ADA Resources: Living with Blindness

Because the eye and the optic nerve work together to control the sense of sight, blindness can occur due to a problem with the function of the eye or due to a neurological condition that affects the optic nerve. Some of the leading causes of blindness are cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lenses, cause blurry vision, double vision, and poor night vision. Macular degeneration destroys the sharp vision needed to see objects clearly. This makes it difficult to read, work at a computer, drive, and perform other tasks.

Glaucoma is an increased amount of pressure inside the eyes. This increased pressure damages the optic nerve, leading to vision loss. Diabetic retinopathy occurs in people who have diabetes. The disease damages the retina, leading to vision loss and blindness. Physical trauma to the eye or to the optic nerve can also cause a loss of vision. Because vision plays such an important role in most people's lives, those affected by blindness struggle each and everyday. Blindness makes it difficult to work, read, enjoy the beauty of the outdoors, and get from one place to another.

Physical Assistance

Several physical resources make it easier for those affected by blindness to interact with others and earn a living. Louis Braille developed the Braille system in 1825. Braille was blind, so he saw the need for a system to help blind people read and write. The system consists of characters made up of dots arranged in a rectangle. These characters correspond to the letters of the alphabet. A space appears between each line of Braille text to help readers differentiate one line from the next. There is also a set of Braille characters that represent punctuation marks such as the period, exclamation point, and comma. Someone with vision loss can read Braille text by running their fingers over the raised dots and interpreting them according to the Braille system. Those who want to write in Braille can use a special typewriter, a Braille embosser that works with a regular computer, or a slate and stylus.

Many people with normal vision take the ability to get from one place to another for granted. Without vision, getting around is difficult, as those with vision loss cannot see street signs, traffic lights, and landmarks. Walking sticks are available to help the visually impaired negotiate unfamiliar terrain. Someone who is blind can use a walking stick to identify obstacles and navigate safely. Some companies produce folding walking sticks, which makes it possible to store the walking stick in a purse or desk drawer. Many walking sticks made for the visually impaired have reflectors to make them easier to see in bad weather or poor light conditions.

Service dogs, also called assistance dogs, help their visually impaired owners by helping them navigate through unfamiliar places. These dogs identify obstacles and lead their owners around these obstacles, reducing the risk of injury. Service dogs go through rigorous training and must meet a number of minimum requirements. These minimum requirements include responding to commands a minimum of 90 percent of the time at home and in public; responding to hand or voice signals for sitting, lying down, staying in place, walking, and coming when called; and ability to perform at least three tasks. Those who own service dogs must have knowledge of their local access laws and appropriate behavior for service dogs in public.

Audible Assistance

Audible assistance devices also make it easier for the visually impaired to enjoy the same activities as those who have their sight. Audio books, also called talking books, make it possible to listen to books instead of reading them. These books come on compact discs or in mp3 format, making it easy to listen to them at home or on the go. Some telephone systems can be activated with voice commands, eliminating the need to dial telephone numbers manually. This makes it easier for those with vision problems to make and receive telephone calls. Voice recognition software eliminates the need for those with vision loss to type using a traditional computer keyboard. Instead of typing, the user speaks what he or she wants to write. The voice recognition software picks up the speech and records it in writing.

Audible traffic signals can help people with vision loss safely cross busy streets. Regular traffic signals typically show a red hand or person to warn people not to cross and a white hand or person to indicate when it is safe to cross. Because those with vision loss cannot see these signals, some traffic lights now produce a buzz, beep, or chirp to indicate when it is safe to cross. This makes it easier to walk from one place to another. Some automated teller machines (ATMs) now have voice commands to help those without sight make financial transactions. Machines equipped with this function allow users to connect headphones to the machine and listen to the voice commands. The machine can also read the user’s account balance and other information, so using headphones makes it possible to hear this information without broadcasting it to others.