New Menu-Reading, Web-Based App Helps Visually Impaired

Stephanie Jones, who lost her sight 12 years ago, tests a menu-reading, web-based app using her iPhone that was developed by Helen Fernety of ShopABLED, LLC to help the blind and visually impaired order from a restaurant menu without assistance. Photo by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

Reading the menu at a restaurant wouldn’t take much effort for most sighted diners. But for the blind and visually impaired, trying to figure out what to order and what the meal would cost could be a daunting experience.

Just ask Stephanie Jones, who had to rely on her children and friends to read the menu so she could order what she really wanted. “Whoever was with me would read the menu,” said Jones, the mother of five children. “I used braille menus in the past, but they’re not always updated. But you learn to work through it.”

Jones is one of many diners who can’t make heads or tails on a menu without assistance. But a recent call from Helen Fernety could be a game-changer for Jones and other diners if restaurants subscribe to a menu-reading, web-based app that Fernety has developed.

“Helen called the Clovernook Center (for the Blind & Visually Impaired in Memphis) to explain the product, and I happened to be the one who talked to her,” said Jones, who teaches braille and the iPhone accessibility feature at Clovernook.

Eager to test the app, about 13 of Jones’ students gathered at Soul Fish Café to order from an online menu of authentic southern-style soul food. “As soon as I logged in, it was perfect,” said Jones. “It gave me headings, pricing, descriptions…everything was perfect.”

Her students – pretty much hyped over their experience – agreed: “It was perfect.” Fernety couldn’t have been any happier that her product passed muster. She knew she was on to something big – something special that would make dining much easier for the blind and visually impaired.

Fernety, who struggled early on with her own disabilities, is the CEO of ShopABLED, LLC, a collaborative group in Little Rock, Ark. “focused on improving ‘life skills’ for people with different abilities through technology with a focus on user centric product development.”

The first product from ShopABLED’s drawing board is of course Menus4ALL, the low vision/no vision mobile restaurant menus app that is being developed in multiple languages for the blind and visually impaired. Work on the app began two years ago.

“We have a very innovative product,” said Fernety, an accessibility expert who moved to Memphis from Little Rock one year ago. “The app is based on my friends’ needs. They don’t have a lot of choices (at restaurants) – because they can’t read menus.”

The app works using the accessibility features in a smart phone and computer. For Android users, the blind and visually impaired can access the pre-installed TalkBack screen reader. The iPhone and iPad – both Apple products – use VoiceOver, a gesture-based screen reader.

“We’re building the app for both platforms,” said Fernety, who had overseen 21 prototypes with the help of freelance app developer Shawn Hartman of Little Rock. For $300 a year, restaurants can subscribe to the service.

“It would be wonderful to get 50 restaurants to be accessible to people who are visually impaired,” said Fernety, noting that the website version is ready for the market. “We’re not a mobile app yet. That’s the next level.”

It’s called the Native App, which will roll out soon. Also, for those who use Lyft, a smart cab link is located at the bottom of the menu. If a customer needs a ride to and from the restaurant, the app will detect the link.

“This is huge for me. I can do this by myself,” said Jones, who lost her sight 12 years ago. She has spent six of those years teaching at Clovernook.

Jones is not the only visually impaired person in the dark, so to speak. According to the National Eye Institute, 4.2 million Americans ages 40 and older are visually impaired. Of that number, three million have low vision. By 2030, when the last baby boomers turn 65, the number of visually impaired Americans is projected to increase to 7.2 million, with around 5 million of those having low vision.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disabilities, Fernety is making it easier for the blind and visually impaired to access Menus4ALL and enjoy their dining experience.

For more information about Menus4ALL, contact Helen Fernety at 501-590-6723 or email her at helen@Menus4ALL.com.

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