Banner: Iowa Department for the Blind

White Cane Update

January 2007

Published and distributed by the Iowa Department for the Blind
Allen C. Harris, Director  ~  Karen Keninger, Editor

Members of the Commission:

Chairperson Julie Scurr, Coralville

Doug Elliott, Grinnell
Behnaz Soulati, Des Moines

Table of Contents

From the Director
Education of Iowa's Blind Children Undergoing Revision
Iowa's First Braille Challenge
Student Profile: Lauren Thomson & The 2006 Braille Challenge
TV Listings Now Available on Newsline
Imagine an Independent Lifestyle with Vision Loss
Technology in the Workplace: A Blessing and a Curse for the Blind
Friends Make First Gift to Library
Library Celebrates 75 Years of NLS Service
2007 SSA Changes and Amounts
Library Focuses on Health Issues
Wellmark Grant Supports New Recording Equipment
New Locations for B.E.P.
Attention All Woodworkers

From the Director

By Allen C. Harris

As I take this opportunity to write about the IDB from my perspective, I begin by observing that we are fast winding up 2006!! Also, I am reminded that I have been the Director of IDB for more than five years and in so many ways "it seems both longer and impossible" that this is so.

On December 11, we signed a contract with the architecture firm, which will manage the renovation of third and fourth floors of our headquarters building. This renovation will begin in the first quarter of 2007. A primary focus of this renovation is the infrastructure of the building, including the heating, air conditioning, ventilation, electrical, and mechanical systems. We will also modernize the office space in the Library, Field Operations, and the Orientation Center's third floor classrooms.  When this project is completed, we will have updated virtually all of our headquarters building.  The project is expected to take a year or more to complete and will require us to make some temporary changes to accommodate the work. Our plan is to continue the same high level of service throughout the renovation period. Watch future issues of the White Cane Update for progress reports.

We've had a busy fall. The Pathfinders program is in its fourth year, with 20 pairs of mentors and pathfinders currently participating. With our partners at Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, we jointly hosted employers' luncheon and symposium. This was the first in a series of activities to enhance employment opportunities for blind and disabled Iowans.

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Library of Congress's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Also, we had the first program hosted by the Friends of the Iowa Library for the Blind, a very well received event. We have added three new businesses to our Randolph Sheppard program. The most exciting part of this is that we have won competitive bids in private business locations for our vendors. With the help of the Wellmark Foundation, we are upgrading all of our in-home narrators to digital equipment as part of our commitment to excellence in that area. Tim West has helped plan and execute this project with skill and effectiveness. We have continued to expand the number and location of our Community Training Opportunities, which provide initial attitude and skill training for older Blind Iowans.  Note the training series in Ames coming in February.

Meanwhile, our staffing level has dropped to 92--the lowest it has been in forty years. In spite of this, we continue to seek the most efficient and effective ways we can to provide the highest possible levels of service. We are determined to find efficient ways to make good on our mission as the Department for the Blind and on our commitment to each individual with whom we work.

With warmest wishes for a peaceful, healthy, and fulfilling New Year, Joy and I thank everyone who has supported the IDB over the past year and ask for your continuing support as we meet the many challenges of 2007.

Education of Iowa's Blind Children Undergoing Revision

The system for educating blind children in Iowa is undergoing revisions, which will increase the levels of service to all blind children across the state and thereby improve their overall education.

For the past 25 years or more, most blind children have been educated in their local school districts with the assistance of classroom aides and itinerant teachers of the visually impaired. This model was developed to allow blind children to stay at home and be educated with their siblings and neighbors in local schools. The itinerant teacher was expected to travel from school to school, working with children who needed help with Braille, travel, and other blindness skills. Students would receive all of their academic instruction from regular classroom teachers. Although the plan made sense when it was implemented, inequities arose in service provision across the state. These inequities were directly related to an uneven distribution of teachers and blind students, a lack of coordination and standards across the state, and impossible caseloads for teachers. Some teachers ended up spending as much as 50 percent of their time driving from one student to another across less populated areas of Iowa.

After two years of study by two different advisory groups, the players in the field are developing plans to standardize service provision and outcomes for blind and visually impaired students in Iowa.

