Vision loss among the elderly population is a major health problem. According to the Journal of American Family Physician (Vol. 60/No. 1), approximately one person in three has some form of vision-reducing eye disease by the age of 65 In U.S.A. The prevalence of visual impairment among the elderly is much higher in developing countries like India. The most common causes of vision loss among the elderly are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract and diabetic retinopathy.
The wide-ranging eye problems make simple daily tasks difficult or even impossible for the older people. The activities which were otherwise an inherent part of their daily life, such as reading a book or newspaper, shopping or visiting their friends, maintaining an appointment calendar, or something as basic as dialling a number become a challenge, and they are forced to depend on others for meeting their daily needs. However, with advancements in technology, elderly persons can continue to lead a productive and independent life.
The modern assistive technologies have the potential to transform the life of an elderly blind person from an isolated and dependent human being to a highly productive member who is able to read and write, effectively use different types of modern gadgets like a computer and mobile phones and remain a fully functional member of his / her community. Some assistive technologies which enable an ageing person with blindness to read, write, gain access to information and communication and effectively perform some of the fundamental day to day activities are discussed below:
A screen reader is a software/program which produces an auditory output of the text/messages displayed on the screen with the help of a Text-To-Speech Engine. It can be considered the most important revolution for the visually impaired persons. Due to this technology, it has become possible to use computer as writing and reading tool. All android based touch screen phones and the iPhone produced by Apple also comes with pre-installed screen readers. Thanks to screen readers, people with blindness no longer have to depend on sighted persons for reading messages on their phone, looking for a person’s phone number, taking quick notes, using internet etc.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a technique which converts scanned images into text which can be later read out by the Screen Reader. This technology has brought changes in the patterns of reading of printed material like books and newspapers. A person can simply scan the material of their choice through scanners attached to their computer or through OCR software in their phones, and read any material of their choice at the time of their convenience, without being forced to dependent on their family members or others.
Electronic recorders and playback devices
Digital audio players/recorders allow persons with blindness to read digital talking books and audio material, as well as to record information. These types of devices are very beneficial for elderly blind persons as they can record their appointments/calendars, contact numbers which reduce their dependence upon sighted family members. The devices can be used for leisure also as they have the capability of playing music and few of them even comes with FM Radio. These gadgets also allow the end users to access e-text/computer generated material as they come with USB connectivity which is the easiest method available to connect peripherals with computers.
A large majority of the aging population suffers from partial loss of vision, and magnifiers prove extremely useful for them. Magnifiers are available both as standalone devices, as well as add-on software for phones and computers which help in increasing the size of the text to facilitate easy reading for persons having low vision.
Daily living aids
Apart from reading and writing, older persons having blindness are forced to become more and more dependent for performing many other essential tasks which create many difficulties for them and also affects their self-esteem. However with the help of different commercially available products that provide auditory output, such as a talking thermometer, talking blood pressure measuring machine, talking weighing machine, talking calculator, etc, they can easily perform some of these tasks on their own. Audio labelers like or sonic labeler are other useful devices which come with rerecordable labels where information can be stored in an audio format and can be used for the purpose of sorting and identifying various objects like books, containers, clothes, etc.
It Can be seen that a wide range of technologies and solutions exist which have the potential to bring significant change and improvement in the lives of an ageing population with visual impairment. However their outreach is fairly limited, and therefore their benefits cannot be fully realised unless the end user gains the necessary awareness and know-how of using these technologies as well as the resources for obtaining them. Hence it is the collective responsibility of the family members of such individuals, their friends and neighbours, and various institutions such as the civil society organisations, hospitals, etc to make them aware of these solutions and assist them in acquiring and getting the necessary training to use these devices and technologies.