Blind Sailor Gets Help From Shore

When Ed Gallagher decides to go sailing, he doesn’t rely on anyone else on the boat to help him control the sails or steer in the right direction.  He simply grabs his guide dog, Genoa, and hops in the boat.  But not without grabbing a few key accessories first.  He’d be lost at sea without his specially-designed glasses with a camera built in and his laptop.  While he is on the boat running it solo, he does receive help from the land, made possible through the wonders of wifi.  His captain, the man on land playing what is essentially a very real video game, is his friend, Herb Meyer.

When Ed wants to go sailing, he calls up Herb and they connect wirelessly.  Herb can see what Ed is looking at through the camera on his glasses and gives directions, telling Ed to tack left or right, to guide him along the way.  Herb is a sailor himself, though his is relegated to a wheelchair after a sailing accident left him without the ability to walk.

Ed’s overall goal isn’t just to focus on sailing, though.  Instead, he envisions an entire network devoted to help guide blind people through their everyday lives using the technology that he has utilized to not only sail, but drive a car through the Rocky Mountains, fire pistols, try his aim with a bow and arrow, and even do repairs to his home.  All of these tasks have been completed with help from miles away as they watched through a computer screen to help Ed.

Other’s can’t help but agree that technology is a great thing for people with visual impairment.  According to Mark Richert, the director of public policy for the AFB, “Technology is a tremendous liberator for people with vision loss and most people with disabilities.”

Ed’s system is not fool proof though.  He was severely injured last year during a skiing accident using the same system.  It took him months to recover.  His system also gives rise to concern from people who feel that systems like his would encourage the blind community to depend on these helper networks to go about their daily lives instead of learning independence skills and taking care of themselves on their own.  “I fear that they will think having someone sighted see for you is the only solution to blindness,” said Bryan Bashin, chief executive of San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind.

No matter which side of the argument you find yourself, his project, named Genoa Services–for which his dog is named after–is gaining steam and he is receiving donated equipment from companies like Logitech.  Ed is also in the process of applying for a federal grant.

What do you think about Ed’s system?  Let us know in the Reader’s Forum.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, September 14, 2010.  The title is “Remote Control: A Blind Man Sails With Help From Afar.”

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