A Small Device Helps Severely Nearsighted Drivers Hit The Road

Jun 7, 2014
Originally published on June 9, 2014 8:22 am

On an interstate heading into Birmingham, Ala., Dustin Jones merges a small white SUV into the flow of traffic. This might seem unremarkable, but Jones has a genetic condition that reduces his long-distance vision. Driving safely hadn't been an option for him, but now, with the help of a little device called a bioptic telescope, it is.

"Life without the ability to drive is exponentially harder," Jones says. "It's just very difficult to do anything at all."

In nearly every state, visually impaired people now can drive with the aid of the bioptic telescope, a small black box that attaches to glasses. That's about 10,000 people, according to one estimate, and the number is growing as more people learn about the technology.

Both Jones and his mother have the same condition, and not being able to drive made everything harder in a rural area with limited public transportation.

"We relied a lot on family or friends just for simple things like groceries," Jones says.

Six years ago he entered a program that trains people to drive with bioptic telescopes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

"You go through some training just for general mobility, so walking around, using it as a passenger in a car," his teacher Jennifer Elgin explains. "Once we feel pretty good about the passenger part, then we move on to driving."

A year later, Jones was trained and certified. He passed the Alabama driver's test on the first try. Then he started commuting by car to an information technology job and eventually landed his current, higher-paying job at a children's hospital. Jones says without his bioptic telescope, things would be different.

"I wouldn't be a productive member of society," he says. "I could potentially just be a forgotten soul."

It's also easier to pick up a girl for a date. Jones is a little shy on the subject, but Elgin jokes about how people using the scopes notice certain, ahem, scenery.

"A lot of times with new drivers, especially young men, we'll be stopped at a stop sign and I'll watch them and they'll be looking at the girls walking across the crosswalk," Elgin says. "I'll say, 'I know what you're doing.' "

This new vision doesn't come cheap. Bioptic telescopes can cost more than $2,000, depending on the model. Sometimes state rehabilitation programs pay for them, but insurance companies generally won't. Jones's grandmother paid for his.

As he drives, every few seconds Jones subtly dips his head and glances through the scope. It magnifies objects like signs and traffic lights four times.

In addition to training drivers, specialists at UAB have done some of the first road-test studies on people with bioptic telescopes. UAB's Cynthia Owsley coauthored a recent study of 23 bioptic users, that showing the vast majority drove safely.

"As the evidence comes out on the research side, more and more jurisdictions are willing to entertain the possibility of bioptic driving," Owsley says.

That would give even more people opportunities like the ones given to Dustin Jones, who still sees driving as a privilege.

"I didn't feel entitled to drive," Jones says. "Having not driven my entire life, I felt the opportunity itself was gift enough."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In nearly every state now, visually impaired people can drive with the help of what are called bioptic telescopes. Now these are tiny devices that drivers wear in addition to their glasses. At the University of Alabama Birmingham, there is a special training program where drivers are learning to use the telescopes. And that's where Dan Carson - member station WBHM - met one young man who's leading a fuller life because of this technology.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Twenty-four-year-old Dustin Jones merges a small white SUV onto the interstate. He's clean cut and wears a light blue polo shirt. There's a three inch black box attached to the frame of his metal rimmed glasses.

DUSTIN JONES: Unless you've been without it, you don't understand how crucial it is.

CARSEN: Jones has a genetic condition that reduces long-distance vision, so he couldn't drive safely without this little device called a bioptic telescope.

JONES: Life without the ability to drive is exponentially harder. It's just very difficult to do anything at all.

CARSEN: Everything was harder growing up in a rural area with limited public transportation. His mom has the same condition.

JONES: We relied a lot on family or friends just for simple things like groceries.

CARSEN: Six years ago, Jones entered a University of Alabama at Birmingham program that trains people to drive with bioptic telescopes. His teacher was Jennifer Elgin.

JENNIFER ELGIN: You're fitted for the bioptic, and then you go through some training just for general mobility - so walking around, using it as a passenger in a car. Once we feel pretty good about the passenger part, then we move on to driving.

CARSEN: A year later, Jones was trained and certified so he could take Alabama driver's test. He passed on the first try. He started commuting by car to an IT job and eventually landed his current higher-paying IT job at a children's hospital. Jones says without his bioptic telescope...

JONES: I wouldn't be a productive member of society. I could potentially just be a forgotten soul.

CARSEN: It's also easier to pick up a girl for a date. He's a little shy on that subject, but Jennifer Elgin jokes about something else some new drivers notice when they start driving with these telescopes.

ELGIN: A lot of times with new drivers, especially young men, we'll be stopped at a stop sign and I'll watch them and they'll be looking at the girls walking across the crosswalk. And I'll look over and I'll say, I know what you're doing.

CARSEN: But this doesn't come cheap. Bioptic telescopes can cost more than $2,000 depending on the model. State rehab programs sometimes pay for them, insurance generally won't. Jones' grandmother paid for his.

As he drives, every few seconds, Jones subtly dips his head and glances through the eye hole of the scope. His bioptic magnifies objects like signs and traffic lights four times.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in addition to training drivers, specialists have done some of the first road-test studies on people with bioptic telescopes. UAB's Cynthia Owsley coauthored a recent study of 23 bioptic users, showing the vast majority drove safely.

CYNTHIA OWSLEY: As the evidence comes out on the research side, more and more jurisdictions are willing to entertain the possibility of bioptic driving.

CARSEN: And that would give even more people opportunities like the ones given to Dustin Jones, who still sees driving as a privilege.

JONES: I didn't feel entitled to drive, having not driven my entire life. I felt that the opportunity itself was gift enough.

CARSEN: According to one estimate, about 10,000 visually impaired people in the U.S. now drive with bioptic telescopes, and the number is growing as more people learn about the technology. Until cars drive themselves, these tiny telescopes will be out there helping people do what many take for granted.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham.

SIMON: And you can see what a bioptic telescope looks like on our Facebook page, NPR WEEKEND EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.