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Top Tech Tools
by Nolan Crabb
Jefferson City, Missouri

If you've ever closed your eyes and stood in the center of a large, loud Las Vegas casino, you know firsthand how disorienting and overwhelming it feels. Trying to figure out what type of assistive technology will best meet your needs is almost like standing in a casino. The cacophony of synthetic voices and ideas from well-meaning, highly opinionated friends as to which piece of equipment or software you should buy can be confusing and let's face it; buying assistive technology is a gamble. In this roundup of top tech tools, you'll find information about where to get assistive technology and the costs involved. We promise not to add to the emotional arguments of those intent on telling you what you should own and why. It's our hope that, with this overview, you'll undertake your own thoughtful investigation. Find a quiet, contemplative place to review the information you glean from your research, contact vendors and ask lots of questions, get hands-on experience whenever possible, obtain demo copies of software when available, and make an educated decision you won't regret.

Closed Circuit Televisions
Closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) enable a person with a vision impairment to place a print document under a camera and have the text of the document enlarged and the contrast changed, making it easier to read. Optelec offers several options in its line of ClearView Video Magnifiers and Enhanced Vision Systems offers the Merlin family of desktop video magnifiers. Prices for video magnifiers start at around $2,000.

Handheld Magnifiers
Some of the same companies that make CCTVs also make handheld magnifiers. Handheld magnifiers are small devices that use a combination of lenses and electronic imaging to make documents easier to see. HumanWare Group's Pocket Viewer is one example of a portable magnifier. It can magnify up to 7x. It's priced in the US at around $800.

Screen Magnifiers
Screen magnifiers are used by people with varying degrees of vision loss. A screen magnifier is software that enables you to increase the size and alter the contrast of text on a computer screen. You can limit magnification to a specific section of the screen and change the size and shape of the cursor and mouse pointer. You can even use a screen magnifier and screen reader (speech) together. Perhaps the best known of the screen magnifiers is ZoomText, available from AI Squared. ZoomText Magnifier costs $395; ZoomText Magnifier/ScreenReader costs $595. Another popular screen magnifier is MAGic from Freedom Scientific. Without speech MAGic costs $345; with speech the cost is $545. There are less expensive options including BigShot, $99, from AI Squared, but such solutions may not be helpful depending on the degree of your vision loss.

Screen Readers
A screen reader is software designed to capture and verbalize text on the computer screen. If you've considered buying a screen reader recently, you are probably aware of the two market leaders. Window-Eyes from GW Micro costs $795 and JAWS for Windows, available from Freedom Scientific, costs $895. If price is a factor, consider a screen reader with fewer features such as Connect Outloud, available from Freedom Scientific, which supports basic word processing, e-mail, and Internet browsing for $249.

Scanners and OCR Software
Optical character recognition (OCR) software allows you to place a book or other print document on a scanner, scan the text, and convert the text into digital information that can be read with a screen magnifier or screen reader. There are two types of OCR programs. One type is specifically designed for blind and visually impaired users; the other type is designed for the mainstream, but many people who are blind have learned to use the off-the-shelf programs very well. In the area of programs designed for blind users, the two leaders are the Kurzweil 1000, $995, from Kurzweil Educational Systems and OpenBook, $995, from Freedom Scientific. A less expensive alternative is Premier Assistive Technology's Scan and Read Pro, $149.95, which includes built-in speech and the ability to alter the appearance of documents for visually impaired users. An off-the-shelf commercial alternative is ScanSoft's OmniPage Pro version 14. The street price is $599, but you can get the full version for under $100 from an online vendor such as It's also available at most office supply stores.

Embossers or braille printers generate print text into braille documents. Software such as the Duxbury Braille Translator is required to translate text into braille code prior to embossing. ViewPlus Technologies offers a series of embossers that are known for their ability to produce high-quality braille graphics. ViewPlus embossers range in price from $3,995 for the ViewPlus Cub Jr. to $9,750 for the ViewPlus Pro. The industry leader in braille embossers remains Enabling Technologies. Embossers from Enabling Technologies range in price from $1,895 for the Romeo Attaché to $36,995 for the BraillePlace, a commercial embosser that produces 300 characters per second. The Juliet Classic, $3,795, is Enabling Technologies best-selling embosser.

Notetakers are essentially portable computers that include synthetic speech and in some cases, braille displays. These units are perfect for people on the go who need robust computing power in a small package that provides instant access to books, audio files, and documents. Until recently the battle of the notetaker titans was confined to offerings from HumanWare Group and Freedom Scientific. HumanWare Group offers the BrailleNote notetaker and the Maestro, a talking personal data assistant (PDA). Freedom Scientific offers the Personal All-purpose Computer Mate or PAC Mate. Both the BrailleNote and the PAC Mate offer a variety of features important to on-the-go computer users. The Maestro is somewhat more limited in terms of features, but it's less expensive. The PAC Mate starts at around $2,000 and the BrailleNote at around $5,000 depending on the options you choose. Maestro costs $995. All three notetakers are capable of communicating with personal computers and transferring data.

Whether you're buying a screen reader or a braille embosser, you'll quickly discover that your purchase is less of a gamble the more information you can gather. So regardless of the noise of salespeople and the loudly voiced opinions of others, gather as much information as you can, analyze your needs carefully, and make the most informed decision possible.


 AI Squared 

 Enabling Technologies 

 Enhanced Vision Systems 

 Freedom Scientific 

 GW Micro 

 HumanWare Group 

Kurzweil Educational Systems


Premier Assistive Technology, Inc.

ViewPlus Technologies

Editor's Note: See "Magnifiers, Great and Small," this issue, for more information about CCTVs and handheld magnifiers.

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