- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

Being blind from an accident suffered when she was 4 years old hasn’t slowed Joy Relton by much. A full-time government relations representative in the Washington office of the American Foundation for the Blind, she also is a wife and mother to two teenagers.

She has a full and active extracurricular life. She sings in her church choir, rides a tandem bike with her husband, skis on occasion with a guide and works out at a gym three days a week.

A special device called a HEARTalker strapped to her chest gives her an audio “read” of her heart rate. Software called Dancing Dots, she says, scans and translates musical notations into Braille.

A graduate of George Mason University’s law school, Mrs. Relton readily admits that her accomplishments are made possible in part by devices developed to help the sightless and vision-impaired lead independent lives.

Told that a well-meaning entrepreneur recently promoted a line of clothing that reads “Blind. Please lend a helping hand,” she reacts swiftly in biting terms. “That’s no better than a tin cup,” she says.

A number of products are made to help the disabled cope with their daily lives, but the best to date are the electronic devices that came along with the computer revolution in the 1980s and are still undergoing development.

However, the cost of some of these devices is beyond the means of some of the 10 million blind and vision-impaired Americans, just 30 percent of whom, Mrs. Relton says, are employed; far fewer, she adds, work at jobs that would enable them to afford the new equipment.

As a policy advocate for the blind, Mrs. Relton often can be seen plying her trade on Capitol Hill with her guide dog, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever named Belle. Having a job that requires her to stay up-to-date with legislative maneuvering — especially on matters affecting the needs of the disabled — means she often relies on a portable book-size device called a Pac-Mate, the so-called Palm Pilot of the blind.

“My life is here,” she says. “It’s like most PDAs.”

In addition, she has what is becoming routine for sight-impaired professionals — a computer with software that can rapidly convert text into speech. The difficulty comes with Web sites that are so flooded with information that it takes a blind person a long time to find the desired information.

It helps, too, that Mrs. Relton’s office has a copying machine that can print out information in Braille.

The Pac-Mate, also known as a Braille-Note, is a flat 3-pound machine that enables her to download material and write and send e-mail as well as browse the Internet by converting everything electronically to either speech or Braille. She often uses it on her way to work, a 30-minute Metro commute with Belle from her home in Alexandria to Union Station. A special Wi-Fi card further enhances the Pac-Mate’s abilities.

When the devices fail, she doesn’t hesitate to reach for the tried and true tool — a thin metal slate and stylus with which she can write Braille characters in rapid-fire fashion, dotting the smooth, heavy sheets of paper from right to left.

When the batteries in her Pac-Mate ran out at a government hearing one time, she turned to the old-fashioned method of taking down information. One of the commissioners in the room noticed the switch and, curious, asked her about it, thereby giving her some personal attention useful for her cause.

Braille hardly is ideal in all situations, but the more expensive technological devices have considerable problems.

“The Pac-Mate does many of the same functions as a Palm Pilot and is even beginning to integrate a telephone,” says Paul Schroeder, AFB vice president for programs and policy. “There are versions that are only audio and those that have both, but the Braille — a unique and expensive version of technology — adds considerable amount to the cost, which is in the $5,000 to $6,000 range.

“Screen readers for a computer that turn text into speech are wonderful, but they also are expensive. And while the price of computing has come down, the price of the add-ons or note takers has not,” Mr. Schroeder says.

He jokes that he often tells sighted colleagues who use the BlackBerry how he envies them the much smaller and less expensive PDA (personal digital assistant). Some kid him back, saying the more portable BlackBerry means they are always reachable and how tiresome this can be.

Another problem, Mr. Schroeder says, is what he calls a constant game of “catch-up” between new products and the assistive technology’s ability to handle applications more readily available for the mainstream world.

“Changes happen much faster there,” he says. “A blind person needing to be productive may not be able to access the latest version of a document, database or spreadsheet.”

The challenge of finding individuals qualified to work the specialized technology used by the blind is another problem, Mr. Schroeder says.

Requirements under the newly reauthorized federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) state only that the needs of students must be assessed and provided, without going into specifics about how this is to be done, he adds.

Further advances in technology for the blind include cell phones with screen readers convertible to audio access.

“It’s important to know there is a law that is supposed to require manufacturers of telephones — wireless and land line — to be accessible to people with disabilities if readily achievable,” Mr. Schroeder says. “We are just now beginning to see the cell phone market incorporate this.”

Global Positioning Systems are beginning to be introduced into note-taker devices and perhaps in cell phones. Mr. Schroeder says he hopes these can be improved to include information beyond the user’s location and directions.

The blind also need what he calls a database map telling not only location and directions but the shops and services to be found in the neighborhood, Mr. Schroeder says.

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