Assistive apps for smartphones could help seniors with low vision regain some of their independence and relieve caregiver burden at the same time. But there’s a problem: Many older Americans who could benefit from apps designed for those with visual impairment do not use them. In fact, while 15.2% of people over the age of 75 reported having vision loss that could not be corrected through prescription lenses, only 6% of older smartphone users take advantage of these types of apps.
Initial findings from a study cited in the Review of Optometry listed two reasons for this. First, most people who could benefit from the apps didn’t even know that they existed. Second, those who did know about the apps were unclear on how to use them and needed assistance to learn.
“While apps are likely to be more intuitive for younger users, extensive training may be required for novice users who are visually impaired seniors that are motivated to learn them,” the researchers said.
They instead suggested that seniors who need that level of training ask their optometrists for a referral to a rehabilitation center specializing in low vision.
The link between visual impairment and dementia is also a great reason to get seniors connected with the assistive technology available through their phones. These apps could help relieve some of the confusion that stems from low vision.
How low vision apps can help
Two main types of smartphone apps are used to help someone who’s visually impaired: magnifiers and screen readers. Magnifiers work in a similar manner as magnifying glasses, except they can be much more powerful. They also come with additional digital features such as screen freeze and a flashlight. Screen readers use text-to-speech technology to allow users to navigate their devices without the need to see the screen.
Speech-to-text can be just as important to someone with low vision as text-to-speech, but a separate app is generally not needed—though there are dedicated dictation apps available. Both Android and iPhone devices come with easy-to-use speech-to-text; just look for the microphone icon on the keyboard to activate voice commands.
Like screen readers, audiobooks are also an option for seniors who love to read. Digital books are available on a variety of apps, including Amazon’s Audible and Apple’s Books. Because they’re read by a human narrator, audiobooks can be more user-friendly for visually impaired people than screen readers for long passages.
For those who are more significantly visually impaired, there are even apps that can identify objects for the user or help them reach out to sighted volunteers who can offer descriptions using the phone’s camera.
Best apps for low vision accessibility
Most smartphones come pre-loaded with at least some accessibility features, and enabling them can simply be a matter of enabling the apps. Many other accessibility apps are free to download, so explore some of these popular options:
The VoiceOver screen reader comes standard on Apple’s iOS devices, including iPhones. It can be used to browse the internet, explore maps, utilize the phone’s different functions and more. According to Apple, VoiceOver has the ability to interpret forms, tables and lists from PDFs. Learn more about how to use VoiceOver by watching this video.
For Android users, TalkBack is the standard screen reader. It can also be accessed through Settings (though AbilityNet notes the app may be listed as VoiceAssistant or Accessibility Suite in some phones). TalkBack aims to give “eyes-free control of your device” in order to allow navigation of both the phone itself as well as the internet. Learn more about TalkBack from this video.
Available through Apple’s App Store, this magnifying app was designed specifically for iPads but it works on iPhones, too. The magnifier has been recognized by the American Foundation for the Blind, and the app boasts senior-friendly technology that allows for reading small print up close as well as bringing distant signs and points of interest into focus. Using the zoom magnification is as easy as pointing the device’s camera and holding down on the screen. There’s a built-in flashlight and images can be frozen at a high resolution, making them crisp, clean and easy to see.
If you take care of a senior who happens to be an Android user instead, consider the Magnifier + Flashlight on the Play Store, which has similar features.
Seeing AI and TapTapSee
Another app for the iOS system, Seeing AI is a talking camera that identifies objects in the environment for the blind or visually impaired. It works with money, products, people and short amounts of text. Android users have a similar app available to them called TapTapSee, which will describe whatever the user takes a picture of.
This app adds a real-time, human component to assistive technology. Aira’s website describes how this mobile app works for low-vision users: “Using the camera and an app on your smartphone, a trained agent will assist by visually interpreting your surroundings, from describing to reading, from explaining to navigating—just about anything, safely and securely.”
While screen readers are available for Kindles and other e-readers, audiobooks may be more to many seniors’ liking. Narrated by real people, these digital books can help keep seniors with vision impairment entertained and stave off loneliness. Many seniors who loved to read before their eyesight became impaired will also appreciate being able to immerse themselves in a story at their leisure. Apple Books and Audible are both popular options. However, for seniors with low vision or cognitive deficits who want something more simple, the Homer Player may be a better option.