The most widely recognised aid and symbol of blindness is the white stick. It is also one of the most useful aids because it identifies the patient as blind and encourages others to give assistance. Many blind people are concerned that they appear ill-mannered when failing to recognise someone and are grateful for some indication of their handicap.
Many different electronic devices have been tried but by and large these are only useful to younger patients who can make full use of them. Scanning systems are now available which, when moved across the page, can read out the page. Most blind patients are unable to afford this type of aid. Many of these devices rely on the patient's hearing to identify an audible warning signal, but most blind people prefer to use their undistracted sense of hearing as an important clue to their whereabouts.
Guide dogs are specially trained by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Society and the patient must also take part in the training. Some young people find that a guide dog can expand their mobility to a great degree.
Certain tactile aids are also useful, the best known of which is Braille. This system of reading for the blind was introduced from France more than 100 years ago. The letters of the alphabet are represented by numbers of raised dots on stiff paper. Blind children can learn Braille rapidly and develop a high reading speed. Some adults find that their fingers are not sufficiently sensitive and this applies especially to diabetics. Books in Braille are now available in many different languages. Tape recordings of books and newspapers are now very popular among blind and partially sighted people of all ages. The Talking-Book Service provides a comprehensive library for the use of the visually disabled.
There are numerous other gadgets that can be helpful to the blind and partially sighted; a popular one is the device that can indicate whether a teacup is full or not. For those with some residual vision, a special telephone pad with large numbers on it can be helpful. Other ingenious devices range from relief maps that can be felt by the blind person, to a telephone that speaks back through the earpiece the digit that has just been pressed. Research has also been carried out on aids that signal the position of objects by means of electrical stimuli to the skin and even by means of implanted electrodes in the visual cortex.
One important advance has been voice synthesis by computers. Many current models have this facility, so that the user can hear emails, and programmes are available to allow printing in Braille. In spite of these advances, the elderly visually handicapped patient can benefit most from someone who is prepared to give the time to read out letters or books. Some voluntary local societies can provide this service.
When the patient has a visual acuity of better than 6/60, much can be achieved by the use of optical magnification. An ordinary hand magnifying glass is the simplest and can often be the most effective form of assistance. If this is not adequate and the patient has been a keen reader, a telescopic lens can be fitted to a spectacle frame with advantage. These multi-lens systems are known as low visual aids and hence the popular "LVA" clinics in eye departments for the testing and provision of these items. Apart from special telescopic lenses, closed-circuit television aids are now available: a small television camera is held over the page and a magnified view of the written material is presented on a television screen.
The well-being of a blind or partially sighted person can be greatly enhanced by relatively simple social measures. Advice in the home about the use of gas or electricity can be important and the patient can be made aware of the availability of local social clubs for the blind or keep-fit classes and bus outings. An elderly patient who plays the piano can be helped by the provision of an enlarged photocopy of a favourite piece of music. In spite of all these various possibilities, one must not forget that the simplest and most useful reading aid for a partially sighted person is a good light directed onto the page. The distance of the bulb from the page is as important as the wattage of the bulb.
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