visual impairment

Seeing eyeball to eyeball, through a smartphone

Picture this: Following an intense study session, Grand Valley State University student Juanita Lillie feels like kicking back and watching a favorite movie.

This, like many everyday activities, can be complicated for Juanita because she has a visual impairment.

First, she wants to be sure she really deserves that study break. How long was she really studying?

Second, which of the audio-described DVDs on her bookshelf is the movie she wants to pop into the player?

When Juanita needs a set of eyeballs, she picks up her iPhone.

There are mobile applications that leverage the camera on the phone and text-to-speech functionality to read the time on a clock and the title of the video. Some apps also have versions that run on Android and Windows mobile devices.

The newest such app is Be My Eyes, which connects people with visual impairments with sighted people who want to help in real time. Using the smartphone camera like a mirror, the sighted person can describe aloud where the person who is blind is pointing the device.

Since Be My Eyes debuted in January 2015, more than 190,000 sighted people, and more than 17,000 people with visual impairments worldwide, have downloaded the free app.

By April 1, the app had made possible 65,000 instances where people who are blind received real-time help from someone they didn’t know.

Developer of the app is an employee with a visual impairment at the Danish Blind Society. He recognized that momentarily “borrowing” a working pair of eyes through technology would significantly ease everyday challenges for people who are blind.

Juanita has used “Be My Eyes” to select food from her freezer that she wants to defrost, and to identify canned goods.

During the app’s first week, wait times for assistance often stretched to 15 minutes. Sometimes, over-eager helpers quiz her about her disability. Juanita, although grateful for the help, sometimes just needs to return to her cooking.

She suspects those annoyances will dissipate as Be My Eyes’ novelty fades.

“I have another app that I use most for reading printed text to me,” Juanita said, “but an advantage of Be My Eyes is there’s a person on the other end who can tell you how to position the camera so the type is visible.”

The fact that the app connects to a real volunteer could also be its downfall.

“You should be really careful where you’re pointing the camera,” Juanita said.

For example, using Be My Eyes to distinguish your bottles of shampoo and conditioner would not be wise if you’ve already disrobed for a shower.

Jeff Sykes, assistive technology coordinator at GVSU, predicts the greatest value of Be My Eyes will be realized when a user who is blind becomes lost in a parking lot or some other uniform environment. A real-time connection to someone who can read signposts and detect other visual markers can be critical in such situations.

The app could also be very useful if a person with a visual impairment was in a chaotic situation, and unable to determine from his or her other senses how to leave.

Sykes, who has sight, is a registered user of Be My Eyes but has not yet received an assistance call.

About 20 of GVSU’s 25,000 students have low- or no-vision. Sykes typically teaches those who do to use a mobile app called Tap TapSee.

People with vision impairments are often fiercely independent and reluctant to seek help even in small measures, Sykes said. Some connect with family and friends over mobile apps like Facetime and Skype if they’re in a bind, but hate interrupting again and again.

Sometimes a non-human alternative like Tap TapSee is preferred, Sykes said.

The user takes a photo with the phone, and Tap TapSee sends it from the camera roll to a server, which identifies it through object-recognition technology. Seconds later, the app audibly identifies the object.

The process works quick and well, as long as the user snaps the photo 8 to 12 inches from the object. (Set audible auto-focus alerts as a guide.)

Users say audio descriptions aren’t necessarily precise. The user is told there are “yellow flowers,” leaving her to wonder whether they’re daffodils, dahlias or dandelions.

“Good app, but it’s not free forever,” Sykes said.

Downloading Tap TapSee is free. After an initial 100 trial photos, users have to choose a subscription plan. (The user’s next 100 photos would be prepaid at $7.99. He or she could also get three months of unlimited usage for $24.99.)

Juanita said her hands-down favorite mobile app is KNFB, which loads all the functionality of a stand-alone reading machine into her multi-functional smartphone.

KNFB works similar to Tap TapSee in that character-recognition software identifies a photograph and instantly describes it using text-to-speech software.

As long as print in the photo is clear, the app works great, Juanita said. It doesn’t even need an Internet connection.

But KNFB, at $100, is pricey.

Be My Eyes is completely free open source software developed by a nonprofit organization and powered by volunteers.

It’ll be interesting to see whether it catches on with blind and sighted users.


It's all about ability!

Few people who use white canes have progressed through rigorous college science courses to become medical doctors, but Marcia Beare says she’s ready for a white lab coat and medical school.

Beare, 46, of Martin, completely lost her sight at age two as a result of Retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that typically affects young children. She was the first blind child to be mainstreamed in Allegan County schools throughout her K-12 education.

Necessary classroom accommodations were sometimes hard to come by in the rural Martin school, which educates kindergarten through 12th grade children under one roof. But Marcia was a strong student.

