Back to School Part 2: Assistive Technology

Last week our blog discussed back to school basics. In part two of our Back to School special we will be discussing assistive technology and how they are beneficial to visually impaired students. Truth be told though; assistive technology can be beneficial to everyone.

Reading and Writing

Most of us take our reading and writing abilities for granted. For persons with visual impairments (or many other disabilities) what we take for granted they must strive to achieve. Luckily, there are many tools, methods, and techniques available to help ensure their literacy independence is within arm’s reach.  Two assistive devices that may prove beneficial with reading and writing are the Orbit Reader 20 and the Scanmarker Air.

The Orbit Reader 20 is a unique 3-in-1 electronic braille device and serves as a self-contained book reader, a note-taker and braille display by connecting to a computer or smartphone via USB or Bluetooth. It provides the highest quality braille in the world at the lowest price. Simple but sturdy design features 20 eight dot braille cells, eight braille input keys, cursor and panning keys for easy navigation, a USB port for charging and communication, an SD card slot, and a high-capacity rechargeable battery. It supports all languages and screen reading programs and weighs less than one pound.

The ScanMarker Air allows you to scan a single line of text using the ScanMarker “pen” and send that text to either your smartphone or computer, using either Bluetooth or USB connectivity. You can scan either directly into the ScanMarker app or to an external application such as Word. Within the ScanMarker app, scanned text can be read back to you, without the need for a voiceover function. Scanned text can automatically be translated into one of 40+ languages.


Let’s face it math can be hard for anyone. If you are unable to see a traditional calculator it can prove even more challenging. Thankfully, there is a talking graphics calculator that can take some of the pressure off persons with visual impairments.

The Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator consists of a compact accessory that is attached to the top of the TI-84 Plus and enables someone who is visually impaired to interact with the TI-84 Plus using speech, audio, and haptic (vibration) feedback. High-quality synthesized speech reads out all textual and symbolic information on the LCD screen, as well as each keypress. Graphs can be explored using either spoken announcements or the unique SonoGraph audio and haptic feedback which provides multi-modal feedback. The user can also review the contents of the screen at any time, including all text and graphical information, without affecting the calculation. The Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator is fully expandable with hardware accessories through a USB port and can also print or emboss graphs when connected to a printer or embosser. This product comes with high quality stereo earphones for private use, AC adapter/charger, and a user manual.

Beyond Academics

Utilizing these assistive technologies in school can not only help you obtain a quality education, but they can also allow you to go even further. Take these stories for example. The first one is about visually impaired choirs, the next about a new version of a “musical” through sign language and finally a story that depicts the life of a deafblind woman as she practices law and explores the world.

The Johnny Mercer Children’s Choir is the only program in Southern California specifically for blind and visually impaired children. Members learn vocal music and performance techniques, gain confidence and overcome isolation as they discover a community of peers who struggle with their same issues. The choirs travel throughout Southern California performing free concerts at senior centers, schools, and other community facilities, showing people that blindness or any disability doesn’t have to stand in the way of your dreams. One of the choirs’ signature songs is Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive.”

Putting on a high school play comes with a host of difficulties, the wardrobe, the sets and of course remembering one’s lines. But for students at Belleville’s Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf, their lines weren’t spoken, they were signed. English lines were translated into American Sign Language (ASL). The students then had to memorize the ASL version not the English originally written down on paper. To do this the lines were videotaped, and the students would watch the videos and memorize their lines complete with facial expression and body language needed for the part. To complicate things even more the musical they chose to perform was Beauty and the Beast, so the students had to also learn how to sync their ASL to music they were unable to actually hear.

Lawyer, comedian, surfer, and public speaker are just a few things that Haben Girma has already accomplished in life. She has traveled the world with her dog, Mylo. She learned how to surf in the ocean, has gone rock climbing, and is taking improv classes at a community college. She has spoken at the White House and she has a law degree from Harvard. Graduating in 2013 she is the first ever deafblind person to attend the prestigious college. Professionally she is an attorney and disability advocate. She travels the world advising companies to invest in disabled employees. In her down time, there is no telling where in the world she might be next. The link embedded with her name, will take you to a video to allow a peak into her extraordinary life. The video includes descriptions for the visually impaired.

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Back to School Part 1: Basic Supplies

Back to School is a phrase revered by some and feared by many. This can especially be true in 2020 with so much being unknown and delving into new territory.  This blog is part one of a two-part blog on returning to school with a visual impairment. Today’s blog will look at the back to school basics. Next week’s blog will focus more on the technology side of learning.

