VisionAware Features Huntington New Initiative
by Unknown, 4/4/2021
Huntington, WV is a small town in Appalachia, surrounded by individuals and families who live in rural and mountain counties. Home to only 46,500 residents, Huntington is comprised of a small, downtown area surrounded by a larger suburban and rural population, and as of the most recent census, nearly 25% of its population lives below the poverty line.
As you may imagine, and can certainly understand, people who are blind or visually impaired living in Huntington, and other rural towns like it, often encounter unique and significant challenges to independent living. These challenges can include access to transportation, access to education, access to employment, and access to the information and technologies that make them possible. Rural communities often have smaller numbers of resources, smaller budgets, and smaller numbers of people trained to teach, train, guide, motivate, and inspire people, of all ages, who are blind or visually impaired along an independent life journey. Unfortunately, all of this often results in lower expectations; possibly leading to lives not as fully lived.
For example, if you are a blind person, parent, or family member of a blind young person and living in a rural community; you may have never known a successfully employed blind person. Therefore, you may have never believed successful employment is possible for yourself or your child. Similarly, if you do not know access technology even exists, or what it can do, it is hard to imagine how you could excel in college or compete in today’s workforce.
Likewise, blindness professionals and teachers of children with visual impairments (TVIs) in rural areas often do not have the resources to adequately support their students or their own continuing education. As a result, they, too, can be at a significant disadvantage when working to serve their clients or students.
As the world continues to live through the COVID-19 pandemic, APH understands there has never been a more critical time to ensure people with visual impairments are able to learn to use mainstream and access technologies to live independently and navigate indoor and outdoor spaces. Individuals with vision loss will, without question, need to rely more heavily on personal O&M skills and the use of technologies that provide support without the assistance of another individual.
Imagine, for a moment, you were unable to do your own grocery shopping, your own banking, and complete your daily essential household tasks because of your limited sight. Imagine how you would feel if, due to the pandemic, no one could safely come to assist you with these tasks. Imagine how isolated and vulnerable you may feel if you could not get the essential household product’s, medicine, or food you need. Now imagine how you would feel if you could.
APH Huntington Launched
APH sincerely believes it has the ability to infuse Huntington’s local blindness community with the resources it needs to begin changing that trajectory and sowing seeds of prosperity for local residents, of all ages, who are visually impaired. APH Huntington was born in order to help address these issues
APH Huntington is the West Virginia location of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH, with headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.) In July 2020, with a grant from the Huntington-based James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, APH Huntington launched with one employee and no physical location. APH initially chose to serve the City of Huntington as it has much in common with Louisville, but on a much smaller, more manageable scale. The downtown area is flat and easily walkable. It is home to many retail and restaurant establishments, as well as attractions that are of interest to residents and visitors alike. It is home to Marshall University, which provides a student population that engages with residents, and a nationally recognized College of Engineering and Computer Sciences, with which we seek to partner. Even though this is a more rural community of less than 50,000 residents, Huntington has a decades-long reputation as a city that is working to ensure a level playing field for people with vision loss, and a strong reputation for community organizing and openness to all.
Spearheading the work of APH Huntington is Lee Huffman, a West Virginia native and Marshall University graduate. Lee, APH Huntington’s Accessible Community Development Strategist, worked for more than 15 years at the American Foundation for the Blind’s Huntington location, and joined APH Huntington when it launched this past summer.
The GoodMaps Accessible Indoor Navigation System
At that time, APH had come to Huntington to introduce its first initiative to visually impaired residents: the GoodMaps accessible indoor navigation system, a revolutionary mapping platform using LiDAR technology to develop accurate and detailed digital maps. GoodMaps Explore, GoodMaps’ free, downloadable app utilizes camera-based positioning, which uses geo-referenced images to determine a user’s position. Speech output from the GoodMaps Explore smartphone app then enables users who are blind or low vision (or sighted persons) to more independently navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces. As GoodMaps Explore users walk through an indoor space, they receive step-by-step, turn-by-turn walking directions, directing them to a chosen point within a building. For example, directions to a specific office in a building or classroom within a school.
