Park for visually impaired

EVERETT — Julie Warrington lost the ability to see at age 23.

The Marysville woman adjusted but navigating unfamiliar places alone can still sometimes be disorienting, even at moments terrifying.

Put yourself in her shoes: Close your eyes and try exploring a public place without any help.
The city of Everett, with support from the local Lions Club, is trying cutting-edge technology that could eventually make all kinds of public spaces easier to navigate.

Right now the new wayfinding system is available in Lions Park, located in the Pinehurst Neighborhood.

The system uses a combination of tactile maps and web-based technology to guide people around the park.

Visitors to the park call a phone number (888-617-7386) that provides instructions with a computerized voice that can be customized to wherever the caller wants to go within the 3.3-acre park. The same directions also can be downloaded to a smart phone, MP3 or text reader designed for the blind.

A sensory garden with interesting, touchable plants and accompanying signs in Braille also is in the works.

Two large maps with major landmarks marked in Braille can be found on either end of the park, too.

The technology is already being used in college campuses and in private industry. The company providing the technology said Lions Park is the first park in the nation to implement the system.
Art Ruben, a past president of the Lions Club, began asking the city to add Braille signs in the park a few years ago.

The parks department took that idea one step further, identifying the St. Paul. Minn.-based company InTouch Graphics that sells the technology.

The Lions Club, an international service organization, has a long history of advocating for the blind. Helen Keller in 1925 exhorted the Lions to be “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

They’ve done just that for decades by — just for starters — saving the sight of millions of children by providing eye screenings, glasses and other treatments.

They also started what’s now the world’s largest eye bank in Seattle, which works with hospitals to collect tissue for transplants.

This project cost $19,800. The Lions provide $3,000 in donations of that price tag. The city pays a $700 year subscription fee for the service.

There’s no reason this type of system shouldn’t be in all of Everett’s parks eventually, said Mayor Ray Stephanson, who played baseball in Lions Park as a child.

How soon that would happen is dependent on the economy and whether the public embraces the system.

“We want to see how it works,” said John Petersen, the assistant director for park planning and maintenance.

The technology may have broader applications, even for sighted people, said Victor Harris of Everett. Imagine being able to call a number from somewhere in an unfamiliar city and get step-by-step instructions.

Harris has Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects his hearing and vision. He gets around with the help of a happy-go-lucky service dog named Dolly.

He and Dolly gave the system a try Thursday morning. He called it a great investment by the city.
“With this system, I can tell where I’m at and where I want to go,” he said.

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