The Department's role in the education of blind children in Iowa takes two distinct forms. First of all, the Library's Instructional Materials Center provides all Braille and recorded books and related materials to students who need them. Along with the textbooks, the Library offers a full array of Braille, recorded, and large type books as well as described videos for children. These resources are used for reading enrichment during the school year and for summer activities. The Library also sponsors a summer reading club each summer to encourage students to practice their reading during vacation times. It is generally understood that if a student does no reading for extended periods of time, such as when school is out, he or she may very well lose ground in reading proficiency and comprehension by the time school starts again in the fall.

The Department's second responsibility is to help students transition from school to work. This process generally begins when the student is between age 14 and age 16. The Department has a variety of programs for these students.

The Department's roles complement those of the Iowa Braille School, the Iowa Department of Education, area education agencies, and the local school districts. Initiatives at several levels are building stronger bonds among these organizations in order to provide students with the best possible educations.

"We are committed to excellence," says Allen Harris, IDB Director. "Our agenda is to become part of a single system in Iowa where blind and visually impaired children have access to excellence at every level. They will have the same chance for an excellent and appropriate education as everyone else who lives in Iowa."

The Iowa Braille School is taking a leading role in coordinating and overseeing basic services such as those provided by teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility instructors. The School is also exploring options for additional enrichment and educational opportunities statewide.

The results of these efforts will be a richer and more evenly distributed array of services across the state, and better opportunities for all blind and visually impaired youngsters.

Iowa's First Braille Challenge

By Gail Stricker

For the first time ever, Iowa students will be able to participate in a unique academic competition. The students will take part in the first annual Iowa Braille Challenge competition February 24, 2007, from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Braille Challenge competition is part of a national program from the Braille Institute of America, Inc. The Iowa Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped, the Iowa Braille School, and the Iowa Agenda Goal 7 committee are collaborating to make this new competition memorable and fun. Please encourage your students to participate in this unique opportunity.

During the competition, students will compete in five challenging categories, including reading comprehension, Braille spelling, chart and graph reading, proofreading, and Braille speed and accuracy. Students will be divided into five groups based on their grades in school. The apprentice group includes grades 1 and 2; the freshman group includes grades 3 and 4; the sophomore group includes grades 5 and 6; the junior group includes grades 7, 8, and 9; and the varsity group includes grades 10, 11, and 12. The Braille Challenge is a two-part contest. Students from across the U.S. and Canada testing in the preliminary round are competing for the 60 spots available in the national competition. The Iowa Braille Challenge is the first step on the road to the national competition that will be held in Los Angeles this summer.

Student Profile: Lauren Thomson & The 2006 Braille Challenge

By Carol Eckey

Eight-year-old Lauren Thomson lives in Adel, Iowa, and is a second grader at Earlham Elementary School. Despite her young age, she has already had some amazing experiences. From all outward appearances, she’s just an ordinary schoolgirl with one sister, Emma, and a big German shepherd dog named Britta. When not eating her favorite foods–macaroni and cheese and hot dogs–she’s often found riding her bike, swimming, playing on her swing set, ice skating, dancing, playing the piano, or with her Brownie group. This winter, she’s going to try skiing for the first time.

Lauren likes school. Her favorite subjects are math and P.E. She enjoys all aspects of school and learning with her classroom teacher, Mrs. Gimm. Lauren was born blind. She started learning Braille at age 3 ½ and is now extremely competent! Lauren receives all of her textbooks in Braille from the Instructional Materials Center at the Iowa Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped. Her Braille teacher, Chris Short, encourages her to excel–and excel she has!

Last winter, Mrs. Short suggested that Lauren take a test, which compared her Braille skills with others in the United States and Canada. Lauren did so well on the test that she was invited to compete in a national Braille competition last summer in Los Angeles. In a recent interview with Lauren, she had this to say about her experience.

Question: Last winter you took a test, which measured your Braille skills. You did very well on this test! In fact, you scored among the top 60 students in the United States and Canada, making you eligible to compete in the National Braille Challenge competition last summer in Los Angeles. The Braille Challenge is a national program of the Braille Institute of America. Tell us a little about this contest.

Answer: “The contest was hard and tiring, but it was really fun and exciting too. I liked flying to Los Angeles and staying in the hotel. Los Angeles was fun too. We went to the ocean and to Universal City for dinner. The kids at my school were proud of me.”
Question: The Braille Challenge test is divided into five sections: Braille speed and accuracy, reading speed and comprehension, Braille spelling, proofreading, and chart and graph reading. How did you prepare for the test? What section did you like best?
Answer: “I was in the apprentice group for first and second graders. We only did editing, reading comprehension, and spelling. I prepared by practicing spelling words and reading. I also practiced not winning, so I wouldn’t be sad if I didn’t win. I liked the spelling best and then editing.”

