Giving Back

Cindy WentzBy Brian Klotz

Like many people, Cindy Wentz entered college unsure of what her career path would be. A New Jersey native, she moved to Massachusetts to attend Brandeis University, initially as a Psychology major before switching to Sociology. After graduation, Cindy worked at a bank, but was still unclear on her ultimate career goal until she decided to go back to school, obtaining a Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling from Boston University.

“I remember in high school I always thought I wanted to work with people,” she says, at first thinking she would become a teacher like much of her family, before deciding it wasn’t for her.

Both Cindy’s desire to help people with disabilities and her tireless work ethic can perhaps be traced back to the discrimination she faced trying to gain employment in her younger years.

“In high school, when everyone else was getting their summer jobs, I had such a hard time,” she explains. Having been blind since birth, Cindy recalls how many employers rejected her because of her disability – and would say so outright. Continue reading

Eyes in Your Pocket: “BlindTool” App Represents the New Frontier of Assistive Technology

A screen capture of the BlindTool app identifying a banana, with less likely predictions listed belowBy Brian Klotz

FastCompany calls it “a peek at an inevitable future of accessibility,” a new app called BlindTool that allows users to identify objects in real time using only their phone, and it was created right here in Boston. Developed by Joseph Paul Cohen, a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Bay State native, it aims to increase the independence of individuals who are blind or visually impaired by putting an extra set of eyes in their pocket.

“I’ve had a desire to do this for a while,” says Cohen, whose initial interest in assistive technology came from working with a colleague who was blind during an internship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., inspiring him to think of the ways modern technology could improve the lives of those with vision impairment.

The app runs on Android devices, and identifies objects it is pointed at in real time using a “convolutional neural network” that can understand 1000 “classes” of objects. While the technology behind it may be complex, its usage is simple: wave your phone around, and the app will cause it to vibrate as it focuses on an object it recognizes – the more it vibrates, the more confident it is. Once it’s fairly certain, it will speak the object aloud.

“It always has a prediction,” Cohen explains, regardless of where it is pointed, so the vibration function allows the user to zero in on objects the app has more confidence in identifying. Continue reading

Ready to Launch: Assistive Technology Helps People with Visual Impairment Enjoy Public Places in a New Way

A photo of a smartphone in the LaunchGuide location, with a sign reading "BRAILLE TRAIL START" pointing to the phone in the wire guides and a caption on the photo that reads "[smartphone:] Welcome to the Dennis Braille Trail"

LaunchGuide in action at the Dennis Braille Trail

Post by Brian Klotz

If you’ve been to a number of locations in Massachusetts, including the Dennis Braille Trail in Dennis, MA, you may have noticed something new: a device with a QR code that can be read by your smartphone. Called LaunchGuide, this new device was created to help people with visual impairment enjoy public places with content that not only helps them navigate, but adds to the experience, and it is yet another example of the creative ways assistive technology is becoming more prevalent.

Designed by an assistive technology company called COMMplements (the brand name of products of Peacock Communications), LaunchGuide can be used by anyone with an Internet-connected device capable of reading a QR code. Each LaunchGuide location is equipped with a wire guide that helps the user position their smartphone so it can read the code. This takes them to a webpage with content unique to that location – for example, information about the exhibits in a museum or the stops along a trail, which the user can have read to them using text-to-speech as they explore.

An example of a QR code

An example of a QR code

By housing content on a webpage, users can select how and in what order they experience it, as opposed to a linear audio tour. Continue reading

I Won’t Know Unless I Try

Post by Brian Klotz

Ellie Leach at MABVI's Senior Connection 2014

Ellie Leach at MABVI’s Senior Connection 2014

Ellie Leach had never used a computer. No email, no games, no web browsing – as she puts it, “I had never even used a typewriter!” Over twenty years ago Ellie, now 78, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a medical condition that causes vision loss, putting yet another obstacle between herself and tech-savviness.

Today, however, Ellie is the proud owner of an iPad, which she uses to email friends and family, play games, and listen to her favorite music.

“It’s like I’m alive again,” she says. “I feel like I’m a part of everything again.” Continue reading

Listening & Responding: Creating an Effective Volunteer Program

Jen Buchanan, Kyle Robidoux, and Jen's Guiding Eyes dog Keating

Jen Buchanan, Kyle Robidoux, and Jen’s Guiding Eyes dog Keating

Post by Kyle Robidoux, MABVI Director of Volunteer and Support Group Services, and Jen Buchanan, MABVI Eastern Massachusetts Volunteer Coordinator

Like most things, social service programs and their consumers’ needs change and evolve over time. As such, organizations and programs must be nimble and open-minded to ensure that they are meeting the needs of consumers.

Since 1959, the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI) has been running a One-to-One Volunteer Program that matches sighted volunteers with individuals who are blind or visually impaired (B/VI). The program currently works with over 180 volunteers and 115 consumers.

