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