High tech assistive & adaptive technology for visually impaired

Well, here we are in the future. Interesting in spite of itself. We might have been expecting robots by now, and we weren’t exactly wrong. They’re here. They don’t usually look the way movies and cartoons imagined them for us, and they aren’t often shaped like human replicas, so we might not recognize them for what they are: a robot army, useful, fascinating, and a part of our lives. We are all served by a multitude of helpers every day, and a lot of them are automated, robotic, or based on artificial intelligence. 


Transformative Tools: Equipping People for Equal Access 

Within the broad range of general tools available to everyone, we find two nested categories: assistive and adaptive tools and devices. All these categories can include highly technologically advanced, or simple and basic tools.

Assistive Tools: General Use

The first category of tools, assistive, does what it says: it assists all kinds of people in performing many tasks. While assistive tools are often used by people with disabilities, that’s not the tool’s sole use or purpose. Assistive tools can be helpful to anyone. An assistive tool example is a magnifying glass.

Adaptive Tools: Designed for Disability

The second category of tools, adaptive, belongs inside the first category. These tools are also assistive, because they are indeed helpful. However, they are part of a smaller subset: they’re designed or adjusted specifically to serve the needs of people with disabilities, and they won’t be useful to anyone without a disability. An adaptive equipment tool example for visually impaired user needs is a white cane.

It’s also true that some tools have been developed to support people with disabilities, and are then also utilized by people without disabilities. This doesn’t change the tool’s categorization as adaptive or assistive: it’s a display of the cut curb theory in action. The cut curb theory looks at the natural outcomes of what happens when a sidewalk curb is cut down at a low angle to provide easy access to users with disabilities.

If a university cuts down a curb or builds a wheelchair ramp to accommodate students with disabilities, the curb and ramp will be used by others too: students on bicycles, skates and skateboards, a postal worker with a cart, a parent pushing a stroller. In short, incorporating accessibility measures is critical to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities. But accessibility also tends to directly benefit the larger community, as well as the community members it was mainly meant to serve. And that’s without taking into consideration the societal advantages of inclusion: a welcoming environment that makes room for all talents to thrive and all voices to be heard.

Adaptive Tech for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired 

adaptive tech people who are blind visually impaired

In a world where visual media is increasingly leaned on as the main and sometimes only conveyor of information, technology has been a game-changer for individuals with visual impairments. High-tech tools and devices have emerged, designed to support people who are blind or visually impaired in navigating the digital landscape as well as their daily lives more independently. And, the loss of one of the human senses of perception has been linked to cognitive deterioration as well, especially in older adults. Using tools to restore or improve lost access to information, social interaction, and entertainment is a major health benefit, and can help keep other senses sharp, and spirits up.

Let’s explore a few key adaptive tools that have significantly improved accessibility for people with disabilities.

Screen Readers

Utilized mainly by people who are fully or partially blind, as well as by users with moderately low vision, screen readers software programs use text-to-speech technology to convert text-based data into synthesized speech. They announce what’s on the screen, offering access to information displayed on computers, smartphones, and tablets.

The three most popular screen readers are:

  • JAWS, or Job Access With Speech
    Top in user popularity around the world, JAWS has the widest array of customizable configurations. It’s a bit difficult to learn initially. JAWS is available for Windows OS as a paid package, usually about $90/year. Computers have been known to freeze when running JAWS, because of stress on the processors due to the large quantity of working RAM memory it uses.
  • VoiceOver
    Apple’s screen reader option, VoiceOver, comes pre-installed on all iOS devices, so there’s no setup needed, and while it can’t be called free as it only comes with a device, it has no additional cost. It also bundles 30+ language voices with the product. VoiceOver is considered quite an easy to use program, but it does take some time to learn.
  • NVDA, or NonVisual Desktop Access
    This is free and open source screen reader software, and another very popular option. NVDA works with Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, supporting most web browsers, Microsoft’s Word, Excel and Outlook Express, and web content with JavaScript. Students trying out different screen readers for the first time tapped NVDA as the second best for Windows, and in some cases, they even preferred NVDA over JAWS.
  • Also-Ran Options
    Microsoft Windows offers its own Microsoft Narrator tool, but it has limited and sometimes problematic or faulty functionality. ChromeVox comes free with a Chrome laptop and Chrome OS, and is also available as a Chrome browser extension. People like the sound of the ChromeVox voice more than most other screen readers’ synthetic voices, but the screen reader does have issues, and of course, it’s limited to Chrome.

Braille Displays and Embossers

Braille displays translate digital text into refreshable raised cells, allowing users who are blind to read and interact with information using the Braille reading system. Embossers physically print raised braille dot-based text on paper and other mediums, creating tactile documents. While embossers aren’t a new tool, the models are improved and updated often. And, refreshable display options are very much a high-tech phenomenon.

