Reading is Fundamental

A quick Google search reveals multiple entries about breakthroughs in optic nerve regeneration. There have been gains made in drug treatments as well as clinical trials using stem cells. I have no doubt whatsoever that there will eventually be a treatment that will restore every bit of function my atrophied optic nerves have lost.

But I don’t really see it happening in my lifetime. I’m being realistic, not pessimistic. All of these treatments are in the early stages of development, and while I did find this article about a Baltimore woman who submitted to a controversial stem cell treatment and regained some of her sight, I’m not that adventurous. I didn’t even get a smart phone until 2011. Since I’m clearly not what they call an early adopter, I don’t see myself being first in line to have people experiment with what little eyesight I have left. I’m going to need them to fully develop, test, and perfect these ideas before I climb up on the table.

In the meantime, however, I am more than happy to take advantage of all the technology and devices found here that allow me to live as fully and independently as possible with my current range of vision. Losing my independence is my greatest fear; I don’t want to just exist in a world where I’m unable to do any of the things that make life bearable for me.  While it may take years for the new self-driving technology to put me back in the driver’s seat, I have at least found programs and applications like the five listed here that gave back my ability to process the written word. Which was HUGE for me.

You might have to be as big a book geek as I am to understand, but I think I might have lost my mind for good if I hadn’t figured out how to get lost in books again. Reading has been my primary form of entertainment for as long as I can remember. The few weeks or so after surgery, when I had nothing but time on my hands and no way to distract myself with a good story, were the longest, most torturous days of my life.

I can actually still watch television. I have to get fairly close to the screen, but I find that I can see people on high definition television sets better than I see them in real life. The problem was I’d always used television as a backdrop while I read a book. Like a person who craves a cigarette whenever they take a drink, listening to television was fine as far as it went, but the act felt incomplete and not fully satisfying without a book to read.

Audio books were the obvious answer to that problem, and I have since learned to embrace the once foreign concept of having a book read to me. But it took me a beat to get there, because I was something of a purist when it came to reading. Before my surgery, I hadn’t even made the transition to e-readers yet. I owned a Nook, but never used it. Reading from a screen felt too much like using a sex toy. I’m sure if you keep an open mind and learn how to make it work for you, it will get you where you want to be. But it’s so cold and calculated. There’s no feeling to it, no passion.

A book reminds me of comfortable days spent cuddled up in warm corners or hot bubble baths, losing myself to other worlds. The smell of the paper, the sounds of pages being turned, the weight of the book in my hands – they all bring back sensuous memories for me. I just can’t get that from a mechanical device.

But sometimes you have to learn to make it do what it do if you want to get your funky off. Once I was introduced to North Carolina’s State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, it was on and popping. This special library is administered by individual states, in partnership with the Library of Congress National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and is available free of charge for qualified applicants.

The original goal of the program was to provide books and magazines to patrons unable to use traditional printed material, but they have kept up with new innovations through the years. In addition to fiction and non-fiction selections offered in audio, Braille and large print formats, descriptive movie disks and a library sponsored podcast are also now available.

Residents of North Carolina can click here to apply for this program; if you don’t happen to be a Tar Heel, click here to find this service in your state. Once registered, qualified patrons receive a free portable Digital Talking Book Player and are invited to search through their state library’s catalog of books and magazines in order to arrange to check out their selections. The length of time you may keep this material varies by state; I know North Carolina’s initial loan period is six weeks. However, patrons can call to request an extension and there are no fees for overdue resources.

Resources can be found in a variety of ways. When I initially joined the program, I received a hefty catalog of available books and resources, which has been supplemented by occasional updated catalogs sent in the mail. There is also a search feature on the web, allowing patrons to choose and order books online. But I confess that I often take the easy way out and call my state’s Raleigh headquarters at 919-733-4376, where the staff of professional librarians are always courteous and helpful, often suggesting titles that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Resources from the state library are mailed to your home address in easy to open protective plastic cases. Returning them is as simple as flipping over the address card affixed to the outside of the case and popping it back into the mailbox. Word to the wise – try to keep the correct disk and carry case together. I received a slap on the wrist when I returned a disk in the wrong case one time too many.

