A Sighted Person's View of Technology for the Sight-Impaired

By Joyce Davidson

About 15 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, my husband, Bill, and I discovered a store that carries visual aids for low-vision customers. Just like many specialty stores in other states, they offer magnifiers, large-number playing cards, big wall clocks, and wearable gadgets. We bought several items there, and they made reading somewhat easier for him. Now that his vision has clouded and he can no longer identify the shapes that pass in front of him, I am eager to learn about new technology that will allow him to be less dependent upon others.

The first important breakthrough for Bill came from a suggestion from an intern for Dr. Bowden, who led Bill to the Eye-Lab at the former Florida Community College of Jacksonville. The college offered transportation to computer classes and sent a representative to our home to stick bumps on the stove for Bill to be able to turn burners on, showed Bill how to pour coffee, and gave us other helpful ideas. The best item they introduced to him was the Enhanced Vision Machine so that he could write a check and see it on the screen above him. The next boon for us was his acceptance by the Veteran’s Administration and a glaucoma specialist. The third help in coping with his progressive blindness came from the Clay Council of the Blind. Speaker Greg Bing, from what is now the Vision Education and Rehabilitation Center at Florida State College of Jacksonville, presented an update last month about recent advances in technology. In recent years, the strides made in providing aids for the sight-impaired have been phenomenal, and most of the products are offered on the internet. Stores such as Verizon, Sprint, Walmart, Target, and Best Buy stock many of them.

Greg started off explaining about talking software and Apple’s screen reader and voice over IPad. He said LG has many styles of wireless and Bluetooth hands-free headsets that work with smartphones but also can be paired with an IPhone and IPad at the same time. He recommends the LG Tone Pro HBS 750. It’s easy to learn. A person can hit a button, talk into it, and send a text message by saying the receiver’s name. The alert is a vibration, and the set is light. The newest set is 1.9 ounces. The 750 starts at $35.00, but different models cost more based on increased hours of reception. The newer and more expensive models have mixed reviews. Some customers prefer the older, cheaper ones.

Greg reviewed a couple of Apple’s devices. Their phone is the best for quality, but the less-expensive Samsung Galaxy 6 is good, too. The Apple wWtch requires Bluetooth to be functional in getting messages or reading and must be connected to a smartphone. It’s fine for text messages and probably will be updated. Android watches connect to Wi-Fi. There are touch screens and additions that help with magnification, reading, and voice activation. Video magnifiers in different sizes – portable to desktop – magnify with a camera that projects images on a screen and increases or decreases them, has high-color contrast and sometimes spoken text. If built-in software isn’t adequate, more programs are designed to magnify, highlight, and even speak the contents, like ZoomText, which is meant for users with some vision. There is a high-quality keyboard by VisiKey Wireless Enhanced Visibility for any computer, including Mac OS and Windows XP through 10. It has large, white-on-black print after plugging it into a USB port. The exRead from Carson transforms the TV into a reading aid by projecting the material on the TV. If only screen magnification is needed, a 2X tool attaches to a computer monitor screen and becomes a protector and a privacy shield which fits 15 inch and 17 inch flat screens for $50 and $60. Jaws reads texts for the user, and Dragon Naturally Speaking utilizes speech recognition to create documents, reports, or messages simply by speaking after programming it to an individual’s voice. It is especially helpful after a writer has unfortunately zapped a long manuscript and has to redo it.

Other brands as well as additional products are listed on Amazon from inexpensive aids to those costing hundreds of dollars. Even pricy items are worth purchasing if they give help or enjoyment to people who can use them for work or pleasure. Amazon also lists other sources for items they don’t sell. The American Federation of the Blind has information about tools a poorly-sighted person can use to help him become more independent. There are special timers, automatic door lockers and light control, talking clocks, and the dame of all gadgets—Echo. Amazon is improving Echo regularly so that the black cylinder responds from its built-in audio system with answers to more questions than ever. When Alexa is activated by her name, a request for Willie Nelson brings forth many of his songs. If the temperature report is needed, Alexa will give the local news and weather of the day. In the future, Alexa may be able to dance, too, or maybe incriminate the user, because all of the requests she hears end up on the computer.

Technology is great, especially tools which are not difficult to program. Maybe they should be delivered with a six-year old child to set them up. As for Bill, his companion is the talking book machine and tapes from The Daytona Library, but he’s open to more suggestions that come along constantly.