Over the last decade, assistive technology has become an increasingly significant tool in the way medical practitioners provide care and interact with children with vision impairments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.8% of American children younger than 18 years old have a diagnosed eye condition, and nearly 3% of these children are blind or visually impaired. For many children in this age group, the simplest parts of their everyday lives, like participating in class discussions, reading books and watching television, can be daunting endeavors.
Within the past decade there have been a growing number of resources that help facilitate education and achieve necessary learning milestones for children facing these issues. Here are a few new devices that medical professionals can discuss with parents or utilize themselves to help enhance care for children with vision loss and other optical diseases.
Smartphone-based Mobile Health Systems
Medical practitioners are continuously finding new ways to incorporate technology into the diagnostics and treatments of their pediatric patients with visual impairments. Physicians can now utilize mobile devices to diagnose infants with certain ophthalmic disorders. The Apollo Infant Sight (AIS) is a smartphone-based mobile health (mHealth) system that captures image frames of children gazing at cartoon-like videos to identify visual impairments. Because young children are unable to undergo standard vision tests, the timely detection of vision issues in infants often goes unnoticed. With devices like AIS, physicians can make critical diagnoses during the first few years of a child’s life and prevent or minimize long-term visual impairments or vision loss.
While preventative technology is a critical need for medical practitioners, technology that helps improve a patient’s quality of life after their diagnosis is just as crucial for both physicians and patients alike. Readily accessible smartphone-based technology can become a tool from diagnosis to life-after-diagnosis. Be My Eyes is a nonprofit that provides visual tools for low-vision users, and its app’s latest upgrade includes a “Virtual Volunteer” system. Users can send images via the app to an AI-powered visual assistant that will answer any question about that image and provide instantaneous responses for a variety of tasks. For children who are blind or visually impaired and already use their smartphone or tablet as a tool, this type of technology can be helpful for young digital natives to better navigate their physical environments.
Portable and Wearable Vision Technology
Assistive devices like screen readers, magnification tools and vision-enhancing glasses are essential resources for improving the lives of children with vision loss. School-aged children with varying eye conditions may require adjustments and assistive devices to help better facilitate access to education. Vision-enhancing technology, such as eSight’s assistive glasses, is playing an integral role in helping patients navigate the world with visual impairments. With eSight glasses, patients can achieve up to 20/20 visual acuity, an astronomical improvement for those with eye conditions such as macular degeneration, optic nerve hypoplasia, Stargardt’s disease and more.
Commercially available smart magnifiers can be cost-effective tools for children and students with eye conditions. The Prodigi Connect 12 allows children with vision loss to read, learn and explore like any other child. Magnifiers like this can produce a powerfully crisp image up to 24x that of the original text or image, and utilize optical character recognition (OCR) and text-to-speech (TTS) assistance.
A large majority of accessibility tools and technology for children are designed for one-on-one use specifically for those with disabilities, which can be marked as an othering differentiator from other group activities in an educational setting. A 2014 study from the University of Hertfordshire showed that children with visual impairments often struggle perceiving conversations and recognizing non-verbal cues compared to other children. Scientists created Dash the robot to help children with mixed abilities (visual and otherwise) better foster relationships and discussions with one another in group activities. The robot is designed to move from one child in the conversation to the next and act as a listening buddy to understand how each child contributed to the conversation, and in turn help encourage participation and conversation engagement with suggestions.
Technological innovators are becoming more creative with developing technology that meets the needs of children with disabilities such as vision loss. These robotics can also be used by social workers and counselors to guide interactions and better accommodate children with low vision.
As assistive technology continues to break boundaries for those with disabilities and the gap between those with and without visual impairments will lessen. Devices that help diagnose, teach basic skills or actively improve visual abilities such as AIS, Dash the robot, eSight glasses and more, are crucial resources for children with visual impairments and are just the start to creating a more inclusive world for tomorrow’s youth.
Roland Mattern is Director of Marketing & Sales for eSight.