Live well with sight loss. Our pick of the best home hacks and life tips for meeting the challenges of a visual impairment.

21 February 2018

Live well with sight loss. Our pick of the best home hacks and life tips for meeting the challenges of a visual impairment.

When given the devastating news of sight loss, the future can seem very bleak. Here we look at the top tips, tricks and aids that could help someone live well with a visual impairment.

According to statistics published by the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), there are currently over 2 million people in the UK living with some level of sight loss. That’s around one person in every thirty. And that number is set to rise, with forecasts predicting that by 2050, the number could double to nearly 4 million, thanks to an ageing population and an increase in conditions related to poor eye health, such as obesity and diabetes. Maintaining an independent and normal life is incredibly empowering for someone facing sight loss, and there are a number of things you can do to help with this. Here we round up our top tips to help someone living with decreased sight or registered sight loss.

The home environment

Making small changes to the home environment can have a big impact in helping someone with decreased sight to retain a feeling of normality and dignity in their own home.

  • Use contrasting colours throughout the home for furniture, wall coverings and carpets to help with moving around the house safely and easily. Contrast will help with identifying furniture, handling everyday tasks and navigating large objects that would otherwise be a trip hazard.
  • Use bright, jarring colours on doorframes and stair edges to help people identify risks that could lead to injuries and falls.
  • When setting the table, use contrasting colours for table settings – white crockery on a white tablecloth or mat is difficult for someone with limited sight to interact with. Use different coloured crockery sets to contrast against the food being served.
  • Contrast isn’t helpful when it comes to light and shadow. Bright, focussed lights will illuminate certain points but cause dark shadows elsewhere, and this kind of contrasting light can be difficult for people to process. This is also true with atmospheric lighting in places like kitchens or bedrooms.
  • Use bright, clear lighting, such as florescent light, which casts a consistent, even light throughout the room.
  • Take measures to maximise the amount of daylight in the house by removing net curtains and pulling back blinds. It is important to avoid glare though, especially on shiny surfaces such as tabletops and TV screens, as this can be distracting and disorientating.
  • Tactile bands. A simple but incredibly effective idea utilising stretchy rubber rings with different tactile patterns on, which can be placed around objects of similar shape and weight to help identify them. Use these in the bathroom for identifying toiletries.
  • Add handrails and banisters to hallways, stairs, the bathroom and outdoor steps to give a little extra help with navigating through the home.
  • If there are pets at home, add a bell to their collar so it’s easy to hear where they are in the room. Especially useful for cats that like to try and wind round your legs!

Skills, hobbies and aids

The term ‘sight loss’ immediately conjures thoughts of all the skills, hobbies and interests that may become lost to you as you sight diminishes, but that needn’t be the case. For those willing to adapt, there’s a whole range of skills and aids that can help keep you living a varied and independent life.

