Disability accessible travel technology provides independence and confidence

(December 2015)

Digital StillCamera
Laila Grillo climbs Switzerland’s Mt. Altmann, in her homeland. /// photo courtesy of Laila Grillo

She can climb mountains, ski and speak four languages; but Laila Grillo could not attend language school in Ireland, because “they didn’t want a blind student.”

Others told her it was impossible to pursue a farm internship once she expressed her interest to study international agriculture, yet since then, Grillo completed two internships and is currently enrolled in her fifth semester at the Bern University of Applied Science, in Switzerland.


The 24-year-old doesn’t let people tell her what she can or cannot do, but seeks ways to work around any circumstance, instead.

“I never had a school saying we don’t accept blind students,” Grillo said. “I was sad, because I couldn’t go with my class, but at the same time I was also lucky to come to Canada.”

Grillo is fond of travel and passionate about both mountain, as well as rock climbing. She also visited Italy, France, England, Wales, Liechtenstein, Spain and eventually Ireland, scaling nine mountains and various indoor climbing walls, including those in her Swiss homeland.

At that time, she studied economics and languages to become a business employee. Currently, Grillo speaks Italian, German, French and English. During her mandatory studies in an English speaking country, she lived in Toronto with her friend, Sheila Ford.

According to Ford, all that could stand in the way of success for Grillo and others with disabilities are people, not a disability itself.

“I know this from personal experience, because of being deaf myself, there’s a huge price you pay for it,” she said. “The stress of trying to become a part of the world that you would usually be excluded from.”

Ford felt discriminated against in a previous workplace. Once a month, the business firm asked its employees to take turns filling in for the receptionist during her lunch hour. Ford was unable to answer the phone and tried to arrange for a co-worker to take her turn, in exchange for completing the other’s work.

The company said it wouldn’t be fair, was unwilling to make the accommodation and Ford lost her job. Following that, she underwent surgery to receive a cochlear implant and presently works as a corporate secretary at an investment fund.

While Grillo realized she doesn’t want to work in an office, she noticed her other friend who is blind struggling to find the same work.

“Many enterprises fear it is too much of an effort and too much of a cost and that’s something I don’t understand,” she said. “Today you have so much technology that can be adapted for use. There are institutions who help you cover it if you employ a person with a disability.”

Grillo uses screen reader software to complete her daily computer tasks. It’s a form of assistive technology that communicates with users through a text-to-speech function and identifies what is displayed on the screen, whether it’s navigating between different windows and programs, performing other commands or reading eBooks, emails and various files, such as documents.

The VoiceOver utility on her iPhone also serves as a screen reader. It is now used in conjunction with evolving navigational smart phone applications, such as BlindSquare and taught by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

“The VoiceOver utility is amazing,” CNIB Toronto Regional Manager of Service and Operations Sue Marsh-Woods said. “But then you add these apps that interface with the GPS and for somebody who doesn’t want to always rely on a sighted person to give them directions, this gives them that level of independence.”

Some of BlindSquare‘s features include shaking the phone to hear the user’s current address, describing environments, including information about the location of the nearest street intersection and surrounding venues, according to its website. It uses information gathered from FourSquare and Open Street Map.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Intelligent Transport Systems, based in England, published a report in September 2015 indicating over 80 per cent of elderly and disabled people aren’t aware of or using smart travel technology, including journey planning websites, smart phones, apps or texts that could make their lives and trips both easier and more independent.

“A great step would be to help new users overcome initial apprehension and uncertainty towards unfamiliar technology,” IET Principal Policy Advisor Sahar Danesh said. “If people have the chance to inform the elderly and disabled of the opportunities adopting these new technologies could have for them, they are helping them to become more independent and confident in their travels.”

On her next internship, Grillo dreams to work on a development project in Nepal.

“I read a lot about this country and that would be the perfect opportunity to go there,” she said. “Also because it’s in the Himalayas and I could discover the mountains there.”

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