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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 February 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 2

Access Technology for Daily Living

A Day in the Life: Technology that Assists a Visually Impaired Person Throughout the Day

In this special issue of AccessWorld we're rolling out the red carpet and introducing ourselves to a growing population that is all too frequently overlooked and chronically underserved: seniors who are blind or have low vision. At AccessWorld, our mission is to find and share innovative new ways in which technology can enhance and improve the lives of those with visual impairments, from finding and keeping a new job, to enjoying recreational activities independently or with friends and family. We'd like to take this opportunity to outline and describe just a tiny sampling of the mainstream and "blindness aware" technology we cover from month to month. Read on, and you will discover solutions to life's little challenges that you can use throughout your day, from the time you wake up until it's time to say goodnight.

Good Morning: Accessible Alarm Clocks

If you use an alarm clock to wake up, not too many years ago you would have needed to purchase a special, adaptive large number clock face, or one of only a few talking clocks. Today nearly every electronics, department, or discount store sells a clock that speaks the time aloud. Some of the most popular include Talking Atomic Clocks, which use radio signals to automatically set themselves to match official US Atomic Clock Time and date. Most can also be set manually with voice feedback, and many include extra features such as hourly or half-hourly chimes to help you track your day, and indoor and outdoor temperature announcements.

Dislike pushing buttons? The Moshi Voice-Interactive Alarm Clock may be just the ticket. Moshi clocks respond to voice commands, such as "What time is it?" and "Set an alarm for 7:30 AM."

Taking the Correct Medications

In the past, those with visual impairments had to rely on creative and innovative ways to identify their prescription bottles to confirm they were taking the correct medication. Some used braille labels; others relied on the different pill shapes and sizes, or put rubber bands around some bottles and stored different medications in different locations to help keep them straight. You still had to remember which medication to take when and how often, however, and this could be confusing if you were taking several different medicines.

Happily, thanks to considerable lobbying, new guidelines have been set to help ensure the accessibility of medication bottles and packages.

Most national chain and mail-order pharmacies now offer some variety of free, accessible prescription labeling. Ask your pharmacist if they offer this service, and if yours does not, consider switching to a pharmacy that does. Three popular labeling solutions include:

  • Talking Pill Reminders: These talking reminders attach to a prescription bottle and include a beeping reminder alert, along with the ability to record and replay an audio message describing the container's contents and proper dosage.
  • Audio Digital Label: This gum-wrapper-size device is programmed by the pharmacist with the prescription name, dosage, doctor's name, refill date, and other critical information. Press the device's single button and the information is spoken in clear, easy-to-understand synthesized speech.
  • The ScripTalk Station: This free device works in conjunction with specially tagged prescription bottles provided by participating pharmacies. Tap the pill bottle against the top of the Station and the medication name, dosage, and other information is spoken aloud. The ScripTalk Station can also be connected to a computer to obtain additional drug information.

Some Must-Have Technology: Computers and Mobile Devices

We mentioned in the last section that you can connect a ScripTalk Station to a computer to get additional medication information. As we proceed through our day, we will encounter more and more devices and services that require a computer or a mobile smartphone or tablet. You will discover that gaining a working knowledge of at least one, and preferably both of these technologies is going to be essential in enhancing your quality of life through accessibility.

If learning to use a talking computer or smartphone sounds daunting, it isn't. We at the American Foundation for the Blind have compiled a series of comprehensive guides to help you get started, including Using a Computer with a Visual Impairment: A Beginner's Guide to Computer Accessibility and Cell Phones, Tablets, and Other Mobile Technology for Users with Visual Impairments.

If you prefer to stick with your trusted flip phone, there are several models still available that use synthetic speech to announce the Caller ID, your contact list, even text messages you send and receive. After you read the Mobile Guide, however, we feel confident you will want to switch to a smartphone running either the Google Android operating system or the Apple iOS operating system. Your mobile carrier can even help you select the phone that is best for your needs, and offer help with accessibility issues ranging from alternate billing methods to technical support with your new device.

If you already have a computer, most have built-in accessibility features, including screen readers and magnification software. If you don't own a computer and funds are limited, check in with the folks at Computers for the Blind where they refurbish donated computers and offer them at discounted prices to the visually impaired.

Out and About: Orientation and Mobility

If you're employed, it's time to head off to work. If you're retired, maybe it's time to take a walk or run an errand. You could ask your spouse or a friend to come along or give you a ride, but of course you'd prefer to be as independent as possible. You're going to need some orientation and mobility (O&M) training.

Orientation is the ability to know where you are and where you want to go, whether you're moving from one room to another, or walking downtown for a shopping trip. Mobility is the ability to move safely, efficiently, and effectively from one place to another, crossing streets, and using public transportation with a white cane, guide dog, or another mobility aid. These skills and others are taught by professional O&M instructors. Find one using the AFB VisionAware state by state Directory of Services.

As part of your O&M training, your instructor will doubtless introduce you to some of the many high-tech mobility aids now available, including the following:

  • Trekker Breeze: This handheld GPS navigation device is both powerful and easy to use. It can announce your current location and map out a route to your destination, announcing cross streets and shops, restaurants, and other points of interest (POIs) as you go. Later, it can retrace your route to take you back home.
  • GPS on your mobile device: The iOS and Android smartphones all include built-in GPS receivers along with access to Apple and Google maps respectively. Each of these mobile mapping services is free and extremely accessible, but there are also a number of blindness aware navigation apps that provide spoken street crossing announcements, "look around" features that speak the names of POIs as you point your device in various directions, and many other extra bits of information that make traveling safer and more enjoyable for those with visual impairments. Two of the most popular of these navigation apps are Nearby Explorer for Android and Blindsquare for iOS.

