“I can’t believe there‘s such a place that will give this to me,” said Kathaleen Ziese of outstate Minnesota, referring to her Ruby hand-held video magnifier. There is such a place: Eye-Link, Minnesota.
Kathaleen, like a growing number of older Minnesotans, lives with vision loss and wanted to find ways to increase her independence. Her Ruby – supplied by Eye-Link – is a big help in that, she said.
The nonprofit grants technology to state residents with visual impairments who are not veterans and whose technology requests can’t be fulfilled by State Services for the Blind for a variety of reasons.
“I have dominant cone dystrophy,” Kathaleen said. Cone dystrophy is listed on the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) website. “It’s an orphan disease,” Kathaleen adds, saying that it doesn’t draw the research dollars that are aimed at the growing number of adults in this country who live with one or more of the four main causes of vision loss: macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and glaucoma.
Symptoms of cone dystrophy can play out differently in each individual, according to NORD. In Kathaleen’s case, it makes her extremely sensitive to light.
“I wore the darkest sunglasses possible,” she said. “I’ve been lucky that I wasn’t legally blind before.” She traces it in her family as far back as her great-great grandfather. Her grandfather, who had it too, was “probably legally blind by age 40.” Kathaleen said she became legally blind when she was 68 or 69; she now is in her early 70s. “I held for years at 70/20 [vision] while working.”
And while Kathaleen worked, she and her husband raised a family, and she went back to school, reading with a 3X magnifier. “Tests were tough with bright light,” in the classrooms, she said, but instructors were very helpful in providing her with accommodation for her eyesight needs. She graduated college at age 41.
Kathaleen also helped herself by shading everything she read and by increasing the strength in her eyewear, plus using stronger magnification equipment. But as the years marched on, it became increasingly difficult for her to do everyday enjoyable things such as reading the newspaper.
“The newspaper has been my judge of eyesight,” Kathaleen said. When she no longer could read it comfortably, she turned to State Services for the Blind (SSB).
Kathaleen said that she and her SSB representative sat and talked about her vision problems, and Kathaleen told her she had a Ruby magnifier that had just been broken. “I didn’t know where to find money for another one.” That’s when the woman from SSB told Kathaleen about Eye-Link.
“She [SSB representative] said, ‘I’ll fill out this application with you, and this doesn’t have anything to do with finances,’ “ Kathaleen said.
Eye-Link, Minnesota does not look at finances when granting requests for assistive technology. Here’s how the process works:
A person who has vision loss and needs adaptive technology applies to State Services for the Blind. If the state, for any number of reasons, can’t fulfill that person’s request, an SSB representative can assist the person in filling out the request for technology form from Eye-Link.
When that form is sent to Eye-Link, it’s crucial that the person who applies includes proof from SSB saying the state did not fulfill the person’s request. Jim Justesen of Eye-Link said, “Any grant application must be accompanied by a ‘denial’ note, fax, or letter from State Services for the Blind. The board will not review requests for adaptive technology unless a denial letter from SSB is attached.” Eye-Link board members then meet quarterly to review applications, he said. The idea is to get the right technology into the hands of the visually impaired person.
The Ruby was right for Kathaleen. Another way she uses it is in church in order to see the hymnals and to be able to join in the singing.
Justesen said, “Each year Eye-Link, Minnesota receives between 25 to 35 adaptive equipment grant applications.” Eye-Link is supported 80 percent through donations, 20 percent through corporate or foundation grants. To donate, go to http://mn.eye-link.org/ and scroll to the bottom of the page where you can click on the Donate button.
Eye-Link and SSB’s collaboration doesn’t end with the delivery of assistive devices. SSB provides people with the training they need to use the equipment provided by Eye-Link.
Kathaleen said she uses her Ruby to zoom in and out, choosing colors that will enhance whatever she’s reading. The Ruby lets her change the colors of the background and the text. Sometimes it’s easiest for her to read in black and white, sometimes yellow type on a blue background, etc. The Ruby also magnifies whatever Kathaleen is reading.
Kathaleen said, “At the store, I take photos of bar codes or ingredients and the Ruby brings it up to my face,” so that she can read it.
Justesen said that Eye-Link receives requests for a variety of video magnifiers, closed circuit TVs such as Merlins, and basic desktop and laptop computers equipped with JAWS (software that reads out loud what’s written on the screen). Eye-Link also accepts donations of used assistive technology, and then sends the items to people who need them. People who have devices to donate can call Eye-Link at 763-561-6967 to discuss tax benefits and arrange pick up.
And what about Kathaleen reading her beloved newspapers with her Ruby?
“I can read the newspaper,” she said with enthusiasm, adding that without the Ruby, “I can’t read it even with seven-times magnification. And I love to read the Minneapolis Star Tribune.“
Kathaleen and her Ruby had plans for that winter afternoon. “I want to sit down and read National Geographic right now. I’ve been busy with Christmas and to go on trips, but now I’m ready to sit down and read,” she said, her voice brimming with anticipation.