  • Talking labels are a great way to help a person with sight loss maintain a level of independence in the kitchen, using deceptively clever tech to audibly label items for later identification. Simply touch the wand or receiver to the label and record a verbal message about the item, for example ‘tinned tomatoes’, and then attach the label to the product. When the wand is next touched to that label, it will play the recording back to you. This kind of tech is great for helping differentiate between products that may feel the same, such as tins and packets.
  • Talking hobs are ingenious electric hobs that use ‘talking controls’ to help the blind or partially sighted cook with confidence. The tactile buttons speak their function in a clear, loud voice, perfect for people with a love of cooking and being in the kitchen. Induction versions are especially safe, as they only heat the pan that is making contact with the induction surface and turn off as soon as the pan is removed, rather than a traditional ceramic hob which heats a plate regardless of what is placed on it. They’re wipe-clean too, making cleaning up afterwards is a breeze, and their portable design means they can sit anywhere on the worktop in reach of a plug socket and don’t need to be installed like a traditional hob.
  • For puzzlers or crossword addicts, there are a number of extra-large print puzzle books available through the RNIB shop. They also sell a range of adapted games, such as braille cards and Scrabble, tactile dominoes, and even a tactile Rubik’s cube.
  • According to a 2015 study by the RNIB, up to 44% of blind and partially sighted people reported feeling more than usually depressed. Decreased social interactions and loneliness can be a factor, so make sure you’re not going to miss a visitor by replacing the doorbell with one that has an adjustable volume. Honeywell has a great range of digital doorbells with volume control that go up to a maximum volume of 90 decibels, making them audible over other noises such as the TV or washing machine. They also have the added benefit of flashing strobe and halo lights which will help catch your attention if you have limited sight.
  • If print is becoming difficult to read, then learning braille can be an empowering experience to help people maintain a sense of independence and connection to the world. Braille is a series of raised dots, configured into different patterns to represent the 26 letters, the numbers 0 to 9, and common punctuation marks such as full stops and question marks. It can take some time to learn, and involves quite a lot of memory recall, but the benefits can be immense and life changing. Alternatively, for people in later life who may be daunted by learning Braille, there is another system called Moon which is easier to learn; it uses a series of straight and curved lines which more closely resemble the printed letters we’re used to, so it can be easier for people who have lower memory retention. Of course, audio books are also great for the blind, and have opened up the world of literacy for both sighted and non-sighted people. The RNIB supplies a huge range of Talking Books to their subscribers completely free of charge, offering a vast collection of over 25,000 fiction and non-fiction adult and children’s titles either on disc, USB stick or via download.

Smart technology

In today’s digital society, a loss of sight can feel especially isolating. The majority of our interaction with the Internet comes through digital devices, such as phones and tablets, which are of course very visual. However, the development of voice-controlled technology has taken a great leap forward, and by integrating them with smart products, there is now an exciting range of gadgets and appliances available which are controllable simply by voice command.

  • Google Home and Amazon Echo are the two market-leading intelligent assistant products, providing voice-activated access to services such as news, music and audio books. You can ask them to read recipes, provide real-time information on weather and traffic, play music, make phone calls, order take-away, request an Uber, even control your smart devices such as your oven, thermostat or lights. More smart appliances and products are being developed and implemented, opening up an exciting range of possibilities for the visually impaired.
  • Honeywell’s evohome is a Wi-Fi controlled-thermostat which works through the Amazon Echo. The evohome is a smart wireless thermostat which allows you to ‘zone’ your home, heating rooms when you need to and turning down the heating in rooms you’re not using, giving you more autonomy over your energy usage. With the Amazon Echo, you can control this zoning system verbally, giving you greater control over your heating without having to physically manipulate the thermostat or interpret the temperature gauge.
  • Dash buttons are another Amazon invention, for use by Amazon Prime members. Dash buttons are wireless branded buttons that you link to your Amazon account, and then place around the home, such as on your washing machine, in the bathroom or in the larder. When you need to replenish your supply of that product, such as washing powder, shampoo or even cat food, you simply press the dash button and it will order it for you via your Amazon account. There are downsides, including that you’re locked into buying a very limited selection of that product, and can’t shop around for better deals, but if you’re a creature of habit and find yourself buying the same products very often, then a Dash button’s convenience can outweigh the cons.
  • Finally, there are great steps being taken in the development of augmented reality for the visually impaired. Some examples include Seeing AI by Microsoft, and OrCam by Intel. These AR programmes use existing augmented reality technology to scan and evaluate your surroundings, and feed this back to the user. Intel’s OrCam is a discreet camera which fits on to the arm of a pair of glasses, and feeds audio back to you via a bone conductor rather than through an ear piece, so you can retain your full hearing. Use it to read text by holding it up in front of you, or hold up paper money and have the OrCam tell you what the denomination is. It can even provide face recognition to help you find people when you’re outdoors. It’s not cheap, but a sound investment that is definitely going to give huge quality of life benefits back to wearers. The Seeing AI app by Microsoft is a cheaper alternative; it uses the camera in your smartphone to process items such as text and products and reads out to you what they say. Use it to scan barcodes in shops, and documents such as letters or magazine articles. It can even recognise the faces of those around you, and provide an audio guide to their emotions, although this could prove slightly awkward on public transport!

For more information on living with sight loss, visit the RNIB website, or call their advice line on 0303 123 9999.