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Using technology at home

A man pouring a drink using a liquid level indicator.

A man pouring a drink using a liquid level indicator

From turning your lights on to making the perfect cuppa, there are lots of ways technology can make life at home easier and more accessible.

“During the Covid-19 outbreak, I count my blessings that technology allowed me to keep connected with family and friends, and keep abreast of the news.”

Padma, volunteer RNIB Campaign Co-ordinator.

You’re not alone if you find the prospect of learning how to use technology daunting – many people feel the same way, even when they don’t have sight loss. But don’t let getting to grips with technology put you off: the rewards can be life-changing, and there is plenty of help and information out there.

How can I use technology at home?

Technology can help you be independent at home and live your life the way you want to. There is wide range of technology designed to improve everyday life, and you may be surprised at how accessible it can be. There are also devices designed specifically with blind and partially sighted people in mind. You can use technology at home to:

  • Connect with your family and friends.
  • Enjoy hobbies and entertainment.
  • Read books, newspapers and other documents.
  • Access information.

This page introduces some of the ways you can use technology at home.

Smart home technology

You may have heard some home technology referred to as ‘smart’.

Smart home technology enables you to access and control home appliances remotely using just your voice or through an app on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. It can make everyday activities easier and faster.

You can use smart technology to:

  • Control your home lighting
  • Control your heating
  • Use kitchen appliances
  • Access information online
  • Send messages and make calls
  • Access TV, radio, and entertainment.

Smart technology connects to your wireless home internet (Wi-Fi). Smart devices can also connect to each other.

There are many types of smart home technology, including:

Smart speakers

A smart speaker is a stand-alone speaker with a digital assistant. You control it with your voice. Smart speakers are normally quite small and have just a few tactile buttons (such as the power button).

You can ask a smart speaker to carry out a wide range of requests completely hands-free, including:

  • Setting a timer or alarm.
  • Reading out and remembering a shopping list.
  • Searching the internet for information.
  • Listening to talking books. If you have an Alexa-enabled device, just say ‘Alexa, open RNIB Talking Books’ for instant access to our free library of over 40,000 audio books.
  • Listening to music.
  • Making phone calls or sending messages.

For example, you can ask ‘What’s the weather like today?’ to hear the weather forecast. You can also ask a smart speaker to send texts or make calls without having to use your phone, for example ‘Text dad Happy Birthday!’ or ‘Call dad’s home number’. You can also use a smart speaker to control other smart technology in your home, such as smart lighting.

Popular smart speakers include the Google Nest and Amazon Echo.

Good to know: smart speakers require an internet connection to work. To set up your smart speaker, you will need an email address and an app on your smartphone or tablet. It’s easy to get an email address for free, and there are a range of options available including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

Smart lightbulbs

Smart lightbulbs offer a convenient way to control and personalise your home lighting. They connect to your home internet and are controlled remotely using your smart speaker, smartphone, or tablet. This means you don’t need to get up to turn the light on or off at the wall. Many smart lightbulbs offer more advanced features than a standard bulb such as different colour options and dimming, so you can further personalise your home lighting.

Smart doorbells

Smart doorbells are usually wi-fi connected and linked to your smart phone, tablet or smart home device. Depending on which doorbell you chose functions can include motion detection, the ability to speak to your visitor from wherever you are and in some cases the ability to remotely unlock your door. Check the specifications before you buy to make sure it’s compatible with your smart home device or smartphone.

Smart heating

Once connected to a smart phone, tablet or smart home device smart thermostats enable you to control your heating or air conditioning from anywhere in your home as well as when you are out and about. Depending on how you use your smart thermostat you may be able to save money on your heating bills. Some versions allow you to set different heat levels in different rooms, set holiday modes and provide information on your heating patterns. Smart thermostats should not be confused with smart meters which monitor your energy usage and provide cost information. To find out more about these please visit our page on accessible smart meters.

Using your television

From catching up on your favourite soaps to diving into the latest documentaries, sight loss is no barrier to enjoying television programmes and films.

