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Reading with Macular Degeneration

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A mock up of macular degeneration showing a blackened centre area

Computer scientists are in a powerful position to create technology that helps people with disabilities. Before you can design you need to understand the problem, but it can be hard to understand how hard life can be with a disability when you don't have to suffer the problem.

Take macular degeneration. It is a common problem that leaves people struggling to see. It afflicts people as they age, because of damage to the back of the eye.

What's it like?

It is like having a black blob over the middle of everything you look at.

Print out some pictures from your photo collection and get a felt tip pen and blacken out the middle. (or photoshop a digital version). This picture gives the basic idea. That is how those occasions might have actually appeared to you if you had the condition.

Except it is worse than that. All the colours are washed out too. And, even that doesn't really show what life is like with macular degeneration, though.

Can you read?

To see things you effectively look out of the corner of your eye: using your peripheral vision. With perfect sight it seems you can see everything around you really well, but that is an illusion created by your brain.

Try this. Take a book with a big lettered title on the cover. Now hold it just in front of your face you but off to the side, so that if you turn your head slightly you are looking straight at it. Instead, look straight ahead but try to read the title with your peripheral vision. You will probably find this really difficult. Now take a sheet of paper and write a word in even larger letters in black felt tip pen. Do the same again, holding it up to the side but looking straight ahead. See how large the letters have to be before you can actually read them.

Now imagine actually trying to read a book like that, or looking at something on an iPad, watching TV or just talking to someone ... or doing anything. That is what it is like all the time for someone with macular degeneration.

Now we have some inkling of the problem, we can think about how we might design to help. Audio books, where an actor reads the book out loud is an early solution. Screen readers, programs that read out whatever text is on the screen is the same idea applied to computers (if only people writing software would think to design them to work with a screen reader!) More recently a Swiss team have invented a telescopic contact lens to actually try and correct the problem in the eye itself. What might you design that would help?