Fresno Chapter Tests UniDescription App in Yosemite National Park

by Jamie Gibson-Barrows

On Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, members of the CCB Fresno chapter visited Yosemite National Park to test the beta app “UniDescription” (UniD) developed by the University of Hawaii. We chartered a bus financed by ACB through its executive director, Eric Bridges. Without the support from Eric and ACB, this trip could not have occurred. Our original transportation was through the Yosemite Area Rapid Transit System (YARTS); however, we found they didn’t have the funds for fall or winter transportation from Fresno, so ACB donated the funding for the charter.
I reached out to Brett Oppegaard, associate professor and principal investigator at the U of H at Manoa, soon after the ACB convention when I learned of the development of the UniDescription app for Yosemite National Park. Fresno chapter members and others in our community visit Yosemite every year, only to find very little audio description available in the park, so we were eager to help out with testing of the app. Brett was excited to give our chapter this opportunity, and for the next three months we communicated with ACB, University of Hawaii and the National Park Service. We had the pleasure of meeting Sajja Koirala, who flew in from Hawaii to join us on this trip. Sajja is one of the developers of this app. She joined us as a supporter and observer. At the end of our trip, Sajja facilitated a focus group discussion on the AD app.
The trip was fantastic, with 26 attendees and 4 guide dogs. Yosemite ranger Sally Kintner guided us on a tour throughout the day. We touched and smelled large trees on the paths, such as the incense cedar tree and the ponderosa pine. When we scratched the bark on the ponderosa pine, it gave off a vanilla scent. We also enjoyed the tactile map of Yosemite on another trail. It let us feel the massive rock formations and the Yosemite Falls to get a better mental picture of the surrounding mountains. Many participants listened to the UniD app that features the map and brochure before our visit, as well as while we were on the trails. It was a beautiful fall day for walking on trails, visiting the Lower Falls, Yosemite Lodge and the visitor center. Most took a sack lunch for an outdoor picnic; some purchased a quick meal on site.
We are thrilled to have been a part of the beta testing for UniD in Yosemite and receiving so much support from everyone who has worked for months getting this app up and running. Our Facebook page has pictures of our day. Our local producer for Blindside Fresno, William Elliott and wife Darcie, are both members of the Fresno chapter. They participated in the trip, and will be producing a Blindside Fresno segment via CMAC and YouTube.
UniDescription works on both iOS and Android platforms. I encourage you to download it on your smartphone. Our focus was on Yosemite; however, the app has many more national parks already loaded, and more to come for the rest of the parks in California throughout the upcoming year. We hope to take part in beta testing in more national parks. Our feedback during the focus group, as well as our filling out surveys for both ACB and Yosemite National Park, will help improve audio description for those of us with low or no vision.
Thank you to the following who have worked months on this project: University of Hawaii, Brett Oppegaard, Megan and Thomas Conway, and Sajja Koirala; from ACB: executive director Eric Bridges, Dan Spoone, Jo Lynn Bailey-Page; and from Yosemite National Park Services: Kara Stella and Sally Kintner.

Caption: Phoeng Gipp, Martha Espitia and Sajja Koirala touch a tactile replica of Yosemite Valley. Behind them, sporting dark sunglasses and a jean jacket, is Cathy Schmitt Whitaker, who is listening to the description via the app and eagerly awaiting her turn at the tactile map. (Photo courtesy of the Fresno chapter, California Council of the Blind.)