iPads May Help Those With 'Low Vision' Read Better

Denise Mann

November 15, 2012

iPads and other tablets with backlit screens may allow millions of people with "low vision" to read faster and easier, a new study suggests.

Low vision is an umbrella term for people who still have trouble reading, watching TV, or performing other daily activities despite glasses, contact lenses, medication, or even surgery. For people in this situation, the only options left are often magnifying glasses and low-vision aids, many of which are bulky and not that easy to use.

Enter iPads, Kindles, and other backlit tablets.

The new study shows that these devices may allow some people to read faster and more comfortably.

The findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Chicago.

Reading With Backlit Tablets

The study was made up of two experiments. In the first, 62 people read three articles from The New York Times in the print version of the newspaper, as computer printouts, and on an Apple iPad 2.

More than half of those in the study had evidence of macular eye disease. The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see fine detail.

According to the findings, readers read faster on the iPad 2 than the newspaper or printed article. This improvement was most pronounced among people who had low vision in both eyes.

In the second experiment, 100 people read a book chapter in these ways:

  • In a "real" book

  • On an iPad 2 with 12-point and 18-point fonts

  • On an Amazon Kindle with 12-point or 18-point fonts

The iPad was set at maximum background brightness. The Kindle used in the new study did not have a backlight, although the new Kindle Fire does come with one.

The people in the study all read faster on the iPad 2 than on the Kindle. The gap widened when the iPad font was magnified to 18 points.

People read 42 more words per minute on average with the iPad 2 on 18-point font compared to the book. By contrast, a 12 word-per-minute gain was seen among those reading on the Kindle in the same font.

Contrast Counts

The backlight boosts contrast sensitivity or the ability to see an object stand out from its background. Many people with low vision lose this ability, says researcher Daniel Roth, MD. He is an associate clinical professor at Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine in New Brunswick, N.J.

"The findings apply to anyone with compromised reading vision who has difficulty seeing letters or words," he says. "The magnified font and backlight allows them to improve their reading ability and comfort."

Aging baby boomers with vision issues are likely pretty tech-savvy, and these tablets are very user-friendly, he says. Many times, these people just give up on reading, but they don't have to.

"Choose a tablet that has a backlight, set the brightness to the maximum, and read at a comfortable level of magnification," Roth says.

iPads can benefit most everyone with low vision, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic eye disease, says Mark Fromer, MD, an ophthalmologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "These devices create contrast between the letters and the background so they can read more easily -- without magnifiers."

"The 18-point font size and the contrast allow them to pick up the shape of the letters much easier than standard print," Fromer says.

They also beat the alternatives, he says. "Magnifiers and lighting devices can be large and cumbersome."

Janet Sunness, MD, an ophthalmologist in Baltimore, agrees. She says that an iPad 2 is also a lot less expensive than some low-vision aids, which can run as high as $3,000 and are generally not covered by insurance. iPad 2s cost around $400.

"This is a fabulous thing for low-vision patients," she says. Her advice is to go to a store and take a tablet for a test drive and see how you like it.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary, as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.