By Mark Squibb | Vol 7 No. 9 (May 9, 2019)
George Sweeny said that when trying to cross a busy intersection, he felt as if he were taking his life in his hands.
Sweeny, MHA for Carbonear— Harbour Grace district from 1998-2007, lives with a central retina vein occlusion, a condition caused when a vein leaks blood and excessive fluid into the eye.
He told The Pearl that he woke up one morning, about 14 or 15 years ago, blind in his right eye.
Six years later, he said the other eye started to go.
Sweeny told The Pearl that there is no cure.
He gets an injection every six weeks, but said the doctors don’t know for sure how much good the injections will do in the long run.
“But if they stop doing it, my sight may go altogether,” he said, so the treatment continues.
Sweeny said his current vision is 20/400; at 20/200, you are pronounced legally blind.
The condition makes everyday tasks like grocery shopping, going to the hardware store, eating at a restaurant, or even crossing an intersection, a challenge.
“You can’t explain it to anybody what it’s like going blind,” he said.
“Hard is not the word.”
But at the April 30 council meeting, The City of Mount Pearl announced a pilot project that will aid Sweeny and many others in the community.
It’s a project that Sweeny was instrumental in bringing to the city.
Key2Access uses smart phone and wireless technology to make intersections more accessible for people with hearing or vision impairments, mobility issues, or who just need an extra hand.
“This particular pilot project is not meant to replace the current facilities we have here for people with mobility challenges, its meant to enhance it,” explained Deputy Mayor Jim Locke.
Users can access the technology by using an app, or a small fob, which will be distributed by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) St. John’s office, who the City is partnering with for the pilot project, once the City receives them.
“They don’t have to push the button, they can activate the button on this little fob [or the app]. There’s some auditory signals and beeps and stuff like that to let people know when the light is changing and when it’s safe to walk and even if their veering off the crosswalk or coming close to the edge,” explained Locke.
“This is a neat initiative; It falls right in line with our smart cities approach and our strategy going forward.”
The fob, or smartphone, will also vibrate at the appropriate time.
Council is working to get the technology installed.
“We’re using available technology to make the city a better place for our residents to live,” summarized Locke.
As Sweeny’s condition worsened, he found himself slowly drawing about from society.
“Truthfully, I had myself shut in. I had given up on going out. It wasn’t worth the hassle. Going out and bumping into people, tripping up,” he said.
“I avoided crowds.”
He said that getting involved, and eventually volunteering and advocating with the CNIB helped bring him back into the community.
He approached the City late last summer, early fall, about the Key2Access program.
“I was determined. I think they sensed I was determined. I wasn’t going to go away, I was going to keep it up. But they jumped on board so fast. That’s what totally amazed me,” said Sweeny.
“I was pleased as punch when Andrea [Coun. Power] called me and said ‘George, we’re ready to go,” he said.
“I can’t be thankful enough for Mount Pearl and how cooperative they are… they’re a community that tends to, from my experience, look after their residents.”
Sweeny said that the project will help get him where he needs to go.
“It represents a lot of safety, and it gives me mobility like you wouldn’t believe… it means that I can get out again and go for a walk, like anyone else,” he said. “Without a signal, an auditory signal, I was taking my life in my hands,”
“That’s everybody’s right— to be able to get out and go somewhere.”
Sweeny said that he has spent as much as twenty minutes trying to cross a pedestrian cross walk; even with his white cane, people seem to simply not stop to let him cross.
Debbie Ryan is the Program lead for advocacy and public engagement with the CNIB.
She applauds the city’s willingness to take on the project, but said that there is more that municipalities can do to make communities more inclusive.
“Unfortunately, the world wasn’t built for people with disabilities. Much less those with vision loss,” said Ryan, who, like Sweeny, said that a lack of accessible, public transportation is a major concern for many residents in communities across the province.
Ryan suggested that councils consider developing inclusion advisory boards, much like the City of St. Johns has done.
“There are all kinds of barriers out there that are preventing different people from accessing different things in the community, so I think its good to have that voice of your community at your table, to advise you on whether you are actually as inclusive and accessible as you think you are,” she said.
The technology will be featured at three signalized intersections: Commonwealth Ave and Topsail Road; Commonwealth Ave and Ruth Ave; and, Commonwealth Ave and Centennial St, as well as two stop sign intersections: Commonwealth Ave and Glendale Ave, and Commonwealth Ave and St David’s Ave.
The City has secured federal funding to cover the cost of 50% of the project, leaving the cost of the town at $7,722.55.
The Key2Access technology is currently used in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Montreal, and is currently in the works for St. Johns and Paradise as well.
The pilot project will run for about a year, during which time, Key2Access will host a user feedback session led by the CNIB.