Aided by technology

A retired English teacher, Betty Neff loves books too much to let declining vision interfere with her reading.

It was her book club friends who told her about the vision services of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in the North Dakota Department of Human Services. The Vocational Rehabilitation office in Minot provides a variety of magnifying and glare reduction tools along with other assistive devices designed to help clients aged 55 and older remain independent in their homes and communities.

“I am amazed at what’s available to help people, and I am so thankful for it,” Neff said.

Neff was diagnosed with auto-immune retinopathy, a rare disorder that affects the optic rods and cones that detect light and color. Often, what she sees is similar to an old photograph that’s become light-damaged and faded over time, she said.

“Magnification helps quite a bit,” she said.

Some of the tools that Vocational Rehabilitation has provided her with include a pocket magnifier that is convenient to carry with her to read price tags or labels when shopping. She also has a larger hand-held, triple magnification device for more general uses at home, and a closed circuit TV with a magnifier enlarges images multiple times to assist with reading or examining other documents.

A newer device is a digital magnifier that has the capability of taking and storing up to 20 photos, magnifying images up to 12 times and changing background color. Contrast makes a big difference for her so having the ability to adjust background is important, Neff said.

Neff also enjoys reading on her Nook because of the ability to adjust background and type size.

“This makes it possible for me to read,” she said. “All of these things are life savers to me.”

Technology has advanced the ways that people with limited sight now can view the world, according to Michele Burney, vision rehabilitation specialist with Vocational Rehabilitation in Minot.

She said the options for audio and for linking devices such as cell phones and tablets have benefits for people with low vision. Burney trains clients to use image-enhancing and audio features of today’s technology and counsels them on the devices available and the most helpful applications that can be downloaded sometimes for free.

Her office also provides a variety of free assistive devices to clients older than 55. Devices such as talking clocks and watches and different types of magnifiers improve daily life for people with low vision.

Neff appreciates her large-key, high-contrast keyboard, but there’s also an audio typing program for those for whom the keyboard might not be enough.

“There’s just so much technology out there that people aren’t aware of,” Burney said. “So many people don’t realize these services are available.”

Burney evaluates each of her clients to determine which of the technologies and devices would be most useful for their specific needs.

“We can’t correct their vision loss, but we can help,” Burney said.

Vocational Rehabilitation works with other organizations that also provide vision services. Some clients may receive referrals to the Lions Clubs, which have closed circuit TVs that rent for $20 a month.

Burney can assist her vision clients who may need assistive technology to help with certain other concerns, such as arthritis. She also refers to other agencies that have additional services and devices, such as the North Dakota Interagency Program for Assistive Technology (IPAT).

People with low vision who are younger than 55 can contact Vocational Rehabilitation for job assistance or referral to other programs that can provide vision services and devices.

Vocational Rehabilitation is located in the Town & Country Center at 1015 S. Broadway, Suite 21A. Burney can be reached at 857-8640.