June, 2019: Frontier Computing

Listen to this article

Jason opened the meeting with a few announcements. Microsoft just released Microsoft SoundScape. We’ll probably do a session on it in September. It’s a GPS ap that was produced by Microsoft. It was released in other countries some time ago. It took so long to get to Canada because they wanted to be able to release it in French as well. What makes it unique, is that it uses special audio. If you’re using headphones, it uses 3D to tell you where things are. If you pass a business on your right, you’ll hear it on your right. There’s a certain amount of ahead and behind detection as well. It can be used with bone conducting headphones or Bows Frames, to keep your ears clear for your surroundings.

On the Zoom call this evening, there are around 10 people

Jason described a recent trip to India, in which it was brought home to him how lucky we are in terms of accessibility. Others agreed.

Someone on the Zoom call said that the Bows Frames used on a PC, cut out every other audio output, including a screen reader. Someone else suggested checking settings both on the Frames and Zoom. No one had a definitive solution.

A member asked if anyone knew of a telescopic lense for low vision people that’s placed in the eye, something like a contact lenz. A member did a quick Google search, and found Implantable miniature telescope, for advanced stage, age-related macular degeneration. It’s in the FDA approval process in the U.S. It’s passed the 5-year trial.

A member contributed that alt, control plus the arrow keys will reorient your computer screen y 90 degrees, and NVDA will announce what it’s done. Jaws won’t.

A member said that she heard on an AppleViz podcast, that the next major IOS update, 13,  will have significant accessibility upgrades, for VoiceOver and Braille. She was impressed. 13 Will be out around October.

A member raised the issue of iTunes going away. They’re actually splitting it up into 3 separate aps, music, TV and podcasts. iTunes cards are safe, as they’re simply credits on your Apple account. What’s going away is the monolithic ap that was a pain to so many.

A member said that she wanted to compliment Chelsie Mullar for her appearance on CBC radio.

A member asked about small keyboards to use with a phone. Jason answered that there are a million of them. You basically want a BlueTooth keyboard, though finding one that will allow you to dial the phone may be harder. A Rivo will dial the phone, but it’s not a full keyboard, you use cording commands, and it’s $300. It works on iPhone and Android. A new member asked about how to get started with assistive tech. The response was first to investigate the ADP program in Ontario, and also that training is available through CNIB and through Balance for Blind Adults. You’ll probably end up with some tech that’s covered by ADP, and some that isn’t. Both CNIB and Balance offer group and individual training. Both organizations have weekly and/or monthly newsletters available by email. Contact either organization for more information.


Ian introduced Chris Chamberlin. He has been the prime mover behind Frontier Computing, which has been providing assistive tech to the blind community for 32 years.

Chris opened by describing Frontier. It was founded in 1986 by himself, and John Ogalvy. They wanted to provide better access to digital information for blind and low vision consumers. They started with $3000, which was almost nothing. By 1990, they’d developed a sizable customer base. Frontier has been one of the most successful blind entrepreneurial ventures by a blind person in Canada. They worked hard to build relationships. In good years, they sold upward of 7 or 8 million per year. What we brought to the table was an interest in technology itself, and a very close relationship with the community. We provided the sale, service and training. We did very well in the 90s and early 2000s. We had a maximum of 16 employees, and about 40 to 50% of them were visually impaired; we felt this was important.

In 2004, John decided to sell his share of the company, and Chris became the owner. The years up to 2010 were tumultuous, because of shifts in manufacturing.

Around 2012, we noted a decline in revenue. Our sales were still good, but our revenues were not. We had to let go of some staff. We continued to try and build relationships, particularly in the education department. Toni Seli, Stephan Richie and Andrea Voss all worked hard on this.

In 2017, I lost a great employee, Martain Barrisford.

