Equipment for communication and vision

 

Introduction

There is a large choice of equipment and an increasing amount of technology available to help with communication if you are blind or have low vision. The range includes handheld magnifiers to machines which automatically convert written text to speech, and apps for telephones or tablet devices. The aim of this information sheet is to provide information on the type of equipment available, give details about the main features to consider and compare alternative equipment solutions.

If you have not already done so, we recommend that you have an eye test. An eye test can help detect any eye conditions before you notice the effect on your sight and early treatment may prevent your sight from getting worse. Everyone should have their eyes examined by an optician every two years.

If your vision suddenly deteriorates or you have severe pain in your eyes, attend your local A&E department as soon as possible.

A low vision assessment can identify a specific type of sight loss such as macular degeneration, glaucoma or Retinitis Pigmentosa. More information about accessing National Council for the Blind Ireland (NCBI) local low vision services can be found here.

Magnifiers

If you have low vision, magnifiers may help by enlarging reading and writing materials. These may include labels, instructions, controls, correspondence, books and magazines. Using the wrong magnifier for a significant period of time can cause eye fatigue and physical problems. For help choosing the right magnification device, consult a low vision service. Contact your local HSE health office or the NCBI on 01 830 7033, email info@ncbi.ie, or use the NCBI website to locate a NCBI regional office and services near you.

Before buying a magnifier consider the magnification and size of the lens. Generally, a larger magnifier will have lower magnification and a high-powered magnifier will have a small lens. Higher magnification magnifiers tend to show you less of what you are looking at, perhaps only a word or a few letters at a time. Low vision training may help you make the most of a magnifier, especially if you are experiencing the symptoms of macular degeneration which causes a loss of central vision, glaucoma or Retinitis Pigmentosa. For more information visit the NCBI website.

Hand-held magnifiers

These devices can be used for most everyday needs and are held directly over the object to make it appear larger. The strength of magnification may vary between about 1.5 times (x 1.5) to 12 times (x 12). They are available in a range of physical shapes and sizes. How much bigger you see the item will also depend on the distance you and the magnifier are from the object you are looking at.

Some hand-held magnifiers are fitted with a built-in battery powered lamp or LED to improve lighting and enhance the text.

Hand-held magnifiers are not suitable if you have a shaky hand or find a handheld device difficult to grip and, as they are held close to the page, they are generally unsuitable for use when writing.

Magnifiers with built-in lighting
Hand-held optical magnifiers are available with built-in lighting from a bulb or LED to help illuminate the area being viewed. Some are available with lighting of different colour temperatures. These colour temperatures are described in Kelvin or K. A lower number (e.g. 2,700K) emits a more yellow light, a higher number (e.g. 6,000K) emits a whiter light.

A study in 2012 suggested that individuals who chose magnifiers with their preferred colour temperature found the magnified image clearer and could read faster than if they used a magnifier with a colour temperature they did not like (Wolffsohn et al. 2012). If you are thinking of purchasing an illuminated magnifier it may be worth trying models with different colour temperatures to find out which you prefer.

Hands-free magnifiers

Magnifiers with neck cord attachment
These products have a neck cord or attachment which enables the magnifier to rest on the chest leaving the hands free. Some incorporate a second inset lens, giving greater magnification.

Magnifiers attached to spectacle or headband
These magnifiers are built into a spectacle frame and attach or clip to existing spectacles or are supported on a headband. Some lenses are designed to flip away from the eyes when not in use. It is advisable to seek the opinion of a qualified ophthalmologist before additional magnification is added to prescription lenses.

Image of magnifier with a stand used directly on or over the subjectMagnifiers with a stand used directly on or over the subject
If you have weak or shaky hands, using a magnifier on a stand may be ideal for reading and, if the stand is tall enough, also for writing.

Some of these magnifiers have an integral light. However, some users find it difficult to find the start of the text they wish to magnify when using a stand magnifier (Guttman, 2009).

Magnifiers mounted or placed on furniture, floor or wall
These magnifiers are designed to be either wall-mounted, attached to furniture by clamp, or free standing on a table-top or floor. They facilitate hands-free use.

Many are mounted on an adjustable arm allowing variation of angle and position. Some incorporate a light.

