In 2019, approximately 450,000 people in Germany had vision impairment – and one can safely assume that this number is lower than the real figure. Blindness or visual impairment means a loss or partial loss of the sense of sight. What it doesn't mean is that those who are impacted by this must aim lower or feel inferior. An abundance of vision aids does a fantastic job of replacing the sense of sight in the best way possible. The adaptive equipment for activities of daily living comes in different forms: ranging from technology applications to tactile tools with haptic feedback. But all solutions promote the user's self-determination and pave the path to participation.
Reading is a pleasant pastime – with Braille and relief books, even people with visual impairments can participate.
Modern technology and standard multi-functional devices ensure that people with visual impairments are not stifled when it comes to communication: most of today's smartphones and similar technical devices feature voice dictation. The function allows you to dictate and send messages on your cell phone or have your latest incoming message read out loud though it might not be the right solution for everyone: "Sure, there is voice dictation, but who wants to dictate romantic love messages or business correspondence on the train,?" asks Marcel Rösch, founder of help2type. As a blind person himself, he wanted to be part of fast-paced communication. Along the way, he ended up being annoyed because he constantly missed his train when he had to painstakingly finish dictating his business correspondence.
Yes, to communication but privacy, please
His help2type company makes the product of the same name with a familiar keyboard layout that is connected to the smartphone. It is reminiscent of the original BlackBerry keyboards. In the early 2010s, many cell phones still featured a physical QWERTY keyboard, though they were quickly replaced by smartphones. These "pocked-sized computers" suddenly opened an exciting new world to users. They certainly have countless advantages, but also one major drawback: They don't have a keyboard that provides haptic feedback. People with visual impairment often cannot see the typical smartphone keyboards, which means their only option is to dictate messages – resulting in loss of privacy in the process.
Help2type plans to change that. The keyboard can be connected to the smartphone and is attached to the screen right where the virtual keyboard is located. This does not change the look and size of the smartphone and adapts to its silhouette. Users simply connect it to the smartphone via Bluetooth. The keyboard works with all common Android and iOS devices, as well as Window laptops or tablets.
The external keyboard help2type allows affected persons to communicate via smartphone without having to compromise on privacy.
Marcel Rösch's company is headquartered in Switzerland where the costs for the device are a covered benefit. "Disability insurance in Switzerland covers the cost if the device is used to optimize inclusion for success in daily life or the workplace," Rösch explains and adds that Germany is currently working on setting its first precedents. In the UK, insurance clerks get to decide whether the keyboard is reimbursed. Switzerland's approach of covering assistive technologies that promote inclusion is a notion other countries should perhaps also consider. After all, people with disabilities have enormous potential – both professionally and personally – they often are unable to live up to because they don't have access to the necessary assistive tools.
Inclusion calls for commitment at all levels
Gerd Schwesig, Head of the Coordination Office for Assistive Technology Consultants at the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV) says, "Inclusion must find its way into all important areas of society [...] For example, employers must learn to understand that employing people with disabilities is not a drawback." The DBSV is in continuous communications with policymakers, stakeholders in industry, media, government agencies and civil society actors to improve the life of blind and visually impaired people. Apart from accessibility, this also includes anti-discrimination and entitlement to integration assistance. "[…] We are also involved at the political level and fight against out-of-pocket expenses for visual aids, champion basic rehabilitation after severe vision loss, which must also include instructional support in the use of visual aids, and support highly trained rehabilitation specialists," adds Schwesig.
The DBSV is committed to promoting the rights of people with visual impairment at all levels and on all issues. One issue that had to be addressed repeatedly pertains to the denied access to assistive technology. "Thanks to long-term pressure – especially on the part of the DBSV – the Act to Strengthen the Participation and Self-Determination of Persons with Disabilities in Section 12e of the Disabled Equal Opportunities Act (BGG) was included to ensure people with disabilities and their assistance animal or guide dogs for the blind must no longer be denied access to public places."