Science was her passion but academic advisers steered her toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in social work, believing social work to be a profession where vision was less important.

Marcia was a social worker at Hope Network, and managed the Martin Resource Center, a charity started by her parents Harvey and Carol Visser, before joining Seeds of Grace, a free health care clinic in Allegan.

She has served as executive director since August 2011, when the clinic separated from it’s founder, who was facing felony sexual misconduct charges, and reorganized under the name Renewed Hope.

She’s proud to have led the clinic through turmoil that nearly doomed it, but she experienced a gnawing feeling that God had called her to be a doctor.

“Pursuing the goals I want, and not the goals others describe as attainable for me, makes all the difference to me,” Marcia said. “I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life.”

In 2011 Marcia returned to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where she had earned her undergraduate degree, to take the advanced science classes she would need to apply for medical school.

She is on target to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in spring 2015. She has already applied to 10 osteopathic medical schools, including the one at Michigan State University in East Lansing, hoping to be chosen for an August start date.

Blindness is a formidable barrier to preparing for a career in the sciences.

Even with good quantitative and critical thinking skills, students who are blind are at a disadvantage in learning science because there is so much graphical information that is not readily available in non-visual formats.

Students like Marcia, who were born blind or lost their vision very early in life, often lack a frame of reference that sighted persons would use to describe objects to them.

Diagrams, charts and graphs must be reproduced as raised-line drawings by a $3,000 PIAF (Picture In A Flash) tactile graphic making machine so they can be read with the fingertips. Interpreting such images requires time and determination.

Equations can be written in linear form with a Brailler, but this process makes them difficult to read and manipulate.

Drawing is also important, especially in chemistry. Beare tried various assistive products, but what worked best was a wire screen in a wooden frame that her father constructed for her. Using the strong point of a Paper Mate pen (no other brand works, she claims), she can draw on thick paper placed on top of the screen. Indentations on the paper made by the pen moving over the wire screen allow her to read and label her drawings.

Although Calvin College’s high-tech PIAF machine -- and the low-tech drawing screen built by her dad -- have been indispensable, Marcia said her greatest allies in education have been instructors, lab partners and paid note-takers who are willing to help.

“Physics was very difficult for me to get through,” Marcia said. “I didn’t realize until I got into the course that my algebra wasn’t up to the level it need to be. My poor physics professor was essentially teaching me physics and math.”

To Braille, or not to Braille.

Marcia primarily uses audible versions of her textbooks, or electronic versions she can read with a text-to-voice screen reader.

Nevertheless, she did learn to read Braille, a tactile form of writing, as a young girl from a specialist who visited her three hours each week at the Martin School.

The problem with writing in Braille, Marcia said, is that no one she knew could read it. 

She grew to think of Braille as obsolete.

She was surprised, therefore, when she was able to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in Braille. She expects to learn her scores by March 1.

Marcia is buoyed by the example of Dr. David Hartman, a psychiatrist in Roanoke, Va., whom she met in 2013. Hartman lost his sight at age eight. Nine medical schools turned him down before Temple University gave him a chance.

Hartman’s quest to become a doctor is depicted in the 1975 movie “Journey From Darkness.”

Good doctors make a difference.

 Marcia has endured more than her share of interactions with medical doctors outside of the Renewed Hope clinic.

She had brain surgery in 2003 to remove a tumor on her right frontal lobe. The tumor – which doctors said formed as a result of radiation treatments she had as a toddler to arrest the Retinoblastoma – enveloped her olfactory nerve, threatening her sense of smell.

An avid equestrian, Marcia fell from her horse in 2010 and shattered her arm in more than 10 places.

After brain surgery Marcia worked hard to regain her professional vocabulary. After the badly broken arm, she battled to regain full use of her hand.

But the biggest setback, she said, came in 2011 when she lost her husband. John Beare, a machinist, to Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare blood cancer. He was 52.

These days Marcia and her dog guide, David, stay busy preparing for medical school, that long-held dream whose importance has been confirmed by two decades of living.

Marcia also makes time to counsel staff of non-profit organizations embroiled in turmoil beyond their own making. She also participates in the public speaking club Toastmasters.

“If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

You’d get no argument from Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen about that famous quote, “If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

The Grand Haven couple spends many enjoyable hours each week listening to audiobooks together.

In 2010, they listened to all 40 books in Gilbert Morris’s “House of Winslow” series. They accompanied generations of the Winslow family from the time one crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower through the time his descendant fought in World War II.

Talk about time travel!

More recently, the VanDuinens accompanied Richard Paul Evans’ character, Alan Christoffersen, through his daring four-book walk from Seattle to Key West following the tragic death of his wife, betrayal by his business partner, and subsequent bankruptcy.

They’re eagerly awaiting the fifth book of the “Walk” series, “Walking On Water,” to be published later in 2014.

