David Berman, 58, of Morristown, who has Meningioma, receives a Smartphone Techniques as well as other students during a tech class for the blind at Vision Loss Alliance in Denville on 10/22/19.
North Jersey Record
Cellphones have made many aspects of life easier with their multiple life-improving tools. Navigation systems, news and weather, email, planners and social media are now right at our fingertips.
But most of the features and apps are geared toward customers who are not visually impaired.
What about blind individuals? Are they out of luck?
No, they are not, said Lori Falk, an instructor at Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey in Denville.
Visually impaired individuals, until recently, used desktop computers with adaptive equipment, such as screen readers to digitally interact with others online.
iPhones and other smartphones, have given blind or visually impaired individuals a new lease on life, Falk said, and each Tuesday she demonstrates how the technology can be used and adapted.
Falk, who is visually impaired, teaches others how to program smartphones to read screen text for calendars, planners, emails, social posts and more. She also instructs on how to use the phones to program household electronics, vacuums, thermostats, lights and more. There’s one app that lets users know if the lights are turned on or off.
The Learning Lab instructor from Lincoln Park teaches a 13-week program at the Vision Loss Alliance on how to “open up a new world through the accessibility features of the iPhone and iPad.”
One lesson, which many find extremely valuable, is how to use a smartphone to read money. The adapted app can read aloud the value of paper money.
VoiceOver, an iPhone feature that reads text on its screen aloud was made available only 10 years ago, Falk said.
Before that, those with vision loss or blind were left “in a corner” too often, said David Berman, 58, of Morristown.
Falk and Berman lost most of their vision due to meningioma.
Teachers and students at the nonprofit center said iPhones are the smartphone of choice because of Apple’s operating system, which has adaptive capabilities superior to those found on Android phones.
Apple defines VoiceOver as “a gesture-based screen reader” that gives users audible descriptions of what’s on the screen.
This, along with the speech-to-text function found in the settings menu, makes a number of adaptive apps possible. She said it’s possible to adapt apps to help visually impaired people read documents, count money and match their clothes.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Falk, who is teaching Berman how to adapt with the use of his iPhone after he began to lose his sight in 2016.
“There are an extraordinarily large number of apps￼￼ and tools on the iPhone to use for a visually impaired person,” Berman said. “I have been coming on Tuesdays for almost 20 weeks and I feel like I have just begun to scratch the surface and understand what’s available.”
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“Take out a bill and don’t show me what it is￼￼￼￼,” he said as he opened the money reader app on his phone. “One dollar, one dollar,” his phone’s robotic voice repeated as he held it over the bill.
“I bet you put down a one-dollar bill,” said Berman with a laugh to the room and then became serious. “I am handed change constantly and I make everybody in line wait while I slowly look at it to make sure I am getting the right bills. This makes sure that I am not being cheated.”
Berman lost his sight due to a severed optic nerve as a result of meningioma. He uses a cane to walk.
Learning how to use technology tempered the specter of losing his sight and gave him a brighter outlook than he might have had otherwise, he said.
“I am fortunate compared to a lot of people here in that my vision loss is not yet 100%, although it likely will be,” he said.
Bilateral optic nerve meningioma started to affect Falk’s vision at 14. Headaches and blackouts were the first symptoms.
She found the organization four years ago and learned what an iPhone can do. It helps her in ways that might not seem obvious to some.
“Let’s say you had visitors and now they have left and you want to go around and turn off the lights. You can aim your phone at the light and it will beep louder to let you know￼ the lights are on,” she said.
As she swipes over her phone’s touchscreen the menu options that light up like a Christmas tree for most people are instead read aloud for her.
Now she is here to teach its capabilities to Berman.
“It’s my window to everything,” Falk said. “I have the same calendar, reminders, notes, contacts, email, texting. I am not separated or isolated. I have full access to everything now.”
Outside of their operating systems, smartphones can also be paired with a host of smart devices, like robotic vacuums, household thermostats, door locks and room lighting, said Berman.
What innovations would they like to see coming down the pike?
“Inside navigation using augmented reality,” Falk said.
“I was in the airport yesterday. My vision is good enough that I can walk down the hallway. I can’t see your face, but I can see your outline so I won’t bump into you. Walking through an airport, you need to see signs that say things like ‘Gate A’ or ‘Baggage Claim this way.’ I couldn’t see any of the signs so every 15 feet I would have to stop and say, ‘Excuse me, can you help guide me￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼?”
An augmented reality app that could navigate out loud reading the signs in places like airports would be helpful, they agreed. But even something simpler would be appreciated.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to find the door,” Falk said.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about VLANJ can call (973) 627-0055 or email email@example.com.
Gene Myers is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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