Michele McDonnall, Ph.D., CRC

Anne Steverson, MS

The National Research & Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision

In the past 20 years, there has been a plethora of new technology and dramatic advances in existing technology for people who are blind or have low vision. Innovative, novel assistive technology (AT) continue to be introduced every year, and additional novel AT is in development. Professionals from multiple, diverging backgrounds are working on developing these novel AT to benefit people who are blind or have low vision. For example, some novel AT include the number of head mounted video magnifiers now available, as well as the developing field of multi-line braille tablets, with the Canute by Bristol Braille Technology being the first of the latest efforts available on the market. Other novel AT include the numerous AT meant to help people with orientation, navigation, and/or wayfinding, such as the Mira backpack and a smart cane by HearSee Mobility.

Although many novel AT are introduced, few are widely adopted or regularly used. Given the abundance of novel AT but limited adoption, we wanted to know how people who are blind or have low vision learn about novel AT, what impacts their decision to try it, and what they think about it in general. We addressed novel AT in our most recent survey from the AT in the Workplace Study with our sample of employed people who are blind or have low vision.


Most participants with blindness or low vision in our survey appear to have an interest in novel AT, but only if it meets certain requirements. Two primary requirements are that the new AT be highly functional and affordable. The novel AT being easy to use was also an important consideration for most people.

Several people commented on the learning curve with novel AT – the (often) large amount of time it takes for them to learn how to use a new device or app. Some people mentioned the considerable amount of energy required for this task. Several people's sentiment was they would only be willing to go through the process of learning a novel AT if the reward was expected to be great enough. An adequate reward might be a unique feature unavailable elsewhere, a true improvement over an existing feature or function, or something that would save them time in the future.

For employers, our research indicates that in most situations, employees that are blind or have low vision will prefer traditional AT, screen readers and magnifiers like JAWS and Zoom Text and similar, over novel AT. This may vary by position. For example, those in the sciences may need novel accessible lab equipment, but overall, few people are interested in adopting novel AT when the traditional AT that they use will suffice. If you are considering adopting novel AT for your workplace, a key consideration would be training. If you wish to implement a piece of novel AT, ease of use and the availability of robust training materials would be important factors in successful implementation.

The many developers of new AT should keep these findings in mind as they create new AT for people who are blind or have low vision. Developers should be aware of all currently available AT and focus on creating something truly unique or an improvement on existing AT. Keeping in mind that people with blindness or low vision are the ones to determine improvement is critical. More than one participant commented on developers lacking awareness of the population's needs. Consulting with people who are blind or have low vision in the development of novel AT is essential.

There have been astounding advancements in technology recently. The extent that these advancements can be applied to novel solutions that will help people who are blind or have low vision remains to be seen. Hopefully, creators will carefully consider the potential cost, functionality, and ease of use of their planned product, in consultation with people who are blind or have low vision, prior to and during development.

Participant and Survey Information

Data from 328 participants were collected from May to August 2022. Participants ranged in age from 22 to 90, with an average age of 46.42 (SD = 12.21), representing 46 states and 4 Canadian provinces. A majority (61%) were female. Most were white (83.8%), followed by black or African American (7.0%) and Asian (6.4%), and 7.1% reported other races. About 61% were totally blind, 20.7% were legally blind with minimal functional vision, 15.2% were legally blind with some functional vision, and 3.4% had low vision. Many participants (58.7%) experienced vision loss before age 1, and only 16.2% experienced vision loss at or after age 20.

Participants completed the survey either online via Qualtrics or by phone. In the survey, we defined newly introduced, novel AT for participants as novel technology that is commercially available but is not widely used yet, such as WeWALK, BrainPort Vision Pro, Discover Access for SharePoint, and Microsoft's Soundscape app. We asked three questions to find out how people learn about novel AT, factors that impact their decision to try it, and current interest in adopting novel AT.

Learning About Novel AT

We gave participants a list of potential ways they may have learned about novel AT, and they selected all that applied. Table 1 in the appendix provides their responses, from most to least common methods for learning about novel AT. The most common way to learn about novel AT was from other people who are blind or have low vision, and only 8% of our sample reported that they do not usually hear about novel AT.

Deciding Whether to Adopt

To find out how our participants decide whether to adopt a novel AT, we provided them with a list of potential factors that might impact their interest in it. We asked them to rate the importance of each factor, from 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important). Table 2 presents the average rating for each factor, sorted from most important to least important.

Three factors were more important than the others, with one being the clear standout: functionality, meaning that the novel AT would need to be more helpful than current AT options. Functionality was considered "very important" by most participants. The affordability of the novel AT was also important for most people, and its ease of use was equally important.

