It's never too late to learn

Perkins Solutions gives a 95-year-old WWII veteran with vision loss the training he needs to read his favorite magazines

A Prodigi desktop electronic magnifier, with an enlarged aviation magazine cover showing on the screen

Don Gaunt, a 95-year-old WWII veteran, needed help with his Prodigi video magnifier, which enlarges printed materials and displays them on a monitor.

January 20, 2016

When Don Gaunt began losing his vision six years ago, the thing he missed most was reading his aviation magazines.

The 95-year-old WWII veteran had a long career as a military and commercial pilot. After he retired, he owned his own airplane. Keeping up with the latest developments in flight technology remained a passion and a priority for him, even as glaucoma and macular degeneration caused his vision to fade.

“I don’t want to be an old man, but I am one,” he joked. “I just didn’t want to give up on life.”

A few years ago, his daughter bought him a Prodigi video magnifier, which enlarges printed materials like magazines and displays them on a monitor. It also has optical character recognition (OCR) software that enables text-to-voice output.

But Gaunt needed help mastering the equipment and installing software upgrades.  That’s where Perkins Solutions’ assistive technology trainer Joann Becker came in.

Becker, who has been blind since birth, works with people with visual impairments and deafblindness, and teaches them to use technology that allows them to continue doing the things they enjoy.

“I love training, because some of my clients have experienced so much isolation,” she said. “This is really a way for them to feel they’re in contact and connected.”

Becker met with Gaunt and taught him how to use the Prodigi’s features. She also installed the software updates and resolved some technical problems that had him stumped.

“I was having some technical issues,” said Gaunt. “Joann picked the problem out right away, even though she can’t see at all. She is fantastic.”

Becker is a longtime expert in the assistive technology field. She has worked at Perkins Solutions for three years, and is a certified teacher of accessible hardware and software like JAWS, Window-Eyes and ZoomText. She works with clients in their homes, in schools, at their workplace or at the Assistive Technology Lab on the Perkins campus.

Becker said some clients, like Gaunt, need help with devices they already own. Others are looking for guidance because they don’t know what kinds of accessibility solutions are available.

“It can be so frustrating for people when they don’t realize there’s a technology that can help them,” she said. “It’s a fabulous time to be blind, because of all the technology that exists.”

Because she is blind herself, Becker also serves as an inspiration to people who struggle with late-in-life vision loss.

“I think it’s been helpful for people to see a blind person can really get around and do things,” she said.  “I think it’s good role modeling for people who think if they lose their sight, they won’t be able to function. They certainly can do a lot of things they didn’t think possible.”

Gaunt is an example of that, she said.

He still lives independently in a senior home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He prepares his own breakfast and lunch every day, joining his neighbors for dinner. And thanks to the training he received from Becker, he can again read his favorite aviation magazines and other publications.

Becker said Gaunt is just one of several clients in their 90s who are eager to learn new technology.

“They are really motivated to learn,” she said. “I have been amazed and impressed by their willingness and tenacity to remain as independent as possible.”