My Visual Impairment Aids & Gadgets

Selfie in my sunny back garden, in which I'm smiling and wearing my green tinted sunglasses.

I use various things to assist me in my day-to-day life as a visually impaired person, just to make things easier or more accessible. It means I can be independent and do many things that normal people do. So in other words, I’m still leading a normal life, it’s just that I do some things a bit differently to people with regular sight.

Naturally my iPhone is a huge help these days, but I’ll talk about the features and apps I use there in a separate post. In the meantime, you can see a list of my apps here, with an older video about them that I’ll update when I do a new post.

So in this post and video I’m going to tell you about various other aids and gadgets that I use, and a few used by my mother as well, as she’s blind. I’m not affiliated with or sponsored by any companies mentioned here, and these are all my own opinions.

So I hope you find this post interesting. And let me know if there are any particular aids or gadgets that you use a lot, or if there’s anything you recommend I should check out.

Visual Aids

Sunglasses

Selfie in my sunny back garden, in which I'm smiling and wearing my green tinted sunglasses.

Just as you need suncream to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging effects, It’s just as important to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes for the same reason, regardless of whether you have a sight problem or not. This was recently highlighted by the RNIB’s Shades For Sight campaign, in which I posted a sunglasses selfie along with many other people. And with the glorious heatwave we’ve been experiencing here in the UK for a while now, good sunglasses have been all the more vital.

But my sunglasses aren’t normal shades. Having the eye condition aniridia means that I’m overly sensitive to sunlight and glare, especially when I’m out and about. And this is because I don’t have an iris (the coloured circle) in my eye, which adjusts the size of the pupil to control how much light enters my eye. Without that control, therefore, sunlight is extremely bright for me, and even cloudy days are often very glary. And so normal sunglasses don’t do enough to reduce that.

As a result, I’ve had to experiment with glasses that are tinted, and also wrap around the sides to stop the glare getting in from all angles. And I’ve had a few different pairs over my lifetime, as you can imagine.

Last year though, after moving to London, my new friend James from the Aniridia Network showed me his glasses, which were green tinted. And it turns out the green tint is ideal for blocking a large part of the light spectrum that’s responsible for glare, which I never knew. It doesn’t block out all of it, but certainly a lot of it. After all, if you strip back the light too far, you won’t be able to see anything!

So I looked online and found a pair of green tinted glasses in the RNIB shop called the Migralens Xwrap Wraparound Eyeshields, costing £39.54 (or less if, like me, you get a VAT exemption due to your visual impairment).

Green tinted sunglasses with a black frame

They’re designed for people who suffer from light-sensitive migraines, which I don’t thankfully, but that doesn’t matter. They absorb 81% of the light, therefore allowing only 19% through. They also give 100% UV protection, and the wraparound style means that light can’t get into your peripheral vision from the sides.

So they’ve been really useful for me, they do make things a lot easier. The green tint does make the world look a bit green, of course. But actually, I can still see fine and I can still distinguish colours well enough, even if it’s not so obvious from a mere photograph taken through them.

The blue sky and a row of houses below, as viewed through a green lens of my sunglasses. The glasses lens takes up most of the image, but above the glasses at the top is a small section of the blue sky as it normally looks, for comparison.

And if my eyes are having an off day, for instance if my eyes are tired or I’ve got a cold, then that heightens my sensitivity further and I can still struggle to see even with the glasses on. But that’s relatively rare, and even in those cases the glasses still make it a little more tolerable than it would otherwise be without them. So overall I’m really, really happy with them, I wish I’d discovered them sooner.

Monocular

My monocular, a small black telescope with a rubber ring attached to the eyepiece end for comfort, and a cord attached on the side so you can hang it around your neck.

I keep mentioning this in my posts, and now and again I do get asked about it. I basically need this because of my other eye condition, nystagmus, which means my eyes are always shaking or jumping around, and my ability to focus is therefore poor as a result. I can make out the general shapes and colours of things in the distance, if the lighting is good enough, and the object contrasts well with its background. But seeing detail and reading text is impossible, unless it’s very close to me or very large.

