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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Lesson 12: Accessing Written Communication

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Man using electronic magnifier to read a book

Gaining access to printed information is one of the major needs of individuals with visual impairments.

Printed information has never been more immediately available or obtainable as it is now. Our daily lives are full of signs that advertise restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, doctor offices, and other businesses. There are street signs, highway markers, traffic control signs, and bus stop signs to help people get around in the environment. Businesses and residences receive what is now called "snail-mail" six days a week.

Electronic information has changed the way society lives and functions. The amount of printed information now available nearly immediately is almost incalculable. Want to know the menu of a new restaurant? Search it on your phone, and in seconds, you have the answer. Planning a trip to Niagara Falls? Go to Google Maps or plug the route into your GPS. These days most businesses prefer that you use a smartphone, tablet, or computer to communicate electronically via their websites and social media accounts.

Prior to vision loss, you may have used computers and mobile devices in your daily life, but now, you might think that you can't access those tools. Every electronic device you've used in the past is still available to help you continue your everyday independence and quality of life as a visually impaired person. You can still pay your bills online, send e-mails to colleagues, respond to a text about lunch, and check your calendar about a hair appointment all on your smartphone or tablet. In fact, printed information has never been more accessible to people with little or no vision.

This lesson will discuss non-optical and optical tools for handling printed information, and Lesson 19 will explain how to use your smartphone, tablet, and computer to accomplish all of the tasks mentioned above and more.

Lesson Goals

  • Access print and handwritten documents using personal readers, magnification devices, and video magnifiers;
  • Manage monetary transactions using debit and credit cards;
  • Pay bills using checks and bank transfers;
  • Oversee financial records using large print, magnification, personal banker or reader;
  • Communicate via handwritten correspondence using a variety of handwriting guides.

Click here to review the learning checks before reading the lesson.

Accessing Documents Using Personal Readers, Magnification Devices, and Video Magnifiers

man and woman reading together on the couch

Even though the majority of tasks involving print communication can be handled with electronic devices, every day your mailbox contains bills, invitations to community events, greeting cards, handwritten notes with photos, and lots of junk mail. There are still forms to complete at places like the doctor's office. Your favorite restaurant may have a large print menu, but the lighting may prevent you from reading it. The print on the bill along with the server's handwriting may be impossible to read, and the signature line impossible to see if you pay with a credit card. There are labels to read and items to purchase at the grocery store, pharmacy, and department stores.

Personal Reader

As the examples above indicate, in spite of electronic devices, there are situations when it's simply faster and more convenient to use the services of another human being. An example is prioritizing your print mail. It's frustrating to scan six documents with a scanner or take a picture with your phone and discover that three of them are credit card offers or some other junk mail. A personal reader can quickly look at each envelope and separate the junk from the items you need read.

Screening a Personal Reader

Whether you hire someone as a reader or use the services of a volunteer, treat the relationship like a professional one, even if it's a friend or family member. When meeting an applicant who is a stranger—even if he or she is recommended by someone you know—for the first time, make sure you have someone with you. Do not meet alone with anyone you do not know or trust. Consider all of the following suggestions when interviewing individuals you do not know very well. Modify the questions if the applicant is a friend, family member, or neighbor.

  • Carefully explain the job duties and expectations to the applicant. For example, tell the applicant how frequently you need a reader, how many hours you will need per session, the type of materials you would like the applicant to read, and salary if applicable.
  • Ask about the applicant's educational background and what kind of books he likes to read. (This will give you an idea about his level of vocabulary.)
  • Ask questions about the applicant's experience in reading aloud. (You need a reader who reads well out loud.)
  • Always have every applicant read aloud to you during the interview. Provide at least three different types of documents (one-page in length) for the applicant to read aloud.
  • Ask about the applicant's current job or work history to gain information about work habits, organizational skills, problem-solving abilities, and ability to maintain confidentiality.
  • Ask why the applicant is interested in reading for you.

Once you select an applicant you'd like to hire, discuss the following:

  • Ask for three references unless you know the individual extremely well. You need to do all you can to protect yourself, your home, and your personal information.
  • Agree to a short trial period—three months, for example. During this time both you and the reader can decide if it's a good fit. If it is, you can renegotiate.
  • Set a definite time and location for meetings. It doesn't have to be in your home. Insist that the reader is punctual and use the scheduled time for reading and related tasks.
  • Establish a clear cancellation policy.
  • Keep a log of the reader's hours that both of you initial at each session.
  • If the reader is paid, both of you should keep financial records and review them monthly.

Your responsibilities preparing for the reader include the following:

  • Have all materials ready at least 15 minutes before the scheduled session.
  • Be prepared to work and avoid chit-chat until the scheduled work session is over.
  • Turn off your phones during the reading session unless an important call is expected!
  • Thank the reader even if she is paid. Everyone likes to be appreciated!
  • Do something special every month for a volunteer reader.

