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Year of awareness: Technology levels the field for deaf-blind awareness week

Helen Keller blind-deaf awareness week brings to light new technology that makes the visually and aurally impaired live more independently. June 25, 2014 (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz)

Burgon Jensen, originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, is a 22-year old who has been staying on Long Island since February.

But when she returns to her home state next month, where she’ll be attending college in the fall, Jensen will be taking a lot more with her than just memories of New York life. As a person who is deaf-blind, she’ll also carry with her invaluable skills and technologies learned here.

“I feel like I’ve gained a lot of independence just being here,” Jensen said, “so I’ll be able to take that home and just use it in my community, school, home, wherever.”


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Long Island’s Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, where Jensen has been staying, teaches vocational skills as well as independent living to deaf-blind, hard of hearing and low-vision individuals.

This year, the theme for Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness week, which was this week, touches on the importance of technology in the lives of deaf-blind individuals.

A poster distributed nationally to promote awareness shows a grandmother texting her granddaughter, accompanied by the slogan, “She’s Deaf-Blind and holds the world in her hands…just like her loved ones.”

Ryan Odland, 32, is the coordinator of adaptive technology and the NY deaf-blind equipment distribution program for the center, and is also a deaf, low-vision individual.

The program provides low-income individuals with expensive adaptive technology like iPads, MacBook Pros, and cellphones that can help the deaf-blind, he said.

“Deaf-blind individuals are able to connect with other people through these technologies,” he said. By providing technology and tailoring services to an individual’s needs, Odland said, they are simply “building the bridges” for the deaf-blind to walk upon.

One of the devices distributed, the Focus 14, allows blind individuals to sync up wirelessly with an iPad or iPhone via Bluetooth and display the screen’s contents on a 14-cell Braille reader.

Prepared with a Focus 14 and her iPad, Jensen happily agreed to demonstrate how the device works.

A series of buttons allows Jensen to navigate through her home screen to apps and other iPad features without ever actually touching her device, popping up an ever-changing row of Braille that indicates where she is on the screen.

And while her device does require a lot more “refreshing” than normal -- the Braille reader only loads 14 characters at a time -- Jensen is able to log on to Facebook and interact with her friends and family just like any other 22-year old.

Previously, Jensen said, she used talking phones and voice over apps, but she wasn’t fond of those technologies. In fact, the lack of sound is something that she prefers. With the Braille display, she said, “I don’t have to listen in noisy places.”

Odland said devices like Samsung phones and MacBook Pros can be used to assist deaf-blind (and low-vision) individuals as well through the use of magnified or “zoomed” text and color inversion.

The inversion is key, he said, because the contrast of white font on a black background is much easier to read to a someone with low-vision.

Deborah Harlin, 53, who is the program coordinator for adaptive technology at the center, said the importance of this year’s awareness campaign is letting people of varying abilities know about the wide array of services available to them.

“There are programs, and there are services, and there are products out there that -- especially with technology -- that can level the playing field for people who are deaf-blind,” she said.

The center distributes technology throughout the state, with 1,100 to 1,200 people receiving devices within the program’s first year alone.

Giving a sense of normalcy, whether it be to write an email or send a resume, are things that these technologies not only make easier, but make possible.

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