From the Desk of Jason Eckert, Executive Director, Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation
The U.S. State Department: The Unexpected Hero of Those Living with Low Vision
According to an article published in The Washington Post, the U.S. State Department has issued a memo to all staff with the title, “The Times (New Roman) are a-Changin.” This memo requires all State Department written communications to use Calibri font in 14 point, changing from the previous dictate to use Times New Roman. The key difference between the two fonts, from an accessibility perspective, is that Times New Roman is a serif font, meaning it has extra strokes, or serifs, on the ends of the lines that make up the letters. These are sometimes referred to as “wings” or “feet.”
Calibri, as a sans (without) serif font, does not contain those additional lines. Research suggests fonts with “smooth edges” are easier for people living with low vision and/or learning disabilities to read. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, or screen readers, used by individuals with disabilities also tend to process fonts with smooth edges more accurately. Arial is another popular sans serif font suggested by those in the low vision community and is the one RDPFS uses for all its communications. For more specifics on the issue, “Best Practices and Guidelines for Large Print Documents used by the Low Vision Community” have been prepared by the Council with Low Vision International, an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind (ACB).
It is my hope that all government and private organizations will follow the State Department’s lead and standardize the fonts they use, selecting Arial or Calibri for all their communications. This simple change will make all written products and messages more accessible.
The use of sans serif fonts by the State Department underscores the effort to uphold the civil rights of all their employees, as well as to provide better access to information for everyone. Moreover, the universal application of these fonts delivers the message that actions supporting disability inclusion benefit all, are easy to incorporate into society, and need not be limited to any given month or period. Actions that support disability inclusion can and should be pursued by all, year round. I applaud the State Department for their understanding of this issue and am grateful for their leadership.
Advancing Literacy Initiatives: Read Across America and the Braille Challenge
Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers: Read Across America
The Read Across America program encourages reading and calls for children in every community to enjoy its pursuit by “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers.” Many schools, libraries, and readers across the country commemorate Read Across America as an annual event on March 2nd, the anniversary of the birth of popular children’s author Dr. Seuss, and throughout March, “National Reading Month.” Recognizing the importance of keeping “reading on the calendar 365 days a year,” the National Education Association (NEA), sponsor of the program, also provides resources and activities for educators and parents year round. NEA provides recommended books, authors, and resources each month focusing on different themes that “promote diversity and inclusion.” February’s emphasis is to "Celebrate Black History Month" and in March to “Bring Communities Together.” For additional background information and resources to promote reading, visit the Reading Rockets webpage on NEA's Read Across America.
Promoting Braille Literacy: The Braille Challenge
Promoting reading/literacy also reinforces the theme of the Braille Challenge, which began in January and goes through March of every year. The “only academic competition of its kind,” the Challenge was developed by the Braille Institute to motivate students who are blind or visually impaired to practice and sharpen their braille literacy skills, which are vital in achieving academic and career success. Students in first through twelfth grades who read and write braille can participate. Contestants are tested on fundamental skills like reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, and charts and graphs. Events are held in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The top 50 students, with the highest scores, are invited for the final round, consisting of “two days of competition, camaraderie and fun!” This year’s Finals will be held from June 23 to 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Read more here about the Braille Challenge. For the schedule of this year’s regional events, both those that have already occurred and those that remain, visit the webpage with the list of regional events.
2023 Scholarship Opportunities Available to Students with Vision Loss
by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern
As students prepare for the coming academic year, we are providing a list of notable scholarships and scholarship resources focusing on students with disabilities, including vision loss. Be sure to apply for funding from your state’s Commission for the Blind or equivalent agency; some scholarships actually require proof of this step for a student to be considered. For lists of scholarships, you can check those maintained by the Lavelle Fund for the Blind and Lighthouse Guild. For further information about specific scholarships of interest, it would be advisable to contact the scholarship provider directly. Following are some additional individual scholarships that may be of interest:
- The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) scholarships are again accepting applications, due March 31. Recipients are required to attend scholarship program activities as well as the NFB Convention.
- The BMO Capital Markets Lime Connect Equity Through Education Scholarship connects undergraduate and graduate students majoring in a business, finance, or STEM field and interested in a career in financial services with $10,000 (U.S.) or $5,000 (Canada) to put toward future study. Applications are due by April 9, 2023 at midnight PT (3 am ET).
- Lighthouse Guild has its own scholarships, which it awarded to nine high school seniors across the country in 2022. Each year, up to 20 scholarships are offered to undergraduates and at least one to a graduate student. Applications are due by March 31, 2023.
In addition to these programs, parents, educators, students, and others can contact local community organizations that provide services to individuals with vision loss to inquire about other scholarship opportunities to support the pursuit of higher education.
