Handy Tech Tools for Work and Life

What adaptive devices are tech-savvy employees with vision loss using today? What are some of the most helpful and innovative tools for job success at the office? Read on for a tour of the major categories of high-tech adaptive equipment (from software that talks to braille that moves!). Bonus: CNIB's top 10 gadgets for work or home, available through CNIB's webstore.

Screen reading software

Colour picture of a woman using a screen reading softwareScreen reading software converts on-screen text - whatever you are writing or reading - into synthesized speech. JAWS software by Freedom Scientific of St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of the best-known brands in this field, and ranges in price from about $1,100 to $1,325, depending on the version you get.

GW Micro of Fort Wayne, Indiana, makes another popular screen reading software application called Window-Eyes. Designed for use with Windows operating systems, Window-Eyes is priced at around $1,075.

Dolphin from the United Kingdom offers a screen reading option called Guide. The program is priced at about $900 and is as close to "plug and play" as you can get - it is easy to install and use, and ideal for people who have limited computer experience.

There are several free-ware programs out there - basic screen readers available at no-charge from low vision user-groups. And Serotek in the United States has just announced that a version of its System Access screen reading program will be given away for free to elementary students in the U.S. and Canada in a new program called Keys for K-12. The program operates on a thumb drive, which means that students with vision loss can take it with them and use it on computers wherever they go, from school to friends' houses. For more information, visit: http://www.aroga.com/

If you are buying screen reading software, check first to make sure your computer has enough processing power to handle the program you are considering.

OCR (optical character recognition)

OCR systems translate handwritten, typewritten or printed text (usually captured by a scanner) into synthesized speech or machine-editable text. OCR systems can be standalone, desk-top units or software programs that run on a computer and connect to any high-quality document scanner.

Kurzweil Educational Systems of Bedford, Massachusetts, offers a software product called Kurzweil 1000, which starts at approximately $1,250.

Braille display

A braille display is a device with pins that pop up and down to reveal a line of braille text - again, showing whatever you are reading or writing electronically. Braille displays can be very handy - but also very expensive.

There are two types of braille displays. Dedicated braille displays are used in conjunction with a laptop or desktop computer. Standalone notetakers often include braille displays - these notetakers act as an integrated PDA and a portable reading/writing device for electronic braille (some of them also have synthesized speech built in as another output option).

Braille displays range in price from $2,400 to $10,000. Freedom Scientific, Alva and Tieman are some of the most common manufacturers.

Speech recognition software

Speech recognition software lets you talk to your computer, which then turns your speech into on-screen text.

German firm Nuance makes the highly popular Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. Nuance offers NaturallySpeaking programs aimed at laymen, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, with prices ranging from $250 to $620.

Screen magnification

These programs make everything on your computer screen larger for easier viewing. Usually a program will allow you to choose from a number of enlargement sizes according to your needs.

Ai Squared, of Manchester Center, Vermont, sells a popular option called ZoomText. Prices range from $360 for a basic model to about $900 for one with all the bells and whistles.

Freedom Scientific's MAGic screen magnification software promises to magnify your PC screen up to 36 times. This software ranges from about $425 to over $600.

For all the benefits that screen magnification software offers, there is a caveat: When it gets to six or eight times magnification, it's time to start thinking about using a speech program.

Accessibility and computer operating systems

Today, recognizing that not every person uses a computer the same way, computer manufacturers are increasingly building accessibility tools right into their operating systems.

The Windows Vista operating system boasts several accessibility programs and settings, such as a screen magnifier, Narrator (a screen reading program) and speech recognition. Vista also has an "Ease of Access Centre" to streamline accessibility functions.

Apple offers some sophisticated accessibility functions built into the Mac OS X operating system, including a screen reader called VoiceOver and a screen magnifying program. The newly released Mac OS X 10.6 system called Snow Leopard is receiving rave reviews for its significant enhancements to VoiceOver. An upgrade from the previous OS X Leopard system to Snow Leopard is available at a very reasonable cost. Apple also supports more than 40 models of braille displays.

The tools available on today's computer operating systems usually work extremely well for the average user, while the professional or advanced user will often prefer to purchase additional software or equipment for a specialized solution.

CCTV

Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTVs) allow users to magnify anything placed under a camera unit. A monitor will display a greatly enhanced image of what the camera picks up.

Some CCTVs are large, stationary machines. American firm Optelec and Montreal-based HumanWare both sell CCTV devices with screens that range from 14 to 22 inches diagonally (and sometimes even larger). This type of CCTV is usually priced at around $2,500 to $6,000.

The next generation of CCTV machines involves smaller, pocket-sized devices called video magnifiers, which act as a miniaturized version of a CCTV. These start at about $600, and CNIB has many models available through its webstore.

CNIB also has a "hybrid" CCTV available that offers something in between the stationary and portable options: the Big Reader CCTV (product number: MAG-0801706001; price: $1500).

DAISY

DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) readers are either portable, stand-alone devices or software programs that can be used on a computer. Depending on what device you have, DAISY books can either be read on a CD or downloaded from the Internet.

DAISY is a global standard for audiobooks for people with vision loss.
It allows users to listen to specially formatted DAISY talking books so they can have a reading experience that's much closer to the way that sighted people access reading materials.

Some DAISY books, for example, allow someone with vision loss to flip from page to page and use an index, capabilities that would not be possible on a standard audio book on CD. The CNIB Library offers Canadians with vision loss a growing selection of books and magazines in the DAISY format.

An FSReader DAISY reading application for use on a desktop from Freedom Scientific sells for $80. HumanWare is another popular manufacturer of DAISY devices.

CNIB also has DAISY players available. For more information: http://www.cnib.ca/en/services/products/daisy/Default.aspx

Where to buy?

A number of vendors specialize in adaptive technology, including Frontier Computing in Toronto, Optelec (headquartered in Longueuil, Quebec), Aroga (with offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto) and Microcomputer Science Centre in Mississauga.

NEW! CNIB now has a variety of high-tech adaptive technology products available. Prices are comparable to other vendors, and all money raised goes back to support programs and services for Canadians with vision loss. Plus, you can try out products at a CNIB demonstration centre and receive support on how to use them from CNIB's team of experts across the country. For more information, visit the adaptive technology section of CNIB's website.

Finally, if you live in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario or Quebec, be sure to take advantage of the assistive devices program in your province, which can help to reimburse the costs associated with some adaptive technologies.

CNIB's Favourites

Want some more ideas for useful products at home and work?

Besides the big guns (such as the high tech products described above) there are a variety of smaller items that can be exceedingly handy.

Here are favourites from CNIB.  All are available for purchase online through CNIB’s webstore: