The Blind Lead the Sighted Technology for People With Disabilities Finds a Broader Market

by Eric A. Taub

 

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the New York Times, on Thursday, October 28, 1999. It provides a broader historic and social perspective on technology for blind people than does most writing on the subject. Here it is:

Gregg Vanderheiden regularly washes his own clothes, but unlike most people he never loses any socks. He is immune to that modern plague because he uses sock sorters, small plastic rings that keep each pair together in the laundry. "I haven't had a mismatched or incomplete pair in years," Vanderheiden said.

While this minor invention seems a perfect product for a Lillian Vernon catalogue, it was actually created for and originally marketed by organizations for the blind, to help those without sight keep their matching socks together in the dresser drawer.

Sock sorters are not the only invention that has migrated to the general population. Some of life's more mundane innovations, including cut-down curbs and large-handled can openers, have come about as solutions for the disabled.

But so have many more sophisticated, high-technology inventions, like computer scanners and optical character recognition software. And like many such innovations, their usefulness to the rest of society has usually been realized only over time.

When Thomas Edison filed his patent for the phonograph in 1877, he listed ten uses for the machine. "Phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part," was second; music was fourth.

Closed-captioned television, created to help the deaf, has become ubiquitous in the nation's health clubs, allowing people to watch soap operas or news shows while they work out. Descriptive audio tracks--secondary audio programs that provide summaries of a television show to help the blind follow the action--are popular with home workers who want to keep abreast of a show's developments but cannot always stare at the screen.

What type of person devises such solutions for what are for most people life's minor problems? "Football players don't invent jar openers because they have no trouble opening jars," said Vanderheiden, head of the University of Wisconsin's Trace Center, which researches ways to improve access for the disabled to information and telecommunications systems. "It takes somebody who can't live with the way the world currently is to create a new invention."

Or somebody in love with that type of person, like Pellegrino Turri. In Italy in 1808, Turri invented a machine to help his lover, the blind Countess Carolina Fantoni, write letters to him.

That typewriting device was not needed for the seeing population because upper-class, literate people had the time to write letters, using quill pens. Writing with a quill was a difficult task for the blind, who could not know if their writing was uniform or if the quill was running out of ink.

During the early 1900's, Turri in Italy and Ralph Wedgwood in England, working separately, each created carbon paper. Turri's paper worked with a typewriting machine. Wedgwood's invention, patented in 1806, allowed the blind to write without worrying about whether the pen had ink--a metal stylus could be used instead. By 1823 carbon paper was being marketed in the United States as a general business product.

Of all the disabilities it is blindness that has led to most of the technological innovations that have later migrated to the general population. "Blindness is often an absolute, in a way that deafness isn't," Vanderheiden said. "Changing from an acoustic to a visual world is not as hard as the opposite."

Raymond C. Kurzweil, developer of the first practical optical character recognition software, said: "Blind people are early adapters. They have a much more pressing need for new technology. Even if it's not perfected technology, it still provides a useful sensory aid."

Kurzweil said a blind person had once explained to him that the only real handicap for blind people was their complete lack of access to print. Kurzweil used his expertise to create the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first device that gave the blind the ability to have printed material read to them by a machine, in 1976.

The machine combined the first charge-coupled device flat-bed scanner with optical character recognition software and a text-to-speech voice synthesizer. The scanner transfers the printed document into the machine, the OCR software translates the words into recognizable text, and the synthesizer translates that text into understandable spoken English.

The reading machine wasn't perfect; it couldn't recognize every word. But that was not a fatal flaw. "We didn't need 100 percent accuracy because a human can always detect errors and make corrections in the mind," Kurzweil said.

It was the strong demand from the blind that made this product successful, Kurzweil said. "We always knew that there were commercial applications for scanners (OCR) and text-to-speech software and that prices would eventually come down," he said. "But if we had pursued the commercial market initially, we might not have succeeded."

Today text-to-speech software lets the blind read text on Web sites and in e-mail. But while some functions are newly accessible, the popularity of graphically rich Web sites and operating systems like Windows and Mac OS has actually reduced the ability of blind people to use a personal computer.

Microsoft, for one, understands that, in its attempts to make the Windows operating system easier to use, it has actually made the system more difficult to use for a significant minority. To ease accessibility problems, the company has charged a staff of forty full-time employees with insuring that its products--from Windows to Office--can be mastered by people with physical disabilities.

Software and Web site developers are encouraged to embed hidden descriptive text in their programs so text-to-speech software can read the graphics to people with limited vision. "We're enforcing stricter requirements for those who want to use our Windows logo on software packaging," said Luanne LaLonde, the product manager for Microsoft in the accessibility and disabilities group. "People will need to follow our accessibility rules."

Thanks to those standards, Word and Excel users can magnify their screens and increase the size of their toolbars, both features first perfected for the visually impaired. Similarly, while the ability to create customized keyboard shortcuts as substitutes for various computer commands is now taken for granted, that concept was in fact originally developed to help those with physical disabilities find keys they could easily use.

The World Wide Web Consortium has developed a set of accessibility guidelines to help the visually impaired easily read Web sites; for example, every button on a Web page should have accurate and appropriately descriptive text tags. Otherwise, clicking on a button marked Search on a site might prompt text-to-speech software to say only "button."

Marti McCuller, a legally blind Web site developer, was frustrated by her difficulty in navigating through search engines. "My text-to-speech software let me read the various search sites," she said, "but they often put so many links on a page it became hard to use."

That is because the blind, even with text-reading software, cannot glance at a page. There is no way for them to get a quick visual overview of a site's contents and make mental notes about where it would be worthwhile clicking and exploring later. Rather the blind must laboriously click from line to line, determining by a process of elimination where they want to go.

As a solution Ms. McCuller created her own search engine (www.seti-search.com), an amalgam of other search sites that does not force the user to move slowly around the site and wade through advertisements to find the right place to enter a query.

Search words are entered at the top of the page, and appropriate links are displayed above all other material as well. Users do not need to tab through extraneous material.

The search engine has become popular with the sighted as well as the blind. "Those who can see like the fact that there are no ads getting in the way of their information," Ms. McCuller said.

Text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies, staple tools of the blind, have become integral parts of a new generation of software that allows consumers to retrieve their e-mail by phone, program household devices, and speak to business colleagues around the world even though they speak different languages.

The Clarion Corporation uses speech-to-text software originally developed by Kurzweil and licensed from the Lernout and Hauspie Corporation for Auto PC, an in-car computer that responds to voice commands and reads e-mail and other information.

Jfax.com utilizes text-to-speech software to give consumers the ability to hear their phone messages, e-mail, and eventually their faxes over the telephone. The service is popular with business people and others who are often not near a computer, said the company's president, Gary Hickox. In the future a customer will be able to dictate a letter over the phone and have it sent as an e-mail text message.

Lernout and Hauspie has demonstrated its new simultaneous translation system, which with just a one-second delay allows the user to speak in English and have the words translated into another language in a grammatically correct manner with a natural-sounding voice.

Voice-to-text software translates the words into machine-readable text, which text-to-text software translates. Text-to-voice software simulates the sounds of the other language, using the company's RealSpeak speech-synthesis software.

"Fifteen to twenty years from now voice input and output for computers could be the norm," said Greg Lowney, Microsoft's director for accessibility.

A restaurant filled with diners talking into their voice-activated pocket-size devices may be the price for society's attempt to extend the fruits of the technological revolution to all.

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