Talking menus improve life


POSTED: Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A lightweight device could make Hawaii restaurants and other businesses, hospitals and government agencies more accessible to more customers, patients and clients.

Imagine that you are blind or visually impaired with a guide dog or cane, and you go to a restaurant where the server hands you a menu.

Imagine that you can neither speak nor read English, and no one at a restaurant, hotel, government office or hospital can understand what you need or want.

Imagine you are a prosecutor, and the most heinous criminal ever encountered will be freed because they were not Mirandized in a language they understand.

Landa Phelan, longtime advocate for the blind and visually impaired, is the local account executive for Florida-based Menus That Talk and Tours That Talk and is introducing them to Hawaii.

“;The state needs it,”; she said. “;I want to make things better today for tomorrow.”;

Pronounced “;LAWN-da,”; her first name is short for Yolanda.

Her calm, soft voice betrays the strength that has burgeoned in the 14 years since the onset of her blindness due to wet macular degeneration, involving retinal bleeding.

“;Being blind has been rewarding because I've learned to be humble, and I'm not so judgmental of people. I don't judge them by their clothes, their hair. ... I just listen to them ... and I see inside them. I see clearer, I think.”;

The devices, about the size of a DVD case, play audio according to which labeled area of its surface is pressed.

It was a restaurant experience that led to its invention by Susan Perry and electronics-savvy friend Richard Herbst, now her vice president, based in Florida.

Given talking greeting cards, she mulled talking menus. She and Herbst set about trying to “;figure out the most intuitive way for the equipment to operate,”; using Braille and multiple languages, she said.

Available almost two years, they are in restaurants, police departments and attractions.

Push the drinks button to hear choices; the appetizer button for dishes and prices; etc.

A pullout earphone gives hearing-impaired users playback privacy and interfaces with Telecoil-equipped hearing aids.

Another button sets lights to blinking, beckoning the server to take the order.

Star-Bulletin photographer Craig Kojima also lit up about the prospect of getting shots of blinky lights, as shown with Phelan.

Businesses' accountants could light up, given the 50 percent federal Americans with Disabilities Act tax credit. Restaurants with fewer than 30 full-time employees and less than $1 million in annual revenue are eligible, Perry said.

The cost varies but is generally about $3,500.

Professional voice actors record the audio, which can be easily updated online.

Local restaurants might request local talent, given the many former radio personalities needing work.

Note to Jimmy Buffett: Celebrity owners might further brand their eateries by recording their own menus.

Tours That Talk units are used at Miami Metro Zoo through a revenue-sharing program.

“;The patrons love it,”; said Alain Capiro, public facilities manager.

They provide more information than the signs sighted guests read as they walk around.

“;Kids from 4 to adult can use it,”; and they are durable and easy to maintain.

Employees wipe them clean and change the foam headphone covers between users—and the units stack into a bracket that plugs into a wall, charging all units simultaneously.

“;I believe it's going to catch on at other parks, museums”; and other attractions, he said.


Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Reach her by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).