The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


Recommended Nonvisual Access Products for Blind Seniors

by the Staff of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind

From the Editor: Anyone who staffs a state or local National Federation of the Blind phone deals almost daily with calls from seniors losing vision or members of their families. They need help, advice, and support. In so many words they are asking for tools or techniques to allow the blind person to see again. It requires patience and tact to guide them to the admission that, because as they know very well their vision is not going to return, they really need to learn nonvisual ways of doing the tasks that they have always used vision to accomplish.

This message is far from welcome, but it eventually makes sense to most people. Teaching a newly blind person or a friend how to dial a phone without looking takes only a few minutes. Describing methods of marking appliances tactilely is simple. Providing contact numbers for the NLS Talking Book program and NFB-NEWSLINE® opens the door to returning literacy and intellectual stimulation.

But what about the technology? What is available? What does it do? Where can people learn more about it? The access technology staff at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind of the NFB Jernigan Institute has now compiled some valuable information about low-tech and high-tech equipment of interest to many seniors. This is what they say:

As the huge baby boomer generation ages into senior citizens, it is inevitable that more senior citizens will encounter some form of vision loss. The National Federation of the Blind has discovered that, with proper training and a positive attitude, blindness can be reduced to a mere inconvenience. However, good training can be hard to come by, especially for a senior who has recently become blind. On the one hand we believe that blindness should not be a factor that will prevent anyone from being independent; on the other hand, we realize that newly blind seniors need some time to learn new skills and to adjust to new ways of doing things as vision loss becomes more severe. The staff of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute takes this opportunity to recommend several nonvisual products that many blind seniors find useful, especially those who are new to mastering the skills of blindness.

Steve Booth, IBTC access technology specialist, uses a Note Teller to identify currency.
Steve Booth, IBTC access technology specialist, uses a Note Teller to identify currency.

Please note: This article does not contain product comparisons or product evaluation. For extensive comparison and evaluation, contact the IBTC staff with specific requests. Prices can change quickly, so we have not included prices here, but we have included the manufacturer for each product. However, the first products listed do not have the name of the manufacturer because they are available from the NFB's Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. For detailed information and pricing, please contact the NFB Materials Center by telephone at (410) 659-9314, (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time), or email your question to <[email protected]>; or read the NFB Aids and Appliances Catalog on the Internet at <> (under "Aids and Appliances").

Health Matters

The daily task of taking care of our health is probably the most important task that puzzles many newly blind seniors. By use of proper technology the level of frustration associated with this task can be dramatically reduced. Here are some of the medical products we recommend:
Digital Talking Thermometer. This clinical thermometer provides an audible output of the temperature as well as a visual display. You can retrieve the value of the last temperature measurement from the memory.

Digital Probe Covers. These thin, disposable covers are for use with the digital talking thermometer. 100 per package.

Lo-dose Count-A-Dose´┐Ż1/2 cc. This device assists diabetics to fill syringes with insulin. Holds one or two bottles of U-100 insulin (any brand), uses low-dose (1/2 cc) disposable insulin syringes, fills in one-unit increments, and makes a distinctive click that can be heard and felt with each increment. The device is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand.

Talking Rx Prescription Reader. This is a single self-contained base unit on which a doctor, a pharmacist, or a caregiver records the patient's prescription instructions. At home the patient pushes the red button on the base and listens to the recording. The base fits a 12-, 13-, 16-, or 20-gram size prescription vial. A separate unit is needed for each prescription.


Our home is our sanctuary. Regrettably, newly blind seniors often must struggle to maintain their independence. Many of the mundane tasks they are accustomed to doing have become more difficult. To assist newly blind seniors in maintaining their independence, we recommend the following houseware products:

Mike Tindell, IBTC access technology specialist, measures a microwave with a talking tape measure.
Mike Tindell, IBTC access technology specialist, measures a microwave with a talking tape measure.

Bump-Ons. These clear, circular bumps with self-adhesive backing come in three sizes and can be used to mark appliances, telephones, televisions, and much more.

Large-Width .44 x height .20 inches with 28 bumps to a sheet.
Medium-Width .375 x height .150 inches with 24 bumps to a sheet.
Small-Width .312 x height .085 inches with 36 bumps to a sheet.

Steak Weight. This heavy, cast aluminum flat plate with a waffle design is used to brown meats on both sides simultaneously. 1/4 x 4-1/2 x 8-3/4 inches.

