Innovative technology for the visually impaired

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Access to technology provides people with many varied opportunities and resources - entertainment, business, education, and social interactions, just to name a few. As sighted people, we take for granted the technology that allows us to navigate our way around the Internet, play computer games, and use a vast array of software and hardware programs on a daily basis. But what if we could not see the screen? Or the mouse? Or our keyboard? Our access to these technologies would suddenly become very limited. This paper will explore some of the new inventions and technologies that can help the visually impaired overcome the barriers that limit them in this area.

When the Internet was first developed, it was primarily text-based, and visually impaired users could still access it with relative ease with the use of screen readers and screen magnifiers. But with the introduction and development of the graphical user interface (GUI), the face of computer technology changed. No longer was text as important as what you could see and hear - the emphasis became presentation rather than content. For those with good vision, the computer has become a fast-action, exciting place, full of videos, audio, animation, and awesome graphics. The visually impaired, however, are finding it increasingly difficult to fully access and navigate this new type of technology.[1]

One of the most difficult aspects of this new kind of technology for the visually impaired to overcome is the use of graphics, and most of the research and new technological "breakthroughs" were on this subject. If you can't see the screen, you don't know where the mouse is or where icons are located. Also, even if you do manage to hit something, you have no idea where you are or what you are supposed to do when you get there! Another problem with graphics is the use of tables and graphs in documents and research articles. Even with speech recorders, it is almost impossible to make sense of them if you can't see them!

In his article "The Rise of the Graphical User Interface", Alistair Edwards talks about the development of adaptations that would allow a visually impaired computer user to navigate his screen by sound. One of the first programs to come along was Outspoken. In this Macintosh program, whatever the cursor was on was spoken aloud, and the user could navigate with the mouse or the keypad.[2] Since then, there have been many improvements, especially in the area of OCR-and speech-synthesis technology. However, there has been very little progress made in making graphics more accessible.[3] According to Martin Kurze, "it is a very challenging task to find non-visual presentation methods for the objective use of a graphic; but it's even more challenging (and at least as important) to find such methods for the intrinsic aspect".[4] This is why Anthony Pash suggests that an accessible Web page for the visually impaired should not contain any video clips, animation, tables, graphs, frames, etc. that are difficult even for screen readers to decipher.[5] However, there are some promising, if not complicated, ways for the visually impaired to have access to graphical information. In his paper "Guidelines for Blind People's Interaction With Graphical Information Using Computer Technology", Martin Kurze, a foremost researcher in this area, describes a two-fold system whereby access to graphical information can be obtained. It involves two phases - a sighted person providing the model of the displayed visual graphic in phase one, and the blind person exploring/interacting with/experiencing the graphics.[6] It is a long, drawn out, and quite technical procedure, which would be a definite disadvantage for its widespread use at this point.

There are, however, many other neat things that have been developed to allow the visually impaired person greater access to technology. For example, blind students studying math and sciences now have access to new and improved Braille systems that allow them to pursue their courses of study with much greater efficiency and ease. The GS8 system is one such system. Physicist John Gardner was struck with blindness in 1987, and discovered the hard way how difficult the old Braille language was to use for math. In standard Braille, symbols for plus, times, or equals must be spelled out, and numbers are made up of both number and letter symbols. He and his colleagues developed the GS8 Braille Code to help deal with this problem. Other research that they are working on includes developing a software program that can read complex technical material using tone changes to help the blind visualize equations.[7]

Of course, surfing the Web, or doing complicated math problems are not the only ways that visually impaired people use technology to enhance their lives. There are some very new breakthroughs in the development of "assistive technology devices" for those with disabilities, such as the first-ever Pocket PC for those who are blind. This technology was developed with the cooperation of Freedom Scientific and Microsoft, and is called the PAC Mate. It enables the visually impaired user to "hear" documents, images, and Web content, and also includes the ability of the user to take notes, keep track of appointments, and download any information that is required.[8] Another new product that will benefit visually impaired students is the TestTalker, also developed by Freedom Scientific. TestTalker is a software program that allows these students to take tests, fill out worksheets, and generate study materials electronically. It also enables the teacher to prepare materials and exams that are "user friendly" to visually impaired students. Other technological advances for teachers and their visually impaired students are the new and improved Braillers and Internal Speech Synthesizers. Two of the most recent upgrades are to the VersaPoint Duo and the Braille Blazer. There are also Notetakers such as the Braille Lite M20, which includes a 56k modem, e-mail capabilities, word processing, quick one-key demands, and adjustable speech synthesizer. The only disadvantage here is that these technologies are very expensive, and budgets may not allow for them in some schools.

The most common technologies used by the visually impaired are screen magnifiers, screen readers, and Refreshable Braille pads. Screen magnifiers do just that - magnify what is on the screen so that those who still have some sight can see it. Screen readers give audible clues and will actually read what is on the screen wherever the cursor is. Refreshable Braille pads work in a similar manner to screen readers, except that the text is converted into Braille instead of speech. This enables the user to scan full sections of a document easily, instead of having to listen to it read slowly one word at a time. Once again, the disadvantage to these programs is that they are expensive, with the Refreshable Braille pads topping out at between $8,000-$15,000 US.

There are many other new or upgraded technologies available to the visually impaired, such as Triangle, which is intended for use by print-impaired students and professionals in the fields of science, engineering, and math, and DotsPlus, which is an upgraded form of Braille that is similar to the GS8 system mentioned earlier in this paper, but it would be impossible to describe them all. The technology is definitely out there, and improving all the time.

In a sense, I feel that technology can be the means by which people with all kinds of disabilities can be empowered to pursue careers in almost any field, and to take advantage of every skill and talent they possess to become equals with non-disabled people in the classroom, the workplace, and the home. Hopefully, Microsoft and other big technology companies will continue to take the needs of people with disabilities such as blindness into consideration when they are developing their new programs, appliances, aids, and devices.


Edwards, Alistair D. N. (un-dated). The Rise of Graphical User Interface. University of York, Department of Computer Science.

Freedom Scientific Newsroom. (2002). [email protected], Martin (1995). Giving Blind People Access To Graphics (Example: Business Graphics); In: Proc. Software-Ergonomie '95 Workshop "Nicht-visuelle graphische Benutzungsoberflachen"; Darmstadt 22.02.1995 1995, 17 pages.

Kurze, Martin (1995). Guidelines for Blind Peoples Interaction With Graphical Information Using Computer Technology. Blindness Resource Center - Research and Innovation.

O'Brien, Miles (1995). Correspondent, Cable News Network, Inc. Technology.

Pash, Anthony (1998). Network Notes #52. ISSN 1201-4338, Information Analysis and Standards, National Library of Canada.

Scadden, L. (1984). Blindness in the Information Age: Equality or Irony? Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 78: pp. 394-400.

[1] Pash, Anthony. Network Notes #52, National Library of Canada, 1998.

[2] Edwards, Alistair. "The Rise Of The Graphical User Interface" University Of York (no date).

[3] Kurze, Martin. "Giving Blind People Access To Graphics", 1995.

[4] ibid.

[5] Pash, Anthony. Network Notes #52.

[6] Kurze, Martin. "Guidelines For Blind People's Interaction With Graphical Information Using Computer Technology". Blindness Resource Center - Research and Innovation, 1995.

[7] O'Brien, Miles, Correspondent. CNN, Inc. Technology, 1995.

[8] Freedom Scientific Newsroom, October 2002. [email protected]