MODERN MARVELS Apps Aid the Blind
Software helps the sightless be self-sufficient
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.