Making the Most of Low Vision

By JoAnne Sommers

Living with vision loss can be very isolating, particularly for older people, who make up the largest part of the low vision population. Not only are they unable to drive but many once-enjoyable activities, such as reading and TV viewing, are closed to them. But thanks to advances in the field of assistive technology, a host of devices is available that enable such people to perform tasks that would otherwise be much more difficult – if not impossible – to accomplish.

“People with low vision can now live with greater independence than ever before because of helpful devices such as video magnifiers, audio book players and CCTVs (closed circuit TVs),” says Dawn Pickering, Toronto-based professional practice leader for Low Vision Services with CNIB.

Timothy Gels, marketing manager for Eschenbach Optik ofAmerica, agrees, noting that people with vision impairment are often subject to mishaps, including misreading prescription labels and falling. “Low vision devices are proven to work and are an excellent complement to any surgical or pharmacological treatments given.”

Unlike someone with a hearing impairment, people with vision problems often require several different devices, adds Gels. “It’s like a carpenter with a toolbox. People usually require three to five devices, depending on their diagnosis.”

And because everyone sees differently, the technology has to be tried to ensure it meets the user’s needs. “The only way to find out is to work with it to determine whether it allows you to do what you want it to,” Gels notes.

InCanada, low vision assessments are available through CNIB and facilities such as the Low Vision Clinic at the Centre for Sight Enhancement, University of Waterloo.

“We start by determining the person’s goals and objectives and get an understanding of their current visual functioning to help them maximize their existing vision,” says clinic Head Ann Plotkin. “Then we show them the devices we have available to determine what works best for them.”

Plotkin says the clinic loans out stock devices so people can try them before making a purchase. That’s welcome, given the fact that devices such as custom glasses with a spectacle-mounted telescope cost between $1,200 and $2,000, while CCTVs run $2,500 or more. (Although older, reconditioned systems are sometimes available for as little as $150.)

In some provinces funding is available to help defray the cost of assistive devices; however, there are significant differences between jurisdictions. In Ontario, CCTVs are available on a lease-to-own basis, says Plotkin. “The government, through the Assistive Devices Program (ADP), pays three-quarters of the cost and you pay the balance over the course of a five-year lease. If your vision changes during that time or you die, the CCTV can be returned for a prorated refund. Otherwise you own it after five years.”

Plotkin says the ADP, which covers 50 to 75 per cent of the cost of low vision aids, is the best program of its kind inCanada. Other provinces, including Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, also offer financial assistance; however, people in the Atlantic provinces, which have no assistance programs, sometimes go without devices they need because they can’t afford them, says CNIB’s Pickering.

Plotkin, whose clinic serves people from across Canada, says that if a client can’t afford a needed device, “We can work with service clubs to determine how much help is available. We also have a small fund of our own which we can access in such cases.”

CNIB receives corporate donations designed to fund equipment for those with visual impairments, notes Dean Yano, Western Canada sales representative for HumanWare, a Quebec-based leader in assistive technologies for the blind and visually impaired.

“We also entertain loaners and equipment trials, depending on the client’s location,” he says. “If they’re nearby, we may be able to demo a device for them and let them try it out before they buy it.”

Assistive Devices for the Visually Impaired

Specialized technology products make living with vision loss much easier, whether at home, work or school. And the range of innovative new products continues to expand as companies seek ways to improve the quality of life of people with low vision.

Eschenbach Optik recently introduced the first AMOLED (active matrix organic light-emitting diode) screen in a portable video magnifier, says National Sales Manager Ryan Heeney. The Mobilux Digital offers the highest contrast image, fastest image processing speed and best resolution of any video magnifier, he says. It also processes display images 1,000 times faster than LCD magnifiers. No “ghosting”, “smearing” or fading images appear as the camera moves along a page or object.

“These devices provide higher resolution and a faster refresh rate, plus options including multiple magnification settings and image storage. Glare and contrast loss are issues for all patients with low vision; options here are contrast-enhancing filters that protect the user from glare but still provide contrast enhancement so they can distinguish the foreground from the background.”

Scanner/reader devices that scan a hard copy document and read it aloud to the user are another popular innovation, says Dean Yano, sales representative for Quebec-based HumanWare. With some versions, the document can also be displayed on a monitor, which scrolls through it automatically.

“The user can control volume, speed and the play/pause functions of the audio, as well as magnification and colour backgrounds with the monitor option,” says Yano. HumanWare sells several models, including the Intel Reader, Eye-Pal Solo, and Zoom-Ex.

The most widely used products for low vision patients are low-tech devices that offer magnification, including hand-held and stand magnifiers, spectacle magnifiers and telescopes. Other assistive devices commonly used by people with vision loss include:

• Computer screen readers, screen magnifiers, braille displays and voice input software that operates in conjunction with graphical desktop browsers and other programs;

• Stand-alone products, including personal digital assistants (PDAs), note takers and electronic book players;

• Video magnifiers (CCTVs) that magnify printed material and can reverse text and background colours for greater ease of reading. Settings can be customized to suit the user’s needs so reading becomes easier; and

• DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is the international digital talking book standard. DAISY books enable people who are blind, have low vision or are unable to read standard print to browse through a book in much the same way as a sighted reader.

DAISY books can be read on a portable player, known as a digital playback device, or on a computer with DAISY software. These players are easy to use, prompting the user and describing the function of each button so there is no need to remember a lot of instructions.