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Low vision aids - a cool route to independence?

In the UK some young people with vision impairment may be reluctant to use equipment that singles them out or prevents them feeling like others.

An iPad might be OK, but is using a magnifier or telescope a recipe for social disaster? Young learners with low vision benefitting from Project PAVE in Tennessee challenge this view.

Access to materials can be provided in different ways. In some areas in the UK where there are good working relationships between Low Vision clinics and VI services provision, the use of low vision aids to access regular print may be part of practice. In other areas, the emphasis may be placed on providing large print learning materials. But Project Pave in the US provides students with sight loss with vision services.

“Project PAVE has helped improve my life. It has given me tools to succeed in school and offered devices to try out in hopes of improving my performance at no cost,” explains Seth.

Maddie said: “I like the dome (magnifier) because I can really see what is on the paper, such as when I look at doll catalogues. I can see pictures, prices and descriptions of the items. The telescope is really great at school because there are times when I need to see things across the room and I don't have to get up and move closer. When I used the telescope to look at houses across the street, I was able to see house numbers, flags, trees and other details I didn't know were there.”

So what is Project PAVE?

Brandi McRedmond explains: “PAVE stands for Providing Access to the Visual Environment. The project is funded by the Tennessee Department of Education. It supplements the vision services provided by the student’s local educational agency. It’s open to students, aged three to twenty-one years old, who meet state guidelines for either low vision (partial sight) or legal blindness.

“A doctor who specializes in low vision carries out a clinical low vision evaluation, recommends optical devices and then students are trained to use them in the setting in which they learn best. This might be at home or at school, depending on where they feel most comfortable and confident.

Along with a principal investigator, the highly skilled staff include a program manager and two educational consultants, who train the students post evaluation. The services include training the student in their preferred educational setting, educating the parent and teachers about the skills needed for using optical devices. We also participate in educational meetings and disseminate information at conferences.

The hand-held optical devices recommended complement mainstream technology such as iPads, and the ability to use and choose between access devices is invaluable for children. While mainstream technology sometimes may not work for example if the battery is dead, hand-held optical devices stay functional. And they fit into handbags and pockets, so are easier to carry and use anywhere. Project PAVE has enhanced services for students with a vision impairment in Tennessee for twenty years and has evaluated over two thousand participants.

What do parents think?

Angela Thompson is very positive about the project. “As a former eye care professional, I see the in-depth support this program provides across the state, giving parents more understanding of their children's needs.”

Bonnie Lawry Heim, a parent, said: “On a regular basis, Brandi McRedmond would work with my daughter, and the tools Project Pave generously distributed. I never felt alone as a parent. I had a team working with me to help my child. As she got older, it was so helpful to have project PAVE speak to my daughter’s teachers as an advocate. Brandi would explain to the teachers her condition and visual educational needs. Project PAVE was my lifeline in raising my child with ocular albinism”.

Ginger McMullen, a parent and teacher of students with visual impairments, said: “My daughter was trained in the use of a hand-held magnifier. These skills benefited her when she added a video magnifier to her “tool box” of assistive technology. She used a hand-held magnifier for reading throughout her education; she continues to use one daily in her job and for independent living and leisure activities.”

Parent Lisa Hanner said: “Lauren was taught that she could do anything she wanted. The Project PAVE staff encouraged her to use every tool and resource available to help her achieve her goals. The instruction she received helped her overcome insecurities and excel. The positive and encouraging Project PAVE support system was amazing. The tools and training were provided in an environment where she felt safe and confident. She learned to evaluate situations, determine her needs, and utilize the resources available to achieve success.”

Low vision aids must appeal to young people in order to boost independence and confidence

Low vision aids have great potential to increase the confidence and independence of young people, but they must be designed with their needs and perspectives in mind, a new report finds. 

The report: 

  • Reveals the thoughts, priorities and preferences of young people with sight loss, garnered through direct interviews 
  • Assesses a number of existing products including consumer digital devices 
  • Highlights the scope for devices to be more accessible and enjoyable to use 
  • Presents ideas for the creation of suitable support for young people and suggests ways to offer non-stigmatising, desirable and functional low vision aids 

Published by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and sight loss organisations Thomas Pocklington Trust, VICTA and VISION 2020 UK, the report Design and Low Vision Aids – a Youth Perspective is brimming with quotes from young people, providing an insight into the aspirations and opinions of those the aids should support: 12 – 18-year-olds who are visually impaired.

From hand-held magnifiers and monoculars to screen readers and smartphones, these devices have the potential to benefit young people in the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives, for reading, navigation, classroom activities and much more. In the words of one young interviewee: Zoe, "Being able to use my LVA (low vision aid) intuitively means I do not have to rely on anyone to help me and this makes me more confident in myself."

One often-neglected truth is that having a visual impairment does not exclude an individual from desiring sleek, attractive products. Echoing the concerns of most others her age, 15-year-old Hannah comments: "To be honest the only question is, “How much is it going to stand out? How noticeable is it?”. While some inclusive products fit the bill, many assistive technological devices are simply ‘not discreet or covert’ enough to be used without some embarrassment. 

In contrast, good design helps boost the confidence of young people and enables them to go about their daily lives with ease, as 16-year-old Owen explains: "In London you can wear your headphones and as you walk past a shop it tells you what shop it is. If that was everywhere, [it] would make it so easy. With earphones people just think you’re listening to music."

The young people interviewed expressed a strong interest in using such mainstream technology that combines multi-functionality with appealing design. 11-year-old Noah says, "I just want my LV (low vision) gadgets to look like normal cool techy gadgets!".

Personalisation of mainstream technological products is a growing trend, and increased accessibility is one form of personalisation that is vital for visually impaired young people.  When inspired by the innovative ideas of young people, good design can be a catalyst for independence, rather than a barrier. As Hannah says, "I should be able to do everything, things that other teenagers can do. You shouldn’t have to worry."

Listening to the voices of visually impaired young people will enable them to exercise their capability and creativity as they navigate their teenage years.