Finding best ways for blind in computer world

Advocates: The National Federation of the Blind relies on two sightless computing experts to test new products.

February 28, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

People with sight seem fixated on the mouse as an aid to blind computer users. But Richard Ring and Curtis Chong say those who can see are looking in the wrong direction.

"We get a lot farther with the keyboard," says Ring, who tests hardware and software at the National Federation of the Blind's technology center.

Chong, the NFB's technology director, and Ring, supervisor of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, are both blind and spend their days making side-by-side comparisons of devices and programs designed to help others who can't see.

On the second floor of a warehouse on Johnson Street in South Baltimore, they rate the voices of screen-readers that translate written text displayed on a monitor, measure the speed of Braille printers (called embossers) that print on both sides of paper, and find out what programs work best with Windows 98 and NT.

"We're not as extensive as Consumer Reports," says Chong, "but we will find out the good things about something and the bad things about it."

The center has samples of about 200 devices worth $2 million and publishes a 32-page catalog of hardware and software, augmented by advice that Chong and Ring dispense on the phone to anyone who calls.

Some of the gadgets are fairly common, such as voice- and keyboard-based note takers, while others are rare and expensive. For example, there's a Belgian-made Interpoint 55 embosser, which can output up to 800 Braille characters per second and costs about $77,000. NFB has one of three in the country: the others are owned by the Jehovah's Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

Chong and Ring decline offers of free devices from vendors to maintain the integrity of the testing process. While they say most vendors are doing a good job, occasionally they get strange offerings from inventors.

"Someone came up with the crazy idea of a cane with a wheel on the end that would have a detector to tell people when they were coming to a puddle," Chong says. "It was a dumb idea."

While he frequently gets suggestions for Braille keyboards and voice recognition systems, Ring said a standard computer keyboard, properly designed with nibs on the "F" and "J" keys to guide the fingers, works just fine.

"We can input to our heart's content," Chong says. "It's getting the information out of the computer that's the problem."

Chong said the center's most important work revolves around Microsoft Windows because so many blind people use computers at work. While the operating system is friendly in some ways, he said, it needs auxiliary programs to unlock its potential for the blind. For example, the testers say the best of the screen readers they've tested is JAWS for Windows, which costs about $800. It tells the user what he has selected on the Windows desktop, opens an application or gets access to the Web.

JAWS depends upon the same keyboard shortcuts that any sighted user would turn to if he didn't want to use the mouse, and its synthesized speech can be adjusted for pitch and speed.

Screen readers can also translate Web pages, which many advocates consider a great equalizer for the blind because the underlying HyperText Markup Language can be deciphered easily.

Another important tool is the Braille display machine, a flat box that sits under a keyboard and duplicates the screen text in Braille characters produced by plastic pegs that poke up through tiny holes. The machine can even display a "flashing" cursor by popping the proper pegs up and down.

Cong and Ring also preach to agencies that serve the blind: This year they'll teach three classes to show rehabilitation counselors what's available for their clients.

"It's surprising how limited knowledge of technology is" among those who work at agencies to help the blind, Ring said.

Still, Chong worries that prospective employers emphasize the technology a blind person needs so much that they don't consider what's really important -- the qualities the person can bring to a company regardless of his vision.

When they're not dealing with computers, the two often discover that other gee-whiz consumer technologies aren't friendly to the blind.

Chong went shopping for a stove and discovered to his horror that the latest fashion in expensive equipment is a smooth glass top and no protrusions to tell a blind person the location of the stove's burners.

He also found that his satellite TV receiver has a program guide and instructions on-screen, processes he can't use. Nor, he said, are touch screens on computers, televisions and bank machines an advancement for the blind.

"Everything is digital now," Chong says. "With the old analog television, you could feel the dial changing the channels. Now, you can't feel the channel change ...

"What we're trying to get people to think about is nonvisual technology when they're designing."

Information: The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at 410-659-9314. National Federation of the Blind,

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