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Magnifiers: An important tool or outdated concept?

20 March 2017

From devices that that bring to mind a traditional magnifying glass, to newer ones that use cameras and digital displays to enlarge text and objects, the world of magnifiers is a vast one.

Varying in price from less than $100 to those that cost thousands, it would appear there is a magnifier to suit the need of anybody, but while there may be no shortage of choice, is it time to reconsider the place magnifiers have in supporting people with low vision to access written material?

Refreshable displays have removed some of the inconvenience associated with braille materials, while devices like DAISY Players have made audio books easier to navigate and the range of screen reading software now available has helped make computers more accessible. Have these devices made magnifiers redundant?

Paul Paradigm, Vision Australia Access Technology Specialist, believes magnifiers haven’t reached their use-by date.

“Magnification is still the primary access method for people who have low vision. People who have low vision want to be able to use the remaining vision they have and magnifiers help them do that,” says Paul.

“It’s particularly true for people who may acquire their low vision due to something like macular degeneration. They’re used to being able to read and they don’t want to change the way they’ve been doing things.”

A question of suitability

 

While there’s still an important place for magnifiers in the lives of people with low vision, Paul says the tasks they’re used for may need to be re-assessed.

 “A lot of the people that come to Vision Australia do so because they’re having trouble reading and they want help with that,” he says.

“People will come in and they will have this expectation that magnifiers are something that are going to let them keep reading their novels or the newspaper, but the reality is they’re unlikely to use them for that.”

While the idea of magnifying text may seem like a common sense approach to assist somebody with low vision to read something like a book or newspaper, Paul says the devices don’t quite meet the needs of those tasks.

In many cases, an individual’s level of vision may be so low that they require magnification that would allow them to read only one letter at a time. In other circumstances they may only have peripheral vision remaining, which may also make magnifiers ineffective for extended reading.

Though they may not be suitable if somebody is looking to read for hours on end, a magnifier may very well be something that helps a person living with low vision to retain their independence.

“Where magnifiers are effective is for spot reading,” Paul says.  

“I’m talking about bills, identifying your mail and looking at medication. There are other tools out there that can help with that, but magnification is always going to be the best for those sorts of things.

“If a magnifying device can help you do those things it could easily be the difference between staying in your own home and moving into a nursing home.”

A starting point

 

Though magnifiers may not be the perfect device to help people with low vision access all written material, they can play an important role in helping introduce people to other forms of assistive technology.

“As a consultant, I have to respect the client’s choice. I can explain there might be other options for them, but it’s their decision,” Paul says. 

“In saying that, a magnification device might be the starting point before somebody moves to other technologies. We can start with them and show the things they can really help with and then explain how speech to text software can help in the areas where magnifiers might not have the same benefits.”

Despite believing magnifiers still have an important role to play for people with low vision, Paul does caution people about rushing into a purchase.

“I think of late there’s been a lot of technological advances to drive the industry, rather than to be better solutions for people,” he says.

“All people want these devices to do is to magnify. Some of the newer models with things like touch screens in my opinion tend to overcomplicate things.

“Some of the devices can be quite expensive. You don’t want somebody to spend thousands of dollars on something that they end up not using. If somebody is thinking about buying one of these I would definitely suggest they get as much training as possible before they do.”

More information about magnifiers and other assistive technologies can be found on the Vision Australia website or by contacting Vision Australia by phone on 1300 84 74 66 or email info@visionaustralia.org.

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