Technology offers hope for access to more of world


November 05, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Within a few years, the blind will "read" street signs and wall posters.

Raymond Kurzweil didn't hedge that prediction at all when he spoke to a technology conference of the National Federation of the Blind here yesterday. And he should know. He's the man who in 1976 invented a "reader" that could scan a printed page and convert it to electronic speech -- starting a revolution in technology for the blind that hasn't stopped since.

Today, an estimated 750,000 blind Americans might not be able to see the Information Age unfold, but they are hearing it and feeling it in a way that could have a profound impact on their lives.

For many of them, struggling to find a niche in a work force that leaves out an estimated 70 percent of blind people, technology offers new hope. For others, scrambling to cling to the jobs they have now, rapidly changing technology threatens to make their hard-won skills obsolete.

This week, several dozen experts and activists, both blind and sighted, are gathering at the federation's South Baltimore headquarters to assess the progress and wrestle with the problems of empowering the blind through technology.

For a broad view, they turned to the man who built that first reading machine. Mr. Kurzweil, chairman of Kurzweil Applied Intelligence Inc. in Waltham, Mass., didn't let them down.

In his keynote speech, Mr. Kurzweil described a world in which rapidly expanding computer chip capacity reduces the briefcase-sized reader to a hand-held device that will cost less than $1,000 and will read street signs as well as the printed page. Eventually the reading machines will be built into glasses and will help the blind navigate their way through the streets, he said.

"By the end of the first decade of the next century, I believe that we will come to herald the effective end of handicaps," said Mr. Kurzweil, who is not blind.

The group paid attention to Mr. Kurzweil's view of the future because they know what he has done in the past.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, president emeritus of the federation, remembers the first generation of reading machines. His federation paid $50,000 apiece for six prototypes, each of which occupied three heavy metal cases.

"They weren't all that good," Dr. Jernigan recalled yesterday. The voice quality was mediocre and if you didn't put the page in just right -- a challenge even when you can see -- it clammed up.

Today, the sixth generation of Mr. Kurzweil's invention sits in the federation's newly expanded technology center. The device costs $5,400 and reads documents even if they're crooked, upside-down or in multiple columns. Perfect Paul, one of nine voices you can choose from, isn't perfect enough to sound human, but the words are perfectly clear.

Such advances translate into jobs for the blind, said Deane Blazie, president of Blazie Engineering Inc. in Forest Hill, near Bel Air.

"People become much more employable with these kinds of technologies than without them," said Mr. Blazie, a sighted man who introduced the first "talking" computer to the market in 1977 and now builds hand-held Braille computers for the blind.

But Marc Maurer, president of the federation, said the biggest obstacles facing blind people are more human than technological.

"Not only is technology important, but the training of blind people is important," he said. "You have to believe you can get into the work force."

Curtis Chong, senior systems programmer at a large Minneapolis financial services firm, said the new technologies have been helpful in his career, but he worries that the cutting edge of progress is a double-edged sword for the blind.

As new graphic interfaces such as Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh have replaced text-based standards, blind people have sometimes been left behind.

"We're once again playing catch-up," said Mr. Chong.

As for the ultimate in technology for the blind, artificial vision, Mr. Chong isn't waiting for it to happen.

"I don't live my life hoping to one day see," he said.

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