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I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the 2005 conference of the International Association of Education and Rehabilitation for the blind, newly named “Hushim (the senses). My keynote was entitled “Travel Tales” where I spoke of my worldwide travel and the attitudes, tools and techniques it takes to travel independently. I had additional sessions on GPS wayfinding, new vision restoration and an open session to talk about anything and everything. This conference was held in a hotel atop a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem run by a kibbutz, Ramat Rachel.
During and between sessions, the participants soaked up the information I had to offer and I learned a lot about issues unique to Israel. For example, accessible technology is somewhat limited by the lack of options in the Hebrew language, which is written from right to left in print but is left to right in Braille. There is only one Hebrew speech synthesizer and the screen readers were mediocre at best. It is such a small market; prospects for future development are bleak.
I was interested to hear that blind people volunteer for the army and a few are military professionals in fields like computers and translation. All sighted Israelis must serve. Services to blind people in some of the villages in turmoil have been cut off. It is challenging for instructors who have the daunting task of working with blind Arabs and Israelis around the country. In fact, some of the students have become blind from guns or bombs.
I didn’t have any sense of danger or ubiquitous security. Our hotel had a high fence around the grounds and a guard checking people at a gate. I didn’t have the chance to go in many stores but I am told that one is routinely searched at the door. However, it is a way of life and the locals seem to take it in stride.
Although there are numerous organizations for the blind, none seem to be consumer groups like ACB or NFB in the U.S. Budget cuts have reduced services although blind people enjoy a number of subsidies. 80 percent of equipment can be funded in pursuit of a job. 90% of the cost of up to two canes per year is funded. The Voice Diary is subsidized. Even some household appliances are subsidized for blind people. There are two guide dog schools in Israel, one in Tel Aviv and one in the North. I had the opportunity to visit the school in Tel Aviv and to speak to the staff. It is small relative to US schools but beautiful and nicely laid out.
I met quite a few transplanted Americans, as was my host, Shmuel Alan Siegal. He was my first mobility instructor at age 13 in California and he was instrumental in bringing me to Israel for this conference. There were plenty of English speakers but it wasn’t as widely spoken, as I would have thought. There was a simultaneous translator to and from Hebrew for the presentations. My Hebrew vocabularly has now increased from 0 to a half dozen words. I was fascinated by the language and hope to return soon to explore more of the sites and sounds of this beautiful region of the world.