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How an iPhone is helping a blind athlete prepare for the Rio Games

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:13 -- geeta.nair

Katie Kelly's life has always revolved around sport, and living with a disability has not slowed her down.
In her twenties, Kelly was diagnosed with Usher syndromea degenerative eye sight and hearing condition. Today at 41, she is aiming for a spot on the Australian team for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. "I'm a living example that it's never too late to reach your peak," Kelly told Mashable Australia.
Working in sports marketing for more than 20 years, she had participated in 

marathons and Iron Man challenges but remained a "weekend warrior." That changed around 18 months ago when her ophthalmologist confirmed Kelly was now legally blind.

While she had worn a hearing aid since age five, 

Kelly decided to find out if she could continue to compete in races as a vision-impaired athlete. She was recruited into Australia's elite-paratriathlete team and won the 2015 World Triathlon Grand Final in Chicago.


To compete in paratriathlons, which include a 750 metre swim, a 20 kilometre ride and a 5 kilometre run, she has been paired with a guide, Michellie Jones, herself an Olympic medallist. The two women are tethered together during the swim, use a tandem bike and then run together.

Next week, Kelly will know if she's been selected for Australia's Paralympic team.

Bringing tech into training

For Kelly, a range of technology has had a significant impact on her training, which takes placetwo to three times a day in sessions of up to three hours.

Training in Canberra, the iPhone 6+ with its Listen Live function has been a consistent asset. The smartphone feature can be paired via Bluetooth with a hearing aid.

"It's effectively a built-in microphone," Kelly explained. "I've now got a mount on my coach's bike and I put my iPhone on his bike. So if I'm doing sessions where he's guiding me directly in front on the bike and I'm sitting behind him ... it means that when he's talking it goes straight into my hearing aid."
"When I'm just doing sprints around a track, he can actually speak to me through the phone and tell me if I'm meeting the times," she added. Jones can also use Listen Live to communicate with Kelly when they ride together on the tandem bike.

While none of this technology can be used at official races, it acts as an assistant during training for Kelly. She 

also uses waterproof hearing aids so her coach can speak with her during swim practice. "Again, I can have him talking to me through the phone while I've got my waterproof hearing aids on in the water," she said. "That's even better than a hearing person."


Off the track, she just started using an Apple Watch, which she called a "God send."

"For someone like me, with my sight, it's easy to misplace things," she explained. "Not to have to get my iPhone out, it makes it so much easier to be communicating, talking to Siri and getting messages."

In daily life, other simple smartphone functions are a big help — the iPhone torch, for example. "As soon as it gets dark, I need a torch. Not having to carry a torch and having one through my phone is a big thing," she added.

Improving accessible design

While companies such as Apple work hard at making their technology accessible, Kelly suggested a few tweaks.


When using Listen Live, for example, she suggested it would be useful to have some kind of remote in her hand so she can easily control volume and switch it off or on. "For people with hearing aids, to stop having to take them in and out, that bluetooth function is absolutely critical," she said. "To be able to switch from talking to you to hearing what's going on around me, rather than taking my aids in and out all the time."

According to Kelly, it's incumbent on all brands to ask themselves whether a genuine range of people are able to use their products: "This is a product or service we are offering — are we catering for the majority and the minority?" 

"Where we are now with technology, with efficiency, there's no excuse for major brands not be thinking about how everyone can have the opportunity to engage or to use their product," she added.

Making sure everyone can play sport

While training full-time, Kelly has also been working on setting up her own foundation, Sports Access, which aims to remove barriers to sport participation for children with disabilities.

"A lot of progress has be made," she said. "That's not easy, there are a lot of resources involved, but I think increasingly as we've seen more recognition of women in sport, the next stepping stone is more inclusion of people with disabilities."

In her own case, she believes Usher syndrome was ultimately an impetus to success. When she discovered she had the condition and that her eyesight would eventually deteriorate, it gave her immense drive.

"Because of that approach, it's meant that incredible things are happening now in terms of potentially representing Australia in the Paralympics. I could never have imagined that would ever be the case," Kelly added.

"That's the irony of losing my sight, I'm blind enough to compete as a paratriathlete. I think that if you're going to lose it, you might as well use it."


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