MOD­ERN MAR­VELS Apps Aid the Blind

Soft­ware helps the sight­less be self-suf­fi­cient

RSWLiving - - Cover Page - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT Craig Gar­rett is Group Edi­tor-in-Chief for TOTI Me­dia.

John DiMarco is step­ping from a trol­ley in Fort My­ers Beach. He has spent two hours trav­el­ing from Naples for a Beach Lions Club meet­ing. The trip has been on pub­lic trans­porta­tion, which isn’t all that strange. Ex­cept that DiMarco is blind. He is one of Amer­ica’s sight-chal­lenged who in­creas­ingly use tech­nol­ogy to help them cope. DiMarco uses an iPhone and a dozen or so phone/tablet ap­pli­ca­tions to help him travel, make pur­chases and oth­er­wise man­age his life. Soft­ware and global po­si­tion­ing have given the sight­less new op­por­tu­ni­ties― and hope―to move about in­de­pen­dently, with sur­pris­ingly lit­tle as­sis­tance. “The tech­nol­ogy al­lows the blind to see the world as oth­ers see it,” says Janet Al­ter­man, a su­per­vi­sor for Florida’s Divi­sion of Blind Ser­vices in Fort My­ers. “It has opened a whole new set of doors.”

De­scend­ing from the trol­ley at a shel­tered bus stop on Es­tero Boule­vard, DiMarco―who is 69 and uses a black Labrador leader dog to as­sist him―be­gins scrolling his iPhone, thumb­ing an ap­pli­ca­tion that tells him in Siri’s voice pre­cisely where he is stand­ing. Each icon sings out as his thumb passes over the screen. It’s dif­fi­cult to keep up with DiMarco’s scrolling through voice mes­sages that sound like Alvin the Chip­munk. He has ma­nip­u­lated the phone to speed Siri’s voice as he has gained con­fi­dence in manag­ing the apps.

At the bus stop DiMarco awaits a ride to the Lions Club, pat­ting his wet dog, Shadow, as the rain falls. The club is fi­nal­iz­ing the Shrimp Festival, its big drive to fund lo­cal pro­grams for the blind. Wait­ing in the bus shel­ter, DiMarco ex­plains that he lost his eye­sight a decade ago to a mac­u­lar dis­ease, erod­ing from fuzzy vision to com­plete sight­less­ness. Per­haps be­cause he knew what was com­ing, DiMarco stayed up­beat as a white cur­tain was drawn across his eyes. “It closed one chap­ter,” he says, puff­ing on half cig­a­rettes, “and opened an­other. I think I ac­cepted it more eas­ily.”

This may sound nice, but life can be tough even with func­tion­ing eyes, let alone de­pend­ing on a ma­chine to walk store aisles and home hall­ways, to stay con­nected to a vis­ual world. Close your eyes and try not walk­ing into a door or don­ning a shirt that’s not inside out—is­sues that DiMarco still fights.

“It’s a big shock,” says Mike Ul­rich, a Cape Co­ral man who is los­ing his sight as a re­sult of health is­sues in 2004. “It’s pretty much text­book—the six steps of de­nial, fear, the whole gamut. And then you learn you’ve got to adapt, or you go nuts,” he says, not­ing that he is less re­liant on hand-held tech­nol­ogy, in­stead us­ing screen-read­ers and other home de­vices to man­age his af­fairs. Ul­rich also un­der­went skills train­ing from Blind Ser­vices, today us­ing a long white cane to ne­go­ti­ate stores and walk­ing trips, and learn­ing to ask the sighted for di­rec­tions inside an of­fice build­ing, for ex­am­ple. “You get to know places as three side­walks up and two side­walks over,” he says. “It can be done.”

As tech­nol­ogy lopes ahead, so do the num­ber of blind in Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly in states such as Florida, with a high num­ber of seniors. Some 5.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans over 65 and 15 mil­lion from 18 to 64 have sig­nif­i­cant vision loss, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for the Blind. Dis­ease, in­jury, hy­per­ten­sion and di­a­betes are chief causes for vision loss. Some 60,000 legally blind chil­dren are en­rolled in Amer­i­can schools.

Peo­ple with vis­ual dis­abil­i­ties are aided by soft­ware such as JAWS (Job Ac­cess With Speech), a screen-reader that talks to its blind users. The de­vice vo­cal­izes emails and what Ul­rich types on the key­board, for ex­am­ple. Many ser­vices for the blind are funded by agen­cies such as the Divi­sion of Blind Ser­vices.

DiMarco’s iPhone screen has a dozen or so soft­ware apps, in­clud­ing the Be My Eyes ap­pli­ca­tion that con­nects the blind to sighted helpers via phone cam­eras. The user points the phone cam­era; the vol­un­teer de­scribes what is on the screen. DiMarco has used Be My Eyes to amuse him­self, the sighted vol­un­teer de­scrib­ing a woman DiMarco has met, for ex­am­ple. DiMarco en­joys telling the woman that her eyes are at­trac­tive, he says. “You don’t stop hav­ing fun” when you lose your sight, he says.

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