Hi-tech devices help visually impaired

James McCarthy may look like an avid photographer, but all he's trying to do is a get good look around. At 17, a swollen optic nerve shattered his sight.

"They weren't able to treat it quickly enough and I lost my vision in my right eye totally. My left has 5-percent vision remaining," said McCarthy.

By 2030, some experts estimate 30 million Americans will have some degree of low vision. Not fully blind, the seeing-impaired often feel misunderstood.

"We tell them we have low vision, but people don't understand what low vision is," said McCarthy.

James finds it difficult to decipher faces, bus signs, travel schedules, even street names.

"It can be a little dangerous, following traffic, especially in the cities or taking mass transit," said McCarthy.

That's why James relies on a variety of visual aid devices like the one called the FarView.

"It's a great tool for students because students then can point it at the chalk board and take a picture of their notes," said Andre Hardy, Optelec.

Then they can zoom in all the way in.

Reading street signs, getting around, functioning in a classroom those are important things. But have you ever thought about how a low vision person orders something new at a restaurant? They can have a hard time reading a menu. That's where a device like this comes in. It gives them the independence they thought they'd lost.

"Which is really what the products are about. Making sure that people maintain their independence once they have visual impairment," said Hardy.

Optelec, the makers of the 1,500 FarView, displayed their products at the recent CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Expo. They have a camera attachment, designed for laptops. It helps users zero in on whatever they're trying to make out. And if reading books and magazines are a problem, the Clear View Plus enlarges any fine print.

"And what this will do is it will magnify and allow them to do things like pay the bills, read the paper," said Hardy.

Which may sound dull, but for James it's an absolute treat.

"This is the first time I've been able to read a menu in a fast food restaurant since I was 17 and visually impaired. And it's such a thrill," said McCarthy.

The various Optelec devices range in price from $1,500 to $3,700. Unfortunately, these devices aren't usually covered under health insurance.



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