Question: For the very first time, Iowa is planning to host an Iowa Regional Braille Challenge competition on Saturday, February 24, 2007, in Ames. This contest is designed for all Iowa students who read Braille or are learning Braille. It will be an exciting day, with prizes and special guests. The top scorers in this preliminary competition will advance to the national round. Do you think it will be fun for Iowa to have its own competition? Do you think other students would enjoy this contest too? What advice would you give other students competing for the first time?

Answer: “I think it will be fun to have a contest so close to home. I think others will have fun doing it. I would tell others not to be nervous, have fun, and just do your best.”
Looking back on Lauren’s experience in Los Angeles last summer, Lauren’s mother made this comment: “When we attended the Braille Challenge, we had no idea what to expect. It was truly a wonderful experience. The Braille Institute made us feel like royalty and treated the kids amazingly. It really was a once in a lifetime experience. I honestly hope we get to go back because it is such an amazing opportunity for the kids, and Lauren had such a wonderful time.”

TV Listings Now Available on Newsline

TV listings are now available on Newsline. Each listing contains the channel, time, program title, a brief description of the program, rating information, and whether the program is described.

After a one-time, brief set up which asks for your zip code and the source of your TV signal (antenna, cable, satellite, etc.), you can hear complete listings for your area. You can hear all the programs for a specific time slot by pressing the 3 key. After you've selected a specific station with the 3 key, you can use the 6 key to hear the programming on that station for the rest of the day and beyond.

Newsline is a telephone-based information service, which allows you to listen to over 240 newspapers, 7 magazines, and now the TV listings by calling a toll-free number. Iowa newspapers include daily and Sunday papers from Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities, and Mason City, along with the Associated Press wire feed for Iowa. Magazines include AARP, The New Yorker, The Economist, and Diabetes Self-Management.

For more information, or to subscribe to Newsline, call the Library at 800-362-2587.

Imagine an Independent Lifestyle with Vision Loss

An Educational Event for Seniors

Tuesdays in March: 6, 13, 20 & 27
2:00- 4:00 PM

Heartland Senior Services
205 S. Walnut
Ames, Iowa

Questions? Interested?
Call: 800-362-2587, ext. 1242
RSVP required by February 26

Technology in the Workplace: A Blessing and a Curse for the Blind

By Curtis Chong

Most jobs in the 21st century involve the use of technology in one form or another. Perhaps the most ubiquitous technology used in corporate offices today is the desktop computer. At work, we use the computer to send and receive email, create documents and slide presentations, prepare budgets and other spreadsheets, conduct research over the Internet, and manage vast quantities of critical information on behalf of our employer and our employer's customers. Some of the programs we use at work are the same ones we use at home. These might include Microsoft Word, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. However, oftentimes our jobs require us to operate other programs that have been developed within the company specifically to make the task of information management and retrieval more efficient for its employees.

With the computer, a blind person can read electronic documents and email messages, and the task of finding information is often made easier because the information that is needed can be found on the Web. Also, with the right blend of assistive technology, many printed documents can be converted into a format that is easier to read without sight. This is the blessing of technology in the workplace.

However, there is a dark side to this discussion of technology. It involves those programs that employers ask you to use that do not work well with assistive technology for the blind.

Consider email, which many blind people use today. Most of us who send and receive email at home use a program called Outlook Express, which is provided on all computers running Microsoft Windows.

However, most companies do not use Outlook Express. We are lucky if they use Outlook, which is a program that is accessible to the blind that comes with the Microsoft Office suite of software. If we are not so lucky, an employer may be using Lotus Notes, GroupWise, or some other program for email. If Lotus Notes or GroupWise is used, steps can be taken to make these programs mostly accessible to a blind person. However, if some other email package has been selected, then the very real possibility exists that it cannot be used with screen reading software, and in that case, email will not be accessible at work.

This problem extends to other programs as well--in particular, those programs that have been developed by the corporation for the benefit of its employees. For example, in customer service, it is typical for companies to use an internally developed set of programs, and it is often the case that these programs work poorly or not at all with the technology used by the blind. This means that the job cannot be carried out by a blind person using a screen reading program.

