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Gift Ideas for Friends and Family Members Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

colorful gift bags and boxes

It's that time of year again, when we’re all searching for gift-giving ideas. If you have close friends or family members who are blind or visually impaired or losing their sight, here are some gift-giving guides you might want to check out. From young children to working-age adults to seniors who are gradually losing their vision, the American Foundation for the Blind has you covered.

AccessWorld® brings you some high- and low-tech gift ideas that are completely accessible to people who are blind or who have low vision—and they are all priced under $100. Check out the AccessWorld 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Great High- and Low-Tech Ideas Under $100 and then read Janet Ingber's guide to shopping online.

Help AFB every time you shop online—Would you like to be able to donate to AFB quickly and easily, without increasing the cost of your online shopping? Check out our Other Ways to Give page for details on how to add a charitable bent to your online gift purchases year-round.

2015 Peanuts-themed 16-month calendar, with Snoopy and Woodstock on the cover. Includes 120 fun stickers!

FamilyConnect® has pulled together a number of suggestions for parents of children who are blind or visually impaired who are looking for fun, accessible games, books, and toys to give for the holidays—as well as gifts and gadgets for their teenagers! Visit the FamilyConnect 2014 Gift Ideas for Parents of Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired for great gift ideas, as well as helpful articles and links to other sites' holiday guides and sales.

Moshi IVR Voice Controlled Talking Alarm Clock

VisionAware™ has a myriad of ideas to choose from, especially for friends and loved ones who are new to vision loss. Some of them are specially adapted for people with vision loss, and some are inexpensive mainstream products. Visit VisionAware’s Holiday Gift Ideas for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired as well as the Peer Advisors' Holiday Gift Picks.

Helen kneels with four children who are all holding toys

You can send a free, accessible, large print eCard featuring a Helen Keller quotation and a beautiful archival photo to a friend or loved one.

"Nothing of value can be done without joy."
- Helen Keller

Braille Bug mug And for teachers and parents, the AFB Store now offers some wonderful presents, including an adorable Braille Bug® mug! Visit the gifts for friends page for more ideas.

And finally, we are proud to remind you of our partnership with the Chicago Lighthouse Tools for Living Store™, which carries beautiful print/braille cards, adaptive technology, independent living aids, lighting products, games, toys, kitchen gadgets, and more. The Chicago Lighthouse will donate a portion of your eligible purchases back to AFB when you shop using our affiliate links.

If you are on Pinterest, be sure to check out AFB's gift ideas board.

Please share your ideas below! What have been some of your best stocking stuffers, games, or big-ticket items, for loved ones who are blind or visually impaired?

Helpful Products

Feedback From the Field: AFB Organizes Letter to the Institute for Education Sciences Advocating for Research in Blindness, Visual Impairment, and Deaf-blindness

The Institute for Education Sciences (IES) is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, responsible for sponsoring and conducting research and disseminating evidence to support education practices and policy. IES sponsors research through grant competitions run by its national centers, including the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). In August of 2014, IES asked stakeholders to provide feedback about the focus and work of NCER and NCSER, in order to help ensure that the centers are supporting and promoting significant, meaningful research.

The American Foundation for the Blind organized a national conference call of professionals in the fields of blindness/visual impairment (BVI) and deaf-blindness (DB) to gather opinions and develop a collaborative response to IES’s request. Based on the feedback provided during the call and via email, we developed a letter which expresses the major concerns of the two fields and advocates for specific solutions. This letter was shared broadly with professionals in BVI and DB, who conveyed strong support for the themes and suggestions expressed to IES. Fifty-six professionals and sixteen non-profit organizations and university departments added their signatures to the letter before it was submitted on October 31, 2014.

We are proud of this letter and the collaborative process and look forward to a response from IES. We also believe that the contents of the letter provide valuable insight, far beyond IES, into the research priorities in BVI and DB. Some of the key messages in our letter include:

