Category Archives: technology

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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Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

It doesn’t take much to excite me. My compadre , Troy (a blind guy) made the mother of all discoveries this week, after much finagling and phoning to the Yellow Pages folks in search of a free, searchable,  information phone service for the Yellow Pages. He found a wonderful, little known tool and shared it with me. Now, we are sharing it with EVERYONE.  This is free!!! What makes it particularly exciting, is that, now I can ‘browse’ the Yellow Pages, just like the sighted folk. It’s accessed through a toll free number here in Nova Scotia. You call the number, (you can opt for a short tutorial), and say, for example, “Halifax, Nova Scotia”. Then say, “pizza”, if you are hankering for a pie. The ‘automated attendant’ or voice menu will ask you if you want, “Pizza Restaurant, delivery, or any pizzeria”. I chose “delivery”. Then, the clever interactive voice offered me 10 choices.  I didn’t really want a pizza, but hey, if I had… Then, I tried “photographers”, “shoes”,  “plumbers”, “banks” and more.  When searching  for shoe store options, I was asked if I wanted to “search by neighbourhood, near a landmark, near an intersection or city wide “….and so on.  I listened to  a list, and could choose to “connect, get the address, or get the number”. 

This is a minor miracle for me and other blind people who spend many an hour fritzzing around with the regular 411 service in search of numbers for stores or businesses. The only business or store umbers we can get from 411, are ones WHICH WE KNOW THE NAME AND LOCATION OF!!! So, for Nova Scotians, the toll free number is: 1-877-310-9356. Blind people! Program it onto your speed dial!! Let your fingers do the walking.  For  most of the rest of Canada, the number is even simpler: 310-0411. This works for land lines or mobile phones. The web site, is there too, of course for the computer geeks (www.yellowpages.ca). My only caution is, to speak clearly, ’cause sometimes the ‘automated attendant’ says, “I don’t  understand you”…story of my life.

Quit Crapping Up the Internet!!!

I’ve had it with going through and deleting an endless bunch of smutty, bizarre, horrific and obscene ‘comments’ from my spam queue on this blog and the pile of crap spam e-mails in my various e-mail in boxes. Holy moly! What kind of nut jobs are out there anyway?! Sheesh! Why can’t we patrol the Internet better? I am seriously saddened by some of this. Sure, I KNOW there is child porn, beastiality videos, sales of dangerous miracle cures, whacko ’employment opportunities’ and other pathetic stuff going on, but REALLY, can you leave me out of it please!? If I get one more unsolicited e-mail from ‘Mr. Gupta’ asking me for money for his charity, or somebody telling me to send  my password and ID to a hotmail account (how lame is THAT!?) I think I will throw a virtual hissy fit.  It’s only moderately soothing to forward the fake banking spam to the web security at the real banks, Paypal or whatever, or to hit reply with a big “F You!” to the password seekers, but this soaks up my time.  Yeah, I love the Internet and the wonderful pile of information at my fingertips…yada, yada… but the phising, spyware and adware, is getting me down.  Frankly,  I can also live without the ‘funny stories’, ‘cute videos’, ‘must try recipes’, ‘chain hugs’, ‘heartwarming poems’, and all the other stuff in the pile of junk that I get from my so-called ‘friends’ e-mail me, day in and day out.  Some people must have time on their hands like warts.

Voting Day Blues

I have been very hyped about this election. Why?  I have chomped at the bit in anticipation of dramatically and meaningfully casting my inaccessible ballot at the polling station. Let me remind you about the core elements of a democratic vote; secret, independent and verifiable. I have gone on and on, to EVERYONE who will listen and to some who won’t, about the importance of these elements, the sanctity of the electoral process, and how I am denied this right by virtue of inaction on the part of Elections Canada. I am blind, as are hundreds of thousands of other voters. We do not have electronic voting in Canada. We do not have telephone voting. We do not have voting machines at the polls. We do not have Braille ballots. I thought that today I would be pumped and ready to let loose my schpeel at the Presbyterian church where I would be voting. I ran through my dialogue, my diatribe, my kvetching complaint, like a Shakespearean actor preparing for Stratford.