So my monocular is basically a telescope (because if you think about it, ‘mono’ means 1, whereas the ‘bi’ in binoculars means 2). And I use it to look at all sorts of things when I’m out and about, for instance:

  • Reading departure boards for trains, buses and planes;
  • Finding the right platform in a train station (London Underground or National Rail)
  • Reading destinations on the side or front of London Underground trains;
  • Seeing what station a train is pulling into if there’s no audio announcement;
  • Finding the right bus stop in the street or at a bus station;
  • Reading the numbers and destinations on buses;
  • Finding the check-in and assistance desks at an airport;
  • Reading street signs and shop names;
  • Looking for aisles and products in unfamiliar shops and supermarkets;
  • Looking for signs to places within a building or venue (e.g. toilet, cafe, cloakroom, museum gallery, exit, etc);
  • Reading noticeboards and maps, especially if they’re on a wall and I can’t get near;
  • Looking more closely at objects and artworks in museums and galleries, especially when behind glass or barriers;
  • Looking at what’s happening on stage in the theatre, either out of curiosity or because of something mentioned in the audio description (e.g. the entrance of new characters, scene changes, important props being used, etc).
  • Looking at flowers, statues, scenery, etc when out for walks;
  • Looking for people I’m meeting in a crowded place (especially if they’re visually impaired and can’t look out for me);
  • Looking around in an unfamiliar area to see what’s nearby.

And so on. There are loads of uses, it comes in very handy. Sure, I could ask nearby staff or members of the public for some of these things, but when I can do it myself like this quickly and easily, there’s usually no need. Other people can look at their surroundings to see what’s where, so I’m just using my monocular to do the same. It’s effectively extending my eyesight to what a normal person would be able to pick out, and perhaps even slightly beyond.

Emily Davison talking to the camera in a sunny green park, while I use my monocular to look around me in the background.
Screenshot from Fashioneyesta vlog by Emily Davison

It’s very portable and very easy to use. I can carry it around in my pocket and pull it out when I need to, or I can hang it around my neck using the cord attached to it, so it’s even more convenient to pick up.

I look through the end that has a rubber ring around the eyepiece for comfort, and then turn the other end of the monocular clockwise to extend it, or anticlockwise to shorten it. The shorter it is, the further away I can focus. So conversely I will extend it to focus on near objects.

The normal way to do it is to hold the eyepiece end with one hand, and use the other hand to turn the opposite end for focusing. But after frequent, regular use I’ve got used to doing the whole thing one-handed. The trick I’ve found there is to hold the eyepiece end with my thumb and index finger, and then use my other 3 fingers to hold the middle and bottom of the telescope in some way. Then I can use my thumb and index finger to turn the eyepiece end, with my other fingers keeping the bottom end still. So I’m turning the opposite end compared to holding it with 2 hands, but it still has the same effect.

Me using my monocular (a mini telescope) to see things in the distance.

I got it from Optima Low Vision, where they do a variety of monoculars in different sizes and strengths, depending on the level of magnification you need. They cost over £100, but they’re well worth the money if you use them a lot like I do. They also do things like replacement rubber rings for the eyepiece, as they can come loose after you’ve spent years carrying the monocular around and shoving it in your pocket.

But you might also be able to get monoculars elsewhere too, from sight loss charities or your local social services authority. There’s certainly no harm in asking them. If not, though, I’ve found Optima’s service to be very good. But in any case, my monocular is something I couldn’t easily live without, it’s an essential aid.

Magnifier

Magnifier

I do have a hand-held magnifier as well, that has a light you can turn on and off, which I’ve had for years. It’s not that powerful, and I’m more likely to use the Magnifier feature on my iPhone these days.But it does come in handy occasionally. I can’t remember where I got it from, but the manufacturer is called Schweizer, and it appears their products are still available via companies like Vision Enhancers in the UK. Your local social services, visual impairment charities and visually impaired friends will be able to help you choose the best magnifier for you though, from various manufacturers.

Symbol Cane

Folded-up white symbol cane, tied with a black elastic cord at one end. One section of the cane has the company name Ambutech on it.

