Lianne Smithaniuk

Lianne Smithaniuk

Technology helps students with disabilities succeed

NANAIMO – Vancouver Island University trade fair will raise public awareness about services and programs for people with disabilities.

Vancouver Island University will showcase services and programs from local organizations that serve people with disabilities at an upcoming information and technology fair.

The event happens at the Nanaimo campus Tuesday (Dec. 3) as part of the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a worldwide campaign with the theme: Break Barriers, Open Doors for an Inclusive Society for All.

At least 14 community organizations will be presenting at the fair, which is open to the public to raise awareness about services and technological advances that help open doors to higher education and mainstream life in general for people with disabilities.

VIU has more than 600 students registered with its disability services department, which provides equipment and other support to help ensure students’ success, such as interpreters for hearing impaired students, notetakers for the visually impaired, electronic devices, computer programs and quiet rooms for writing exams.

Lianne Smithaniuk, a braillist, transcriber and illustrator, carries out the meticulous and time-consuming task of converting conventional textbooks for visually impaired students.

This semester Smithaniuk is converting textbooks for just one student taking chemistry and statistics.

Braille was never designed to create illustrations and its coded raised patterns representing letters and numbers take up far more space than conventional text. Smithaniuk often finds herself charting new territory when she tries to represent in braille illustrations and diagrams created for a visual world.

How does one represent a diagram with liquid in a flask as a raised textural pattern in braille? Even converting a simple direction arrow symbol is a challenge that must take into account the gap in frames of reference between Smithaniuk, who sees in the conventional sense, and a student living in a world without vision and “sees” characters through her fingertips.

“We take for granted that pictures give us more information and it certainly helps people learn concepts,” Smithaniuk said. “Arrows we take for granted as well, but a blind person has to learn how to read them. It doesn’t necessarily look like it’s pointing to something. She gets used to seeing them after a while and then sometimes I have to describe [objects in the diagram]. I can’t necessarily expect her to make sense of what these forms are.”

The pages of braille translations are first laid up with a computer, then printed on a specially coated paper, which is passed through a PIAF machine – a tactile image maker – that heats the paper coating and causes the printed dots to bulge up to form the braille word and illustration patterns.

Recent technological advances, such as Livescribe pens, are helping too. The pens look like regular ink styluses, but have built-in audio recorders and write on special paper. The student take notes and later can tap on key words and the pen will replay the related portions of a lecture.

VIU also has Ubiduo devices, wireless keyboard communication units hearing-impaired students use to communicate with anyone when there are no interpreters on hand.

Debra Hagen, coordinator of disability services for VIU, said in a press release there are more than one billion people worldwide with some form of disability, including many students on Canadian campuses who do not disclose they have a disability for fear of being stigmatized or discriminated against. It’s especially true for students with invisible disabilities such as mental health issues or learning disabilities. Events like International Day of Persons with Disabilities will, hopefully, break down some of the barriers those students face.

The event takes place in the upper cafeteria, building 300, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, please e-mail