Commentary: How Technology is Helping People with Low Vision “See”

February is recognized as Low Vision Awareness month by the National Eye Institute (NEI). The celebration aims to create more awareness about the services and programs available to individuals with low vision and their families. Low vision is defined as having a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery. According to the NEI, 4.2 million Americans over 40 have low vision. It is projected that by 2030, 7.2 million adults, 65 or older in the United States, will be visually impaired or blind.

During recent years, technology has helped and drastically enabled individuals with low vision to be more independent and productive. Simple tools, like large print or talking watches, allow them to keep track of time. Magnifiers, CCTVs and other computer software help people read print materials for work, school or fun. Newer products, like the eSight and OrCam, have revolutionized the way those with low vision see and interact with their surroundings. This technology is only the tip of the iceberg, and the future promises new and exciting things to come!

In honor of Low Vision Awareness Month, the NEI is highlighting five technology innovations that will one day assist people who are blind or visually impaired with different daily tasks. These include a cane with built-in navigation for traveling indoors, a smartphone app that will help crossing streets without veering, and a tool for people with severe peripheral vision loss. These devices use what is known as computer vision, a technology that enables computers to recognize and interpret complex images. The research and development for these technologies is funded by the NEI.

I began using assistive technology as a child, and have witnessed firsthand how it has evolved over the years. Screen-readers have gone from software with limited capabilities and monotone synthesized speech, to programs that help those of us who cannot see browse the Internet and send and receive emails and text messages. Thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology, I can read print documents by simply scanning or taking a picture of the page with my smartphone.

Technology is becoming an additional pair of eyes of sorts for people without sight. Various smartphone apps and other devices allow us to “see” our surroundings with the push of a button. Prototypes like those being showcased by NEI may one day help those with low vision be more independent and lead richer lives. Of course, this technology is still under development, and only time will tell how useful it is for people with visual impairments. Then again, just as screen-readers and OCR technology have drastically improved over the years, so will computer vision technology enhance over time. As someone who is blind, I sure am excited to discover what technology has in store for the near future!

How Can People with Vision Loss Play Games?

How Can People with Vision Loss Play Games?

Having fun and playing games does not have to stop simply because someone is blind or visually impaired. Many adapted versions of popular games, such as scrabble and bingo, allow people with no sight to play alongside their family and friends. Braille and large print playing cards help those of us who cannot see enjoy games like poker, Uno and so on. The Chicago Lighthouse Tools for Living Store has a variety of adapted games and other devices for game enthusiasts with vision loss. Here are some tips and techniques that people with visual impairments use to play games:

  • Braille and large print cards: this is a regular deck of cards with Braille or large print numbers. These are available at our Tools for Living Store. Braille readers can also purchase a standard print deck of cards and write the Braille numbers and letters on them. Note that casinos might not allow players with visual impairments to use their personal deck of cards. Instead, the casino may provide users with large print or Braille cards, or a reader – someone who will sit next to the player and read the cards that have been called out when playing games like poker.
  • Magnifiers: using magnifiers can help those with vision loss better read cards and see game pieces. Having a good background color contrast can also help.
  • Card holders or stands: these can make it easier for people with low vision to view a deck of cards while playing. You can also find these at our Tools for Living Store.
  • Labeling game pieces: if a game is not adapted, users can label it or make tactile markings with simple household objects. These include Velcro, pipe cleaners, different fabrics or craft paint.

You can find other tips and suggestions for playing games in this article from VisionAware.

Interested in playing casino games while supporting The Chicago Lighthouse? On Thursday, March 2, we will host our first ever “Raising the Stakes for Vision Casino and Poker Night!” The event will take place at Gibsons Steakhouse/Hugo’s Frog Bar, 1024 North Rush Street in Chicago. It will feature charitable casino games, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament, premium cocktails, Gibsons signature dinner and desserts and over $20,000 in prizes and auction items. Proceeds from this event will support Chicago Lighthouse programs serving people who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans. For ticket pricing and full event details, visit this page. We hope you will join us, and thank you for supporting The Lighthouse!

Round Two: Please Vote For The Chicago Lighthouse In The Art From The HeArt Project!

Round Two: Please Vote For The Chicago Lighthouse In The Art From The HeArt Project!

Last week, we asked our readers to please nominate The Chicago Lighthouse for the Art From The HeART project. Held each February by Jeff Hanson, a multi-talented artist who is visually impaired and a good friend of The Lighthouse, this project nominates U.S. charities for the chance to win an original acrylic painting. The top five charities are announced on Facebook, and fans have the opportunity to vote for the charity of their choice. The charity with the most likes will win the painting.

