Department: Job Accommodations
Since the early 1980s, persons with vision impairments have witnessed the birth of a new generation of information access. Gone forever are the days of waiting weeks and months for audio tapes and Braille books to be manually transcribed. This long awaited change in our capability came in the form of the personal computer and adaptive technology merged with the online world. Assistive systems like speech synthesizers, Braille embossers, and screen magnification software have allowed the blind community to independently access stored online information on demand. So far, the online world has greatly expanded information access. But in the future, we may lose the high degree of access we have come to depend upon. Future technical developments on the Information Superhighway and the Internet may pose grave dangers to the current level of information access. We shall discuss some of these potential problems and some solutions in the next paragraphs.
Currently, individuals with vision impairments using adapted personal computers can employ the Internet to perform many functions: sending and receiving electronic mail, transferring text and other files, accessing document archives, searching databases, reading newsgroups and mailing lists, even live chatting and social interaction. Clearly, the Internet is a powerful tool, one that we would not want to lose under any circumstances.
The problem is fairly simple. As a whole, the computer industry is moving towards the graphical user interface. Following this trend, the online world is also going graphical, with many services building new graphical user interfaces even as these words are being written.
The new graphical online services and Internet tools may effectively close the door on information access if bold steps are not taken immediately. This is not to say that the graphical user interface should be banned or disallowed. We merely require a graphical user interface that can be used effectively and reliably with adaptive equipment.
Currently, the bulk of adaptive technology is compatible with text-based interfaces, although there are a few emerging graphics-based access technologies. Although the various adaptive vendors have performed a heroic feat with the creation of several graphics-based screen reading programs, these programs are not yet as reliable as their text-based counterparts. the current generation of graphics-based screen readers does not always reliably read all information. Moreover, these screen readers do not always reliably track the mouse as it is moved around the screen, causing the blind user to become lost in a myriad tangle of information. This problem could easily be solved if mainstream software companies and online access providers cooperated with screen reader manufacturers in the design stages of their graphical applications.
The storage of online documents and other data as graphics images, not text, presents another potential barrier for blind computer users. Current adaptive systems rely on ASCII-based text to perform reading functions. Documents stored as graphics images cannot be read by current adaptive hardware and software, and are thus inaccessible to blind users. This could prove to be a very difficult problem for people who are blind as graphics-based documents are expected to be in widespread use in everything from office correspondence to graphical electronic mail systems. This problem could easily be solved if a document standard across platforms could be developed.
Interactive video systems distributed on the Internet also pose serious problems of access for persons who are blind and visually impaired, unless alternative display methods are enacted. These systems include, but are not limited to, document delivery systems, electronic shopping, online encyclopedias and magazines, even games. Again, we could solve these problems if only the mainstream vendors would cooperate with the adaptive vendor and user community in the design stages of their products.
Another disturbing trend is that of public information terminals or kiosks. These dedicated computer terminals, connected to the Internet, can pose grave dangers for blind users in their current conceived form. These information terminals are expected to rely heavily on graphics to display information to the user, and will also rely on touch-screen technology, both difficult for persons who are blind or visually impaired to access. These public access terminals, if not adapted properly, could pose a serious threat to information access as they will be used for office building directories, airline reservations, search and retrieval systems, office equipment, and are expected to be as commonplace as public telephones. There is no reason why these public access terminals should be choke points of information for the blind community, for there is no such thing as an inaccessible computer. We merely have to write the software to take the needs of all users into consideration, and we will have built a machine that is truly accessible for all its users.
Yet another danger factor is the merger of the cable television system with the Internet. Companies are beginning to offer information and other services that can be accessed using a standard cable decoder, with the information displayed on television video screens. The user controls the system by tapping keys on the cable box, reading visually any information displayed on the screen, a system clearly inaccessible to persons with vision impairments. Moreover, the current configuration does not permit the installation of current adaptive systems in its present form. A new generation of adaptive systems would have to be created for this environment.
So how do we solve our current information crisis? We need a series of laws and regulations to establish minimum guidelines, and specific regulations, for information technology so that both the hardware and the user interface software will be accessible to all disabilities. In simple terms, we need an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for technology products and services, where product is defined as any device interfaced to the Information Super Highway. The disabled population need inter- operability among user interface options, not just inter- operability among applications. an example of this might be a blind person using speech, a deaf/blind person using a Braille device, a motor disabled person using a puff switch, while a non- disabled individual employs a touch-screen. This adaptive inter- operability is no less do-able than inter-operability among applications, but has received little attention.
