Blind in business: Cutting-edge seeing aids

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Could you do your job without reading emails, searching the web – or being able to see your boss? Paul Ryb can, thanks to the gadgets that have helped to give him back his sight. By Mary Harboe

How many times during a working day do we screen our phone calls, send emails, surf the internet, check our diaries and attend meetings? Whatever our chosen career, most of us take for granted the technology that we use automatically during the day.

We don't give a second thought as to how we might access a crucial spreadsheet, or whether we might be able to read an email. We might worry about a tricky meeting, but we don't have to stress about finding our way there, or whether we might not recognise our boss or colleagues across the table. However, for Paul Ryb, a telecoms sector specialist with a City investment bank who happens to be blind, these are real obstacles that he has had to overcome.

The 39-year-old suffers from myopic macular degeneration disease which has caused increasing loss of sight in both eyes, to the extent that he is now registered blind. Despite this, according to the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Blind in Business, Paul is the most senior person working in the City with this level of visual impairment.

Paul has had problems with his eyesight for as long as he can remember, and has always tried to embrace imaginative solutions to the challenges he has faced. At seven, he became one of the youngest children in the country to wear contact lenses.

"I was really keen on sport and there was no way that I could play rugby or football in glasses. The contact lenses were great – I took to them like a duck to water.

"Even at that young age, I knew that to get on in life I would need to make adjustments. I didn't want to be pitied, or thought of as handicapped in any way."

As he grew up, Paul chose to ignore the implications of his short-sightedness, filling his free time with tennis and motor racing. He was, by his own admission, a "boy racer", with a well-paid job in the City and a happy family life. He had no idea that he was living under a ticking time bomb.

By the age of 35, Paul could no longer neglect his deteriorating eyesight. Opticians were finding it impossible to help with his complicated prescription and so, with the additional diagnosis of early onset cataracts, Paul sought help from London's Moorfields Eye Hospital in 2007.

He was totally unprepared for the diagnosis he received.

"I had never heard of macular degeneration, and no one could tell me what the future would hold. The only thing I learned for certain was that I would never regain the sight I had already lost."

This was undoubtedly bad news, as Paul was rapidly losing his central vision and it was becoming increasingly difficult to recognise faces or to read normal, or even magnified, text.

At the time, Paul was a top ranking telecoms sector specialist at Lehman Brothers, where he had helped lead an award-winning team.

Earlier this year he moved to the head office of RBS in Bishopsgate, where he is breaking new ground with the technology he has sourced to make his job possible – previously no large company or charity for the blind had been asked to help put together such a hi-tech package to keep someone in work.

"There is help available, but there was no one-stop solution for me," he says. "I had to shop around the length and breadth of Britain to find the things that would help me."

Blind in Business is an association Paul found almost by accident. It, together with the Macular Disease Society, "punches spectacularly above its weight", and Paul personally credits it with keeping him sane and in work. And Blazie, a company of blind IT specialists, has been, according to Paul, "phenomenally helpful" with its technological advice and support.

"At first, you don't know where to start", says Paul. "You don't even know what you need; and have no idea whether it even exists."

Paul's desk on the RBS trading floor appears only superficially different from the others around it. The three 26-inch computer screens are bigger, and there is a headset which doubles as a phone and provides a fluent text service. His keyboard is also larger and each key has a bold sticker in yellow on black. The magnified screen format carries the same colour inversion – which makes it considerably easier for Paul to pick out letters and numbers.

Zoomtext (or Magic software, which is almost the same and is the system Paul uses at home) provides the necessary magnification combined with a high-speed audio voice reader. It allows Paul to use his computer and to access and share files, spread sheets and emails with his colleagues without the corruption which would otherwise result from changing his profile. Without it, Paul's emails would be received either in an all-white or all-black format.

As Paul is still able to read some letters and the occasional word (but not whole sentences), the speech element of Zoomtext and Magic is extremely helpful. Over time, as Paul's sight has deteriorated and he has become more familiar with the system, he has magnified the text further and speeded up the audio feed. (I listen to it and, to my untrained ear, it is impossibly fast to follow.) Paul has similar software (called Talks and Zoom) added to his Nokia 6220 Classic mobile. As with the computer, the text colour is reversed and magnified, and the user can also choose from a wide library of synthetic voices.

Paul's phone also supports a piece of kit worthy of any spy movie. The K-NFB Reader allows the user to take a picture of a piece of text (for instance a restaurant menu or magazine article) and will then voice "read" it to you. With a £2,000-plus price tag, it does not come cheap.

Digital magnifiers, which also invert text and background colours, are more economical (costing between £100 and £1,000, depending on the lens size and auto- focus ability) and are especially helpful for partially sighted people.

In his free time, Paul also makes full use of the RNIB's Daisy Reader service. Unlike other audio books, these are digitally condensed to fit onto a single CD, eliminating the added complication of disc selection.

Paul's quest is ongoing. However, he knows that although the day-to-day technology we all rely on may not be designed with him in mind, he can take on the world – with a little help from some clever gadgets.

View finders: Hi-tech help

Text readers

Daisy (Digital Accessible Information Systems) technology has long been providing easy to navigate digital audio texts, from novels to newspapers to instruction manuals. But a new gadget puts greater control into the user's hands: the Intel reader has a built-in camera, meaning you can capture images of any printed text and hear them as audio. It can be used to photograph a whole book (one that might not be available in digital format yet, for instance) or for quickly translating text in front of you, like reading a menu. About the size of a paperback book, it's durable and portable, although the price tag is not so slim: it went on sale in America last month for $1,499. A more affordable, though not transportable, option is software that turns your scanner into a reading machine: Cicero or Kurzweil 1000 convert printed documents placed on your scanner into speech.



vOICe

An innovative seeing aid, vOICe software turns images into sounds. Users can attach a small camera to a headset or glasses, or use a compatible camera phone such as the Nokia N82, to record images of their surroundings. The vOICe software divides the visual image into greyscale pixels, each of which is translated into a pure tone (so lighter pixels are louder, and higher pixels in the image prompt higher frequency sounds). Listened to through headphones, this enables users to create an "audio depiction" of their environment. It might sound a bit abstract, but users report that with practise they become able to use the sounds to "see" the objects around them. The software is free to download at Seeingwithsound.com.



Magnifiers

There is a wide range of magnifying products available to aid those with visual impairment, from simple hand-held magnifiers to more complicated devices. One piece of kit is the Optelec FarView, a light, pocket-sized video magnifier. It can be used to enlarge close-up reading materials, like receipts or maps, but also works long-distance, allowing the user to magnify things like arrivals boards or bus numbers. It's not cheap though, at £1,374.25. For desktop computers, the plug-in Bierley video magnifier (£315) is ergonomic and instinctive – shaped like a mouse, you run it over text and a magnified version appears on screen. Holly Williams

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