Upgraded software reads aloud to operators

A FRIENDLY VOICE ASSISTS BLIND COMPUTER USERS

June 29, 1992|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As a blind data base administrator, Chuck Marstrand has depended on an IBM product called Screen Reader to read aloud the words and numbers he programs into his computer. The program enabled him to work as a fully functioning member of his department at The Limited in Columbus, Ohio.

But when his department switched to the graphics-based OS/2 system, Mr. Marstrand could have been left out in the cold, as the Screen Reader could not recognize graphics.

Fortunately, Mr. Marstrand was included as one of 50 testers on Screen Reader/2, a new IBM product that makes OS/2 accessible to vision-impaired users by reading the contents of the graphic screen aloud.

It is also the first program that allows full use of spreadsheets for blind individuals.

If there were no Screen Reader/2, "I'd be out of work," Mr. Marstrand said.

"As more shops go to OS/2 -- unless someone else comes up with another speech product -- this is the only product that will

keep [blind workers] gainfully employed, if they're as dependent on speech as I am."

IBM announced the release of Screen Reader/2 last week. Developed in Boca Raton, Fla., by the company's Special Needs Group, it is the ninth product in IBM's Independence Series, products geared toward disabled individuals.

There are about 11 million visually impaired people in the United States, with about 120,000 of them now in the work force, said Walt Nawrocki, product manager at IBM Special Needs Systems.

"They will need products like Screen Reader/2 to move from DOS-based systems -- or to maintain employment at all," he said.

The release of Screen Reader/2 comes as workplaces prepare for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Effective July 26, the ADA will prohibit discrimination against disabled employees and will require employers to make workplace accommodations for various disabilities, including vision impairment. Companies will be responsible for assuming "reasonable costs" in making these accommodations.

In addition to making OS/2 accessible to blind people, Screen Reader/2 can also be programmed to speed up the process of maneuvering around the system, reducing long sequences to as few as three keystrokes, according to Dennis Devendra, a vision-impaired programmer at the Special Needs Systems group who helped develop both versions of the Screen Reader.

The company also envisions the product as useful for sighted individuals who prefer hearing commands rather than seeing them on a screen.

Screen Reader/2 was helpful to Jay Macarty, a systems analyst at J. C Penney in Dallas, because of its ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time.

"It gave me the same flexibility as it did the other people in my group," he said. "I could be testing a product in one window, viewing files in another and just jump back and forth."

Screen Reader/2 will be sold with instructions in Braille and on audio cassettes. It will run on any system that runs OS/2 2.0 and has a minimum of two megabytes of available fixed disk space. It will run applications programs designed for Microsoft Windows, but is not compatible with the Windows software itself.

Screen Reader/2 will be available in September at a price of $723 and can be ordered by calling (800) IBM-3388 or by contacting a local IBM branch office through (800) IBM-3333.

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