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Assistive Technology for the Blind
by Lori Batcheller
When Jamie Paulo was in college, he used an electric typewriter to write all his papers. Blind since birth, Jamie hoped there weren’t too many mistakes, and that his teachers would forgive the ones he made. More than once, he typed his entire paper only to later discover there was no ink in the typewriter
Fortunately for Paulo and countless other people with vision impairments, today’s assistive, or adaptive technology for the blind and vision impaired makes writing, and reading, term papers much easier. Blind technology also assists the visually impaired with reading books, websites, and email, using appliances, navigating cities and towns, and much more.
Computer Blind Technology
The most important advancement since blind assistive technology began to appear in the 1970s is screen reading software, which simulates the human voice reading the text on computer screen or renders hard-copy output into Braille. Screen readers are designed to pick out things that will catch sited people, such as colors and blinking cursors, and can be modified to choose areas the user wants or doesn’t want. Popular brand for PCs include JAWS®, Job access with Speech, by Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes by GW Micro, and Serotek.
The downside to screen readers is their price—upwards of $900. Recently Apple began building screen reader technology, VoiceOver, into all of its computers, and a free version of a screen reader is available through Serotek. Apple also includes a screen reader in its iPhones. A screen reader is also available for Linux.
Braille computer keyboards enable blind people to write on a computer, but entering information onto the computer isn’t really the challenge—it’s reading the computer. The refreshable Braille display is a device used to produce Braille output the way computer monitors produce print output. While they are especially useful for deaf blind people that cannot use speech output, Larry Skutchan, who lost his vision when he was 21 from retinal detachment and now co-hosts a radio show about adaptive technology, points out that it’s important for people with vision impairments to learn to write and read Braille. “There’s a difference between hearing something and reading it with the hands and recognizing patters,” he says.
One of the big problems for many vision impaired people is access to electronics. Often today’s basic kitchen appliances, washers, and dryers have buttons that you can’t see. To address this challenge, the National Federation of the Blind dedicates a page to accessible appliances and small electronics. The list includes information about everything from washers and dryers and kitchen appliances to boom boxes, cell phones, radios, DVD players and thermostats.
Portable Reading Devices
One of newer blind technologies is the portable reading device, which downloads books and then reads them out loud in a synthesized voice. The Victor Reader Stream and the BookSense audio book are popular models.
Books for both education and entertainment are available free of charge to qualifying individuals in the United States through Bookshare™, which also offers periodicals and through The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress. The NLS utilizes a network of cooperating libraries to circulate audio materials (and Braille) via postage-free mail.
Talking GPS Devices
Another newer innovation for blind and vision impaired individuals is the talking Global Positioning System (GPS) devise.
The GPS is a satellite-based navigation system that calculates the users exact location anywhere in the world and then gives directions to one or more destinations. Special additional software is needed for the GPS that accesses the map information on the GPS and speaks or displays the directions in Braille. Common GPS systems include BrailleNote GPS, Street Talk™, Trekker, and Mobile GEO.
Other Blind Assistive Technology
In addition to computers and other devices, talking clocks and thermometers, specialized bar code scanners, and palm pilots all make daily life, education and employment more accessible for people with vision impairments.