Some other solutions include, but are not limited to, the inclusion of persons who are blind or visually impaired in the creation, testing, and debugging process of new products. Open ended systems should be created that can interface with adaptive hardware and software devices. Where applicable, mainstream devices should have built in access features, or be able to easily interface with adaptive devices. User interfaces must become standardized, and easier to use, and customizable for the individual needs of each end user. Documentation and training materials must be provided in accessible formats. Mainstream and adaptive vendors should work together to create products that are accessible from the design stage to final production. Access to the superhighway by persons who are blind or visually impaired must be as fast and efficient as that enjoyed by non-disabled users. Overall, success should be measured by ease of use and accessibility. Successful access is defined as receiving visual information through other means, including (but not limited to) speech output, Braille output, or enlarged output. We should not forget that successful access technology leads to jobs, and jobs lead to a higher quality of life among the disabled community. We encourage our national leaders to champion this cause, as it is a just one. Inaccessible computers and information results in lost jobs, with individuals unable to realize their full potential. We must create a world where information can be accessed by all, according to their abilities, and not their perceived limitations.
The Braille Lite, Blazie Engineering, Forest Hill, Maryland, 410- 893-9333. is a personal data assistant for users who read Braille. The thick paperback book-sized computer has a Braille keyboard for data entry, an unlimited vocabulary speech synthesizer for output, and a 17-character refreshable Braille display that works hand-in-hand with the voice synthesizer. You can read stored information with speech output, Braille output, or a combination of both. The unit uses a mechanical Braille display to produce the individual Braille characters, and no paper is required. Useful for classroom or vocational settings, the Braille Lite can be used for word processing, telecommunications, and other functions. The unit can also interface with a personal computer and function as a stand-alone voice synthesizer. Braille Lite is battery powered, and has a built-in serial and parallel port.
The first Windows based screen reader, Window Bridge, Syntha-Voice, Stony Creek, Ontario, Canada, 905-662-0565. Window Bridge can read both MS DOS and Windows applications. The software can provide voice output, Braille output, or a combination of both. Window Bridge can drive a number of commercially available voice synthesizers and refreshable Braille displays. Documentation is available on tape, disk, and standard print.
A product of Artic Technologies, Troy MI, 313-588-7370. Winvision is a DOS and Windows screen reader. The program will drive the line of Artic voice synthesizers, and the DECtalk PC voice card from Digital Equipment Corporation. The software will read many Windows-based applications such as word processors, data bases, spreadsheets, and other packages. Documentation is available on audio tape, computer disk, and print.
Blazie Engineering's Windows Master is a Windows only screen reading program. This is the newest screen reader for Windows to enter the adaptive market. The software can drive a number of commercially available voice synthesizers, and will also work with the Braille 'N' Speak. Since no DOS reading component is supplied, Blazie recommends using third-party DOS screen readers to verbalize non-Windows applications. For more information or a demonstration disk, contact Blazie Engineering, Forest Hill, Maryland, 410-893-9333.
A product of Biolink Research And Development LTD, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 604-984-4099. ProTalk is a Windows-based screen reader that will drive many commercially available voice synthesizers. ProTalk will also work with the popular line of Sound Blaster synthesizers. According to the company, ProTalk reads many Windows-based applications.
Over the past several years, CD ROM has proved to be an empowering technology for many workplace applications. Now a new book on the subject brings it all together with clear and detailed writing. _The CD ROM Advantage_ from National Braille Press, Boston, MA, 617-266-6160, gives a clear overview of CD ROM technology, and discusses one hundred titles that work with speech output systems. The work is available on computer disk, audio tape, and Braille.
An-age old problem for persons who are blind, the reading of paper money, can create a serious barrier at home or on the job. Thanks to microprocessor technology, computerized devices can identify paper currency and read the denomination aloud. The NoteTeller is a battery-powered paper money identifier manufactured by BryTech Inc, Nepean, Ontario, Canada, 613-727-5800. The NoteTeller can identify U.S. currency, from $1 to $100, and can speak both Spanish and English. A model is also available with a tactile display for persons who are deaf-blind. The company also offers a unit that can recognize Canadian currency.
Careers & the disABLED:
This magazine focuses on career guidance and role model profiles for persons with disabilities. Published quarterly, the magazine is intended for college students and career counsellors. According to a contact person at the publication, the magazine is distributed free by many college disabled student service centers and career counsellors. The magazine is available on IBM ASCII computer disk. A Braille summary is also available. The magazine is published by Equal Opportunity Publications, Hauppauge, New York, 516-273-0066.