Another technological hurdle that is now becoming more apparent is the desire by many companies to scan documents, digitize them, and make them available electronically through a large corporate data storage and retrieval system. The storage system contains pictures of scanned documents. If your job requires you to examine documents that have been stored electronically, you might be able to analyze the image of the document with a print-reading system that ordinarily converts print into speech, but if the document then turns out to contain a lot of handwritten information, the only way to get at it is with the help of a sighted reader.

So, while technology has, in many instances, improved the ability of the blind to handle information independently, it has also created obstacles to employment--obstacles that seem to be getting worse as more and more companies develop their own software and store document images electronically. We are fortunate in that throughout the land, there seems to be a growing desire to pass laws that either encourage or require equal access to electronic and information technology by people with disabilities. In states such as Minnesota, Maryland, and Arkansas, laws exist on the books prohibiting state purchasing agents from buying software that cannot be used with nonvisual access technology. At the federal level, Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act requires that federal agencies must ensure that the electronic and information technology they buy is accessible to people with disabilities unless an undue burden exists. In connection with this law, a thorough review is currently under way to modernize the accompanying regulations. This gives rise to some hope.

For those of us in Iowa who are working hard to secure employment opportunities for blind Iowans, the technology situation currently seems bleak. However, we will continue to do what we have always done: work with employers to educate them about the true capabilities of the blind, tackle those technology problems that can be solved, focus a lot of our energy and resources on the provision of quality training in the use of the computer by blind Iowans, and push for stronger laws that require equal access for the blind.

Friends Make First Gift to Library

On December 1, Louise Duvall, President, and JoAnn Slayton, Secretary, of the Friends of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped presented the Friends' first donation to the Library in the form of a check for $950. The funds will be used for two projects.

The first is to purchase a machine to play interlibrary-loaned books from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). RFB&D is distributing all new materials on specially formatted compact discs (CDs), which require a specialized CD player. This will allow the Library to continue using the interlibrary loan program with RFB&D to fulfill occasional patron requests.

The second project is to purchase software for our volunteer Braillists to allow them to do graphic drawings on their computers. This will be very helpful for those doing math textbooks and other materials, which require raised-line drawings. The drawings will be reproduced at the Department using either swell paper or an embossing process. Both of these projects will directly impact Library patrons.
If you are interested in contacting the Friends group, you can write to them at Friends of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, PO Box 93046, Des Moines, IA 50393, or call Louise Duvall at 515-276-0807. You can also email the Friends at

Library Celebrates 75 Years of NLS Service

On September 29, the Library and the Friends of the Library celebrated the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) with a line-up of authors, entertainers, food, and tours. The day began at noon with the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. The audience enjoyed the wry and provocative humor of one of America's greatest storytellers, convincingly delivered by Bryan Healy of Newton, Iowa. Later that afternoon, Tim Bascom, an Iowa author, read from his memoir Chameleon Days, recounting his childhood in Ethiopia as the son of medical missionaries. His accounts of boarding school resonated with many audience members who recalled their own experiences at schools for the blind. In the evening, the Friends hosted Donald Harstad, a well-known mystery writer living in northeast Iowa. Harstad provided a very entertaining program, reading from his books and commenting on his writing career. All three presentations were recorded and rebroadcast on IRIS. The Friends held a reception after Mr. Harstad's program to introduce the organization and provide refreshments to the audience.
The Library also offered A Treasury of Talking Books to all patrons attending the event.

Bascom's book is being recorded for the Library. Several of Harstad's books are already available, and the Library has a good selection of Mark Twain in Braille and on cassette.

2007 SSA Changes and Amounts

By Shan Sasser

Listed below are the 2006 and 2007 amounts for Social Security Disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Columns in the table follow in this order: Program; 2006 amount; 2007 amount.

Social Security Disability (SSDI)
Amounts; 2006; 2007 Benefit Amount--
COLA raise; 4.1%; 3.3%

Medicare Premium Part B; $88.50; $93.50 [*Note: If your income is above $80,000 (single) or $160,000 (married couple), then your Medicare Part B premium may be higher than $93.50 per month.]

Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), Non-Blind; $860/mo; $900/mo

Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), Blind; $1,450/mo; $1,500/mo

Trial Work Period (TWP)--trigger; $620/mo; $640/mo

Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
2006; 2007
Individual; $603/mo; $623/mo
Couple; $904/mo; $934/mo

SSI Student Exclusion Limits, Monthly Limit; $1,460; $1,510/mo

SSI Student Exclusion Limits, Annual Limit; $5,910; $6,100

Library Focuses on Health Issues

Do you have health-related materials you'd like to have recorded? Pamphlets from your doctor's office? Inserts from medications? Medical insurance policies? A book or magazine on a health-related topic? A magazine article someone clipped for you? A newsletter from a health-related organization?
With the help of the Wellmark Foundation, we are conducting a project focusing on health literacy for Iowans who cannot read standard print. We are looking for printed materials on a whole range of health-related topics, which you would like to read. Please contact Beth Hirst at 800-362-2587 with your requests and suggestions.

Wellmark Grant Supports New Recording Equipment

This fall the Wellmark Foundation made a grant of $59,000 to the Library to replace all of our in-home recording equipment with new, state-of-the-art digital recording machines, new microphones, stands, and headsets. The initial goal of the project is to increase our capacity to record health-related information of all kinds for our patrons. In addition, we will be able to produce significantly higher-quality materials with our in-home narrators. The digital recorders allow our narrators to make corrections easily and without leaving a trace. The overall sound quality will also be vastly superior to that produced in recent years by our cassette recorders. We will continue producing these recordings on cassette, but will also keep the digital files so that when the NLS digital talking book machines become available, we will have the option to produce them in the new digital format as well.

As part of the grant project, we will be recording an expanded number of books and magazines on health-related topics. We will also be able to record more personal health-related material than ever before. If you have health-related items you would like to have recorded--anything from your prescription inserts to instructions for medical equipment or a book on alternative and complementary medicine--contact Beth Hirst at 800-362-2587, Ext. 1-1280.

The in-home recording program complements our new in-studio program, which was also supported initially from a $5,000 grant from Wellmark. With these two approaches to recording and some 70 volunteers who record and monitor for us, we are significantly upgrading the quality of our locally produced recorded materials.

New Locations for B.E.P.

By Roger Erpelding

The Business Enterprises Program has been busy scouting out new locations, and landing a few of them as well.

1. Area Education Agency 267. On October 24, 2006, we began vending service at A.E.A. 267 in Cedar Falls. Loren Wakefield is our assigned blind manager. Service consists of snacks, coffee, and pop in two buildings.
2. On November 30, 2006, our vending service began at in Sergeant Bluff. Jon Buffington is our assigned blind manager. This firm deals with telemarketing, and now has 500 employees. Service will be fully operational by December 8. Service includes pop, snack, cold food, and an office coffee service. Further expansion is planned by, and if this planning comes to fruition, we will be expanding food service accordingly.
3. On December 20, 2006, our vending service began at Iowa Public Television in Johnston. Matthew VerHuel is our assigned blind manager. Again, we will be offering snack and pop service in two buildings.

Attention All Woodworkers

Woodworking for the Blind Inc. now provides free digital MP3 compact disc recordings of current woodworking publications exclusively for the use of blind and visually impaired woodworkers.

Voice recordings of Fine Woodworking® magazine, Woodwork® magazine, Woodsmith® magazine, Woodworking® magazine, and American Woodworker® magazine are available as CDs in MP3 format shortly after the current issues of the magazines become available. All recordings include the full text of woodworking articles on techniques and design, how-to-build-it articles, tips, tool reviews, shop methods, finishing advice, woodworker profiles, and other general features. Recordings include general descriptions of the many photos, illustrations, and plans that accompany the magazine articles.

Recordings can be sent only to members. Membership is free, and if you are a registered Library borrower, you are eligible. CDs will be mailed as regular mail to members in the United States and Canada as free matter for the blind and handicapped.  CDs will be mailed, as regular mail to members in other countries, but recordings are available only in English.

Woodworking for the Blind currently is able to offer CDs of recorded magazines free of charge and hopes to be able to raise sufficient funds to continue the free service.  Contributions to support our work are always welcome.

For further information or for a membership application, contact  or write to them at Woodworking for the Blind, 21585 Sylvander Drive, Deer Park, IL 60010.

Return to Issue Index.

Return to Newsletter page.

WHITE CANE UPDATE is published by the Iowa Department for the Blind. Please direct questions and suggestions to the Iowa Department for the Blind, 524 Fourth Street, Des Moines, IA 50309-2364, 515-281-1333.