Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Open Letter To Independent Living Adult Blind Professionals

Independent Living Adult Blind (ILAB) service organizations face a unique challenge as baby boomers become seniors and many experience vision loss. The impact of a rapid loss of vision can be devastating. In very short order, a person loses every point of reference. They feel cut off, isolated, disoriented, and afraid. A once-friendly world is suddenly an alien place with everything that was once familiar, now strange and threatening.

We who are blind know that with time, a person can find a new equilibrium – well-oriented and secure. Millions of blind people live independently and there is no inherent reason why a newly blind senior can’t recapture an independent lifestyle. But it requires the help of caring and skilled organizations and individuals to make that transition.

ILAB’s job is to be a lifeline, offering support in re-achieving independence and helping newly blind seniors find a path to:

  • Orientation
  • Mobility
  • Safety
  • Home and personal management skills such as identifying money, cooking, cleaning, and labeling foods and medications
  • Employment skills such as typing and computer use
  • Quality of life skills including talking books, Braille, writing guides
  • Self-actuating skills such as assertive communications, goal setting and coping

The duty of an ILAB organization is to help individuals discover a way to find new reference points, reconnect to people, relearn basic living skills, and roll back the fear.

Accessible computers, the Internet, and a whole raft of digital devices and services can be important tools for making that path smoother and with fewer obstacles. That is only true, however, if the tools themselves are not a challenge beyond the newly blind person’s ability. Fortunately, the baby boomers experiencing age-related vision loss are more computer savvy than seniors were just a few years ago. A majority have used computers in some fashion either at work or at home before experiencing vision loss, and while they are not computer geeks by any stretch of the imagination, neither are they completely intimidated. The number of computer savvy individuals will continue to grow among the senior population as each succeeding wave is more attuned to the digital lifestyle than the preceding group.

When Serotek created the first accessible digital lifestyle products back in 2001, we were focused on the needs of the newly blind who were even less sophisticated than the baby boomers. We realized that accessible meant more than simply reading a screen or a document. Accessible meant being usable by anyone, no matter how much or how little computer background they might have had. We believed then and now that accessible means accessible to anyone, anywhere. It is that belief, and how we put it into practice, that makes Serotek the perfect partner for ILAB services.

Living Better Digitally

While it is intuitively obvious that digital technology is essential to vocational rehabilitation, it may not be so obvious that the computer, the Internet, and the wide variety of digital tools are even more important to independent living. Consider the challenges listed below:

  • Orientation - or where am I? Cell phone global positioning will become widely available within the next few months. That means a blind person can get step by step instructions on how to get from here to there, wherever they are on the planet.

  • Mobility – or how do I get where I need to go? Mobility is always an enormous challenge for the newly blind, but the accessible Internet can greatly reduce the need to travel. With access to the Internet, a person can shop from home, work from home, attend classes from home, and enjoy a wide range of entertainment without ever setting foot outside the door. That takes a lot of pressure off the mobility challenge and makes it much easier to deal with the occasions when staying home isn’t an option.

  • Safety – When you lose your sense of where you are, the world is a frightening place. Again, the Internet allows a person to deal with challenges of being newly blind, while staying in the relative safety of his or her own home until he or she gains the confidence to become more mobile.

  • Home and personal management – Shopping, banking, access to medical information, managing personal finances, accessing home maintenance services, recipes and more are all available via the Internet and by using a computer.

  • Employment – Work from home using voice over Internet protocol and the computer. The computer and Internet make it possible to work anywhere in the world and never leave your home.

  • Quality of life – Arts, entertainment, social interaction – all available via the broadband connection including talking books, described videos, infinite radio channels, and more. Connect to family via e-mail and old and new friends via an ever growing variety of social networking sites.

  • Self-actuating skills – It is easier to be assertive online than in person.

The truth is, our society is completely connected today using the Internet, cell phones, and the growing Wi-Fi network. The majority of life experiences are available regardless of whether or not a person is sighted. The Internet, the computer, and the many other digital devices are great leveling tools. Across a digital connection, everyone is the same regardless of the quality of their vision, provided they have a fully accessible connection.

Unfortunately, however, accessibility has not been an easy thing in the past. The tools offered by traditional adaptive technology vendors have been expensive and complex. A person might require 30 or more hours of class room training to become competent on a traditional screen reader and even after 30 hours, not everyone succeeds. License fees for accessibility software have been high and bundled with a string of conditions that assure the vendor a steady revenue stream. While the tools are adequate for most vocational rehab applications they often fall far short when being used to surf the Internet and enjoy the wide variety of products, information, services and entertainment available on the web. Many Web sites have been designed with little regard for screen reader requirements and are thus totally inaccessible to traditional screen readers.