Live translation to make life easier
Commitment like the one shown by the DBSV is not only welcomed but also crucial as it helps shift people with disabilities more toward the center of society and promotes their social participation. And it takes the right assistive technology to ensure the success of inclusion. These might be communication tools, but they can also be simple everyday objects. This is where Gaudio Braille comes in: Along with Braille displays for personal and professional use, its product selection also includes screen readers and magnifying glasses for the visually impaired plus color and product recognition devices, scales, clocks, kitchen accessories, accessible maps – and so much more.
Blind or visually impaired people can use screen readers or similar devices to communicate. Meanwhile, conversations become more challenging in the case of deaf-blindness, in which an individual has combined hearing and vision loss, thus limiting access to auditory information, prompting communication using Braille symbols. However, spoken words in a conversation cannot be converted directly into Braille characters. Or can they?
These days, (almost) anything is possible. Enter HaptiBraille, a compact device made by the 4Blind company. "HaptiBraille solves the communication problem – for those who can see and hear, this is spoken language, and for those who cannot see and hear, this is Braille," explains Fedor Belomoev, inventor and CEO of 4Blind. Simply put, language goes in, and Braille comes out – or vice versa. If someone speaks into the device, the deaf-blind person receives direct feedback in the form of Braille characters via small buttons. Communication also works the other way: Users can type in Braille characters using the buttons, and the device converts them into speech format. Incidentally, you don't have to know Braille to operate the device. "We developed and integrated a special training program aimed at helping users to learn Braille. A helper can ask the user to enter specific characters or words in Braille. They can subsequently track the keys the user pressed by viewing them on the screen of a mobile phone”" explains Anastasia Malakhova, COO of 4Blind.
For deaf-blind people, the device can mean a giant step toward more self-determination because it enables them to communicate independently without the need for an interpreter. The system is also promoting inclusion. Malakhova explains: "The device breaks down barriers in communication and helps deaf-blind people to be socially included. It also makes organizations and public institutions more accessible as it enables employees to interact directly with people who have speech, visual and hearing impairments." Ultimately, it also gives those who are affected the chance to participate in educational venues and expand their career potential.
Touching and feeling pictures and stories
It's a great segue as education is just as important as communication to foster self-determination. The German Center for Accessible Reading (Deutsches Zentrum für barrierefreies Lesen, dzb lesen) ensures that blind and visually impaired persons have access to a great variety of books as they are the key to education. The Center offers different types of literature readers can borrow or buy even at a very young age. "We have tactile Braille picture books for blind preschool children. It allows them to explore Braille before they even go to school," explains Ronald Krause, PR officer at dzb lesen. Reading is fun and must be encouraged! To this end, dzb lesen showcases its work and available books at special education schools and provides on-site exploration kits of library materials. The Center also teams up with a large manufacturer that is typically best known for its iconic toys: "The LEGO Foundation has provided LEGO Braille sets that help children learn Braille in a playful way."
Reading educates and promotes creativity – children should also develop the fun of reading with an appropriate offer.
Little kids love picture books because the plot is easy to understand and illustrated in colorful pictures. Can this type of experience also be made accessible for blind and visually impaired children? Yes, it can – with tactile touch books featuring relief illustrations. Simplified textured illustrations are made in relief that the children can touch. How does this work? "A relief image is created when tactile laminations are underlaid with colorful illustrations. Illustrations and images are presented in a tactile format by manually shaping different materials and surfaces or by coating them with print varnish. This method combined with Braille and large print is used to create children's books with relief illustrations, atlases, and calendars," explains Krause. Most of these creations are children's books because they have little text and are easy to simplify.
Centers like dzb lesen depend on their members and sponsors. But Krause emphasizes dzb lesen is not a one-way-street, as the Center is always open for new projects with inclusive ideas. Patrons passionately support the Center's work and always come up with ideas for books that should be created. Krause and the team at dzb lesen are certain that "accessibility benefits everyone! And the same goes for a good book ... "
Assistive technology manufacturers and associations are united in their commitment to expanding self-determination. Marcel Rösch explains what drives him to excel in this area: "I am positive that people with disabilities must find ways to reach their full potential. It is likely that AI will soon perform simple tasks cheaper. But that should not mean that these people can no longer fulfill these roles because there is a lack of relevant assistive technology." Many people get involved every day with new products and ideas and put their heart and soul into making strides toward inclusion and increased participation.
Kyra Molinari (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com