Magnifiers to fit over screens
Magnifying equipment included in this section is designed to be attached externally over a TV or computer screen.

Bar, dome and sheet magnifiers

Similar to stand magnifiers, these may be particularly suitable if you have reduced grip or shaky hands which make holding a handheld magnifier difficult. However, magnifiers used directly on the page can only be used for reading as there is no room for a pen to be placed underneath.

Dome magnifiers can help to focus available light which helps make the magnified text appear bright. Bar magnifiers focus on one or two lines of text and therefore may help the user to focus on their position on the page. Sheet magnifiers may be designed as full-sized sheets magnifying the whole page or be smaller.

They are sometimes made of plastic and have a relatively low level of magnification, which is determined by the thickness of the lens.

Video magnifiers

A range of video magnifiers are available from hand-held and portable models, models that connect to computers and/or TV screens to desktop mounted models. Advantages of video magnifiers over traditional magnifiers may include:

  • the ability to vary the magnification (e.g. from 3x to 60x) 
  • a variable working distance
  • a larger magnifier screen/lens for the same effective magnification
  • contrast reversal and a larger field of view

Studies have suggested that smaller print sizes may be read at faster reading speeds when using video magnifiers compared with traditional magnifiers, but that users may be slower at initially finding the text they are looking for (Peterson et al. 2003).

Handheld video magnifiers provide a magnified image on an integral screen. Most offer a choice of contrast modes and may also have the option of saving or 'freezing' the image (image capture). The magnification range for these magnifiers tends to be limited relative to desktop video magnifiers. These items are generally suitable for viewing labels, books and newspapers.

Portable video magnifiers are larger than handheld magnifiers but are still transportable. The screen and camera may be combined or as separate units connected by a cable.

The camera, which is often similar in shape to a computer mouse, is placed on the original image and can be moved across the paper or object while the magnified image appears on the screen.

Video magnifier systems which provide a magnified image when connected to a television or PC screen are also available. They may consist of a handheld camera, similar in shape to a computer mouse, that rests on the original image and can be moved across the paper or object, or may be mounted resembling a desktop lamp with a head which contains the camera and can be angled to focus on the document.

Please check the connection required to the television, as many models require a SCART socket that many newer televisions may not have.

Desktop video magnifiers are stood on a desk or work surface. They have the highest magnification compared to other types of video magnifier.

Most have a fixed camera pointed down at a reading table on which printed material can be placed. On most models the table is on rollers so it can be moved up, down and left to right across the page.

The magnified image can be zoomed in and out and adjusted for contrast and colour. Some models can superimpose a line or dot on the screen to help make it easier to follow the text being read.

Video magnifiers: try before you buy

Video magnifiers can be an expensive investment. If you have not used them before we recommend you try similar models first before purchase. You can obtain further advice from the NCBI to try this equipment beforehand.

Magnifying apps

Magnifying apps can be downloaded to compatible smart phones and are designed to give a magnified image on the smart phone's screen. These apps do not have the same performance and features as a handheld video magnifier, but if you do use a smart phone you could try an app before deciding whether to invest in a handheld video magnifier.

Many of these apps work best on later versions of well-known phones with an enhanced autofocus cameras. When downloading an app use only well-known app download markets - they significantly reduce the likelihood of downloading an app malware or virus.

If you're interested in downloading a particular app, run an online search on its name first (using a search engine) to see what others say about it or to check for malware reports.

General advice on free accessibility software is available from the Technology department of the NCBI

Electronic reading equipment and audio books

Text to speech scanning machines
Text to speech scanning machines (also called stand-alone reading machines) scan and translate printed text into synthetic speech - you place a book or sheet of text in/on the machine and it will read the text to you. The scanner may be able to read from books, newspapers, magazines and A4 sheets.

Some models can be connected to a screen to give a magnified image of the text as well as speech output. Another function that some models have is the ability to connect to a Braille display to give Braille output of the scanned text.

Alternatively, for users who have a PC with speech output software, it may be a cheaper alternative to buy a scanner and some optical character recognition software (OCR). However, this requires setting up and tends to be slower to use than the purpose built machines. There is also software which can be added to certain mobile phones to give them a reading aid function. The software uses the phone's built-in camera to capture an image of text and then converts it to synthetic speech.