In 2018, Chris discovered that the senior book keeper, since 2010, to defraud the company out of $800,000. This happened through corporate credit card theft, and inflated salary reports. As blind people, we must put trust in people every day. This trust was misplaced. There was also $750.000 in unprocessed accounts. The effect fiscally, professionally and emotionally, was devastating. Legal action has been concluded, and a settlement is forthcoming. About 18 months ago, chris was discussing the business with John Rafferty, who has always been interested in Frontier, and sympathetic to its fate. John said, “What can CNIB do to help?” Chris thought about it. 6 Weeks later, John proposed CNIB buying the company. It’s always had a great reputation, and John felt it would be a natural acquisition, that would fit in with CNIB’s focus on getting technology into the hands of its clients. Chris new that the company was solid, but that it didn’t look very attractive to uninformed purchasers. John and the CNIB board made an offer, and Chris accepted. On January 7, 2019, the transaction was complete. CNIB bought all the assets, while Chris kept its liabilities. Chris felt this was a good deal for everyone. He feels confident that the company is now in good hands. The Frontier staff has been kept on, and will now be overseen by CNIB staff, including Shane Silver and Gregor Barns. Chris will be happy to host the annual summer Frontier barbecue this year, as an expression of gratitude to the community.

Shane Silver, Vice President of Social Enterprise and Innovation with CNIB, then took over to discuss this acquisition. He described himself as very new to CNIB, and the blind community. In the past few months, we’ve been building and augmenting Frontier, starting with the branding. We want to expand beyond computing, to many other aspects of accessibility, website work, built environment etc. We’ll also continue with the assistive devices. We’re now know as Frontier solutions: a CNIB Enterprise. We’ve also added staff. We’ve got 4 individuals in Ontario, one person in the west, and we’ll be adding someone in Quebec. We see a lot of potential.

We’re working closely with Vision Australia, and we’re partly modelling ourselves on them.

What we plan to do with the direct end-user relationship, is to integrate with Shop CNIB. We’re working on a full marketing and communication package that we’re excited about.

Anyone wishing to reach Frontier can still do so. Any Frontier calls begin with the CNIB Contact Centre.

A member raised the problem that she’s been having trouble hearing back when she leaves messages. Other members agreed that call back times have been up to weeks.

Shane apologized. When CNIB took over, there was a problem with change-overs, where some Frontier phone numbers didn’t get transferred properly. Now, going through the Contact Centre should ensure this doesn’t happen.

Another member reported going through the Contact Centre and having to call 2 or 3 times before hearing back. She was told that she could get a computer, but that there would be no assistance setting it up.

Shane promised that setup is always a part of the process, and he apologised for any wrong information that may have been given. Any call for Frontier should be returned within 48 hours.

A member asked if there’s still a tech support service. Shane replied that there is. It may come as training, and also classic technical support. We don’t yet have support by email or live chat. Support at the moment is in person or over the phone.

A member asked if there are timelines for any of these things. Shane replied that there’s ameeting next week to address delies, so we can’t give firm answers yet. We’re also working on updating the website.

A member expressed confusion that there hasn’t been more communication with custommers. Shane said this is a fair comment.

Another member added that because Frontier has been so stable, instability is disorienting. Several members complimented Chris on how important Frontier has been in the blind community.

member asked if the product line will stay the same. Shane answered that existing products will be maintained, and others added. We’d like to try and establish exclusive arrangements with companies where possible.

For clarity, the St. Clair location of Frontier is no longer in existence.

A member asked Chris if he would do it all over again. Chris responded yes, because Frontier has made such a difference in so many peoples’ lives. Chris offered a public acknowledgment to Maria Fitton and Denise Chamberlin, who were both unconditionally supportive.

A member asked about support in more rural locations. Shane answered that the intention is to extend Frontier’s service to all regions where CNIB is active.

A member asked if there will be a conflict of interest with CNIB owning Frontier. Shane answered that all clients still have free choice of all A T companies.

A member said that some of the outgoing voice mail messages haven’t been appropriately set up. Shane answered that he’d take that back to the team.

The Frontier website is still the same. It hasn’t been updated to reflect the changes yet. That will be one spot for communicating updates. An email blast will probably go out to anyone who’s subscribed to Frontier in the past.