Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Images come to life for sight impaired

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AT 58, Shep Shell has trouble reading the printed word. But that doesn't make him illiterate.

The St. James resident, who was born with low vision, credits braille for his own literacy and success in life. Braille is a means of transcribing language via a series of combinations of raised and lowered dots.

Even when he can make out large letters, or feel large raised letters, it takes him much longer to read them than the average sighted person. And yet, when he feels the dots on a page, they are words to his ears.

Every child with low vision should be taught braille, says Shell. And adults can also benefit by being able to use it to mark a variety of items in the house, from spices to stove and laundry machine settings.

"It increases literacy and offers yet another tool for use in day to day living," says Shell.

The general public can get an insight into what braille means to people with low vision or who are blind by visiting an exhibit that's on display at the Assiniboine Park pavilion. Braille=Equality is a new exhibit of black and white photographs. In these images, the importance of braille in people's lives is explored.

This is the fifth major exhibition by a group called PhotoSensitive, a collective of Canadian photographers who explore social undertones. You can visit the exhibit on the second floor gallery Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until June 22.

By the age of four, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) was sending a teacher out to Shell's home once a week for a year to teach him braille. He would later attend the Ontario School for the Blind, and the University of Manitoba.

There, he wrote exams in braille.

"I can deal with raised letters," says Shell. "I remember our Grade 6 teacher showing us how to print between the dotted lines. But they are very difficult for me to read, even with a CCTV reader (a magnifying instrument that projects a larger image on a screen)."

For Shell, braille would be more convenient, more familiar and a powerful literacy and life skills tool.

"There are six dots per cell," he explains. "Raised or not raised combinations create letters, symbols, music, punctuation. It's a powerful system."

Shell now has a braille printer on his computer. He also uses a braille typewriter with nine keys that allows him quick note taking, and a braille slate with a needle that allows him to punch a series of holes in cells, much like a sighted person would use a notebook.

He would also love to get a note taker, a devise with a refreshable braille display that would allow him to carry around braille books in a more convenient e-book-type format. Except that it is cost-prohibitive with a price tag of about $9,000.

Shell's computer is voice-driven, so it tells him what it's up to rather than him having to read the screen. But he says voice-driven equipment and books on tape are just not the same as reading in braille.

He admits he was lucky to be able to learn it when he was young. Older people who have lived a sighted life find it much more difficult to learn. Going from a visual to a tactile learning/reading takes a lot of effort, says Shell.

Although overall it remains a sighted world for the most part, Shell is noticing the incorporation of braille accessibility in more and more places. In the U.S., he has seen braille on fast food drink cups, and on menus in some restaurants. He has found braille on elevator buttons, airplane rows to designate seats, towel dispensers, soap dispensers and hotel doors.

"The more signs for us the better," says Shell. "So we don't have to get a surprise, or have to ask."

Without braille, Shell is not sure where he would be. Today, he enjoys puttering around in his garden, repairing bikes and going camping. He worked at IBM as a programmer for 30 years, but is now retired. He once cycled from Winnipeg to Atlanta for Habitat for Humanity, guided by the shape of the cyclist in front of him. He does volunteer work with the CNIB and coaches an athlete with Down syndrome.

Over the years, Shell has also run a number of marathons, and he also competed in the Paralympics in Seoul in 1988.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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