WINTHROP (AP) – Jim King is blind, but that doesn’t keep him from navigating while his wife drives them in their car.

King owns a Global Positioning System device designed for blind people that tells him in a computerized voice which streets, restaurants, parks, public buildings and other points are coming up along his route.

The device can give directions to a particular location or simply tell King where he is, whether it’s Sully’s restaurant and bar in Winthrop or a village along the Iditarod Trail in Alaska, which King traveled last winter.

King is spreading the word about GPS technology because he says it represents a significant leap in helping blind and visually impaired people lead more independent lives. He has a lot of people to reach – 1.3 million Americans are legally blind but fewer than 1,000 of the GPS units are on the market.

“I want to let people know you don’t have to sit in your living room and let the world pass you by,” King said.

King, 48, grew up with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable disease that destroys the retina and optic nerve, slowly reducing vision until total blindness occurs. He totally lost his sight in his 30s.

To get around, King uses a cane and a golden retriever guide dog named Spencer. He also uses a device called a BrailleNote GPS, which is manufactured by Pulse Data HumanWare of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Pulse Data and VisuAide, a Montreal company that makes a model called Trekker, are the major manufacturers of GPS devices for the blind. They sell from roughly $1,595 for a Trekker to more than $5,000 for the most expensive BrailleNote.

Between them, the companies say they have sold fewer than 1,000 units.

As King demonstrates, his device – which weighs just a few pounds and straps over his shoulder – can transform routine tasks like walking to the store that others who can see take for granted.

Walking down Main Street, his BrailleNote tells King where he is, or he can program it to give him directions. Along the way, it identifies streets and points of interest that are programmed into it. The voice comes out of a speaker, or King can listen through earphones.

The machine also tells him what direction he is going (southwest), his elevation (311 feet) and the zip code (04364). It can tell him how fast he is walking, how far he has to go to his destination, and his longitude and latitude.

His model also functions as a computer, with a word processor, calendar, appointment book, Internet browser, e-mail and a calculator.

Although he can’t see, King still travels extensively, canoes and kayaks, rides bicycles and skis. Before moving to Maine two years ago, he was executive director of the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

In February, King and seven other people traveled Alaska’s Iditarod Trail by snowmobile and stopped in villages to promote the Iditarod National Millennium Trail nonprofit organization and GPS technology for the blind. Along the way, King recorded trail information on the device’s software; he used information already on the device to get around in the villages.

Of course, most blind people would likely use GPS for more conventional trips – not for traveling rugged terrain in subzero temperatures and whipping snow. Nationwide, the database for the BrailleNote has more than 700,000 places programmed into it, and users can program additional places.

GPS technology is still in its infancy, but is becoming more accurate and smaller every year, said Joe Lazzaro, author of “Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments” and director of the Adaptive Technology for the Blind program for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.

GPS systems can help the blind feel more connected to the world around them, he said. When Lazzaro and his wife drive places, GPS tells him the things his wife sees, like restaurants, gas stations, golf courses and other things that are passing by.

“I think they’re really changing the lives of a lot of people,” he said. “People are using them for mobility, but they also give you the ability to look around your area, so as you’re exploring you learn there’s a movie theater over there, a Burger King down the road and where there’s a Wal-Mart.”

Jay Leventhal, editor-in-chief of AccessWorld, an online technology magazine of the American Foundation for the Blind, said GPS illustrates just how much technology can assist blind people. Leventhal and another editor are now testing Trekker and BrailleNote machines for a future article.

Still, the machines aren’t perfect. They have the same level of imprecision as any GPS system, don’t function indoors and their hefty price tags limit how many people can afford them.

“If you’re talking about selling hundreds of units instead of millions, it keeps costs high,” Leventhal said.

King hopes that governmental and nonprofit agencies will help blind people buy the devices, and he regularly gives demonstrations to those who will listen.

“There’s never been anything in the past that’s been this useful,” he said.

On the Net:

Pulse Date HumanWare:


American Foundation for the Blind:

AP-ES-07-05-04 1332EDT

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