Sterling Adaptives

62 Brookwood Ave., Ste. A, Santa Rosa, CA 95404



About 10 years ago, Mark and Lesley Gibbons started Sterling Adaptives, a Santa Rosa-based company that sells technology to help blind and visually impaired people, as well as those with other physical or learning challenges.

Mark Gibbons said he started in the visual-disability field in about 1979.

“My father started a business in the U.K. where he manufactured video magnifiers for people who have vision loss,” he said. “We were the first British manufacturer of these types of equipment. He was interested in stuff that helped people,” and made it cheaper than an American manufacturer did at the time.

His parents, David and Julia Gibbons, in 1978 started AlphaMed, which became AlphaVision.

Back then “cameras were big and bulky,” Mark Gibbons said. “Most of the lenses didn’t have automatic focus. They didn’t have great zooms. You had to move the camera up and down as well as focus it. Since then everything has gotten smaller and more functional.”

Mark and Lesley Gibbons met in 1991 in the U.K.

“The biggest leap in technology from the user’s perspective,” Lesley Gibbons said, “is universal design. People don’t need the specialized technology that we carry.”

Someone who is blind can listen to text. But they may need an alternative. “Some people don’t learn well by listening,” she said. “Braille is critical. Braille will never go away.”

Braille allows blind children to learn how to spell properly letter by letter, especially for homonyms — words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings, like “loan” and “lone.”

Only 30 percent of legally blind individuals are employed, she said. Of those employed, 90 percent are Braille-literate.

“Once they’re employed, they become a part of society,” she said.

“People who use Braille are much more successful,” Gibbons said. “Their accuracy can be at a much higher level.”

He demonstrates a $2,300 VarioUltra device, an electronic Braille display with a row of 20 cells that change at a rate controlled by the user. “This can be paired to an i-device,” he said, “so the VoiceOver not only speaks, but also sends Braille information here. Emails can be read with such technology. A skilled Braille reader can read at the same rate as a sighted person.

Most such devices are purchased through the California Department of Rehabilitation using 70 percent federal funds and 30 percent from the state. The department helps disabled people get back to employment. “Technology is the one thing that helps them be level with their peers,” Lesley Gibbons said.

Christopher Downey, an architect in San Francisco, had a brain surgery in 2008 unrelated to vision and emerged from the surgery completely blind, she said. They worked with the architect to get quickly back to work. Highly motivated with two children to support, he learned Braille in a few months. He uses raised-tactile diagrams that allow him to interact with architectural diagrams.

“Paper goes through the printer and raises a line so he can feel the lines on the drawing,” she said. He now specializes in disability access to buildings.

For people who are blind or visually impaired, built-in access to eye devices using voice commands is the biggest technology development, Mark Gibbons said. “For our clients, that has expanded their ability. They can buy a phone and do the same things on that phone (using VoiceOver app) that they would previously have” through buying “equipment that would be outdated in three to four years and cost $5,000. They’re able to work with mainstream technology.”

Sterling Adaptives

62 Brookwood Ave., Ste. A, Santa Rosa, CA 95404



Apple’s iPhone has accessibility built-in, he said, and a screen reader built in. Go to Settings > General > Accessibility to enable VoiceOver, Zoom and other features. To turn on VoiceOver, triple-click the home button. To turn on Zoom, use three fingers and double-tap the screen. To increase zoom, use three fingers to double-tap and hold, then move fingers up or down on screen to change magnification.

Apps can also control Braille devices that connect to phones or computers, he said.

“Visually impaired people are only held back by themselves,” Mark Gibbons said. “People who are seriously successful have a different mindset. They realize they have to work 20 percent harder than their peers.”

“Parents don’t mollycoddle them,” Lesley Gibbons said of visually impaired children who do well in school and career training.

“K-12 schools mollycoddle students with learning disabilities,” he said, sometimes allowing an aide to do schoolwork instead of the students. “Once you get to universities, you don’t get mollycoddled any more. Everything we do is about independence for somebody who has a disability — to be able to live their lives the way they want to, be as successful as anybody else.”

People who are legally blind often still have some vision, she said. A large percentage of the company’s sales are video magnifiers, which come in portable and desktop models. Magnification can go up to 50x on the devices, but about 30x is all that can be managed in practical terms, especially on small portable screens. LED monitors allow the devices to be more compact.

Text-to-speech devices can produce audio in about 10 seconds.

Internet access is critical for blind or visually impaired people. Nearly “all jobs require a computer,” Lesley Gibbons said. Software can provide magnification with speech or speech alone.

In 1998 Mark and Lesley Gibbons began running the main operations of the family company until they moved to the U.S. in 2001.

Over the last decade, Sterling Adaptives, which has three employees in addition to the two owners, has expanded into the market for seniors, an entirely different market than that for blind or visually impaired people.

“It is individuals looking to remain independent at home,” Lesley Gibbons said.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257