World Sight Day: Caring for the sightless with assistive technology
On the second Thursday of October, people all around the world celebrate World Sight Day. This global event to be observed on 13th Oct, 2022, draws attention to blindness, visual impairments, and the prevention methods of both. It’s praised as the “most important advocacy and communications event on the eye health calendar.”The World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) both promote the day.
Vision loss has a significant impact on the lives of those who experience it as well as on their families, their friends, and society. The complete loss or the deterioration of existing eyesight can feel frightening and overwhelming, leaving those affected to wonder about their ability to maintain their independence, pay for needed medical care, retain employment, and provide for themselves and their families.
The health consequences associated with vision loss extend well beyond the eye and visual system. Vision loss can affect one’s quality of life , independence, mobility, physical and mental health, cognition, social function, employment and educational attainment. Vision impairment makes it more difficult to perform the basic self-care activities of daily living such as eating and dressing as well as instrumental activities of daily living such as shopping, financial management, medication management and navigate around places
“Assistive Technology” refers to a range of tools, devices, and strategies that allow a student to accomplish a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or would have difficulty accomplishing effectively. Based on International Standard Organization (ISO), the World Health Organization defines Assistive Technology as “any piece of equipment, product, or tool, whether it is acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities”.
Learners with visual impairments face unique challenges in the educational environment. Not only must they be able to access text information across all curricular areas, but they also need to be able to participate fully in instruction that is often rich with visual content. Assistive technology is one way of supporting them in that process. ATs for Sightless people are based on a sense of touch or vibration, sound, and smell etc. The ATs catogory useful for sightless are:-
(A) Assistive technologies for reading:
The act of reading is an esential to many activities in our daily life. Literacy is a requisite skill and knowledge for a wide range of work-related, leisure, and other life maintenance activities in today’s societies. These technologies help in performance among individuals with visual loss. These ATs include
Braille Reading Materials (BRM): Braille is a tactile system of raised dots that enables sightless learners to access the information by touching. Learning Braille reading with fingers is one of the oldest technique to route for literacy among the blind people.
Refreshable Braille Display (RBD): Refreshable Braille Display works with a screen reader and enables the user to read what’s on the computer screen by touch on Braille display.
Braille Translator Software (BTS): Braille Translation Software translates electronic documents into Braille codes and sends it to a Braille embosser (special Braille printer- Braille embosser) which produces a hard copy of the original text. BTS recognizes a variety of digital text files formats e.g. MS Word, PDF, HTML etc.
Audio Format Materials (AFM): AFM is beneficial for many students with low vision and blind. It enables students to read or access information through hearing e.g. Digital Accessible Information System –DAISY, Book Port Plus etc.
Screen Readers Software: This software allows people or students with low vision and blind to convert text on a computer screen and in documents to synthetic speech i.e. audio output as well as keystrokes entered on the keyboard, and navigational information.
Typoscope/ Signature guide: It can be used for either reading guide (one window) or writing guide (multiple windows) according to the design being made. A signature guide is a credit card size piece of plastic that has a rectangular cutout in the bottom third of it. Placing the opening of the cutout on the line assists someone to know exactly where they should sign
(B) Assistive technologies for writing:
People with blindness face a lot of challenges in writing tasks involving typical writing or visual writing. There are varieties of assistive technologies available that support for writing tasks. They include:-
Braille slate and stylus: This is a low cost, portable low-technique writing tool. It is like a pencil and paper concept. The slate is usually made from two panels that stabilizes the paper and while the stylus is used to punch through the holes in one of the panels to create the Braille dots.
Jot a Dot: It is also a low-tech writing tool made of light weight plastic material that is small and easily portable. It is useful for taking quick and short notes by students.
Braille typewriter: It is a portable low tech writing tool with six keys corresponding to each of the six Braille dots. Like a manual typewriter, paper is inserted into the machine and typing causes raised braille dots on the paper, which can be read with the fingers.
Braille computer keyboards: This is a specially designed computer key board which corresponds to Braille code on its keys and the computer is loaded with talking software.
Digital audio recorder: The non-displayed digital recorder is a specially designed for sightless persons which can record teachers’ lectures to replace writing notes e.g. PlexTalk.
Braille electronic note taker: It is a small and portable device for storing information with the used of the Braille or typewriter keyboards. The stored information can be accessed through an inbuilt speech synthesizer or a Braille or both.
(C) Assistive technologies for Mathematics & Science:
Learning mathematical & science based concept is a great challenging task for students with visual loss. For instance, concepts such as direction, quantification, and shape require substantially more cognitive processing when visualization is not possible. There are some assistive devices that use in Mathematical and Science learning. where students can touch and explore :
Abacus:The abacus is a critical tool for early math development among students who are blind, but continues to be a practical tool for many students as they get older. It is used to teach early number concepts, operations and fractions, can be used in lieu of paper and pencil, and is a lowtech substitute for a calculator.
Tactile, Braille and Visually Enhanced Manipulatives: Math manipulatives are a critical component to teaching beginning math concepts in primary grades, and continue to play a vital role in grasping math.
Braille Geometrical Devices: Braille Geometrical Device is an excellent learning tool for blind students who wants to learn about geometry, mathematics or engineering. It comprises of Spur Wheel Sets and Divider with a Met Board, a compass, a ruler, a protractor with a swing arm, set squares, all with small dots depicted in braille. The spur wheel in our Geometrical Device is used to emboss lines on the either side of the paper. All its pieces are heavy duty, sturdy and well made.
