September 5, 2012, 4:02 PM

A new mobile view

A mobile app from DirectionsForMe lets blind shoppers scan for product information. 

Lead Photo

A consumer uses a Braille keyboard on DirectionsForMe.org

For the more than 3.3 million Americans age 40 and older who are legally blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a simple trip to buy groceries can require the help of a friend or passerby just to identify items on the shelf. That’s why nonprofit Horizons for the Blind teamed with consumer goods database provider Gladson to create DirectionsForMe, a daily updated web site available at directionsforme.org cataloging nutritional information, cooking directions, ingredients, allergy warnings and other details found on the labels of more than 400,000 of the most common food, health, beauty and general merchandise items. Soon the web site will also feature a mobile app that lets consumers scan items in-store and retrieve information audibly or through a braille reader, Horizons for the Blind says.

The web site, which is free to use, counts 2.4 million visits since going live in March 2011, says Camille Caffarelli, executive director of Horizons for the Blind. Consumers can access product data in two ways: by entering a product name into the web site and looking up the information at home—to which the blind can listen or read with a braille display reader –or in store with a handheld scanner that uses the item’s bar code to display the information on a portable braille reader or another device, she says. The forthcoming mobile app will extend the in-store options to smartphone and tablet owners. The web site’s text can also be magnified for visually impaired readers.

“I’m blind and have lived a pretty productive, good life, but one of the problems I’ve always had—like the rest of us—is if you want to bake a cake or know about dinner going in the microwave, you always had to ask someone: what are the ingredients, warnings, instructions?” Caffarelli says. “Now you don’t have to thank anybody anymore, you have all the information at your own disposal.”

With a hand scanner, or soon with the mobile app, blind and visually impaired consumers will be able to stand in the soup aisle and figure out whether they are holding cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup without asking someone, she says. “Think of the type of empowerment you are providing people that they’ve never had before.”

She stresses that the site not only brings independence to those who are blind or visually impaired, but is useful to the increasingly larger population of seniors who have trouble seeing small print on packages. The site is designed with consistency in mind, she adds, so that each product page displays information in the same place on the page and in the same order, with text in a line-by-line format—no easy-to-miss boxes or sidebars.

The Gladson database adds roughly 10,000 to 15,000 products to directionsforme.org each month, says Steve Cole, the company’s chief marketing officer. “It’s great to be making a difference in this way and empowering this community with the same information that consumers have access to everyday,” he says. More than 200 web sites and mobile applications use the Gladson database feeds, he says, including e-retailers like coupons.com, and though directionsforme uses the same information, he says it is “a very innovative use of our content.”

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