Both Google Maps and Apple Maps have begun to incorporate local transit information, so you may also be able to use your mobile phone to check the schedule, plan a route, and find the nearest bus, train, or subway stop to start you on your journey.

Getting Down to Business: Scheduling and Reading

Whether you are still working or enjoying an active retirement, your calendar is probably full--now you just need to keep track of your various appointments. Mobile phones and tablets all come with preinstalled calendar apps that work well with the built-in magnification and screen reading software. You can also access your calendar on your computer, enter new appointments, and have them automatically synched with your mobile device so you can check your schedule on the go. Many talking feature phones also include accessible calendar software, but it is considerably more difficult to sync this information with your home PC.

It's easy to access your favorite newspapers and magazines. We also mentioned several sources for accessible books and other reading matter. But what about that memo you found lying on your desk? Or your daily mail? Until quite recently, people with visual impairments relied on "reading machines" and special OCR software to turn the printed page into machine readable text. But these days, reading a printed page can be as easy as snapping a picture with a mobile device. Thanks to the KNFB Reader, a text recognition app that is now available for both Android and iOS devices, all you need to do is point your phone at the printed page or envelope you'd like to read, tap the "Take Picture" control, and in seconds the text will be recognized and read aloud.

It's Lunchtime: Finding a Place to Eat, Paying for Your Meal, and Enjoying Social Media

Getting hungry? Your GPS navigation app can list all the nearby restaurants, from burger joints to that fancy French bistro you've always meant to try. These days you can even consult the menu online before going to the restaurant. Still don't know where you want to eat? Consider a mobile app like Yelp, which not only lists all of the local restaurants and other businesses, it also offers user rankings and reviews, menus, and the ability to scan your options by category, such as Italian Cuisine, or Take Out.

So you settled for fast food, and it's time to pay for your burger, fries, and shake. Now, is that bill in your hand a fiver, a ten-spot or a $20? There are several apps that can identify paper currency held in front of your mobile device's camera. The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing offers a pair of currency identification mobile apps for iOS and Android. They also offer a free iBill Money Identifier. Insert the edge of any bill into the iBill and it will announce the denomination in your choice of speech or beep tones.

Wow--the afternoon flew by, and it's time to head home. The bus doesn't travel to your suburban home, so you are waiting for the paratransit van, which offers curb to curb service to people with disabilities. You have a few minutes until the van arrives, so why not check Facebook and see how your granddaughter's dance recital went? The recital's photo collection is easy to follow along with, because your daughter-in-law always adds descriptive captions to each image she posts. Facebook is constantly striving to make its website and mobile apps more accessible to the sight impaired.

Home at Last: Identifying Objects and Making Purchases

You're still full from lunch, so you think maybe you'll just heat up a can of soup for dinner. Here's the challenge: there are about a hundred cans in your cabinet, and you have no interest in playing a game of pantry roulette. This is one of those situations where it would be nice if you could borrow a pair of eyes, just for a few minutes. Believe it or not, you can do just that.

Be My Eyes is an iPhone app that connects you to a network of over a quarter million volunteers. The app uses your device's camera to initiate a video session, during which the volunteer can look through your phone and help you distinguish the can of chicken noodle from the tomato soup. The app will be available for Android smartphones soon, and best of all, both the app and the service are free.

Oops, that was your last can of chicken noodle soup. It's time to buy more. Check with your local grocery store--it may already offer online ordering with home delivery, or perhaps it is about to.

You can also purchase most non-perishable food items online, along with most anything else you would like delivered straight to your front door, from dish soap to a new TV. The best place to get started is at Amazon. They offer a screen reader optimized web interface and their mobile apps are quite accessible.

Time for Some Fun: TV and Movies

Did you know there are special secondary audio tracks on many TV programs where a narrator describes the action?

Many movie theaters also offer special headsets on request that play an audio description track synced to the action on the screen. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) includes a number of provisions regulating the production and availability of accessible broadcast media and devices: television sets, set-top boxes, digital video recorders (DVRs) and descriptive video for broadcast and non-broadcast channel programing. To put it simply, starting in July of 2016 many more TV networks and local channels and cable systems will be required to provide even more hours of descriptive programming every week. New TV sets, DVRs and cable boxes must also be made accessible to the blind. For a thorough look at the impact of this barrier-breaking legislation, check out Is Accessible TV Viewing Finally on its Way? in the January 2015 issue of AccessWorld.

Many new sets, including the latest models from Samsung, already feature a voice guide that voice announces channel numbers, program names, and the upcoming week's schedule. Comcast subscribers can already get a Voice Guide, which can be easily accessed using the cable box remote.

And while we're on the subject of remotes, how would you like to replace that table full of remotes with a single remote that's easy to see? Consider the illuminated Big Button Remote, available for $24.95 from the Chicago Lighthouse. For even more accessible TV remotes, check out AFB's Esther's Place, a virtual model apartment where each room features a number of accessible products and appliances for people with varying degrees of vision loss.

Day's End

It's the end of our virtual tour, and it's time to leave the virtual bedroom and head to your actual one. We at AccessWorld hope that after you set your talking thermostat and take your nightly medications, you'll sleep a little better, having learned many of the ways technology can help you reclaim your independence and enjoy your senior years. We also hope to see you next month back here at AccessWorld so we can introduce you to even more groundbreaking accessibility products and technologies. In the meantime, we'd love to hear from you.

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