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Wrap Up: Blind Citizens Australia National Convention (Days 2 & 3)

In March 2019 ADCET was a proud sponsor of the Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) National Convention held in Hobart.  Also, one of ADCET's newest staff members, Jane Britt attended and has sent through thoughts and reflections on the Convention.

“You Can Do It Your Way!”: Blind Citizens Australia National Convention 2019

By Jane Britt

Recently, 130 members of Blind Citizens Australia, industry professionals and volunteers gathered at the Old Woolstore, Hobart, Tasmania for an action-packed long weekend of discussion about the future of services, technology and advocacy in the low vision and blind sector in Australia. It was an invigorating, thought-provoking Convention filled to the brim with innovative pitches on technology and reflective discussion on low vision/blind service delivery and advocacy in Australia. Additionally, the Convention presented an excellent avenue for reconnecting with friends and networking with industry professionals. Every day ended with a dinner: A chance to debrief and network.

This Convention will be explored across two articles to cover each day of activities. There is simply too much rich content for practitioners in the higher education space to learn about in relation to education to be condensed within one article. It is hoped the learning across this conference will provide advice and tips for assisting students practically with technology, interacting with and even referring students to outside service providers to augment their support from equity practitioners in learning environments.

Days 2 & 3. Saturday 30th March 2019 & Sunday 31st March 2019

Feature Speaker: Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner

Mr Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner addressed conference about the Human Rights Commission Project. The project centres on human rights and technology, with a push for the implementation of universal design principles translating to products with accessible features.

The business case of universal design is one founded on economic benefit; fixing up a product to meet accessibility requirements at the end of the line is expensive. The take-home for technology designers is to make products with all end-users in mind throughout the process rather than retrospectively trying to implement them.

Keynote Address: Suman Kanuganti, CEO of AIRA Corp.

The future of access for individuals with vision loss across all features of life undoubtedly lies in harnessing the power and potential of technology. The keynote address presented assistive technology, Aira, to the BCA Conference.

Aira is a phone application, which can be used in a similar manner to a phone or video conference call. The person using the app connects with an agent in real time, who can assist the individual using the back camera to navigate to a location, read a body of text or help out with any other visually-oriented task. Agents who answer calls have been trained in communication skills, ability to multi-task, map-reading skills and an approach which is empathetic not sympathetic.  

The product has been widely rolled out and adopted in the American market, with the primary drivers for use including education and employment-related tasks, travelling places for self-assurance and independent living. The product is able to become more readily available on the Australian market.

In global terms, 4% of the world’s population is vision-impaired. The reach of assistive technology to bridge gaps particularly in education and employment is unlimited. It gives an individual unprecedented access to an agent with the ability to translate their visual world and enable the person to complete any task, undertake any activity in the same manner as the rest of the population.

The questions from the floor primarily focussed on privacy concerns. In response to a query about the potential of data storage in Australia, Kanuganti said “short answer, no.” Regarding use of data collected, Kanuganti reassured conference participants that the data will only be used to improve the delivery of services by Aira agents.

I had the fortune of trialling the Aira app and used it to navigate around my home area in Brisbane. I was incredibly impressed by the level of visual detail that the agent was able to clearly and effectively provide to me during my walk. This included reading signs for me and telling me about everything surrounding me as I moved my phone around in the space. I am deeply excited by the possibilities that could be harnessed by using the app in multiple settings and the ability for orientation in unfamiliar environments coupled with my white cane for mobility.

Further information about technology and the uses of it were presented on the final day of the conference, both in terms of what is available for use (with a heavy focus on Aira) and also what can be utilised for domestic and international travel.

Low Vision/Blindness Service Providers Update

There are a number of low vision and blindness service providers which educators should be aware whom students with vision loss can access for assistance.

Vision Australia is a low vision and blindness organisation helping people to live the life they choose. A number of new developments were discussed at this conference in addition to ongoing services for employment, education, independence (including orientation and mobility (O&M) and seeing eye dogs) and social participation in community. Ready SET will be rolled out is April, which is a pre-planning service for NDIS and Aged Care for clients. It will help clients in preparation for planning meetings and considering services they wish to access. The library services, Bookshare and the Vision Australia library will continue being platforms to access audiobooks and other text converted to audio like magazines. The Braille library continues to be a point for access to Braille material for clients.

Guide Dogs Australia supports people with vision loss with state chapters, which service people with vision loss in their respective areas. In addition to ongoing access to guide dog, guide dog and O&M training. There is a long-term strategy to increase O&M and Guide Dog Mobility Instructors. Guide Dogs Australia has some technology initiatives they discussed at the conference. Blindsquare is a peer support platform which is way-point finding technology. It has been piloted in Southern Cross Station and there is funding for it to be implemented in Melbourne Zoo, Docklands and various parks. It will also be implemented across the entire train network in Melbourne.

VisAbility is a service provider in Tasmania and Western Australia. The feature in their presentation was their Remote Orientation and Mobility (ROAM) project which is the development of an application of video conferencing for use in an outdoor environment to provide remote Orientation and Mobility services and support to remote regions. It will not replace an O&M service but it will augment the service into these regions. The tool works with 3 participants: a remote O&M specialist, a client and a support person who is with the client.

Finally, Blind Citizens Australia (BCA), is a united voice for Australians who are blind or vision impaired; a peak body with significant input in the advocacy and policy sectors. BCA is involved in both the Australian Blindness Forum (ABF) and Vision2020 Australia, in helping to drive the conversation about how the future can be better for Australians with vision loss. Recently, they have been undertaking significant work in setting up expectations for low vision and blind service providers in Australia and working out ways to collaborate with organisations to achieve better outcomes e.g., the recent work with the ABF on furthering access and equity in employment and education. Further, the collaborative approaches mean that organisations representing the low vision and blindness sector can present a unified approach to advocacy on systemic issues in Australia.

It is also important to recognise there are a number of organisations working for specific eye conditions and collaboration with these organisations has also become important.

Travelling with Vision Loss

This topic had a full audience and was without a doubt, the crowd favourite at this conference! Travel is something we regularly undertake for business, study and leisure. This topic is particularly pertinent for those supporting students with vision loss in undertaking study for education purposes.

There were several key tips given by panellists:

  • Planning reduces anxiety in travelling with vision loss. This includes: transport options, environment you will be in, what will be around you etc.
  • Accommodation needs to be in a location where public transport access is considered
  • Have a discussion with a travel agent before leaving, because they will probably have helpful information and advice about your destination
  • Meet & Assist Services are generally available at airports. This service enables assistance to the passenger all the way from check-in to the boarding gate
  • Technology for navigation and transport are key in successful travel. Generally apps are available for different regions. Do some research about what options there are out there (e.g., Transport information: Translink app in Brisbane, Tripview app in Sydney etc.)
  • Download maps in case the technology fails
  • Domestically, you can travel with a guide/seeing eye dog; Internationally, it is easier to travel with a cane/mini guide etc.
  • Be prepared to ask questions and ask for assistance
  • Be friendly to others even if you are feeling stressed to get the best level of assistance in return
  • Be willing to adapt if Plan A doesn’t work etc.