2009-02-11 / Seniors

High Tech For Low Vision

Dear Savvy Senior,

What types of products or technology can you recommend to help people with severe vision impairment? My wife has macular degeneration and I'm looking for some good low vision helpers.

Looking Around

Dear Looking:

With around 14 million Americans living with incurable vision impairment today, more and more low-vision products are being developed that can help with almost any need. Here's what you should know.

Low Vision Aids

There are literally hundreds of products on the market that can help improve the quality of life for the visually impaired. For example, to help with daily living tasks, you can find a wide array of "talking" or "jumbo-sized" products such as clocks, watches, remote controls, thermostats and kitchen aids, as well as a huge variety of magnifiers. There are even home telephone devices with which you can dial a person by simply saying their name, and drink indicators you can hook onto your coffee cup that beep when it's almost full.

You can find these products and many others online at sites like www.independentliving.com, 800-537-2118, and www.maxiaids.com, 800-522-6294. Also, www.abledata.com, a Web portal, lists almost every type of low-vision product and where you can buy it.

In addition to daily living helpers, there are some newer high-tech devices you should know about that offer some incredible features. Here are some to check out.

Desktop video magnifiers. Also known as closed circuit TVs, these are devices that help with reading, writing and looking at pictures. While this type of technology has been around for a while, more styles and variations are available today with prices ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Some good places to find these are at
www.enhancedvision.com or 888-811-3161;
www.freedomvision.net, 800-961-1334;
www.humanware.com, 800-722-3393,
www.optelec.com, 800-826-4200;
www.clarityusa.com, 800-575-1456, and
www.freedomscientific.com, 800-444-4443,
which also sells a machine called SARA that can read printed material aloud without a computer.

Portable video magnifiers. While handheld magnifiers have been around for years, today there's a variety of small, high-tech options that provide much more clarity, contrast and flexibility than an ordinary magnifying glass. Some of these devices can even freeze an image on the screen, allowing you to take the image to another location. Prices range from around $250 to more than $1,000. You can find these devices at many of the same sites that sell the desktop video magnifiers previously listed, www.freedomscientific.com, or if you're looking for a hands-free magnifier, the JORDY glasses ($2,795; www.enhancedvision.com) are great for reading and watching television.

Mobile reader. Another fantastic device is the KnfbReader (around $1,500; www.knfbreader.com; 877-547-1500). This is actually a cell phone with a camera. You can take a photo of any text and the phone will read it back to you aloud.

Low-vision GPS. At www.humanware.com, you can find the Trekker Breeze ($895), a handheld global-positioning system that announces the names of streets and intersections as you are walking or riding. With the press of a button, it tells you your location.

Cell phone. The best cell phone on the market for low vision users is the Jitterbug by Samsung ($147, www.jitterbug.com, 800-918- 8543). It offers extra large buttons and display along with voice dialing, or you can opt for the Jitterbug OneTouch, which has only three buttons- one for 911, one for any number you program in, and one to reach a dedicated phone operator who will place other calls for you.

Computer aids. If you want to customize a computer for low vision, you'll be happy to know that this can be done for free. You simply turn to your computer's operating system, where you can adjust your settings to increase text and icon size, change colors and add contrast. Microsoft users should go to www.microsoft.com/enable and Apple users to www.apple.com/accessibility for instructions. Another free option that was recently created to enhance Internet viewing is a software program downloaded at www.lowbrowse.org. Created by Lighthouse International, this software lets you customize and increase the size of the Web to make it easier to see. It can even read text aloud. This software is compatible with Windows, MacOS and Linux, but requires the Firefox browser, which can also be downloaded for free.

Savvy Tips: For low-vision help and product recommendations seeing a vision rehabilitation professional is highly recommended. To find one in your area, visit www.lighthouse.org and click on "Help Near You" or call 800-829- 0500. Also, note that neither private insurance nor Medicare covers low-vision products.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to "The NBC Today Show" and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of the Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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