Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

The Blind Struggle As Gadgets Proliferate

Filed under

As technology has evolved, it's become lighter, smaller and more portable. For most people, that makes it more convenient. For millions of blind and vision-impaired people, it's anything but.

Jay Leventhal, who is blind, still fumbles with the tiny controls on his iPod but has given up on the kiosk in his New York office building that lists all the tenants.

For Leventhal, even laundry has become a task requiring the help of a sighted person. The washers he uses now take smart cards instead of quarters, issuing instructions on a digital screen that he can't read.

"The biggest barrier for blind people is access to information, and more and more information is being made available through different machines that aren't designed for people who can't see," says Leventhal, editor in chief of AccessWorld: Technology and People with Visual Impairments.

Blind people need a way to communicate with the machines that surround them, he says, from automated tellers to ticketing machines at train stations and airports.

Leventhal and other experts on assistive technology say there's no reason that can't happen. The technology exists in voice chips, image processors, cell phones, cameras and personal digital assistants.

Someone just needs to put it all together.

That's the principle behind the Levar Burton Vision Enhancement Technology Center, a fledgling venture in Morgantown, W.Va., that will pair the resources of West Virginia University and Georgia Tech with private-sector partners like Motorola Corp.

Levar Burton, who played blind Lt. Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," is lending his name and star power to fund-raising efforts for the center.

Though he's not blind, he wore a visor on the set that impaired his vision by 75 percent for nearly 12 hours a day.

The center and its partners will use off-the-shelf technologies like lasers, magnifiers and global positioning systems to develop, test and market products to help people see better. The American Foundation for the Blind, which runs a technology evaluation center in Huntington, W.Va., will advise the scientists.

Of the 18 million Americans with diabetes, for example, about 5 million are visually impaired.

But when Mark Uslan, director of the Huntington facility and his lab volunteers tested 30 brands of blood glucose monitors, they found only one that was usable - but it was 10 times larger and 10 times more expensive than the other models tested.

Mainstream companies need to consider the vision-impaired when designing products, Leventhal says.

"There's no reason for someone to have to make an MP3 player that's accessible to blind people when several companies are already making MP3 players," he says.

Though many assistive devices are commercially available for the blind and vision-impaired, each has limitations and nearly all are expensive, produced in small batches by specialized companies. Even a software program that makes a computer talk is nearly $1,000 - as much as the computer itself.

And with few health insurers willing to pay, sales are too small to justify significant corporate investment.

"That's why we've had to take this avenue," says Dr. Richard "Scott" Hearing, director of the Low Vision Clinic at Jupiter Eye Center in Florida and an adjunct faculty member at WVU. "If there were a lot of money to be made in this, someone would have already done it. ... It's not the cost of the technology that's expensive; it's the cost of adapting it for vision impairment."

A few companies are working on assistive technology, but one of the largest and oldest, Telesensory Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., went bankrupt and closed last month.

Jody Ianuzzi, program coordinator at a blindness training center in Florida, says cost is critical. Some people will find state programs to pay for devices, and others have employers who will buy them as a reasonable workplace accommodation. But for retirees and the under- or unemployed, she says, "one device could break the bank."

Hal Reisiger, president of Enhanced Vision Systems of Huntington Beach, Calif., says that's why his firm will partner with the Levar Burton Center; new products must be practical for the manufacturer, too.

"We could make flying saucers," he says, "but if people can't afford it, it's not an effective mode of transportation."

Hearing and others aim to keep costs low by designing not only assistive devices but also mainstream products with military and recreational applications.

Burton's Star Trek character is the inspiration for one of the most advanced devices on the market today, a set of goggles called JORDY, or Joint Optical Reflective Display.

It functions like two high-definition television sets, with controls over color, contrast and magnification.

But the JORDY is heavy, offers a limited field of view and lacks image stabilization, so it can cause motion sickness. And it costs about $3,000.

Paul Mogan, a legally blind electronic engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, says JORDY is best suited to stationary tasks like reading. He wants to help create the next incarnation, special sunglasses linked to a wireless computer that can fit on a belt or in a pocket.

With a voice chip, GPS and image processors, the visor could serve as a sort of on-board navigation system for the blind, calling out hazards, announcing nearby shops, even reading signs that say what's on sale.

NASA has a compatible goal: The space agency wants a wearable wireless computer that would help technicians work independently outside a spacecraft.

