Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Where's the Cox repairperson??

We found all of the missing Cox cable repairmen who you were promised would come to fix your internet or cable service weeks ago. They are all at this hotel in Ahwatukee, AZ. It's unknown when they will come out. Better call Qwest.

A large number of Cox cable repair trucks parked in front of a hotel.

A large number of Cox cable repair trucks parked in front of a hotel at a different angle.

Monday, February 26, 2007

My first visit to GDB to meet my new friend

Yesterday, I decided to make my second A view of going over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Marin County from inside the Marin AirPorter bus."non-rev adventure" since I have been working for US Airways. I decided to make a trip up to San Francisco International Airport and then continued on the Marin Airporter (note: portions of site not blind friendly) to San Rafael, CA. My final destination, the campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. I was going up there to meet my best friend who is currently going through a 3-week "retrain" course where she will obtain a new guide dog. For the past couple of months, I have been my best friend's "guide" in many situations. All it takes is some skill, patience and a good elbow. But after she gets back from GDB, my elbow will be pretty much retired.

There are two training paths at GDB. The full training path for someone who has never had a guide dog before. This is a 4-week class. There is also the retrain course where those who have had a dog in the past can sharpen their skills and receive their new dog. In the case of my friend, she had a dog in the past from Leader Dogs who eventually had to be retired. She is really looking forward to her new dog.

The day that the GDB student looks forward to is "Dog Day" (or sometimes called "D-Day"). This is the day they are introduced to their new guide dog. For a retrain, this is usually later in the day of the first day. This is after some final touch-up work with "Juno", an empty harness that is guided by an instructor to put the students through various situations that could come up. On D-Day, my friend was introduced to her new guide dog Erica. Erica is a female yellow lab who (I believe) was raised in Arizona.

Picture of Erica sitting down in the tie-down area of the dorm room.I arrived at GDB just before noon and was greeted by the instructor on duty at the time. I was given the quick 5-cent tour of the dorm area and led to my friend's dorm room. They were under the impression that I may be coming but was not sure. When you work for an airline and you fly space-available, you only travel if there is room on the plane after all paying customers have been handled. The day before I left, it showed my flight being oversold. Fortunately, by the morning, there were some canceled reservations and eventually some "no-shows" at the gate which resulted in more seats being available. For a flight that was supposedly at one time oversold, it left with empty seats.
My friend answered the door after apparently a late sleep-in (I tried calling her on the way up to advise that I was in SFO and I was on the way). I gave her a big hug but I was also focused on Erica. She was in a tie-down area next to the bed. The tie-down area consists of a rug (the rest of the dorm room has no carpeting) and about a 4-foot cable attached to the wall. This is where the guide dog is secured at night and at other times since it is very possible that dorm room doors can be opened up and dogs, the creatures they are, are subject to "bolt". The tie-downs are there for the protection of the dog and the person who are working for.

Erica and Alberta playing harness-off with a nylon bone.I was then introduced to my friend's dorm-mate. A local girl from Berkeley who was getting a new dog. Her new dog Alberta is a female golden retriever. We all then closed the doors of the dorm and allowed Erica and Alberta to play. It was fun to watch them playing over a bone. Erica is definitely the dominant one. There were a lot of smiles in that room that day. It is very important that guide dogs have "off-duty" time. Even though us in the sighted world may see them as serious service animals (for which they are), they also recreate like other dogs do. But when the harness comes on, it's time to start working.
The students of this GDB class are being given a new design of harness (see page 2 of the PDF), which I have been told is the first class to receive this new design harness. The main feature of the new design is a plastic disconnect clamp where you push both plastic pieces together to disconnect the strap. This replaces the old "belt buckle" style of fastener. The new design harness seems to also do a lot better in the reflection department which will make the harness much more visible at night. The handle also detatches from the harness so the user of the dog can keep the dog "in harness" but take the handle off for long periods of sitting (such as working at a desk or airline travel).

The saddest point of the day was Michelle Eyre posing with Ericawhen I had to leave GDB to return to SFO to get my flight going home. I was looking at an 8PM flight through Las Vegas to come back to Phoenix and was planning to call into the Marlaina show on ACB Radio to talk a little about the day. I decided to take a 6:15PM flight directly to Phoenix and I called into the show during a time which I thought was "open forum" but she still had a guest on (my cellphone was dying and I did not want to spend a lot of time on Dial-A-Stream). I did talk very fast about it but she really wanted to talk about the subject. I was embarrassed. I still somewhat kick myself for that. Oh well.. I just wanted everyone to know what a great day I had. I returned home about 5 hours before I was thinking I would be home.

