Saturday, May 27, 2006

Latest technology available to the visually impaired

The people at Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind don’t refer to their students as having disabilities.

Many of them are totally blind, some are legally blind and others are totally deaf, but instead of dwelling on what students and employees can’t do, the school focuses on what they can do.
And with the introduction of new technology, the list of things they can’t do is growing smaller every day.

On Thursday and Friday, the school was host to a technological symposium sponsored by the Alumni and Workers Association of Alabama School for the Blind.

The event, which brought everything from talking calculators to Braille printers to the school, was a collaborative effort among the alumni association, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and AIDB.

Vendors displayed a wide range of assistive devices — from low-technology goods such as raised markers visually impaired can use to mark places on clothes dryers or microwaves to highly expensive goods such as Braille printers that convert charts from a computer to drawings composed of a series of dots used to feel the graph instead of see it.

As far as the importance of technology goes, "How important is your car to you?" said Joel Marler, alumni association president. "It allows us to have communication. We depend on community to stay in contact with other people and learn. It’s not like we can pick up a newspaper and read. … It’s independence, that’s what it is."

Marler, an ASB graduate and alumnus of Faulker State Community College in Montgomery, has used technology to help him since his vision began fading 10 years ago.

He uses a device much like a personal data assistant equipped with an audio box to organize his day, a Braille watch to tell the time and relied on graphs converted to Braille when he was working his way through economic classes in college.

"Technology isn’t something that’s brand new," he said. "It just keeps developing, enhancing and getting better. … It has just saved my life."

Many people, students and members of the local community, toured the ASB auditorium Thursday and Friday to get a glimpse at the latest technology for blind people.

Closed-circuit televisions were displayed to show citizens how documents can be magnified for better understanding, files can be translated to Braille and NewsLine allows blind people to read about 200 papers from across the state using a toll-free number that dictates articles through a standard telephone.

One device, which looked much like a digital camera attached to a PDA, allows people to take pictures of documents while it reads them back.

"I can sit in my recliner, put my mail in my lap, take a picture and it reads it back to me," said Michael Jones, National Federation of Blind in Alabama president. "I don’t have to fool with computers. It’s just that easy."

Jones also showed off a walking cane that uses sonar to detect nearby objects, sending a vibration through the cane that can be felt by whoever is holding it.

The product isn’t even on the market yet, he said.

"Technology has opened doors for individuals who are blind or have low vision that have never been opened before," said Debbie Culver, coordinator of blind services for ADRS. "Technology often paves the way for independence, employment and empowerment."

Most everyone — college students, employees or those who just like to read the newspaper — can benefit from specialized products for visually impaired people, but they are not available to everyone.

"The only downside is this technology is that it is terribly expensive," Marler said. "It’s not only because of the research and development, but you just don’t have the wide-open market you have with other products. Their sales are limited."

Closed-caption televisions can cost about $3,000, and Braille notebooks, which are similar to PDAs, are usually priced at $4,600 to $5,000.

But considering all users can get from the devices, such as the ability to play MP3s or have audio-equipped access to the Internet, it’s worth it, Marler said.

Organizations such as ADRS and the federal government can offer some assistance when the devices are used for school or work purposes, but many people simply have to go without.
"I wouldn’t know what to do without it," Marler said.


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