Technology Helps People with Visual Impairment

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

KNFB Reader is another app that can help the visually impaired. Users take a picture with a smartphone and it reads text aloud.
KNFB Reader is another app that can help the visually impaired. Users take a picture with a smartphone and it reads text aloud.

In addition to reading Braille documents, people with visual impairment have many technological choices for accessing written words, from apps and software that read aloud text online to scanners that can read menus, signs and more.

“Having the ability to read information is a tremendous breakthrough for those who are visually impaired,” said Ann K. Parsons, owner of Portal Tutoring in Rochester. “It’s incredible.”

Parsons is visually impaired. When she was growing up, she owned very few books, since she had to either obtain Braille books or obtain a reader to help.

The volume of audio book titles now on CD or stored on thumb drives makes it much easier to get audible materials. But more recent innovations have help make more written words accessible.

Parsons mentioned Be My Eyes. It’s a free app on the iOS (the Android version is coming) that connects people with sight to those who need help in seeing. Using a real-time video chat, volunteers read whatever is put in front of the screen. Users find it helpful for sorting through cans in the pantry, reading websites that screen readers can’t, or finding a dropped object. The app selects volunteers only during their daytime hours; however, users may use it whenever they would like for as long as they would like at no charge.

Parsons said that KNFB Reader is quite popular on the Android and iOS platforms. Users take a picture with a smartphone and it reads text aloud. Parsons uses that herself, and also uses a traditional reader on her computer that works with a scanner.

Built-in phone apps that read books aloud have found a niche with commuters, fitness buffs and people with visual impairment.

“I’ve spent my whole life hearing books read aloud and now people who are sighted are enjoying them as well,” Parsons said.

Since apps like these are common on smartphones, it makes accessibility ubiquitous.

Parsons thinks that electronic Braille readers will continue to advance. These readers create Braille text of what’s on the screen by raising and lowering pins electronically.

Chelsea Hale, teacher for the visually impaired and orientation and mobility instructor with the NYS Association for the Educations and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (NYSAER) in Darien Center, said that JAWS screen reading software is pretty popular.

While technology helps in some ways, it can have its drawbacks. Recent developments in web design feature graphics-heavy sites that require users to scroll down before they find text. Sites designed like this make it more difficult for people to navigate with screen readers. Displaying important information such as phone numbers and names in a graphic usually makes it impossible for a screen reader to relate that information verbally.

National Federation of the Blind states that 2.3 percent of the US population is visually impaired. That amounts to 387,900 New Yorkers, according to NFB. Businesses that make it hard to read text through screen readers miss a sizable market share that will only grow as the baby boomers age and experience age-related vision loss.

Lisa Helen Hoffman of Rochester owns LHH Consulting, which provides consulting and training for people with visual impairment. Hoffman, who has visual impairment, prefers Braille to many of the phone apps offered now because smartphones have few tactile buttons, unlike flip phones that offered buttons.

“I have a scanner app for my phone, but I really don’t use it,” she said. “It was a waste of money. My problem is I need to learn it. If there was a Braille manual, I could read it and understand.”

She said that many people easily pick up on adaptive technology and others, like herself, don’t.

“There are no guideposts, just swiping,” she said.

Hoffman said that she has the BlindSquare app, which was designed to help people with visual impairment navigate using GPS technology.

“I haven’t figured out how to get really specific with it, but it has a look around feature that will tell you addresses you’re going by and the next street you’re coming to,” she said.

She uses Voiceover, an iOS app that verbalizes what appears on the screen, but she would prefer buttons. They allow her to follow a phone tree, which is next to impossible since she can’t use the dial-by-voice feature.

She does like to use the voice-to-text feature on her phone. And the fact that she can call the Apple help desk if she loses track of where she is on her phone.