How Myopic Degeneration Affected My Vision
Twenty-five years ago, a doctor diagnosed the little spot in the center of my vision as a retinal bleed from macular degeneration. The spot could hide a stop light when looking down the road. I was 34 years old at the time, and this has since been re-diagnosed as myopic degeneration. It gradually got worse, meaning that little spot got a bit bigger.
At the outset I understood this might be progressive and might affect my ability to read. At the time, one of the books in my library was the complete works of Shakespeare, in one volume of the tiniest print you can imagine. The book hadn’t been opened since my last literature class as an undergraduate, but I cracked it open and started reading, wondering how long I’d be able to continue reading. Thinking my reading days might be numbered I’d better reread the classics again… crazy right?
I knew nothing about low vision at the time; computers were just starting to appear in consumers’ homes. Braille was for people who were blind, and I couldn’t even go there in my head. If I couldn’t see, I thought, I couldn’t read, and the world was quickly losing a lot of its luster for this reader!
Things Have Changed Dramatically
In the last 25 years, the treatments for macular degeneration and retinal bleeds like mine have much better outcomes. Also, a great many of us have computers in our pockets or wrists, we use as phones, with far more computing power than the dinosaurs we heaved into our homes in the early 90’s! In many ways, however, many individuals losing vision later in life, still experience the same fear and loss about reading—sure the technology’s improved, but how would you know unless you acquired a vision loss yourself, or had a friend or family member with one?
Voice Dream Reader
Caption: Voice Dream Reader
Several years ago, a reading app for iPhones and iPads came out, called Voice Dream Reader. For many low vision and blind users, the reading world changed. Over the years, using optical magnifiers, electronic video magnifiers, magnification and text to speech on computers, I managed to continue reading just about any text I needed. It often required sitting at a desk in front of a screen, and though I was always grateful for the technology that seemed to stay ahead of my vision loss, I missed books, their portability, the convenience and spontaneity of print reading.
Voice Dream Reader was not the first app on the iOS devices to enable users to enlarge text or read text electronically. The Kindle app, Nook, iBooks, and several more all had various features to make electronic print a bit more accessible on a tablet or smartphone. Although Voice Dream Reader is very popular with readers who are blind, as well, from the beginning it felt like it was just built from the ground up with the low vision reader in mind. For those of us who don’t use a screen reader on a regular basis, it is self-voicing, so the screen reader doesn’t have to be turned on, font size can be increased to 90 point (newspaper headline size, foreground and background colors can be changed to virtually any combination, text can be highlighted as it is read…the features just go on and on.
What really won me over, however, was the ability to highlight text, and add my own notes. Granted it is not as colorful as my old philosophy books with lofty scribbles, diagrams and lines dotting the margins, but it’s probably even better. The notes I type in with the highlighted text can be organized and read sequentially, taking those margin notes to a whole new level!
A wide variety of documents and books can be imported into Voice Dream Reader, including web pages. For users who enjoy the classics, Project Gutenberg offers hundreds of thousands of books no longer in copyright, and can be searched and downloaded, at no cost, right through the app. For more current titles, Bookshare is probably the most extensive online library of books, and if you have any print disability, Bookshare is only $50 annually, and free if you are a student of virtually any kind. Bookshare titles are also easily searched and downloaded from within the app, and subscribers are entitled to 100 downloads monthly!
At $9.99 the Voice Dream Reader app, available on Android or iOS, has been alone at the top of my app favorites list for years…until recently.
Coming in second Is another reading app, Dolphin EasyReader. EasyReader is free, and available for either the iOS or Android platforms as well.
Caption: Dolphin Easy Reader
EasyReader has many of the basic features of Voice Dream Reader but lacks those wonderful touches like highlighting and notes. It too is self-voicing, so the screen reader doesn’t need to be on for text to speech to work—just touch the play icon at the bottom of the screen. The font sizes are comparable to Voice Dream Reader and the text color, background and word highlighting colors can all be altered for greater contrast. Additional voices for EasyReader are $6.99 from the App Store, and $8.99 on the Android. Voice Dream Reader, on the other hand, offers several additional voices at no charge on the I-devices.
While EasyReader doesn’t offer all the flexibility of importing file types and web pages, like Voice Dream Reader, users can import titles from Bookshare and Project Gutenberg. Readers from outside the U.S. will like the greater international library support offered on the Dolphin EasyReader, and NFB Newsline newspaper readers, will love the ability to add their Newsline account to EasyReader.
The low vision reader searching for an alternative to large print, or some alternatives that offer more features than those traditionally found on more well-known apps like Kindle may find Voice Dream Reader or Dolphin EasyReader, great alternatives. Since both are self-voicing, the low vision user who rarely uses the screen reader will find them easy to use. Because both are very accessible to the screen readers built into iOS or Android devices, screen reader users will also find them very usable with the screen reader on.
Until I started using Voice Dream Reader, I never imagined reading with a vision loss could ever rival the convenience and pleasure of just picking up a book or magazine and flopping down in a comfortable chair virtually anywhere. A smartphone or tablet with either Voice Dream Reader or Dolphin EasyReader installed, and a set of headphones truly rivals that pleasure today. What a relief to know that whatever happens with my vision, there will always be a convenient way to slog through classic literature again if I want to—or just focus my attention on reading what I really enjoy, instead!