Blind World Magazine

New Devices Aid the Vision-Impaired.

December 20, 2005.
The Wall Street Journal.

Esther Smith is 81 years old and lost her central vision to macular degeneration 10 years ago. She can't drive and can't see well enough to read.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, one in every six people who are 65 and older has a serious vision problem, and the proportion increases to one in three by age 85. Serious vision problems include but aren't limited to vision loss from macular degeneration, diabetes or other illnesses, loss of central or peripheral vision.

Judy Scott, a director of the National Center on Age-Related Vision Loss with the American Foundation for the Blind in Dallas, said most seniors have some usable vision, even if they have begun to experience difficulty seeing because of macular degeneration, diabetes, or another condition.

However, "just about anything you need to do in your daily life is an issue," Ms. Scott said. "People often think they can't continue to live independently whether it's in their own home, or through assisted living." Ms. Scott herself can only see light, and has had trouble seeing since her mid-teens due to retinal degeneration. She is in her mid-50s now.

Modern technology can present special challenges to older people. For instance, they may have difficulty with flat-panel devices such as ovens or stoves where there are only buttons and no knobs.

But recent breakthroughs are helping many people communicate and function even if they have extremely poor vision.

As an example, New York-based Elia Life Technology Inc. is marketing a recently developed tactile alphabet called ELIA, which has symbols that are somewhat related to the letters in the Roman alphabet. "This builds on a person's existing knowledge, and you can use what you know to transition you to reading tactilely," Elia Life Technology President Andrew Chepaitis said.

There are nine symbols enclosed in a circular frame and 17 symbols enclosed in a rectangular frame. This is based on the characteristics of the Roman alphabet letters. (For example, the rounded letters are A, B, C, D, O, P, Q, R and S).

Elia Life Technology currently has a home labeling kit that is available for $24.99 that includes a set of commonly needed household labels such as canned good, clothes, bathroom containers and cleaning supplies. In six months, a label maker will be available for $74.99.

Another new device is the joint optical reflective display, or Jordy, goggles that consist of two small high-definition television sets that sit in front of your eyes. There is a digital camcorder that records the images and enhances the picture and plays it back on the television.

[Jordy goggles] Jordy goggles are among the high-tech devices that can help improve vision among elderly patients, as well as others.

The device weighs about 6 ounces and its name refers to the Star Trek character Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge, who was blind and saw with the aid of a visor over his eyes.

Scott Hearing, a vision optometrist in Jupiter, Fla., says young people often use the device while moving around, while older people tend to use it mostly for reading. It costs about $3,000.

According to vision-loss experts, one major issue for seniors who are losing their vision is difficulty with reading. And even though Braille has been around since the 1800s, experts agree that it is difficult for previously sighted people to learn because it involves multiple patterns of dots that must be recognized by touch.

"People don't learn new things easily when they get older," said Dawn Suvino, an instructor in New York at Baruch College computer center for the visually impaired. "If you developed your literacy skills using standard print, transitioning to something like Braille that has no real conceptual link to print is pretty difficult." Ms. Suvino, 43, lost her vision when she was 15 years old from an illness.

Fewer than 25% of blind people know Braille, according to Alan Morse, president and chief executive of the Jewish Guild for the Blind, in New York. Children who are born blind have the easiest time learning Braille because their primary means of communication is Braille, "but if you lose your vision at age 60, 70 or 80, Braille isn't going to be effective."

Also, as people get older, they lose their sense of touch, especially if they have diabetes.

Experts agree that a labeling function is a use for a system like ELIA. "The idea that all communication doesn't have to be at the highest level is a useful one," Mr. Morse said. "Braille isn't useful for all blind people and ELIA has a chance to effectively and safely mark household products in basic terms."

Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Suvino tried learning Braille. Ms. Smith, of Dallas, had trouble learning the system because "my fingers aren't small and my finger would overrun the group of dots and would also run over the next group of dots, and I was terribly confused if the dot represented a letter or number." She said, "I finally gave up because I have some sight I can depend on."

Ms. Suvino, of New York, also tried several times to learn Braille, but "couldn't feel the dots easily." However, "some people will lose vision later in life and will learn Braille and do very well with it," she said.

Ms. Scott "blind-proofed" her home by using simple techniques, such as color contrasting, and putting Velcro dots on certain numbers on her microwave and oven, washer and dryer. She also uses her computer often, relying on a program called Window-Eyes, a screen-reader from GW Micro Inc. that works with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows program. Another popular screen-reading program is JAWS, made by Freedom Scientific Inc.

Ms. Smith uses a scanner called SARA that reads documents out loud, and a portable magnifier that makes print six times its normal size. She also uses plastic raised bumps on her appliances and phones. "I try not to make it obvious that my home is coded, I don't like to be obvious about it," Ms. Smith said.

Write to Josee Rose at

Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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