Computer aids for the blind

Access: Devices to be unveiled today will help narrow the technology gap between blind and sighted workers.

October 24, 2002|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Jim Dickson is a smart man. He graduated from Brown University, has a job as a vice president for a national organization and considers himself a quick study.

But when a report arrived recently that his computer could not translate into voice, Dickson, who is blind, had to rely on others to do his work for him. He phoned eight of his colleagues before finally finding one who had time to read the lengthy report to him over the phone.

"That's annoying, it's humiliating, it's inefficient," said Dickson, a vice president at the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington.

While technology has helped the blind read e-mail and computer documents, it is still riddled with problems. Many technologies are difficult or impossible for the blind to access, and the result is a giant gap between those who are blind and those who are not.

The problem affects hundreds of thousands of blind people. The consequences can make it difficult for the blind to peruse Web sites, and they can be as devastating as costing blind workers their jobs. Several experts say anecdotal evidence indicates that the problem is widespread.

"If the technologies that we use fit in with the technologies that everybody else uses, we can accomplish great things," said Curtis Chong, director of technology for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. "But if the technologies don't mix, we either find other ways to do it that cost a lot of money or we don't work."

Today, two products will be introduced that could help narrow the gap between the blind and the sighted. Microsoft Corp. and St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Freedom Scientific Inc. will launch the PAC Mate, a hand-held personal computer for the blind. Also, the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology will unveil technology that it is developing to enable the blind to feel graphics through a device that connects to their computer.

Still, the problems that the blind face with technology are growing, Chong said. Even if a blind person is looking for a job that has nothing to do with technology, that person must make sure the company runs software on its computers that is compatible with technology for the blind, he said.

About 30 percent of the 669,000 people between the ages of 21 and 64 with severe difficulty seeing were employed in 1997, according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

For those who are employed, technology can create overwhelming roadblocks.

Gary Wunder, 47, is blind and has been a computer programmer at University Hospital in Columbia, Mo., for more than two decades. Several years ago he was promoted to the job of project manager, but Wunder said that in 1995 he was demoted back to senior programmer because the computer programs he used had so many graphics.

"So we take a couple of steps forward and get some things to work, and then we take a couple of steps back," Wunder said.

Dickson has given up on using the Internet. On the job, he has one of his employees do Internet research and then e-mail it to him - a task that Dickson estimates costs his organization a day's work for one staff member each week.

"The way we accommodate access to the Web is I drive my staff crazy," Dickson said.

Some say moves to diminish the "digital divide" for the blind are under way. Glen Gordon, chief technical officer for Freedom Scientific, which makes technologies for people with visual and learning disabilities, said that when Windows 3.1 was released in 1993, it was years before a device that turned printed text into the spoken word was available. When Windows XP came out in 2001, he said, devices were ready in hours.

With the technology being introduced today by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, blind students will be able to feel maps or pictures of animals that appear on their computers.

With the PAC Mate, the blind will be able to send e-mail from the road and load messages from the device onto their desktop computers, the way sighted people have long been able to with their pocket PCs. Still, the PAC Mate costs $2,595, compared with the iPAQ pocket PC, which can cost as little as $500, according to Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Web site.

Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the accessible technology group at Microsoft, said the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant began putting features for the blind into the operating system in 1988. She believes that what technology can do for people with disabilities will be well known by the end of the decade, and that the technology will be much further along by then as well.

"We really think that this is going to be a decade of incredible change, and change for the better," she said.

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