More information about this software is covered in RNIB's Beginner's guide to assistive technology.

DAISY players
DAISY Players play DAISY audible books and replace the old audio books on cassette format. DAISY is an acronym standing for Digital Accessible Information System and can play/show audio, text and pictures. It makes them accessible to individuals with visual difficulties that affect their ability to read printed material.

DAISY material can be played on a stand-alone DAISY player, or by using DAISY software on a computer. Approximately 25 hours of audio can be recorded on a Daisy CD.

Users of DAISY players can navigate through the recording/book by sections, sub-sections, chapter or pages. Bookmarks can be inserted at any point, and there is a 'resume' option which continues playback from the point the reader last reached (rather than going back to the beginning, which is what happens with conventional CDs). The NCBI operates a DAISY library with a large range of books available in DAISY disc format as well as regular CDs, cassettes and downloadable format. DAISY players are available from the NCBI Shop.

The NCBI can provide the weekly radio or TV listings from the RTE Guide in MP3 format on a USB so you can hear a list of what is scheduled and what station it will be on. Also available is a range of magazines including Ireland's Own, Ireland's Eye and a compilation of newspaper articles from the Irish Times. You need to be a member of the NCBI library to avail of this service and there is a small annual subscription. To be a member of the library, you must be registered with the NCBI, or not be registered, but meet the criteria of being visually impaired. Large print and Braille books are also available for people who find standard print inaccessible. Books, CDs and USBs are lent and returned via free post.

Tablets and ebooks
E-books can be read on tablets and e-readers which provide options for enlarging the text. A growing range of tablet and e-reader accessories are available including mounts for tablets such as the iPad, and switches and switch interfaces for use with tablets and e-book readers. These switches could, for example, be used to turn the page of an e-book. Advice about tablets and e-book readers is available from the NCBI.

Your local library

Libraries Ireland, which oversees public library services in Ireland, has a large selection of books in large print, CD, cassette and MP3, which you can borrow. You can search these on their online catalogue using the Advanced Search and entering the title, author or keyword of choice. Then use the 'Format' box to select 'Large Print' or 'Spoken Recording'. Or, you can just browse the shelves and select a large print or audio book at any branch library.

Assistive technologies can help people with difficulty reading. For example, JAWS is a screen reader programme for blind people using text-to-speech or Braille. MAGic is magnification software for people with low vision, which is used in conjunction with JAWS software. These are available to the public at certain libraries around the country. Speak to your local librarian for more information on all these services.

Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg is a collection of free electronic books available on the internet. There are currently almost 10,000 books on the site, however these are books out of copyright, generally pre-1923 and so they do not include the latest bestsellers, but do include classic books from authors such as Conan Doyle, Dante, Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Verne and Wells. The books can be downloaded to a computer and read with software, or a selection are available as computer-generated e-books and will play from the Gutenberg site here: www.gutenberg.org

Using a keyboard

If you have not learnt to touch type then finding your way around a computer keyboard may be difficult if you have low vision. There are keyboards and accessories which may help you to navigate around the keyboard.

Keytop stickers & keyboard gloves
Keytop stickers can be stuck onto the individual keys on a computer keyboard.

The stickers have large lettering printed in a bold typeface with either black lettering on a yellow background, white lettering on a black background or black lettering on a white background to enhance the contrast.

Alternatively, flexible keyboard gloves are available to fit over specific keyboards with the same large print, bold high contrast lettering as the stickers.

Large print keyboards
These are standard size keyboards with large print on the keys. As with the stickers, the keyboards may be available with black letters on a white or yellow background or white letters with a black background.

Keyboards with large keys
Image of a keyboard with large keysThese are keyboards with keys which are larger than a standard keyboard.

They often lack the keys which are not used very often, so it is important to check that any keyboard shortcuts (pressing keys together to activate particular functions) you use can still be made on the keyboard.

These keyboards may have the same colour options as the above large print keyboards and may either lay the keys out in the standard QWERTY format or alphabetically. The NCBI can provide advice on hardware for computers which includes simple options such as keyboard stickers and large print keyboards.

