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Tanisha Verdejo, a client at the Helen Keller National Center, demonstrates a specially designed keyboard that helps blind clients access the Internet. The Sands Point, N.Y., center, is leading a nationwide effort to distribute $10 million worth of high-technology equipment per year to low-income deaf and blind consumers.

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Tanisha Verdejo, a client at the Helen Keller National Center, demonstrates a specially designed keyboard that helps blind clients access the Internet. The Sands Point, N.Y., center, is leading a nationwide effort to distribute $10 million worth of high-technology equipment per year to low-income deaf and blind consumers.

Program connects deaf-blind to web

By Frank Eltman

The Associated Press

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SANDS POINT, N.Y. – Tanisha Verdejo loves to surf the Internet for online shopping deals. She chats on Facebook, learns about new recipes and enjoys sending emails to friends and family.

Verdejo, who can’t see or hear, could do none of that a year ago.

The 40-year-old New Yorker lives in a group home in Port Washington, N.Y., and is among the thousands of people with combined hearing and vision loss to have benefited from a pilot program called iCanConnect. The initiative provides low-income deaf-blind individuals with free up-to-date telecommunications devices and special training to use them.

“For me, it’s opened up my whole world,” Verdejo said through a sign language interpreter at the Helen Keller National Center.

The center and the Boston-based Perkins School for the Blind are working with state agencies and others around the country to distribute items such as refreshable Braille displays, amplified telephones and computer programs that allow for large print displays for those who are vision-impaired but not entirely blind.

Much of the equipment is compatible with Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad and connects via Bluetooth.

“Modern technology has rapidly progressed, and we are available to provide individuals with combined vision and hearing loss the best technology and telecommunications tools for their individual needs,” said Thomas J. Edwards, president of Helen Keller Services for the Blind, which has 11 regional offices around the country.

For Verdejo and others, the changes have been dramatic.

“I’m able now to access anything I want,” Verdejo said. “I mean, I have all these apps here and can see anything now. I see it through my Braille device. I’m just so thrilled and happy that I’m able to communicate with the world.”

Established by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the pilot program allocates $10 million annually for low-income deaf and blind people to get the equipment. The program, which is in the second year of a three-year study, is open to people earning less than $44,680 annually.

An estimated 2,000 people have been served by the program in its first 18 months, said Betsy McGinnity, a Perkins School spokeswoman. The program has received positive feedback, and she said she was confident it could be extended beyond the three-year study period.

Dr. Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University in Washington, said because the deaf-blind population is relatively small – about 100,000 in the United States, according to one estimate – the high-technology devices are expensive to produce. Some refreshable Braille displays – hand-held electronic devices that employ a network of tiny pins that pop up and down through holes, scrolling letters that a blind person can read – can cost as much as $6,000.

Software that enlarges text on computer screens can sometimes cost $800 to $1,000.

“There’s not a lot of profit for these companies,” Vogler said. “The equipment is very expensive and most can’t afford it.”

Other devices include amplifiers that assist those with limited hearing to know when a telephone is ringing or computer programs that accent certain colors that might assist the vision-impaired.

Applicants for the technology go through a rigorous screening process to determine what specific devices could benefit them best, said Ryan Odland, the New York coordinator of the distribution program for the Keller Center. Once accepted, they are trained in the proper ways to use the equipment; the training is tailored to each individual.

“We do not order equipment for anything other than to gain equal access to telecommunications,” Odland said. “We tend to be very thorough with our assessment to be certain what equipment our consumer wants is ideal for them.”

He said there is no financial cap on what any individual might receive.

“It’s based on their specific needs,” Odland said.

Although many of those eligible for the devices are known to officials at the Keller and Perkins facilities, the organizations are reaching out to others who might not be clients of either.

“We want to get the word out to seniors who are experiencing age-related vision and hearing issues,” said Sue Ruzenski, the acting executive director at the Keller Center.