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Apps now online to aid patients with visual impairment


Technology is off to a good start, but improvements are still needed. 

This article was reviewed by Yvonne Ou, MD

In our increasingly complicated world, accessible technology is of major importance for individuals who are visually challenged. From the perspective of patients with visual impairments, their iPhones and Android devices are their most valuable personal assistants, with both having accessibility features, according to Yvonne Ou, MD, co-director of the Glaucoma Division and vice chair for Postgraduate Education, University of California, San Francisco.

A major feature of the iPhone is VoiceOver, a screen reader that can be activated within the iPhone settings. When anything on the iPhone is touched, the text is read to the iPhone user. 

This feature works with all apps built into the phone as well as with third-party apps. The camera in the iPhone can be used as a magnifier, a screen reader, and can help describe images.

Related: The challenges of examining visual fields in children

A new technology is audio description enabling, a feature that is made available by, for example, Netflix and other online content providers. This feature comes in handy when watching a movie with a scene in which there is no dialogue. 

“Movies that have audio description enabling embedded in them will describe the scene to the visually impaired viewer,” she explained.

Another useful program is called Seeing AI. This free app was developed by a Microsoft employee who is visually impaired. 

“This app completes multiple tasks within 1 app instead of the user having to manipulate a large number of apps,” Ou said. 

The tasks include identifying currency, identifying products using the QR code, and reading documents by detecting the edges of the document; it also uses artificial intelligence–enabled features that are more experimental, such as a scene feature that describes the surrounding environment, people, and facial expressions.

Related: Blockchain technology aims to drive big data to 'train' AI

Be My Eyes and Aira
Be My Eyes is a free app that helps individuals who are visually challenged by connecting them with sighted volunteers via phone when they require visual assistance. When a person with visual impairment needs assistance, he or she can call and request the help of a sighted volunteer, who in turn, can then use the back camera on the phone to describe the scene to the caller. For example, Ou described having helped people read labels on canned food and set the thermostat.

Currently, about 3.5 million volunteers are signed up to this app to help about 200,000 individuals with visual impairment. The app guarantees that the call for assistance will be answered within 45 seconds. 

In cases in which more privacy is needed than might be afforded by Be My Eyes, such as with legal or medical documents, one of Ou’s patients recommended an app named Aira (pronounced ira). 

When using Aira, the person wears a pair of glasses, and a phone connects him or her to an agent to help with a desired task. The standard service costs about $100 per month for 120 minutes of service; if the subscriber opts to not use the glasses but just the phone, the guest cost is free. The user also has access to free calls through this service when used in stores such as Walgreen’s or Target, or in some airports.

The Aira app was invaluable, according to Ou, to aid a runner with retinitis pigmentosa in completing the Boston Marathon without a guide. The runner was connected to a remote agent who described the course to him as he ran.

Related: AI-enabled radar: Pushing boundaries of glaucoma diagnosing, monitoring 

Although there are still many kinks to be worked out with the various tools, patients at least now have some options. However, as Ou pointed out, human interaction is a very important factor that facilitates tools such as Be My Eyes and Aira for patients.

Numerous challenges exist and accessibility is a huge issue for patients. 

“Our websites need to be accessible to screen readers,” Ou said. “As ophthalmologists, optometrists, and vision care providers, we should make certain that our websites are accessible to screen readers. Online guidance can help with this.”

Artificial intelligence–enabled text descriptions of images remain problematic in her experience.

Sighted individuals can contribute to better accessibility for individuals with visual impairment by providing a description of the scene in their Instagram posts, for example. This has the effect of helping those who are visually challenged better experience what is being shared.

“Ophthalmologists can help their visually challenged and blind patients with their local communities,” Ou concluded. “Representatives from the Lighthouse for the Blind, for example, can help patients with the various available technologies as well as new technologies and getting connected.”

Read more by Lynda Charters

Yvonne Ou, MD
E: yvonne.ou@ucsf.edu
Dr. Ou has no financial interests to disclose.

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