One of the most heart-wrenching misconceptions still all too present in our collective consciousness is the notion that loss of vision equates loss of independence. With tools, techniques, and a dose of imagination blended with persistence, there have always been solutions to performing ordinary tasks without the benefit of 20/20 vision. Today, in the year 2020, that is more true than it has ever been. What follows is a round-up of some favorite low-tech and no-tech solutions aimed at guiding older people losing vision down the path of continued independence. Most range in price from free to $100, and the few that cost more than that definitely warrant inclusion.
Communication Solutions for People with Low Vision
Reading your favorite newspaper or magazine, looking up a recipe or phone number, writing down your grocery list, or calling to make an appointment—all of these forms of communication are essential elements of an independent lifestyle. Traditionally they require vision, but there are alternative tools and techniques for all of them.
Staying On Top of Current Events
A few decades ago, people with visual impairments could not have dreamed of the abundant access to up-to-the-minute news information available to us today, whether we can read conventional print or not. The hardest part, in fact, may well be choosing which methods to use and not losing yourself in a 24/7 news immersion!
If you have a land line phone or mobile phone, NFB NEWSLINE is a free service offering access to over 500 publications, localized weather alerts, TV listings, job listings and more. You can read publications such as Time, The New Yorker, Family Circle, or your own local newspaper using only the keypad on your telephone. For the more technologically inclined, there are NFB NEWSLINE apps for smartphones as well, but you can read just as much with an old-fashioned landline phone. Read local and national news, editorials, feature articles, and breaking news headlines, find out what’s on sale in many retail stores, or what’s on TV tonight. You can adjust the pace and content just as you would when holding a printed publication.
Access is free for anyone who is blind, low vision, or otherwise has a print-related disability. Contact your regional network library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled or call NFB-NEWSLINE at 866-504-7300 to apply.
Speaking of telephones, for those who just don’t want to let go of the familiar land line phone but are struggling to see the buttons or hear the conversation, here’s a phone that addresses both. The Serene CL30 Cordless Phone ($79.95) has large buttons that announce when pressed, amplification on calls, and talking caller ID. Available from LS&S.
If you want a mobile phone with features like texting and email and some Internet access, but don’t want to learn to use a smooth touch screen, the BlindShell Talking Cell phone is a perfect blend of the simple cell phone and a more high-tech smartphone. You can dictate text message and emails, listen to books and music, hear who’s calling, and find out the weather or your own GPS location. Tactile buttons and voice input and output make this phone fun and easy for anyone to use. It has a headphone jack, SD card slot, and Bluetooth capability. $349 from A T Guys. You can also find a review of the Blind Shell in this issue of AccessWorld.
By now, most people know about the Amazon Echo (Alexa), Google Home (OK Google), and Apple Home Pod (Hey Siri) products and the many ways in which these voice-activated assistants can simplify daily tasks. You can buy most of these products for under $100 (often under $40) and can enjoy a myriad of useful and entertaining skills using only your voice. Find out the weather, the news, sports scores, TV listings, or book and movie reviews—all just for the asking. You can set timers and alarms, call your friends and family, play games, do calculations, request millions of songs, and much more. There’s a bit of finesse involved in phrasing your questions a particular way, but trial and error can be a great teacher. If you want more structured guidance, Mystic Access offers fun and entertaining audio tutorials for learning the various voice assistant products. You can purchase and download immediately or, if you aren’t comfortable with downloading, order a tutorial to be sent on USB flash drive or SD card. Visit Mystic Access for details. We have reviewed the Amazon Echo tutorial here.
Talking to Yourself
Communicating with yourself is a challenge when you can no longer read your own handwriting. You can use Alexa to remind you to do something or keep a list, but a much more convenient method is a personal recording device. 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. For those who also have hearing difficulties, the Micro-Speak has plenty of volume! Available for $59.95 from the A T Guys or call 269-216-4798.
Cooking and Kitchen Devices for Cooks with Low Vision
With or without normal vision, most seniors are happy to simplify their cooking styles. You want to eat tasty, healthy meals, but anything that makes it easier to prepare them independently is welcome.
With one or more of these accessible countertop appliances, you may never feel the need to fire up the stove again!
Instant Pot: When the Bluetooth-enabled Instant Pot was released a few years ago, blind and low vision cooks were delighted at the accessibility gained by pairing this device with a smart phone. The bad news is that the Bluetooth model is no longer available, but a wireless version is! If you have an Amazon Echo, your wireless Instant Pot can be controlled with help from the Echo. Just say, “Alexa, cook rice” or “Alexa, pressure cook 15 minutes” and your dinner starts cooking.
Amazon has also released a small microwave oven that is Alexa-controlled. Again, you need to have an Amazon Echo to enable the Alexa feature. The Amazon Basics Microwave ($60) has a 0.7 cubic feet chamber and operates at a lower 700 watts. To learn more, see the AccessWorld review.
Setting up either an Instant Pot or microwave with the Amazon Echo may require sighted assistance for the initial pairing. Once paired, however, Alexa will continue to “see" the other device, thus enabling you to set cook times and more without pressing buttons.
