People with age-related vision loss today have witnessed three or four decades of technological advances that looked like fantasy or science fiction in their childhoods. Some have embraced that technology and kept pace with it, while others may be feeling as though technological anything is a language they can't decipher. For those who are on the outside of that technological divide, adding vision loss to the bewilderment can feel like the proverbial last straw.
While a computer outfitted with screen reading and/or magnification software plus a smartphone similarly configured can be great equalizers for many older adults with vision loss, these tools are simply too daunting for others.
The good news is that, along with our current exponential explosion of technology many products requiring very little tech savvy have also been developed. Here, then, is a roundup of low-cost (mostly under $100) items, both low-tech and no-tech, that can improve the quality of life for an older adult with vision loss.
Simple Technology, Plenty of Power
Built-in voice guidance and voice-activation are available on a number of products that are simple to use and offer copious assistance and voluminous content.
Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini
There are several Amazon Echo products, but as an introduction, the Echo Dot (second or third generation), available through Amazon, is all you need. Priced anywhere from $29 to $49, depending on the particular promotion you access, the Echo Dot can provide entertainment and information for a senior with absolutely no technological skills. You can access the weather, the news, detailed information on any topic, get the TV line-up for this evening or the phone number for the nearest pharmacy or dry cleaner. Those with Amazon accounts can order items for delivery using only voice commands. Those with Audible or Kindle accounts can have books read aloud to them via the Amazon Echo, and, even with no account, Audible offers Echo users one book free of charge every month.
The Echo Dot can even serve as an emergency device, since you can use it to call a family member or friend simply by speaking the command.
Again, while there is more than one voice assistant, the other notable small and inexpensive example, the Google Home Mini, is a fabulous introduction to the power of technology for older adults with vision loss. By saying "OK Google" to get its attention, you can access news and weather, sports and movie information, and random data ranging from how to spell "toxicity" to the biography of Shirley Temple. Because they have access to that monumental search engine, Google, the Google Home and Google Home Mini have consistently ranked higher in comparison studies when it comes to smart speakers' abilities to deliver information. Like the Echo, the Google Home Mini is often combined with other products as an enticing promotion, but is easily found at or under $49. At this writing, the Mini was available for only $29 from Walmart, Best Buy, and a few other retailers.
Please be aware that a wireless internet connection is required at the location where you will be using the voice assistant and that a smartphone or tablet will be required for first time setup. for more in depth information on voice assistants, see Making Voice Assistants Smart for Seniors: Tips for Optimizing the Amazon Echo or Google Home, by J.J. Meddaugh, also published in this issue of AccessWorld.
There are a number of iOS and Android tablets with magnification and speech capabilities built in, but the least expensive way to test the water is with another Amazon product, a Kindle Fire tablet. Fire tablets 7 and above not only have an onboard screen reader, VoiceView, but have Alexa built in as well. As with the Echo Dot, you can ask your Fire tablet, via Alexa, for the time, temperature, news headlines, or an endless stream of facts and information. For seniors who are not yet ready for the commitment and learning curve of using a smart phone with VoiceOver or TalkBack, a Fire tablet can be an inexpensive introduction to using a touchscreen and voice commands. You can listen to books, not only from Kindle and Audible.com, but also from NLS BARD if you have a BARD account with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Although Fire tablets are, of course, available from Amazon, I recommend purchasing them from Accessible Electronics, a small Florida company, operated by a business owner who is blind. Prices range from $55 to $149, depending on the model and storage capacity of the tablet, and come with the added bonus of talking out of the box. With each Kindle Fire purchase, proprietor Laz Mesa turns on VoiceView, installs Google Play, and sends a detailed Getting Started email message. Contact the company by email, or call 727-498-0121.
One of the greatest challenges with vision loss for older adults is the inability to read one's own handwriting. A simple, handheld digital recorder makes it easy to take a phone number, address, recipe, or appointment reminder, or make a note to yourself. The Micro-Speak talking digital voice recorder from A T Guys is a perfect no-frills reliable device. Turn it on and immediately hear an onboard recorded user's guide. Six buttons, easily identified by sight or touch, make recording, pausing, and playing back messages a snap. Audible beeps confirm that the desired buttons have been pressed. Files are recorded in .wav format, but the device can play both .wav and mp3 files. Connect the device to a computer and it acts as a mass storage device, enabling you to store recordings you have made on your computer and load files from other sources onto the Micro-Speak. The rechargeable battery lasts up to 20 hours. A headphone jack allows for private listening, and the warning to adjust volume before playing through a headset is no joke. For those who also have hearing difficulties, the Micro-Speak has plenty of volume! Available for $59.95 from the A T Guys website or call 269-216-4798.
Increasing the Volume on Technology for Seniors with Visual Impairments
Speaking of combined vision and hearing disabilities, here are two products that can help seniors hear their technology.
Boost Audio Amplifier
A new device available from Guidelights and Gadgets will (almost literally) blast your socks off! The Boost Audio Amplifier is an amazing rectangular box, about 3 by 5 inches, which automatically doubles the volume of any device placed on top of it. No wires or high-tech connections to make. The box pulls the sound in, and amplifies it back through the original sound source. Your iPhone, Victor Stream, Micro-Speak, or any other handheld audio device can instantly deliver music, podcasts, or audiobooks at twice the original volume. Just place your device on top of the Boost audio amplifier and stand back! Even those with significant hearing loss can hear a book or song across the room. The battery powered (three AA batteries, not included) sells for $20. Contact GuideLights and Gadgets, Inc., phone 617-969-7500; or email Barry Scheur.
