Reading is Fundamental!
Do you remember the television ads for what was at the time, a federal program to get kids reading more? Perhaps more importantly, you understood the message, that reading is a springboard to learning–one of the basic building blocks. March is Reading Awareness Month, and what better way to celebrate than with a book or magazine!
Imagine the disappointment and frustration of losing access to this most fundamental skill, and missing the opportunities it offers for entertainment, learning, and career development.
An acquired vision loss later in life such as AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration) or glaucoma, may leave individuals isolated from their normal access to print—reading print visually on a newspaper, book, mail, or digital screen. If this has always been the primary means of reading print, a reader may have absolutely no idea that there are alternatives—many alternatives for reading with a vision loss.
If vision loss results in low vision, such that print may still be read visually, if enlarged, or with added contrast, some form of electronic magnification may be helpful. Electronic video magnifiers, formerly called CCTVs, come in a variety of styles:
- Desktop video magnifiers with flat screens ranging from 19-27 inches wide;
- Handheld video magnifiers with screens as small as 3 inches, usually with rechargeable batteries for portability;
- Custom designed or personalized from smartphone or tablet. For example, projecting the image of a smartphone camera onto a television screen using Chromecast, or AppleTV.
Like optical, handheld magnifiers, electronic video magnifiers at their most basic level, enlarge the view of what is being read. Electronic magnification offers the advantage of greater enlargement over optical magnification, contrast and brightness may be enhanced for greater clarity, and in most cases, there is a larger viewing area with the electronic device.
Desktop video magnifiers often have the advantage of what is called a “XY Table,” that permits reading material to be moved around the table smoothly for ease of viewing. This makes reading books and newspapers less effort than with a handheld device.
Recent models of desktop video magnifiers, are also coming with text-to-speech features, to enable what is on the screen to be read, and in some cases, saved to memory. The video magnifier takes a picture of the printed material, applies Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to the picture to identify text, and then reads the text in a very human sounding voice. This may sound quite complicated, but it happens within seconds, often by pushing a single button.
Where Can I Find One?
Desktop and handheld video magnifiers are specialized access technology you will not find at the local box store, or for that matter, in most local eye doctor’s offices. Although you will find them online through websites such as Amazon.com or LS&S Products, they can be pricey, so an assessment with a professional is a great starting point before making a purchase. Contact your local Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT) or Low Vision Therapist (LVT) (both can be found on the VisionAware Directory of Services) for an impartial demonstration or assessment, to determine which features best suit your eye condition.
Desktop video magnifiers range in price from $2500 – $4000 depending on the features chosen. Handheld video magnifiers range in price from $300 -$1000, depending on the features and the size of the screen. When shopping, or during the assessment, be sure to ask if there are demonstration, or per-owned models available for a reduction in price. There are still many usable desktop video magnifiers out there, using the older, larger computer monitors, or that will connect to a television screen. Often, these older versions have the most important features available, such as color display, brightness, and contrast, and for a fraction of the cost. So if you don’t mind purchasing used, this may be a low-cost alternative!
Does your local library have a video magnifier? You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that a desktop video magnifier is tucked away in a corner of the local library! Ask, and be prepared to describe a video magnifier to library staff, because they might not know what it is. If your library doesn’t have one, it might get added to the next library budget, if enough patrons ask for access to one!
You May Already Have One, And Don’t Know It!
If you are a smartphone or tablet user, you may find that the electronic video magnifier you need is already in your pocket, or backpack! Check the “Accessibility” features under “Settings” on your Apple or Android device and you will find features such as larger text, greater contrast, magnification, and text-to-speech. In the latest operating system upgrade for the Apple iPhone and iPad, called iOS 10, the “Magnifier” feature found under “Settings/General/Accessibility” closely emulates the features available on other stand-alone handheld electronic magnifiers. You may not even realize this feature is on your Apple phone or tablet!
If you have Apple TV or Chromecast, you can take what appears on the screen of your phone or tablet and project it onto a larger screen TV. With the iPhone or iPad, for example, select “AirPlay” from the “Control Center” (swipe up from the bottom of the device). Select the Apple TV on your WIFI network, and turn on “Mirroring.” At this point, whatever is on the iPad screen should be transferred to the larger TV screen. Open the Magnifier app or camera, and voila, you have a desktop video magnifier without the xy table! Use the slider on the Apple magnifier to enlarge the image, or if using the camera app on either Android or Apple, a pinch gesture will increase or decrease the magnification.
