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Visual impairment and new technologies
  1. Mary E Shaw1,
  2. Mark Kirkham2
  1. 1South West Public Health Observatory, Bristol, UK and Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  2. 2South West Public Health Observatory, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr M E Shaw
 Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Canynge Hall, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2PR, UK;

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The term “visual impairment” encompasses a variety of conditions. A range of equipment is available to enable people with sight loss to participate in various activities. Some of these have been around for a long time: the first book in braille was published in 1827; guide dogs for the blind were first formally trained a century later. New technologies—such as computer software—are constantly being developed and what is now available means that there is no reason why a blind person cannot be employed in a job that is primarily computer based.

These pictures show Mark Kirkham, who is totally blind, working for the South West Public Health Observatory on a project analysing data on road traffic collisions. Jaws screenreader software has been installed on Mark’s PC, allowing him to use many other applications including Microsoft Access and Excel. Jaws software, manufactured by Freedom Scientific, reads aloud all the text information that would normally appear on the screen of a sighted person. Jaws may be configured in a variety of ways so that different types of information are spoken appropriately. For example, it will read at different speeds and can be set to read either all changing information on the screen or only what is currently highlighted. Where a sighted person would often use a mouse, Jaws makes use of keyboard shortcut commands to perform functions such as navigating through dialogue boxes and activating buttons.

The image at the top shows Mark reading braille, the bottom right image shows him wearing headphones enabling him to listen to Jaws without disturbing colleagues in a busy office. The third image (bottom left) illustrates Mark using a “Braille ‘n Speak”, a stand alone note taking device. It uses a braille keyboard and, like Jaws, has a voice output. It is portable, which means it is suitable for Mark to quietly take notes in meetings. The machine also has a serial port, allowing it to communicate with mainstream devices such as printers and PCs. The equipment needed by any person with a visual impairment will reflect their personal needs, circumstances, and preferences. It has the potential to bring about inclusion in terms of both social and employment opportunities.

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  • Funding: Mary Shaw is funded by the South West Public Health Observatory.