Study finds tablets help people with low vision

in Contributors/Dr. Mark Siegel, MD FAAO by

By Mark Siegel, MD

When gift shopping this year, you have the opportunity to give back a priceless gift to a loved one with low vision: the joy of reading.

People who have eye diseases that damage their central vision can again read quickly and comfortably by using digital tablets, a study shows. On average, patients with moderate vision loss significantly increased their reading speed and comfort using an iPad digital tablet. The researchers think that other tablets that feature back-lit screens and font-enlargement capabilities would offer similar benefits.

Millions of people who have eye diseases such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy struggle with the loss of their central vision. These diseases damage the light-sensitive cells of the eye’s retina, which relays images to the optic nerve for transmission to the brain. When treatments like eyeglasses, medications, or surgery are no longer effective, ophthalmologists and eye care professionals help patients make the most of their remaining sight by using low vision aids. Before digital tablets came along, reading aids were limited to lighted magnifiers, which are cumbersome and inconvenient by comparison.

Reading is a simple pleasure that we often take for granted until vision loss makes it difficult. The findings show that at a relatively low cost, digital tablets can improve the lives of people with vision loss and help them reconnect with the larger world.

All of the 100 participants in the study, conducted at Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine, gained at least 42 words-per-minute when using the iPad2 set to 18-point font, compared with reading a print book or newspaper. People with the poorest vision showed the most improvement in speed when using an iPad or Kindle™, compared with print. The Kindle model used in the study did not have a backlit screen, although a newer model, the Kindle Fire, does.

Today’s high-tech gadgets have features that make living with low vision a bit easier. And if you or a loved one is using such devices for their built-in magnification and backlighting, consider adding apps to track eye health as well. You have more tools at your disposal than ever before to take control of your eye health.

Some features of these devices and their apps can include:

Enlargement. Smartphones, tablets and e-readers all have enlargement capabilities, though they will not enlarge text as much as a dedicated CCTV magnifier will. Not all e-readers can increase contrast, which can be a big help for people with low vision. Shop around to see if a particular e-reader will meet your needs.

Lighting. Apps for many tablets and smartphones use your device’s camera and light source to illuminate text or other things you need to see more clearly.

Voice interface. Many smartphones have some level of voice-recognition, which may help to send texts and emails among other things. Smartphone mapping apps will give turn-by-turn voice commands to help drivers with low vision to find their way when they have trouble reading street signs.

If you or someone you know has low vision, consider some of these latest high tech gadgets. They can be a big help, and they are getting better every year.