Top 10 Awesome Ways Technology Gives Sight to the Blind


Blind people have managed to lead full, independent lives throughout history. But there’s no denying the fact that the world can be a daunting and difficult place if you can’t see, and so we’ve adapted. Braille was invented nearly 200 years ago; guide dogs have been in existence about half that long. In this Age of Information, huge advances have been made in making many aspects of everyday life and work more accessible to those of us without sight. It was not easy choosing just ten examples of this accessibility, but here are my favorites.

10. ScripTalk

Knowing the information on your medicine bottle can be a matter of life and death. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that over a hundred thousand people die every year and two million are hospitalized, due to mistakes involving medication.

The labels on prescription containers are detailed, but the print is tiny. How can you distinguish between bottles of pills? You could apply an adhesive Braille label, but that only works if you’re one of the ten percent of blind people who are Braille readers. Even then, space on the label is severely limited; you’d be lucky to get the full name of the drug onto it, and that still leaves you having to trust your memory as to how much medication to take at what times.

Enter ScripTalk. More and more pharmacies are using this technology to protect the health and independence of their visually-impaired customers. The pharmacist encodes all relevant drug information (name, amount, dosage instructions, warnings, patient info, etc.) into a radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip imbedded in the bottom of the container. The patient can then access the information by placing the bottle on the top of a ScripTalk Station, available free of charge in most cases. The device decodes the information in the RFID microchip and a clear synthetic voice will then read it aloud. No sighted assistance is required, and the device is designed in such a way that it will not confuse two bottles of medicine in close proximity to its scanner. In this manner, it is as close to fail-safe as it can be.

9. Liquid Level Indicator

All right, so you’ve got your pills sorted out, now you need something to drink to wash them down. How do you pour a drink without overflowing the glass? You could hook your finger over the edge so you’ll feel when the liquid reaches it, but that’s not exactly the most hygienic thing in the world and it’s certainly not what you want to do when pouring drinks for honored guests. If you’re pouring hot liquids you risk a burned finger. The Liquid Level Indicator was developed to neatly solve this dilemma.

It’s a small, very lightweight gadget that you hook over the rim of your cup or glass so that the little prongs are inside. Then you pour. When the liquid rises to the level of the prongs, the device beeps.

As you can see in this video, the indicator vibrates as well as beeps, a boon to somebody who is hard of hearing. Also, the pattern of beeps changes after the water first reaches the prongs: the first beeps simply warn you to slow down, but if you continue to pour, the tones speed up, alerting you that you are very close to the rim of the cup. This is helpful if you don’t want to feel like you’re pouring a partial glass of milk for a spill-prone child.

8. Screenreading Software

Computers haven’t quite taken over the world, but they are definitely becoming more and more important in our daily lives. It’s getting harder by the day to get along without computer skills.

So how does a blind person use a computer? There are several software programs that translate the text on the screen into synthesized speech or into Braille (which can then be read on a separate Braille display connected to the computer.) By far the most popular of these programs is Jaws.

Jaws is compatible with most operating systems and Internet browsers. It allows the user to read everything a sighted user would read on the screen, making it easy to navigate the Web, communicate by email, and prepare and proofread documents. In fact, this list could not have been written if not for Jaws.

Note that the speech, while very clear, does take some getting used to as it is not just reading text but also identifying links and graphics. The speed and pitch can be adjusted by the user, as can the amount of punctuation voiced.

And if you find Jaws’ default voice too robotic, there are dozens of other voices available for download to be your screen-reading voice. These voices, which speak a wide variety of languages, sound almost completely human.

7. Talking Color Identifiers

One of the trickier aspects of living without sight is that we are surrounded by a universe of color, and like it or not, color is important. We all want our clothes to match, to be able to respond appropriately when somebody says “Bring me the blue folder” and to appreciate the colorful beauty of flowers and leaves.

There are several types of color identifiers available, and while they vary widely in price and in the amount of detail they give, they all operate on the same basic principle. Hold the device’s “eye” against the material you want to identify, and it measures the amount of light reflected back from it. Color is, after all, only the result of light being absorbed and reflected. Then the device verbally announces the color it sees.

Depending on the device, the information it provides could be as simple as “light blue” to as vividly evocative as “pure steel blue.” The top-of-the-line ColorTest Memo, made by Caretec of Austria, even has a built-in room thermometer, clock and calendar with stopwatch, and the ability to record personal messages and reminders.

Here’s a demonstration of the more modestly-priced Colorino. You’ll notice it isn’t foolproof, but it is nonetheless quite accurate.

6. Talking Bar Code Scanners

Everyone knows that just about everything you buy in a grocery store or drugstore has a unique bar code which allows the cashier to quickly scan it and determine its price. But these bar codes can also help the blind or reading-disabled to identify food, over-the-counter medicines, beauty products, even books and CD’s.