Talking Digital All-Purpose Thermometer. The all-purpose thermometer can be used for cooking, bathwater, gardening, and hobbies. The accuracy of this item is +/-1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the range of -4 to +248 degrees Fahrenheit. The probe measures 5 inches by 1 1/2 inches wide, features a LCD screen, has a retention loop for hanging; and a rocker button that, when pressed to the left, will turn the thermometer on, when pressed to the right, will announce the temperature, and, when pressed left again, will turn the device off. Uses one 3v cr2032 disk battery (included).

EZ Fill Liquid Level Indicator. This small device buzzes when any liquid is one inch from the lip of your container. Measures 2 1/2 x 1/4 inches and has two prongs which fit inside your coffee cup or other container. Uses three 1.5V LR44 disk 9-volt batteries (included).

Audio Dialer. This device is connected to your telephone. A user can load up to fifty names into the memory. It requires two easy steps to program your frequently used phone numbers. After that in three easy steps you have made your telephone call.

Indoor/Outdoor Talking Thermometer. This device has two digital displays and will speak both temperatures at the touch of a button. It has an alarm and hourly report feature. The outdoor temperature is taken from a probe attached to a long wire that must be placed outside a window or door. Uses two AAA batteries (included), and measures 5 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches.

Note Teller. Measuring 6 1/4 x 3 x 1 1/4 inches and weighing 7.1 ounces, this banknote reader identifies U. S. currency, from $1 to $100 denominations, including the new bills. It speaks English or Spanish, has a three-level volume control switch, and has a stereo plug-in jack for personal listening.

This is the end of the selection of appliances sold by the NFB Materials Center. The accessible equipment that follows is sold by other vendors as noted.

Talking Microwave. Manufactured by Independent Living Aids, it is specially modified with a clear male voice to talk you through all the operating functions. It has a built-in turntable for heating evenly and features a speaking countdown timer that can be used independently from the microwave function to provide accurate timing for any purpose.

CC Radio. Manufactured by C. Crane Company, Inc., it is specifically designed for talk radio, news, sports, and weather. Its control buttons are fully accessible by blind users, and both print and cassette owner's manuals are provided. With the built-in weather band you can listen to the NOAA weather station for current local conditions. A special weather alert feature sounds an alarm to notify you of weather emergency updates. This feature even works while you are listening to AM or FM. This alarm will even sound at night to wake you up if there is an alert. In fact you can select three weather alert functions: flashing light and no alarm, NOAA audio, or flashing light and siren. This radio operates with the supplied AC cord or may be operated for up to 250 hours on four D cells (not supplied). A carry handle lip is built into the rear panel. All of the radio's functions are available by logically positioned controls and buttons.

KELVIN Talking Thermostat. Manufactured by Action Talking Products, it can be activated by voice, manually, or by clapping hands. You can set time, date, and program temperature schedules for different times of the day or week.

The VIP Talking Thermostat. Manufactured by Talking Thermostats, it is a digital thermostat with audio playback that uses human recorded speech. Features include voicing of time, indoor temperature, temperature setting, and programming instructions so blind and visually impaired users can precisely and easily manage their indoor comfort.

Accessing Text Information

Anne Taylor, IBTC director of access technology, scans a Kernel Book to read using the Kurzweil 1000.
Anne Taylor, IBTC director of access technology, scans a Kernel Book to read using the Kurzweil 1000.

Every day we are bombarded with printed material. For a newly blind senior, not being able to read is a major challenge. Technology exists to scan a print page and read it back to you. To do this, you need to use optical character recognition (OCR) technology. The machine must recognize a document in order to read it correctly. This means the software that runs the machine must be told whether there are columns, headings, or other print features. Most printed and typed items are easy to understand. You can scan incoming mail and often determine what it is from the return address or the first page of the item. If you have some vision, scanning will be easier because you can determine where items begin and end. Handwriting and items such as bills may not read clearly. You can improve your chance of success by having someone explain the print layout of such items.

Once you become familiar with the layout of documents you regularly read, lots of enjoyment and information from the world of print are available to you. Don't get discouraged. You do not have to learn every feature of a program to obtain the results you want.