I also have an 85cm foldable symbol cane which, as suggested by the name, is more of a visual aid for others, symbolising the fact that I’m visually impaired. I was given it because I’m entitled to have one, but the truth is I never use it, as discussed in a separate post. I just don’t feel the need to, as I get by fine without one. And if I want anybody to know I’m visually impaired, I’ll tell them. I don’t want to draw attention to it unnecessarily otherwise. But it is handy to have in case I ever do need it.

A picture of me at school with 2 female friends, each of us holding a white symbol cane in front of us, diagonally across our legs. I'm in the middle, wearing a grey jumper and black trousers, whilst the girls are wearing red jumpers and either a pink or grey skirt respectively.

Cards

IMG_1192

Freedom Pass

This is something else that I use a huge amount. If you’re a London resident who is disabled or elderly, you can get one of these passes for free. And it basically gives you free travel on public transport all over the city, at any time of the day, and even to some places on the outskirts as well if you check the Freedom Pass map.

So it covers London Underground & Overground services, Docklands Light Railway, buses, some National Rail services, and more. For National Rail, therefore, if you’re going to a destination outside the Freedom Pass region, you only need to buy a ticket for the section of the journey not covered by the pass.

Lego version of the central section of the London Underground Map, with a Lego Underground roundel sign above it, and a Lego model of a smiling train guard on the floor in front of it.

In addition, the Freedom Pass also doubles up as the National Concessionary Bus Pass, so I can use local bus services all over England for free too. There can be time restrictions on that aspect (e.g. you can’t always use it before 9:30am), but even so, it’s still really useful when going anywhere outside London. So it’s an essential card for me to carry around. It gives me a huge amount of independence, as it makes travelling on public transport so much easier and more convenient. I’m very grateful for it.

Disabled Persons Railcard

Departure screens at Euston railway station, with a large crowd of people beneath. Above the screens, the word Euston is attached to the wall in very large silver letters.

This is an essential item for using National Rail services, because it gives you and a companion (e.g. a carer or friend) a third off the ticket price. It costs £20 for 1 year, or £54 for 3 years (saving you £6), which may sound like a lot, but you’ll soon make that money back in the savings you make. Even just making a few journeys a year can put you back into profit. There are some other discounts you can get as a disabled person if you don’t have a railcard though, detailed on the National Rail website.

National Express Disabled Coachcard

Stratford bus station, with a white National Express coach parked under the curved, undulating, cream coloured canopy

This gives a third off the cost of National Express coach travel for disabled people. There is also a Senior Coachcard for people aged 60 and over, and a Young Persons Coachcard for people aged between 16 and 26. I rarely use coaches, but on the few occasions I have in the past, this has come in very handy, so it’s worth having. It costs £15 for a year (including £2.50 postage) – and young people can get a card for 3 years for £30.

Access Card

Wicked sign above the Apollo Victoria Theatre, with Elphaba, the green coloured Wicked Witch of the West, in the middle of a clock face, above the show's title in large letters. Along the front of the narrow canopy above the theatre entrance is white text on a green background, which reads:

This card is a convenient way of giving companies information about the support and adjustments you need. Your condition or impairment is summarised using 1 or more symbols on the card – so I have a braille symbol for visual impairment, and a +1 symbol so I can take a companion. The idea is that it can be used to quickly indicate your access needs and get concessionary rates for things like theatre tickets.

So it’s designed to save you having to prove your disability and explain everything over and over again. You just have to submit your evidence once to CredAbility, to get the card in the first place, and that’s it. I found it quite easy to apply as well. Far simpler than claiming benefits, that’s for sure.

When you want to go somewhere after that, you can just show the venue or business your Access Card, or give them its number, and they’ll know that you’ve already been verified and can see at a glance what support you need. So it simplifies things greatly.

Hippodrome Casino lit up in the evening

Not everywhere accepts the card, but on the website there is a long list of companies who do accept the card, organised by region and category, including theatres, music venues, museums, galleries, sporting facilities, care and support services and more. They also have an arrangement with TicketFactory for a few of the venues you can book with them too. This is another card you have to pay for, the cost being £15, but again it’s worth it if there are companies on the list that you’re likely to use it for.