To add simple text-to-speech OCR on a smartphone or tablet, download a copy of the KNFB Reader app for either Android or iOS. With this app, you snap a picture of text, and within seconds, the text will be read out loud, and appears in large print on the display of your device.
It is also worth noting, that in addition to magnification, Android and Apple smartphones and tablets, and the Kindle Fire HD all have built-in text-to-speech that will work with many reading apps. These screen readers, VoiceOver for the Apple, TalkBack for the Android, and Voice Guide for the Kindle Fire HD, can all be turned on from within the “Accessibility” settings. A word of caution before turning on these screen readers though, the gestures used will change with the screen reader on, so have a guide handy of the basic gestures, when using the device with the screen reader turned on!
It is not uncommon for me to hear someone with acquired low vision report that they are no longer able to read the text on their computer or other digital gadget. True, some devices do not allow users to enlarge the text or use text-to-speech, but so many do today, this has dramatically changed!
As mentioned above, nearly all smartphone and tablets offer text enlargement, magnification gestures, and screen reader access in the “Accessibility” Settings. In addition, there are some great apps that make reading very accessible with low vision.
One of the easiest apps to use remains the Kindle app, whether it is installed on an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or on the Kindle Fire HD. Regardless of device, the app provides the option of increasing the font size, inverting the colors for greater contrast, and using a screen reader like VoiceOver to read the text. On the Kindle Fire HD, many books and magazines permit text-to-speech narration by opening the control on the bottom of the screen.
The app is free, on whichever platform you are using, simply purchase books and magazines through Amazon.com, download them from the website, and begin reading.
Voice Dream Reader
Voice Dream Reader is vailable on Android and Apple iOS for $9.95, but sadly is still not available for the Kindle Fire HD (is anyone at Amazon reading this?).
Hands down, Voice Dream Reader is an app that most closely emulates print reading on an electronic display. Users have the ability to: enlarge the text; alter the font and background colors; highlight text as it scrolls or is being read; purchase different voices; change the reading speed; highlight text; add notes to bookmarked passages, and much more.
Voice Dream Reader can be set up with a Bookshare.org account, so for low vision readers who qualify for Bookshare, downloading and installing books is very simple. Students with a vision impairment register for Bookshare at no cost, and non-students pay an annual subscription fee of $50. In addition to Bookshare titles, free titles from Project Gutenberg text files, webpages, and more, may be imported into the app, making it very versatile.
Users have the option of using their device’s screen reader for text-to-speech, or the text-to-speech reader that comes with the app. Users select a reading voice when the software is first installed, and may purchase additional voices later.
Developed by ophthalmologist, Dr. Howard Kaplan, Spotlight Text is an app that integrates with a user’s Bookshare account, and formats the text in larger print, with high contrast for easier reading. Spotlight Text has far fewer features than Voice Dream Reader, so it is a perfect reading app for someone who wants a simpler app. Spotlight Text will also scroll the text automatically and the reading view can even be reduced to a single line of large print text scrolling at a user-defined speed across the display. Spotlight Text can be downloaded at no cost to try. Once the trial period is over, the app costs $29.95.
An interesting variation on Spotlight Text, is a new project called Spotlight Gateway, designed to put an iPad into the hands of any student with a qualifying vision impairment, at no cost! The student will get signed up free with Bookshare to download books and receive an iPad with the Spotlight Gateway app installed. An ophthalmologist is required to sign off on the proof of vision impairment, and then can register the student on the Spotlight Gateway website.
The National Library Service (NLS) Talking Books Program is mentioned often on VisionAware because it provides access to books and an audio book player, at no cost to patrons with a vision impairment. One of the advanced features of NLS is the ability to download audio books and magazines from the Library of Congress through BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download). These books can be put on a flash drive or a blank NLS Talking Book cartridge to read on the player, or to put on another reading device such as the Victor Reader Stream. For those of us who downloaded books to our computer from BARD in the past, let’s be honest, it took some practice, and wasn’t the easiest computer task, right?
BARD is now offering a great new application, called BAED Express, which is a delight to use, and greatly simplifies the download process for PC users (Check out Bill Holton’s article in February’s AccessWorld magazine).
These suggestions really just scratch the surface of the reading options available today for blind or low vision readers. Making a transition from reading print visually in a font such as what you’d find in a book or newspaper, to larger print in a digital format, or by using text-to-speech can certainly have its challenging moments. This transition may also require additional training, but there are many more great options now than ever before to read as much as you want, no matter what your visual abilities are! Grab a book or magazine and get reading!