Thursday, February 02, 2006

Giving PCs A New Voice

Devices that assist the sight-impaired

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, September 24, 1997 -- [Image]
In the Netherlands, an extensive series of paved
bikeways run alongside the highways that link one city to
another. They are equipped with their own traffic lights
(which glow to reveal a red or green bicycle graphic),
destination signs like "Hoogeveen 20 Km," and easily
accessible on and off ramps. The terrain is flat, and
bikes can be rented cheaply at any train station offering
those without the ability to own or operate a motor
vehicle an easy means of independent travel. [If only
America were that civilized. -- Ed.] Seen from the
perspective of a bike rider, the wider highways alongside
the bike paths seem a wasteful extravagance. For the
visually impaired, computing technology has often been as
useless as a four lane highway is to the non-driver, but
some recent innovations have provided new opportunities
for electronic tools and cyber travel.

Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers coupled with
speech synthesizers tell you where you are, "speaking"
your position out loud, without need for a map or
compass. While I'd hate to see a good German Shepherd
lose a job (technology's flipside: brutal theft of job
opportunities for the labor force), this invention is a
monumental step towards giving the blind greater
independence outdoors.

Speech synthesizers alone have been a huge breakthrough
that's turned the computer into a useful tool for the
visually impaired. Through the use of screen-reading
software, words that appear on a monitor can be
transformed into synthesized speech and the user can hear
each letter that's typed onto the screen, allowing new
forays into the wide world of interactivity.

In some ways, the internet has threatened to be a
divisive force by creating a network of services
available only to those able to use a computer or other
surfing apparatus. The evolution of devices for the
disabled helps turn that obstacle into an advantage. A
blind person with tech savvy and access to the right
equipment can now enjoy the anonymity of the net. A blind
woman I know in New York is responsible for maintaining a
fetishistic Star Trek forum, and participants can share
her lust without knowing that she's never actually laid
eyes on those pointy ears or skin-tight duds.

With speech synthesizers readily available, blind people
can add a scanner to the mix and have hard copy read out
loud on demand. It may not offer the human touch that a
live reader would have, but I've seen "La Lectrice" --
the French film by Miou-Miou Vvor about a young woman who
gets into all kinds of trouble when she takes a job
reading books out loud -- and a mechanized virtual reader
can be much less politically involved than a live human.

Just as the Dutch bikeways don't offer the same speed as
the motor highways that run beside them, some elements of
today's interactive technology will continue to be
inaccessible to many (the wonderfully graphic elements of
the web, for example, cannot be verbally communicated).
Despite the limitations, good design for the disabled has
the power to offer new job opportunities, global
communication ability and greater self sufficiency.

More information on devices for the sight-impaired can be
found through the Alliance for Technology Access and the
National Foundation of the Blind.

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This column is an exclusive.


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