The blind man making Ireland more accessible
6 MIN READ
‘Maybe 1% of my challenges are caused by my impairment, 99% are caused by society, resulting in disability,’ says Gerry Ellis.
‘I was born in Whitehall on the north side of Dublin many years ago. We won’t say how long,’ he laughs.
‘I was born with Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissues.
As a result, I had quite poor sight and dislocated lenses as a child.’
Gerry works in Technology Services in our IT Centre based in Cabinteely, Co. Dublin and is Head of our Accessibility Network.
St. Joseph’s School and Asylum for the Blind
‘I went to St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Drumcondra, Dublin.
In fact, over the gate it actually said, St. Joseph’s School and Asylum for the Blind.
All the blind boys from throughout Ireland were brought to St. Joseph’s while all the blind girls were brought to a similar school in Merrion, Dublin called St. Mary’s.’
‘I was only partially blind at that stage: I could still use print for my education.
Then, not long before I left school at 18, I lost the sight in one eye through a retinal detachment.
In 1986, I lost the sight in the other eye through a second detachment and became completely blind.’
‘I just woke up one morning and wondered why the room seemed so woozy’
‘Each of the two detachments was sudden.
I just woke up one morning and wondered why the room seemed so woozy.
That was the way it was.’
Despite losing his sight, Gerry was determined to make the most of things.
‘When I woke up having lost the sight in my second eye, I could not see except a very short distance in front of me on the ground.
‘I didn’t want to wake my parents so I got up, had my breakfast and went to the hospital on my own.’
‘I followed people across the road because I couldn’t see the lights.
I watched their feet and when they moved I moved with them.
I found my way from Whitehall to the Eye & Ear Hospital in Adelaide Road I think I took two buses along the way.’
Setting up AHEAD and VICS
Gerry went on to complete a Degree in Economics at University College Dublin between 1986 and 1989.
When he discovered that there were no accessibility services for people with disabilities at UCD, he decided to do something about it.
‘Accessibility services just didn’t exist at third level back then.
I talked to the Registrar late in 1986, Professor John Kelly, an amazing man, and he said ‘yes, we’ve got to do something about that’.
Between then and a year later, we started looking at accessibility services and some of the students got involved.’
‘In 1988, we formed a group called AHEAD (Association for Higher Education Access and Disability) which is now active in every third level institution in Ireland.
UCD recently awarded me a medal for my contribution to setting up accessibility services there and for being a founder member of AHEAD.’
AHEAD is a non-profit organisation working to promote full access to and participation in further and higher education for students with disabilities and to enhance their employment prospects on graduation.
‘Around the same time, we set up a group called the Visually Impaired Computer Society because it was quite new for blind people to be using computers and working in technology.
I was the first chairman.’
When screen readers ‘sounded like Daleks’
When Gerry had left school, the National Rehabilitation Board helped get him and another man from Dublin onto a Royal National Institute for the Blind computer programming course in London.
‘I started in Bank of Ireland in 1980 and he joined AIB on the same date.
We were both employed as software engineers writing code, although my role within the bank has expanded greatly since then.’
Gerry was working in Bank of Ireland during the day time and attending UCD in the evenings.
‘The technology I have today didn’t exist back in the 80s.
Back then computers generally didn’t have a sound card.
The external boxes used to imitate the sound of the human voice sounded more like the Daleks off ‘Dr Who’ but you got used to it!’
Using technology to live life more fully
Advances in technology over the past 30 years have made Gerry’s everyday life much easier.
He describes some of the ways that it has changed things for blind and vision impaired people.
‘I have a specialised alarm clock that wakes me up in the morning but if I didn’t I could talk to Siri on my iPhone and set an alarm for 6:30 in the morning.’
Technology has also made it easier for volunteers to offer practical support to Gerry exactly when he needs it.
‘When I’m cooking at home,’ he says ‘obviously I can’t read the instructions on the packaging.
But now there’s a software app called Be My Eyes that connects me to volunteers using my IPhone.’
‘I can open up the app and the volunteer can see what is around by using the IPhone’s camera.’
I point the camera at the food packaging and they read it and will say ‘it says Gas Mark 5 for 20 minutes. Is that all you need help with? Yes?’
And they are gone.
I can then tell Siri to set a timer for 20 minutes.’
Finding his way using Google Maps and volunteers
The Be My Eyes volunteers can also help Gerry when he is out and about.
‘When I’m going to a place I haven’t been before and I’m on the street trying to find the entrance,’ says Gerry.