AbilityNet in the UK has a wide range of factsheets that are free to download to enable anyone with a disability to access and use computers and other digital technologies. The AbilityNet online tool 'My Computer, My Way' provides a step-by-step guide to help you set up your computer and software (assistive technology) to meet your individual requirements by adjustments such as making the text larger, to making the device talk to you.

Braille equipment

Braille is a system of raised dots which people read by feeling with their fingertips. The Braille dots are used to represent words and numbers, punctuation characters and even mathematics, science and music notation.

Braille has many uses with a wide selection of magazines, fiction and non-fiction books available, and labelling for items such as food cans and packets, medicines, documents, CDs and games including cards like Uno and bingo. Bank statements, utility bills and other business letters can be provided in Braille and some restaurants and pub chains offer Braille menus.

A Braille character or "cell" consists of 6 or 8 dots. There are different Braille codes in use:

  • uncontracted Braille represents each print character as one Braille cell
  • contracted Braille is a form of shorthand in which groups of letters may be combined into a single Braille cell.

Many experienced Braille users read and write contracted Braille.

Braille requires a fine sense of touch - some individuals with conditions such as diabetes, who have reduced finger sensitivity, may find using Braille difficult. Moon could be an easier alternative (see below).

Manual Braille equipment

Image of Braille equipment Braille can be produced manually, using a stylus on a portable hand-frame or on a manual desktop machine similar to traditional manual typewriter.

Traditional frames create a dot on the reverse side of the paper so the Braille has to be written back to front.

Upward writing frames are now available which create the dots on the front of the piece of paper enabling you to produce Braille from left to right as you would read the code.

Some manual machines for creating Braille are portable, others are designed as desktop machines, similar to traditional manual typewriters.

They have six keys to produce the Braille (one key for each dot in a Braille cell). Some Braille machines can use standard A5 and other standard paper sizes.

Good practice indicates that Braille should always be written on Braille paper which ensures that the Braille produced will be far more durable.

Some simple manual Braille machines can produce Braille on Dymo tape to create labels. Alternatively, many people use an audio labeller whereby they can affix a small label or dot to an item, use the device to record the information, then use the device to play back the information.

Braille computer equipment

Braille can also be produced on a computer using translation software and a Braille embosser instead of a printer.

A keyboard with Braille keys instead of the standard QWERTY keys can be used, although some users may prefer to continue using a standard keyboard. A Braille display can be linked to a computer to enable a user to read by touch what is on the screen.

If portable computing is required, Braille notetakers are machines with word processing features similar to an electric word processor or laptop, but with a Braille keyboard and/or Braille display.

Braille embossers
Braille embossers print Braille onto special Braille paper, from a computer. They are connected to the computer like a text printer or can be connected to notetakers. The paper is thicker and more expensive than standard printer paper.

Software is required to convert text to Braille before it is printed/embossed (known as Braille translation software).

Embossers can be noisy; if an embosser is going to be used regularly and cannot be kept in a room away from people, an acoustic hood or soundproof case is recommended. Before purchasing a Braille embosser consider issues such as the noise, the speed the embosser is capable of printing at, and whether you need the printer to be portable.

Braille keyboards
These computer keyboards with Braille keys and are different in design to the traditional QWERTY keyboard keys.

Braille displays
Brailler displays are tactile devices that are usually placed in front of your computer keyboard providing you with the means to read the contents of your computer screen by touch in Braille.

Braille displays have a number of cells and each cell has six or eight pins. These pins are electronically moved up and down, to create a Braille version of the characters that appear on the computer screen. Each Braille cell represents one character from the screen. An 80 cell Braille display represents approximately one line of text on a screen (Hersh and Johnson, 2008).

Before you purchase a Braille display, try several to ensure that the one you choose is comfortable to use and provides the functions you need. Many screen readers offer two outputs: speech and Braille. Depending on your requirements, using the speech output facility of a screen reader will be a cheaper option than harnessing a Braille display to it. We recommend you speak to the NCBI for advice as these devices can be expensive.

Notetakers
This portable device can be used as a word processor to take notes, record and organise information.

Some may also have features to provide a calendar, phone book, internet, email and run Windows based operating systems. They feedback information by speech output or via a Braille display.

