15 Tools That Help You See
Just because your vision is low doesn’t mean your quality of life has to be. In fact, for people with macular degeneration, maintaining independence has never been easier, thanks to a range of low- and high-tech devices that can help you see. “We always go low tech when we can,” says Jason Vice, O.T.R./L., who provides patient care at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation. “But the high tech is getting better and better, and more accessible. Whatever it is you want to do, there’s something out there that can help you do it.” We’ve got 15 worth checking out.
1. Lighted Handheld Magnifier
For simple spot-reading tasks like seeing labels and bills, this portable, lightweight tool is ideal, says Dawn DeCarlo, O.D., director of the UAB Center for Low-Vision Rehabilitation. “These are great for people with steady hands who understand focusing,” Dr. DeCarlo says. Because people with macular degeneration struggle with fine detail, simply enlarging text can help. But you need one with a light. “A magnifier without one is unlikely to work for someone with macular degeneration.” Prices range, but you should be able to find a good one for under $100, she says. Just be sure to book a visit with a low-vision specialist first, so you know the right magnification for you.
2. Illuminated Stand Magnifier
Don’t want to hold the lens? Consider a stand magnifier, which comes in a frame that is held flat onto the material you’re reading. It sets the focal distance for you, so you don’t have to worry about moving the lens into focus, Dr. DeCarlo says. It’s heavier and less portable than a hand magnifier, but it may be better for extended reading. Some Eschenbach models are available for about $300.
3. Video Magnifier
Best for avid readers, this desktop device—also known as a closed-circuit television—uses a camera to project print material onto a monitor, allowing for a larger field of view and more comfortable working distance, explains Jennifer Kaldenberg, O.T., a low-vision occupational therapist at Boston University. You can reader faster for longer, with less eyestrain and fatigue. “The big drawback is cost,” Kaldenberg says. A typical model can range from $1,800 to $4,000, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. Curious? Some libraries and senior housing facilities may have the device available for public use, Kaldenberg says.
4. Tablet Computer
A more affordable option for avid readers is to use a tablet, Kaldenberg says. Standard accessibility features let you increase font size and contrast, and plenty of brands offer larger screens, such as the 17-inch Samsung Galaxy View2 ($740, AT&T). Load up on e-books (the app Libby lets you borrow them from your local library), and get digital subscriptions to your favorite magazines and newspapers, suggests Mark E. Wilkinson, O.D., an optometrist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “For many who struggle to read the newspaper, the problem is poor contrast,” Dr. Wilkinson explains. A possible solve? Adjust the settings to display white letters on a black background.
One of the best tools for low vision is likely in your hand. All iPhones (4S and newer) come equipped with a magnifier, says Vice. Simply go into your accessibility options (under “settings”) to enable the feature. Then hit the home button three times to activate it. Other potentially helpful features: Siri, text to speech, camera zoom, and flashlight.
6. Multipurpose Recognition Apps
A growing number of specialty apps are designed to address low-vision challenges. One of Dr. Wilkinson’s favorites is Seeing AI (free, iOS), which uses the camera feature of your phone to read texts to you, identify colors or the people around you, and describe a scene. Other apps like Be My Eyes (free, iOS, Android) connect you with a sighted volunteer who can provide visual assistance, helping you perform tasks or solve problems.
7. Colored Lenses
People with macular degeneration are often extra sensitive to glare. For some, wearing colored lenses (or glare filters) can help, says ophthalmologist John D. Shepherd M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s vision-rehabilitation committee and director of the Weigel Williamson Center for Visual Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska. They let in enough light to see but block glare, he explains, perfect to take the edge off indoors. Many patients prefer yellow or plumb lenses, but be sure to try a range of colors to find the best for you. Low-vision eyewear provider NoIR offers a range of tints and frames (including fit-overs, for over your glasses). No good? Simply return or exchange them within 15 days.
8. High-powered Reading Glasses
These can help, but there’s a catch, says Dr. DeCarlo. The object you’re looking at must be held very close to your face. “Think about how close you have to hold a magnifier to a page to focus,” Dr. DeCarlo explains. “If I put the same magnification in glasses, now the face has to be that close to the page.” And remember, you have to squeeze a light source in there too. Still want to try them? Visit your eye doctor to get a prescription, and expect to pay less than $100, Dr. Wilkinson says.
Sunglasses are important for anyone’s eye health, but for those with macular degeneration, they play another role. “People with macular degeneration take longer to adjust to different light levels,” says Dr. DeCarlo, “especially when going from bright to dim.” A simple pair of shades eases the transition. Just take them off when you walk inside to see more quickly and easily.
10. LED Mini Flashlights
These handy little lights produce an intense, even beam of light to help you see, Dr. DeCarlo says. They’re typically only a few dollars, so you can stock up. Place them strategically around your home, in the laundry room or kitchen—anywhere there’s a small-numbered dial. And keep one on your keychain for easy access outside the house, too—to see the menu at a dimly lit restaurant, for example. Choose those with as many bulbs as possible, Dr. DeCarlo suggests. These mini flashlights from BYB have nine ($10 for four).
11. Gooseneck Lamp
An adjustable-arm lamp is a must for anyone with low vision. If sunlight helps you see, then look for options that use lightbulbs that emulate natural light, Dr. DeCarlo says. Try brands like Ott Lite and Verilux, available online and in craft stores. And use the highest-wattage bulb you can, says Dr. DeCarlo—no lower than 18 watts. Bonus: Natural-spectrum bulbs don’t get hot, so you can bring them close. And they’re energy efficient, so you’re not killing your electric bill, Dr. DeCarlo says.
This free device from En-Vision America will read your prescription information to you, including dosage, instructions, warnings, and the number of refills remaining. Just ask your pharmacy to print the special ScripTalk label, and then hold the label over the device. Visit envisionamerica.com or call 1-800-890-1180 to request one.
13. Currency Reader
Need help sorting money after a transaction? This compact device can quickly and simply tell you a note’s value. Simply insert the bill into the device and press the side button to have the denomination identified. (Use tones or vibrations if you don’t want everyone in earshot to know.) Eligible individuals can request a free currency reader from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
14. Telescopic Lenses
Telescopic lenses work like binoculars to help people to see and magnify things in the distance, says Dr. Shepherd. Some of Kaldenberg’s patients, for instance, like to use Max TV glasses ($190, Amazon) for watching TV. Moving closer to the TV helps too, of course. “But if you have a partner, they probably don’t want to see the back of your head in front of the TV,” Kaldenberg notes.
15. Smart Glasses
Heard of Google Glass? Now companies like eSight, NuEyes, and Aira have engineered versions for the visually impaired. These glasses are embedded with a camera, which records and transmits footage to screens in the glasses, explains Dr. Shepherd. You can zoom in and out. And some are even available with a live help-support system. Granted, they’re not cheap. The makers of eSight electronic glasses recently lowered the price from $10,000 to $6,000, and Aira’s standard service plan costs about a dollar per minute of visual assistance. But for some, they’re worth the price.