Art and Color Supplies

Perkins School for the Blind provides a resource page to many different lessons, schools, and museums with ideas on how to incorporate art and creativity into a visually impaired person’s everyday world. Just because your vision may have changed does not mean that your creativity must as well.

Here are a few art related finds you can purchase from ILA:

Texture 3D Paint 6 Pack: Squeeze this paint onto any surface and it will puff up as it dries leaving a textured, tactile line or dot. It can be used to create a tactile mark on just about any surface you can imagine, and it can even be washed in the washing machine without coming off. These paints are also great for designing any project that you would like an extra bit of texture such as shirt designs, purses, belts, even posters! This non-toxic paint is safe and the bottles are easy to handle for all ages. This pack contains 6 colors: black, blue, orange, red, white, and yellow. You can also purchase individual colors.

Mr. Sketch Scented Magic Markers: These scented markers are fun for both kids and adults to use. The soft scent will also aid in helping to recognize the color.

Speechmaster Talking Color Identifier: An affordable talking color identifier that identifies colors by naming the color and the intensity. For instance, it will say ‘dark blue’ or ‘light green’ when the detector nozzle is held against whatever surface is being examined.

Math Focused Supplies

Another page of resources from Perkins School for the Blind, features all things math related. These links offer tips, tricks, and lesson plans for all grade levels and include a link to videos to understand how a talking calculator works.

Here are a few math related finds you can purchase at ILA:

Big Button Talking Calculator with Function Replay: This new Big Button Talking Calculator allows you to go back and listen to the data which you have entered. With easy to use high contrast buttons, this calculator is easy to see and hear for both the hard of hearing and low vision users.

Geometric Set in Braille: This Geometric Kit is a great learning aid for anyone who is blind or has low vision and is learning geometry or pursuing a career in drafting or engineering. All of these tools have tactile marks in Braille. Colors may vary and are random. Set includes a sturdy rubber mat board, a spur wheel, a compass, a protractor with swing arm, 2 triangle rulers, and a ruler.

Wikki Stix Numbers & Counting Cards: Fun, colorful cards from 1 to 20 for learning number formation! Plus, early education activities including counting, math concepts and simple shapes. 27 individual cards plus 36 Wikki Stix. Sturdy cardstock for repeated use. Can be laminated for use in classroom centers as a teaching tool. Perfect for teachers, parents, grandparents — anyone who is searching for ways to enhance their children’s educational growth while having fun. Reusable and made in the USA.

Paper and Writing Supplies

Literacy at its simplest means the ability to read and write. Perkins School for the Blind offers a 7-page resource guide beginning with Braille and ending with Writing.

Hare are a few paper and writing based finds you can purchase at ILA:

Bold Line Writing Paper: Paper pads with bold black lines on both sides of the 8.5 x 11-inch sheets. Lines are .56 inches apart. Gummed pad of 100 sheets.  Also available in a yellow pad.

Writing Guide Value Kit: A sturdy storage envelope contains plastic guides for letter writing, signature, check writing, and envelope writing, plus a bold line writing pen and a free sample of Bold Line Writing Paper.

Low Vision Pens Sampler: If you know that you need a pen that creates a black, bold, heavy line that is easy to see, but you can’t decide which one to buy, order this sampler. It not only lets you test 4 pens with different thicknesses and drying characteristics, but it saves you nearly 15% off the price of buying the group separately. Included are: CAN-DO Low Vision, Sharpie, Pilot Bravo, and Liquid Expresso.

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Cell Phones for the Visually Impaired: New cell phones make it easier for a visually impaired person to stay in touch

White letters on a black background with hands holding a cell phone in the center.
New cell phones make it easier for a visually impaired person to stay in touch

Smartphones are everywhere and practically everyone uses them. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, the number of Americans owning smartphones is 81%. This is up from 35% from 2011. These phones can be a lifeline to persons of all abilities but especially to those living with visual impairments. This blog will look at built-in screen readers, two different phones designed for persons with visual impairments, and finally a brief look into the Life of a Blind Girl as she explains day to day uses of a smartphone.

Built-In Screen Readers

Apple’s Voiceover: VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that lets you enjoy using iPhone even if you don’t see the screen. With VoiceOver enabled, just triple-click the Home button (or the side button on iPhone X or later) to access it wherever you are in iOS. Hear a description of everything happening on your screen, from battery level to who’s calling to which app your finger is on. You can also adjust the speaking rate and pitch to suit you.  Because VoiceOver is integrated in iOS, it works with all the built-in iPhone apps. You can create custom labels for buttons in any app — including third-party apps. And Apple works with the iOS developer community to make even more apps compatible with VoiceOver. Life After Sight Loss has a YouTube channel with a whole set of videos to help you understand VoiceOver 101.

