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Lissa Thies, who works at the Woodbury Lakes AT&T Wireless store, helps state Rep. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake learn features of his mobile telephone. AT&T workers helped more than 100 visually impaired Minnesotans with their wireless telephones Thursday and Friday. Tribune photo by Don Davis

Blind learn mobile phone details

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ST. PAUL -- Torrey Westrom gave Lissa Thies a simple request: learn the basics of using his mobile telephone.

His Motorola Q is a typical smartphone, capable of surfing the Web, sending and receiving e-mails and handling text messages, besides being used as a telephone. Even to the most technically inclined, the nearly 50 keys are intimidating. To a blind person such as Westrom, the task becomes many times tougher.

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"I'm probably weeks or months away from fully using the keyboard," admitted Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican member of the Minnesota House who keeps up with legislation on computers adapted for use by the blind.

Thies was among AT&T workers who Thursday and Friday helped more than 100 blind and visually impaired Minnesotans learn more about their mobile phones, from any carrier, at the Minnesota State Services for the Blind in St. Paul.

It is the type of program that Westrom, the state's only blind legislator, has supported for others. This time, however, he had questions about how to use his Verizon telephone.

Perhaps the most important advice Thies offered was a "get out of jail button," which returned Westrom to the home screen where he could start over.

Thies, who works at AT&T Wireless' Woodbury Lakes store, at times took Westrom's finger and put it on the right button, so he could find the key later.

The one-on-one help is essential for the visually impaired to learn how to use telephones, AT&T Minnesota President Bob Bass said.

"They don't know what the options are," he added.

For Minnesotans who could not attend the Thursday and Friday help sessions, there are options.

Larry Lewis of Ohio-based Flying Blind, a company that uses technology to help the disabled, said telephone software is available to allow a phone to speak to its user, replacing the screen that sighted people use. Another program can magnify the screen for people who have partial vision.

Some who are blind just want to know how to make and receive calls. But others, like Lewis, want to make full use of their telephones. Lewis, totally blind, has more than 1,100 contacts on his smartphone, which he uses by listening to a computerized voice and moving a joy stick on the phone.

"I listen to the icons and press 'enter,'" he said.

Lewis said only about 2,000 of the 1.5 million blind Americans use mobile phone software made for them.

AT&T officials said the best thing blind people can do is to contact their local wireless provider office and set up an appointment for some one-on-one training or to contact the state-run Services for the Blind. Bass said AT&T employees provide such training because "it's a quality of life issue."

Thies said the Woodbury Lakes store has no blind customers, but some with hearing problems. The company has a toll-free telephone number for disabled people with questions about wireless service.

A telephone that allows a user to use voice commands is the best type of telephone for the blind, Thies said. Many phones offer that function.

Westrom said he received some over-the-phone training, but it did not stick. "It's a lot better hands on."

As Thies went through the options, she quickly passed over one. But Westrom wanted to know what it was. It allows the user to attach photos to telephone numbers, she replied, a bit sheepishly.

"That wouldn't do me a lot of good," deadpanned Westrom, known for delivering an occasional joke about his blindness on the House floor.

Back to the phone, Westrom finished adding a number for his father.

Thies was happy. "You did it," she exclaimed, as happy was Westrom about the accomplishment.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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