NEWS RELEASE, 10/19/99

UC Berkeley's School of Optometry opens new clinic to help nearly blind people use computers

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--For more than a million nearly blind individuals in the United States, computer technology is a merciless feast. There are hundreds of new aids for those with low vision, but people who can't read icons or find a cursor cannot choose among them.

There are head-mounted video cameras, tiny telescopes that fit into glasses, magnifiers attached to scanners and closed circuit TV, keyboards with Braille, and a plethora of software programs that zoom in, zoom out, change the contrast and scroll words across the screen in a single line, among other specialized effects.

Now, in the first of its kind in Northern California, the University of California, Berkeley's School of Optometry has opened a diagnostic clinic that brings together a rare combination of optometrists and computer technologists to help people with severe visual impairment. The aim is to give them - including a growing number of aging Americans - access to a computer and improved working capacity.

"This clinic will cover the waterfront," said Anthony Adams, dean of the optometry school, of the new Adaptive Devices and Technology center within the school's Low Vision Clinic. "We are bringing together eye care doctors and technicians to tailor-make solutions for people who are almost blind and who can't work with the standard computer."

Partnering with UC Berkeley in the new clinic is the California Department of Rehabilitation, which has funded UC Berkeley's center for three years with a $200,000 grant. Depending on recommendations from the center, state rehabilitation offices will buy new computer equipment for people whose lives are being transformed by the cooperation.

Roger Mendoza of San Francisco is such an individual. A young man who recently graduated from the San Francisco Law School, Mendoza is legally blind. Born without irises in either eye, he has glaucoma, cataracts and nystagmus (fast, involuntary eye movements) .

Mendoza got through law school on sheer will power, reading for 10 hours a day with his face close to the book, straining what vision he has with the use of high-powered contact lenses.

Now he can no longer read a newspaper or identify the icons in the tool bar of a computer screen. Without the ability to use modern communications equipment, Mendoza's future was not bright.

"I did not know where to turn," said Mendoza, who worked in a nonprofit organization following graduation and felt stymied. "I had no concept of the depth of technology out there to help people like me."

Two months ago Mendoza, one of the first people to be referred by the state rehabilitation department, came to the UC Berkeley clinic.

Seen by Richard Wacker, assistant clinical professor of optometry and Angelika Angerman, rehabilitation technology specialist, Mendoza received a five-hour examination that included visual assessments, an evaluation of what he wanted to do in life and work, plus trials on a range of machines in the clinic.

"I came expecting just another exam," said Mendoza. "I walked away with my life changed. I even learned how to get water streaks off the windows at home." (In addition to computer technicians, UC Berkeley's Low Vision Clinic has rehabilitation specialists who help patients with household tasks.)

Wacker said that severe vision loss is growing as the population ages. Statistics show that one in nine people age 65 and older have sufficient impairment to have difficulty reading a computer screen. Nor is there a place for most people to go for adequate help, since computer experts do not understand the subtleties of vision loss and optometrists do not know the range of computer devices that are available, said Wacker.

"It was the first time I had a comprehensive view," said Mendoza whose technical solutions include using zoom text and a closed circuit TV system.

Now able to use computers, Mendoza feels that his future is bright and his potential has only begun to open up.

"I couldn't be more excited," he said. "Now I will get the equipment I need. I'm like everyone else."

In fact, Mendoza who had been trying to pass the state bar exam for lawyers, has put that goal on a back burner and plans to go to work for the new clinic. He wants to help others find the solutions that eluded him for so long.

UC Berkeley's new Adaptive Devices clinic is available to the public through California's State Department of Rehabilitation. It can be reached by calling the School of Optometry's general clinic number (510) 642-2020 and asking for the Low Vision Clinic.


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