Audio description (AD) makes it easier to enjoy television. It’s a commentary that describes what is happening on screen and makes the programme clear using sound. AD describes things like body language, facial expressions, and movements.

AD is available on all broadcast television, including Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, Freesat and YouView. All broadcasters must provide AD for at least 10 per cent of their content. Major broadcasters, such as the BBC and Sky, provide AD for up to 20 per cent of their content.

We spoke to blind and partially sighted people about why AD is so important to them – watch our film now:

How do I turn on audio description on my TV?

The method for turning audio description on and off is different for different TVs, but if there is an audio description button on the remote, then it should be labelled AD. Once enabled, AD will be on by default until you switch it off.

In the kitchen

There are a lots of ways technology can make cooking easier if you have sight loss. This includes:

  • Talking kitchen appliances.
  • Using a smart speaker to set cooking timers.
  • Talking cooking and recipe books.
  • Ordering your groceries with online shopping.

When you can’t see as well as you used to, cooking can feel overwhelming and frustrating. Many kitchen appliances aren’t designed with partially sighted people in mind – but don’t be put off! Making a few changes in your kitchen can make a big difference, and there’s a wide range of accessible kitchen equipment available.

Dolly is a keen cook and has sight loss. She said: “Technology has made a huge difference to my everyday life. A lot of my technology is kitchen based. The first thing I had was a talking scale, which my daughter bought me and that was the best present ever.”

Talking kitchen appliances 

Talking kitchen appliances speak information out loud and announce which options you have selected, such as the cooking time and power. They include talking kitchen scales, microwaves, measuring jugs and thermometers. Find out more about talking kitchen appliances in our home cooking guide.

Liquid level indicator 

A liquid level indicator is a small electronic device designed to help you make the perfect cup of tea or coffee every time and pour hot liquids safely.

It clips onto the rim on your glass, mug, or cup and lets you know when the liquid is near the top, so you know when to stop pouring. There are two versions of indicator, one makes a beeping noise and the other beeps and vibrates.

Talking cooking books

Feel inspired and confident in the kitchen with our free library of talking cookbooks. RNIB Talking Books has a wide range of talking recipe books, available completely free. All you need to do is register for access.

Reading and magnification

If you have some useful vision and need help to carry on reading printed materials or to do certain tasks, a magnifier might be useful.

Magnifiers come in all shapes and sizes. This guide introduces a range of the most common options. Before you choose a magnifier, it’s a good idea to have a low vision assessment so you know you’re choosing a product that’s right for you.

Traditional magnifier

Traditional magnifiers use shaped glass to make images and printed text bigger. They include:

  • Handheld magnifiers, which are lightweight and portable. They are ideal for spot-reading things like labels, food packaging and menus.
  • Stand magnifiers, which are larger than handheld magnifiers and designed to be used on a flat surface. A stand magnifier can be particularly helpful if you find it difficult to hold your magnifier the right distance from the page. They are ideal for longer reading sessions, such as reading magazines, books or other documents.

Reg tells us how he uses his portable magnifier.

Video magnifiers

A video magnifier, sometimes called an electronic magnifier, uses a camera and a screen to make images and printed text easier to see. In addition to magnification, they offer more advanced features than a traditional magnifier – such as changing the colours, contrast and zoom. You may find this helpful if, for example, you prefer to read text on a different colour background.

They include:

  • Handheld video magnifiers, which are small, lightweight, and fit into your bag or pocket. Just like the traditional handheld magnifiers, they’re perfect for spot-reading small amounts of text either at home or whilst you’re out and about. They offer many of the benefits of a video magnifier in a small package!
  • Portable video magnifiers, which are larger than handheld video magnifiers and ideal for viewing large amounts of text such as newspapers, books, and crossword puzzles. Some models offer built-in text to speech, which can be useful for longer periods of reading and help prevent eye strain.

Desktop magnifiers

A desktop magnifier is a larger, more specialised type of magnifier designed to stay in one place. They are more expensive than video or traditional magnifiers and offer a wide range of more advanced features. Desktop magnifiers are typically used for working and in offices.