Talking Prescriptions: Vital Resources for People Who Are Blind

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

One of the most common questions that a blind person receives when interacting with health care professionals is something along the lines of, “Who helps you with your medication?” The question is an honest one–the health care professional wants to ensure that the person has a way of managing medication safely. But the result of this kind of wording is an implication that the person who is blind is incapable of handling his/her own affairs, and a barrier is erected between the two individuals who should be working as a team. It is vital that this kind of gap be avoided.

Bridging the Gap

There are two pieces to bridging the gap. One is professional understanding, and one is patient resourcefulness. When the two come together, the health care professional and patient can stop dancing around misunderstandings and get down to addressing health matters. In this article, I will address both aspects of this gap.

  • I will help health care professionals to learn how people who are blind manage their medication and what options are available to make life a bit easier for them.
  • I will give people who are blind information about the array of talking prescription identification devices and a demo of one such device.

The Panicky Question: Who Helps You??

Behind the question of who helps with medication is a further implication: does the person need some kind of help to come in and do this? Some doctors have tried arranging this for people who are blind.

The vast majority of people who are blind do not have a nurse or caregiver come and give them their medication each day. Not only would this be impractical, but it would feel intrusive and unnecessary. Many people have been handling their own medications all their lives by recognizing differences in shape, texture, etc. Some of the differences between pills and capsules that blind people can recognize are very minute, and a sighted person might not notice them. Some people even differentiate capsules based on whether the capsules are small capsules that shake, small capsules that don’t shake, large capsules that don’t shake, have an odor, etc.

Difficulties arise for a person who uses these methods when a generic medication is changed, a medication is filled incorrectly, or when a new medication is added to the collection which might look a lot like another one but have a different dosing schedule. People have worked around these problems in many ways: by checking their medications with pharmacists before taking them home, by having a trusted acquaintance check them before the first use, etc.

The fact that pharmacists dispense medications incorrectly at all illustrates the fact that every third party can make errors. It is not enough for a person to have assistance in sorting medications. It is vital for a person who is blind to have the ability to handle medication independently. Organizations of blind advocates have worked for many years toward better solutions.

What Solutions Are Available

Several talking products are now available which will read medication information aloud. Some of these products are used only by specific drugstore chains. Others work with a specific device (e.g. the IPhone) and need to be customized. A blind person who has some system of organization with medication already can use a solution like Digit-Eyes and would require help only when a new medication is received. Click to listen to a demo of the digit-eyes app.

None of the talking medication ID products are perfect; and there are not adequate identifiers for people who are deafblind. For those who can use these devices, this is a significant step forward.

What You Can Do

If you are blind and you need access to your prescription labels, talk with your pharmacist and other people you know and trust about which or these products might be best for you in light of your needs.

If you are a pharmacist or pharmacy technician and your pharmacy does not participate in a program to offer talking prescription labels, advocate with your network for this service. Additionally, help your clients locate services they need, or offer to record labels for them if they use a device that is not tied to service at a particular pharmacy.

If you are a doctor or other health care professional, learn whether pharmacies in your geographic area provide talking prescription labels. Encourage those that don’t to participate in these programs.

Most of all, in whatever area of health care you work in, approach people who are blind as people who are capable of handling their own personal and health care needs, and assume that they understand their own disabilities and the potential dangers of misidentifying a medication. Chances are very good that they understand very well and have made no more mistakes than any of your sighted patients.

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