  • Collaboration: Given that few BVI and DB research proposals, particularly university-based proposals, have been funded by IES in recent years, IES should collaborate with the fields and consider ways to identify and remove barriers and to improve the alignment between IES’s research goals and the urgent research needs for students with BVI and DB.
  • Support: NCSER should establish targeted training and supports for low-incidence/sensory disability research. Low-incidence studies require unique research strategies, often including qualitative and/or single-subject designs. With assistance and collaboration, researchers in our fields can be better prepared to write successful proposals to address IES priorities.
  • Informed review: IES should evaluate the extent to which all panel reviewers of BVI and DB proposals are aware of the unique population characteristics and research approaches associated with low-incidence and sensory disability studies. Characteristics of our student populations (such as low-incidence and high coincidence of additional disabilities) should not negatively impact researchers’ opportunities for funding.
  • Diverse, changing fields: Research is urgently needed to address the diverse and changing nature of the fields of BVI and DB. The population of students with BVI and DB includes students with a range of visual acuities, including students with low vision who have specific needs related to low vision devices, literacy, technology, and social supports. We must have research to understand and improve these students' access to education. Additionally, the BVI and DB fields increasingly serve students with additional disabilities whose unique learning needs require specialized personnel, tools, and teaching methods. At the same time, braille instruction must change at the K-12 and university levels to address the national transition to Unified English Braille, and technology is reshaping inclusive classrooms. Our students must have evidence-based tools and techniques to be able to keep pace with their peers. All of these are immediate needs, justifying a targeted funding program for the fields of BVI and DB.
  • Longitudinal research: Longitudinal research is needed to help our fields understand the longer-term student outcomes with respect to technology, science technology engineering and math (STEM) education, service delivery models, personnel preparation, and interventions.

Please continue to AFB’s Public Policy Center site to read the entire letter to IES and/or to download a printable, PDF version of the letter. If you have any questions about the letter, please contact Rebecca Sheffield, AFB’s Senior Policy Researcher, at

Public Policy

Comcast Announces New Talking Guide for Access to Television

Comcast has just announced a solution to a huge television-watching problem.

What is the problem?

Imagine if there were a way to turn on the description (the special feature to narrate the visual elements of a show for people who are blind or visually impaired) on your favorite shows! Imagine being able to check your television to find out what is on right now, or up next, the name of the show, the channel the show is on, or the channel the TV is tuned to. (If you are wondering what "description" could be, check out this overview of audio description.)

Back in the olden days, I bought a device at Radio Shack that had, among other features, a button that would let me switch to SAP audio (the special "channel" that contains description or alternate language audio). So, I would change TV channels on my remote like anybody else, but the audio of the TV would go through this device and, if there was description, or Spanish (or Chinese or Russian...) on that channel, that would be the audio I would hear. Life was perfect.

Well, everybody didn't have that option even then, and now, most of us have to use the onscreen menus on our television, via the cable system, to turn on description. We could also use those menus to select a show, find out what is on, record a show for later, but we can't see those pesky menus. Solution? (Take the television to the recycling center?)

Now, if you are a Comcast customer, or could become one, this is changing.

The Solution

The modern set-top box for Comcast is called X1, and it is in millions of homes and moving into more. Those customers will be receiving an upgrade, which will happen automatically, and will get talking menus they can turn on any time they wish to have accessibility, or just like to have things talk to them.

Comcast remote, with the A button highlighted, and audio description icon nearby

Comcast X1 remote, with the triangular 'A' button highlighted. Pressing the A button twice toggles voice guidance on/off.

I've gotten a chance to try this technology out twice. Basically, you press the "A" button on your remote twice (the remote, shown here, has a series of distinctly shaped buttons which are called "B," "B," "C," and "D"), and then activate the talking menus. Once you've done that, you are home free. You can do the obvious—turn on the description for shows that have it—and, you can do most of the other things Comcast customers would reasonably want to do with these menus (if you've never had access to those menus, you might not be aware that you can read short summaries of upcoming episodes, record a show, play one back, select on-demand movies, and many other exciting things).

Comcast is responding to requirements set forth in a law known as the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the company is far ahead of the competition since the requirements for accessible set-top boxes don't start until December 2016. And, the new feature gives us access to more than will be required at that time. In other words, Comcast is setting a high bar for the rest of the television field to follow.

Is the new feature perfect? No, and Tom Wlodkowski from Comcast was quick to point out things that Comcast already agrees need to be improved. But, he felt, and I agree, that moving forward with something people can really use and then improving it later is the way to go.

So, when you get this feature in your home, you'll notice right away that there is a delay between the time you press an arrow key and the time you hear the menu item you've landed on. Comcast has plans to speed this up, but for now we'll have to be patient. Also, this new feature doesn't do anything to change the contrast on the visual menu display, or let users with low vision switch the contrast (black on white, white on black) but this is also something Comcast knows people need to be able to do.

Is there more?

Yes! Comcast is dedicated to accessibility. They have a lot more going on than set-top boxes. They've already released apps with accessibility features and have more features in the works. And, Comcast is involved in telephone, Internet, and home security areas, so we can hope for better accessibility in more than just entertainment. See the AccessWorld® article Comcast Accessibility: More Than Talking TV from earlier this year.

If you have Comcast in your area, keep their website handy, so you don't miss the next big thing. Better yet, keep AccessWorld handy to get the news and the detailed reviews of these new features.

If you're not a Comcast customer, and especially if you don't live in a community served by Comcast, perhaps you should contact your cable or satellite provider and ask what they are doing to make sure that blind people can use and access their set-top boxes.