Android’s (and Blackberry) TalkBack: To interact with your device using touch and spoken feedback, you can turn on the TalkBack screen reader. TalkBack describes your actions and tells you about alerts and notifications. You can use the TalkBack braille keyboard to enter 6-dot braille on your screen. Only Unified English Braille is currently supported. If you want spoken feedback only at certain times, you can turn on Select to Speak. Select items on your screen to hear them read or described aloud or point the camera at something in the real world. Live Accessible has a YouTube channel with a whole set of videos to help you understand TalkBack 101.

Window’s Narrator: Narrator is a screen-reading app that’s built into Windows 10, so there’s nothing you need to download or install. This guide (also available in PDF) describes how to use Narrator with Windows so that you can start using apps, browsing the web, and more. There is also an option to download the guide in braille from the main website. This should work on any Windows based phone, tablet, or computer.

BlindShell Talking Phone and Ray Accessible Smartphone

BlindShell Talking Phone: This is a mobile phone designed specifically for the visually impaired and features a full physical keypad as well as a large digital display screen which can provide visual feedback in large, bold, customizable font. All features, keys, and commands on the phone are spoken. The phone can alternatively be controlled by voice commands. Voice can also be used for dictating text messages, emails, and notes.

Standard phone functions include calling and one touch speed dials, SMS texts, email, contact management, notes, and calendar. Other specialized functions include a camera, calculator, timer, alarm, color identifier, QR code object tagging, FM radio, audio player, book reader, Bluetooth connectivity, and a specially located one touch SOS button.

This is an unlocked GSM phone and works with all carriers on the GSM network, including AT&T and T-Mobile. It does not work with Verizon and Sprint.  If you need any help learning how to use this phone or want to check out everything it can do there is a 36 part BlindShell Classic Tutorial playlist on YouTube.

Ray Accessible Smartphone: RAY® accessible smartphone is built on a Samsung/Android platform using a proprietary software application to offer a fully accessible, vision-free cellphone. Touch and slide motion on the screen provide spoken access to all functions of the phone, including calling, contacts, settings, voice dialing, calendar, messages, location services, and easy access to your music library. If you would like to see how this phone works check out this Ray Vision – Quick User Guide.

Other functionalities included with this phone are:

  • Simple access to frequently used functions
  • Provides direct connection to online library services and audio book libraries
  • Has a built-in color identifier
  • Built in currency identifier for identifying bank notes
  • Responds to vocal commands with its speech recognition abilities
  • Works with nearly all standard GSM network cell phone plans. AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, and other GSM providers
  • Once set up with your GSM wireless network, Ray offers an optional monthly service which consists of complete daily assistance, 24/7, for approximately $10.00 per month.

Excerpts from Life of a Blind Girl

Holly, who is registered as blind due to a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), writes a blog as a way of sharing her experiences of living with a visual impairment in a predominantly sighted world. Her life stories, tips, and advice can also help persons newly diagnosed with vision impairments or those that have been living with vision impairments for years. Here are a few excerpts from her blog, How do blind and visually impaired people use a mobile phone?

Having a visual impairment doesn’t mean that we can’t use a phone, it’s a lifeline for many blind and visually impaired people. We can use mobile phones just like sighted people, we just use accessibility features to enable us to do so…these features enable us to complete a range of tasks on our phones – keeping in contact with friends and family, reading and responding to emails, reading a good book, browsing the internet, online shopping, booking train tickets and checking bus and train times, online banking, using social media, getting to where we need to be, playing games, listening to music and so much more, the list goes on!

So, here’s a run-down of some of the accessibility features that blind and visually impaired people use.

  • Screen-reader: The screen-reader reads out loud everything that’s on the screen…The screen-readers also read out images (when they have descriptions).
  • Zoom: This is a magnifier that enables people with low vision to zoom or magnify the screen. It works with built-in apps and third-party apps, making phones fully accessible.
  • Magnifier: The camera on your phone can be used like a digital magnifying glass, to increase the size so you can see things more clearly. The flash can be used to light the object, filters can be used to differentiate between colours and photos can be taken and saved to get a close-up.
  • Speak screen: This does exactly what it says, it reads the screen out loud. This can be great for reading emails, reading a book or if you are struggling to read text. This is ideal for people who don’t need to use a screen-reader but could sometimes benefit from a speech functionality.
  • Display accommodations: Dictation is a speech-to-text functionality, it means that you don’t have to type, you can talk to your phone instead, this means that you can dictate messages, tweets, Facebook posts, emails and much more.

