Equipment to assist the blind and visually impaired has transcended beyond the white cane for navigation or the Perkins Brailler, a typewriter-like device for printing Braille on hard copy sheets of paper.

Today's smartphones and other mobile devices help not only people who have vision, but people with sight loss.

At the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired located in Boise, trained staff, both with and without sight loss, use assistive technology to help prepare the blind to go back into the workforce, re-enter school or to learn other vocational skills.

Laine Amoureux, an assistive technologist at the commission, works with the blind, assessing their technology needs in relation to how they’ll be using it – whether it be for work, school or everyday tasks. In her position, Amoureux said she uses a variety of technologies like an iPhone and a mobile Braille display device to communicate with the blind and for other work.

Checking email, writing reports and consulting with rehabilitation teachers is all part of Amoureux’s job, so technology that strengthens communication with those who have sight loss is critical. For Amoureux, using mobile devices that comprehend Braille is essential for working outside the commission’s main Boise office.

Although iPhones don’t translate Braille, newer iPhone models have built-in text-to-speech capability to assist with communication. According to Dana Ard, a senior vocational rehabilitation counselor with the commission who doesn't have sight, mobile Braille displays, like BrailleNote, can function similarly to a PDA, but for Braille users. Equipped with six specialized keys that correspond to the Braille system, BrailleNote devices can store email, documents and even dictate text back to the user since they contain their own text-to-speech capability.

Ard uses her BrailleNote device for tasks like keeping to-do lists. With the touch of a button, Ard can go back and scan a list on her device line by line.

Yet Braille displays are not stand-alone technology. According to BrailleNote, information stored on the device can be connected to printers, embossers and PCs with a USB cord.

Amoureux said that with the help of Bluetooth capability, her Braille display device and iPhone can be paired up with each other. Once turned on, the two connect, allowing information to be shared between the two devices.

Like most technology, there are bound to be glitches. Amoureux said part of her job requires helping people resolve technical issues with the assistive technology as they arise. In one such incident, Amoureux received an email from a vendor about a specialized headset that wasn’t working properly. The headset was designed to receive telephone calls in one ear, but in the other ear, provide text-to-speech capability so that the headset can connect and communicate information from a computer.

Assistive Technology: The New Mainstream

Despite a technical glitch here and there, some say overall, assistive technology for the blind has become cheaper and more accessible. Allison Shipp, a former assistive technology specialist with the STAR Center, a nonprofit organization that works with the blind, said that in recent years, assistive technology has become more mainstream. Back in the mid-'90s, the most common technology tool for the blind was JAWS, a screen reading software that’s supported on Microsoft Windows platforms.

“Back in 1996, JAWS was the main thing, and today, JAWS is the main thing,” Shipp said. “The good thing now is that a lot of stuff is coming mainstream. The accessibility is becoming more mainstream.”

Newer versions of JAWS have been released over the years, but Shipp said in addition to using the software, the blind and visually impaired now have other assistive technology options that won’t empty their wallets.

A range of available mobile apps can help the blind with everyday tasks. SayText, available for free in the iTunes app store, allows users to take a photo on their phone and have the text from that image read aloud to them. Apps that recognize text in images can help identify items in a grocery store or differentiate between denominations of cash.

“Instead of buying a $10,000 Braille display, you can buy a $2 app on your iPhone,” Shipp said. “So it’s just becoming a lot more accessible to people who may not have thousands of dollars to go purchase this equipment.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer
Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.