Local Authority Disability Registration Card

I have a yellow photocard issued free by my local council, which states that I am registered visually impaired with them. Where I used to live in Devon, I had a disability registration card there too, though it didn’t have a photo attached, and therefore it was easy to transfer my registration to my new authority when I relocated. I don’t know if all local authorities do this, but I would imagine most do. So if you’re registered with your local social services team, or whatever the appropriate department is, you might be able to get something like this.

Blue Badge

Blue Badge for disability parking, plus blue timer card with a clock face inside that can be rotated.

I don’t have one of these, as my sight loss isn’t severe enough, but my mother does, so it’s worth mentioning. We can’t drive ourselves because of our sight, but if someone is driving my mother somewhere, they can use this badge to park legally in a disabled parking space to make it easier for her.

The badge also contains a photo on the back, which can be uploaded as part of the online application, as we discovered last year when renewing it. So I was able to take Mum’s photo using a passport photo app on my phone, and put it online that way, which was great.

And as well as the badge you also get a second card, with which you can state your time of arrival at the parking space (as some do have a time limit). It has a disc inside it containing a clock face, so you just turn the disc to make the appropriate time show in the window at the top of the card. So it’s really simple to use and very convenient, and is extremely helpful in a busy city like London where parking spaces are hard to come by.

Audio Gadgets

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot - Small round black machine with a small speaker grill and light encircling the outer edge on top. 4 buttons are on the front - plus and minus volume buttons at the top and bottom, a mute button on the left, and a control button with a dot on it on the right.

We’re quite late to the party on this, having only invited Alexa into our home in the last few months. I don’t know if it’s any better than Google Home or other similar devices, having never tried those. But we’re happy with it so far, and we’ve now got a few Amazon Echo Dots around the house.

If for some odd reason you don’t know what I’m talking about, the Amazon Echo is a machine that you talk to, by saying the trigger word “Alexa” (or one of the few other alternatives they provide) and then saying what you want. We have the Echo Dot, which is a very compact model, but there are various different versions of the machine.

So you can ask Alexa for things like the time, the weather forecast, the latest news and sports results, you can get TV guide information and London Underground updates, you can ask her to play music from Amazon Music and audiobooks from Audible, you can play games and quizzes on there, etc. You can even call another Amazon Echo device in another room in the house, to talk to someone in another room – which is handy for my mother if she’s in bed and wants to get my attention without trying to shout through the house.

So the list of skills is huge. I’m only scratching the surface there, I know. And there are even various novelty functions as well, so you can ask Alexa to sing a song or tell a joke, or say one of many phrases (like song lyrics or movie quotes) that she has a humorous response to.

Because we’re still quite new to it, we haven’t delved deeply into the thousands of other skills Alexa has just yet. To begin with we just had to adjust to having a machine that you can talk to, because it is unusual when you’ve never had one before, and it’s hard to break your old habits of looking things up in other ways, like on my phone or the computer or whatever. But we are happy with it, it has proved to be very useful.

So I do want to explore the Amazon Echo skills more, such as trying some of the games, or anything else that might be interesting or fun. So if people have any ideas for things I should ask Alexa to do, perhaps even things I can make a video of me trying if you want, then feel free to let me know.

Cube Clock

White cube device with curved corners. The front face has a big round speaker, above a small horizontal volume dial, and at the bottom is the word Communiclock. On the top of the cube is a big round black button.

These are handy little things to have around, we’ve had quite a few from the RNIB Shop over the years. The model I’m showing here is called the Communiclock. As the name suggests, these are basically cubes, although some of the more modern iterations have curved edges to make them look and feel more stylish. You just tap the big button on the top of the unit, and the speaker on the front announces the time. Simple as that. You can adjust the volume using a dial, and there are buttons to change the date and time and set an alarm – although they now use radio signals to set the time and date automatically anyway, so they adjust themselves when the clocks go forward or back. So they’re very easy to use.

Victor Reader Stream

Victor Reader Stream player, a black rectangular device with curved corners. The centre of the device is a number keypad, with 2 dots on the 5. Most keys are silver, but 2, 4, 6 and 8 are orange. At the top are square, circular and diamond shaped buttons. At the bottom is a square orange play button with triangular rewind and fast forward buttons either side, and just above the play button is a silver oval shaped button.