Translation into Braille or tactile display

There is a range of equipment and a number of service providers who can convert printed or photocopied material - for example maps and diagrams into audio, large print, Braille or a tactile raised image which can be interpreted by touch.

It is difficult to create tactile pictures that are detailed without making them confusing to blind readers. Both the creators of the image and the users require training in techniques and image reading. For advice on converting an image to a tactile display visit the Accessible Images section of the RNIB website.

Moon

Moon is a system of raised lines and curves that people read by feeling with their fingertips. Moon characters are fairly large and many characters have a strong resemblance to their print equivalent. Consequently, individuals who lose their sight later in life, or individuals who do not have sensitive touch in their fingertips, may find Moon easier to learn then Braille.

Moon can be used to label items such as food cans and packets, medicines, documents, CDs etc. There are books available which are written in Moon, although there are many more books available in Braille than Moon. As Moon is not so well known it is rarely offered as an alternative format for items such as statements, bills and menus.

Moon can be produced using portable hand frames or a computer with a Braille embosser and translation software. For more information on Moon read the RNIB's Moon information or visit the Moon literacy website here: www.moonliteracy.org.uk

Stationery

Writing frames
Writing frames, into which a piece of paper can be inserted, are available with an elasticated cord acting as line guides.

Paper, envelopes or documents can be inserted into the flat frame to keep you writing within the lines.

They consist of either plastic frames or string lines (which are more flexible and helpful when writing in small case letters with tails such as g, j, p).

Reading guides
Reading Guides are plastic cards with cut out rows to allow lines of print to be read without glare or confusion from the surround print. They come in various sizes.

There are also options of higher contrasting lined paper to make the lines more obvious for those with low vision, as well as raised lines so they can be felt by the writer.

Telephones and accessories for blind or partially sighted users

Telephones with large keys and/or enlarged numbers
These may be helpful if you have low vision. Some models have keypad buttons with varying shapes to facilitate identification by touch and some have large LCD displays. These features are available on corded, cordless and mobile telephones.

Most push-button telephone keypads have a raised dot on the central five key to help orientate a user relying on touch. Some of the phones in this group have a number of 'one-touch' memory buttons that dial stored telephone numbers. It may help if other function keys, such as memory keys are separated from and/or shaped differently to the number keys.

Mobile phones
There are models available with an enlarged keypad, emergency button, or a high contrast display with a large font.

Other features can include:

  • well-spaced raised buttons
  • a large display
  • adjustable brightness
  • voice dialling (RNIB, 2016b).

For more information on mobile phones and vision refer to the Royal National Institute of Blind People's (RNIB) information on Mobile phones and Mobile phone software.

Telephones with spoken annoucements
There are telephones that speak the numbers entered when dialling, so you can confirm you have pressed the intended keys. Some models can also speak out the number of the caller when receiving an incoming call and/or have a talking phone book and speech guidance to the menu settings.

Models with a LCD display showing callers telephone numbers, or spoken announcement of the number of a caller, require subscription to a caller ID service.

You may be entitled to use directory enquiry services 1800 574 574 free of charge if you have a visual impairment and once you are registered. However, if you request to be connect then you will be charged. When you apply for this service you receive a PIN and letter explaining how to use the service.

Accessories
Accessories are also available which dial the telephone for you including voice operated diallers - they are used WITH your existing telephone.

Voice diallers allow you to dial a number by speaking the name of the person you wish to call. Certain mobile telephones offer voice control as a feature for using the entire telephone as part of the telephone’s integral settings.

It is wise to consult the instruction manual for your particular telephone to identify how to access this facility.

New technology

A range of new technology for phones and tablets is rapidly becoming available; however, it is worth noting that advice about these items is currently at a general level as the market for this technology grows and personal use of the technology will depend on the type of device you have and its technical ability.

Items specifically include new apps for smartphones and tablets which have, for example, the ability to describe the world around you, assist you with writing emails or messages, reading menus to you in restaurants, provide spoken information on how to get home by train and provide information about station locations, train times and platform numbers. Some are free to download and use and others have a charge for use.

The RNIB provide an information leaflet that includes more information about new software technology for mobile phones.

Last updated: October 2018