Me and My Guide Dog’s Journey, so far!

Me and my guide dog’s journey began around 5 years ago, which you can read all about by clicking here.

Last month, I had a potential guide dog match stay at home with me for one night and this included practicing walking together.  My Guide Dog Mobility Instructor and I both felt that it went very well.  As a result, I started my training at the end of August, and I am currently training with my first guide dog.

It has been amazing to learn different commands on how my guide dog can safely guide me, how I can spend him, which means taking him to the toilet, and how to pick up the mess.  Also, what his feeding patterns are like and how to understand his actions and behaviour.  Moreover, I learned different techniques of navigating steps, train stations, narrow spaces, busy and cluttered pavements, taking him on a free run and so much more!

I am sure you will get to meet my guide dog soon.  In the meanwhile, here are some tips I can share with you about guide dogs: firstly, you should always ask if you can say hello or stroke them.  A guide dog could be working and therefore a distraction could, potentially, put both the owner and the guide dog at harm.  Secondly, always be mindful with food around guide dogs.  They are trained not to scavenge, but they cannot be at fault if temptation arises.  Grapes and chocolate are definitely a no-no as these can be poisonous for them.  Lastly, if you’re playing with a guide dog, try not to get them too excited as they like to play back, and it will be difficult for the owner to calm them down.  Also, if a guide dog is settled and calm, then it is best to wait until they are active again before interacting.

With my guide dog, I have managed to walk to my train station, get onto the platform, get onto the train, out the other end and walk to my office.  This is something I haven’t done since December 2016 after losing a bit more sight.  I am now also able to walk to my bus stop and get the bus and go to my local shopping centre, confidently.  I also learnt the route to my hairdressers, doctors and chemist.  It feels so fantastic to just go somewhere when I want and not when others can take me!

Of course, I still have a lot to learn whilst on my guide dog training.  However, just 3 weeks in, I feel my guide dog has made a huge change; independence wise and helping me to be out in the fresh air as opposed to being cooped up in taxis.

Adapting to waking up early and making sure I have all his belongings that I may need when out and about, as well as factoring him into my life, has been an easy adjustment to make.  My family simply adore him, and when he is not working the harness comes off.  We love playing with him, watching him play with his toys and taking him out on his free runs.

You can follow updates on my guide dog progress by following my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/visualeyeswithbhavini

Bhavini smiling with her guide dog.

Written by Bhavini Makwana, ELVis Activities Coordinator

Advertisements

Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth Speaker Review

There are many uses to which vision impaired people put their mobile phones.  One of the most exciting of these is the ability to find their way around independently using GPS navigation.  There are a number of apps that can help with this including Blind Square, RNIB Navigator, Google Maps and Apple Maps to name just a few.  The subject of which GPS app is best definitely deserves to be discussed in a separate article.

Many visually impaired people do not have enough sight to use the IPhone comfortably for map reading so spoken announcements of current location and what is nearby as well as turn by turn directions can be extremely helpful.

One of the greatest difficulties visually impaired people experience when using a smart phone for navigation is being able to hear what the phone is speaking while still being able to hear sound of things going on around them.  Most headphones are not ideal for this since they reduce the sound from outside sources which can make walking somewhat unsafe.  There are headphones such as the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium which cost around £90 which conduct sound through the skull rather than covering the ears, but these are much more expensive than the Boom Bit.

The Polk Boom Bit is a very small wearable speaker with a metal spring clip that can attach to clothing such as a shirt collar, a coat or a t-shirt.  It connects to your phone by Bluetooth so there are no trailing wires.  The Boom Bit measures 7.5 x 3.5 x 2 centimetres and it weighs 36.3 grams.  It is controlled using 2 small rubberised buttons which are easy to feel, though some may find it difficult to press both buttons at the same time.  This is necessary to turn the speaker on and off.

Despite its small size and weight, the Boom Bit has surprisingly loud sound.  It’s not great for music, but it’s fine for speech.

The Polk Boom Bit does have a speaker phone built in. This works okay when taking calls but it’s not really up to the job when it comes to working with Siri or dictating text, so if you need to do this you can easily turn off the speaker.

The Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker costs around £25 on Amazon and it can be found for as little as £15 on eBay.

Here’s the Amazon link to the Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Polk-BOOM-Clip-Bluetooth-Speaker/dp/B01HIS5O7A

Polk Boom Bit
The Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker in different colours, including cyan, black, white & pale green, red and yellow.

Written Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

 

Masuma’s Adventure in Lanzarote with Seable

Staying on the holiday theme from our previous blog, I’ll be sharing my time on the northernmost and easternmost Canary Island of Lanzarote.

Dragging myself out of bed on Tuesday morning at 1.45am was the least pleasurable part of the holiday!  However, several hours later and over 1600 miles away from London I landed in a landscape described to me as black lava rock fields and white-washed houses.  I was met by Damiano from Seable and Marialaura at the arrivals area of the airport.  They were our guides for the trip.  Whilst we waited for my friends to arrive we acquainted ourselves with each other.

