Insight January 2016


Victoria girl wins national braille creative writing contest

By Alexandra Korinowsky

In a world of e-books and homework apps, tactile braille dots speckled across a page may appear archaic, but for eight-year-old Maggie Wehrle, braille unleashes her imagination.

Born blind, Maggie bubbles over with enthusiasm when talking about her favourite books, and can’t resist bouncing in her seat.

“Right now I’m reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but I’ve also read the whole ‘Harry Potter’ series and I just finished ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’” says Maggie. “I think reading all of these books gave me the influence to write.”

Maggie recently took first prize for her age category in CNIB’s national braille creative writing contest for her story called “The Underground Festival” – a fantasy world where the dirt shimmers silver, dragons soar and people’s shadows are being stolen to nourish the hungry land.

When trying to describe what writing means to her, Maggie is at a loss for words. “I just love it so much,” exclaims Maggie. “It’s more than a hobby… I don’t even know the word for it. Passion is the closest word I can think of.”

In the 1950s, nearly 50 per cent of North Americans with vision loss knew how to read braille. Today that number is only about 10 per cent.

A number of factors play into this decline, including the prevalence of blindness amongst seniors who are less likely to learn braille later in life, the mainstreaming of special education, and a growing reliance on digital technology.

“No matter what stage of life someone is in when confronting a loss of vision, the ability to read braille is an essential life skill,” says Jessica Leonard, Independent Living Specialist who teaches braille on Vancouver Island for CNIB. “Simply put, braille equals literacy.”

For children with vision loss, being able to read braille is the key to lifelong learning, successful future employment and achieving independence.

“Computer and audio technologies can’t replace a child’s need to learn how to read and write,” says Leonard. “Can you imagine trying to learn math, play music or study a second language through listening only?”

Braille has opened a world of creative expression for Maggie.

Taking after her father Trevor, a musician, she reads braille sheet music and plays the violin at an advanced level for her age. Following in her mother’s visual arts footsteps, Maggie eagerly shows off her origami paper cranes explaining that her inspiration comes from where else, but the well-known book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes”.

“My teacher and I are trying to make it to one thousand,” Maggie says giggling.

At only eight years old Maggie’s determination is apparent and it is clear that blindness doesn’t hold her back.

“I’m often woken up by the sound of Maggie clicking away on her brailler very early in the morning,” says Melissa, Maggie’s mother. “She’s such a great little writer and she gets so much enjoyment out of it.”

“I’m inspired by J.K. Rowling,” declares Maggie. “I’d like to be an author who writes sci-fi or just completely crazy fiction.”

Like any new language, braille takes time and practice to learn at any age. CNIB offers braille instruction in accordance with an individual’s personal goals – whether that means learning the basic alphabet in order to label medication and household items, play tactile games like cards or Scrabble, or to become an advanced reader of literature, CNIB will help you get there.

“Braille is the one thing that gives me access to what other people can see,” says Maggie. “Without it, I don’t feel like I’d fit in.”

Maggie Wehrle, 8, smiles with brailler  

Maggie Wehrle, 8, plays violin
Photos courtesy of Mark Nicol Photography

Crowdsourcing vision: A new family of apps for the blind

By Jason Fayre, CNIB Accessibility and Adaptive Technology Specialist

Hand holding iPhoneDid you know that the iPhone was the first touchscreen device that a completely blind person could operate? Now the innate accessibility of the iPhone has opened up a whole range of accessibility apps and services.

One area that has seen major advancements in the past couple of years is the concept of using the iPhone to help someone living with vision loss to identify objects. Apps such as Tap Tap See and VizWiz allow someone to take a picture of something using the camera on the iPhone. This picture is then sent out to the Internet and a description of the picture is sent back. The descriptions are provided from either volunteers or image recognition software.

The next evolution of this technology uses the video capabilities of the phone to allow a live person to provide assistance in real time. There are countless uses for this technology, from identifying the expiration date on a food item to helping a person locate a particular door in an unfamiliar building. Right now, as I’m writing this at least, the two major apps that provide this service are Be My Eyes and CrowdViz. But, as with most technology, new technology is always popping up, existing technology improves and things change constantly!

The Be My Eyes app launched in late 2014 and is free to download. Once it’s installed, you’re able to request sighted assistance. It can take a couple minutes before you’re connected with a sighted volunteer. Once the call is connected, you can speak to each other and the volunteer can see whatever your device's camera is pointing at. It’s pretty cool!

The CrowdViz app launched about a year later. This app is very similar to Be My Eyes, but with a couple major differences: CrowdViz users pay for each session, and the helpers are trained company employees. The app is free to download and each new user receives eight free calls. Additional calls cost $1 each with bonus sessions when you purchase in bulk.

Whichever app you decide to go with, you won’t be disappointed. Apps are the future of accessible tech and I’d love to hear about the one you use. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and share your favourite apps and accessible technology.

New Year’s Resolutions: Getting your eyes and body in shape

By Dr. Keith Gordon

Blind runner and her sighted guide jog together down path With the New Year upon us, many people are making resolutions to lose weight and get fit. We join a gym, start a new diet or just resolve to eat a little less. Not only is all of this good for the body as a whole, it’s also good for your eyes.

Here are a couple of resolutions that can improve your physical and your vision health at the same time:

Start a fitness program

How does physical fitness affect your vision health? Well the answer to this question is associated with blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of AMD, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. There’s no doubt that losing weight and improving your cardiovascular fitness can reduce your blood pressure. Before you start, make sure you discuss any weight loss or fitness program with your doctor, start slowly and don’t overdo it.

Need a goal to work towards? CNIB Night Steps is a family-friendly event that you can use as a marker to measure your fitness goals for 2016. The Night Steps event takes place in multiple communities across the country and brings together people of all ages and all athletic abilities. It’s a 5km fundraising walk that takes place under the stars. Funds raised go directly to CNIB programs and services in your own community. Register for a walk in 2016 and we’ll provide you with not only fundraising tips but coaching tips to help you complete your 5km walk with pride. Visit for more information.

Eat healthier foods

Last on your list of New Year’s resolutions, I’m sure, is a resolution to eat healthier foods. Your mother was right when she told you to eat your vegetables. Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach or kale, and many fruits have anti-oxidants that help protect your eyes from oxidative damage. What is good for the cardiovascular system is also good for the eyes. Eating foods such as fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are not only good for your cardiovascular system they are also good for your eyes. 

Not sure where to start? Check out “Eye Foods: A Food Plan for Healthy Eyes”, available through Shop CNIB. It was written by two Canadian optometrists and is full of tasty recipes that can help prevent eye disease.

So it’s all very simple really. Set some goals, stay focused and you’re on your way to a year of improved vision health. Happy New Year!

Give in honour

For any special occasion, honour a loved one with a gift to CNIB

Why not give a present that makes a difference? A CNIB gift in honour of someone you care about makes a difference in the lives of people who are blind or partially sighted, helping them lead active, independent lives. Your donation helps us change lives every day. Donate today!


Get fit with the Heart-Shaped Talking Pedometer, $16.95

If your New Years’ resolution is to get in shape, this Heart-Shaped Talking Pedometer might be the perfect fitness gadget to help you do it! Ideal for people with low vision or blindness, this lightweight talking pedometer clips easily to your belt or pocket, and announces the number of steps you’ve walked and distance you’ve travelled in a crisp, clear English voice.

Click here to order the Heart-Shaped Talking Pedometer. To browse hundreds of other Shop CNIB products for everyday living, visit one of our 20 stores across the country, browse our webstore or call the CNIB Helpline at 1-800-563-2642 to order a free catalogue.

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