Reading Tools and Techniques

Most of us take our reading and writing abilities for granted until the onset of vision loss. These are not activities that you need to give up, though—here are some suggestions to help you continue these essential activities.

Whether it's for pleasure like reading up on your favorite sports team or for practical use, reading is too important for you to compromise or abandon because of vision loss. Talking books and other audio, spoken word technology are, of course, helpful to people with vision impairments and have certainly broadened access to a wide range of written materials. Still, listening and reading are not the same and require a different set of skills.

Use a magnifier to help read dates and times on a pillbox.


using magnifier to read pill labeling

So long as you retain some functional vision, it's important to continue reading. Fortunately, there is an ever-expanding list of available techniques and technologies to help you read everything from prescription bottles to your mail and morning paper to the latest bestseller.

This page gives you practical tips on reading everyday items using assistive devices; for information on what kinds of adapted reading material is available—from digital readers to radio reading services—see the article Reading and Vision Loss.

Font Size

The standard font size for large print is 18 point, although you might need larger, or even smaller, print depending on your needs and type of vision loss. When advising your church, service provider, or senior center on how to make newsletters, calendars, programs, and other materials accessible for you, the best-size type for these items is generally 18 point, which can be produced by regular printers. Avoid highlighting text with bright-colored markers or printing on colored or shiny paper, which diminishes contrast, casts glare on a page, and overall makes reading more difficult (however, a filter, as described below, may help with these problems).

For more information about making print more readable, see AFB's Tips for Making Print More Readable.

Bigger and Better: Magnifiers

For all those occasions when large print is not available—such as in supermarkets, restaurants, or concert halls—there are a variety of portable magnifying devices available. Many such devices are small enough to carry in a tote bag, briefcase, or your pocket.

A Magnifier Primer

A magnifier should be prescribed by a low vision specialist rather than simply purchased in the stationery shop or drugstore. Over-the-counter magnifiers generally offer low levels of magnification. A specialist can more accurately determine how much magnification is best for you and for specific tasks.

A professional low vision exam at a doctor's office or clinic is the perfect opportunity to try out various devices so you can avoid purchasing something that doesn't work for you. Also, a low vision specialist can give you valuable instruction about how to use your magnifier.

Stand magnifiers can sometimes cause fatigue due to having to bend over the device, and you may have difficulty manipulating it before getting the hang of it. On the plus side, the stand magnifiers require less motor control than handheld models, allow for a greater working distance than high-end reading glasses, and offer a secure focal point for people who can't hold a hand magnifier steady.

Also, most people want to be able to read large sections at one glance. Keep in mind that the stronger the magnification, the less the amount of text you can see through the lens at any one time. Portable electronic magnifiers, such as the Quicklook, make it possible to have a larger field of view than your typical hand or stand magnifiers. More information on different types of electronic magnifers is found below.

Some magnifiers come with built-in lighting. The LED lighting is one of your best types of lighting. An illuminated stand magnifier mounted on a flexible arm is ideal for crossword puzzles and other close tasks.

Practice makes perfect when using a magnifier. Don't expect to speed through the book War and Peace your first time. For example, you will need to figure out the best distance to hold the magnifier from the printed page to achieve the best focus. Practice, patience, and at least some instruction from a low vision specialist will go a long way to making reading with a magnifier seem like second nature.

Hand and stand magnifiers can be purchased through specialty product sources, though higher magnification is generally not available to the public without a prescription. Consider having a low vision exam to determine what type of magnification will help you perform specific tasks, and if needed, to obtain higher magnification.

Learn more about how to select the best magnifier for your needs in the AccessWorld article Lighting Up Your World: A Closer Look at Illuminated Magnifiers.

Watch the Monitors: Electronic Magnifying Systems

Electronic magnifying systems come in many different sizes and varieties. Some are handheld and have a broad range of magnification. These can be taken to restaurants for reading menus, or to the supermarket to read labels and coupons. Others have a swivel camera that focuses on objects at a distance that you can view on a nearby screen. Some connect to a regular television set or computer screen. Still others involve wearing a type of glasses to look at distant objects.

