Going to the Dogs Doesn't Mean a Life Without Computer Access
When you depend on technology for personal or professional work and correspondence, traveling anywhere can add stress to your life. For those of us who use dog guides, time spent at a school training with a new guide once meant isolation from all the information access comforts of home. Not anymore!
I recently trained with a new dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, and was pleasantly surprised by the forward strides made by the school to accommodate students who are visually impaired in ways that are far beyond the canine encounter. Guide Dogs for the Blind operates two campuses, one in San Rafael and another in Boring, Oregon. The accommodations described in this article are available at both facilities.
As with many dog guide schools, training takes place in San Rafael at two physical locations. In the dormitory, where students sleep and eat meals, time is spent taking in lectures on everything from grooming and feeding the new canines to the basic elements of working dogs onto escalators, through crowded city streets, and down country roads. Several hours of each day are also spent working out of the school's "downtown lounge," a building owned and operated by the school to which students are transported each morning and afternoon. Working directly from the lounge puts students in an area rife with guiding opportunities for dogs and humans— downtown traffic, shops, flower stands, and sidewalk cafés to work through and around in training routes. In the past, all additional time in either location was left to the students' preparedness and imagination. If you brought a book to read or sweater to knit, in other words, "down time" was spent productively. Otherwise, your option was to sit quietly or chat with classmates.
Down the Hall to the Computer Room
In our initial orientation to the dormitory, one immediate highlight was a quiet room whose braille signage reads simply Computer Room. Here, students find four complete workstations that are set up to meet the computing needs of most students with visual impairments.
Each workstation is equipped with ZoomText for screen magnification, and boots up "talking" with JAWS for Windows in Windows 98. The Start menu offers quick access to Microsoft Word, Excel, and Access, as well as to America Online software for students with AOL accounts, Instant Messenger, RealPlayer, Internet Explorer, and personal e-mail for every student. A high-speed DSL line ensures that whatever time is available for surfing the web or reading e-mail is used efficiently. One of the four computers is linked to a laser printer, and another is linked to an Index Basic braille embosser. (All the stations include Duxbury Braille Translation software.)
Finding Your Identity
To provide each student with personal e-mail while in training (from two to four weeks), the information technology staff of Guide Dogs for the Blind has used the Identities feature in Outlook Express. An "identity" has been assigned to each room in the dormitory. If your room number is 10b, for example, you select Outlook Express from the Start menu, arrow down to 10b, and find the familiar e-mail setup waiting to send and receive messages.
The Start menu also offers items of specific value to students in training: a list of downtown businesses with addresses and phone numbers, simple instructions for using equipment in the computer room and elsewhere at the school, and a few files of general interest to Guide Dog students. In the downtown lounge, a computer with an identical setup is located, without the attachment of printer or braille embosser. Students who choose to train at the school's Boring, Oregon, campus will find identical computer accommodations.
Meeting Every Reading Need
For students who have hard-copy print to read, the computer room also includes a Clarity closed- circuit television and a stand-alone Arkenstone reading machine. If you didn't bring anything to read, there's help for that, too.
A few doors down the hall is the one-room library, a quiet room lined with a remarkably eclectic assortment of books in braille, large print, and audiocassette. For the audio books (a generous assortment from both the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, NLS, and commercially recorded titles), a table is filled with standard-issue NLS-provided Talking Book cassette players. This room includes another Clarity closed-circuit television (CCTV) and stand-alone Arkenstone reading machine for students to use.
Icing on the Cake
Most of us who are blind know the frustrating experience of being in a hotel for the first time and wondering which button is for Power on the television remote or wandering into the vending area in an unfamiliar office building and trusting to luck that the random button we press may deliver our soft drink of choice. Access is everywhere at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Phones in dormitory rooms have large buttons for easy identification by users with low vision and braille labels on auxiliary buttons for those who are totally blind. The bedside talking clock radios are conveniently labeled in braille, as are the entire video collection and oversized remote in the gathering area for students to relax in the evening. Snack machines, laundry equipment, and fitness machines all sport easy-to-read braille instructions and labels, too.
