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Electronic Magnifiers for Low Vision

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Wall Street Journal – High Tech Low Vision

Posted on Apr.15, 2010, under Enhanced Vision News

Sharon Fowler had to stop teaching after 31 years when hemorrhages behind her retinas severely reduced her vision. "When you can’t tell who’s who and what’s flying across the room, it’s time to quit," she says. She kept playing drums in
her church band, but couldn’t see the sheet music. "They had to wave at me to tell me when to stop," says the 58-year-old
Parkersville, W. Va., resident.

Then, vision-rehabilitation experts at the Duke Eye Center
in Durham, N.C., fitted Ms. Fowler with glasses that had
an adjustable telescopic lens, and her world opened up
again. "I can see individual leaves and blades of grass,"
she marvels. "And when I realized I could read music
again, I just started crying."

Even if you can read this, chances are you know
somebody who can’t. More than 16 million Americans
report some form of visual impairment even when wearing
glasses or contacts. That number is expected to double
by 2030 as the aging population brings rising rates of
macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and other eye diseases.

But "low vision" (technically, worse than 20/60 in the better eye) doesn’t have to mean darkness and dependence. An
ever-growing array of devices can help people maximize their remaining vision and in many cases, compensate for what
they’ve lost. Some of the new offerings: free software that can tailor the text on any Web site to your personal visual
needs, and a cellphone that can snap photos of text — like signs and restaurant menus — and read it back to you.

"These products solve people’s problems," says Jerry
Mansell, vision-rehabilitation coordinator at the Duke Eye
Center. But he cautions that they can be a waste of
money if they aren’t suited to individual needs.

Ideally, people who are visually impaired should have a
comprehensive vision rehab assessment. This includes a visit with an eye doctor, a technology specialist and an
occupational therapist who can evaluate a person’s limitations and goals. "Artists and musicians need different help than
somebody who just wants to be able to watch TV," says Diane B. Whitaker, director of vision rehabilitation at Duke Eye
Center, which offers such services. "Many people don’t know these resources exist," she adds, in part because
ophthalmologists have traditionally seen vision rehab as a last resort.

Lighthouse International, a nonprofit organization in New York, also offers vision rehab. "We’ll even go to your office and
talk to your boss. We’ll give you the technology you need to keep your job," says Leslie Gottlieb, a Lighthouse
spokeswoman. The group’s Web site, Lighthouse.org, has a list of low-vision resources around the world. The
organization is sponsoring an exposition of low-vision products on Sept. 19 in New York.

Medicare and private insurance will pay for a doctor’s evaluation and occupational therapy. Devices generally aren’t
covered, but low-vision clinics may be able to get discounts for you or suggest lower-priced alternatives.

The biggest obstacle to seeking help is often
psychological. "Many people we see have been told
there’s nothing that can be done for them. They’ve gotten
depressed and given up," Mr. Mansell says. "But when
they find they can regain some functions, their quality of
life improves tremendously."

Here’s a look at some of the newest technologies:

Customizing a computer. Starting today, you can
download a free software program from Lighthouse called
LowBrowse. As you read any Web page, the line of text
beneath your cursor appears in a banner across the top of the screen. The software lets you select the type size,
style, color and spacing of the text that appears in the
banner. "Your preferences travel with you as you surf the
Web, so you have to set them only once," says Aries
Arditi a senior fellow at the Lighthouse who developed the program along with associate Jianwei Lu and a grant from the
National Eye Institute.

LowBrowse, which also can read the text aloud and magnify images, is available at www.LowBrowse.org or at the addons
site for Mozilla Firefox. It’s compatible with Windows, MacOS and Linux, but requires the Firefox browser.

Other programs such as ZoomText ($600) from Ai Squared can also customize applications such as Outlook, Word, Office
and Excel. The Mac OS X has many of these functions built in.

Mini magnifiers. The $345 MAX by Enhanced Vision, uses your TV set as
a viewing screen; you move a mouse with a built-in
camera over the text you want to see. Other lightweight,
portable cameras can be focused on objects like
blackboards, faces or paintings and either display them
larger on a TV or a laptop screen.

JORDY low vision head worn device

Jordy is worn like a pair of glasses

Real reality glasses. Like a virtual-reality system, the
JORDY glasses (shown at left) by Enhanced Vision can magnify objects
as much as 30 times and display them on a tiny
embedded TV screen. The focus can be adjusted so
users can see faces, watch TV or follow ballgames in a
stadium. It’s $2,995, and converts to a desktop viewer.

Specialty eyeglass makers can also insert telescopic
lenses into regular glasses, and adjust the focus with
different caps for different distances, as Ms. Fowler had
done at Duke.

Prosthetic contacts. Custom contact lenses — fit to
thousands of reference points on the eye — can
sometimes correct problems that off-the-shelf contacts

can’t, including corneas damaged by trauma. A hunting accident left Bill Robinson, a former chief financial officer, with no
vision in one eye and nearly blind in the other. But Dan Myer, a custom contact-lens designer in Atlanta, created a
prosthetic lens that has given Mr. Robinson good functional vision, enabling him to drive and work as a CPA.

"It’s rare that we can’t help a patient," says Mr. Myer. And when patients have been told elsewhere that nothing can be
done for them, "that only makes it more fun," he says.

Staying connected. Cellphones can help the visually impaired maintain mobility and independence, but can be difficult to
use. The Jitterbug, by Samsung, has extra large buttons and display. And its cousin, the Jitterbug OneTouch, has only
three buttons — one for 911, one for any number you program in, and one for a dedicated phone operator who will place
other calls for you. Both are $147. Monthly contracts run from $10 to $40.

Heard any good books? BookCourier, $395 from Springer Design Inc., is a simple pocket-size player that can hold up to
10 audio books at a time; they can be downloaded from services like Audible.com and BookShare.org. "It’s the best thing
ever invented," raves Eleanor Roth, a Lighthouse volunteer in New York who has lost much of her vision to retinitis
pigmentosa.

PlayAway books have a built-in audio player. You buy the "book" and just hit play. More than 1,400 titles are available,
generally $30 to $40 each.

If you’re registered as legally blind (20/200 or worse in the better eye), you can sign up to receive a free tape player and
unlimited free books on tape from the Library of Congress. You mail them back postage-free in a pre-addressed plastic
mailer.

Gadgets galore. A legion of simple, low-tech products — like large-print playing cards, kitchen timers, measuring cups and
computer keyboards — can make life easier for the visually impaired. So can the EZ Fill, a battery-powered alarm that
hooks onto a mug and beeps when it’s almost full. And the Hi Mark 3D writing pen is a tube of goo for labeling appliances
and other objects around the home so they can be identified by feel.

 

About Melinda Beck

As The Wall Street Journal’s new Health Journal columnist, Melinda Beck is returning
to her love of reporting after a seven-year stint as the editor of Marketplace, the
paper’s second section. Before joining the Journal in 1996 as deputy Marketplace
editor, Melinda was a writer and editor at Newsweek magazine, and wrote more than
two dozen cover stories on topics ranging from the Oklahoma City bombing to the O.J.
Simpson trial to liquid diets and the dilemmas of long-term care. She’s always found
covering health-care issues particularly exciting, as evidenced by awards she’s won
for her stories from the Arthritis Foundation, the AARP, the American Society on
Aging, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the National Institute of Health
Care Management and the American College of Health Care Administrators. Melinda
graduated from Yale University and lives in New York City with her husband and two
daughters.