All have these magnifying systems have their uses and their limitations, depending on your eye condition and your specific needs.

Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV)

One particularly adaptable and user-friendly electronic magnifying system is a CCTV, or video magnifier. This magnifier uses a video camera to focus on printed text, photographs, or some other viewable item, which is then displayed on a monitor. There are many such devices on the market, each with its own special features, so you should research several models before purchasing one. You can usually try out several models at your low vision specialist's office. If not, distributors can bring them to you for testing before purchasing.

As with other reading aids, a CCTV's controls take some getting used to and you'll need to learn how to move the reading material so that the camera scans from left to right across a line of text, and then returns to far-left on the next line. For more information on CCTVs, see AFB's article on Video Magnifiers. For a list of available products, visit AFB's Product Database.

Touch by Touch: The Braille System

Few people who lose their vision late in life become fluent in braille. (In general, braille users have been blind from birth or experienced vision loss in childhood.) Even so, the fact is that anyone with vision loss at any age can benefit from some basic braille training. Just think how much simpler your day would be if you could readily identify and distinguish household goods by touch. Simply familiarizing yourself with the braille alphabet can be a tremendous stress reliever and can help you with labeling and identifying all sorts of items.

Reading With Your Peripheral Vision

Here's a phrase you possibly haven't heard before: eccentric viewing. This probably brings to mind some bizarre images of people reading newspapers in unusual positions. In fact, if the center of your eye is damaged, eccentric viewing refers to the skill of looking with your clear peripheral vision. The idea is to look slightly away from the subject to view it peripherally. Eccentric viewing takes a bit of practice and almost always has to be taught, usually over a stretch of six visits with a trained low vision specialist.

Filters for Reading

Filters are an excellent method of reducing glare as you read. If you've ever put a sheet of yellow laminate over a page you wanted to read, then you've no doubt noticed how the laminate softens the hard white of the paper and helps you make out the black letters comfortably. This is exactly how low vision filters work.

Some filters resemble regular sunglasses and can be worn over your prescription glasses, if you have them. In addition to cutting glare, filters also enhance contrast by highlighting the visual distinction of the text and characters. Some studies have indicated that certain types of filters help people with certain kinds of vision loss read more easily. For example, filter lenses may improve contrast sensitivity in patients experiencing macular degeneration.

Check with your low vision specialist to find out about filters that might help you. Oh, and the yellow laminate trick is effective in its own right. Keep plenty on hand where you do your reading.

Lighting for Reading

If you have low vision, improving the lighting in your home is the key to making all sorts of tasks easier to do, and reading is no exception. You need to find the right lighting to help you read most effectively, even with the best magnification. Keep in mind that depending on your eye condition, different kinds of lighting can cause glare issues, so work with a low vision specialist to find out what types of lighting work best for you.

It's often best to use directed lighting that can be adjusted to focus light right on your reading material. Directed lighting from behind your shoulder with a gooseneck lamp with a white or light-colored shade will help illuminate the material. Table lamps are not generally good for reading because the shades often don't direct the light very well onto what you need to see. Also, table lamp lights are not adjustable in the same way that gooseneck lamps are.

Higher-wattage bulbs produce more light, but the manufacturer's recommended wattage for the lamp should not be exceeded. Consider using natural light bulbs available in most grocery stores. These produce lighting like sunlight and come in a variety of wattages.

Also, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) for ambient lighting provide good illumination and produce less heat than do lamps with incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are good for reading, as are combination lamps that feature both fluorescent and incandescent lighting.

The types of adjustable and task lights mentioned in this section can be obtained from a variety of sources (including locally at office supply or hardware stores), and a list of lighting products can be found in AFB's Product Database.

Using A Reading Stand

Using a reading stand is a simple, effective solution to helping you keep reading material at the best angle and distance. A stand can also help you to keep your reading material in proper focus, which is sometimes hard to do if your hands are shaky or you tire easily.

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