"NASA has this initiative to go to the moon and Mars, and you're not going to be able to take a ton of crew, so you're going to have to be very efficient in what you're going to do," Mogan says. "All people have to be able to have access to a lot of information."

Associated Press Writer

More in Tux Machines

Leftovers: Software

  • i2pd 2.10 released
    i2pd (I2P Daemon) is a full-featured C++ implementation of I2P client. I2P (Invisible Internet Protocol) is a universal anonymous network layer. All communications over I2P are anonymous and end-to-end encrypted, participants don't reveal their real IP addresses. I2P client is a software used for building and using anonymous I2P networks. Such networks are commonly used for anonymous peer-to-peer applications (filesharing, cryptocurrencies) and anonymous client-server applications (websites, instant messengers, chat-servers). I2P allows people from all around the world to communicate and share information without restrictions.
  • Pixeluvo Review | Photo Editor for Linux & Windows
    A review of Pixeluvo, a great photo editor available on Linux and Windows. Pixeluvo is not free or open source.
  • Blit, A Retrospective On My Largest Project Ever
    I’ve always been someone who’s liked art and programming. Especially combining the two. One of my favorite genres is pixel art, or sprites as they are also known. I’ve dabbled in making a few other art programs before, but nothing like this. Originally Blit supposed to be only a sprite animation tool that had a modern look and feel, but my ideas for it grew greater (*sigh* feature creep). There are many other sprinting tools out there like GrafX2, Aseprite, (and other 2D animation programs like TVPaint). I’m not saying that it’s wrong that they make their own GUI toolkit, but it feels kind of odd. I really wanted to bring these types of programs out of the days of the Amiga. After doing some initial research, I settled on using Qt.
  • An alert on the upcoming 7.51.0 release
    In two weeks time, on Wednesday November 2nd, we will release curl and libcurl 7.51.0 unless something earth shattering happens.
  • Desktop Gmail Client `WMail` 2.0.0 Stable Released
    WMail is a free, open source desktop client for Gmail and Google Inbox, available for Linux, Windows, and Mac.
  • SpaceView: Ubuntu File System Usage Indicator
  • FunYahoo++: New Yahoo Messenger Plugin For Pidgin / libpurple [PPA]
    Yahoo retired its old Messenger protocol in favor of a new one, breaking compatibility with third-party applications, such as Pidgin, Empathy, and so on. Eion Robb, the SkypeWeb and Hangouts developer, has created a replacement Yahoo prpl plugin, called FunYahoo++, that works with the new Yahoo Messenger protocol. Note that I tested the plugin with Pidgin, but it should work with other instant messaging applications that support libpurple, like BitlBee or Empathy.
  • GCC Lands Loop Splitting Optimization
    The latest GCC 7 development code has an optimization pass now for loop splitting.
  • GCC 7 To End Feature Development Next Month
    Friday's GCC 7 status report indicates the feature freeze is coming up in just a few weeks. Red Hat developer Jakub Jelinek wrote in the latest status report, "Trunk which will eventually become GCC 7 is still in Stage 1 but its end is near and we are planning to transition into Stage 3 starting Nov 13th end of day time zone of your choice. This means it is time to get things you want to have in GCC 7 finalized and reviewed. As usual there may be exceptions to late reviewed features but don't count on that. Likewise target specific features can sneak in during Stage 3 if maintainers ok them."
  • GNU Parallel 20161022 ('Matthew') released [stable]
    GNU Parallel 20161022 ('Matthew') [stable] has been released. It is available for download at: No new functionality was introduced so this is a good candidate for a stable release.
  • GNU Health 3.0.4 patchset released
    GNU Health 3.0.4 patchset has been released !
  • guile-ncurses 2.0 released
    I am pleased to announce the release of guile-ncurses 2.0 guile-ncurses is a library for the creation of text user interfaces in the GNU Guile dialect of the Scheme programming language. It is a wrapper to the ncurses TUI library. It contains some basic text display and keyboard and mouse input functionality, as well as a menu widget and a form widget. It also has lower level terminfo and termios functionality.
  • Unifont 9.0.03 Released
    Unifont 9.0.03 is released. The main changes are the addition of the Pikto and Tonal ConScript Unicode Registry scripts.
  • PATHspider 1.0.0 released!
    In today’s Internet we see an increasing deployment of middleboxes. While middleboxes provide in-network functionality that is necessary to keep networks manageable and economically viable, any packet mangling — whether essential for the needed functionality or accidental as an unwanted side effect — makes it more and more difficult to deploy new protocols or extensions of existing protocols. For the evolution of the protocol stack, it is important to know which network impairments exist and potentially need to be worked around. While classical network measurement tools are often focused on absolute performance values, PATHspider performs A/B testing between two different protocols or different protocol extensions to perform controlled experiments of protocol-dependent connectivity problems as well as differential treatment.
  • The Domain Name System