Listening to Consumers
The technology accommodations were the direct result of "exit interviews" conducted with students following training, says Aerial Gilbert, the director of volunteers at Guide Dogs, who advises the school's information technology department on access applications. A committee was formed, vendor demonstrations were conducted, and selections of equipment were made. The computers available to students are set up exactly like those used by the staff in all the campus offices, so that trouble-shooting and upgrades are relatively easy. Each January, new equipment is purchased and all existing software is upgraded. New features, Gilbert stated, are considered according to students' requests. As it stands, the model for accessibility at Guide Dogs for the Blind is one that could serve as an excellent model for both corporate and nonprofit environments everywhere.
Other Dog Guide Schools
Other dog guide schools are also recognizing "Forward" as more than a command given to a working dog. The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, and Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, have also made significant progress toward accommodating students with regard to technology.
Jeff Dunn, Guiding Eyes coordinator of technical support services, is a classic example of an enterprising person with a talent parlaying what began as volunteer work into a full-time paying job. As a student training with a dog at the school in 1991, he recognized the need for technology. In 1994, his efforts moved Guiding Eyes into position as the first dog guide school with a presence on the Internet. From there, Dunn began assisting the school with upgrading from a DOS environment of individual computers and lots of shared floppy disks into the world of Windows and a Local Area Network (LAN). The need for adaptive technology for students was recognized, too, and he worked to acquire and set up assistive technology systems.
"At first," he recalls, "we had two computers and a modem in the living room." Today, Dunn is responsible for keeping workstations in both the Yorktown Heights facility and its White Plains lounge in working order, setting up e-mail accounts for all students who request them, and heading up a web committee that keeps the school's web site up-to-date and accessible. Each of the school's two adaptive technology resource centers features three computers that are networked with all other computers used by staff. Each is equipped with JAWS for Windows and Window-eyes, ZoomText, three scanners, both Kurzweil 1000 and OPENBook OCR software, two laser printers, a braille embosser, braille displays, and one CCTV. All staff members have braille-production capabilities at their computers, and other workstations featuring adaptive technology are scattered through the training facility. For students who bring laptops or Internet-ready devices to school with them, high-speed Internet connectivity is available in every bedroom, and Dunn is available to assist with the setup.
At The Seeing Eye in Morristown, the Student Technology Center was opened in the fall of 1993. "While we do not offer instruction in computer or access technology," explains David Loux, "we are pleased to assist in meeting students' needs for the short time they are here in Morristown."
The Tech Center includes five work stations on a LAN, running on Windows 98SE and Windows 2000, respectively. Work stations are equipped with Window-Eyes, JAWS for Windows, and ZoomText. Also available are ALVA Satellite and PowerBraille braille displays, a laser printer, and a Juliet braille embosser. Students have high-speed Internet access in the Tech Center, but only dial-up capabilities in their individual rooms. Each student is provided with an e-mail account if requested, and assistance with setup is available. Atlas Speaks (a talking map program), Home Page Reader (a self-voicing browser), Kurzweil 1000, and OPENBook are additional software packages available for students to use or explore while in class.
Unique to The Seeing Eye is the presence of a cabinet in the Tech Center housing two Kenwood radios with voice chips. When a student requests access to the radios, the school confirms the status of the student's license and call sign via the web. At that point, the student is issued a key to the radio cabinet.
Other dog guide schools are in the process of establishing computer access centers for students while in training. The good news inherent in all this activity is that more schools are recognizing that potential students are customers—ordinary citizens with jobs or families or interests to maintain. When given a choice, most of the students will lean toward the environment with the best access, amenities, and accommodations. In the 21st century, that means offering technology and an uninterrupted connection to online resources.
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