Other than the lack of instant gratification while you wait for your selection to arrive in the mail, the only drawback I’ve noticed with this program is that the Digital Talking Book Player, while fairly compact, still requires me to carry it around if I want to read while I’m away from home.

For those not willing to wait for snail mail, there is also an electronic version of the program called BARD Mobile, for which qualified applicants can apply by clicking here.  BARD can be downloaded to any smartphone, and once access is granted the interface is pretty user friendly. There are clear categories for storing audio books, magazines and podcasts. There are also categories for books and magazines in Braille, used in conjunction with an external Braille Display.

BARD’s search feature is relatively simple to use as well, and info on its seemingly inexhaustible catalog can be found here.. One of the reasons I very much enjoy having access to the library’s catalog is because it is kept current and most of my favorite commercial authors are represented. BARD is also the only reading app I use that tells me when a book is part of a series, sometimes detailing which book precedes mine.

The only downsides I’ve experienced using this service pertain to how it affects my phone. I tie up a lot of memory and often completely drain my battery when reading BARD titles because they download and are saved directly on my phone, and the book cuts off if I try to lock my screen while reading.

Securing a reliable way to get my hands on audiobooks took care of my need to read for pleasure. But there are many, many instances where the inability to read presents huge drawbacks in everyday life.

Most people need to read information for work. Bills in the mailbox, price tags in stores, menus in restaurants – I’m sure you get the point. In one way or another, reading is an integral part of our everyday lives. There are devices and applications to help with that as well (click here for more info.).

In compliance with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), electronic devices are required to include accessibility features to make it possible for people with visual or auditory disabilities to use them. This means your phones, computers, tablets and e-readers already have assistive technology that you can turn on and configure for use.

Common accessibility features for sight impairment include the ability to change the system’s format to a larger default or lower the screen resolution, which results in bigger pixels that enlarge text and graphics. Many products provide some kind of zoom functionality as well, enlarging certain parts of the screen so it can be seen by the user. There may also be a narration option, triggering a computer-generated voice to read the information on the screen. For some visually impaired people, the ability to reverse the screen, so there is a dark or colored background with lighter lettering, also helps bring needed definition to the content.

I use an iPhone 6, and I have to say their accessibility features were life-changing for me. Not that Apple needs any kind of commercial from little old me, but that is the honest truth. I’ve always been an Apple girl, but a cheap one. Not an early adopter, remember? The iPhone version I still used in 2014 pre-dated Suri, and the relatively limited functionality left me feeling extremely cut off from the world.

So while the general features of the iPhone 6, like voice dialing and texting, were amazing enough, the accessibility features made me feel as if I was reintroduced to civilized society. I was even able to get back to Facebook, y’all! Social media and networking is such an important aspect of modern day living, it was truly a relief to realize my new circumstances didn’t have to mean I could no longer let all of my very close and personal FB friends see what I had for breakfast. 😋😉🙄

In addition to the amazing array of useful apps created specifically for the blind and visually impaired, many of which are listed here, the functions of the iPhone make it extremely easy to adapt to my new way of interacting with the phone.  There is a narrated keyboard, which calls out the keys I hit a second before I commit to them. The VoiceOver function is consistent and clear, reading everything I can no longer see on my screen.

I had the option to choose a voice, and I find it so easy to understand I sometimes read entire e-books using the VoiceOver feature.

My level of vision also benefits from the inverse color option (aka white on black), which makes my screen dark with light graphics. You can click here for details on other options like zoom, bold, and touch accommodations that users can choose from. If you happen to be an iPhone user and want to try it for yourself, this five minute instructional video will show you how.

Having access to portable devices was an enormous relief, but most people can’t do everything on their small screens. Many people with sight disabilities, especially those who are completely or legally blind, need something a bit more sophisticated in order to get full use of their computers. There are a variety of software applications to help.

Screen readers are often the foundation for ensuring people who are blind or visually impaired have adequate access to content on their computers. As the name suggests, this software reads aloud whatever is on the screen, allowing users to understand what information is in front of them.

