Dedicated to Improving the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People

RDPFS Resources for Partners April 22, 2022

From the Desk of Jason Eckert, Executive Director, Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation

A High Tide Lifts All Boats in Our Community

The Heritage dictionary defines community as: “an identified group or class of people having a common interest.” When I refer to the blind and vision impaired (BVI) community, I am citing this definition.  If you are reading these words, you share an interest in blindness and vision impairment with other Bulletin readers.  Therefore, you are part of the BVI community

Recently, I attended two excellent conferences. One, hosted by Research to Prevent Blindness; the second, VisionServe Alliance.  How nice to be with so many colleagues sharing ideas on how to “improve the BVI community” in the United States and perhaps around the globe.

One conference focused on medical research and resulting treatments to prevent vision loss, slow its progression, or restore it.  The other concentrated on the best ways to provide vision rehabilitation services to people living with all levels of unrestorable vision loss.

It was not surprising that these ideas were covered at separate conferences, with participation from researchers or clinicians representing different professions.  Our community has always been split between the “education” and “medical” models.

What was surprising were the similarities.  Both conferences were made up of highly qualified professionals seeking to “improve the BVI community” with honorable intentions and deep compassion, applying their knowledge to initiate positive change.  Both discussed practical ways to draw resources to the community through insurance reimbursements, government funding, and corporate or foundation support.

And, predictably, both identified overarching problems hindering their success, citing a lack of a coordinated, systemic approach to collect and categorize data, poor information sharing, and internal squabbling.

I have experienced this from many perspectives, having worked at a not-for-profit vision services agency, government agency, private and public healthcare providers, foundation, and as a consumer with a vision impairment.  I recognize the barriers preventing our community’s advancement and ask that we commit ourselves to removing them.

It takes the entire community. Imagine what it would be like if we changed our thinking and behavior.  Let’s all hold on to the goal of “improving the BVI community” in all segments.  Let’s agree that all the work being done to “improve the BVI community” is good work. And let’s collaborate and coordinate our efforts, focusing on consensus rather than disagreement.

Let’s weave together our disciplines, treatment modalities, funding requests, rehabilitation philosophies, and data collection practices.  Let’s recognize that advocating in unity will bring more resources into the community so that we can more quickly achieve our goals.

Let’s imagine what it would be like if we really believed that a high tide would lift all boats in our community. With all of our boats lifted, we could row in unison, in the same direction.  How many eye diseases could be cured, treatments developed, innovative services models created and implemented, and adaptive tools and technologies invented in this collaborative BVI community? Let’s imagine that!

Artificial Intelligence Is Helping to Diagnose Conditions and Diseases of the Eyes

by Jaime Rodriguez, RDPFS Intern

Early diagnosis and treatment are “crucial to preventing vision loss” to diabetic retinopathy and other eye diseases and conditions. For many diseases, if they are detected early and identified accurately, effective treatments are available. However, often the condition is difficult to detect in early stages. “The challenges are much worse in remote corners of the world that have limited access to ophthalmic and neonatal care,” stated Michael F. Chang, MD, Director of the NEI (National Eye Institute) of the NIH (National Institutes of Health). In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has helped to bridge the gap. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first autonomous AI-based diagnostic tool, IDx-DR, which screens for diabetic retinopathy, providing results that do not require interpretation by doctors. AI-based diagnostic tools have been developed to test for other eye conditions and diseases as well. For example, the AI-based i-ROP Deep Learning (i-ROP DL) automates the identification of retinopathy of prematurity by detecting abnormalities in retinal blood vessels of premature infants. In glaucoma treatment, the IOPerfect, a contactless, intraocular pressure (IOP) measuring device, monitors users’ IOP without the need for eye drops or calibration. Results are reviewed by clinicians. Many more AI-based diagnostic tools and systems are in development to identify additional eye diseases and other medical conditions as well. As much as AI helps in diagnostics, “Under real-world conditions,” challenges remain. “A key problem is these AI algorithms need to be trained with more diverse images and data…”  Larger datasets, “a collaborative culture of sharing data,” broader validation studies, and other practices are needed to realize the full potential of AI. For more information, read the NIH Director’s Blog article, “Artificial Intelligence Getting Smarter! Innovations from the Vision Field” and/or read the MedicalExpo E-Magazine article, “Tackling Blindness: A Contactless AI Device to Diagnose and Monitor Glaucoma.”

Coming Soon: Coding Fun and Information at Virtual National Symposium

Knowledge of coding can lead to a wide range of career opportunities in technology. Now in its second year, the 2022 APH Coding Symposium, being held online from May 9 to 13, covers basic, entry-level information as well as more advanced concepts. Symposium participants will explore some “nuts and bolts of programming codes” and products used by students and teachers to learn how to code. The goal is to connect students, teachers, and professionals involved in the coding industry, sharing “ideas and activities, resources, and career opportunities.” APH (American Printing House for the Blind) is presenting the program virtually, in partnership with student and teacher sites across the nation. Students, teachers of students with vision impairment, assistive technology specialists, and parents can benefit from attending. For more information and to register, visit the 2022 National Coding Symposium presented by APH and Partners.

