I want you to think back to a time, likely in elementary or middle school, when you were asked the question, “Would you rather lose you vision or your hearing?” Do you remember how you answered? That is a tough question. Today, there are two factors that are greatly affecting the health of our nation: a growing aging population and smaller and more premature infants are being saved through advances in neonatal care. These two factors both have a significant impact on vision.
In 2015, over 203,000 Tennesseans reported having vision loss. That means 203,000 individuals have serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses, or are blind or unable to see at all. The impact of vision loss extends to all aspects of one’s life: daily living skills, travel, reading and writing, employment, and recreation. The effects vary from one individual to another depending on many factors: the type and severity of impairment, age of onset, whether it was sudden or progressive, and the ability to use residual vision effectively.
With technological advancements made over the past several years, people have more opportunities to maintain their independence through the use of low vision aids. Low vision aids are basically divided into two categories: optical and non-optical. With further development of computers, tablets, and smart phones, many other opportunities for independence have been gained for those with vision loss through electronic devices.
Because low vision optical aids can provide greatly increased magnification powers and prescription strengths, they are different from regular glasses and commercially available magnifiers. Optical aids are typically task-specific and can be thought of as “tools” for living—different tools for different tasks. For instance, a person with vision loss may have one or two devices for reading, another for watching television and seeing faces, another for seeing the computer screen, and yet another for sewing, in addition to special sunglasses to reduce glare, protect the eyes, and enhance the ability to see more clearly in different lighting conditions.
Low vision non-optical aids are items designed to make everyday tasks more simple through enhancing illumination, contrast, and spatial relationships, which can be thought of as ‘Bigger, Bolder, Brighter.’ Non-optical devices may include reading lamps, writing guides, bold-lined paper, needle-threaders, magnifying mirrors, high contrast or talking watches, and large print telephones. In addition, many items are available for use in the kitchen, such as liquid level indicators, graduated spoons and measuring cups, and talking thermometers.
Electronic magnifying systems come in many different varieties and sizes, depending upon the task or activity at hand. Some have a camera system that displays a magnified image on a monitor, which can be helpful for reading books, magazines, and even doing some personal grooming tasks, such as applying makeup or doing a manicure. Others are hand-held, portable devices and can be taken to restaurants for reading menus, to the supermarket to read labels and coupons, and even be very helpful in the workplace for maintaining employment.
The smartphone, a gadget designed for the sighted, has turned out to be a godsend for people with low vision and blindness, making them more independent than ever before. With features like VoiceOver and TalkBack, smartphones allow people to access anything on their phones by talking the information on the screen at any given time. Smartphone personal assistants, such as Siri and Google Now, allow users to call, text, or email anyone in the contact list, set a reminder, find out the weather forecast, schedule an event in the calendar, or look up directions with a simple voice command. In addition to these built-in features, there are numerous apps available to assist with identifying colors, determining money denominations, reading mail and other text information.
We often talk about the impact of technology in our clients’ lives. I am tied to my phone. I use it to keep in touch, to navigate, to read the news, and much more. Our access to technology improves our quality of life. For our low vision clients, the impact is even greater. Whether they’re using an advanced technological device, like bioptics for driving, or a low technology device to help fill a coffee cup, low vision technology helps people maintain independence and improve their quality of life.
If you know someone who may require services for low vision, contact Jennifer Cunningham, our director of therapeutic services at 731-554-5147