Technology allows people who are blind to do just about anything they want, according to Peggy Fields, Ph.D., Program Director for Rehabilitation Technology Services with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI).
“I would have trouble imagining many jobs that a blind person, given the right technology and training, couldn’t do,” she said. What about driving a truck, she was asked? “Well, they’'re already testing self-driving cars.”
She oversees a staff at the state’s DBVI headquarters technology resource center and rehabilitation specialists in regional offices around Virginia. Fields has been with DBVI since 1984. She earned a bachelor's degree in special education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, her hometown. She has a master’s in learning disabilities from Virginia Commonwealth University and a doctorate in educational assistive technology from George Mason University.
“Our major focus is on developing employment opportunities for people who are legally blind or completely blind, through the use of technology,” she said. “We can help people find jobs or, in some cases, be promoted, by enhancing their skills.” Most people who are legally blind have some vision. “There is a wide spectrum from those who are legally blind to those who have no sight at all,” Fields said.
The main task is teaching visually impaired people to use equipment that magnifies written material or devices and software that read printed material aloud. Programs that convert text to speech are especially helpful for those with no vision, she said. Lighted magnifying glasses cost about $15. More sophisticated, and expensive, devices project material electronically on video screens. There also are portable and hand-held electronic magnifiers.
Dr. Fields explained that it is important to match the type of equipment with the person’s needs and abilities. Some devices can alter the contrast or color of printed material. “Some people find it easier to read print if it is white on a black or colored background. Others find colored writing more readable,” she said.
With devices that read written material aloud, the speed and voice quality of the speech can be altered to suit the user. Simulated speech often is robotic and lacks expression but equipment vendors are working to make it sound more natural.
Rehabilitation specialists also help the blind deal with chores of daily living by teaching them to read and write braille and to learn basic typing and computer skills. Being able to read instructions on a pill bottle is critical. Devices that magnify or read text aloud can only focus on flat surfaces, so round medicine containers can be a problem but users learn to compensate by rotating the bottle. One device even has a slot to hold bottles steady, making that chore a little easier.
“Some types of devices are more favored by older users while more high-tech devices are favored by younger users. It’s very important to be aware of the person's ability to handle technology.”