Historically, MABVI volunteers have helped with daily activities and tasks such as reading (mail or for pleasure), grocery shopping, and other clerical and administrative-type tasks. There continues to be a strong need for help with these types of tasks, but over the past few years our office has begun to field requests for more varied activities. Continue reading

For the Love of the Game

Post by Brandon Cole

Brandon posing in front of a Lego Batman booth at Ohio Comic Con 2014

Brandon posing in front of a Lego Batman booth at Ohio Comic Con 2014

My name is Brandon Cole, and I am a gamer. Some people are surprised when I tell them this. “But wait, how can this be? Are you not blind?”

Yes, I am indeed totally blind, and no, playing video games is not an easy undertaking, but it is possible.

When I was young, though, I dismissed video games as something that I simply couldn’t participate in. After all, the word “video” is in there, right? Well, one day my older brother played a trick on me. He handed me a Nintendo controller and invited me to play Super Mario Brothers.  The game began, and before I knew it, I was slaying monsters, collecting coins and extra lives, conquering castles, saving the Princess… except I wasn’t. He had been the one really playing the game, and the controller he handed me wasn’t actually controlling anything. I was crushed. The trick had an unforeseen consequence, though: I got the itch. I vowed to try more games on my own, when he wasn’t around, and I vowed I would win on my own.

And that’s exactly what I did. I went back to Mario Brothers, and through a bunch of trial and error and learning what my limits were, I eventually completed the first level. That’s as far as I got, but it was enough to prove to myself that I really could do this. I began playing more games, experiencing both success and failure in varying doses, but I was hooked. Continue reading

Visually Impaired? There’s an App for that.

Want to know how much money you’re holding? How about the color of your shirt? Or maybe you just want to curl up with a book? If you’re one of the over 20 million adults in America alone who suffer from vision loss, these everyday actions can be cumbersome and difficult. What can you do to help with these daily tasks while retaining your independence?

Reach for your iPad, of course.

As technology becomes increasingly intuitive and user-friendly, more and more visually impaired people are embracing high-tech solutions for their everyday needs. And while of the 20,000 apps developed each month, many are, shall we say, less than useful (for only $1.99, “Melon Meter” uses the iPhone’s microphone to measure the ripeness of watermelons!), several developers are using the capabilities of modern technology to aid visually impaired individuals in innovative ways. We’ve taken a look at just a handful of such apps now available for iOS (most of which you can get for the low, low price of FREE!): Continue reading

Using Technology in Our Everyday Activities

Jennifer Kaldenberg at Senior Connection giving her keynote talk on technology

“How many of you use technology to complete your daily tasks?”

The speaker is Jennifer Kaldenberg, MABVI Clinical Director & Clinical Assistant and Boston University Professor. She has also worked for the New England College of Optometry and their clinical affiliate the New England Eye Institute, specializing in working with individuals with visual impairment. She is an expert in vision loss, facing a room of hundreds of low vision support group members, many of them seniors. Only about 25% of the adults in the room raise their hands.

“If I told you using a magnifier, or even a bump dot to identify the start button on the microwave is technology, how many of you would now answer that they use technology on a daily basis?” She asks.

All of the adults in the room raise their hands.

Two of the guests at Senior Connection raising their hands in response to Jen Kaldenberg's questions

Two guests at Senior Connection raising their hands in response to Jen Kaldenberg’s questions

It seems these adults with vision loss use technology every day without even realizing it. Furthermore, it seems many have not been shown or assessed for what technology is appropriate for them. The key is training, according to Kaldenberg: individuals can be trained to use new tools to help maintain participation in the things that are important to them and improve their daily lives. Equally important is an eye examination by a low vision specialist. Yet only 75% of the audience self-reports having ever had a low vision exam. For individuals who have not had a low vision exam or know someone hasn’t, there are many barriers that may limit someone’s ability to access services including: o Lack of awareness of services or assistive devices o Giving up hope that there is help o Having heard “nothing can be done” o Other health issues like cognitive deficits o Lack of financial resources to afford or think they can’t afford technologies Additional barriers may include age, gender and ethnicity. Some of these barriers are the perception of the individual and others are placed on them by a healthcare practitioner, family members, or society. Of the 75% who have received a low vision exam, only 1/10 say their doctor has asked them what they want to be able to do. So how are visually impaired adults supposed to find the technology they need to remain independent?

“Be proactive and ask your doctors about technology,” Kaldenberg says.

Emerging technology is becoming more task specific and requires more training. Research indicates that the average person with a visual impairment uses 6.1 assistive devices, many which are task-specific. Often times, these devices are purchased by the individual through a catalog or are given to them by a family member of friends and not recommended by a low vision specialist. Recent studies report a high rate of assistive device abandonment, nearly 20%, among those with visual impairment. Reasons for device abandonment include the devices are ineffective, they are using other devices, they do not like the device, the device is defective, they have had a recent change in their vision, they do not have the space to accommodate the device, or they are unable to use the devices. Over the next 20 years, the number of individuals with visual impairments is going to increase greatly, so we need to explore new strategies to assist people in remaining active and help them retain their independence. “If individuals can be trained to use new technological devices properly, they will be able to do everything they could with sight.”


