Accessing accessibility


Assistive devices are becoming more common for people with hearing and vision difficulties

When you have difficulties with your vision or hearing, there are a multitude of devices out there to help you with day-to-day life at home and even out in the world, such as when checking out books from the library.

As long as you know about them, that is.

“That is the problem: getting out to people and doing the outreach, saying, ‘We have stuff for you,’ ” says St. Albert Public Library director Peter Bailey.

Bailey is also a board member of the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), a new organization that works to improve library services for anyone with a print disability. He says that Canada has generally relied on the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to provide materials for those with visual impairments, one of the forms of a print disability, but those times are changing.

“Over the years, there’s been a push by libraries to say that we should be doing this as a library community: ‘Why are we treating those in our community who have a print disability differently than everybody else?’ It is the place of public libraries across Canada to be serving all their people in their communities.”

Alberta was one of the first provinces to support CELA’s newfound mandate to provide these services most of which include DAISY discs. These Digital Accessible Information Systems involve both special CD books and special players.

“It’s so much better than a regular CD book because it will do so many more things,” says Kathleen Troppmann, the library’s customer services manager. “Have you ever been listening to a CD and you stop and it goes back to the beginning? These don’t do that.”

What looks sort of like a Simon Says electronic game console is really a player that allows the user to change more than simply the volume. They can change the tone and tenor of the speaker while listening to a book fully contained on one disc, and even how quickly or slowly that voice reads the text.

“You can change the voice. It can be high pitched or low pitched,” explains special services co-ordinator Janice Cheung. A demonstration of this can be found with this story on the Gazette’s website. She noted that the player also has ridges on the buttons for ease of use.

You can also download a book onto an SD card and insert that into the DAISY player too. CELA does require a membership in order for people to borrow these items, but at least the membership is free. Learn more at

The library has several of these units available and they can be borrowed for six weeks at a time. Inside the library itself, staff offers hearing loop service for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The device, located at the front desk, works within close proximity with the user’s own hearing aid or via a corded headphone end (it looks a like a CB receiver) that the person can hold up to their ear.

“It will narrow the focus, amplify the sound, and cut out background noise,” says Troppmann.

The loop is also available at other city service desks at both Fountain Park Recreation Centre and Servus Place, as well as the utilities desk in St. Albert Place.

Visit the library’s website at to learn more about the other assistive services and devices that it has available for the public and its patrons.

Going to the movies

Rob Nepinak was born deaf but still has the same appetite for living and going out as anybody else. Last year, he was certified as a heavy equipment operator. Just before that, he went to Russia to compete as a snowboarder in the 18th Winter Deaflympics.

So yes, he likes to go to the movies too. Sure, he knows how to lip-read but Cineplex Odeon theatres also offers a computerized method of helping him and others to enjoy the theatre experience even if they can’t hear what’s going on during the film.

“I use CC every time we go to Cineplex,” he stated, during an email interview.

CC refers to the closed captioning display units called CaptiView screens. Upon request from the front desk, these units are available so that those with hearing impairments can sit in the audience and read the dialogue as it happens onscreen. It’s a bit of a clunky device that takes some getting used to but at least it’s there.

The theatre chain also offers DS or Fidelio descriptive service devices that work like headphones for the blind or visually impaired. A voice describes all of the action while all of the dialogue is heard for the user. It also amplifies the sound for the person to better hear the film’s dialogue. Just as with the CaptiView, the Fidelio service is available only for certain screenings and not for all films. People checking the listings should make note of the ones that indicate DS or CC. People should go to to learn more.

Making calls

Nepinak and his wife Kristen Maurice (who is also deaf) also use the IP-relay service offered through Telus.

“IP-relay service is similar to an interpreter,” he notes, further describing it as an operator service that allows people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf/blind, or have a speech disorder to place calls to standard telephone users via a keyboard or assistive device.

The Telus IP Relay website at is his way of ‘talking’ to others.

“This is a website that I use to make a phone call. I type on the laptop and the relay service operator will call to anyone for me. It’s like third party [calling].”

He added that there is a video phone relay service that is available in the U.S. but not Canada, something that the deaf community is trying to change.

The computer is an especially useful tool to help him and Kristen stay connected. It even affords a level of accessibility for his friend Cheing Lo, who is both hearing and vision impaired with Usher Syndrome, a form of night blindness. He is allergic to whiteness so a dark screen is just the trick.

His computer is a regular Windows PC and it can make it easier for him to see things.

“It has many different options for changing the colour of the background to help deaf blind see/read papers better,” he said, also through an email interview.

“If you would like to switch the colors for background, simply press SHIFT, left ALT and PRINT.SCREEN keys all at same time. The dialog box will appear on the top left asking you to switch the high contrast. You can press same three keys again to switch the color back to the default one,” he wrote, adding that this can also be done with a Mac computer.

The accessibility settings also allow a magnifier option to move around a small window that enhances the size of whatever is on screen.

The future

The Alberta Society for Visually Impaired indicated that a new device called a Braillenote Touch is just being introduced to the market. Past president Debbie Royer says that accessibility can come even in the palm of your hand with many modern mobile phones.

“More people are using mainstream technology like the iPhone to meet some of their assistive tech needs. There are a lot of built-in accessibility features for low vision/blind and some for hearing,” she says, noting that people can use the Siri function on their iPhones to access their text messages and email. “It is amazing how quickly technology changes and what a benefit it has been for people with disabilities.”


About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.