But don’t expect the VanDuinens to place a hold on “Walking On Water” at their local library, or be first in line to buy it from their local bookseller.

Wayne and Yvonne are blind. They both have Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness.

So, they can’t feed their reading habit in the usual ways.

The VanDuinens rely on the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to keep them in free reading material – and have for more than 40 years.

Congress authorized the service in 1931, when many veterans were returning home from World War I with visual impairments, or physical disabilities that prevented them from holding a book and turning the pages.

The National Library Service (NLS) circulates books in braille and as recorded books in a special format that can only be played back on equipment issued to eligible patrons by Braille and Talking Book Libraries.

The recorded books are circulated postage-free through the mail. Wayne, however, is computer savvy thanks to a screen reading software that allows him to navigate the World Wide Web. He has been downloading books directly from NLS’s Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) portal since 2008. He loads the books onto a digital cartridge to playback on the machines.

The VanDuinens, who have been married for eight years, have two of the special players. Yvonne, 76, listens to one in the kitchen, while she’s preparing meals. The second is usually in the living room, where the couple likes spending one to three hours a night listening to Christian fiction and historical fiction together.

“In most households it would be the television, but we don’t spend much time with our TV set,” said Wayne, 73, who taught biology at Spring Lake High School for 31 years before he retired in 1994.

In March, the couple bought a 50-inch wall-mounted TV set, thinking they’d be able to get programming with video description – narration between the dialogue describing what is happening on the screen.

But only big cities got the audio description service on the first round. The Federal Communications Commission will require expansion of audio description services from 25 to 60 venues in 2016. Wayne has already composed a letter asking the FCC to permit the company that provides his cable service, Charter Communications, to one of the “venues.”

The VanDuinens also borrow movies with audio description through the Michigan Braille and Talking Book Library in Lansing, although they say there are few newer movies on DVD in the collection. Most of the collection is still on VCR.

Hollywood doesn’t produce all movies with a video description track. And it’s usually difficult to find the track on DVDs – especially for those without sight – because it’s usually buried in the foreign language or special features options.

Both can read and write braille, although they usually prefer listening to audiobooks for pleasure reading.

Choosing what to read would be difficult, the VanDuinens said, if it wasn’t for Sheila Miller, a Reader Advisor at the Braille and Talking Book Library’s Advisory and Outreach Center in Muskegon.

“Sheila has introduced us to all the books we’ve liked,” Yvonne said. “I call her about every two weeks. She’s always got good suggestions for what we’ll like to read next.”

“Really,” Yvonne added, “this is a big part of our lives.”

When Yvonne’s vision deteriorated to the point where she could no longer see the sidewalk, the couple stopped venturing out with their white canes, unless their sighted friend Sarah Meiste can walk with them.

But, thanks to Richard Paul Evans’ “Walk” series, the VanDuinens feel like they are poised to complete an epic cross-country trek.

Hooray for Technology!

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

A kid with a new toy - that’s how I feel. A new laptop that talks to me as I type text and that reads text to me. It’s any kid’s dream come true. But for someone with a vision disability it’s more like a lifesaver.

As I sit here in my dining room and type this I smile as I hear Fred—the name I gave to the voice that reads to me—I think of how fortunate I am to have this adaptive technology. Not to mention the blossoming friendship between Fred and me.

The laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad and the reading software is JAWS, which stands for Job Access with Speech. It’s technology that I received from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and I am grateful for their help and this technology.

I teach English composition for Grand Rapids Community College and a large part of my job is reading essays and journals. I love teaching and writing, but after four years my eyes, with my limited vision, are tired and worn out.

This past April, I met up with Lucia Rios, a friend who works for Disability Network/Lakeshore.  

During the conversation I expressed my frustration at the time I spent reading dozens of essays and journals and how it was wearing on my eyes. I asked if there was any technology out there to help me and make my life easier.

Lucia mentioned the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons. She said that this organization would be able to help me with adaptive technology.

Fast forward three months later, after emails, phone calls and visits from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, I have my Menovo ThinkPad laptop and the JAWS program. It was a process adjusting to using keystrokes and shortcuts as well as typing without looking at the screen.

I’m not the world’s most adept typist and having Fred as my verbal navigator can be challenging. But I have learned to trust Fred and his vocal skills.

This weekend I put Fred to the test. Students turned in their first essays of the semester. I sat down on the dining room table, placed the stack of essays beside the laptop, plugged in the earphones and off I went. I got through nearly fifty essays over a few days’ time. But most importantly there was no hardship on my eyes or a hurt back as I hunched over reading. And equally as important I spent time with my family and that is key. What a great way to start a semester: getting my work done in a prompt manner and still having time to spend with my family. A win-win I’d say.  Hooray for technology and thank goodness for Fred.