Here’s what really happened. I made it to the church, and found myself outside with a woman in a wheelchair attempting to open a monstrously large door (no automatic opener). I opened it for her, but it was not wide enough. A worker from the poll came and helped to open another door. I commented wryly about Elections Canada and their accessible voting sites. She commiserated. By this point, I had, for some reason, already lost my oomph.  Maybe it’s the time of year, or ‘my time of the month’.  Some one came over as Opal and I walked into the large church basement. The usual useless pointing and “over there” was followed by an arm-grab which I yanked away.  Someone else gave sensible directions to the table I needed.  My ID was requested and checked.  I did NOT give a long-winded lecture on the difficulty blind people have in meeting ID requirements, given that we don’t have driver’s license and many of us have no passport. Some of us choose not to have or use a charitable ID (CNIB) for reasons which are too numerous and complicated for this blog.  I provided my stunning photo ID cards which have a photo of Opal and me posing together (CGDB and the Attorney General of Ontario), but my Guide dog ID cards do not have my address on them, so I added a phone bill. I had considered bringing a Braille bill, but I did not want to be turned away. At this point, the DRO asked if I wanted a Braille template. My interest peaked, as I thought I had discussed this ad nauseum with Silvestre from elections Canada and had confirmed there would be no Braille on the ballot, and to expect the usual flaky template. Now I had no idea what they were offering me.  I asked (just to confuse them) if it was contracted or uncontracted Braille. The had no clue, so I let them off the hook and told them that I knew both, so it did’nt matter.  The DRO put the ballot into the ‘Braille template’ and then came the offer to “come into the voting area with you”. I said I would pass, given that I had this allegedly accessible Braille template in my hand.  Opal and I parked ourselves behind the privacy screen at a little table. I started to read the template. Numbers. Just numbers! I called out, “um, there’s no names here, just numbers”.  The old lady who had grabbed me when I came in, offered to read the names to me. I said that would not do. The DRO guy came over and offered to read them “as they appear in sequence. then you pick the braille number”, he said with full expectation that somehow this would be acceptable to me. I had PLANNED to make a big ‘to-do’, maybe proclaim myself the Rosa Parks of the voting blind, given that I am repeatedly told that blind people ‘have found this acceptable for years’. Instead, I told him “no thanks”, and ” if I can’t read it for myself”…( in a country where government material must be provided in alternate formats by law),  “I’ll have to  spoil my ballot”. He apologised (as everyone always does). I scrawled multiple X’s in allthe holes in my template and ballot and handed it to the old lady. She wisely did not attempt to go into the  insufferably patronizing routine of allowing me to put it in the box, but quickly disposed of it, stuffing it into the ballot box herself.   I walked out, declining someone’s eager offer for me to use the elevator, saying, “my legs are fine, we’ll use the stairs”. I left deflated.   I did not call the media, or my party delegate, or the PM (who doesn’t give a flying f…k anyway), or the queen, or Silvestre at Elections Canada (who I’m guessing was pretty busy today). Instead, I went for my routine blood work and called it a day. I wish I was one of those clever musicians, ’cause I’d be writing a tune tonight…’Voting Day Blues’.

STOP PRESS!!! Megan Leslie, newbie NDP canditate and personal acquaiantance declared winner of Halifax riding! Go get em in Ottawa, kid…and remember your roots…and your blind friends…

Opal Goes to High School (again)

Yesterday, Opal and I went back to Citadel High school in Halifax. Our purpose this time was to introduce the 2008  Writing contest which AEBC Halifax (Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians) is hosting with 100 grade 10 students. The last time we visited Citadel, it was final exam time in June. There wasn’t much of anything going on then, except that a handful of kids,  bleary-eyed from all-night studying were getting bummed out about their exams.   A few others were in a tizzy because Security had  hacked off their locks and cleaned out their lockers.  Yesterday was a totally different scenario. In a word, CHAOS!  We handily found our way to the familiar ‘office’. The staff were helpful and made photocopies of some handouts for me. We sat next to a funked-out kid in trouble waiting to see one of the vice-principals.  Opal and I listened to the bedlam in the halls.  Announcements (both for students and teachers) are constantly being cranked out.  Each one is preceded by an alarming ‘alert’ tone, which is reminisant of something you would hear on a submarine …or in a prison. Maybe it was the added destinations in the announcements…”…meeting in ‘D’  block”  that made me think of this.  I ate my tuna sandwich and took in the conversations students were having with the staff…”I DID bring a note signed by a parent, so why am I marked missing?”  “My class is supposed to be in room 208 in ‘D’ block, but they’re not there!”   Today, we were back to meet Marjorie, an English teacher who asked me to introduce the Writing Contest and speak to her class about blindness. She seemed her usual harried self when she arrived.  As we gathered my photocopies, I noticed someone had stopped to pat and talk to Opal. “Don’t touch my dog please, she’s working”, I said automatically. They continued,  oblivious to my words.  I said, “Hey, don’t touch my dog”.  This is when Marjorie introduced me to the offender, Kam the principal of Citadel High. I grinned but  offered no appology. Instead I gave her one of the handouts on Guide dogs. Marjorie and I found our way to the staff lunch room on the 2nd floor where I was to wait for “the kids to settle down from lunch”.  A teacher walked in and screamed, apparently terrified at the sight of Opal. This happens occasionally.  Five  minutes later, we bumped into the same teacher as we entered  a doorway into a lunchroom alcove. He screamed again. This time, I grinned. Opal shrugged off his scream, disregarded him and guided me, as she is supposed to. Our visit with the kids was great. The contest will have them writing about what they think their world would be like without sight.  We talked about blindness too. Questions?  Sure. “How do audible traffic signals work?” When I mentioned blind sports, the restless, surly  kid in the front (I’m guessing Marjorie parks him there to keep an eye on him) blurted out his question, “Is there blind basketball?”.   I told him I didn’t know, but that Goal ball is a huge blind sport,  even a Para Olympic sport. We talked about accessible technology and devices.  I asked them to take out their cell phones. Most of these 36 kids have one and were eager to break the ‘no cell phone in class’ rule.  I urged them to resist actually dialing, but to imagine trying to use it to text message or call, if they could not see. “I can’t feel the keypad or see the display”, some girl complained. “That’s my point”,  I said. Most of the hundreds of models of cell phones,  MP3 players etc are totally impossible to use if you are blind.  As always, the majority of questions were about guide dogs.  Time flew by and soon Marjorie was giving me the hook. We got a round of applause and then Opal and I were escorted out before the buzzer and the ensuing stampede of kids by a pair of girls (teenage girls always travel in pairs, even in 2008). Opal and I managed to get home without causing anyone else to scream.