Thanks to your help, The Chicago Lighthouse made it to the top five nominated charities! However, we’re not there just yet! Please vote for The Chicago Lighthouse to win the original painting by liking Jeff Hanson’s Facebook page. Next, scroll through the separate posts for each charity, and “like” The Chicago Lighthouse logo on Jeff Hanson’s Facebook page. Voting is open until this Monday, and the winner will be announced on Valentine’s Day at 5 p.m. If selected to win, the piece of art will be auctioned at our Seeing What’s Possible Gala on June 9. All proceeds will benefit the 39 Lighthouse programs and services supporting people who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans.

Although visually impaired since childhood, Jeff Hanson has never let his disability stop him from pursuing his dreams. To date, over 200 nonprofit organizations have benefited from his artwork. Jeff’s paintings hang in the homes of famous personalities and art collectors, including Sir Elton John, Warren E. Buffett, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., John Cena and many others. Throughout his career, Jeff has also received many honors and recognitions. You can read his full biography on this page.

Please vote for The Chicago Lighthouse by “liking” our logo on Jeff Hanson’s Facebook page! Together we can continue making a difference in the lives of countless individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans in need of our critical services. On behalf of all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse, thank you for your support!

Commentary: Facebook’s Accessibility Benefits Everyone

For a little over a year, Facebook has been working on a tool that will describe pictures to people who are blind or visually impaired. It consists of artificial intelligence, and automatically generates captions for the photos we or our friends post. There is no need to install software or take extra steps – the tool is available to anyone using a smartphone, tablet or computer. To get a better sense of how it works, read this Sandy’s View post. I also demonstrate how the technology works in this story from CBS 2 Chicago.

According to this article from CNET, Facebook’s technology promises to get even better! For one thing, photo captions are becoming more enhanced. Now, when I am reading through my newsfeed, some of the picture descriptions also include what people are doing. When this technology was introduced over a year ago, I would only hear something like “image may contain: two people, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” Now, I might hear something like “image may contain: two people, people smiling, people sitting, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” In other words, there are more details in the descriptions, and this allows me to better visualize the image. Using the same example, I can picture two people having a good time at the beach!

All people – whether blind or sighted – will also be able to search for specific pictures using these descriptions. So, if I want to find the picture of my friends at the beach, I can type some of the words from the caption in Facebook’s search box. As of the writing of this post, I have not tried out this new feature, but will review it in the near future. I can see this added enhancement helping anyone. Instead of scrolling through our newsfeed or friend’s wall, we can simply search for a particular picture and save ourselves some time that way. This technology currently doesn’t include detailed descriptions, like the color of the clothes someone is wearing, but I am sure it won’t be long before we start seeing them. This would make the new picture search feature much more useful.

Social media has become an important part of everyone’s lives, and thanks to accessibility efforts like those implemented by Facebook, people with vision loss can also be included. For almost a year, I have been using Facebook’s photo description feature, and it has given me a better picture (no pun intended!) of what my friends and family are sharing. Although this technology is still in its early stages, it has certainly come a long way and made a difference for people with vision loss. Better yet, it also includes features, like the picture search, that will one day be useful even to those with sight. I sure am excited to see what it has in store for us in the future!

What Kinds of Jobs do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Do?

What Kinds of Jobs do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Do?

A common question the Lighthouse’s Employment Services Department gets is what types of jobs can people who are blind or visually impaired do? I too get this question from curious individuals, who are in awe when I tell them about my work at The Chicago Lighthouse as a radio producer and development assistant. Today’s technology, as well as using different adaptations, allows people with vision loss to do just about any job you can think of. The following list, although not exhaustive, is meant to give a general idea of the different careers and jobs done by people who are blind or visually impaired

  • Teachers, college professors and guidance counselors
  • Social workers and psychologists
  • Doctors, nurses and occupational and physical therapists
  • Masseuses and chiropractors
  • Rehabilitation teachers and counselors
  • Customer service representatives
  • Restaurant and store workers
  • Factory workers
  • Freelance writers, journalists and TV and radio broadcasters
  • DJs and musicians
  • Attorneys, judges and politicians
  • Executive directors and managers
  • Coaches and athletes
  • Authors and motivational speakers
  • Chefs
  • Architects
  • Researchers, engineers and scientists
  • Artists and photographers

Just like people with sight, individuals who are blind or visually impaired have different interests and skillsets. For a long time, the unemployment rate among people with vision loss has been over 70 percent, and it is due in large part to the numerous misconceptions that still exist. Thanks to equipment like screen-reading and magnifying software, Braille displays and various other tools, people with vision loss can hold different jobs. When employers have doubts about how we will accomplish a certain aspect of the job, chances are we have already given careful thought to it and come up with solutions.

If you would like to learn more about the different jobs done by people who are blind or visually impaired, visit the American Foundation for the Blind’s CareerConnect website. The site provides different resources and other information for job seekers with vision loss. It also includes blog posts from successful professionals who are blind or visually impaired. You can also read our popular post about the top 5 benefits of hiring employees who are blind or visually impaired.