No Alexa, no problem. A number of kitchen products have built-in speech and tactile buttons. The Black & Decker Talking Toaster Oven ($339) can broil, bake, toast, or warm your food, enabling you to prepare everything from your breakfast bagel to afternoon pizza or a chocolate cake. The tactile buttons and clear male voice take all the guess work out of setting timers and choosing functions. Available from Blind Mice Megamall, 866-922-8877 and Maxi Aids, 800-522-6294). For more details, see the AccessWorld review of this toaster oven in this issue of AccessWorld.
Another product modified by Blind Mice Megamall is the Magic Chef Talking Microwave Oven ($329). Slightly larger and more powerful than the Amazon microwave, the 1,000-watt unit has a 1.1 cubic feet chamber. Its built-in speech enables you to time and cook food completely independently.
Several other kitchen products are available from Blind Mice Megamall, such as a Talking Cooking Thermometer ($29), for testing that the chicken really is cooked to desired temperature. This thermometer takes two AA batteries, and announces temperature in either Celsius or Fahrenheit. Visit Blind Mice Mega Mall online to order or browse.
Low Visions Solutions for Radio and TV
For those folks rooted in tradition who love listening to a favorite AM or FM radio station, the Sangean PR-D17 Talking Portable Radio ($83) is a sleek and unique entertainment tool. This baby boombox-style radio delivers amazingly powerful sound and is 100 percent accessible. Plug it in and it starts talking. It tells you it is powered on and that the current language is English.
All buttons are distinctly tactile. On the front, there are two rows of five buttons each, the top row for changing the mode from FM to AM to auxiliary, and buttons for setting alarm and sleep timer, checking the time, etc. The bottom row has the braille numbers 1 through 5 and are used for the 10 preset stations (five for AM and five for FM). As you turn the tuning knob, each click announces its frequency.
When a preset is recalled, the frequency of the station is announced. All functions are announced in a clear female voice, whose volume can be set separately from the volume of the radio itself. Operates on AC power or with six C batteries. available from Amazon and elsewhere. For more information, see the AccessWorld review of the radio, which is also in this issue.
If TV is more appealing to you than radio, the 32” Toshiba Fire TV ($129 at the time of this writing; usually $179) allows you to watch any of your favorite streaming services—Netflix, Disney Plus, Prime Video, etc. —and control everything with your voice. Press the Alexa button on the remote to tell the TV to play the next episode of “Bosch” or “Pick of the Litter” and wait for your show to load. Tell Alexa when you want to rewind, go forward, pause, play or change programs. This is the smallest and lowest priced in a line of talking Fire TVs. You can find our review of a Fire TV-equipped television here.
If, however, you already have a TV you love, but it’s difficult to operate the controls without sight, the All-New Fire TV Cube ($119) can turn any TV into a hands-free model. Tell Alexa to turn on the TV, and launch your favorite streaming service, cable channel, or specific program. You might say, “Alexa, play Season 3, episode 4 of The Crown” and just wait for the show to begin. When the TV is turned off, the Fire TV Cube can provide other information when asked, such as the time, weather, word definitions, synonyms, brief bio of your favorite celebrity, etc. in the style of other Echo products.
Low Vision Lighting
For those with some usable vision, sometimes having just the right light can make all the difference in managing the task at hand. This sleek, color-changing desk lamp allows you to adjust the color of light to suit the time of day and situation. Rotate the switch to adjust from warm light to natural, hyper white to incandescent yellow. $49.95, model 401119, from LS&S
What sort of lighting will be beneficial to you will depending on your sort of vision loss. The above desk lamp, with its color changing features, should allow most users to find a style of lighting helpful to them. In addition to the above, LS&S offers other lighting options. Many blindness product companies will have lighting options available, but it is worth highlighting the company Magnifying Aids. This company has a range of products specifically aimed at those with low vision including a large selection of lighting options. If you would like to learn about low vision lighting in more detail, see this page on VisionAware.
Back to Basics
Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the ones most needed and valued.
Adhesive dots (called Loc Dots or Bump Dots) come in a variety of forms,from tiny clear dots the size of a braille dot to large brightly colored foam bumps half the size of a pencil eraser. Use a variety of them to mark buttons on appliances, keys on computers, or buttons on a standard land line telephone. Locator dots are available from most of the companies mentioned in this article, as well as from the Independence Market of the National Federation of the Blind, (410-659-9314, or online)
While on the NFB website, be sure to take advantage of the free white cane offer. A long white cane, after all, is one of the most basic keys to unlock an independent lifestyle for anyone who is blind or low vision. If you still have vision sufficient for moving about in an unfamiliar environment, consider the long white cane as a tool for communicating to others that you don’t see well (thus avoiding impressions that you might be clumsy or clueless!)
Finally, the tools mentioned in this article are just the beginning, the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The best path to learning to live a full and independent life with low vision is often found in the company of others. If you can find peer groups—low vision support groups, rehabilitation training centers, and consumer organizations of blind and low vision people—your knowledge tips and techniques will grow.
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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- Solutions For Seniors with Age-Related Vision Loss: Products under $100 by Deborah Kendrick, Aaron Preece
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