Social Life and Recreation
Video Description
In the News
Helpful Products

Helen Keller and the American Foundation for the Blind's Commitment to Veterans Who Have Lost Their Sight

Thayer Gen Hospital June 1945_72

In honor of Veterans Day, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is proud to reflect on the work of its most famous employee — Helen Keller. She joined the Foundation in 1924 and remained with us until she died in 1968. Keller was a vocal advocate for returning servicemen. On behalf of AFB, between 1942 and 1944, she supported Senator Robert Wagner’s efforts to secure funding for the rehabilitation, special vocational training, placement, and supervision of blind persons, including those blinded in World War II. And between November 1944 and May 1946 she and her traveling companion Polly Thomson visited over 70 Army hospitals around the United States offering solace and hope to wounded soldiers.

On February 8th, 1945, Helen described her visits to her good friend Clare Heineman this way:

"...As Polly and I journeyed through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon and Washington we were kept high-strung by the miracles of rehabilitation we saw. Hospitals which would once have been places of heartbreak are today bright with a dynamic faith and the purpose it inspires. Wounded soldiers who a few years ago were thought doomed are regaining health, interest in living and self-confidence to reshape their future. Surgeons, physicians, educators and scientists are striving towards an unprecedented goal — restoring multitudes of injured servicemen to normal society and usefulness in a measure that has never been done in the history of the world. "

Helen made an indelible impression on everybody she met. In December 1944, a colonel in the U.S. Medical Corps wrote this to Helen from a military hospital:

"You have no idea the effect your visit to the gymnasium made. A number of the double amputees, after seeing and hearing Helen, remarked, “We have no worries now.” The impression that Helen gave that she was the one who was gaining strength and comfort by visiting with the patients made a profound impression on all of us. She is truly an inspiring character and will go down in history along with Joan of Ark, Florence Nightingale, and her position will be No. 1."

—Robert M. Hardaway, Colonel, Medical Corps, Commanding. Bushnell General Hospital, Brigham City, Utah, December 21, 1944

In 1945, the American Foundation for the Blind, under the leadership of its President and CEO, M. C. Migel responded to requests by the Veterans Administration to help set up its rehabilitation program for blinded soldiers. Migel gave $10,000 in seed money, and the Blinded Veterans Association was established.

Continuing in the footsteps of Helen Keller, the American Foundation for the Blind remains committed to assisting our nation’s veterans coping with vision loss.

Image: Helen Keller with a young injured soldier in a United States Armed Forces Hospital during World War II. She "listens" to what he is saying by placing her fingers on his lips.

All materials are from the Helen Keller Archival Collection at the American Foundation for the Blind,

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Helen Keller

The Joy of Voting Independently as a Blind or Visually Impaired Citizen

Voting with the Accu-Vote TS

Man voting with an accessible voting machine

Yesterday was Election Day, the day that we all head to the polls to cast our ballot for our chosen candidates for the many races impacting our lives. By all, I mean a decent amount of the population, especially during a non-presidential voting year. I can't tell you the pride and joy that I get out of being able to vote. It is not even just voting; it is that I was able to go to my polling location and ask to use the accessible polling option. Then, crazy thing, I was able to access the ballot and vote without the assistance of another individual. What a concept—to want to vote without having to trust another individual to cast your vote.

I live in the beautiful town of Huntington, West Virginia, and I had this access. If you don't have access in your polling area, it is time to stand up and make a fuss. We all deserve to have the right to vote independently. People who are blind or visually impaired put up with a lot of inaccessibility, from accessing all kinds of information presented only in a visual manner. Look at all of the inaccessible touch screens in stores, airports, and even at airport bars. If I want a burger, fries, and a beverage, I want to be able to order it on my own. Consider the fact that some of these businesses with touch-screen devices are using devices with built-in accessibility, but they lock you out from accessing that accessibility. I find that so ironic and frustrating—taking a device that could be accessible and locking it so it isn't.

So, my thanks to Huntington, West Virginia, and in the past, to Tallahassee, Florida, for providing me with an accessible voting experience. I know I shouldn't be thankful, but every time I go, I wonder if it will work correctly this time. Do most people wonder if the voting machine will work properly? I know in some places they wonder if the booths will disappear prior to tabulation, but that is a whole different (horrible) story.

AFB Tech has worked with a lot of the companies who manufacture these polling devices on creating access for people who are blind or visually impaired. The AFB Consulting team and the AccessWorld online technology magazine make a difference for us. I want to thank them for their work in creating accessibility so that my vote counts.

You can also visit AFB's Voting Policy page from our Public Policy Center, which advocated for the Help America Vote Act. Demand access to the process—we have to be a part of it to make change.

Personal Reflections
Public Policy