More adaptive technology resources: Adaptivision The Carroll Store Freedom Scientific ABISee Let’s Go Technology Check out this video of Jennifer Kaldenberg discussing OT/vision rehabilitation from our YouTube channel:

ZoomReader takes reading to the next level

Erich Manser uses the Zoom Reader on his desktop computer.

Erich Manser is seen using the ZoomText on his desktop computer. He uses ZoomReader magnifier on his mobile device.

For this, I wanted to take some time to dig-in a bit to Ai Squared’s ZoomReader application for iOS devices, which I personally use on my iPhone 4S. Full disclosure, Ai Squared is a sponsor of mine (www.erichmanser.com) and I’m proud to represent a company focused on making technology accessible for the visually-impaired out on the race course.

Nonetheless, my primary goal is to provide an objective review that includes candid, honest feedback on what I consider to be strengths or weaknesses from my experience using the application. As a low-vision user, I do a fair amount of research online prior to purchasing any new assistive technology and I know how much I rely on the shared experiences and opinions of others in that search. I would be doing this community a disservice if I lost objectivity.

What is ZoomReader by Ai Squared?

ZoomReader is a mobile application for iOS devices. This app, in conjunction with the device’s built-in camera, allows users to take a picture of any object containing text. The app itself can be customized in appearance and performance to make features more accessible to users. ZoomReader offers increased independence for users in activities such as going grocery shopping and reading prescription bottles. ZoomReader can be used with iPhone 4, 4S, 5, iPad (with retina display), iPad mini and iPod Touch (5th generation).

What I love

First off, I love that ZoomReader even exists, and that Ai Squared put the time, thought and resources in to developing this mobile application specifically designed to make daily life easier for visually-impaired people. Apps like ZoomReader expand upon the wonderful innovations that Apple made in smartphone accessibility, making these phones equally indispensable to visually-impaired as well as sighted users – leveling the playing field.

Another thing I love is that I can use ZoomReader’s slide-zoom feature as a “quick reference” magnifier on the fly.  Inside the app, the slide-zoom is located on the far left of your screen, from top to bottom. It features a slide button which the user can point and drag up, producing the greatest magnification, or down. Because I normally use my iPhone’s accessible reverse contrast (white-on-black) feature, using the slide-zoom in tandem with this allows for a quick and easy way to reference business cards, printed addresses, phone numbers or other small bits of information on the go.

What I like

In general, I really like the functionality of the application. They have adopted a “simple is better” philosophy, which I personally feel improves accessibility in general. The layout and operation of the app is clean and intuitive. As a low-vision user, I was able to explore the various features with relative ease. When you open the app, there are simply five buttons, beyond the slide-zoom mentioned above. The additional buttons allow the user to snap the pictures, control lighting when taking pictures, adjust text-sizes or coloring, access personal photos stored on the device and tweak other settings. Options within the other settings include “Voice Recognition,” which allows the user to take a picture by simply saying “Click” or “Take Picture”, and “Automatic Speech after OCR” which enables the app to immediately begin reading the text once it’s been captured. You can also control the rate-of-speech, though faster begins to sound like “The Alvin and the Chipmunks” cartoon. The pleasant, default male voice is “Tom”, but there are options to purchase other voices. Finally there is a link for help and support if needed.

Suggested Improvements

The biggest challenge I have had in learning and using ZoomReader has been in capturing “clean images.” This is a requirement in order for the text to be accurately read back. The instructions for image-capture suggest placing your object on a flat surface with ample lighting and snapping the picture with a steady hand from about 12-inches away. An available feature can announce whether your object is in landscape or portrait orientation. Variability in any of these elements can result in all or part of the image being garbled, and the audio readout being gibberish.

Ai Squared does sell 12-inch stands to increase stability and minimize these instances, though I have come up with a little trick that seems to help as well. Noticing that my forearms are each about a foot long, I rest my elbows on the table holding the iPhone across the top, creating a sort of stabilized “stand.” Placing the object-to-be-photographed between my elbows, I aim the camera down to capture the image. This has greatly improved my success for capturing clean, usable images.

I can honestly say I have been a happy ZoomReader user for just about a year. As a low-vision user who has not been able to optimize a full-featured smartphone until pretty recently, ZoomReader has truly enhanced this relatively new experience for me. The app is simple, straight-forward and easy to navigate. It isn’t “ZoomText for your smartphone”, but it’s also not intended to be. It is what it is, and it’s great at what it does – making daily life easier for visually-impaired users.

This post was written by Erich Manser. Erich is a longtime supporter of MABVI and a runner on Team With A Vision for the Boston Marathon. Click here to see his interview with Dorothy Krysiuk of WCVB Channel 5 Boston about his training process for the race.