Situational Readers

Most customer service staff members are very willing to assist you with shopping, especially if you consistently shop in the same store. Here, the best tools are a smile and a friendly personality. Even if you aren't usually outgoing, do your best to converse with the person assisting you and make him feel comfortable. Humor is often the best way to make your helper relax. If you are grocery shopping, have a list you can read or give to your helper. Make sure your list follows the layout of the store. If you have some unusual items on your list, describe them to your helper if possible. For example, the gluten-free cereal is in an orange bag with black letters, and there is a purple "GF" in the top right corner. If someone is especially helpful, notify the store manager. The next time you go shopping that person will want to assist you again. If you go at a time when the store is usually less busy, your assistant will have more time to help.

If you frequently travel alone for business, you probably find yourself dining alone in restaurants. You might find it necessary to ask the server to read the menu to you. It's a good idea to plan ahead and perhaps ask for the list of seafood or pasta, for example, rather than asking to hear the entire menu. Later, you may ask the server to read the bill. If you never dine out alone, there still may be times when you want to ask the server to read a section of the menu to you, especially the bill.

If you have an appointment where forms must be completed, let the office staff know that you will need assistance and arrive early if you are going alone. If you have a personal reader, you may want the forms mailed prior to the appointment so your reader can help you complete them. Once you are comfortable using your tablet or computer, you will probably find it easier to have the forms both sent and returned electronically

Using Magnifying Devices to Access Mail and Other Printed Information

older woman learning to use a magnifier and task lighting to read

Look back at the sections on magnifiers and evaluate your own needs as they relate to the various types of magnification described in Lesson 8. A handheld magnifier might help you sort your mail by enlarging the logos on the outsides of envelopes. A lighted stand magnifier might work for reading short documents or handwritten notes. Depending on the amount of magnification you need, some lamp/magnifier combos may also eliminate the need for a full-time personal reader. All three of these devices are rather inexpensive and may be used in a variety of situations. Handheld magnifiers are great for reading menus, store coupons, clothing tags, and business cards.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on handheld magnifiers and lighted stand magnifiers.

Desktop electronic video magnifiers can be quite expensive, but they do allow people with low vision to handle every reading and writing task you can imagine. The portable electronic magnifier is small enough to take with you to doctors' offices and other appointments where you need to read and sign numerous documents. These can also be helpful in restaurants and stores.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on desktop electronic video magnifiers and portable electronic magnifiers.

Monetary Transactions Using Debit and Credit Cards

In Lesson 10 you learned how to tactilely identify coins and several ways to identify and organize currency. Although cash is certainly an efficient way to handle daily purchases, it's not safe to carry a lot of cash or to expose the contents of your wallet to strangers nearby. Debit and credit cards can help you avoid these concerns. Both simply require a swipe of the card and a signature on a screen or slip of paper. If you use a credit card for most of your purchases, you can consolidate those costs into one payment that you can handle with one check or one transaction online. The bill itself can serve as a record for any income tax items, such as pharmacy charges or doctor bills. Remember, you can always get a printed or electronic copy of your annual charges from your pharmacy and doctors. The idea is to minimize print bills that come through the mail.

Paying Bills the Old Fashioned Way

You may not feel completely comfortable paying bills online and prefer to use checks or bank transfers. Ask your banker about large-print and tactile checks. Even if you can't clearly read the print on a large-print check, you may be able to see the lines well enough to fill them out, or you may be able to use a handheld or lamp/magnifier to complete the task. This is another task you can do under the camera of the desktop video magnifier. If your vision is extremely limited, you might want to try raised-line checks. On these special checks, each of the five areas on the check is marked with a raised line for you to write on. Another option is a check-writing guide, which is a template that has cutouts for the five areas of a standard check. You simply place the guide over your regular check and write within the cutouts.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on raised-line checks and check templates.

Another way to manage bill paying is to have your banker set up bank drafts or transfers for some or all of your bills. Every month, for example, your utility bill, house payment, health insurance, phone, and Internet bills can be automatically withdrawn from your account in much the same way your social security or retirement checks are deposited. Again, this is one more way to reduce incoming print bills.

Reconciling Financial Statements and Reviewing Financial Records

Once you feel confident using technology, you will probably want to check your bank statements, investments, and retirement financials online. In the meantime, you have a few choices. Some desktop video magnifiers let you divide the screen in half. On one side you can view your bank statement and on the other your check register. This is an almost painless way of reconciling your account. Your bank probably has a free phone service dedicated to bank account information. You can review checking, savings, brokerage accounts, and loans. Ask your banker about this option and how it works. It's wise to have a personal banker and financial advisor you can contact when you have a problem. Some personal bankers will meet with you in your home on a regular basis to review and explain all of those documents that come through the mail on a monthly or quarterly basis.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on reviewing financial records. 