Improved ALT badge and Image Descriptions on Twitter

by Jaime Rodriguez, RDPFS Intern

As covered in last week’s Bulletin, “Alternative Text is Helping to Make the Internet Accessible for Everyone.” Following up on that piece, we’d like to share that Twitter has recently unveiled alternative text badges and exposed image descriptions on its platform. Alternative text, ALT text for short, when available, can be detected and either read aloud or translated into braille using screen readers and other assistive technology. Twitter’s new feature allows for ALT image descriptions to be added in place of a picture on a Tweet, or below the Tweet with the image. ALT text ensures that readers who are visually impaired have full access to the content, while also allowing search engines to crawl the message more effectively. To add ALT image descriptions to an image in a Tweet, start by making a Tweet with an image, select "add description" underneath the image, enter up to 1,000 characters in the text box to describe it, and click "save." The ALT badge will appear in the corner of the image. Once the Tweet is posted, users will see the ALT badge, which, when clicked on, opens the description. The rollout of ALT image descriptions on Twitter helps to make the platform more accessible to users with disabilities, allowing for a more immersive experience. For more information, read the Times Now article, “Twitter rolls out improved ALT badge and exposed image descriptions, here is how to use it.”

Spring Travel Tips

by Jaime Rodriguez, RDPFS Intern

With warm weather approaching, many people get the urge to be outside and travel. Here are some tips that can make excursions more accessible and enjoyable for travelers who are blind or visually impaired:

In choosing a destination, consider your experience, independence, and the accessibility of the locale: When planning, it can be helpful to put your research skills to good use. Check out articles online about adventure travel and urban tourism. Ask friends with low vision for ideas regarding where to go and what to do. For example, large cities are generally organized on grids, making them easier to navigate. A small city, town, or village may not have accessible layouts or features, so research personal assistance options, like sighted guides or guided tours, or go with a friend or family member. Check into any differences in culture as well as currency used in preparing for your destination.

When making reservations, for plane, bus, ship, or even hotel rooms, contact them ahead of time to become acquainted with their policies and layouts, and to request assistance if needed. If you are traveling with a canine companion, inform your travel provider and hotel.

Make sure you have necessary identification.  Traveling often requires that you have state-issued identification and sometimes vaccinations. Make sure that you have your identification, passport, tickets, and any other important forms or documents with you. When packing, travel light. That way you may be able to bypass the baggage claim area. If you must check bags, you can attach a large brightly colored ribbon or bumper sticker to them to make identification easier or purchase an electronic bag tracker. Be sure to pack any medications you take.

For more travel tips, read the Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired article, “Useful Travel Tips for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” and the All About Vision article, “Yes, You Can Travel If You’re Blind or Have Low Vision.”

Some Pointers for Gardeners

As the weather warms up, many people enjoy using their green thumbs for outdoor gardening. Some simple tips for gardeners with vision loss can make the pastime a “wonderful sensory experience.” Here are a few pointers from VisionAware to make the tasks involved easier:
Use landscaping fabric, mulch, or cardboard around plants, which can reduce the frequency of weeding and watering.
Use borders that are colorful, tactile, and high contrast. Examples are edging products like crushed stone, bricks, pieces of lumber, or fencing to mark where the area in use begins and ends. Existing fences or stone can be painted in colors that contrast with green grass, such as yellow or white.
Consider the sensory qualities of plants you choose, such as those with different textures and scents, like geraniums, mint, lavender, roses, and plants with various scents and textures.
Create plant and row markers, using features like large print signs, different colors on brightly painted stones, to denote the type of flower or plant, e.g., white for daisies, red for tulips or tomatoes.
For more details about these and other tips, as well as safety basics for mowing and lawn care, check out VisionAware’s Gardening and Yard Work Tips.

For additional suggestions, visit the mini bibliography of sources from the NLS (National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Library Congress): Gardening for People with Disabilities. NLS provides a list of titles, with brief descriptions, on accessible gardening for individuals with vision loss as well as other disabilities. Digital braille and audio titles are available for downloading from the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) website. Titles can be requested from local libraries, where you can also ask about registering for BARD.

Happy Earth Day–And Suggestions for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Each year since 1970, today, April 22, has been recognized as “Earth Day,” celebrating the world’s natural beauty and how that can be preserved. With that in mind, APH FamilyConnect has shared a few suggestions to “encourage children to appreciate Earth and care for it” by instilling wonder in it and to “establish habits that help us treat her (Earth) well.” For example, planting a sunflower seed in an indoor pot, checking out the seed, and monitoring its growth can illustrate the wonders of nature, as can a nature walk or day trip to a nearby stream, pond, or lake, or to the ocean. To preserve our surroundings, take a neighborhood walk and collect and discard litter, recycle household products, or donate clothing that no longer fits. For more information and tips, read the FamilyConnect Blog article: Earth Day for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Enjoy the outdoors and have a happy Earth Day!

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