Ten Years of Computer Use by Visually Impaired People in Hungary
This survey is written by the developers of BraiLab, a talking computer family. The authors present an overview of computers and aids based on micro-processing systems used by blind people in Hungary in the past decade. The paper discusses various devices in use in Hungary in the past decade, and the impact of these devices on the education, work and everyday life of visually impaired individuals. Finally, the authors identify some of the tasks looming on the horizon.
Computers and Aids Based on Micro-Processing Used by Visuall Impaired Hungarians
At the beginning of the 1980s there were nine blind computer programmers in different computer centers in Hungary, where various computers (ICL, Simens, Honeywell) were in use. Some of the programmers relied on their memory from when they could see, sometimes calling on their colleagues for assistance. Five worked with a Hungarian-developed one-cell refreshable braille display connected to the normal display. This showed only one braille character, the character at the cursor of the normal display. The programmers could quickly go through material character by character or line by line with cursor movement keys and could check both texts and messages on the screen. The one-cell braille display was a highly usable tool and it gave its users the ability to work independently.
At the same time, information was available about devices used in the United States and Canada: the VersaBraille System (produced by Telesensory Systems, Inc.) and talking terminals. The school for blind children and the Association for the Blind bought three VersaBraille Systems in 1984 and updated versions in 1989. The equipment was very well-designed and constructed. It was portable and contained a text processing system with braille input and temporary braille output in a twenty-character long line. The VersaBraille could be connected to either a braille or dot matrix printer to produce hardcopy in print or in braille. A terminal program facilitated communication with other computer systems.
Two or three blind teachers used these devices for taking braille notes, writing braille music notations and producing braille materials. Problems emerged, however. Producing inkprint text from braille coded text was difficult, since Hungarian braille does not accommodate the English symbols. Considering only the letters, forty-two dot-codes are necessary for Hungarian. Only twenty-four dot-codes representing letters are common to both English and Hungarian Braille. Instead of the other eighteen letters, different signs were utilized, and of course many other signs also were unique. About forty percent of the characters in an inkprint text would be incorrect.
In addition, the price of this device was extremely high. Except for two or three institutions, nobody in Hungary could afford the Versabraille or similar devices. At the same time the personal computer began to become more common, and it could be seen that many blind people would need to use computers and text editing systems. A cheap, reliable, usable output for the blind was necessary.
We had experience in using tools with a fixed-dictionary speech output (talking watch; SDK85, a System Design Kit combined with a Digi- Talker synthesizer with 144 words). We felt that a new and promising area of development would be synthesized voice output. However, in displaying computer information only a text-to-speech based system can be taken into consideration. The fixed vocabulary system has limited usefulness.
A Hungarian speech system was not, at that time, available on the market. Research was carried out in the field of formant analysis and synthesis for the Hungarian language by the Linguistic Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A text-to-speech system worked on a PDP-11 machine in laboratory circumstances. Finally, using the results of the research of the Linguistic Institute, a text-to-speech system was developed in the Central Research Institute for Physics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
On the basis of this artificial speech system, a low-cost, talking personal computer was built in the summer of 1985. The input/output system of the Z80 based microcomputer was modified so that even the screen editing system was usable by visually handicapped people. The following talking programs could be used on the first version of the BraiLab computer: the talking BASIC and the talking Assembler with Disassembler and monitor. 48 Kbyte of free memory was available for programming. This smaller version was designed for teaching purposes.
By the end of 1987, the advanced version of the talking personal microcomputer called BraiLab Plus was ready. It was supplied with a talking version of the CP/M compatible operating system. A talking text editor, a braille printer and a talking database system were also available with the BraiLab Plus computer. The authors developed a contracted braille translator for Hungarian grade two braille. The BraiLab Plus contained 792 Kbyte floppy drive, 64 Kbyte RAM memory, 186 Kbyte built-in RAM floppy, serial (RS232C) and parallel CENTRONICS interfaces. The speech synthesizer was integrated into the computer. The BraiLab Plus was also supplied with a German text-to-speech system. Additionally, the machine could work as a terminal connected to larger computer systems. Both versions (BraiLab and BraiLab Plus) were transportable.
At the same time another talking unit, Mikro-vox, appeared on the market. Together the Technical University of Budapest and the Linguistic Institute developed a Mikro-vox unit fitted to a Commodore microcomputer. That speech synthesizer combined with the Basic-vox software helped blind individuals learn Basic, a programming language. Only five of these devices were purchased.
Since the end of the 1980s, IBM and IBM-compatible computers have been widely used in Hungary. So, in 1991 we created BraiLab PC, an external speech output adapter built with PCF-8200 synthesizer chip, which is connected to an IBM or IBM-compatible PC. The Hungarian text-to-speech software, integrated with an intelligent screen reader program, is loaded into the PC's memory. All the keystrokes, texts and messages appearing on the screen can be heard by the user.
There were other attempts to create an assistive device for Hungarian blind users, namely the PC Talker, by Jozsef Kiraly. He used the SoundBlaster hardware for his purpose. That speech was purer than PCF8200's, cost more and required much more resident memory. About ten Recognita OCR reading devices were sold with this speech.
The developers of Micro-vox constructed a general purpose Hungarian text-to-speech program for PCF8200 formant speech synthesizer. Their version requires about 150 Kbytes of resident memory. This group did not deal with screen readers. Later they developed additional languages for their system.
There were four hundred BraiLab Basic, seventy BraiLab Plus and more than two hundred BraiLab PC adapters sold by the end of 1993. The secret of success for BraiLab devices is in their human engineering solutions.
