Holding a length of thread near the eye of a hand-sewing needle, Valerie Lewis makes a quick downward motion and voilà! the needle is threaded.
"This is a wonderful gadget," says Lewis with a chuckle.
The object of her praise is not a new product, but it is one in a grab bag full of both manual and electronic products that have been developed for people with low vision and other disabilities. Many products such as the "self-threading needle" have been available for awhile, but Lewis says that the visually impaired often are not familiar with how these simple tools may be able to assist them with everyday living.
Lewis is the administrator of outreach services for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and also heads up its Talking Book program. Her office shelves are lined with an array of reading devices for people with "low vision," including hand-held devices and the closed-circuit television (CCTV) that magnifies almost anything in print, such as newspapers, magazines, books and even handwritten cards and letters.
"Anyone can make a courtesy appointment to come here [Bellport] to try out and compare the features of these reading aids," Lewis says. "We show how they work and let people know where they can purchase items if they find something they like."
Lewis has been legally blind for 29 years, and she is a prime example of how technology and services have empowered her lifestyle and career. Her husband, Herbert Lewis, who teaches classes in operations and research at Stony Brook University is also legally blind. Both use SCAT/Paratransit, a Suffolk County-run transportation system which provides low-cost curb-to-curb rides for people with disabilities to and from work or other destinations. Nassau County's counterpart is called ABLE-RIDE (see box).
On May 11, the Suffolk Cooperative Library System will also host "See for Yourself," in Bellport, a free event where 20 or so vendors will display and demonstrate the latest in visual aids.
Bill Dale, director of Low Vision Services at Helen Keller Services for the Blind, says, "Products like these can be invaluable to people with diminished eyesight." Data from the 2010 U.S. Census indicates there are about 45,000 Long Islanders with low vision. "Low vision is indicated when an individual sees 20/70 or lower on the standard eye chart," Dale explains.
Years ago, a magnifying glass was one of the few visual aids available. Now, there are many low vision products that help with reading, writing and everyday living that are readily available through the Internet. Websites with products for low vision and other disabilities include lighthouse.org/store, shoplowvision.com and the Long Island-based independentliving.com and maxiaids.com. Catalogs can be ordered online in most cases.
Some of Lewis' favorite products include "Bump Dots" and Flair pens. "I put the 'dots' -- which are little peel-and- stick 'bumps,' on my thermostat and microwave and keyboard to indicate by feel certain temperatures or letters. And the Flair draws a dark, easy-to-read line that doesn't bleed through the paper. And, of course, I love to 'read' Talking Books at home while I do household tasks like ironing my husband's shirts."
Of course, anyone having vision problems should see a doctor. And Dale suggests that patients ask their eye doctors for a referral to a low vision specialist who is certified by the New York State Optometric Association. Ophthalmology clinics at Stony Brook University Medical Center (631-444-4090), Long Island Jewish Medical Center (800-222-9816) and New York State Optometric Association (nysoa.org) are also sources for referrals.
"Many people whose vision is diminishing don't know how much help is out there in terms of products and services that can help them see better," says optometrist Gwen Gnadt, a certified low vision specialist who works with patients at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She instructs patients in the use of state-of-the-art reading aids, such as the Eye-Pal SOLO, one of the latest "text-to-speech" devices which can convert printed documents into an audible "voice." While medical checkups are recommended for those with minor diminished reading ability, patients may be helped by one of the popular devices in the current crop of electronic tablets such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook that have features to increase the print size. Most Apple products come with voice control.
Low vision evaluation exams by optometrists and devices to improve visual acuity often are not covered by medical insurance plans. However, a wide range of free programs is available at Helen Keller Services for the Blind, a not-for-profit organization with locations in Hempstead, Huntington and most recently, Sands Point. "We have a low vision clinic with a certified doctor on staff, employment services, a senior center and much more," says Deborah Costa, the agency's Suffolk coordinator for Rehabilitation Services. "To qualify for our free services, which include training and certain adaptive devices, a legally blind person must apply to our program and be approved."
Costa also visits the homes of approved clients to help them deal with mobility and travel issues. Often, she says, she suggests "simple safety changes, like taping down a scatter rug or adding a grab-rail in the bathtub."
The Helen Keller centers have access to many visual aids including hand-held and CCTV magnifiers and Costa teaches clients how to use them. There are "talking" devices like watches that cost $10-$50; a clock-phone-radio for $50; paper money identifier for $100 and much more,
Cindy Fagan, 40, who has low vision, uses a SenseView Video Magnifier, a miniature closed circuit TV that enlarges small print. The device helps her manage her St. James home, she says, and "it's especially useful in stores to check those tiny labels and prices on so many items."
It's just one of the products that has helped to improve her everyday living. "Society has set up barriers for us all, especially for people with disabilities," Fagan says, "but with the help of technology, community awareness and a lot of patience, we can all lead productive lives."
The "See for Yourself 2012 Assistive Technical and Resource Fair for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired" event has been held every other year since 1996. Vendors will display and demonstrate the latest in visual aids. Admission is free.
WHEN Friday, May 11, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE Suffolk Cooperative Library System, 627 North Service Rd. (of Sunrise Hwy.), Bellport, N.Y. 11713
Talking Books Program
The National Library Service operates a free mail order lending library of 70,000 titles, plus a portable player for individuals with disabilities.
Call (toll-free) 855-697-6975 for an application and information.
Helen Keller Services for the Blind
40 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-424-0022
1 Helen Keller Way, Hempstead, between Cooper and Fulton Streets, 516-485-1234
141 Middle Neck Rd., Sands Point, 516-944-8900
Curb-to-curb transportation for people with disabilities
SCAT/PARATRANSIT (Suffolk County Accessible Transit)
$3 each way; 631-853-8333
ABLE-RIDE3/4 (Nassau County)
$3.75 each way; 516-228-4000