Peer Advisors Speak Out About Technology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the VisionAware peer advisors for some feedback on technology. This is a very timely subject since VisionAware is currently featuring Baruch College’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People and is focusing on technology this month. We invite your feedback.

Questions and Responses from Peer Advisors to Get You Started

  • What issues are people who are blind or visually impaired having in terms of using technology?
  • What problems need to be solved such as training, funding, access, special issues for older persons not experienced with technology or other groups?

From Lynley Hood in New Zealand

Lynley says: Our local Visually Impaired People (VIPS) group is now in its third year. Most of our members are 70+; a few are younger. For the first couple of years most of the members were not only computer illiterate, they were computer phobic. There is a wonderful weekly podcast from the BBC for people with vision impairments called “In Touch,” which I knew the VIPS would enjoy so we bought some very simple MP3 players with big buttons. The only controls are On/Off, Forwards/Backwards, Loud/Soft. We have a volunteer who loads them up with fresh podcasts each month. At our meetings VIPS exchange last month’s MP3 player for one recharged and reloaded with new podcasts. These are popular, but we still have a few VIPS who back away from anything technological.

This year most of our new members are computer literate. Their main complaint is “I can’t see the screen anymore.” We now have an informal IT group which gathers over a cup of tea after our main meeting. There’s always an excited buzz of conversation. At present the main need seems to be for one-to-one help with screen magnification on home computers.

No one wants to buy new equipment, or learn new programs, or learn on anyone else’s computer. Their goal is to make the screen on their present computer easier to read, so free programs that are intuitive to use are most popular.

When I was in Europe in March, I visited Visibility (formerly Glasgow and West of Scotland Mission for the Blind) in Glasgow. They have a wide range of IT (Information Technology) equipment, mainly donated by manufacturers. Visibility doesn’t sell the equipment so they give unbiased demonstrations of everything available. They also give one-to-one training in computer use, at Visibility and also at VIP’s homes. The IT staff are computer savvy young persons with vision loss who told me that iPads are becoming increasingly popular. I think it’s important for older individuals to engage with younger people because they’ve got the energy and enthusiasm to keep up with developments in IT. I also think it’s important that the young IT people have their own experience of visual impairment — even older people with no such experience have difficulty grasping what the computer problems are for older persons with vision loss. I suspect our group will move to iPads and similar devices as more people try them and others see what they have to offer — that’s certainly what’s happening among older sighted people. The British Computer Association for the Blind website looks useful.


From Empish Thomas

Empish provides the following suggestions: In thinking about these questions, a few things come immediately to mind:

  1. The learning curve from seeing the screen and using a mouse to listening and using the keyboard. We are visual learners and so this can be challenging when you have to switch.
  2. The cost of screen reading programs and keeping it updated. I have friends that have copies of JAWS (screen reading software) but if you don’t have the latest version you can be in a bit of trouble.
  3. Having a good tech support person that you can hire to come for home visits. I have been fortunate to have hired a tech support guy to work on my computer and who will come to my home. When my computer crashed a few months back, with his help, I was able to get things up and going very quickly. He purchased a new hard drive for me and uploaded all my software programs for a reasonable price. I find that people who are blind don’t have help with basic things like this, besides going to a retail store and dropping it off. It is often hard to find a tech support person familiar with assistive technology.
  4. Having a circle of computer-literate blind friends that you can trouble shoot problems with. I have a good circle of friends that can help me when I get into a jam. Once I was trying to do my Federal job application online and a blind friend who worked for the government pulled up the site and walked me through over the phone. It was great help!

From Lora Felty

Lora got so carried away that she wrote her own blog post, The Joys and Frustrations of Technology, featured last week. Here is her opening paragraph:

“Technology is one of the most exciting and frustrating things in the world today. It can do amazing things; however, it can be the cause of countless hours of frustration and seemingly wasted time.” Be sure to read more of what Lora has to say about technology that she finds useful in her everyday life and why.

From Deanna Noriega

Deanna wrote a cool piece for us in May, Confessions of a Reluctant Technology User, in which she confesses, “I was born in the generation who left for college lugging a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Perkins Brailler, and a manual typewriter. As an aging Baby Boomer, I find myself trying to figure out how to use equipment never dreamed of when I got my first job.” She goes on to talk about useful “Steps to Take” in learning about technology.

Find Out What Others Are Doing

As Deanna suggests, check into what others are doing. Ask questions. Also, you may want to read an article by the NJ Foundation for the Blind on the pilot training program they have started on the iPad and iPhone. And of course check out AccessWorld®, AFB’s online magazine about the latest in technology.

One more thing, did you know that a recent study has shown that Digital Tablets Can Improve Speed and Ease of Reading for People with Moderate Vision Loss?

Stay tuned for More About Technology This Month

And think about those questions!