I spend a lot of time here exploring the world of blind-friendly electronic gadgets but I can tell that the best form of adaptive technology is not even technology, it is life. My friend graduates on March 10. I really hope I will be able to get the time off to be there. If I don't make it, I will be there in spirit.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A new meaning to the term "nose gear"

An interesting thing happened to me today. I have been having car problems. Shawn recently replaced the EGR in our vehicle to eliminate a bucking problem. This was a problem that I thought was with the transmission. Since the EGR installation, the buck stopped here.

Now today, I was driving one of my blind friends and her guide dog around. I discover that suddenly the car stopped moving forward. I literally moved it into 2nd gear to get it going. I call Shawn, he meets me in a parking lot. Before I did that, I did some experiments in an open area of the parking lot. I made a very interesting discovery.

I have concluded her dog nudged the gear shift from Drive to Neutral. Over the years, the labeling of the gear shift had degraded and therefore I have no way to know what gear my car is in. I just count the clicks. I am really surprised how easy it is to change from drive to neutral in a 1997 Kia Sephia. Anyway, puppy spent the rest of the trip in the back seat. I still love these guide dogs. Maybe I should become a puppy raiser.

Have fun all!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Call Your Stops! It's The Law! but call them clearly.

When I used to live in Southern California, I used to follow the operations of the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD), which eventually became the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). When a bus operator was given their assignment for the day, it was placed on a piece of paper called a "paddle". The term "paddle" goes back to the old days when the bus run assignments and times were printed on wooden boards that looked like paddles.

In the RTD/MTA world, there is a message on all of the paddles that reads "Call Your Stops! It's The Law". A reminder to operators to follow the provisions of the ADA that require transit operators to call stops.

Some transit operators have looked at various ways to call the stops. In cities like Denver and Chicago, there are automated voice announcements on the rail system to announce the next stop. On some other systems, such as here in Phoenix, GPS based automated stop calling systems are used. Unfortunately, the GPS systems are sometimes inaccurate and therefore will not always call the correct stop or not call the stop until the bus passes the stop.

The one thing that these automated systems have in common is that the systems use the same voice throughout the system on each bus/train. This means that a blind user or other patron who is dependent on the stops being called will always hear the familar voice instead of the different voices of different operators.

On a recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, I have decided to ride BART from SFO Airport to the city.

The BART station platforms have synthesized speech systems that are used to advise of current trains on the platform as well as the departure times of future trains.

With my recent exploration into issues that affect the blind and visually impaired, I decided to try something. I decided to take my seat and close my eyes (I was tired from the trip already) and I was planning to depend on BART to properly call the stop in order for me to determine which stop to get off at.

The first thing I have noticed was that the quality of the speaker in the train was very bad. It was almost up there as the stereotypical fast-food restaurant drive-thru speaker. Not only that, but the train operator had some lingual difficulty saying the station names. Oh yeah, did I mention that BART still uses their train operators and not an automated system to call the stops on board the trains?

Now, even though I am familiar to the basics of BART, I am not totally familiar with the stations along the route, especially the names and locations of stations along Market St. So, I came on board this BART train, unfamilar with the system and depended on BART to get me to the right station.

I needed to get off at the Powell St. station. I was meeting my sister in Union Square.

As we get closer, I have noticed mumbling that sounds like "Civic Center". I knew that was one of the stations along the route but I did not know how many stations there was between Civic Center and Powell. I do know if I was to hear something like "Embarcadero", I better get off that train or else I will wind up in Oakland. After Civic Center, I have heard something that sounded like "Pawastree". Because I needed to go see my sister, I opened my eyes and noticed, yes, I am at Powell St. I exited the train.

I think that my experiment has proven that a blind, visually impaired or other user who is visiting a particular city (like San Francisco) can not always depend on the names of the stations being clearly called. Seasoned users of the system may be able to count stops to their station but for us visitors, we are at the mercy of the train operators, at least when we are riding BART.

I really hope this changes soon.

p.s. I did the same experiment on the way back to the airport. I was able to hear the stops much clearer on that train and I was able to exit the train to the SFO station.