Serotek made the accessible user interface its design priority. Our System Access product family has won accessibility awards from the MS Foundation and the American Foundation for the Blind. Typically a user can be trained and fully functional using System Access with about two hours of instruction. Many computer savvy users can function with System Access with no training, just relying on its extensive Help menu as necessary. We do recommend that users take advantage of training when it’s available. The more familiar the user is with the computer and the Internet, the easier it is for them to use System Access because in general System Access uses the same command structures they are used to, without layering on special “screen reader” commands.

Serotek has also made accessibility completely mobile. System Access Mobile can be loaded on a thumb drive and plugged into any computer, making it instantly accessible. If a computer is connected to the Internet, System Access To Go (SAToGo) is available at no charge to be instantly downloaded and used while the computer is connected to the Internet. SAToGo is made available to anyone, anytime at no cost through The AIR Foundation, which believes that “accessibility is a right.”

When cost is a major issue, ILAB organizations can train the newly blind using SAToGo. There are good reasons, however, for the user to invest the small amount necessary to have the full complement of Serotek Products. We make available System Access Mobile for two computers, NeoSpeech, and the System Access Mobile Network for a monthly service charge of $24.95, with a four-year commitment. That includes all software updates and maintenance. The user can connect a work and home computer using System Access Mobile; and load System Access on a thumb drive to plug into any computer anytime. Access to the System Access Mobile Network (SAMNet) gives the user e-mail, a powerful search engine, access to the largest assembled collection of accessible content anywhere on the Web including news, sports, Internet radio, described video and more; accessible shopping, blogs, forums, etc. SAMNet is a key to independent living. The online community delivers immediate connection to family and friends via e-mail; it connects the newly blind person to the world via news and entertainment channels; the newly blind individual is welcomed into a caring community of others who are happy to share experience and advice over forums and chat groups. SAMNet provides full access to online shopping using, for example, the family of shopping services providing everything from groceries to electronics and other gifts – and they still do audio books. The SAMNet community uses a Serotek tool, called C-SAW, to make Internet sites more accessible. Every SAMNet user automatically benefits from the improved accessibility when they connect to any of the thousands of C-SAW improved sites. Being online gives users access to a growing supply of online applications for business and personal use. We have recently made Quicken Online accessible for users to manage their personal finances.

Reaching and Teaching

One of the biggest challenges for ILAB organizations is simply reaching the newly blind seniors and accommodating the ever increasing numbers. Serotek is the only adaptive technology company that seems to have given any consideration to the huge workload that these baby boomers represent and the limited resources ILAB organizations have to deal with them.

Our solution, being used in state organizations successfully, is called Remote Incident Manager (RIM). RIM is a fully-accessible distant learning and technical support tool that lets the trainer or technician share the student’s computer desktop over the Internet. The trainer can make technical adjustments if the student is having difficulty with his or her machine. The trainer can download software or call it up from the student’s machine and work directly with the student on the application being trained, whatever it is. This one-on-one training is very powerful and students grasp much more quickly than they do in a classroom setting. Using the phone or Voice over Internet protocol, the trainer and student have a full hands-on learning experience and neither needs to travel to make it happen. This saves precious travel time and cost and multiplies the number of successful training sessions a trainer can have per day. Trainers and students both claim that when using RIM, they are enjoying at least a three-to-one advantage with one hour of RIM time being worth at least three hours of class room time. RIM can be used to train conventional screen readers, but when it’s used to train the System Access accessibility anywhere tools, the time from start to full independent living is shortened by an order of magnitude. The $1,000 annual license pays for itself several times over.

It’s All About Independence

When a person loses his or her eyesight to macular degeneration or any of the several age-related conditions, their world crashes. To be newly blind is to be alone and afraid. There is a huge gulf between how life was and how it seems now and independence seems like an unreachable goal. Fortunately, for many, there are ILAB organizations that are ready and willing to reach across that gulf and bring the newly blind into a new dimension of independent living. The digital lifestyle is a big part of the transition and Serotek Corporation has not only made the digital lifestyle accessible, it has delivered the tools to help trainers and students bridge the gulf more quickly.

For us, the reward is that newly blind baby boomer’s independence. An independent blind person is a potential customer for other accessible digital lifestyle products and services and that’s where we see our future. Independently living blind people bring their appetites for all the exciting digital lifestyle tools and toys that their sighted peers enjoy and Serotek intends to be the leader in making these products and services accessible.

Losing one’s sight is life changing, but thanks to ILAB organizations and companies like Serotek that support them, it need not be the end of the world. It can be the beginning of a whole new, rewarding and productive life.


Anonymous said...

I wish more was being done to prevent blindness in boomers. I know in working with my eye care professional, I'm not getting the answers I want about aging eyes. I'm going to find a specialist.

I write a blog for boomer consumers called The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide at


Mike said...

Thanks for the great post. I really like it what i have read so far in your blog