Christmas comes early to the visually impaired of Alabama

Published 1:38 pm Friday, December 8, 2023

By BARTON PERKINS | Staff Writer

PELHAM – The technician adjusts the camera, and the patient’s face appears on the screen in a sharp clear image. 

“A lot of women use this to help put on their make-up in the morning,” the technician says.

The patient smiles and touches her cheek, looking at the screen like she hasn’t seen her face clearly in years. In truth, it’s probably the case.

On Friday, Dec. 8, Sight Savers America held a “Christmas Comes Early” event for children and adults with severe visual impairment living in the greater Birmingham area. 24 different patients were given devices designed to help them live their day-to-day lives more easily.

“Some of the devices are magnification devices that make things bigger so that if you have a vision impairment, you can see it anyway,” said Dawn K. DeCarlo, chief executive officer of Sight Savers. “With this, you can blow things up to 118 times bigger, so even if you have a visual impairment, then you can still see and get that visual information that’s important for visual life.”

These devices, belonging to the brands Onyx and Vispero, are essentially mounted cameras that hook up to specialized monitor screens. DeCarlo notes that while this technology has existed since the ‘70s, it has been continuously updated and allows both children with visual impairment to stay on track academically with their peers and allows seniors to retain their independence as they begin to lose their sight due to conditions like macular degeneration.

“For seniors, this is something that can often let them age in place,” DeCarlo said. “So, sometimes you have to move out of your home if you can’t see, to know how much Tylenol you’re supposed to take. Or to know how to make a box of macaroni and cheese. How can  you live independently like that?”

While this technology can be life changing for many people, allowing seniors to be able to apply their own makeup or read their bible once again, the cost of a device is often incredibly prohibitive as they can cost up to $3,000.

“These devices aren’t covered by any form of insurance,” Jennifer Haddox, chief program officer of Sight Savers said. “If you’re a senior living on your Social Security check, purchasing a $3,000 device so you can stay independent is probably not something that you can do.”

While some might think that these devices could be mimicked with something more affordably put together, like a web camera hooked up to a monitor, they cannot be easily replicated due to their ability to generate high levels of contrast in the images they produce.

“Poor contrast is a significant problem for most people living with vision impairment,” Haddox said. “Take a newspaper like the Shelby County Reporter.  it’s not a stark white background, it’s an off white background. And the print is a dark gray not black. But these devices can take that Shelby County reporter and make it look like it came off a laser printer (black and white), which dramatically enhances the ability of people to see.”

Sight Savers is able to help bridge the financially prohibitive nature of these devices and provide these devices to the adults and children of the community who desperately need them. The group receives referrals from hospitals, like UAB, and helps match patients with the devices that will best serve them and their needs without needing to pay for their devices.

As a nonprofit organization, Sight Savers is funded primarily through grants and donations. For more information visit Sightsaversamerica.org.