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, the Apple iPhone was unveiled by the late Steve Jobs in front of thousands of curious spectators. The launch of this new and entirely touch-screen operated cell phone changed the way in which people across the globe interact with technology. For me and countless other individuals with vision loss or other disabilities, the iPhone and similar mobile devices not only gave us greater access to technology, but they also afforded us more independence that previously seemed impossible.

My brother and several friends were among the lucky ones to own that first iPhone from 2007. I always heard excited chatter from them about the cool features it had. “I can even check the weather,” my brother told my relatives in Mexico. At the time touch-screen devices like the iPhone were completely inaccessible to those of us with vision loss, so I could only dream of enjoying that technology. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple incorporated Voiceover, its screen-reading software into this and future versions of the iPhone.

Like most of my friends who were blind, I was skeptical and didn’t know if the iPhone would work for me. The thought of being able to use a touch-screen without sight seemed daunting and impossible. It was not until 2012 that I decided to switch to an iPhone after constantly hearing rave reviews from my friends, who were extremely pleased with the accessibility. Their feedback did not disappoint. For the first time in my life, I was able to send and receive text messages on my own thanks to the iPhone. I could also check the weather and email on the go, something that my family and friends took for granted.

Today, the iPhone not only helps me stay in touch with the world, it also gives me more independence. Apps like LookTell Money Reader and TapTapSee allow me to identify things without needing someone’s assistance. With the Bard Mobile and NFB NewsLine apps I can download books, newspapers and magazines in a matter of seconds to listen on my iPhone. The kNFBReader app quickly scans printed documents and reads them out loud to me. Thanks to Voiceover and the built-in accessibility of the camera, I can even take pictures! Finding last minute transportation has become easier thanks to apps like Lyft and Uber, and I can easily find my way to unfamiliar locations with the phone’s GPS.

Without a doubt, the iPhone and other mobile devices have dramatically enhanced the lives of everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. Technology has changed significantly since 2007, the time when I and other people with vision loss could only dream of being able to use these devices. Kudos to Apple and other manufacturers who are constantly trying to make their devices accessible to everyone. The possibilities with technology are endless, and I am sure it will only continue to help people with and without disabilities connect to the world and live more independent lives.

Guest Commentary: A Picture of Visual Impairment Filled with Contrast

Axel Davila is a student at Georgetown University and contributor to Sandy’s View. Axel came to the United States from Venezuela, and this week he shares his thoughts on the differences and similarities regarding the accessibility situation of individuals with vision loss living in Latin American countries and the United States.

Moving from one country to another is never easy. Leaving your culture behind to experience something new can be a challenging endeavor. However, there comes a time when you have to try it.   After five months living here in the United States and having heard testimonies of visually impaired citizens from Venezuela and Argentina which I have gathered for the Sandy’s View blog, I feel a bit more qualified to offer my personal impressions.

At first glance, the main problem is the numbers. It is not that the disability figures and rates are higher in Latin American countries than in the United States. The reality is that in Latin American countries, there are not official statistics or research. Therefore, analysis of the problem is more difficult because the numbers aren’t there to back them up.

During my time in the United States, I have seen greater inclusion of people with visual impairments and other disabilities.  This can be attributed in part to the fact that the U.S. has been a more open society that listens to the needs of its citizens, including the disabled community.

Another positive aspect has to do with building structures and facilities. In this country, it is more common to see someone who is visually impaired more able to navigate their surroundings.  This infrastructure that is accessible to everyone – is incorporated into buildings. Additionally, the majority of the time public transportation has accessibility for those with disabilities. These features include elevators for people who use wheelchairs and periodic audio information updates for passengers with visual impairments. In contrast, public transportation in other countries lacks these features. For example, buses do not descend to ground level to make it easier for people to get in, which presents difficulties for those with mobility impairments.

Another major problem for people with vision loss living in Latin American countries is that they encounter obstacles, such as non-compliance of drivers with traffic lights, and trash and potholes on the sidewalks. Not to mention the lack of traffic lights with braille or sound.  As you might imagine, it is quite complicated for someone who is visually impaired to be a pedestrian in these countries.

Something that the U.S. and other countries have in common is the constant use of technology. Nowadays, cell phones absorb people’s attention. On one hand, they can present disadvantages, as people are less aware of what surrounds them. This, of course, is a problem for pedestrians with and without disabilities. On the other hand, the advent of technology also has major benefits. In the United States, apps such as Uber and Lyft have contributed to making it easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to get around. While these apps also exist in Latin American countries, these services are not always accessible or safe.

These are just a few of the most noticeable accessibility differences between the U.S. and other Latin American and Caribbean countries regarding people with visual impairments. There is a lot more to achieve in all of these countries, including the United States. However, acknowledging both the current problems and achievements can put things into perspective. As I continue to be here in the United States and contribute to the Sandy’s View blog, I will try to shed more light on the current situation of people with visual impairments in different parts of the world. By doing this, I hope to not only tell their stories but also to spread more awareness about individuals with disabilities living in different countries.