Talking calculator: A talking calculator has a built-in speech synthesizer that reads aloud each number, symbol, or operation key a user presses; it also vocalizes the answer to the problem.
Tactile Maps, Diagrams, Atlas and models: Tactile Maps, Diagrams, Atlas and models support blind and visually impaired people in orientation and to familiarize with unfamiliar environments. Interactive approaches complement these maps with auditory feedback.
(D) Assistive technology for orientation and mobility
Orientation and mobility are an essential component for daily and independent living in people with visual loss. Few example are as follows:
Walking or long cane: It is designed primarily for mobility tool to identify objects in the path of the users. The length of the cane depends upon the height of the user, and usually, it extends from the floor up to between sternum and under the chin when user is standing upright. It can also be floded for the convenience of the user.
Guide cane: This is a short and thin cane but longer than symbol cane usually extending from the floor to the user’s waist when standing upright with more limited mobility function. The guide cane is used to scan for kerbs and steps by individual with some residual visual function. It is usually used diagonally across the body for protection and warning the user of obstacles in low contrast or in dark or night time.
Support cane: The white support cane is designed to offer physically support to the user. This tool heavier and stronger and very limited role as a mobility device.
Smart Cane: It uses ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles within a distance and conveys distance information through distinct vibratory patterns. This enables a persons to negotiate the obstacles from a safe distance without actually touching or pumping into it and thus preventing unwanted contact. Injuries resulting from collisions with over-hanging and protruding obstacles such as tree branches, signboards, window mounted air conditioners and coolers, open glass windows and glass doors can be easily avoided.
(E) Assistive technology for games and leisure:
It is important to keep in mind that people with visual loss will need to learn to play games with a sense other than sight. Many games and toys help to develop cognitive skills such as recognizing shapes, numbers, textures etc. It also promotes the development of social skills such as interacting with peers, participating in group activities. The following are some of the games that can be played by most people or children with visual loss:
Braille Sudoku Puzzle game: It features a game board that consists of 81 holes and also includes numbered, color-coded plastic pieces making the game easier to play for sightless persons . Each piece also has the number written in Braille, making it accessible to individuals who are blind.
Tactile Cube: The Rubiks Cube tactile is one of thebrain teaser puzzle toys for the blind. The puzzle is scrambled and solve by twisting and turning it to realign the six matching colors or images.
Braille Monopoly: It is a classic game that is multi-generational. This board game is always a favorite of students, children, and adults. As a blind or visually impaired, you can play together with others easily. All of the properties and spaces are in large type and accompanied by braille. All of the cards are in braille and large print. The dice and money notes as well, are in braille.
Peg Boards: When a sightless person is alone and in those moments when there’s nothing to do and there is no one to do it with, the solo board games Peg board really come in handy. Peg boards is one such game which can be really occupying while traveling or when we are home alone.
Cross Puzzle: Braille Crossword Puzzle Game allows users to creatively form words on a wooden board using plastic tiles that have raised tactile letters as well as raised tactile Braille. It’s a great way for low vision and blind children to learn Braille letters while practicing letter combinations and exploring word creation.
Audible Ball: Sightless persons also love to play cricket with an audible ball which has bells inside it. Blind cricket is a version of cricket adapted for blind and partially sighted players.
Snake & Ladder: Tactile Snake & Ladder is very beautiful and convenient. It has a range of snakes and ladders which are tactile and visually enhanced. It has 100 squares. Also, tactile pegs are coloured and easy to play.
Playing Cards: The deck of playing card includes 54 premium-plastic cards. Cards sport Braille on two corners, and full-colour printing. It’s a very handy game to be carried along anywhere. One can play this game with sighted friends as well.
Chess Board: Chess has been recognized as a tool to aid the intellectual development since a long time. Braille chess has also been developed and used widely keeping that in mind. This Checkered board game is played by two people. Braille chess is a wooden playing board with wooden pawns. Each white piece has a tactile dot on top such that it can be easily differentiated with brown pawns.
(F) Assistive technology for Activities of Daily Living
Individuals with blindness and visual impairment require assistive technology for a wide range of their daily living activities. Assistive technologies for ADL are available:
Liquid level sensor: It is specially designed device which alerts visually impaired students by monitoring the level of liquid in a cup or glass either a sound or vibration or both as liquid touches at the tip of device.
Talking color detector: This device can differentiate a variety of colors with a voice once it touches on the surface.
Talking watch or alarm clock: This talking device clearly announces the time and can be used for alarm.
Pill organizer: This device is particularly useful for blind individuals who need to consume multiple medications every day. It has a separate compartment for pills taken in the different time of the day. Braille markings box are available.
Simplified mobile phone: This is a simple basic phone which makes easier to feel and navigate. Features like the adjustable or large font or screen magnifiers, adjustable screen contrast and brightness or Braille entry may have in the phone.
Talking money Identifier: It helps visually impaired individuals to identify money with a voice function.
Globally, the need of assistive technology continues to increase along with rise in the population with visual disability. India, a home of highest number of blind population in the world certainly need to improve the awareness as well as accessing of assistive technology. The eye care professionals and other allied disciplines in the country are needed to be sensitized about various types of assistive technology and its application for the welfare of people with visual impairment. At the same time, it is also important to have a low cost and affordable assistive technologies for a resource limited country, India.
(The author is former Incharge Abhedananda Home-Higher Sec Institution for Specially-abled Children, Srinagar)