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New local innovations for the blind by the blind

Sherene Ng knows she'll go blind. She has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic degenerative eye condition that causes acute vision impairment and can eventually lead to blindness. At 23, she doesn't know when this will happen, but already her eyes are beginning to deceive her, causing her night blindness and interfering greatly with her peripheral vision. It's a condition she's known all her life, having grown up with an aunt and a grandmother who both suffered from the disease. 
That's why she founded a company to develop a new shoe that uses sensors to detect when an object or obstacle is within step. The shoe is not looking to replace conditional aids such as walking sticks and guide dogs, but rather seeks to work in tandem to help people with low vision navigate familiar areas. 
"I thought, why not make something for myself and my family," Ng says. Ng graduate from Ryerson University's early childhood education program in 2010, but recognized that her true passion lay in helping make the lives of people with disabilities easier. She completed her internship at Ryerson's EDGE Lab working in adaptive design, and it was there she received a $54,000 federal government grant to launch her business, Adaptive Designers, alongside her co-founder Rubina Quadri. The company has since expanded to include advisor Gabe Heller, whom Ng met while participating in an incubator program called SheEO, as well as several student technicians who help with the programming and coding of the shoe.
Although she does not claim to be a natural entrepreneur, Ng says she recognized an opportunity to improve not only her own life, but also the lives of others.
"In talking with my family members, I asked them what do you struggle with the most? We found something that was common with all of us was that we would trip over things at home. I think also, with culture and society, we wanted something that was inconspicuous. We thought about something like an ankle bracelet, but with developing it more, prototyping it, and bouncing the idea off other people, we said a shoe would be great. We could wear them all the time and it's not as obvious."
Although it might take several years for the shoe to hit the market, it represents a growing number of locally founded companies that are seeking to specifically help those with vision impairments. Canada has placed an emphasis on the development of accessible technology and products in the country since it unveiled its National Strategy for the Integration of Person with Disabilities in 1990, as well as the more recent Digital Economy Strategy. 
It is estimated that more than one million Canadians are living with blindness, including 510,000 here in Ontario, according to the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB). Blindness costs the Canadian economy $15.8 billion per year, a number that is expected to increase as Canadians age (age-related blindness is the leading cause of vision loss in Canada). Researchers estimate that the number of Canadians living with vision loss could double within the next 25 years. 
"For me, accessibility is quite personal because it makes my life that much easier and also creates independence for me," says Martin Courcelles, a specialist in Web Accessibility and Adaptive Technology at the CNIB. Courcelles went blind as a child as a result of retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye, but now lives on his own with the help of a guide dog and a lot of technology. 
Apple has contributed to the most pivotal innovation in his life by launching all of its devices with built in screen readers, which allow those with vision impairments to operate computers and devices independently. Since then, numerous apps have made the impossible possible. From reading currency to detecting lights, smartphones have drastically changed the way those with vision impairments operate on a day-to-day basis. 
"What the iPhone has done is it's raised the bar for accessibility, so now companies that come out with phones or devices, it's almost an embarrassment if they're not accessible," Courcelles says. It's not perfect, he notes. "As an employed blind person I need to have quick access to documents and be able to edit quickly, so it's not there yet," he says, but still he's able to do things he could not have done as easily 10 years ago.
But not all innovations for the blind are for practical purposes. Technology is also changing the level of inclusion in culture, giving people an opportunity to be part of a portion of society usually reserved for those who can see.

Enter Kevin Shaw, an entrepreneur who is creating a pseudo Netflix for the blind by preparing to launch a database of hundreds of films and television shows equipped with descriptive audio. His company, Zagga Entertainment, plans to launch as an app and a platform within the next six months. For Shaw, technological innovations are about having access to "sighted society," something he says many of us take for granted. 
"One of the things I've noticed is that people tend to talk about what's on TV: what did you watch last night? What movies have you seen recently? We don’t want people left out of those conversations, we want them to feel included," he says. Zagga Entertainment is currently based out of Ryerson's Digital Media Zone, where they are awaiting to find out if they will receive a grant through the Natural Science, Engineering and Research Council (NSERC). It was a joint application with the school's Inclusive Media and Design Lab that will allow them to implement a Ryerson-created tool called Live Describe, which aides in live audio description. It is Shaw's dream to eventually have his product on Apple TV. 
Shaw was born with low vision caused by a very rare form of retinal detachment. He went blind in both eyes when he was 19. Although he is excited about the launch of the platform he's been developing since 2011, like many young startups he recognizes that its release date depends entirely on funding. Accessible technology is a fast growing but novel market that centres largely on the development of products and platforms that simply haven't existed before. 
One of the key attributes of his innovation is not actually the movies, but the menu, especially the "play" button. When Shaw was testing his product, he says that seemingly small feature generated the most excitement among users. On traditional video on demand services, the play button is invisible and does not speak. 
Though technological advances and innovations are greatly enhancing accessibility, inclusion, and opportunities for people with low vision and blindness, it's still a battle and there is a lot of work to be done. For someone like Ng who is basing her early career off the development of a product that she hopes will help her when she herself goes blind, having a positive outlook is crucial.
"It can be scary," Ng says, "but for me I try to see as much as I can. I really enjoy travelling, and if I lose my vision later, at least I have a few wonderful years of seeing everything that I could." 

Sheena Lyonnais is the managing editor of Yonge Street. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

Photo of Martin Courcelles provided by the CNIB.
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