today's howtos

Leftovers: KDE

  • Happy 20th birthday, KDE!
    KDE turned twenty recently, which seems significant in a world that seems to change so fast. Yet somehow we stay relevant, and excited to continue to build a better future. Lydia asked recently on the KDE-Community list what we were most proud of.
  • SETI – Week of Information Technology
  • KDevelop for Windows available on Chocolatey now
    Which is already great in itself! But now it's also possible to install it via the super popular Windows package manager for Windows, Chocolatey.
  • colord-kde 0.5.0 released!
    Last official stable release was done more than 3 years ago, it was based on Qt/KDE 4 tech, after that a few fixes got in what would be 0.4.0 but as I needed to change my priorities it was never released. Thanks to Lukáš Tinkl it was ported to KF5, on his port he increased the version number to 0.5.0, still without a proper release distros rely on a git checkout.
  • Call for attendees Lakademy 2017
    As many of you know, since 2012 we organize the Lakademy, a sort of Latin American Akademy. The event brings together KDE Latin American contributors in hacking sessions to work on their projects, promo meetings to think KDE dissemination strategies in the region and other activities.
  • Plasma 5 Desktop on FreeBSD Branding
    The FreeBSD packages of KDE software — the KDE 4 desktop, and soon KDE Frameworks 5 and Plasma 5 Desktop and KDE Applications — have traditionally been shipped pretty much as delivered from the upstream source. We compile, we package, and there is very little customization we do as a “distro”. The KDE 4 packages came with a default wallpaper that was a smidgen different from the one shipped with several Linux distro’s. I think Ivan Cukic did that artwork originally. For Plasma 5 Desktop, we also wanted to do a tiny bit of branding — just the default wallpaper for new users, mind.
  • A bit on Tooling
    So on the weekend I also worked on updating Qt 5.6.1 to Qt 5.6.2 on FreeBSD, which involves using new and scary tools as well. Power tools, they can be really useful, or they can take off a finger if you’re not careful. In this case it was Phabricator, which is also used in KDE — but not everywhere in KDE. For FreeBSD, the tool is used to review updates to ports (the packaging instructions), so I did an update of Qt from 5.6.1 to 5.6.2 and we handled the review through FreeBSD’s Phab. The ports infrastructure is stored in SVN, so the review is relatively straightforward: update the ports-tree checkout, apply your changes, use arc to create or update a review request. I was amazed by how painless it was — somehow I’d been frightened. Using the tool once, properly, makes a big difference in self-confidence.
  • Krita 3.1 second beta.
    The Krita 3.1 beta come with a full features and fixes. The linux version to download your krita-3.0.91-x86_64.appimage.
  • Second Beta for Krita 3.1 Available
    We’re still fixing bugs like madmen… And working on some cool new features as well, but that’s for a later release. In any case, here is the second Krita 3.1 beta! Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Originally, we had planned to use 3.0.2 as the version for this release, but there is so much news in it that it merits a bigger version bump.


  • Consequences of the HACK CAMP 2016 FEDORA + GNOME
    I used to do install parties in order to promote the use of FEDORA and GNOME project since five years ago. As you can see more details in the Release Party FEDORA 17 for Fedora, and Linux Camp 2012, GNOME PERU 2013, GNOME PERU 2014...
  • GNOME Shell Making It Easy To Launch Apps/Games For Optimus / Dual GPU Systems
    With the GNOME 3.24 desktop that's currently in development the latest GNOME Shell code has support for easily letting the user launch an app on a dedicated GPU when applicable for handling NVIDIA Optimus use-cases of having integrated and discrete GPU laptops. When a dual-GPU system is detected, a menu item will be added to opt for "Launch using Dedicated Graphics Card", per this commit. The GNOME Shell change for supporting discrete GPUs was made and when the user opts to launch on the dedicated GPU, the DRI_PRIME=1 environment variable will automatically be set for that new program/game.