Dr. Elly du Pré: “It’s smart to ask questions”

Biggest drawback of technology, regardless of disability or not, is cost. There is a big divide in society. Among disabled populations, if you’re not a veteran or don’t have a vocational need for a given technology so that the State Vocational Rehabilitation program provides it for your employment goal, you will have to pay for […]

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Biggest drawback of technology, regardless of disability or not, is cost. There is a big divide in society. Among disabled populations, if you’re not a veteran or don’t have a vocational need for a given technology so that the State Vocational Rehabilitation program provides it for your employment goal, you will have to pay for it yourself and none of the items mentioned so far are cheap.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elly du Pré.

Dr. Elly du Pré has been teaching and learning from people who are blind or low vision for over 45 years. Her first job was teaching adults with vision loss to travel safely using the white cane. She developed the computer training lab at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind starting in 1992 and she has been in the C-suite and on boards of directors of nonprofit agencies. She recently was recognized with the Excellence in Leadership award at the national Executive Leadership Conference of VisionServe Alliance.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was drawn to the field of rehabilitation of people who are blind by a book I read as a 12 year old child, entitled Follow My Leader. It’s the story of a boy who is blinded in a firecracker accident, learns braille and how to button his shirt, walk with a white cane and finally get a dog guide named Leader. I wrote to the Seeing Eye, the premier organization for dog guide training, and they told me they don’t hire women, but they also shared information about the Master’s Program at Boston College. Ten years later I was an Orientation and Mobility Specialist myself, teaching travel with a white cane.

Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Technology stories in my field are all about increasing access for blind and low vision employees and individuals to the ever-growing and changing Internet-linked world. In 1976, my student, Helen Gribs, was the first blind person in the world to text, and she also happened to be deaf. She had agreed to be a part of a project to build a system for the deaf to have better communication access and reduce the severe social isolation. In fact, the deaf were the first people to text, ever, using a relay system that developed alongside our project in the late 1970s. The deaf used re-furbished teletypes known as TTYs which were linked to telephones using a modem. They would call relay services staffed by hearing people who first called the hearing person or company indicated by the deaf person, and then read the TTY message to the hearing recipient and typed the response to the deaf person. Helen obtained the first ever braille TTY with built-in modem — serial number 0000003 — and I got an old TTY and a modem from a friend. Helen and I started typing to each other from our respective homes, in real time, which now is called texting!

How do you think this might change the world?

The possibilities for blind and low vision people are endless due to the expansion of cutting edge technology such as:

  • Synthesized speech is commonly used nowadays — Alexa, Google Assistant, automated customer service (“You can talk to me like a person”), etc. Back in the mid 1980s, it was much cruder but already it was being used to read computer screens so blind people could review what they were typing or read what was on the screen already. Today we pinch and spread our fingers to change the size of images, but along with synthesized speech, magnification software already was making computer screens easier to use by people with low vision/”legal blindness.” This technology also can read medicine labels aloud.
  • Following up on the relay service concept, AIRA and Be My Eyes are two services that guide blind people through their smart phone cameras (or a headborne pair of glasses with a small build in camera). Want to get to the gate in the airport without waiting for a guide? Find an item on the grocery shelves? Read the cooking instruction on a package or medicine bottle? Call AIRA and use your phone to scan your surroundings so they can tell you which way to go or what the instructions are. Need to identify a bill or the color of your blouse? Did you drop something and can’t find it? Call Be My Eyes. These services are responding to very imaginative requests, but won’t give advice on anything challenging your safety such as when to cross a street.
  • Want to find your friend in a crowded room? OrCam is a headborne camera that can scan the faces and whisper in your ear the names of people nearby that you already have had OrCam “memorize.” It also can instantly read aloud to you a menu, document, your mail, or help you place a page “face down” on a scanner.
  • Uber and Lyft have opened up paratransit options with fast responses and the ability to make spontaneous trips.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Biggest drawback of technology, regardless of disability or not, is cost. There is a big divide in society. Among disabled populations, if you’re not a veteran or don’t have a vocational need for a given technology so that the State Vocational Rehabilitation program provides it for your employment goal, you will have to pay for it yourself and none of the items mentioned so far are cheap.

Another drawback is the abuse of technology by some in the general public in order to gain advantages reserved for people who need adaptations. An early “technology” whose use sometimes is exploited by the general public now is service animals. Some people pretend their pets are service animals so they can have advantages that are life saving for disabled people — use in public accommodations (restaurants, hotels and public transportation). Their misbehaving pets cause big problems for people who really need the trust and goodwill of the public to accept trained service animals.

Some say braille is obsolete because everything talks, and some public schools don’t teach braille to blind students who attend as a result (or teach penmanship either for that matter). But the oldest technologies — the ones for writing and reading — are not obsolete. People still use pens and paper and blind people who read braille are the most competitive in employment, with about the same unemployment rate as their sighted peers, while non-braille users have a 70% unemployment rate. So braille is not obsolete, and nonprofits are filling in the gaps with special programs to teach braille, as attending local public (or private) schools is still the usual choice for parents of blind children.

