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How technology is restoring independence for the visually impaired community

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Richard Ybarra

"We have found that technology evens the playing field for people who are visually impaired," says Richard Ybarra, Executive Director, Braille Institute San Diego.

As technology evolves, so too does Braille Institute, thanks to the generous support of its donors. One essential way that the center's free classes support students' needs is through unique technology courses that help people who are visually impaired become familiar with and comfortable using everyday technology. Students want to be able to easily check email, Skype with their grandkids, search for recipes online, and access the world through the internet, and Braille Institute wants to facilitate this knowledge.

Teaching people to use the computer

Braille Institute's Access Technology classes start by teaching students how to comfortably work a keyboard without visual cues, and then move on to computer navigation. Students learn how to use a screen reader program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). JAWS provides speech and Braille output for computer applications on PC systems. Students also learn how to use ZoomText, a magnification and screen reading software that enlarges the size of webpages and documents without pixelation, and also reads text aloud.

Technology instructor Juan Hernandez, who has been blind since he was a teenager, is highly praised by students and staff for his clear and supportive instruction. "He has waiting lists of people eager to take his classes," says Ybarra. "People come in of all ages, saying, ‘I'm too old to learn new technology,' and Juan says, ‘I can't see anything, and I can teach you how to use the technology.'"

Another venue for free technology training is Braille Institute's Connection Pointe, an interactive learning center. Connection Pointe is tailored for students with no previous experience to learn at their own pace how to use a myriad of mainstream and adaptive devices, including mobile tablets, voice output software, and much more. They receive customized, one-on-one instruction for any device they want to learn. This program was created as part of the Braille Institute Digital Literacy initiative to help people with low or no vision learn how common devices like smart phones, iPads, and handheld digital magnifiers can help them stay connected to the world around them.

So that everyone can read

Besides Access Technology classes and Connection Pointe, Braille Institute's free Library Services program is digital, opening the door for students to access materials online (as well as by mail, phone, or in-person). The Library comprises the Southern California branch of the National Library Service (NLS), a Library of Congress-coordinated national network of libraries that circulate free braille and audio materials. Reader Advisors are on hand to help students select from more than 100,000 titles and 1.2 million volumes in the collection.

The Online Public Access Catalog allows Library patrons with Internet access to search for any talking book in the digitized online collection, with titles for readers of all ages. In addition to the Library's vast special collections, Braille Institute created Digital Dots, its own free program that helps high school students download popular young adult books onto portable devices. Braille Institute also offers the Telephone Reader Program (TRP) and an accompanying mobile app. TRP enables Library patrons to sign up for free telephone access to national and local news, advertisements, magazines, radio shows, and more programs in both English and Spanish.

Braille Institute's ability to adapt technology across platforms also allows students who are unable to visit the center in person to take part in seminars, lectures, and events. In addition to San Diego, Braille Institute centers are located in Los Angeles, Orange County, Rancho Mirage, and Santa Barbara. Often, when leaders from the medical and advocacy communities speak at one location, anyone with access to a computer or smart phone can participate via live-streaming on Braille Institute's YouTube Channel.

Independence through technology

Ybarra believes that students are regaining a sense of self and independence through Braille Institute's free technology programs, since technology allows students to explore their interests and passions just as a sighted person would.

"You can lose your eyesight, but you can never lose your vision," says Ybarra. When he met with a group of teenagers who are blind or visually impaired, he acknowledged their collective strength and shared experiences, following with: "I still have my eyesight, but I hope someday to have as much vision as all of you in this room."

To connect with Braille Institute San Diego, call 1-800-BRAILLE, visit BrailleInstitute.org, or email Richard Ybarra at RMYbarra@brailleinstitute.org.

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