A tech fair held Dec. 5 at the Earle Baum Center in Santa Rosa showed off devices useful for people who have visual impairment or blindness. Technology on display included phones with giant numbers, digital magnifiers, color sensors and optical-character recognition.
Dan Needham, the center’s CEO and president for about a year, embraces technology. He worked as an electrical engineer for many years at Hewlett-Packard and Agilent until 2001, and was involved in a couple of semiconductor-based startups. At the fair, Needham roamed the room, taking pictures of vendors and attendees with his smartphone. He expected about 125 people to visit the fair Monday.
Optical-character-recognition software is one tool useful for many folks with visual impairment. The system scans printed pages and converts them to text files, which can be turned into audio for people unable to read the original pages. Such software has improved significantly from OCR versions available many years ago, with far fewer errors.
Digital magnifiers can present text on a screen with letters up to 36 times their original size —the size of street signs.
California Phones provides free phone technology for people with visual impairment. One of the phones can be managed remotely entirely by voice.
Earle Baum Center, which has a budget of about $1.2 million, runs a school to teach people with visual impairment how to adjust. “If you have lost vision, how do you do all the stuff in your house if you can’t see,” Needham said. “We teach cooking, cleaning, independent living skills, how to manage finances. How do you make sure your clothes match?”
Sterling Adaptives, a Santa Rosa-based company with a booth at the fair, sells a device that can be placed next to an article of clothing. The device reads the color of a shirt or pants and announces it for the user. Then he or she can pick other clothes to create a matched outfit.
Denise Vancil, a vision rehabilitation therapist at the center, teaches such skills. Though Vancil is blind, “she is the best dressed one here,” Needham said. Vancil lives with her husband, also blind, and they raise two children together.
For visually impaired people, technology can bring tremendous assistance. “How do you access the Internet, find stuff on the Web,” Needham said, along with running appliances. “How do you use technology to overcome vision loss? How do you safely travel and not fall,” including street crossings. “This place isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about helping people with vision loss. Complete blindness is a vast minority. Most people have some sight.”
The center is located at the Earle Baum farm on 17 acres in west Santa Rosa. Baum, a farmer, went blind as a teenager. He died in 1986 at age 90. “He wanted to be a journalist,” Needham said. “In the early 1900s, there wasn’t a way to be a blind journalist. There is now. He farmed, blind, into his eighties. He tended crops, livestock, chickens, cows, orchards with apples and pears.”
Baum did all this without a guide dog. “They can be really useful,” Needham said of dogs, but many blind people can attain similar functioning with a cane.