Handwriting Guides

Access to print is not limited to just the printed materials you need and want to read, but includes your ability to communicate in print. In the past, you may have sent birthday cards to friends and family, but now you can't address the envelope. You always made a grocery list, but now you just try to remember what you need when you shop. Lesson 10 introduced signature guides, and in the previous paragraphs of this lesson, you learned about check writing templates. Along with these items, the specialty companies that sell products for people with vision loss also have envelope templates and a variety of full-page (8.5- by 11-inch) writing guides.

The envelope guide has four spaces for the address of the person you are writing and three spaces for your return address. The full-page guides come in several styles. One style is similar to the check writing and envelope guides, except it fits over a piece of plain printer paper and has half-inch cutouts all the way down the template. These guides are black so the cutouts contrast sharply when used over white paper. You can attach them to a piece of paper with paper clips or clip the paper and guide onto a clipboard. Keep your place by attaching a paper clip to one side of the guide and move it from one cutout line to the next as you move down the page. A similar guide is made like a folder, blank on one side and cutouts on the other. The paper fits inside.

Another style of full-page writing guide is called a string board. The back is made like a picture frame that the paper fits into. Instead of cutouts, strings are attached across the guide. As you write along the string, you can push down on the string to write the letters f, g, j, etc. that descend below the line. Another helpful feature is a bead that slides along the string. If the phone or doorbell rings, you can mark your place with the bead. You can also push the bead from one side to the other as you finish writing on each line.

Do you find it difficult even with some usable vision to write in a straight line or see the lines on ordinary lined notebook paper? Companies selling products for people with visual impairments carry a special writing paper called bold line paper. There are two styles. One has very thick dark lines that are approximately 1 inch apart. This paper is designed for users who need to write with a bold pen. The other style has thinner lines that are a little closer together.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on writing guides.

If you need to write a short message or take a few notes but don't have your writing guide, try this trick: take an ordinary piece of paper and fold it in 1.5-inch or 1-inch wide strips, creasing the paper each time you fold it. Once the entire piece of paper is folded and creased, unfold it. You have created a raised line template to write on.

No doubt you noticed that recreational reading is not included in this lesson. The Library of Congress Talking Book program and other audio and large print options will be covered in Lesson 17.


Learning Checks

Before hiring a stranger as a personal reader, which of the following precautions should you take?

  1. Do not meet alone with the individual
  2. Try to meet somewhere other than your home
  3. Ask for three references
  4. All of the above

Answer: d

During each session with a personal reader, which of the following should you avoid?

  1. Turning off your phones unless an emergency call is expected
  2. Having all materials organized for the reading session
  3. Chatting before you work
  4. Keeping a schedule log that both of you initial each time you meet

Answer: c

This lesson reintroduces three inexpensive magnifiers to assist with Accessing Mail and Other Printed Information. What are they?

  1. Monocular, CCTV, full-page magnifier
  2. Handheld, lamp/magnifier, lighted stand magnifier
  3. Portable electronic magnifier, bioptic telescope, lighted stand magnifier
  4. Monocular, lamp/magnifier, portable electronic magnifier

Answer: b

What are two ways you can keep the majority of your financial information private, if you are using a personal reader?

  1. Set up bank drafts or transfers for your monthly bills
  2. Purchase items with a credit card, then pay online or over the phone
  3. Use money orders purchased at the Post Office
  4. None of the above

Answer: a and b

Several writing guides were described in this lesson, check, envelope, and full-page. What were the three advantages of the string board guide?

  1. Strings serve as lines and make it easy to write letters that descend below the line
  2. The guide is dark in color and makes it easy to see the paper behind it
  3. Each string has a bead that can move to mark your place
  4. The picture frame design holds the paper in place

Answer: a, c, and d

Click here to return to the beginning of the lesson.


VisionAware Resources

The following links will take you to VisionAware online resources that support this lesson. Please be advised that information in these links may go beyond the scope of this lesson or this course.

Magnifiers and Magnifying Products for People Who Are Visually Impaired

Handheld Magnifiers, Lighted Stand Magnifiers, and Other "Near" Optical Devices

Desktop Electronic Video Magnifiers for Individuals with Vision Loss

Portable Electronic Magnifiers for Individuals with Vision Loss

Raised-Line Checks, Large Print Checks, and Check Templates

Reviewing and Reconciling Financial Records with Vision Loss

Commercial and Homemade Writing Guides for Individuals with Vision Loss


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