- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If there’s anything that can scare most of us — and with good reason it’s the prospect of losing one’s sight, or having it severely damaged. It’s not just total blindness; diseases such as macular degeneration, in which damage to the retina causes a loss of vision in the macula, the center of vision, often strikes older people, but it can also affect young adults and others.

(That anxiety is, apparently, widely shared: According to an October 2010 poll by Harris Interactive, 82 percent of Americans fear losing their vision, the highest proportion among the five senses, and more than 10 times the next-highest fear, loss of hearing at 8 percent.)

The introduction of the Braille alphabet, which lets people “read” by touch, has been an advancement, but as then-Gov. David A. Paterson told the New York Times on Dec. 26 of last year, “You can’t Braille the daily newspaper.”

How can those with limited vision, or even no vision at all, be mainstreamed in today’s tech-intensive world? Mark Ackermann and Dorrie Rush have some answers. Mr. Ackermann is president and CEO, and Ms. Rush is director of marketing for “assistive technology” at Lighthouse International, www.lighthouse.org, a New York-based agency helping those with vision-loss issues.

The 105-year-old Lighthouse is widely known in New York City, having provided education, job training and living assistance for those who need it. The group has a massive facility on East 59th Street in Manhattan that has served thousands.

Today’s distributed world needs distributed solutions, however: People can live and work just about anywhere, and, as Ms. Rush’s example would suggest, even thrive, despite her having Stargardt’s disease, which, she writes, “results in progressive loss of central vision.”

But Ms. Rush uses an iPhone and an iPad, both from Apple Inc. She works on a Windows-based personal computer at her office, and an Apple iMac at home. She’s a blogger (https://dorriessight.blogspot.com/) and an enthusiast.

“I’m 52 years old and I want to be like the other kids,” Ms. Rush said in a Jan. 14 telephone interview. Having assistive technology which either greatly enlarges the screen display or reads aloud text on a computer screen is vital, she said: “It means I can continue a relatively normal life; I can work. It is something that everyone dealing with vision loss fears losing, which is his or her ability to work.”

More important, Ms. Rush’s iPad and iPhone look just like yours and mine would. Instead of carrying something which shouts “I’m using a special product,” users can fit in with the crowd, and that’s a plus.

Apple’s adaptive technologies are built into the Mac OS X operating system, including “VoiceOver,” which can tell users which program they’re using, which window is open, and what menu options are available. In certain productivity applications such as NisusWriterPro and OpenOffice, it’ll read back the on-screen text to you; Microsoft Word 2011 for Mac is not, apparently, compatible. Another OS X built-in assist, “Zoom,” will magnify a screen up to 20 times normal size with just a couple of clicks, another plus for those with vision impairments.

In Microsoft Windows 7, you can set the operating system to magnify a given portion of the screen up to seven times; for larger magnifications, separate software is needed. AI Squared in Manchester, Vt., offers ZoomText at $395 with magnifications up to 36 times the original. Another $200 will buy you a screen reader as well.

The advantage here seems to be with Apple; The company doesn’t really crow about this, but making a computer accessible to users has long been a goal of the firm and its CEO, Steven P. Jobs, who on Monday announced he was taking medical leave. Mr. Jobs’ quest to make computers easier to use led to the graphical user interface at the heart of the Macintosh, and the firm has had 27 years of experience in refining those technologies.

The importance of all this to the thousands of Americans (and others) struggling with vision issues can’t be understated, Mr. Ackermann insists: “As people lose their vision, whether they’re 3, or 13, or 30 or 80 — this is a very big trauma in their lives,” he said. “They just want to feel normal, these new technologies are really helping this particular set of disabled people be more able.”

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