The Significance of Talking Computers for Hungarian Blind Users
The possibility of computer use by blind people is a great step forward in their obtaining access to information. Let us convey some data about the Hungarian situation to illustrate this fact.
The population of Hungary slightly exceeds ten million people. The Hungarian Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired has approximately 18,000 members. Three primary schools for the visually handicapped serve the entire country. Two of these are in Budapest: one school for blind children and one for partially sighted children. In recent years another two schools with low numbers of pupils (about 30) were established, one in Budapest and one in Pecs. Collectively, these five schools serve about six hundred. There are also 125 visually impaired pupils in secondary schools, and fifty students in higher education. All of these students use talking computers.
The Hungarian Association for the Blind regularly organizes fundamental courses in adaptive technology for beginners. More than two hundred users from all over the country have finished these courses in Budapest. In these lessons blind people get acquainted with the basics of computer operating systems, text editors and data base handlers.
Visually handicapped children learn to use computers in the special school for the blind in Budapest and in the other two schools for partially sighted children. The curriculum includes not only typing exercises on typewriters but on PC's as well. All Hungarian visually impaired pupils learn MS-DOS, text editors and some basic programming by age ten. During their secondary education, which is integrated with that of their non-disabled peers, visually impaired students learn to use adaptive technology.
Computer files are output mainly as braille hardcopy by blind users. Nine braille printers are presently being used in Hungary. BraiLab Plus and BraiLab PC have Hungarian contracted braille publishing systems available for them. These translators are used by the Association for Braille Production, in the primary schools and at the Budapest Eotvos Lorand University. Six programmers recently graduated from the Budapest Eotvos Lorand University and another six graduated from alternative post- secondary institutions.
The use of computers makes many blind peoples' lives easier in several fields of work. Besides computer specialists (about forty people), lawyers (fifteen people) are the largest number of white collar blind workers in Hungary. Lawyers regularly use text editors to prepare and edit their documents. The collection of laws is recorded on CD-ROM and changes to these laws are updated and published monthly. The handling of legal documents by blind users is done efficiently and comfortably with the use of BraiLab PC. CD-ROM publishers have taken into account the special needs of blind users. The screen reader system of BraiLab PC has a special CD-ROM application supplement for this CD-ROM law system.
Ten teachers and linguists work with text editors and they all use and appreciate the advantages of text correction with adapted computers. One of them, a teacher of philosophy, reported that the use of BraiLab computers brought revolutionary changes into blind peoples' lives. Two dictionary programs (English- Hungarian and German-Hungarian) can be used to assist in translation work. These dictionaries are available in both directions as Terminate and Stay Resident programs under the MS-DOS operating system.
The next group of blind computer users (about thirty to forty persons) is more heterogenous. Members of this group include telephone operators, masseurs and librarians. These people mainly use adapted computers in their everyday lives rather than in their work. The talking telephone book and telephone exchange program has just been developed using the BraiLab PC, and it will soon be used by blind telephone workers.
BraiLab users have access, free-of-charge, to the Hungarian developed optical character recognition program _Recognita_ for their personal reading machines. The company which developed _Recognita_ donated the software program free-of-charge to about fifty users. The most common use of talking personal computers is for the writing of inkprinted letters.
The talking Telex program was developed very late. Nowadays telefax machines supersede telex systems. The Hungarian developed PC based Gepard telex systems could not create new employment possibilities for blind people. The talking Teletext systems (from TV broadcast) are used only by two or three users for everyday information retrieval.
Electronic communication is one of the most significant new aids for visually handicapped persons. There are about ten people who have access to the Internet in Hungary. Five of them are university students. Three blind radio amateurs can also use packet radio for electronic communication.
Future Tasks for Developers
We would like to improve the screen reader of the BraiLab PC. The intelligence of the screen reader can be improved by writing more application supplements for numerous application programs, such as text editors. (We call them application command trees.) These could include "housekeeping systems" (e.g. Norton Commander) and integrated software development systems (e.g. Borlan C++). The other way to improve the intelligence of the screen reader is by creating artificial intelligence algorithms. One can program the main characteristics of windows and the AI algorithm could find the "current window" or the "most important" part of the screen by having it look for its unique screen attribute.
We also plan to develop bilingual screen readers. It is important for a nation whose language is spoken only by fifteen million people worldwide to use a second language. The most common second languages are English and German. In a bilingual screen reader, AI algorithms can be used for sending texts and messages to the proper speech synthesizer.
We intend to build a packet radio extension to the Internet for the use of disabled radio amateur operators. Blind, deaf and mobility-impaired amateurs will then be able to reap the benefits of electronic communication (In Hungary we still have a shortage of telephone lines). The packet radio extension will work with a central full duplex digital repeater with 9600 baud rates in the 430 MHZ broadcast band. We will start in the Budapest area with ten stations. An experimental gateway is already in use with the host name hg5bdu.kfki.hu.
Finally, we are planning to build a self-contained palmtop computer which will include the BraiLab PC features in a compact format. This will enable blind users to carry them anywhere easily, and use them as notebooks, phone books, mobile personal terminals, voice message storage systems, etc.
The past ten years have provided significant advances for blind computer users in Hungary. This article has illustrated the Hungarian circumstances, the number of blind computer users and the types of devices and applications in common use. Further, this paper has presented a description of some of the projects now under development and others still in the planning stage. While technological progress in Hungary is inhibited by the small number of potential users for such special equipment, significant achievements are still occurring because of the dedication and enthusiasm of the adaptive equipment developers..