Assistive devices for low-vision and hearing-impaired people

23 Jan 2014

I was visiting someone recently who has severe vision and hearing problems. The number and types of assistive devices that he has is amazing. Most of them came from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Memory takes the place of vision with some of these devices: each has its own controls and layout to remember. It’s quite amazing to watch someone use them all. Click the images to see them larger.

Prescription-label readerThe ScripTalk Station reads prescription labels aloud. It gets information from an RFID chip in the label, so the medication has to come from a pharmacy that uses these labels (like the VA).

An occupational therapist provided some interesting tips: put a rubber band at the top of a bottle for morning doses, and at the bottom for evening. Turn the bottle over after taking the meds, then reset it the next day.

High-volume phoneAs it says on the handset, this is a LOUD telephone. I had to turn it way down to use it. The buttons are large enough for many low-vision people (and I blurred out the names on the top of the phone).

People with severe vision problems can contact the phone company to get an exemption from directory assistance charges. AT&T offers services through its Accessibility & Disability Services and The National Center for Customers with Disabilities.

TV listening deviceWilliams Sound makes SoundPlus TV listening devices like this. The base connects to the television, and sends the sound via infrared signals to the receiver, which the listener wears.

Sound on the television can be at a regular level for people without hearing problems, and the wearer can adjust the volume on the receiver.

Magnifier and text reader Two reading devices: On the left, is a magnifier. You can see the corner of a yellow page under the screen. This is good for simple documents.

On the right is the Extreme Reader by Second Vision. It does text-to-speech conversion and reads documents out loud. You can see a newspaper in the device, and the simple control panel with four big buttons. It’s obviously slower than reading on your own, but it’s an amazing thing to have when you can’t.

Talking blood pressure cuffThis HealthSmart blood pressure cuff speaks instructions, measures blood pressure and then speaks the results. It provides a general diagnosis (“According to World Health Organization recommendations…”)

I saw a similar device for measuring blood glucose levels.

Very large-type calendar Not everything is electronic. Large-print calendars like this are very helpful. One source for them is LS&S, “the catalog of products for the visually impaired and hard of hearing”. Other simple accommodations include small velcro strips on washing machines and dishwashers to help get oriented on the control panels.

Color and light meterThis one is my favorite: Press the red button to hear what color an item is, which can help vision-impaired people pick coordinating clothing (or carpets, for that matter).

Press the yellow button to get an audible signal that indicates the light level of the room. You don’t want to invite friends over for coffee if they can’t see the cake!


A simple solution for elder security

17 Apr 2013

I was visiting at a senior living community lately, and saw a great low-tech security device.

Security marker set

Security personnel walk the halls overnight, flipping these little markers up against the doors of each apartment…

Security marker released

… and when the resident opens the door, the marker falls. Security staff walk through the halls during the morning and can check on anyone whose marker isn’t released.

AEDs: a great example of design

30 Jun 2011

I took the refresher course for the American Heart Association’s Heartsaver CPR & AED course recently.  Once again, I was impressed with the design of AEDs.

Wikipedia describes an AED as

An automated external defibrillator or AED is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses the potentially life threatening cardiac arrhythmias of ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia in a patient, and is able to treat them through defibrillation, the application of electrical therapy which stops the arrhythmia, allowing the heart to reestablish an effective rhythm.

While they may be used by EMTs with a lot of training, they’re also used by people who happen to come across a person in distress. You can imagine how anxious such a user is, so the devices must be really easy to use.

And they are. Once you open the device and turn it on, it tells you what to do, step by step.

Here’s a video I found on YouTube that shows a typical one. (The demo starts at 00:1:00 into the video.)

You might be trained on one brand of device and have to use a different brand if you come across an emergency in a store or public library. I don’t think it matters, because they walk you through the process, showing and saying what to do at each step.

I’m not sure why they’re all so well-designed. Maybe one company figured it out and the others copied, or maybe the Red Cross or Heart Association made suggestions to all of the manufacturers.

Have you taken AED training? Have you ever used one in real life? How did it work?

Testing a microphone design in a radiology lab

29 Sep 2010

After designing software for physicians to use in dictating patient notes, I helped the client design a microphone. It had buttons for controlling the recording, for dealing with the speech-to-text conversion, and for controlling the mouse pointer. This made it the only device the user needed to use with the dictation software.

Wood microphone prototype

Low-fidelity mockups (blocks of wood) from a design workshop

It was a great project. We started with a Group Design Workshop, where participants brainstormed ideas and then marked up blocks of wood to show how they wanted the microphone to work.  (More about Group Design Workshops.)

We did several rounds of refinement and usability testing. Late in the project, we took a non-working model to a radiology lab, where radiologists studied actual MRI images. We asked them to hold the new microphone as if they were really using it, and tell us how it felt in their hands, how they liked the buttons and how it compared with the mic they currently used.

Radiology lab used in testing the microphone

A radiology workstation

This photo shows a radiology work area. The item marked “A” is actually a sandwich, but it’s where  one physician put the microphone down. He was engrossed in the MRI image, but was reasonably careful with the mic. Location “B” is a basket for papers that another physician used as a storage place for the microphone.

The lessons

We learned two important things that day:

  • Microphone holder or fruit bowl? We had been thinking about designing a holder for the microphone, something to stick on the side of a monitor. I realized that the radiologists weren’t as careful about the device as we expected they would be. Not that they were careless, but they were so much more focused on the images they were reading. Half-jokingly, I suggested we use a big fruit bowl with sloping sides as a holder. The mic would slide into the bowl, and it would provide a big target. The client eventually went with a standard holder, but seeing how people actually used the device was eye-opening.
  • It’s different at a hospital than a usability lab. We knew beforehand that this would be a real work situation, but seeing the radiologists reading real MRI images made us realize the seriousness of interrupting them. We modified the study a little to make sure they could concentrate on their work as much as they needed to.

We got good results in the study, the microphone went into production and it is still being used, many years later. In fact, I just found that it’s for sale at, with and without the holder. See it at