This is something that my mother uses a lot, and you can get them directly from the manufacturer Humanware, or from places like the RNIB Shop. It’s basically a talking audio player, with which you can listen to DAISY books, Audible books, MP3 audiobooks, MP3 music, text files that it converts to speech, your own recordings that you make using the device, internet radio and podcasts.

My mum listens to audiobooks and the radio on there a great deal, she loves it. The buttons are very tactile and easy to distinguish, and it’s easy to learn which ones to use for different functions. And it has built-in memory space for content, but you can also plug an SD memory card into it as well. Mum’s got 2 32GB cards with all her audiobooks on, so she can swap them over and listen to any books from her collection that she likes, along with any new ones from RNIB Overdrive that I put on there for her.

So it’s a great machine – not cheap, but my mother more than gets her money’s worth from it. There’s even a more expensive model that has GPS built in, so you can take it around and get navigation on it, but we don’t need that functionality.

Other Audio Aids

Talking Newspaper

A CD-R disc on top of the red wallet in which it was delivered. The CD is covering the address on the white address card on the wallet, but the top of the card says Articles For The Blind - Post Free.

Every week we get a Talking Newspaper in the post, which I transfer from CD to Mum’s Victor Reader Stream player for her to listen to. It’s produced by a group of volunteers who generously give up their time to record an hour’s worth of audio each week, picking out the main articles from the local paper.

Once we’ve finished with it we can throw the CD in the bin, because it’s not reusable, but we do have to return the wallet. That way they can use it again to send the next edition. So we just turn the address card over on the front of it, changing it from our address to their return address. It’s also a good way for them to see who is still interested in it, because if they don’t receive 3 wallets back from an address, they stop sending the CDs to them. Postage is free as well, under Articles For The Blind.

So it’s a great service, a really nice way of getting local news. I know various authorities provide this across the UK, but there are also plenty that don’t, so it would be nice if it were more widespread.

Audio Description

Doctor Who DVD Audio Menu Screen - To select audio navigation, press Enter now

This is something that I use a lot in the theatre and cinema, and occasionally when watching TV (although I can usually sit close enough to the TV, so it’s not so vital). My Mum uses it a lot as well. I’ve posted about it many times before, but it basically means that whenever there’s a spare moment without dialogue in a TV show, film, play, etc, a narrator will describe what’s happening, so that blind and visually impaired people aren’t missing out. So it’s very useful, as it really does help to enhance our enjoyment and understanding of things.

Alt Text (Image Descriptions)

Screenshot of the Accessibility page in the Twitter settings, featuring a tick box to Compose Image Descriptions. Below it is a line of text that says it adds the ability to describe images for the visually impaired.

This isn’t something I make use of for my own benefit, but it’s something I always try to include for the benefit of others and is worth mentioning. Alt Text is basically Alternative Text for every image you post online – i.e. it’s the text equivalent of the image, describing what it is. Sighted web users won’t usually see this (unless an image fails to load, in which case it might appear in its place). But visually impaired people who use screen reading speech software will have the Alt Text spoken to them. Without it, an image is meaningless to them. So it’s vital to use Alt Text in your images to ensure your visually impaired audience doesn’t miss out.

On Twitter, you can go into Settings and click on Accessibility, and you’ll find an option there to Compose Image Descriptions. Enable it, and each time you upload an image you’ll be given an option to add a description to it (which doesn’t use up any part of your 280 characters – in fact, you get more than that for descriptions). Why Twitter don’t enable this by default is a mystery, but there you go. I made a post and video about it last year. Twitter’s interface has changed a little bit in that time, but this aspect is still the same.

When you upload an image on WordPress, click the Edit button and you’ll see an Alt Text option there. On Facebook, there is sometimes the ability to add Alt Text to images, but it’s a little bit hidden and not always present it seems, and generally people just add a description to the text of the post instead. Likewise, on Instagram, there is no alt text option at all, so people need to describe their images in the text of the post  Believe it or not, a lot of blind and partially sighted people like to use Instagram, including posting pictures on it, so it’s worth doing the descriptions there.