One thing I love is the fact that people with a visual impairment can use mobile phones straight out the box with their accessibility features. Mainstream devices are fully accessible with no extra costs added for blind and visually impaired people and that’s the way it should be…There is a wrongly perceived idea that if you are blind then you see nothing at all, but there is a spectrum of sight and 93 % of blind people have some useful vision. It may not be much, but it helps them navigate this predominantly sighted world.

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Is it Hot Enough? Thermometer Basics and Options for the Visually Impaired

Thermometers are such a common object in today’s world that chances are you have given little thought as to the varieties of them or how they work.  If you are visually impaired or blind you might have even given up on most of them all together. This blog will look at three different types of thermometers marketed to the visually impaired to better help you keep track of outdoor (and possibly indoor) temperatures.

Classic Dial Thermometers

Classic dial thermometers have a metal pointer that moves up and down on a circular scale. If you were to open it up, you would see that the pointer is mounted on a bimetallic spring-like coil that is designed to expand and bend as it gets hotter. As temperature increases or decreases the bimetallic strip expands or contracts rotating the pointer around the fixed dial. The dial thermometer goes back to at least 1905 when Charles W. Putnam patented the device.

If this type of thermometer interests you check out this 18” Big and Bold Thermometer from ILA. This version mounts on a wall, can be used either indoors or outdoors, and has large digits to be more easily read.  Temperature readings are shown in both Fahrenheit and Celsius as outlined on the face.

Digital and Wireless Thermometers

Digital (or electronic) thermometers offer easy-to-read displays and tend to have affordable pricing. These type thermometers work in an entirely different way to mechanical ones that use lines of mercury or spinning pointers. They contain a small computing mechanism and a resistor based on the idea that the resistance of a piece of metal (the ease with which electricity flows through it) changes as the temperature changes. As metals get hotter, atoms vibrate more inside them, it is harder for electricity to flow, and the resistance increases. Similarly, as metals cool down, the electrons move more freely, and the resistance goes down. A change in temperature causes the sensor to notice a change in resistance. The computer will then calculate the difference of resistance into a temperature and produce a digital readout in degrees. (See Thermometers to learn more)

If you are looking for a thermometer of this kind, ILA offers the Talking Indoor/Outdoor Thermometer Dual Display. Conveniently sized, this thermometer can easily be used either on a desk or hung on the wall. It has a large dual display that shows both the indoor and outdoor temperatures and announces them verbally at the push of a button. It can be set to make announcements automatically every hour on the hour and can even be programmed to announce the temperatures at a pre-set time in order to act as a wake-up alarm. It will announce the temperatures in Fahrenheit or in Centigrade, at the flip of a switch. The indoor temperature probe is built into the unit. The out-door temperature probe (remote probe) is connected to the unit by a cable and should be placed outside the house. (See full instructions for more information)

Digital Clock/Thermometer Combos

In addition to having digital (or electronic) thermometers, these combos also have digital clocks, and in some cases atomic clocks as well.  In a nutshell, digital clocks work through use of a glass crystal oscillator. When an electric charge is sent through the crystal it changes shape very slightly and creates a very slight sound. The sound is at a regular frequency which is converted to an electronic signal. When a digital clock clicks over from 12:59 to 1:00 it must be reset to, in effect, start over. Most digital clocks will be equipped with a built-in processor looking for the number 13 in the hours column and when this occurs sets the hour counter back to 1. (See How Digital Clocks Work for a more detailed explanation.)

Atomic clocks, however, work in a different way. With an error of only 1 second in up to 100 million years, atomic clocks are among the most accurate timekeeping devices in history. In an atomic clock, the natural oscillations of atoms act like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. However, atomic clocks are far more precise than conventional clocks because atomic oscillations have a much higher frequency and are much more stable.  (See How Does an Atomic Clock Work by Time and Date for more details)

The first quality atomic clocks made in the 1950s were based on cesium, and such clocks honed to greater precisions over the decades remain the basis used to keep official time throughout the world. In the United States, the top clocks are maintained by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colo., and the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington, D.C. (See How Does an Atomic Clock Work by LiveScience for more details)

One of the digital clock/thermometer combos offered by ILA is this Atomic Talking Clock w/Alarm, Calendar and Wireless Outdoor Temperature Sensor.  This extraordinary talking atomic clock includes the most important features you need to keep you on track all day. It speaks all the functions to guide you through the settings and it will announce hourly either the time or the temperature. For those with some vision, the time is displayed with large numbers and the date, indoor and outdoor temperatures are shown as well. (See full instructions for more information)

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