Assistive Technology Series: Technology for Visual Disabilities

Submitted by Jessica Luzanilla on Thu, 07/14/2022
Summary
Assistive technology (AT) is any technology that helps individuals with disabilities complete tasks that could otherwise be difficult. With continuous improvements and developments in AT, the access to products and services that can improve the quality of life is changing rapidly.

About Visual Disabilities

Visual disabilities can range from mild to moderate vision loss in either one or both eyes to complete loss of vision in both eyes. Individuals with vision loss can also experience sensitivity to colors, have low vision or be blind. These types of disabilities can be genetic or can be from a result of injury, aging, or disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are at least 2.2 billion people globally that have some degree of vision loss and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 3 million adults in the United States have vision problems. Being blind or having low vision can significantly impact a person’s life and affect the way they complete day-to-day tasks or how they can participate in other activities.

How can AT help users that have visual disabilities?

Assistive technology (AT) is any technology that helps individuals with disabilities complete tasks that could otherwise be difficult. While AT can be devices like wheelchairs or hearing aids, it can also apply to other things that people use on a daily basis. For instance, the text-to-speech feature on your phone is a type of AT that can help individuals that cannot easily text with their hands. Word prediction technology in word processing software can also help individuals with other disabilities. With continuous improvements and developments in AT, the access to products and services that can improve the quality of life is changing rapidly.   

When the right product is available, the doors for equal opportunity for anyone that is blind or has low vision allows them to fully participate in all aspects of life. A person is more efficient and effective in their work, and it can lead to a positive impact on their lives. This type of equity can come in many ways, including advancements in their career and a greater sense of independence.

What types of AT are available for users with visual disabilities?

Disabilities can impact individuals differently and there are several types of AT available to meet their specific needs. The following are some common AT devices for users with visual disabilities.

Audio description

Audio description works by providing a user an additional narration track that describes the visual information for people who are unable to see it. Audio description is played where people can hear it or with an assisted listening device (ALD) where only the person who is wearing headphones can hear it. They are used in movie theatres, on streaming services, and at museums or plays.

Braille

Braille is a system of raised dots that be read with the fingers of users that are blind or have low vision. While not a language, it is coded in many languages. There are braille printers that obtain information from computer devices and emboss it onto paper. It can vary in cost and also portability.

White canes

There are different types of canes that are used by individuals with visual disabilities and while they may look the same initially, they have unique features.

Long canes, for example, are what most people are familiar with. They extend from the floor and are used to avoid obstacles if the user has restricted or low vision. They can also be used by rolling or tapping from side-to-side as the person walks.

Symbol canes are less common and are used by individuals with low but useful vision. The individual holds the cane in front of them to let others know they are somewhat sighted.

A guide cane is a shorter cane that is used to grab any direct obstacles. It’s used diagonally across the body and is used to find obstacles in the path, including curbs and steps.

Image descriptions/alt text

Alt text and image descriptions can be read aloud by screen readers to tell users what is in an image. Sometimes, they are added automatically but it is still important for people to add them manually before publishing an image online or embedding it into a document (consider adding alt text on your next social media post).

Large print

Large print is used by people who cannot read standard size print and is typically size 18 font or larger. To make this more accessible, consider using a print friendly font. It can be used in both print and digital material.

Portable magnifiers

Handheld magnifiers can be helpful to users who regularly look at small details of objects or read short amounts of text. There are many options available with various magnification powers. They can magnify an entire page of text, labels on medicine labels or other household items.  There are also screen magnification software and devices available

Screen readers

A screen reader is a program that works by reading all of the text on a computer screen using a synthesized voice. They aren’t exclusive to computers: they are available on many mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets. Some examples of screen reader programs include JAWS and NVDA on Windows and VoiceOver on Apple devices.

 


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