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Life-changing technology is helping blind people see

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    Kasandra Romero, 16, and Benjamin Murray at PeopleWorks of Northwest Ohio in Bryan, Ohio, on Tuesday, August 22.

    The Blade/Kurt Steiss
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    Kasandra Romero, 16, speaks about her experience with eSight at PeopleWorks of Northwest Ohio in Bryan, Ohio, on Tuesday, August 22.

    The Blade/Kurt Steiss
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Some students who wear glasses — or perhaps should wear glasses — can make do with a desk near the front of the classroom.

That wasn’t the case for Kasandra Romero. When she started her freshman year at Montpelier High School last fall, she would have to literally stand in front of the board to see if her teachers had scrawled anything of importance. Kasandra is legally blind, with retinopathy of prematurity leaving her corrected vision so poor that she can’t make out even the face of someone sitting beside her.

But the future is looking bright, or rather, clear, for Kasandra these days.

The 16-year-old sophomore is part of a growing client list for eSight, a set of electronic glasses that uses camera magnification to assist those for whom a prescription is not enough. It’s one of numerous tools geared toward the visually impaired to crop up on the market in recent years, and for Kasandra, who was fitted with her’s in February, it’s proved life-changing.

“I’ve been able to actually sit at my desk instead of having to get up to look at the board, because I can easily zoom in, read what I have to do, and get it done,” she said.

“It’s still overwhelming now,” she continued. “I see new things every day.”

Advances in assistive technology mean that the experiences of a visually impaired young person like Kasandra or a 28-year-old friend, Ben Murray, who has similarly been affected since birth, could be very different than those who grew up before the rise of smart phones and digital cameras.

Dani Moran of the Sight Center of Northwest Ohio said wearable devices and smart phone apps are among the continually developing tools that are offering visually impaired users new ways to navigate their worlds.

Ms. Moran connects clients with some of these tools during demonstrations at the Sight Center, where she works as program director. Examples include eSight; NuEyes, a set of smart glasses that similarly utilizes camera magnification, and OrCam, a device that clips to a pair of glasses and photographs, digitizes and reads text to its user.

Another wearable device, Aira, tackles visual impairment or blindness by a different means: A camera mounted to a pair of glasses sends video to an Aira agent who views it in real-time and communicates necessary information to the wearer.

These advances don’t include the cellphone apps that are constantly in development.

“There are new apps every single day for people who are visually impaired to be able to get information, to communicate effectively, to arrange transportation,” Ms. Moran said.

Kasandra’s path to eSight started with Mr. Murray, who was introduced to the technology by way of a Facebook post in 2015. Mr. Murray, who had been “looking for something (like eSight) for 28 years,” set up an appointment in Dayton shortly afterward to try out the technology.

To be able to see, suddenly, after a lifetime or blurriness is an emotional experience.

Mr. Murray vividly recalls the American flag, outside the window of the office building where his demonstration took place, as his introduction to 20/20 vision. He would be fitted with eSight the following February and, today, uses it to navigate a part-time job at a local radio station and around his home in Bryan.

(Mr. Murray also works for a family business, PeopleWorks of Northwest Ohio, a working farm that employs individuals with special needs.)

Kasandra, too, was overwhelmed by her first experience with eSight at a demonstration organized by Mr. Murray for several visually impaired people in the area. For the first time, she was able to see the faces of her mother, grandmother, sister and others in the room.

“It was just that amazing that I could finally see after 16 years of not being able to,” she said.

ESight works by positioning two screens in front of a user’s eyes, tucked behind a futuristic-looking bar that fits over a pair of glasses. A camera on the device captures whatever the user is looking at and, then, magnifies that real-time image onto the screens.

The latest model can magnify things up to 24 times. Users can focus on images manually, using a remote control-like device that they can tuck in a cross-body sling or settle on a desk. They can also let the device do that work with an auto-focus feature.

Magnification-based devices like eSight can assist users who are visually impaired but, notably, not those who are blind; a user must have some vision to make the magnification feature useful. Of the 285 million people whom the World Health Organization estimates to be visually impaired globally, a significant portion could take advantage: Fewer than 15 percent of that number cannot see at all.

Mr. Murray and Kasandra each said they are grateful for the opportunities that have opened up to them through eSight. Mr. Murray anticipates moving into his own apartment in the future. Both hope that future advancements might enable them to drive. (This is not yet possible with eSight.)

But the device is not without challenges, either.

Wearers are limited by a two- to six-hour battery life. And, if a wearer keeps the device on for the duration of that battery life, as Kasandra said she often does for school, the continual refocusing of the camera can in some cases cause dizziness, disorientation or headaches.

And, of course, the cost can be prohibitive. ESight’s nearly $10,000 price tag is not typically covered under health insurance.

That was immediately a concern to Mr. Murray, who described his thoughts following his demonstration in Dayton.

“My first question to myself was, ‘These are $15,000. How am I going to do this?’,” he said, citing the price at the time of the device. “I came home and just sat here for an hour and sobbed because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this.”

Ben Murray and Kasandra Romeromanaged to raise the needed funds through significant community support. They said they’re committed to helping other visually impaired individuals in the community connect with similar assistive technology. In a broader effort to channel their gratitude to the community, they’ve also established a nonprofit designed to assist the legally blind and visually impaired.

Those interested in learning more about Friends Helping Friends can connect through Facebook, facebook.com/friendshelpingfriendsnwo, or by emailing friendshelpingfriends89@gmail.com.

The Sight Center’s Dani Moran said that, despite the continually advancing technology, there’s no substitution for the basic skills and tools that have long enabled independence by the visually impaired. She said a white-tipped cane or ability to read braille will be no less beneficial in the future than they ever were.

But, she said, young people, with a perhaps more natural affinity for gadgets than their older peers, are well positioned to take advantage as assistive technology advances.

“Kids take to it,” she said. “They expect that technology is going to be a part of their life.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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