Tackling visual disability with technology

Technology is used in a myriad of applications today to improve the overall quality of our lives. But have you thought for a moment about people with any kind of visual disability? Does technology impact them at all, and if so, how?

Let’s step back in time to the life of the famous Helen Keller. She was born a healthy child in 1880, but by 19 months old became blind and deaf. When Anne Mansfield Sullivan became her teacher in 1886, life changed completely for her. Sullivan taught her to read and write, and even helped her to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1904, making her the first ever deaf-blind person to get a college degree. Much of Keller’s success can be attributed to the efforts of Sullivan, who used to read everything, and then sign them into her pupil’s hand.

Let’s contrast this with the life of Lex Arriola, a 15-year old girl who was born blind. Like most 15-year-old girls today, she keeps in touch with her friends through her smartphone. Anything that she wants to read is translated by the speech software Siri, and she’s able to learn, read, and communicate through it.

What’s the difference between Helen Keller’s life and that of Lex Arriola? The obvious answer is independence. Keller needed someone to read everything and sign it into her hands, whereas Arriola uses a smartphone to learn anything she wants. This independence is possible due to advancements made in technology.

In fact, the emergence of technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, bio-electronics, 3D viewing, and more are helping many people world over to have an independent and empowered life, despite their disabilities.

Here are some technologies and products that are revolutionizing the quality of life for people with visual disabilities.


One of the biggest problems blind people have is navigation. When they walk on a road, they’re never sure what’s coming ahead of them. This uncertainty and fear restricts their ability to move around, and many are largely confined to a life within their home. All this can change with NavCog — an open platform built by IBM and Carnegie Mellon University. This app takes inputs from sensors, and uses cognitive technology to inform blind people about their surroundings. It works by analyzing signals from Bluetooth beacons and smartphone sensors to give a real-time view of the surroundings.

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Any information about the environment is whispered into their ears through earbuds, so they know what to expect around them. In many ways, it helps them to “see” their surroundings, so they can be more aware of all that’s happening around them. More importantly, it helps them to move around without human assistance.

This app was tested at the Carnegie Mellon campus, and was seen as an efficient way to help people navigate. However, it requires heavy investment in infrastructure, especially in sensors, if it is to be scaled for public roads.

RNIB Smart glasses

Another product that is aimed at improving the ability of visually challenged people to navigate the world is RNIB smart glass. These glasses are the brainchild of Dr. Stephen Hicks from Oxford University, and are ideal for people with partial or limited vision. It comes with night vision, a transparent display, and two 3D cameras at the front of the glasses to mimic the function of eyes. These cameras help to determine distance, and help people to visualize the structures of nearby objects, while the transparent display suits different eye conditions. In many ways, these glasses give the wearer a sketch of the world, so they can better interpret their immediate surroundings.

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During trials, more than 200 people in the UK tried these glasses. The feedback has been astounding as they’ve reported seeing faces, expressions, and objects much better than before.


Developed by Birmingham City University students Waheed Rafiq, Steve Adigbo, and Richard Howlett, XploR is a “smart-cane” that can help visually challenged people be more confident in social gatherings and networking events. This cane has facial-recognition software that works in tandem with a camera located just below the handle. The 270-degree lens of the camera captures as much of the user’s environment as possible, while the software built into the cane captures images drawn from services like Gmail and Outlook. When the facial-recognition software matches the captured image with a photo in the database, the associated name will be fed to the Bluetooth ear piece, so the user knows who’s standing nearby.

With this product, blind people can gain the confidence to attend any social event, as they can know who is attending the event, and to whom they are talking.

Braille eBook

Braille literacy has been on the decline since the 1960s due to a host of factors, such as shortage of teachers, misconceptions about the Braille system, and poor support from schools. This is why 90 percent of blind people cannot read and write in the United States. To reverse this trend and to encourage more blind people to read and improve their knowledge, a Braille eBook reader has been developed under a project called Anagraphs. This device uses thermo-hydraulic micro-actuation to activate dots in the Braille system in real-time. Unfortunately, this project is waiting for more funding from the EU, but if does materialize, it can take reading to new levels for the visually challenged.

Bright-F Color Sensor

Colors are an integral part of our life, and we use them for everything ranging from picking outfits to appreciating art. To bring this ubiquitous aspect to the visually challenged, Yanko Design has come up with a product called Bright-F Color Sensor. A handheld device that looks like a torch, Bright-F makes different sounds for different colors, so users can identify colors easily. It even detects brightness, hue, and saturation of colors, and they can be organized into different groups with similar tones. There’s even an option to turn up the volume when users want to hear the color in a crowded environment.

Bright-F Color Sensor by Yanko Design
Bright-F Color Sensor by Yanko Design

These products are truly revolutionizing life for the visually challenged, and are helping them to perform “normal” activities and live independently.

Though much of these technologies are in the nascent stage, it won’t be long before many become fully developed products that can help to create an inclusive society. Going forward, there is no doubt that these technologies will reduce the gap between disabled and normal people in terms of what they can do. The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people worldwide live with some form of visual disability, and the average rate of poverty among them is almost twice that of the general population because many are unable to find work. With these tools, they can not only live a better life, but they can also  improve their financial status, and through it, lift the economy as a whole. Considering the advancements already made from the bleak days when Helen Keller was born more than 135 years ago, the future looks bright.

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