When Donna Berner moved to the Westerly Residences recently, her chronic vision problems became even more of a challenge. She struggled to learn her new surroundings and meet people. “Trying to meet neighbors and make friends is a lot harder when you can’t see their faces." As a result, Donna felt detached from the community around her.
Donna had been wearing glasses for years due to double vision caused by Grave's disease. When she was also diagnosed with macular degeneration, she really began to worry about losing her independence.
But at a recent checkup, Donna’s eye doctor had good news about a new technology that has the potential to be a game-changer in the world of the blind and visually impaired. The OrCam MyEye is a small camera that attaches to the eyeglass frame and uses facial recognition software to identify people, read text, and otherwise describe objects in the wearer's field of vision, from grocery labels to currency. The unit speaks what it sees to the wearer and prompts her to perform actions.
It's especially helpful in fighting the effects of macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. It causes deterioration in the center part of the retina, destroying center vision over time. Faces begin to blur, becoming unrecognizable. Reading and driving become impossible as details are harder to discern.
“It’s a strange disease that people don’t understand,” she says. “They see you walk across the room and navigate it without any problems. The fact is, I will probably never fall over a piece of furniture.”
Donna knew the device would allow her to continue living independently and relieve some of her family's concerns. She had to have it, even though her doctor told her it was expensive and not covered by insurance. She replied: “I don’t care. I’ll spend my kids’ inheritance if I need to.”
Donna bought her own unit. Envision, a Wichita company that works to improve quality of life for the blind and visually impaired, is relying on Donna's experience and feedback so their staff can teach others how to use it. Envision purchased a MyEye device as well.
“There are still a lot of blips to work through,” Donna said. For example, the OrCam might interpret 1 ¾ teaspoons as “one hundred thirty-four t-s-p.” When she demonstrated it for us, the device struggled to distinguish a box of regular yellow cake mix from a sugar-free version.
Donna does not get discouraged by the learning curve, though. She is excited to have the OrCam to see and experience the world in a whole new way. And she's grateful to have her grandson Andrew offer tech support when she needs it.
“I recommend if you get one, you have a very smart grandchild,” Donna joked.