Hybrid and Electric Vehicles May Need Noisemakers Retrofitted
by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering whether to act on a petition from last year and require noisemaking devices to be retrofitted to hybrid and electric vehicles dating back to 1997. These noisemakers are important because they alert pedestrians, including those with vision loss, to an otherwise silent hybrid or electric vehicle moving at low speed. The NHTSA can implement the requirement without additional approval from Congress or any other governing body. The relevant law, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 141, “requires that all hybrids and [electric vehicles] under 10,000 pounds produce sounds when traveling at speeds up to 18 mph.” NHTSA requires that all new models be fitted with noisemakers starting from 2021, but the NHTSA could extend them much farther back. The agency has prepared a list of some of the affected vehicles that includes models like the 1997 Saturn EV1, the 2001 Honda Insight, and the 2003 Toyota Prius. NHTSA acknowledges that some vehicles on its list may have already undergone the fitting procedure. Fitting should not be difficult, but the devices will require access to the vehicle’s speed to avoid the noisemakers being constantly active. If enacted, this initiative would follow in the footsteps of the European Union’s 2019 stipulation, among others. While this would be unusual in that the NHTSA did not require seatbelts to be retrofitted to previous vehicles, it would greatly improve the safety of all pedestrians around hybrid and electric vehicles and would be a major win for the vision loss community. You can find more information about this proposed change in this article from The Drive.
A Good Time for Watches for People with Vision Loss
by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern
For people with vision loss, timekeeping has changed markedly in the last 15 years. With smartphone screen readers announcing hours and minutes every time you wake them up, you might think the old watches would be rendered obsolete. However, having a discreet way to know the time can be important in classrooms, workplaces, and events where announcements would be disruptive or impractical. Fortunately, when it comes to watches and other personal timepieces, we have more options than ever. The traditional talking watches and Braille watches are still on the market at a range of prices, but Braille watches are generally more expensive. You can find them at variety of places such as Amazon (as indicated in the links above), MaxiAids and LS&S. The least expensive talking watches are simple quartz digital watches with large numbers and plastic cases, requiring the user to set the time manually. So-called “atomic” watches are also sold, which are controlled and set by radio signals from actual atomic clocks. Most talking watches have an alarm function, and many also provide an optional hourly announcement. While convenient, they have the same disadvantages as smartphone time announcements. So-called “Braille watches” are, for the most part, not actually Braille. These have a hinged crystal that, when opened, presents an analogue watch face with hands pointing to dots along the face. Typically, the largest dot is at the 12:00 position; middle-sized dots are at 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00; and smaller dots indicate the rest. Other watches, called “tactile” or “magnetic,” accomplish the same thing with two ball bearings at different positions on the face according to the time. One disadvantage of both of these designs is that the small scale means that an analogue watch with dots cannot tactilely display exact minutes, which can be important for transportation schedules, work events, and other activities.
The Advent of Smartwatches
Smartwatches are another option emerging during the last few years, including products like the Apple Watch, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch, Fitbit’s various devices, and many others. Fitness trackers, wearable mobility aids designed for blind people, and other offerings are also included here, so long as they keep time. Many of these devices allow the user to know the time via vibrations on the wrist. For example, the Apple watch uses two groups each of long and short pulses to convey units of ten hours, additional hours, ten minutes, and additional minutes. It also tells time by giving only the hours and quarter hours (“terse”), or by giving digits in Morse Code. Samsung’s system is similar, although others may vary in their implementation. These can also chime or vibrate every hour, half hour, or quarter hour, which can be helpful during daily activities. Some smartwatches have extensive screen reader support built in, while others, such as Fitbits, are accessible through their smartphone app or through the installation of an app on the watch itself. Lastly, a device called the Dot Watch is a smartwatch with a four-cell Braille display that tells time, announces notifications and includes many other basic smartwatch features. Here is an AccessWorld Magazine review of the Dot Watch, written before native support for Braille displays was included on the Apple Watch. Whatever device you choose, whether it is basic or smart, always be sure to have a way to keep time reliably. You can find more information about any of these products in the links above. The Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit links go to pages that discuss each of their accessibility features.
“Careers and Canine Connections” Applications Available: Submission Deadline is April 1, 2023 for this Free Program
This weeklong summer program promises to provide excitement, learning, and personal growth for transition-age young adults ages 18-24 who are blind or have low vision. Being offered from August 7 to 12, 2023, the program is free of charge and is a collaborative effort between Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) and APH Career Connect, a program of the APH (American Printing House for the Blind) Connect Center. “Get ready for a weeklong exhilarating deep dive into career exploration and how a Guide Dog enhances your future employment,” GDB advises. Participants will discover a variety of career options they may not have considered, the value of networking for both work and greater independence, compare mobility possibilities for travel to and from work and while on the job, vocational and employment resources and mentorship, and unique hands-on experiences with dogs. There will be ample time to connect with one another and make new friends, and to enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The program will be held at the Hull Foundation & Learning Center in Sandy, Oregon, which is seven miles from the Oregon Guide Dogs for the Blind’s training campus. For the 2023 “Careers & Canine Connection” Participant Application form, please visit the Youth Programs Page The deadline to submit an application is April 1, 2023. Guide Dogs for the Blind recommends applying early as summer programs are popular and fill up quickly.
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