‘I cannot drive anymore but I'm waiting for the Google car'

Joe Cauchi

Joe Cauchi

How does a visually impaired person adept to new circumstances without becoming dependent on others? Kristina Chetcuti finds out how NGO Advice helps these people reach self-sufficiency by incorporating new technology into their lives.

Imagine waking up in the morning not being able to read the newspaper anymore. Imagine having breakfast and being unable to read what’s on your cereal box. Imagine not being able to make a cup of tea to go with your cereal. Imagine getting into your car but knowing you cannot drive it anymore.

This is the daily life of someone whose eyesight is ebbing away.

Joe Cauchi, from Marsascala is 62. Seven years ago he suffered a stroke, which left him with a severe visual impairment, forcing him to give up even his teaching.

“As an English language teacher, books were my life, my hobby, my work. All of a sudden, I could not even read the newspaper,” he says.

His new, sudden restrictions hit him on the day he had to stop driving.

“That was one of the most difficult days of my life,” he says.

From then on he realised that, to be able to have some form of quality of life, as opposed to being constantly dependent on people, he needed to resort to technology.

As an English language teacher, books were my life, my hobby, my work. All of a sudden, I could not even read the newspaper

His family helped with the research but, in Malta there are no shops where you can buy specific technological equipment for the visually impaired. He travelled to London, with his wife Joyce, to try things out and to purchase a few items which made his new life easier – such as talking kitchen scales, special glasses, a print reader.

“Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to go abroad for their needs. And, more importantly, many people with visual impairment are not even aware that there is a lot of equipment out there that can help,” he says.

Not only that, but partially-sighted people will have to rummage through catalogues or search the internet to find assistive devices and then, they have to purchase blindly, if you will forgive the pun, sometimes forking out thousands of euro for a piece of equipment which they would not have had the opportunity to handle before buying.

“These assistive devices are costly and not easy to use without proper guidance. So you might end up getting something which is not what you really needed,” he says.

This was the start of Advice, an association that aims to provide assistive devices for the visually impaired, and Joe is its president.

Given the high-tech nature of these devices, the organisation teamed up with the Foundation of IT Accessibility (FITA), which is based in Blata l-Bajda, and set up a centre point where assistive items, bought by means of fundraising, are displayed and can be tested by those who need them.

It is estimated there are 14,000 visually impaired people in Malta.

In Malta, the two most common factors for visual impairment are diabetes – of which there is a high incidence – and glaucoma. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 26,000 people with eyesight problems.

It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 26,000 people in Malta with eyesight problems

Visual impairment does not only change the life of the person afflicted but also their immediate family, relatives and friends. Joe’s wife, Joyce says: “It was a trauma for me and for our children as much as it was for Joe.”

Her life changed all of a sudden as, in some ways, Joe had to become dependent on her.

“It becomes a constant struggle for me not to become overprotective,” she says.

Visual impairment affects more than sight, she explains. It is a multi-faceted disability, asan individual’s autonomy is slowly eaten up.

“Which is why it’s very easy then for people to suffer from depression and isolation.”

Advice aims to support these people in a way that allows them to continue to be self-sufficient and independent. Fita CEO Stanley Debono explained how they will help by giving demonstrations and advice to clients. “They will then be able to make up their mind whether to purchase the devices, after trying them out,” he says.

Fita’s ICT trainer, Michael Micallef, is at hand to train people in how to use the technological devices. “Michael is a great example of what you can achieve through technology,” says Stanley.

He went completely blind in his early 20s, but did not let that get in his way – in fact he has recently finished a diploma in IT. “Training and knowledge reduce fear,” Michael says as he feels his way around a VictorReader – a book reader – and shows me how to use it.

He also trained Joe in using the internet by means of audio and Joe can now read the paper headlines. The two tease each other about the voice they choose to read out the online text for them. “Joe prefers a woman’s voice; the voice I chose is robotic and fast.” In the last 20 years, Michael has taught over a hundred individuals with visual impairment.

Among the devices he shows people are the Prodigi, which allows the magnification of any book; the user can also choose to have the book read out to him with just a single tap of the finger. There’s the Prodigi tablet, which comes in particularly handy at the supermarket to read out the items that visually impaired people will not be able to read. There’s the BrailleNote Apex, which gives access to webpages and downloading emails.

But there are other things that, perhaps, we take for granted: such as a chess game, playing cards and a liquid level indicator. “This is ingenious – it starts bleeping when the water is about to reach the edge of the rim … which means I can make a cup of tea without scalding myself nowadays,” Joe says.

He then speaks of the poetry he is reading and how often he goes back to On His Blindness, by John Milton.

“God knows how many times I used to read it out to my students – who would have known that I’d be going through what he describes myself. He says, with heaviness, that now he “cannot see the sun anymore, I can just feel it.”

But he does not wallow for long. He may not be able to drive anymore, he says, but the technology around him has given him hope. “I cannot wait for the self-driving google car now.”

Blind numbers
• According to the WHO in the EU there are about 30 million visually impaired people.
• 3.3 per cent of Europeans are visually impaired, 10 per cent of whom are blind.
• Due to ageing populations, the UK’s Royal National Institute of the Blind predicts a percentage increase of five per cent by 2050

What is Advice?
Advice is made up of eight committee members, four of whom are visually impaired. “It’s important that there is a balance,” said Mark Cilia La Corte, who is responsible for the NGO’s communications and fund raising. Any money raised goes towards the purchasing of display devices.

He stresses that Advice is not a club, and its eight members are after getting service users. “Providing assistance, access to information and advocacy gives the visually impaired added functionality and the ability to live independent lives,” Mark says.

Advice is partnering with existing agencies already providing care for the visually impaired community the eventual goal of the association is to evolve in conjunction with the existing organisations.

For more information contact Joseph Tabone on [email protected] or 99432714

Contribute to Advice by calling: 51602050 - €5; 51702051 - €10; 51902053 - €25
Or SMS: 50619287 - €11.65
Or send a cheque to: Advice, 70, triq Ghaxqet il-Ghajn, Marsaskala MSK 1405

This story appeared in last weekend's edition of The Sunday Circle


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