Devices help the blind who are able to afford them.

September 02, 2005.
Press Enterprise, California.

TECHNOLOGY: Equipment that can remove obstacles to employment creates another with its cost.

New technology constantly adds to the growing arsenal of devices that help blind people become more independent.

But with more than 70 percent of blind and visually impaired people unemployed, according to the National Federation of the Blind, few of them can afford the cutting-edge equipment.

"These things let the blind and visually impaired do what most sighted people take for granted, but it's expensive as all hell," said Peter Benavidez, executive director of Blindness Support Services, a nonprofit organization in Riverside that offers services for residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Some devices, including talking watches, weight scales and cooking utensils, which tell the temperature, cost less than $100.

But others, such as screen-reading software, magnifying devices, Braille displays, printers and scanners, cost $1,000 to $15,000, and the prices of some products are inching toward $100,000.

Organizations such as the Braille Institute and the state's Department of Rehabilitation have been able to supply technology to blind and visually impaired people, but recent budgets cuts have limited their ability to help.

Blindness is a condition that can begin at birth, after an accident or over time with age or because of a disease, such as diabetes -- the leading cause of adult blindness.

The disease robs 12,000 to 24,000 people a year of their sight, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Blindness Support Services offers computer-training classes to 12 to 16 people a day, only half of whom have home computers.

On a recent morning, three people with varying degrees of blindness sat in front of computers to try to master e-mail.

Over the din of a fan and some stilted typing, Michael Bruno's instructions came louder than normal so the people wearing headphones linked to talking computers could also hear them.

Bruno, who has been visually impaired since he was 13, walked around the Blindness Support Services classroom.

A homemade monocular device was taped to his glasses.

He tries to get everyone on the same page, but the technology is not perfect and sometimes there are snags.

"It may have said something, but I couldn't hear it," said Corona resident Dan Hartzler, 59, referring to the screen-reading software.

Even a simple task such as learning how to write e-mail will take a month's worth of classes.

The hardest tasks are just memorizing the keyboard and its functions and typing.

The training will also teach them to surf the Internet while becoming accustomed to JAWS, a common screen-reading software that relays print matter through speakers. It costs about $1,000.

New technology requires more than money to operate.

"You don't just give them to a blind guy and say, 'Have fun,' " Benavidez said. "It requires training."

Riverside resident Donn Stewart, 46, said that without the training, he probably would "play trial and error, then get frustrated and then call someone for help."

The 2000 census found that more than 24,700 blind or severely visually impaired people live in Riverside County, while 27,350 others reside in San Bernardino County.

Blindness Support Services: (951) 341-9244 or

California Department of Rehabilitation, Inland Empire District's main office: (951) 782- 6650 or

Braille Institute, Desert Center: (760) 321-1111 or

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