With a jammed packed itinerary for the week ahead, knowing that all the planning and organising was being taken care of by Seable, my friends and I were in good spirits and looking forward to unwinding from the Monday to Friday work routine.

My first enjoyment came with the freedom of being able to go for a run on the sandy beach of Playa Los near our hotel without needing to be guided.  The sound of the sea alongside me provided a sense of direction, and the wind in my hair and the changing texture of the sand on my feet was exhilarating.  Knowing that our guides were nearby provided a comforting safety net.

Our visit to Timanfaya National Park involved an underground sensory experience simulating how it might feel to experience a volcanic eruption.  After walking and exploring the Martian-like landscape we got to see the geothermal demonstrations. Steam gushed out of the ground with a whoosh sound a moment after water had been poured into a hole.  Our guides provided us with running commentary throughout the day, but also allowed enough time for me and my friends to spend time together.

We also had the opportunity to do some sea kayaking. As it was something I hadn’t done before, I was a little apprehensive, but once I was in the kayak with my instructor the worries disappeared, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  This day was a day of firsts for me as I also tried snorkeling.  After I got over the fear and the panic I felt when putting my head underwater I came to like the sensation.  The instructors on the day provided the right level of support and were not at all overbearing.

Other activities we took part in included horse riding and tandem cycling, which were equally thrilling.  We also had the opportunity to make some bath salts, which I’m very much looking forward to using.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do a fair amount of travelling with my family to countries like India and Egypt, as well as with friends to European cities including Rome and Cologne.  However, I was yet to go on holiday with just my VI friends, until recently.  Having Seable to organise all the arrangements from excursions to travel whilst abroad, as well as having sighted guides meant I could fully relax and unwind.

Seable provides tailored holidays for blind and partially sighted people.  This can range from a relaxing break to something more active.  It’s your holiday, it’s your choice!

masuma-blog-photo-e1532007236219.jpg
Photo of Masuma and her friend Shamaila standing on a large rock at Timanfaya National Park.

Written by Masuma Ali, ELVis CEO

Assistance at Train Stations – is it Needed?

This question has recently come up in various conversations with blind and partially sighted people.  With all things vision impaired related, there is no right or wrong answer!

Let’s face it, sometimes life can be stressful enough without worrying about how to get to the train station platform, or in my case if I’ll end up on the correct loop of the Central Line on the London Underground.  I don’t particularly have a desire for ending up somewhere I don’t need to be!   At times, the journey to the station itself can be taxing enough and it is reassuring to know that assistance should generally be available once at the underground station if I require it.

Around 13 years ago I certainly wouldn’t have classed myself as an independent traveller, but knowing that assistance would be available most definitely helped build my confidence to venture out.  I’ve recently been asking myself would I have plucked up the courage to travel on the underground had there been no assistance available?  Based on how little confidence I had, the answer is probably not.  However, would I continue to use trains if assistance wasn’t available now?  Absolutely yes!  I can’t imagine giving up the freedom of everything I do, from work to socialising.

I still remember my first experience of not being met off the train at Liverpool Street Station.  I felt so distressed that I just wanted to cry, which wasn’t the most sensible approach, but panic took over and logic went out the window!  With my more experienced head on, I now use other senses such as hearing what direction people are walking, listening for sounds of the ticket barriers beeping or escalators, etc.  Smell is another equally valuable sense as the smell of coffee is generally, but not always, a good sign that you are heading towards the exit, or if you know the station it can help you get your bearings.  Nowadays, if I’m not met off the train then I’ll grumble about it without the feeling of sheer panic taking over and will happily ask a member of the public to point me in the right direction.  There is no denying that things do go wrong and many times I haven’t been met off the train, or had to wait ages for assistance.  However, I am most definitely grateful that the service exists.

The countering view by some people is that many other countries do not offer the service we receive here in the UK and blind and partially sighted people manage, so why couldn’t we cope?  Just because people get by, does it mean they wouldn’t want the service?

I believe it is better to have a service than not have one at all, as it gives people the choice to use it or not.

It would be great to hear other people’s thoughts on whether they think staff assistance is needed at train stations?  Please leave a comment and share your own personal experiences and stories of how you started to use trains.

Photo of Masuma using her cane stepping of a London Underground train.
Photo of Masuma with her white cane stepping off a London Underground tube train.

Written by Masuma Ali, ELVis CEO

Katherine’s Kayaking and White Water Rafting Experience

ELVis member Katharine Way, 54, from Waltham Forest talks about her experience participating in white water rafting in Lee Valley, and undertaking a four-week kayaking course with the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre.

“I have retinitis pigmentosa. My father and grandmother had it, and it’s been in my family for generations. I’m partially sighted and I still have a reasonable amount of sight. But there are plenty of things that I can’t do, like driving.