If you want to find out more about Alt Text, I encourage you to read a post by my friend Sassy at Thinking Out Loud, called Are You Indirectly Discriminating?

Miscellaneous

Bumpons

Closeup of 3 dials, 1 big and 2 mall, on a washing machine, with red tactile dots called bumpons stuck on a few of the numbers

Bumpons are tactile raised dots that you can stick on to anything, to make it easier if you can’t see. For instance, we have them on the dials on the cooker and washing machine, so that Mum can feel where the numbers are. We don’t stick them on every number, as there isn’t room and there’s much point. Instead, if Mum knows where a few key numbers are, it’s easy to figure out the rest, e.g. which ones are immediately before or after. So they’re simple but useful.

Microwave

Russell Hobbs microwave, black in colour. The large door has a big window and a chunky handle on the right hand side to open it, and to the right of that is a small display for the time and 4 large round buttons positioned vertically below it.

One problem with buying a microwave these days – and also cookers and washing machines for that matter – is that many of them have flat touchscreens. They’re useless when you’re visually impaired, yet many manufacturers insist on using them. Some now let you use mobile apps to control devices as well, but if you’re like my mum and don’t have a smartphone, then you’re stuck.

So when it came to buying a microwave, I had to look around quite carefully. I know you can get a Talking Microwave from Cobolt, but it’s quite expensive at £225 and seemed overkill for what we needed. All we needed was a microwave with tactile buttons that beeps at you when you press them, because that’s enough for us to know what we’re doing.  And thankfully I found one on Amazon – the Russell Hobbs RHEM1901B Flatbed Digital 700w Microwave.

The right side of the black coloured microwave. A screen at the top shows the time in clear red figures. Below this are 4 large round buttons, each with white text to the left of them - for Microwave, Defrost, Stop and Start respectively.

This only has a few buttons, all of which are big and easy to feel, and a nice clear clock that I can read. To set the time, you simply press the Microwave button multiple times – each time you do so, it beeps and advances the time by 30 seconds. Then once it gets to 5 minutes, each press adds a minute to the time instead. So by knowing this, it’s easy to set the time just by counting the beeps. The microwave doesn’t have a turntable either, so it’s much easier to clean, and the food is still cooked properly. So we’re very happy with it.

RADAR Key

A RADAR key, which is just a large silver key with a large rounded head.

A RADAR key unlocks disabled toilets across the UK, so people with disabilities aren’t caught short when they’re out and about. You can get the keys from many places – I got mine from Amazon for instance. I don’t tend to use it when I’m out and about on my own, as I’m comfortable using the regular gents toilets (assuming the signs are clear enough and I don’t accidentally walk into the ladies). Though if a disabled toilet is more convenient then I will use one occasionally. But it’s often more useful if I’m taking my mother out somewhere, as her sight loss is more severe than mine.

Conclusion

And that’s it, those are all the things I want to mention for now. And things do change over time, so if I get anything new in the future, or if I think of anything seriously important that I’ve forgotten, I can do a supplementary post about them. I will certainly write about my current iPhone apps soon, as a second part to this post in effect.

I also appreciate that affording various aids can be difficult for some disabled people. I’m able to use the income from my Disability Living Allowance and my wages, but for others it’s not that convenient. However, there is help available, such as grants from RNIB, so don’t assume that it’s not possible. It’s worth asking charities like that to see what assistance might be available.

So I hope you found this interesting. If you did, you may want to check out these posts by my friends too:

You can also check out my page of Sight Loss Technology Links, which might highlight things you didn’t know about.

Update: The RNIB have also kindly shared this post on Facebook and Twitter. Take a look at the comments of the Facebook post in particular, where other people have discussed the aids they use.

And if there’s anything else you think I should check out, whether it be visual aids, gadgets, Alexa skills or whatever, then do feel free to let me know. Thanks for reading!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger & Youtuber with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

8 thoughts on “My Visual Impairment Aids & Gadgets”

  1. Thank you so much for the mention Glen. This was a great post, I’m sure it will help many people. I have an Amazon Echo as well, the tune in/radioplayer skills are great, audible, Kindle, AnyPod for listening to podcasts are useful as well, and also games such as rock paper scissors and some quiz games are fun too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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