With the help of advancements in science, there is plenty of assistive technology available to compensate for vision loss among the elderly today. Sonali Jain explores further.
Vision loss in the elderly population is a major health problem. According to the Journal of American Family Physicians (Vol. 60/No. 1), approximately one person in three has some form of vision-reducing eye disease by the age of 65 in the U.S.A. The prevalence of visual impairment among the elderly is much higher in developing countries like India. The most common causes of vision loss among the elderly are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract, and diabetic retinopathy.
The wide-ranging eye problems make simple daily tasks difficult, or even impossible, for older people. The activities which were otherwise an inherent part of their daily life, such as reading a book or newspaper, shopping or visiting their friends, maintaining an appointment calendar, or something as basic as dialing a number, become a challenge, and they are forced to depend on others for meeting their daily needs. However, with advancements in technology, elderly persons can continue to lead a productive and independent life.
Modern assistive technologies have the potential to transform the life of an elderly blind person from an isolated and dependent human being to a highly productive member who is able to read and write, effectively use different types of modern gadgets like a computer and mobile phones, and remain a fully functional member of his/her community. Some assistive technologies which enable an aging person with blindness to read, write, gain access to information and communication, and effectively perform some of the fundamental day-to-day activities are discussed below.
A screen reader is a software/programme which produces auditory output of the text/messages displayed on the screen with the help of a Text-to-Speech Engine. It can be considered the most important revolution for visually impaired persons.
Due to this technology, it has become possible to use computers as writing and reading tools. All Android-based touch screen phones, and the iPhone produced by Apple, come with pre-installed screen readers. Thanks to screen readers, people with blindness no longer have to depend on sighted persons for reading messages on their phone, looking for a person’s phone number, taking quick notes, using the internet, etc.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a technique which converts scanned images into text which can be later read out by the Screen Reader. This technology has brought changes in the patterns of reading of printed material like books and newspapers. A person can simply scan the material of their choice through scanners attached to their computer, or through OCR software in their phones, and read any material of their choice at the time of their convenience, without being forced to depend on their family members or others.
Electronic recorders and playback devices
Digital audio players/recorders allow persons with blindness to read digital talking books and audio material, as well as record information. These types of devices are very beneficial for elderly blind persons as they can record their appointments/calendars and contact numbers, which reduces their dependence upon sighted family members. Users can also use the devices for leisure, as they can play music, and some even come with built-in FM Radio facilities. These gadgets also allow the end users to access e-text/computer-generated material as they come with USB connectivity, which is the easiest method available to connect peripherals with computers.
A large majority of the aging population suffers from partial loss of vision, and magnifiers prove extremely useful for them. Magnifiers are available both as standalone devices, as well as add-on software for phones and computers, which helps in increasing the size of the text to facilitate easy reading for persons having low vision.
Daily living aids
Apart from reading and writing, older persons with blindness have to become more and more dependent for performing many other essential tasks, which creates many difficulties for them and also affects their self-esteem. However with the help of different commercially available products that provide auditory output, such as talking thermometer, talking blood pressure measuring machine, talking weighing machine, talking calculator, etc., they can easily perform some of these tasks on their own.
Audio labellers like PenFriend or Sonic Labeler are other useful devices. They come with re-recordable labels which can store information in audio format. The elderly can then use them for the purpose of sorting and identifying various objects like books, containers, clothes, etc.
Thus, we can see that a wide range of technologies and solutions exist which have the potential to bring significant change and improvement in the lives of aging population with visual impairment. However, they have fairly limited outreach. Therefore, end users cannot fully realise their benefits. They must gain the necessary awareness and knowhow of using these technologies, as well as the resources for obtaining them.
Hence, family members, friends, and various institutions must collectively make the elderly aware about these solutions. They should assist those in need in acquiring them and getting necessary training to use these devices and technologies.
About the author: Sonali Jain works for Delhi-based NGO Saksham, which works towards inclusion and employment of visually impaired persons. Saksham is also a member of the Eyeway network. The network operates a national toll free helpline (1800-300-20469) for the blind and visually impaired.