Beacons more than just an aid for the blind and partially sighted?

“Beacons allow me to have the autonomy to be like everyone else,” said Susan Vaile, a Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) volunteer.

Vaile was a dedicated photographer and artist who lost her sight at the age of 30. Vaile says she felt her life had come to an end and couldn’t imagine herself without sight, instead, it was the start of a new beginning.

20 years after losing her sight, Vaile continues to grab her camera and go out for shoots, as well as spending her spare time volunteering at the CNIB, a charity that provides community-based support for people who are blind or partially sighted. The organization recently installed Shop Talk Beacons around the St. Clair neighbourhood in Toronto.

“The beacon is a small puck-like device that is installed on the wall and is programmed with information about the layout of an internal environment such as where the service counter is, where the washrooms are, and where the stairs may be to the second floor,” said CNIB Accessible Technology Lead Shane Laurnitus .

Vaile goes out on Fridays with other volunteers from the organization and installs the devices in the area. First, they make sure a CNIB employee programs the iBeacon with the correct information which indicates where everything is located inside of the institution or business.

All phone users who have the iPhone app called BlindSquare on their cell phones pick up the iBeacon’s Bluetooth wireless signals and are conveyed the message which may say “service counter at 12 o’clock.”

Vaile explained that when she comes to a place that has a beacon, as soon as she gets close it will trigger the BlindSquare app.

Kat Clarke, the CNIB advocacy lead, said she was brainstorming but needed funding to put this project together.

“It was fantastic for us that the Rick Hansen Foundation Organization ended up funding this project,” Clarke said. “We got roughly $26,000 to put together our beacon project.”

Clarke said a lot of people who are blind or have low vision navigate the streets with BlindSquare, an app that vocally speaks to the user, similar to a GPS.

“The problem is when someone enters a building,” Clarke said. “Once you step through, it’s a real mystery for people with sight loss.”

Vaile said beacons have allowed her to be herself. Vaile also speaks about her favourite café, Nine-Bars located in the heart of Toronto which has a beacon installed. She said she loves to go get a coffee and feels independent thanks to the beacon. According to Vaile, having a beacon installed reminds her of when she had sight.

“I can be like I used to be,” Vaile said.  Just walk out the door, go where I want to go, do what I want to do,” Vaile said. “What I really want is to feel like everyone else and that’s what the beacons allow us to do.”

About the author  ⁄ Maria De Teresa

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