June 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Two years ago, William Siert’s vision had degenerated so much he was forced to surrender his driver’s license. Within a year, macular degeneration in his eyes had made it impossible for him to read.

“Life was pretty dark,” the 91-year-old Omaha resident says. “You can’t get around, you can’t enjoy a book. Your world becomes very small.”

As his eyes faded, though, technology swiftly brightened prospects for Siert and others with impaired vision. The same technology that has made smart phones capable of ¬—well, seemingly everything—has also given birth to revolutionary advances in aids for the visually impaired.

Siert says he was directed by friends to Pat Fischer, who, since 1997, has specialized in providing devices for the region’s blind and visually impaired. Fischer’s company, Nebraska Low Vision, focuses primarily on providing magnifiers for those who, in many cases, thought they’d never be
able to read again.

“It took a number of significant technological advances coming together to take the devices to a whole different level,” Fischer says. “It’s a very exciting time. Technology is very quickly changing the prospects for the visually impaired.”

Many of the technologies at the heart of low-vision devices are likely already part of your life. High-definition screens and high-resolution images greatly enhance the readability of magnified type. The quality of the image from tiny video cameras has increased profoundly in the last couple years. The processing power needed to handle real-time video streaming now, for the most part, can fit in a hand-held device the size of a large smart phone.

Devices fall into two main categories. Desktop magnifiers, which are more powerful machines with larger monitors, are generally for home use. Hand-held devices, like the Ruby XL HD, are helpful for trips outside the house.

Siert says the hand-held device he owns is particularly helpful in places like restaurants.

“You’re in low light looking at fine print,” he says.

The device that has changed Siert’s life, though, is the larger-screened, high-definition magnifier he bought for home use.

“I never cared much about reading earlier in life, but started absolutely loving it in later years,” he says. “To lose that was awful. To get it back—it just makes you grateful for all these advances in technology.”

Siert’s machine isn’t cheap. At $3,000, he says, “you do have to weigh the benefits.”

The desktop devices are capable of changing the colors of text and background, Fischer says, a feature that can, for some, “help greatly in making the text stand out for the background.”

“In my case, I was buying a piece of my freedom back,” Siert says of his home magnifier. “I want to read. It’s a huge part of my life. Now I can read again.”.