Beacon’s Technology Innovations Manager Matt Harrison, who lives with sight loss himself, shares his thoughts on how to cope during self isolation.

We are living in unprecedented times. Even during the war when movement was restricted, we were still able to mix socially and support each other at close proximity.  The current COVID-19 pandemic, however, has seen us all isolated with only those we live with able to occupy the same physical space.  This situation is hard enough for an able-bodied person to deal with, but factor in a visual impairment along with the potential withdrawal of vital, sighted support, and the impact is much greater.

I am lucky:  I am relatively young (although I don’t feel it after the daily Joe Wicks PE lesson!); I have sighted support from family members, and I am confident and proficient in using technology to maintain my independence.  Not everyone is fortunate enough to be in my position, and so I thought that I would use this opportunity to pass on a few tips, (some technology-based, some not) that may help you, or someone you know with a visual impairment, cope a little better over the coming weeks.

If you are visually impaired and own a tablet or smartphone, my top tip would be to make use of the Be My Eyes service. 

This is a free app for both iOS (apple) and Android users alike.  Be My Eyes uses the camera on your device to connect you to a sighted volunteer somewhere in the world.  As the app name suggests, you can use the person  with whom you are connected to be your eyes: ask them to read the use-by date on a yogurt; ask them to tell you which tin in your cupboard is the cat food and which is the baked beans (both you and Tiddles will be sorely disappointed if you mix these up!); or ask them to help you read the dials on your washing machine.  The possibilities are endless, and the volunteers are always willing to support you as best they can.  You need not have any technical knowledge, and you will be speaking to a real-life human which makes the whole process all the better.

Smartphone and tablet users may also benefit from using an app which can identify an object or read printed text to you.  Reading text in this way is called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) so feel free to search your app store for OCR apps.  I am predominantly an Apple user and have Seeing AI on my iPhone.  It not only reads printed text, but also clear handwriting (so not mine!) and can also identify objects, colours and light sources.  Android users should look into Text Fairy, Office Lens and other similar apps, although it would appear that there is nothing as versatile as Seeing AI out there just yet.  The KNFB Reader app is highly thought of although at £99 I am yet to try it!

You should also talk to your tech.  You may feel a bit daft at first, but most smartphones and tablets can respond to spoken commands and questions.  Hold the home button down and ask a question or ask it to call someone in your address book.  This helps keep the necessary technical know-how down to a minimum and you will soon get the hang of what to say to get the best response.  You can dictate emails and other written messages this way; it may take a little practice but again you will soon get the hang of it.

Smart speakers (such as Google Home and Amazon Echo (what most people call Alexa)) are ideal for those with a visual impairment as, once installed, are controlled purely by voice.  You can use these to listen to the radio, ask questions, play games, set reminders and connect with others.  You will need a smartphone or tablet to set these up, but once installed they will quickly become an integral part of your daily life and you will find their operation very intuitive.

In terms of simple technology, you can always use the camera on your digital device to take photos of things and zoom In for a clearer look.  You can also send audio messages as opposed to text messages if that makes things easier.  There are also lots of free apps out there that help you stay in touch with people.  In addition to using your phone to make voice calls or send text messages, you can also make video calls using most of the messaging apps (WhatsApp, FaceTime, Messenger etc) and other free apps such as Zoom and Skype.

Away from tech, and away from communication, there are simple things you can do to help with other tasks.  If you normally rely on someone to help you identify tins or bottles you could stretch an elastic band over one to differentiate it from another.  You could use Blu-Tac as a temporary bump-on to help you mark the minutes on the microwave. 

Finally, I should say that you can use a computer, smartphone or tablet even when totally blind.  Most devices have free, in-built features that will enable you to navigate the system, type and read text even when unable to see anything on the screen.  I am not going to cover the basics in this article as you could end up getting in a pickle but when this is all over pop down to Beacon and chat to our IT Trainer and Low Vision team on how we can help you.

Please stay safe and healthy, and we look forward to seeing you in the near future.

Take care.