February, 2011

Feb 11

Article in today’s SMH Online

Here’s an interesting article from today’s SMH Online edition. I’ve grabbed it from the App Store and will add some locations to see how it works. It currently tells me I can get accessible drinking water from a place 353m from my house. Like all wikis, it’s only as good as the users!

German iPhone app guides handicapped around cities


February 22, 2011 – 9:50PM

Raul Krauthausen, who has used a wheelchair since childhood, has always been uncomfortable with the services Germany provides for the physically handicapped, like special taxis and grocery delivery _ saying they feel patronizing and further isolate him from the able-bodied world.

So Krauthausen took matters into his own hands and launched wheelmap.org, an iPhone application and website in German and English that allows users to share ratings and tips on how accessible shops, bars and other places are.

“Sometimes I feel I’m treated like a child who isn’t allowed to decide specific things by myself,” said the 30-year-old who suffers from a genetic disorder that makes his bones brittle. “I want to remain flexible and not be dependent on when a driving service has time to pick me up.”

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It turned out he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. With some 300 new user-ratings daily, wheelmap.org now has details on 30,000 locations. Around 80 percent of tagged spots are in Germany, but site ratings for cities like London and New York are slowly growing, Krauthausen said.

“Wheelmap.org wants to help show people with mobility impairments everything that’s achievable,” he said.

Krauthausen attributes Wheelmap’s success to its availability as an iPhone application and the “Wiki principle” _ the idea that anyone, anywhere can contribute. Users rate locations without registering, but must log in to add specific comments.

Ingo Stoecker, a regular user and beta tester for the app, said he hopes the site will encourage often reclusive handicapped urbanites to explore surroundings they see as potentially perilous to navigate. Some 4.5 million of Germany’s 82 million people are physically handicapped.

“Most or many wheelchair users are rather introverted _ they’d rather not go out,” said Stoecker, who suffers from a birth defect resulting in incomplete spinal development.

“I think if they knew of such an app, they would maybe get out more.”

Stoecker, 30, can navigate very short distances on crutches and drive a special car. He uses Wheelmap to find bars or cinemas for weekend nights in Berlin or traveling outside the city with friends from his wheelchair basketball team.

“It’s helpful when our team is on the road to unknown cities where we have games,” he said on a recent day, using the app to pick out a not-yet rated sandwich shop in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. “We can see how to get around and what there is to do.”

On the iPhone app, locations are tagged as either green, yellow or red _ totally, partially and not at all accessible. Unrated locations are gray.

Stoecker rated the sandwich shop yellow. It had a curb about four inches (10 cm) high _ low enough for him but prohibitive for more disabled urbanites.

While many large cities from San Diego to Vienna offer guidebooks for handicapped visitors, Anette Stein, an education researcher at the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank, and other experts said they were unaware of any other application that allowed users to add instant comment.

“I find the Wheelmap project highly exciting and can well imagine that it could spread through social networks and consequently see enormous growth,” Stein said.

Beyond helping the handicapped, Krauthausen said he hopes Wheelmap will persuade more business owners to make their stores barrier-free, something Germany legally requires, but in reality is often not implemented.

“Often it’s simply a matter of one or two steps preventing you from getting in. For that, there’s a cheap solution,” he said.

Stein said change will come if businesses see themselves losing customers or developing reputations as handicapped-unfriendly.

“Wheelmap generates a type of pressure on proprietors and establishments and will arguably cultivate an interest for them not to be shown as gray or red, but as green” Stein said.

To finance wheelmap.org, Krauthausen has relied on both private donations and a governmental stipend.

Though he welcomes the public funds, he worries the government might be trying to “buy its way out” of the problem of making handicapped Germans more independent.

“The whole reason there are organizations like ours is because the government has failed to do anything themselves,” he said.

Krauthausen and Stein both pointed to a 2007 United Nations study rating Germany as one of the worst industrialized nations for handicapped accessibility.

The Labor Ministry said things are improving, and that the U.N. study has been a catalyst for improving federal initiatives to aid the disabled; the Cabinet is expected to pass an action plan, written with a focus group of handicapped Germans, in March.

Feb 11

Guylian Belgian Chocolate Cafe, Opera Quays

If you enjoy chocolate and good coffee, this place is a must-visit. It is located at Shop 10, Opera Quays, so the view, as you’d expect, is wonderful. You can sit indoors or outside. With a group, I’ve always preferred outside, but there’s good circulation space inside too and a number of smaller tables if you’re sitting alone.

While the primary foods served are sweet — chocolate, cakes and desserts — you can also have a light meal, a beer, glass of wine or champagne. They also serve a full breakfast. The incredible Dark Chocolate Milkshake ($9) is truly to die for.

Access is no issue inside or out. Everything is flat, and there is an excellent accessible toilet inside (no key required), just to the left of the main service area. Given the dearth of accessible toilets around Circular Quay and the Opera House, this one is worth remembering.

Given the location, it’s no surprise that nothing comes cheap in this cafe. However, it’s a special place to take visitors to Sydney, before or after a show at The Opera House, or if you just feel like some decadence with your coffee.