New Bling For Opal

Oooooo. I have stunning new bling! Mum’s friend gave me a beautiful purple necklace. Some dog’s call their necklaces “collars”, but mum tells me that mine is special (like me), so we call it a necklace or bling.  Mum put my tag (the one with my CGDB registration number on it) and my bell (so mum can hear me moving around) on the new necklace. I always wear my necklace around the house ’cause mum says that a  pretty girl needs her bling at all times. Also, if anything were to happen (like a fire..ooo, I hope not),  it would be easier to drag me out of the house ’cause I might get scared and be resistant. My tag has the CGDB phone number on it, so if I ever get lost and wander way over to Pictou county or somewhere, the person who finds me can call CGDB and they would know by reading my registration number, who I was and  where I belong.  And hey! I have a computer inside me too. OK, maybe it’s really called an AVID  microchip, but if I get lost without my necklace, a vet or animal shelter can scan me (like a box of Milk Bones at the grocery store checkout) for my ID information. AVID (American Veterinary Identification Device) is a really big computer data base that tells the scanner who I am when it reads my secret AVID 8 digit number.  And then there’s my tattoo that’s located on my…..

Still Not Announcing Bus Stops in Halifax

Hmm. Yesterday was hot and humid. According to those who saw the interview on TV, Opal looked bored. I can tell you now, she was hot and bothered. So was I.  A CBC ‘Nova Scotia News at 6’ reporter phoned to ask me for a follow-up interview about Metro Transit’s policy/lack of policy/inability to comply with a policy to ANNOUNCE BUS STOPS.  You would think that this is a no-brainer. Apparently not. Metro Transit’s acting general manager was asked to comment on the elusive plan to install a ‘voice enunciator system’ (automaticaly announces stops as buses cruise along the route).  Money. Yes, it’s all about the underfunding, the high cost of such a system…. but one day…

Sorry, that’s not good enough.  Halifax must come to its senses and get in line with major cities across this country (including Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Ottawa) and the dozens of small town transit companies who have adopted a policy to announce stops on buses and on other forms of transit.  Some have seen the light all on their own,  while other cities (like Toronto and Ottawa) have been mandated  to do so through Human Rights Tribunals and other legislating bodies.

This is the city that is trying to sell its HRM (Halifax) By Design strategy. If this town wants to become an urban mecca, then it needs to get serious about transit. That’s right. Get the money from the feds, the province or maybe the money can be secured by taxing the gas-guzzling  (usually single-driver) vehicles entering the downtown core (like London).  I don’t really care. Neither does the rest of the blind population AND the other citizens in this city who would like to know where they are on the bus route. We have several universities here with a huge student population arriving “FROM AWAY” each year.  We have a small invasion each summer of cruise ship passengers and other tourists.  We have numerous  people immigrating to Canada  who land on our shore and into our city each year as well as  other newcomers to town.  NONE OF THEM KNOW WHERE THEY ARE GOING!!  Surprise!  You must realize that not all residents know where each street, transfer point, major intersection or significant public building is located on every bus route. So, find the money for the automated system. Pick a date for the project to be finalized by. In the meanwhile, make the drivers announce major stops!!! They can do it the old fashioned way and shout out the stops! Give them a trip sheet to figure out what those major stops are. If they don’t like it, TOO BAD!  Maybe the pressure Metro Transit management gets  from their union (you KNOW they will go cry foul to the union. Winnipeg drivers did) will be motivation to find the money for the automated system lickety split! Sheesh!