner (no need to wash it), add olive oil and garlic (inhale deeply), add vegies in order of ‘cookability’.  OK, I just invented a word, so sue me. I refer to the vegies that take longer to cook, like carrots, celery, turnip… then  stir the cast iron pot (prevents any sticking and cooks evenly), add other vegies (like green beans, zucchini and tomatoes), add spices and minimal vegetable stock.  I  let it simmer for a while. When that’s cooked, I put the multigrain pasta into the mix and stir it up. Voila! I have a big honking pot of tasty, healthy pasta and vegies without need for fuss and 5 hours at the stove. I listen to my talking book or radio while I cook and clean up as I go. If I drop food on the floor,  two things happen; I immediately say “Leave It!” for Opal’s benefit, and then pick it up and toss. Some people find that long oven mitts helpful to avoid burns. I don’t bother, but then I have years of experience. You can buy them through assistive aids sites (like Maxi Aids.com). If I am chopping and need to set down my knife, I slip the blade under the cutting board, so when I come to look for it, there will be no gashed fingers to deal with. I also NEVER put knives or glass items in the sink. These are set aside or washed and put away immediately (Hey! I take blood thinners  and don’t want to spend my day at the ER).  About the funky food in the fridge (FFF). I keep a close ‘eye’ on the contents of my fridge, checking and using items regularly. Like with all my ‘stuff’, I keep items in assigned places in the fridge. I label containers of leftovers with a date, though normally, they are eaten within a couple of days or frozen for future use. When in doubt, I enlist someone with sight to scope out the quality of food (usually around the same time they look at my clothing for stains). 

Our cat, little Lucy is a chatty cat most of the time. That’s very helpful for us both. She learned very quickly when she came to live with me, that I can’t see her, and she needs to STAY OUT OF MY WAY!!  Once in a while, she goes incognito and silent (sheesh). You can put a bell on your pet’s collar. I always check the seat which my big butt is about to occupy. This is a good habit for blind people to get into. That way, you avoid sitting on your cat, dog, hairbrush, basket, aunt Mim etc. 

Independent living for a blind person is good and admirable. However, my wise advice? Don’t be an idiot! If you NEED help, ASK for it. Don’t waste your time and elevate your frustration level by worrying about stuff. If you are lost, listen for footsteps and ask the person attached to the legs where you are, or if they can get you  to a point you are familiar with. If you don’ know which bus has pulled up or when to get off it,  ask. If you need to find a washroom anywhere or want a clerk to find something in a store for you…ASK.   Ask with a strong voice, not like a timid mouse. Ask politely but with conviction. It’s OK. 

Lights on or off? check the switches routinely. Or, if you’re feeling wealthy, you can buy a talking light detector. And knowing if your period has arrived? Mercifully, I’m menopausal, but I do remember a time when I used my nose efficiently to detect the distinct odour of blood.