For newly blind seniors who want to take advantage of advanced computer technology designed for ease of use, here are the latest high-performance, print-reading hardware and software possibilities:

NFB-NEWSLINE® is the only electronic news service that provides on-demand access to over 200 newspapers plus three magazines seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day to people eligible for service from the National Library Service for the Blind. The only tool needed is a telephone. Eligible registered users residing in sponsored states may access the service using any Touch-Tone telephone from anywhere in the United States free of charge. Those residing in unsponsored states may not. For further information contact the local National Federation of the Blind affiliate or local regional library for the blind.

OpenBook, distributed by Freedom Scientific, is designed to give a blind user the ability to scan documents, newspapers, books, and magazines. After the page is scanned, the program translates the image into a file that the machine can read aloud upon command. The program comes with several voices, some very human-sounding. This is helpful if you are not used to listening to a computer with speech. The text on the screen can be magnified to help low-vision users read the text. The numerical keypad on the PC can be used to perform many functions within the program, such as scan a page, read a page, erase a page, adjust voice rate, and adjust the volume. After a document is scanned, the document can be saved in several file types: Word, text, and even MP3. If the file is saved as an MP3, it can be transferred to an MP3 player to listen to on the go. Please be advised that you must purchase a separate scanner to use with this optical character recognition application.

SARA (Scanning and Reading Appliance), distributed by Freedom Scientific, is a stand-alone unit that allows a user to scan and read print text, whether in English or one of several foreign languages. SARA will read aloud in the language written on the document. It will also play DAISY-formatted books on CDs.

The SARA has a key describer mode that allows the user to press all the buttons to learn their functions. Four buttons along the front of the unit can be set to perform functions defined by the user. You can set the buttons to do such things as delete page, read column, or ignore column, jump from top to bottom of file, jump from bottom to top of file. With the press of the scan button, the SARA will scan a document and process the scan. After scanning the first page, you can continue to scan more pages or begin to read the text.

You can also choose to scan pages while reading other pages. Rocker buttons on the front of the unit allow the user to adjust voice rate and volume. There is no QWERTY keyboard on the unit; therefore you can't type on it. When saving a file, you can record the name of the file. This file name will be spoken in your voice when you open a file. The SARA has an onboard CD reader and writer for saving files to CD.

A television or computer monitor can be plugged in to the SARA, and as the unit reads text, it will also highlight and magnify the text for users with low vision. When listening to the unit read, you have several voices to choose from.

Kurzweil 1000, distributed by Kurzweil Educational Systems, contains many features to assist users when scanning and creating documents. If you are new to the world of scanning or the use of a computer, Kurzweil 1000 can be set up so it is easy to use. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

When you install the program, a message appears asking if you want Kurzweil 1000 to start automatically each time you start your computer. If you plan to use Kurzweil 1000 on your computer for scanning and reading documents only, answer "yes," and your computer will act like a stand-alone reading machine.

Another feature, which is automatically selected during installation, allows the use of the numeric keypad at the right of standard computer keyboards to enter all Kurzweil commands and to read documents. The seventeen-button keypad is similar to a calculator in appearance. There are keys for scanning and reading documents, saving and retrieving previously scanned items, and changing the speed and pitch of the voice. A help feature identifies each key pressed to aid in learning its function. A handy reference guide that describes how to get started quickly is provided in print and through the computer's file system. No other keys on the computer are needed when the keypad is in use. Kurzweil comes with several voices that may be installed. The voices are humanlike and quite easy to listen to. For those newly blind seniors who are Internet experts, Kurzweil can locate the repository of specific book titles if they are available as electronic books on the World Wide Web. Kurzweil also has a feature called Recognize Currency, which can identify U. S., European, and British banknotes. Kurzweil is not a stand-alone reading machine. You must have a computer and compatible scanner in order to use this optical character recognition software.

Technology Resource List: Prices and Sources

For more comprehensive listings of print-reading hardware and software, consult the "Technology Resource List: Prices and Sources" (online or alternative copy), a publication of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Both print and Braille hard copy can be requested by telephone by calling (410) 659-9314, option 5 for the technology answer line. If you prefer to read it online or download the pamphlet from the Internet at <>, go to the subject heading "Technology," then to the title. Other useful information about accessible technology will be found listed here as well. For the most current pricing contact manufacturers or distributors directly. Remember that this article does not contain product comparisons or evaluations. For more extensive evaluation contact the staff of the IBTC at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with your specific requests.