For a woman who has summited mountains, trekked the Grand Canyon, paddled alpine waters, and inspired countless lives, a bus stop seems like an unlikely obstacle.
And yet, it was. Nancy Stevens and Abbie, her guide dog, were on their way to a concert in downtown Bend, OR. They stood waiting for the bus, but it was dark out, and there were no street lights. The bus driver couldn’t see Nancy and Abbie. Nancy couldn’t see the bus. And by the time she heard it drive by, it was too late.
AN EXPLORER FROM THE START
Blind from birth, Nancy started using a cane at the age of 6 and taking buses at the age of 10. Thanks to mobility instruction all throughout school, she developed the skills she’d need to cross streets, navigate residential and downtown areas, and tackle busy intersections.
Nancy looks back and expresses such gratitude for the role her parents played in preparing her for a life of independence and adventure. “My parents were big advocates of me. We camped as a family – and hiked and biked and canoed. We all started cross country skiing when I was 12.”
At the age of 23, Nancy landed in Winter Park, CO and began ski racing. Her time in Colorado held countless life-shaping memories, including competing in the 1998 Winter Paralympics in Nagano in cross country skiing, taking up rock climbing, and – oddly enough – finding herself unable to cross a busy intersection in Denver one day.
6-lanes across. Cars flying by and turning. Nancy just couldn’t figure out the street. So she turned to the woman standing next to her. “I asked her if she could help me get across the street, and so I took her arm and we crossed.”
Once they reached the bus stop, the woman turned to her and said, “You know, it’s really funny you asked me to help you.” Nancy, confused, asked why that was. “Well, I have my seeing-eye dog with me,” replied the woman, who was also blind.
Nancy had long been hesitant to get a guide dog – she was a skilled and confident cane traveler. But that encounter in Denver started to change her thinking.
In a way, crossing that busy intersection that summer day was the first time Nancy followed the lead of a guide dog. And over the next three years, the woman who helped her across the street became a mentor. In 1988, Nancy ended up getting her first guide dog: a golden retriever named Dani.
Nancy has now had a total of 4 guide dogs so far, the most recent being Abbie. They’ve guided her on some grand excursions: summiting 14-ers in Colorado, hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, exploring countless miles of trails, paddling alpine lakes.
The companionship and time spent outside with her guide dog are a true delight for Nancy. “I love hiking with my dogs, that’s been my biggest joy. Three of the dogs – Dani, Koko, and Abbie – they have been just terrific hikers.”
In fact, Koko’s trail skills were on another level. “Say there were two steps down, she would stop on a rock and wait for me to put my hiking pole where she wanted me to step, and then I would say ‘forward’ and take my step. Then, she’d wait until I moved the hiking pole to the next place she wanted me to stop. It was crazy, I don’t know how she figured that out!”
Fast forward to 2017, when Ruffwear product designer, Timothy Gorbold, met Nancy – who was now living in Bend, OR – and heard her bus story. It got him thinking. He’d been interacting with the blind and visually impaired community a lot while developing other working dog products, and he began to hear the same story over and over again: the story of not being seen, and how that ultimately puts them in unsafe situations, especially with cars.
Inspired to develop a tool with the entire blind community in mind, Timothy took Ruffwear’s existing safety light – The Beacon – and added audible accessibility. It was something that could provide added visibility, peace of mind, and confidence.
So how do you audibly communicate specific functions like powering on, running, powering off, low battery, and charge complete? Timothy began his research, aiming to use sounds that were informative but not obtrusive.
Nancy had insight and feedback to offer. In their collaboration, Nancy mentioned that she loved the sound of her washing machine: scaling up when it starts, scaling down when it’s complete.
“I wanted to be sure it would be something people would remember, so I played the sound for Timothy, and he liked it – so the audible beacon sounds kinda like my washing machine.”
Taking cues from Nancy and others, Timothy fine-tuned the sounds and added further accessibility by integrating tactile indicators into the design. The result? The Audible Beacon™– a waterproof, rechargeable safety light with active visibility, audible accessibility, and a silicone mount that attaches to canes and most guide dog harnesses.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Nancy is an incredible, inspiring person with a contagious passion for life, often with Abbie by her side. So when you look at Nancy and all she’s done and her zeal for raising the bar of what’s possible, it’s almost perplexing when going out to catch a concert isn’t so, well, simple. But for the blind community, that’s a reality.
If the Audible Beacon can help make everyday life just a little more seamless for the blind and visually impaired, and their working dogs – then that’s a step in the right direction.