The ID Mate Galaxy uses the same scanning technology you find at the store, with the added bonus that the unit will then speak the name of the product. Not only that, it will also provide instructions, nutritional information, package size, CD track listings, etc. The ID Mate has an onboard database of literally millions of items, and it scans the bar code and retrieves the relevant information in no time at all.

Here’s a demo of ID Mate in action. This model also has several extra features, including the ability to record your own messages (if the directions on a frozen dinner say to cook it for 30 minutes, but you find it needs more like 40, you can record a note to yourself which will be in place next time you scan the item) and an online price-check feature for comparison shopping..

5. Bookshare


Back in Ye Olden Days, Braille and recorded books were available only on loan from libraries such as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The braille books were large and took up a lot of space (“Gone with the Wind” runs to nine fat volumes). In the mid-nineties, NLS began offering its patrons the option of downloading books from their website, to be read using screen-reading software or a digital talking-book player. This was a huge step forward, but the selection of books was relatively small.

Then in 2002, Bookshare was launched. A nonprofit venture affiliated with the Benetech Company, Bookshare relies on volunteers and publishers alike to use special scanning software to turn print books into either Braille or audio files. Bookshare users can then download as many books as they wish and store them on their own computers or on storage devices such as flash drives. Then the books can be read or listened to with the aid of that handy screenreading software we talked about earlier.

The service is not free, as users pay a yearly subscription fee of $50, but it has proved extremely popular not only with the blind but with other print-disabled customers.

Currently there are hundreds of thousands of books available from Bookshare, from current bestsellers, classics, textbooks to trashy romances, how-to books, and everything in between.

4. Currency Identifiers

Coins are easy to tell apart by touch: they’re all different sizes and some are ridged and others aren’t. But paper money is a whole other ball game. US bills are all exactly the same size and there is no difference in texture. So if you’re blind, how do you know which bills to hand over when you buy something? You could, as many blind people do, fold each denomination a different way and/or keep them in separate compartments of a wallet, but you still have to rely on someone sighted to help you know which bill to fold which way. And when you get your change back, how do you know you haven’t been shortchanged?

Again, technology to the rescue! The I-Bill is a very small, lightweight device that instantly recognizes the denomination of any US bill inserted in the slot.

It then announces the denomination verbally, or through a series of beeps, the length and number of which are unique to each type of bill. You can even set the I-Bill to a silent setting, and the bills’ denominations are given in vibrating pulses, again a unique pattern and number of pulses for each bill. If the bill is badly torn or damaged, the I-Bill will not misidentify it but will instead give an error message.

Here’s a similar device called Money Talks, which can also work with euro notes.

3. Descriptive Video Service

Try to follow a movie or TV show with your eyes closed. How much of the plot can you piece together from the soundtrack and dialogue alone? Depending on the movie, you may get anywhere from a fair idea to hardly any idea at all of the plot without being able to see the action, costumes, characters’ gestures and facial expressions, etc.

In the early 1990’s, Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, launched the Descriptive Video Service. Professional describers would watch movies or TV shows while writing up descriptions of action, setting, characters and onscreen text. These descriptions would then be recorded and inserted into naturally-occurring pauses in the dialogue.

Since its inception, the service has expanded a great deal. Not only are many more DVD’s available, but a number of popular TV shows are also being described. Viewers access the described versions of shows like “The Simpsons” via the Second Audio Program (SAP) feature that is now standard on TV’s. Described movies are also available in some theaters and even museums.

Note that while the verbal descriptions do not exactly match the onscreen action, this is only a minor problem for those trying to follow the action by sight. Close your eyes and the distraction is gone.

2. Talking iPhones

You may not even have realized it, but your iPhone or iPad is actually completely accessible to a blind user. In the Settings menu, under General and Accessibility, you’ll find something called Voiceover. Turn it on and your phone will now speak every item on the screen, every prompt, and will work with the Siri feature and with any app you have installed. This feature allows blind users to navigate the screen, tapping and sweeping and flicking like any sighted user.

It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of the touchscreen, but even rapid-fire texting (Voiceover will of course read your text messages aloud) and emailing is entirely possible. And you definitely need Voiceover if you want to use …

1. TapTapSee

TapTapSee began as a free app but proved so popular that you must now pay a small subscription fee. TapTapSee works with your iPhone’s camera to take a picture, which is then sent out to a server and, using various means involving both human and artificial intelligence, the object is identified for you verbally in a few seconds.

The app gets its name from its incredible simplicity: open the app, point the camera at whatever you want to know about, and double-tap the screen. Wait a few seconds and then you will hear the description of the object. It is amazingly, often scarily, accurate, and can correctly identify multiple colors, patterns, textures, brand names, even facial expressions. TapTapSee allows you to take twenty free pictures before you decide to buy a subscription.

Don’t forget to stop by Aimee’s blog to check out what else she and Jaws have come up with.

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