We invited participants to provide comments about how they decide whether to adopt newly introduced, novel AT, and 206 people responded. We reviewed their comments and organized them into categories, or themes. Most comments fit into more than one category, suggesting that multiple factors contribute to deciding whether to adopt novel AT. Here, we provide some of the most pertinent themes, along with some illustrative quotes.

The most common theme, mentioned by 24.8% of respondents, was that cost/affordability was a large factor in their decision to try a novel AT, and several commented that novel AT is usually expensive. Another common response was that the novel AT must be useful in daily life, practical, and/or functional, which was mentioned by 18.9% of participants. Along these same lines, some people emphasized that the product would have to be truly useful and better than the AT the person is currently using (7.8%). Many responses touched on both affordability and the importance of product usefulness, for example:

I want to determine if this is a truly useful new technology, not something that someone sighted thinks blind people would find helpful which is often my impression when I hear about vendors offering new tech at conferences. However, sometimes things come along that are truly innovative like Aira or GPS or OCR, and I am willing to pay for these types of new tech. I am willing to spend hundreds of dollars but not thousands unless I know the investment is something I will use frequently and for years to come.

A number of people (16.4%) commented on their excitement about novel AT, stating that they like to learn about, try, and/or use novel AT.

I am excited with how often new technology is coming out at this point. When I was in high school in the 90's it cost a lot more, and tech was slow.

Several people commented on the importance of the new AT being easy to use and/or easy to learn (11.2%).

The more user friendly and accessible the AT is, the more interested I am in finding out about it and purchasing it.

Others focused on the importance of the AT improving their productivity or efficiency (9.2%); while some considered whether the novel AT offers new or unique features not available elsewhere (7.3%).

I'm all about novel assistive tech, especially if it performs a new function I haven't previously been able to do without sighted assistance. Aira has been this novel AT in recent years, and I think the Braille/tactile tablet and/or the multi-line Braille display may represent the next revolutions .

Decisions about adopting new AT are based, at least for me, on whether they provide the ability to do something that I do not already have a solution to do, whether their way is more efficient than what I am already using, and the price (is what the new AT able to help with worth the investment.)

Several respondents commented on the time and energy it can take to adopt new AT, or the big learning curve for new AT (6.3%).

I am practical. If the novel or new AT will help me do my job more efficiently or will be easier to use, I'm willing to adopt it, if I can. Learning to use new AT takes time, I don't want to waste my time if it won't save me time later.

I have big fears about the learning curve. Adding to the issue of training that is made available through [the] AT provider is usually just an introduction and overview that I will forget shortly after.

Only 11, or 5.3%, of participants who provided comments indicated that they are not interested in adopting novel AT. Some people did not want to take time learning new AT and others did not want to deal with potential issues due to the novelty of the AT.

I really prefer using standard, integrated AT rather than more devices. I need things to work. I don't have time to play with the new stuff as I have advanced in my career.

I don't like to be one of the first ones to try something new because all of the potential bugs have not been worked out yet.

Current Interest in Adopting Novel AT

We also asked participants about their current interest in adopting a novel AT; about a third of participants would like to adopt a novel AT. The two most common types of novel AT they were interested in trying were (1) orientation/navigation/wayfinding devices or apps and (2) braille devices (both at 29.4%). Interest was almost as high for wearable glasses or other wearable devices (28.4%). Voice control or dictation software was the only other commonly mentioned AT, by fewer people (5.9%). Several people (21.6%) mentioned items that are AT but not novel AT as we defined it, and some of the braille devices mentioned were not novel AT.


Table 1:

Methods for Learning about Novel AT Percent
Word of mouth/from other people with blindness or low vision 75.2
From emails, listservs, or podcasts 61.5
Conferences 40.5
I like to learn about new AT so I seek out information online. 40.5
I don't seek out information but sometimes learn about it online. 27.1
Directly from talking to AT vendors 20.7
From a rehabilitation professional, including AT specialist 15.6
I don't usually hear about newly introduced AT. 8.0
Other 4.5

Table 2:

Factor Average Rating
Functionality (whether what it does would help me more than current AT options) 4.7
Price/affordability 4.2
Ease of use (whether it would be easier to use than my current AT) 4.1
User reviews 3.2
Friends or colleagues are using it 3.1
Uniqueness of the AT – I like to be one of the first to try new products 2.0

Acknowledgement: The contents of this manuscript were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIDILRR grant 90RTEM0007. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Health and Human Services and should not indicate endorsement by the Federal Government.

Michele McDonnall
Anne Steverson
Article Topic
Inclusive Technology Research