A former plumber with visual impairment wins a $500 gift card from Perkins Solutions – and discovers life-changing technology at his fingertips

Bob uses assistive technology with a Perkins trainer.

Bob McKenna (left) explores the world of assistive technology with guidance from Perkins Trainer Jeremias Feliz. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

March 20, 2015

Technology never played a big part in Bob McKenna’s life before he lost most of his vision to glaucoma and cataract surgery in 2013. But that may change now that McKenna won a $500 gift card from Perkins Solutions – and received a crash-course in assistive technology to help decide how to spend it.

McKenna spent two hours at the Perkins Solutions Assistive Technology Lab in Watertown, Massachusetts, on March 18 learning about state-of-the-art technology. The education covered accessible smartphones, text-to-speech software and everything in between that gives people who are blind better access and independence at home, work and school.

“The technology is amazing,” McKenna said afterward. “I know 1,000 percent more now than when I first walked in here.”

In January, McKenna won a contest hosted by Perkins Solutions, which invited people with visual impairments to submit stories about how assistive technology improved their lives. McKenna’s essay, written by his sister-in-law Keri Reardon, described how a powerful handheld video magnifier called the RUBY helped him read everything from menus to pill bottles.

To decide how to spend his $500 gift card, McKenna met with Jeremias Feliz, a trainer and low vision assistive technology specialist, who showed him the wide array of assistive technology available from Perkins Solutions.

McKenna made it clear during the presentation that he wasn’t a technology expert. Before losing his vision, McKenna ran his own plumbing company in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for more than 40 years. His secretary handled all the email correspondence and McKenna used a simple flip phone to keep in touch with clients.

“I never really had a need for it,” he said, referring to more advanced devices like smartphones.   

So Feliz focused on devices that are easy to learn and use. He showed McKenna the Topaz, a desktop video magnifier that makes it possible to read traditional print materials like newspapers.

He then demonstrated the SARA CE, a scanner that reads printed material aloud and, when connected to the Topaz, combines a live magnified view as well as an optical character recognition (OCR) view. The combination is ideal for low-vision readers who want to use their available sight while filling in any gaps with audio output.

“It sounds complicated but the reality is, it’s not,” Feliz said.

Moving to a computer, Feliz launched MAGic, screen-magnification and text-to-speech software that helps people with low vision access computer programs and browse the Internet.

Next up were Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad, which are popular with people with visual impairments because they have built-in accessibility settings. Using only voice commands and gestures, Feliz showed how he could compose an email and browse messages.

“I see the majority of working professionals who are blind use (the iPhone),” he said. “Once you get used to it you never really want to go back, because it’s intuitive.”

By the end of the two hours, McKenna still hadn’t decided exactly how he wanted to spend his gift card.  But he was a lot more optimistic – and knowledgeable – about the range of assistive technology products available to him.

“There’s a lot out there, and whatever you want to learn, you can learn,” he said. “I’ve got an open mind to it.”