Bone Conduction Headphones
Another product of interest to seniors with combined vision and hearing loss, designed for private listening, is a new set of headphones also available from Guidelights and Gadgets.
These wired headphones allow selective tailoring and attenuation of frequency ranges to meet the specific listener's needs. Bone conduction headphones allow you to listen to your environment while the headphones transmit content through the bones of your face.
Available for an introductory price of $100 through March 31.
Rainbow Reader Color Identifier for Seniors with Visual Impairments
The Rainbow Reader Color Identifier is available for $95 from the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind's Adaptations Store. This handheld device can identify colors with the press of a button, which can take some of the angst out of looking your best. Smaller than some car key fobs, it can hang on your keychain and has only one button. Hold the lens again an object, press the button, and hear its color announced. Call 888-400-8933 to order.
EZ 2 See Calendars/Planners for Seniors with Visual Impairments
Designed by a person with low vision for people with low vision, these 8.5 by 11-inch spiral bound organizer calendars can help you keep track independently and without headaches. Print is ten times larger than newspaper print, and pages have black edges to prevent writing off the page. Priced at just $20.95, there's space for all your important dates and appointments, with additional blank pages at the back. Visit Blind Mice Mega Mall or call 713-893-7277.
No-Tech Aids and Appliances for Seniors with Visual Impairments
There are an uncountable number of no-tech products intended to increase your independence without requiring you to learn a complex digital interface.
The products mentioned below can all be purchased from specialty stores that sell products for those with vision loss. The largest stores are MaxiAids, Independent Living Aids, and LS&S Products. Blind Mice Mega Mall and A T Guys, linked in the sections above, also sell products for those with vision loss, while Magnifying Aids specializes in different sorts of magnifying glasses and devices for those with low vision. In most cases, you can browse items by category or search for specific products on a company's website. In addition, many of these companies will have a print catalog available that can be sent to you.
Cane, Slate, and Stylus—For Free!
The National Federation of the Blind will give a long white cane and a braille slate and stylus at no charge to any blind person who requests them. Visit them on the web or call 410-659-9314.
Bump Dots, also called locator dots, are small adhesive-backed tactile markers that can be used to mark various items. Usually shaped as a small rounded dome, these are most commonly used to mark specific keys on appliances that lack tactile markers or to mark specific controls. Washers and dryers, ovens, dishwashers, microwaves, and more can be made readily accessible using these items. Bump Dots can be purchased in bright colors, for easy visibility for those with low vision, or clear, so that controls can still be seen beneath them. Quite affordable, these products usually sell for between $2-$5.
Talking clocks and watches are widespread and come in many different forms and with various functions. That being said, they generally have some similar features. Most talking watches or clocks will contain a button for announcing the time on demand as well as the ability to announce the time at the top of each hour. In addition, most will include an alarm function with more advanced models having advanced features such as a timer and stopwatch. Aside from size, most functions are quite similar between talking clocks and talking watches. The devices range in price from $10 to upwards of $100 for the most advanced models.
Writing guides are simple devices that are placed on top of a piece of paper to indicate where to write. They consist of a sheet of material, most commonly plastic or metal, with various openings, depending on the purpose of the guide. For example, signature guides can fit into a wallet, and larger check writing guides have openings spaced to align with the areas on the check you need to fill in. These products range in price from $1.25 to $30.
Tips on Staying Independent
The DVD "Staying in the Driver's Seat when you can no longer Drive," $30, might offer some concrete solutions for seniors new to vision loss. Available from The American Printing House for the Blind or call 800-223-1839
Writing and Braille
Of course, when it comes to written communication for people who cannot see well enough to manage print effectively, there is still absolutely no substitute for the power of braille. While someone who loses vision in their sixth or seventh decade may not become fluent enough to read novels or other lengthy tomes, braille can be learned at any age and can make the difference between independence and dependence.
There are several ways to begin, but one is with the Illinois Braille Series, now updated to contain UEB (Unified English Braille), and is available for $39 for the braille edition, $19 for the print, both from the American Printing House for the Blind.
Studying braille can also be done free of charge by enrolling in a course with Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Don't Forget to Have Fun
Figuring out that you are still the same person you have always been when vision loss occurs is a process that designs its own map for each individual traveler. While acquiring the tools and techniques for accomplishing tasks without benefit of vision, it's important to remember to have fun.
The Slide, Twist, and Solve puzzle, $18, will challenge the tactile and logistical skills of anyone ages 8 to 108. Having a little fun while learning to transfer the visual to tactile can only go in the plus column! Available from The American Printing House for the Blind or call 800-223-1839.
For those with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, or access to various cable networks, hundreds of popular TV series and movies are available with audio description. You don't need to see the screen so clearly if someone is telling you who's kissing whom or where the treasure is buried! For a list of described programs, visit the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project and be sure to choose at least one comedy!
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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