I grew up around water in Swansea, South Wales. As a kid I enjoyed many summers by the beach and swimming in the sea near the Gower Peninsula. I occasionally go back to visit, and when I’m feeling brave enough I take a quick dip in the water. My parents also owned a kayak. My father was blind so my mother would navigate. As a family we’d go paddling in the Brecon Canals and Llangorse Lake, which I always loved doing. What can I say? I love water! Growing up by the sea you do, and I always try to find water again.

When I saw the opportunity to participate in water-based activities with ELVis I couldn’t say no. I went white water rafting at Lee Valley in May. That was a real revelation because I was so nervous I nearly wimped out on the day. But then I thought, when else would I get the chance to do this and have all the help I need. So I talked myself back in to it, and I’m very glad I did because it was a really fun experience. The only thing I found completely nerve-racking was the swim test because I had to jump in to the rapids and stay afloat. I managed it, and after that everything else was a breeze.

CV079_Metro-Rafting_170520.jpg
Photo of Katharine under taking the swim challenge during white water rafting.

On the other hand, kayaking is definitely splashier than white water rafting. My favourite part was getting to explore the waters surrounding Canary Wharf. During the first week of the course I found it tricky to paddle, but now I’ve gotten the hang of it and I feel more confident moving around on the water. I’ve even learnt it’s important to keep in rhythm with the other person who is paddling. Also, the kayaking instructors were great because they’re really patient and they explain everything clearly. If they need to do what they normally do in a different way they do it, which was great.

Taking part in both activities made me rethink the whole way I deal with my disability. I thought there were a lot of things I couldn’t do anymore because of my sight, like rowing a boat. So accomplishing something like kayaking you start to think that you shouldn’t assume that there are all these things you can’t do, but instead find a way of doing them safely. So it’s been quite a big thing for me to take part in, and it’s built my confidence. Plus, it’s been liberating and fun. Don’t forget that!

The skies the limits now as there are so many activities I’d like to do. Thank you East London Vision for organising and subsidising these activities for vision impaired people. It’s absolutely heartening.”

IMG_2287
Photo of Katharine (left) in a double kayak.

East London Vision would like to thank the Primary Club for funding, which has made it possible to run the kayaking sessions for our members.

Written by Katharine Way and Ray Calamaan

Accessible Radio for the Vision Impaired

As the Assistive Technology Advisor at ELVis I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.

In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.

Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. I will cover Television in my next blog entry.

In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.

Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than there used to be and some even have no DJs so song titles and artists are never announced.

In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales and manufacturing ceased some years ago.

Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display and this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.

For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.

The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.

I have recently being demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The amazon Echo is available for £50 or £150 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129.

Manufacturers such as Apple are also bringing out high-end smart assistants so there is likely to be increased choice in this field over time.

Devices such as the Victor Stream available from www.humanware.com also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £250.

Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund at www.blind.org.uk they offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.

So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are useable by a blind person with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.

IMG_1244
Photo of Graham with the Google Home device on his office desk.

Listen to Graham talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about accessible radios.

Written by Graham Page

Your Eyes Be Active Information Event

Free food, games, and the opportunity to find out lots of information about local vision impaired services- this was what awaited us at the Barking and Dagenham Your Eyes Be Active event!

On Thursday 27th July, the ELVis team headed over to the Barking Learning Centre for the Your Eyes Be Active information day, run by the borough’s Disability Services, Enabling Independence Team and Sensory Team. This was a great opportunity for people to find out about the different local services that are available to help support people with sight loss, and to meet the people providing these services.

There was a wide range of stalls at the event. People were encouraged to think about staying healthy, with the opportunity to get their blood pressure checked as well as meeting groups that support VI sports sessions. There was also a stall demonstrating healthy cooking which had some very tasty salads on display. By happy coincidence, this stall happened to be placed right next to the ELVis stall, which made it very convenient when going up to get second helpings!

Others at the event included Guide Dogs, the local Talking Newspaper and several social groups. There was also one of the new Routemaster buses parked outside, giving people the opportunity to have a look around it so that they are familiar with these buses when they come across them in future. There were people demonstrating different technological gadgets (including ELVis’s Graham who had the Amazon Echo and the Google Home device), and others who gave careers advice to those looking to get into work.

As well as stalls, throughout the day people went to talks given by speakers on a variety of different topics. These ranged from how people have benefited from using employability services to an inspirational speaker who made people laugh telling them about some of his experiences throughout his life as a vision impaired person.

All in all, this was a fantastic day.  It was lovely for us at ELVis to meet and chat to lots of new people, and it was great to see so many different services, which all have a part to play in supporting the lives of our local vision impaired people. If you hear of any information event going on near you, I recommend that you go along and check it out- who knows what you might discover?  (And there might be free food, too!)

IMG_1261

Photo of the ELVis team (Nicola, Chris and Graham) at the Your Eyes Be Active information day.

Written by Nicola Stokes