Visual Aids

I need high magnification to function,” Fran Cutler is explaining, “so, this curious-looking, sinister black bar on the top of my glasses is actually a four-power magnifier. It’s like a periscope turned on its side. There’s a small window above my left eye, through which the image passes. There are lenses enclosed in the centre, with a focus wheel outside, and over my right eye there’s a camera aperture-like device that gives me my magnification. So, I can see smiles, and I can find the pasta in the grocery store, and I can see crosswalk lights.”

Fran Cutler – board member and chair of the National Communications Committee, among other things – is a walking, fast-talking poster girl for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the power of adaptive living. For reading and close-up tasks, she has a pair of eight-power magnifying lenses, mounted in ordinary glasses frames. On a cord around her neck, she has “a quite stylish little five-power [lens], suitable for formal occasions, and a hand-held five-power, very useful in the laundry room. Without the CNIB, I’d never have known they existed.”

Cutler was director of radio for CBC North until 1996, her lt stop in a 32-year career with the public broadcaster. For 28 of those years, she had a vision impairment caused by the so-called “juvenile” form of macular degeneration (Stargardt’s disease), in which central vision is gradually eroded. “Certainly for the last 20 years of my career, I had great difficulty reading ordinary print,” she says.

The problem surfaced when Cutler was in her mid-20s. She’d been with CBC about three years when she realized she was having trouble reading newspaper headlines. She’d worn glasses since her teens and remembers being unable to make out actors’ faces at a play, “but it didn’t occur to me that it was a problem with my eyes, because we didn’t know that there was something doctors couldn’t correct in those days.”

People often still have trouble getting a correct diagnosis for some eye conditions, especially diseases like Stargardt’s, which even specialists see only rarely. And getting a diagnosis only gave Cutler some comfort and a little knowledge: “There’s nothing you can do except magnify. There’s no surgical treatment, and no medical treatment.”

At the time, she didn’t think of going to the CNIB, and no one suggested she should. “I wasn’t blind,” she says.

Even today, people assume the CNIB’s only for people who are totally blind, says national communications manager Elizabeth Duncan, though the institute’s been offering services to people with low-vision since the ’80s. There have been talks about changing the name to reflect their broader client base, but it’s tough to change an icon, especially after 80 years. The trouble is, Duncan admits, “a lot of people don’t realize they’re entitled to our services, and that we can help, that there’s more that can be done. We have to work to get that message out.”

Cutler got her first visual aid – an awkward, hand-held magnifier that cast shadows – from a low-vision clinic. Since then, she says, there’s been a virtual revolution in vision-enhancing devices, “from good magnifiers to closed-circuit television to frame-mounted devices.” She uses an assortment: “I don’t leave home without half a dozen different sized magnifiers for different tasks. I need one degree of magnification for writing cheques or filling out a form, and more magnification for reading newspaper print.”

There are a host of technical aids and devices available through the CNIB; magnifiers are just the beginning. There are talking watches and alarm clocks (as well as traditional Braille or tactile units), priced from as little as $7. There are chatty calculators, verbose microwaves and talking clock/timers and indoor thermometers.

There are all kinds of things that’d be handy in just about anyone’s house – particularly the kitchen – like the oven mitts with the extra-long wrists and cutting machines that make food slicing a snap. In fact, it’s hard to think of a cooking utensil that doesn’t come in a low-vision-friendly design.

For the young-at-heart, there’s no end of games, in either talking or tactile versions, such as chess (in the tactile version, the dark squares are raised and the pawns and pieces are pegged), Ludo, Chinese checkers, Parcheesi, Scrabble, solitaire and so on. There are low-vision, high-contrast playing cards (as well as Braille sets) – there are even beeping pucks and baseballs for the athletically inclined (and a full selection of canes, white and otherwise, for those with more modest athletic ambitions).

Moving into the technology department, you’ll find the magnifiers and glasses and several examples of full-spectrum lighting. “That’s what I use,” says David Dennis, manager of the Visions Unlimited shop at CNIB headquarters in Toronto, who has only partial sight. “It recreates the same type of light as outside, so you don’t have the glare you do with other kinds of lights.”

You can also choose from a variety of telephones with lights and beepers and oversized numbers; specially modified two- and four-track tape recorders for a variety of audio applications; and a range of print scanners and computers with adapted technology. To be sure, some of the technology’s expensive; fortunately, some people are eligible for financial assistance through provincial funding mechanisms, such as Ontario’s Assistive Devices Progam, that pick up some of the cost.

The CNIB can help you put things together, says Linda Studholme, national director of rehabilitation technology. A client who wants to modify a computer system to make their life easier would have an assessment to determine their level of vision and what they need. “Do they want to go to a large-print screen or add voice recognition? What are the bits and pieces that are going to make a difference to you?” Studholme asks. “It’s always tailor-made to the individual.”

“We’re seeing people over 80 who are anxious to use a computer and continue in the learning process. And there are lots of people in their 60s and 70s who are continuing to work, whether they’re private consultants or writing a book or continuing to do something they did before, and they’re very progressive. They want all of the most modern equipment they can find.”

Low-vision adaptations don’t end with devices: The entire environment can become low-vision-friendly when planners and designers – and society as a whole – put a little thought into it. In her 1985 book, American Architecture Now II, Barbara Diamonstein asked American architect Stanley Tigerman about the “odd” use of bright colours in his design for the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind in Chicago.

“It may look like an ironic building,” he responded, “but it’s really a very straight building. The colour is there because less than five per cent of people who are legally blind are totally blind. Ninety-five per cent of them have some kind of vision. The last thing people who are partially blind see before they go totally blind is bright colours bathed in light, so I used colour to code the building: Yellow indicates structure, blue software, and red the perimeter of the building. When people see red, they will know that it’s the edge of the building, outside or inside. Colour can be coded and used as a device for communication, as opposed to simply using it to make a building pretty.”

There are changes being made in the built environment – things like audible elevators and street signals; textured, high-contrast strips on stairs and subway platforms; and tactile and Braille signage in public (and even some private) buildings. All are in recognition that low-vision is a growing phenomenon.

Vision loss doesn’t pick and choose. It crosses all ages and socio-economic groups. “There are more and more people taking different roles in society,” says Studholme, “and the fact that they’re blind is not extraordinary. It’s just a fact. We don’t think anything about blind lawyers working in the field anymore. Our experience is that, other than flying or driving, more and more blind and low-vision people are out there, working, living their lives. It’s just another part of their characteristic that they’re blind.”