Assistive Technology and Living with Retinal Disorders

August 31st, 2017 by FFB Canada

Written and submitted by Gerry Chevalier.

Living with vision loss caused by retinal diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration can make everyday tasks seem daunting. How do we continue to enjoy reading books, magazines, and newspapers? How do we confidently walk about the neighbourhood without the fear of becoming lost? How do we read our mail or know whether we’re about to open a can of soup or a can of dog food?

Assistive technology that helps mitigate these challenges is widely available, allowing low-sighted people to live at a level of independence that was not possible even ten years ago. There’s a vast array of technologies on the market, including electronic magnifiers, computers with screen magnification, and talking screen readers. In fact, there are far too many to cover in this short article—instead, I’ll focus on two of my favourites.

The first is the Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare, a Montreal company that manufactures assistive technology. The second is Apple’s iPhone.

The Victor Reader Stream is a handheld Internet enabled digital media player. While its main function is to play audio books, it can also play music, tune into radio stations around the world, find and play podcasts, play text documents, and record voice notes.

I listen to at least one audio book a week on the Stream. Most of my audio books are downloaded from CELA, a free talking book service for people unable to read print, which you can register for at your local public library. I use my computer to search from among CELA’s several hundred thousand talking books. When I find a desired book, I just activate CELA’s Direct to Player option and a few minutes later the book is downloaded and ready to listen to on my Stream.

Even if I didn’t use a computer, friends or relatives could use their computer to order CELA books for me, or I could request CELA customer service to automatically send books to my Stream based on my reading interests. All I need is an internet connection in my home. Not only is my Stream a companion throughout the day, it also puts me to sleep every night when I set its sleep timer to play 15 minutes of my talking book. I can’t imagine a day without the device.

But neither can I imagine life without my iPhone. Apple has made the iPhone accessible to both low vision and blind people. As a blind person, I use an iPhone talking screen reader called VoiceOver that speaks text and icons on the screen. I use scanning apps that speak text on paper as well as labels and barcodes on food packages.

I also use iPhone’s voice assistant, Siri: by simply voicing a question or command I can search for information on the web, check the weather, read breaking news, get sports scores, stock listings, do simple calculations, make appointments, create reminders, dictate emails, dictate text messages, and oh yes, even make phone calls! Indeed, because my iPhone contains all my contacts, I simply phone people by saying “call my wife,” “call John Smith,” and so on. I am informed of my location while walking or riding in a bus or car. I can pay bills online, do my banking, shop online, play games, and stay connected with Facebook and Twitter.

The Victor Reader Stream and iPhone make my life much more enjoyable, and I’m more independent than would otherwise be possible if I could not read, relate to daily news and events, and communicate using email, text messaging, and social media. Living with blindness comes with any number of hurdles. Thankfully, overcoming those hurdles is made easier with assistive technologies that are available today.