Some professors feel accommodations for disabled students are undesirable and a sign that standards for higher degrees are being lowered. PDFs are not produced in the accessible format ADOBE offers; Powerpoints and computer-based tests are created without accessibility tags but then readers for the tests are not provided to blind students. Somehow the argument of lowering standards was never made when typing stopped being taught or valued as an employability skill. Point and click took over without a squeak of concern. Yet, a good keyboarder (for instance a blind person who does not use a mouse and uses keyboard shortcuts), will outperform a sighted mouse clicker every day. In my experience, the mouse user will be 20% less productive (have to work more Saturdays to keep up with the workload).

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Widespread adoption leads to lower prices and wider availability, for specialized equipment and its popular adaptions:

  • When general uses by the public were found for early technologies for blind people, the prices came down and the availability went up:
  • One of the first technologies for the blind that became popular was the talking calculator. It started at about $600 in 1986 when it was created for blind people. When sighted people saw the value, the market increased exponentially and the price dropped to $20.
  • The first speech synthesizer with optical scanner — the Kurzweil Reading Machine in 1976 — was the size of a washing machine and cost $50,000. Ray Kurzweil was a blind student at MIT when he invented it. He probably was still using braille and human readers to attend classes and do his homework. You probably know the name Kurzweil from Stevie Wonder’s piano synthesizers. Stevie was also one of the first to buy the Reading Machine, and he hired two men to carry it around from one show venue to the next. The Kurzweil today does a lot more and costs $1,000. Specialized audio and braille notetakers and readers used by blind people today are in the $1000 — $5,000+ range.
  • “Talking book” versions of popular books used to appear a year or more after publication. Textbooks had to be read in-person to a student in order to keep up with assignments. Then audio books became popular. Harry Potter in audio version actually was available at Midnight, the same time the sighted public was finally getting through the bookstore doors for the latest installment. Technology makes textbooks available much faster as well. Readers still volunteer to produce hundreds of magazines, periodicals and special texts.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

My favorite marketing was Kohler’s use in a tv commercial of a blind guest at a party to highlight the features of its bathroom faucets. Marketing of products for the blind tends to be within the larger context of educational and rehabilitative training services to people who are blind or low vision.

It’s a huge focus of ours as the biggest challenges now are related to outreach. Outreach to eye care professionals to use a free, web-based referral system to easily connect low vision patients with the nearest providers of training services so the patients have information and a feeling of hope. VisionRefer was developed in Florida and is now rolled out nationally, but despite strong support from the American Academy of Ophthalmology which supports it through its endorsement as a best practice, individual acceptance/adoption by practitioners in small and large practices alike has been very disappointing.

Also, outreach to healthcare and home care, senior living and other “aging network” providers to build their skills in identifying and providing inclusive services that support independence of older persons living with vision loss — the largest demographic. Just in Florida there are 2 million older individuals living with severe low vision or a diagnosis of a blinding eye condition. The Aging and Vision Loss National Coalition has a Three Year Action Plan with national support that needs funding to roll out a plan for education, collaboration, professional development, policy and advocacy. The ultimate result will be a significant reduction in long-term care and health care costs and meaningful increase in quality of life for families and individuals. As well as building widespread awareness of the value of diversity to economic growth. As The Institute for Educational Leadership says, “A diversity of ideas, skills, and tools is essential to a team, a workforce, a community, or a campus that wants to excel at solving complex problems.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Two colleagues of mine were my mentors from the earliest years of my career — one was a fellow teacher who taught me about truly listening and creating innovative individualized solutions to people’s needs and the other was my boss who taught me how to create meaningful, efficient and responsive services.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think I do, but only because I have found so many great colleagues and collaborative partners over the years. The goodness comes from helping older people to regain the lives they thought they had lost when they became blind, or from helping parents learn how to raise a confident blind child, or from guiding a person to finding a career that fits their interests and skills and then succeeding in landing a job in that career. The goodness also comes from the people I helped whose positive impact on me as a person and on the community made things better.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

  • 5 things I wish I had known (sooner):
  • It’s good to ask for help
  • It’s smart to ask questions
  • Apologizing is a powerful means to creating stronger relationships
  • Trying to be perfect does not lead to excellence
  • Don’t trust people who say “trust me.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I think I have been part of all along is taking action to bringing people into full participation in our communities and the world. In my daily life, that means empowering people living with blindness or low vision to achieve their goals. It could be the goal of graduating from school. Or the goal of career success as it is individually defined — hitting the C-suite, owning a business, earning enough to support the family. It could be the goal of attending religious services and being able to read the passages and lyrics to the songs. It could be the goal of voting, or babysitting the grandchildren, or volunteering, or meeting with friends for a card game and dinner. That movement also means going beyond the daily duties of my specific job and being involved in committees and groups to advance the quality of our profession to educate and rehabilitate visually impaired people. So I am involved on boards that certify professionals, I manage a program that accredits agencies and university programs, and I work with my wonderful colleagues to advocate for system change in healthcare and public policies that affect how blind people live, work, play, contribute to their communities. This movement inspires me, and my participation does help to breathe life into achieving these important goals.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” — Eleanor Roosevelt.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow Florida Agencies Serving the Blind online @beyondvisionloss or visit our website www.beyondvisionloss.org

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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