High-Contrast and Large Print Keyboards

These specialized adaptive computer keyboards feature enlarged lettering and high-contrast color schemes, improving visual clarity for users with low vision, and adding accessibility for those with limited motor skills.

Magnification Software

This type of software enlarges text and images on a computer screen, making them easier to see for individuals with low vision. Studies indicate that using magnification software can significantly improve reading speed and comprehension for users with age-related macular degeneration and other forms of vision loss or impairment.

Smart Glasses

Special low-vision glasses today can come with hundreds of options, including telescopic lenses that never would have been available without many technological advances. But smart glasses are a breed apart: they can work as a visual prosthetic device for individuals who have little to no vision.

  • NuEyes: Blending Realities
    For low vision users, smart glasses like the NuEyes Pro can be a gamechanger: they can magnify up to 12x, adjust color and contrast in real-time, scan bar codes and QR codes, as well as announce printed media aloud using OCR (optical character recognition) and text-to-speech. The latest e3+ NuEyes smart glasses model, out soon, includes an immersive “mixed reality” experience in assistive technology for low vision users, leveraging previous NuEyes technology and bringing in virtual reality to power up the mix.
  • AIRA: Live Assistance
    AIRA smart glasses, on the other hand, require connectivity. This is because they use a camera and connect to a live trained assistant who can tell you what you’re looking at right away. Obviously this is tremendously useful for identifying important documents or lifesaving medication, as well as wonderful for navigating uncharted routes or enjoying a restaurant with an unfamiliar menu. 

With each year, or more accurately, each development cycle at some amazing smart-tech companies aiming at accessibility, more and more apps and adaptive technologies open up for users with visual impairment: images projected directly onto the retina via laser, the QD Laser lightweight smart viewing technology is aimed at older people, who may have trouble reading digital displays on conventional screen types. The QD is rumored to be available in Japan, although it hasn’t been sighted elsewhere. And, Apple may have yet more advanced smart glasses in development, in spite of the recent failed launch of the Vision Pro, which is being returned to Apple en masse as an overpriced, uncomfortable disappointment. When the proposed “new new” smart glasses might be released is still up for grabs. Other smart glasses, less well-known but perhaps better received, include the IrisVision electronic glasses with included VR headset and smartphone technology  as well as up to 14x magnification, plus “bubble view”, the Acesight by Zoomax with augmented reality and a floating HD display with up to 15x zoom, and the MyEye2, a relatively light attachable camera in a side mounted attachment on a glasses frame.

OCR & Text-to-Speech

These two types of technology are incorporated into many types of adaptive tools and reading devices for visually impaired users, including screen readers and some smart glasses. They are also available in software form, as standalone programs or working together. OCR (optical character recognition) reads printed text and translates it into digital text, which can then in some cases be read out loud, using Text-to-Speech technology.

These devices use GPS technology and audio cues to help users navigate outdoor spaces safely and efficiently. Some models also incorporate obstacle detection features, offering real-time guidance to avoid physical hazards.

Accessible E-Readers and Tablets

These feature high-contrast displays, text-to-speech functions, and the ability to adjust font size and color settings, making digital content more accessible to users with limited visual abilities.

Voice-Controlled Home Systems

This type of system allows users to control lighting, thermostats, entertainment, and security features using simple voice commands, making daily tasks within the home simpler and safer.

Specialized Computer Hardware

This category of adaptive tools, used together with computers, includes devices for visually impaired individuals, like tactile keyboards and alternative controllers, with features such as tactile feedback, voice navigation, and customizable interfaces.

What’s New, What’s Next: Advances in Technology

advances in adaptive assistive technology for visually impared

Technology surges through our lives so rapidly now. We don’t know what’s coming down the road, because the road itself is moving too. We hope it’s going in a good direction, as we ourselves race to keep up.

This year is young still, but it has already witnessed exciting advancements in assistive technology for visually impaired individuals, starting with the improved integration of cutting-edge features like AI-powered image recognition so that devices can identify objects and provide real-time descriptions, aiding individuals with visual impairments in navigating their surroundings and understanding visual information. Multiple instances of real-time video-based assistance services came online, connecting users with remote human assistants who provide visual descriptions of their surroundings and offer assistance with tasks like reading labels or navigating public spaces. These tools can describe visual information, recognize faces, and even interpret physical gestures, providing invaluable context for users. The latest assistive technology products all represent significant steps forward in making the world more accessible for those with visual impairments.

The importance of accessibility for everyone cannot be overstated. The increasing societal focus on inclusivity reflects a seismic shift towards recognizing the diverse needs of all individuals, an understanding that is spurring innovation in assistive technology, so that people with visual impairments and other disabilities can have more equitable access to all areas of life. As technology continues to evolve, it carries with it the promise of a more inclusive world where everyone can thrive: a vision everyone can imagine.


What’s one benefit assistive technology offers to users with visual disabilities?

Independence: the ability to manage everyday tasks and navigate their surroundings with greater autonomy.

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