- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

When Ancil Torres guides his students, it often means taking their hands and rubbing their fingers over the computer buttons and keys they will use on their jobs.The students — as well as Mr. Torres — are blind.Mr. Torres is a technology specialist for Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. He is one of three full-time technology specialists the foundation uses to teach employers and their employees how to use “assistive technologies” to help the visually impaired hold jobs.”They are technology consultants, but they have this physical handicap of being blind,” Kathryn Courbe, spokeswoman for the organization, says of the three technology specialists. “They’re very independent.”About 1.1 million Americans are classified as blind by the National Confederation of the Blind. Nearly 70 percent are unemployed.”Our goal is to open the doors of employment for those people who are blind or visually impaired,” Miss Courbe says.Assistive technologies refer to the devices that disabled persons use to do their work or move around without needing much help. The technologies Mr. Torres demonstrates consist mostly of computers with mechanized voices, Braille keyboards and camera attachments that greatly enlarge printed material.”The tool that you’re using has to be right for the job you’re trying to do,” says Mr. Torres, 39. “These technologies are a great equalizer. Without these technologies, a lot of people would not be able to hold a job.”The mechanized voices include a variety of male and female choices with names like Shelley, Glenn, Rocko, Grandma and Grandpa. An adjustable selection can speed up their pace to around 600 words per minute, making them sound like a whirring fan motor.Mr. Torres knows the technologies intimately because he uses them daily.On the left side of his workstation sits a lighted board with an overhead camera. It is connected to a computer on top of his desk.By sliding printed pages under the camera, words that are enlarged about 10 times appear on the computer screen, allowing Mr. Torres’ low-vision eyes to see them. He has been nearly blind from birth because of a genetic eye problem he shared with his father, both of whom are from the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. When his father died five years ago, Mr. Torres founded the W.R. Torres Foundation for the Blind, an organization that helps blind Trinidadians find jobs and use assistive technologies. A normal day for Mr. Torres begins around 8 a.m. He checks his phone messages, returns calls and goes through his e-mail. The early morning routine often includes a staff meeting.His appointment list can include representatives from government agencies who seek advice on adapting workplaces for blind employees. Other times he meets with visually impaired workers at their job sites to train them on using the specially-equipped computers and electronic devices.”Most of the day is spent training,” Mr. Torres says.Typically, Mr. Torres travels to the job site of a blind worker. After introducing himself, he reviews the topics they will cover during the day. Much of the computer software consists of Microsoft Windows adapted to camera enlargers or mechanical voices. Mr. Torres first assesses the person he is teaching through a series of questions. Next he familiarizes him or her with the equipment by guiding their hands to buttons, keys and speakers. Then he shows them different keystrokes they can use to access information or computer layouts they would use on their jobs.After a lunch break, Mr. Torres and his students practice drills throughout the afternoon to ensure the students can use the computers, software, speakers and other equipment. Most of the time, traveling to job sites for training means a cab ride across town. One time, it meant a trip to central Africa.The terrorist bomb that ripped through the American Embassy in Kenya in 1998 severely injured a computer-systems operator working there.The injuries left the Kenyan man nearly blind, prompting the State Department to send in Mr. Torres to help the computer expert revive his career and adapt to a low-vision lifestyle.With guidance from Mr. Torres on using assistive technologies, the computer expert returned to work and now volunteers to teach other blind Kenyans how to use electronic aids to work and get around.”I guess, as they say, out of any evil can come some good,” says Mr. Torres, who speaks with a slightly Caribbean lilt left over from his boyhood in Trinidad. However, sometimes no technology substitutes for the need for assistance, he says.One example occurred during a training trip he made to St. Paul, Minn. His hotel was next to the Mall of America, where Mr. Torres wanted to do his Christmas shopping.The mall management told him initially he must make an appointment for shopping assistance a week in advance. After some ranting on the telephone and demands to speak to a supervisor, the mall arranged for someone to help Mr. Torres do his shopping.”I have a very persuasive way of making things happen,” he says.

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