Feb 11

iThink, therefore … iPad

As a person who can’t speak, I use many other strategies to communicate. Mostly, this involves technology. I love technology, and my lack of voice has given me an excuse to try everything I can get my hands on over the last few years. I’ve been meaning to write up a summary for ages. So here it is…

The tool I use most is just the word processing package Pages on the iPad. While obviously it’s not designed as any sort of therapeutic tool, it works so well I now use it every day. In most scenarios, I just show the person I’m speaking to the text I’ve typed. In large groups, or in meetings, I usually nominate someone as my ‘reader’ and hand the device to them when I want to make a contribution. (Though it’s worth saying, the job of reader has some skill attached. Some people insist on ‘interpreting’ what I type. And it’s a rare reader who can pick up the emphasis I want — no matter how much italics, bold or how many asterisks I use.) Previously I used Word on the laptop in the same way.

The choice between devices is interesting. Personally, I’m preferring the iPad to any other device I’ve used, though others had advantages too. My laptop was good when I used Word 2003, because I could choose to either show the text, or Word had a text-to-speech function so you could just press play and it would say it. That was a very nice option to have, and the iPad has no such function. (Though Word 2007 dropped that function. Go figure.) There was also an Australian accented voice for the notebook, whereas with the iPad you can only choose US or British accents so far. The beauty of the iPad is that you can operate it entirely with one finger. There’s no mouse to master, there are no combination keys to press and best of all, it is ‘instant on’ (that is, you just press the home button and it is on. No slow start up). The iPad is also easy to pass around and of course the battery lasts all day.

There are a number of tools that actually speak the words for you and they break down into two groups – text-to-speech (where you type in the exact words to say) and symbol-based tools (where you use pre-set symbols to make up sentences, or define your own commonly-used phrases). Personally, I’ve always preferred the text-to-speech tools because they allow more nuanced conversation. Symbol-based tools are quite good for making requests, but less so for conversations. On a laptop, the best of the text-to-speech tools are TextAloud and NextUp Talker (more sophisticated). Both are available with an incredible range of natural voices, including the Australian accent I mentioned above, which is called Lee. All are Windows only. For the Mac, the best I’ve seen is called GhostReader.

For the iPad, there are quite limited text-to-speech options. There is an expensive app called EZSpeechPro ($229), but the main one I use is called Speak it! Both have only American and/or British voices. The best of the symbol-based tools I’ve found for the iPad is called Auto Verbal. Again, it only has an American accent but it’s simple, cheap and useable. You can also save phrases you regularly use and they are available with a single tap. There are some very expensive and sophisticated symbol-based packages for both the iPad and laptop (an example is Proloquo2Go – $239) but, to me, they don’t offer more than the combination of a simple tool and a word processor.

I’ve also found that text-to-speech works well in some situations and less well in others. In formal meetings and presentations, and especially on conference calls and phone calls, I find text-to-speech a great tool. For example, when I need to speak to a bank on the phone, they won’t accept someone speaking for you. But they will accept text-to-speech. The thing is, you need to plan in advance or least warn the listener they will need to wait while you type your answer. Text-to-speech tools read exactly what you type, so if you make typos, that’s what they read. Whereas when I’m just showing the words I’ve typed I can type away flat out and just let the typos go uncorrected.

My feeling is that, on balance, the iPad currently offers the best range of functions for a user. For anyone with limited hand functions, especially, it is just so simple to use. Because most apps are so cheap, you can afford to get a number of the different text-to-speech and symbol-based apps and just try them out. Whereas on the laptop that would cost several hundred dollars.

Feb 11

I didn’t need to hear that

It’s amazing how often people talk as if I’m not there. It happened yesterday, when I was in my local cafe.

My powerchair has a large pouch on one arm. It’s my multi-purpose receptacle. As I go about my daily business, everything goes in there. Train tickets, credit cards, receipts, change, plastic bags, several phones, tools and assorted extras. My wife’s handbag has nothing on my pouch! On this day, sitting in the cafe alone, I decided to tidy my pouch.

At a table directly across from me sat a group; a family with mum, dad and two young kids. One child was a toddler, intent on exploring his world and keeping his parents very busy. In a pram was a tiny baby, perhaps only a month old. I remember that life stage. It’s not easy. The dad, in particular, was run ragged. After a short time they were joined by the mum’s parents. She was Malaysian and spoke with almost no accent. Her partner was a New Zealander. They were discussing where they should settle. The dad was concerned that, if they stayed in Australia, he would be stuck in a sales role his whole life. His partner was informing him that he had responsibilities and couldn’t simply choose what he wanted. ‘You New Zealander’s have no work ethic’ she chastised him. Her parents seemed to have more limited English but every now and then they nodded in agreement with their daughter’s points.

I have to admit, I felt sorry for the bloke. He was chasing his toddler all over the cafe, and each time he returned to grab a sip of his coffee or a bite of his toasted sandwich, the topic had moved on to another of his weaknesses. Occasionally he would offer a word of disagreement, but then his toddler would dash, he would follow, and his wife would continue on topic. So mostly it was his wife talking, and her parents nodding. But I could tell he wasn’t happy. He looked increasingly hurt, and embarrassed as the minutes passed and the topic didn’t change. I was only a metre or two away; I could hear every word.

All the time this was going on, I was unloading my pouch contents onto the table and slowly consuming my coffee. There was a lot of change. I had it piled up in denominations on the table in front of me. It’s amazing how fast $1 and $2 coins add up. It was time well spent. The group beside me had now finished. As they packed up, I heard the dad comment to the others ‘I guess we don’t have it so bad. We’re luckier than that guy trying to scrape together enough coins to pay for his coffee.’ On that, they all agreed.

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