How modern technology helps the visually impaired

Put together color-coordinated clothing, find your way through the city: Smartphones, tablets and cameras have made everyday life much easier for blind and visually impaired people

Everyday helper: The visually impaired do not only use smartphones to listen to audio books

© Getty Images / Halfpoint

For Manfred Scharbach, the smartphone has become one of the most important helpers. "I really enjoy listening to audio books on my cell phone," says the 65-year-old. The Berliner also uses the weather app regularly, as he likes to sail with friends. He buys tickets with his cell phone, does banking, or listens to internet radio. Another important help: the mobile phone as a navigation system. "In the past you just had to know the way, you needed experience," he recalls.

Thanks to Apple's voice-over technology, the Scharbach mobile phone reads out everything it touches on the display. Android users know the function as "talkback". "You are much more independent, the mobile Internet has once again significantly expanded the possibilities," says Scharbach one day before the day of the visually impaired on June 6th.

"Blind YouTubers"

The managing director of the General Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Berlin and his team teach other blind and visually impaired people the technology in courses. "All age groups are represented. Even people over 80 want to learn how to use a smartphone," says Scharbach.

The blind engineer Marco Zehe from Hamburg also gives numerous tips with his blog "Marcos Leben". He really appreciates the new opportunities, he says. For example, he is now able to make and edit films on his own.

A few years ago this was still unthinkable - now it enables participation like never before. "Blind YouTubers? Very easy to imagine today and there are even several examples of it," says the 47-year-old, who also has a channel there.

Reading and text recognition are essential

"Smartphones and tablets meanwhile offer insane possibilities and their increasing use in everyday life and at work can save additional expensive aids," reports Klaus Rohrschneider. He is the state doctor for the blind and visually impaired in Baden-Württemberg and heads the largest outpatient clinic for the visually impaired in Germany at the Heidelberg University Eye Clinic. The ophthalmologist has been dealing with technical aids for years and knows the advantages and disadvantages of the individual devices.

According to the expert, many helpers are very easy to use. "The devices often only have one or a few buttons, such as the shopping fox, a product recognizer with digital voice output." Mobile reading or color recognition devices are also quite easy to use and the latter is even better in terms of its performance than an app.

Above all, there are devices on the market that support reading and reading, such as electronic magnifying glasses or reading devices. "Reading and text recognition are essential," says Rohrschneider. The many individual helpers are increasingly being replaced by multifunctional smartphones.

1.2 million blind and partially sighted people

However, he observed that older people were less open to the new technology than younger people. "With many older people, regret outweighs the loss of what was once possible," said the doctor, referring to the dwindling eyesight. "The psychological factor is often underestimated."

But older people in particular are often affected: According to a report by the Robert Koch Institute from 2017, a good half of all blind and visually impaired people are older than 75 years. "In total there are an estimated 1.2 million blind and partially sighted people in Germany," said Scharbach.

Multifunction camera

Adrian Quint from Berlin is just eleven years old and five years ago completely blind. He also uses his smartphone a lot, but has also been using a camera for a few weeks that weighs just 22 grams and is attached to a temple.

The OrCam Myeye reads him texts from books, magazines or even printed texts for a presentation. All he has to do is point or point the camera at the text. "It's cool," says Adrian, who previously needed a lot of help from his mother when he wanted to read things that weren't written in Braille.

"The camera works offline and he no longer has to have his cell phone in hand all the time," says mother Jasmin Quint. According to the manufacturer, the device can also learn faces and products, recognize barcodes, identify colors and banknotes. According to a spokeswoman, there are already several thousand users in Germany who have mostly received reimbursement for the device from their health insurance company as an official aid.

"It works very well as a reading device," says Rohrschneider. However, recognizing buildings, signs and other objects is more difficult for the OrCam Myeye. "During tests, we had to take four to five pictures each time for the camera to recognize the objects. You have to be able to fix it very precisely, "says the expert. That is difficult, especially for the blind. Adrian has only tested the camera while reading so far.

Warning sensors for shoes and long sticks

When orientating on the street, classics like the long stick are often still indispensable. "A sat nav does not protect me from falling down the stairs or running into a lantern," says Manfred Scharbach. However, the conventional stick does not protect him from dangers at head height, he admits.

But here, too, there are innovations such as laser long sticks or sticks that work with ultrasound and are supposed to detect obstacles in time, even at head height. There are even warning systems for shoes: sensors in insoles recognize obstacles and give the wearer warning signals, for example via cell phones and headphones.