Screen readers can be fairly expensive, but I found this online post detailing ten effective software options that can be downloaded for free. I have NVDA downloaded on my PC, and have had to rely on it when my more advanced assistive software has needed to be repaired. It’s a bare-bones application, but it did allow me to understand commands and features that were written too small for me to read.

Magnification software is another common form of assistive technology used to help the visually impaired fully access computers. Again as the name suggests, magnification software magnifies images on a computer screen such that the visually impaired user is able to see it. As with screen readers, commercial magnification software can get pricey, but I found this site offering free and shareware options.

Depending on how much magnification is required, information often can’t be contained on the monitor, causing users to have to scroll back and forth as they read the content.

Clicking here allows you to quickly compare many magnification software applications. They often provide customizable tracking options, and learning how to quickly and efficiently scroll through a magnified document is one of the skills that can be learned with computer training courses like the one described here. In addition to allowing users to magnify the font, many applications also provide methods to change the color, clarity and background on the screen, since different conditions respond better to different combinations of presentation.

More sophisticated technology often blends the functions of screen readers and magnifiers into one easy to use application. Zoomtext Magnifier/Reader from AI Squared is the software I was taught to use, so it’s the only one I can personally attest to. LunarPlus from Dolphin, and JAWS and MAGic from FreedomScientific are similar products currently on the market.

Zoomtext is billed as the world’s leading magnification and screen reading software for the visually impaired. It comes in three versions: the Zoomtext Magnifier, the Zoomtext Magnifier/Reader, and Zoomtext Fusion.

I guess I was given the Baby Bear option of the trio. ZoomText Magnifier/Reader includes all the magnification of Zoomtext Magnifier, plus the full narration capabilities of a good screen reader. But it doesn’t have the full-screen narration that is found in Zoomtext Fusion or JAWS. Which is perfectly fine – my level of eyesight allows me to see a magnified screen well enough that I don’t need that additional assistance.

I have devices that make it possible to read hard-copy written documents as well. In a Google search, CCTV consistently comes back as some sort of surveillance equipment governments use to spy on everyday citizens. But my CCTV magnifier sits on my desk and is plugged into nothing more sinister than my computer monitor.

With this technology, I can no longer claim that I missed paying a bill because I couldn’t read it. Any document I place under the lens is magnified onto my monitor, allowing me to read it just fine.

As with magnifying computer software, the CCTV blows documents up so big that I had to learn to physically scroll the page back and forth in order to read it, which is still challenging for text intensive documents. But I can now at least open my own mail, a big aspect of  living an effectively independent lifestyle.

There are many portable versions of the CCTV, but I own a large, desktop model. So I also have a handheld electronic magnifier that I can keep in my purse. It’s perfect for reading things like price tags and short documents.

I especially like using the magnifier to pick information like a telephone number out of a document; once located, I can easily freeze it on screen with the flick of a button and use it at my leisure.

The drawback to the portable magnifier is its relative bulk. As happy as I was to obtain it, I quickly discovered that having to carry around a lot of equipment in order to see got real old, real fast. In addition, it had limited utility when I needed to read larger documents like menus.

Not to worry, there’s an app for that! In fact, if you click here, you will find quite a few. Personally, I only have two.

The KNFB Reader is the most expensive app I’ve downloaded to date. I got it on sale for $99.00. It was worth that amount to me because it claims to be able to scan any written content, store it and read it back to me using VoiceOver. I have used this device, and am sure it can do everything it claims if I would take the time to learn to use it correctly. Not that it’s so very complicated; I just find it hard to master.

You basically need to line up the document properly, at the correct angle and distance, in order to get a usable pic. The image is then processed by the application, which displays it on the screen and allows you to have it read back. This application can also store multiple pages at once, great for a student needing to finish a reading assignment, for instance. But I simply wanted to read labels in stores and the lunch specials on menus. So this was a bit more complicated than I had in mind.

My Seeing AI app from Microsoft is more my speed. It was free to download, and is also able to narrate what is on a written document. But it does so in real time. Meaning, I can point it at different sections of a menu, for instance, and it instantly starts reading the specials to me. Nothing to learn, just point and listen. Perfection.

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