Saturday, October 04, 2008

Technology, a visually impaired person's best friend!

Even if you can read this, chances are you know somebody who can't. More than 16 million Americans report some form of visual impairment even when wearing glasses or contacts.
That number is expected to double by 2030 as the aging population brings rising rates of macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and other eye diseases.

But "low vision" (technically, worse than 20/60 in the better eye) doesn't have to mean darkness and dependence. An ever-growing array of devices can help people maximize their remaining vision and, in many cases, compensate for what they've lost.

Some of the new offerings: free software that can tailor the text on any Web site to your personal visual needs, and a cell phone that can snap photos of text — including signs and restaurant menus — and read it back to you.

Here's a look at some of the newest technologies:

● Reading on the go. The knfbReader Mobile is a cell phone with a camera. Take a photo of any text, and the phone reads it back to you aloud or via headphone. The device, which costs $2,195, can store thousands of pages, and you can adjust the speed and pitch of the computerized reading voice.

● You are here. Another handheld helper is the Trekker Breeze by HumanWare, a global-positioning system that announces the names of streets and intersections as you are walking or riding. With the press of a button, it tells you your location. The cost is $895.

● Customizing a computer. You can download a free software program from Lighthouse called LowBrowse. As you read any Web page, the line of text beneath your cursor appears in a banner across the top of the screen. The software lets you select the type size, style, color and spacing of the text that appears in the banner. Your preferences travel with you as you surf the Web, so you have to set them only once. LowBrowse, which also can read the text aloud and magnify images, is available at or at the add-ons site for Mozilla Firefox. It requires the Firefox browser.

● Mini-magnifiers. Desktop devices that magnify reading material, photographs and even your hands as you sew or write checks have been around for years. New portable versions come as small as paperback books. They cost from $220 to $1,300 but promise much more clarity, contrast and flexibility than an ordinary magnifying glass.

● Real reality glasses. Like a virtual-reality system, the Jordy glasses by Enhanced Vision can magnify objects as much as 30 times and display them on a tiny, embedded TV screen. The focus can be adjusted so users can see faces, watch TV or follow ballgames in a stadium. It's $2,995 and converts to a desktop viewer. Specialty eyeglass makers can also insert telescopic lenses into regular glasses and adjust the focus with different caps for different distances.

● Staying connected. Cell phones can help the visually impaired maintain mobility and independence, but can be difficult to use. The Jitterbug, by Samsung, has extra-large buttons and display. And its cousin, the Jitterbug OneTouch, has only three buttons — one for 911, one for any number you program in and one for a dedicated phone operator who will place other calls for you. Both are $147. Monthly contracts run from $10 to $40.


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