Book of Dreams

Digital voice recorders help visually impaired seniors live independently

A voice recorder plays cooking instructions for Brandie Kubel and Darrell Horst on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, Calif.
A voice recorder plays cooking instructions for Brandie Kubel and Darrell Horst on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, Calif.

Editor’s note: For nearly 30 years, The Sacramento Bee’s Book of Dreams has helped people and organizations in our community realize their dreams.

Darrell Horst had everything out on the counter he needed to make the filling of a German dessert, blachinda, for a potluck later that week: pumpkin, spices, salt. He had the recipe. He had a helper, who teaches cooking classes regularly.

Easy as pie? Not quite. Horst and his helper, Brandie Kubel, an independent-living skills instructor at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, are both visually impaired.

They work on the dessert together, trying to make it similar to his grandmother’s specialty, more savory, less sweet. Kubel smiles as she cleans up from their session, checking the Braille labels to determine which shelf the spices go on, cleaning and putting away the long-handled, ladlelike teaspoons (it is easier to dip them into the spice jars and shake them to level, rather than trying to shake out the spice into a small spoon that can’t be seen). Horst puts the completed filling in the refrigerator. They will work on the crust tomorrow.

Horst, 68, worked as a budget analyst for UC Davis until he retired, and he lives in Woodland. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 25 “but spent the next 20 years in denial until I had to start giving up the sports I loved – downhill skiing after I ran into somebody I just didn’t see, and later, golf. … In the last eight years, my eyesight has deteriorated rapidly.”

“But that just means your memory gets better, right?” said Kubel, who said she’s been blind longer than she was sighted. They both laugh.

Memory aids are few for those with limited sight, and as he grew older and his vision got worse, Horst said it has gotten harder to keep directions, phone numbers and appointment dates in his head. So when he purchased his first digital recorder, a world opened up to him.

About the size of an iPhone 6 but thicker, Horst’s Victor Reader is made for the visually impaired, with buttons that have raised images and location dots; the buttons that change programs have different shapes as well. It has Wi-Fi, can access books and music from iTunes and play text documents with built-in text-to-speech.

“I even have a credit card number on it, so I can play that back when I order something over the phone. If somebody leaves me a number that I don’t have in my contacts, I put it on speakerphone and simply record it. I listen to books on tape, and a lot of newspapers: Investors Daily, Wall Street Journal, The Bee. It’s great for directions, shopping lists, and as you saw today, recipes,” Horst said.

But at $369, the helpful tool is out of reach for many of the Society for the Blind’s clients, 80 percent of whom depend solely on disability payments that barely cover housing and sustenance, or Social Security.

Fortunately, Society for the Blind officials have found another option, the Sony mono digital voice recorder, which retails for about $40 and is easy to learn. They would like to purchase enough of these to give everyone who participates in their Senior Impact Program one, so they can use it as they go through the program and can keep it with them after they graduate.

Horst notes that many doctors don’t know where to send patients with deteriorating eyesight, and that the Society for the Blind’s programs have helped him tremendously.

“I’ve learned how to maneuver better using a cane, and even traveled to the Philippines by myself – you tell the airlines that you are blind, and they really take care of you and make it easy.”

Shari Roeseler, the society’s executive director, said she hopes to make the group more visible in the coming years.

“It’s a secret that doesn’t need to be kept,” she said. The Senior Impact Program has graduated several thousand students in the past 12 years. The society serves 26 counties, and a grant covers 12 of those.

“Some of our students can pay for training out-of-pocket, but we try to make all of our services accessible regardless of ability to pay,” Roeseler said.

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The request

Needed: 120 Sony mono digital recorders to help visually impaired seniors maintain independence.

Cost: $4,800