Generous funding from the Teubert Trust enabled GoodMaps to digitally map four venues in the downtown Huntington area: Cabell-Wayne Association of the Blind; Cabell County Public Library; Phil Cline Center of the Huntington YMCA; and the Brad D. Smith Business Incubator. With all of these venues newly equipped with GoodMaps’ innovative camera-based positioning technology, APH Huntington and GoodMaps staff have provided three indoor navigation trainings to blind and visually impaired members in the community. APH Huntington is thrilled to be collaborating with GoodMaps for its inaugural initiative. Of course, the APH Huntington team is working in partnership with other businesses and peer nonprofits as well, including a close collaboration with the Cabell-Wayne Association of the Blind.
Local residents were excited by this technology, as the entire concept of using a smartphone to navigate inside a building was completely unheard of. For some, this ignited a notable spark in their curiosity and the desire to learn more about technology and all the possibilities it holds, which is the exact response we intended. Providing information, inspiring curiosity, and encouraging the adoption of a more independent mindset for persons of all ages with vision loss.
In the relatively short time APH Huntington has been active in the community, we have determined that in large part, blind and visually impaired local residents are not receiving the information, technologies, and resources they need to be as empowered, employed, and independent as they could be. We are also realizing blindness professionals and TVIs in the area may not be receiving the information they need as well. Most are not able to attend national blindness or access technology conferences, where the latest technologies and best practice teachings are shared.
Unfortunately, this is not unique to Huntington; this is often the case in rural, more traditionally underserved areas. We sincerely believe APH has the ability to infuse the local blindness community with the resources it needs to begin changing that trajectory and sowing seeds of prosperity for local residents of all ages, who are visually impaired. We also hope other large organizations will be inspired to reach out to other underserved blind and visually impaired communities to help raise awareness and increase the needed resources to positively affect the lives of adults, transition-age youth, and children.
As APH Huntington’s work moves forward, its intention is to provide hands-on trainings, workshops, discussions, and services throughout the community for people who are blind or visually impaired and the professionals who serve them. These initiatives will address many Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) areas including: access technology; daily living skills such as personal money management; self-reliance, and self-advocacy. Additionally, we have initiatives to address national policy and its impact on everyday life; the portrayal of people who are blind or visually impaired in the media; improving independent living skills; and more. These trainings are just the beginning of what we hope to offer. Lee Huffman, APH Accessible Community Strategist, Shares His Thoughts:
“I am excited to bring the many resources of APH to this rural community. In smaller towns like Huntington, WV, it is often very challenging to provide blind and visually impaired residents with the information, services, and resources needed to enable them to be independent and fully integrated into the community. Our goal is to help fill that gap while encouraging a more informed, inclusive community culture.
Thus far, Huntington has hospitably welcomed APH Huntington into its community and expressed great interest in the sustainability and growth of our work. We have heard overwhelmingly positive feedback from civic and business leaders, healthcare professionals, teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs,) higher education faculty, and others.
Interest in our work has also been expressed by local and state elected officials, as well as by technology startups who are drawn to Huntington for its strong sense of community and business support systems. APH Huntington continues to expand its reach and enhance its impact throughout Huntington, with anticipated growth in the coming year. In November 2020, we were fortunate to earn a workspace within the Marshall University Brad D. Smith Business Incubator. We are honored to work in such close proximity with entrepreneurs, innovators, and respected Marshall University faculty.
The accessible indoor navigation initiative with GoodMaps has been APH Huntington’s first foray into introducing APH’s education, technology, and independent living initiatives to Huntington. In 2021, APH Huntington plans to offer several notable occasions for engagement among members of the community – from an Impactful Living Conference, to a special speaker series to include an APH Arts & Humanities event in Huntington. It is our hope our work will continue to educate, inspire, and elevate the community of blind and visually impaired people throughout the area.” Many Thanks for the Teubert Trust
“APH is deeply grateful for the generosity of the Teubert Trust, which enabled us to join the Huntington community. The Trust also kindly introduced us to many prospective partners and provided opportunities for us to share our mission with others,” said Cathy Jenkins, APH Executive Director of Development, who oversees the APH Huntington program. “We are confident the program will be a success for years to come in Huntington.”
Learn more about GoodMaps Explore.