‘I know I’m roughly in the right area because I use Google Maps to read out directions to me but they might not bring me exactly to the front door.
So I can use the same app to connect to volunteers, hold up my camera phone and say ‘show me where the entrance is’ and they can direct me right to it.’
Gerry tells me about new technology that works inside buildings where Google Maps cannot reach.
‘There’s new software being developed now called WayFindr.
It does the equivalent of Google Maps indoors by using beacons arranged inside the building.
They are in the process of testing this in underground stations in London.
Technology is developing incredibly fast.’
Reading what his computer displays
Gerry explains how he does his work in IT at Bank of Ireland in Cabinteely.
‘This is my computer.
It’s just as standard laptop with Windows 10, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office and all the same things as everyone else.
However, I have one extra piece of software, a screen reader called JAWS.
JAWS interprets what’s on the laptop screen and converts it to speech which I usually listen to through headphones.
‘If I want to read what is on the screen, I just tap a keyboard combination and JAWS reads the text.’
I can ask JAWS to repeat something and to spell it out if I need it to.
It works in English and other languages.
If it’s a French phrase, for instance, it will read it in French as long as the phrase has been tagged as being in French.
JAWS will read text in emails, in a Word document, on web sites or anywhere else.
Up to recently, JAWS had no way of interpretting images or pictures so they remained inaccessible.
A couple of years back, optical character recognition (OCR) was integrated into JAWS.
It picks out and reads most of the text found in images or pictures, but the rest of the contents remained inaccessible.
A new version of JAWS released in 2019 improves on this again.
It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to recognise and announce some features in a picture such as a car, a tree, a house, a face, etc which helps explain the contents and the context for any text found.
OCR and AI working together are far from perfect, but the continuous improvement is noticeable.
The author of the document or web page also has the option to include a description of an image or picture called “Alternative Text”. JAWS reads that out if it is present.
For example, ‘this is a picture of Gerry Ellis.’
Technology benefits blind and vision impaired people disproportionately
The point Gerry wants to make is that technology benefits blind and vision impaired people disproportionately.
It is of far greater value to them than to sighted people who can use the same technology but know that they can always fall back on using their sight.
He tells a story that demonstrates this.
‘I used to work in Hume House in Ballsbridge and get the number 7 bus in from my home.
There’s a stretch of straight road about 2 miles long between Blackrock and Hume House.
I couldn’t just count the stops to keep track of where I was because the bus might not stop at them all.’
‘Before technology came along – this was 15 to 20 years ago – I used to go up to the driver and say ‘could you give me a shout when we get to the American embassy, please?’
‘But of course the driver was busy and sometimes he’d forget and I’d miss my stop.
‘Maybe two or three stops later, he’d say ‘oh, I forgot the blind guy!’ and give me a shout.’
Sometimes he didn’t and I’d think we’re a long time going here!
‘One time the driver forgot and drove me all the way into town.
Realising what he’d done, the driver drove me all the way back to Ballsbridge rather than go on his break.’
‘It was embarrassing for me because I was turning up late for work and, of course, the bus drivers felt bad about it.
Then I got an accessible GPS device and set it to alert me one stop before I wanted to get off.
I never missed my stop again.’
1% of challenges caused by my impairment, 99% by society
Gerry also makes an important point about the difference between disability and impairment.
30 years ago, if you were blind or deaf or your legs didn’t work, you were seen as sick.
You were a patient and you had to be cured by doctors.
The fact that I am blind is my impairment. That’s the medical side.
But disability is caused by the failure of society to accommodate the needs of people with impairments.
That’s the social side.
‘It’s no more difficult to build an accessible building from scratch as it is an inaccessible building: It’s a choice.’
The approach that is most recommended is called universal design.
That approach suggests that you consult with stakeholders at an early stage then design things to accommodate the maximum numbers of people possible.’
(You might be interested in this article, ‘Am I like Rain Boy?’ about how a boy with Autism was helped to thrive with the support of his family).
There are estimated to be 600,000 in Ireland affected by disability
Around 600,000 people in Ireland, or around 13% of the population, experience disability.
‘80% of impairments are acquired by people during their lifetime by accidents, disease and ageing,’ says Gerry.
‘They are not born with them.
It could be you tomorrow and, if not tomorrow, then later in life as we are all living longer and thus acquiring age-related impairments.’
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All efforts were made to ensure that the information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. The content of this article do not constitute financial advice.
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