The Braille Monitor                                                                                         October, 2003


They Give Sight to the Blind

by David Kushner

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

From the Editor: On Sunday, September 7, 2003, the following article appeared across the country in Parade Magazine, the Sunday magazine inserted in many newspapers. You will certainly recognize the names of two of the people highlighted. Here is the story:

When Ivan FitzRandolph heard that his grandson Casey would be speed-skating in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the news was bittersweet. FitzRandolph, eighty-one, a retired teacher from Milton, Wisconsin, suffers from macular degeneration--a condition that renders him legally blind. "Even if I was sitting right next to the ice," he says, "I wouldn't have been able to see Casey skate by."

Just before the big event, though, his family gave FitzRandolph the ultimate gift: sight. It came in the form of a pair of goggles called the Jordy--a sophisticated piece of technology that views the world through a camcorder lens, then enhances and displays the images on two tiny screens in front of the wearer's eyes. When his grandson skated past the finish line at the Olympics that year, FitzRandolph didn't miss a moment. "I was able to see Casey get the gold medal," he says. "It was a great experience."

Innovations such as the Jordy are changing the lives of the estimated eighteen million Americans who suffer from impaired vision. Some have been blind since birth, some lost their vision over time, and others, such as FitzRandolph, endure what's called low vision, a state of near-blindness. But new technologies are helping them to create a new vision for their futures. Curtis Chong, president of the computer science division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), who was born blind himself, says these devices "help people realize that blindness isn't as debilitating as they think it is."

Easier Access to Information

Dr. Norm Gardner
Dr. Norm Gardner

In today's digital age computers serve as an important conduit for the exchange of news and ideas. Until recently, though, few visually impaired people could surf the Web or read an e-mail. Now, by changing the way information is shared, cutting-edge technology is making it accessible even for the 1.1 million Americans who are legally blind.

Among the most important tools are screen readers--programs that transform Web pages and e-mails into speech. There also is a talking PDA that can be worn around the neck. And scientists at Scotland's University of Glasgow recently announced a talking computer mouse that combines vibrations and sound cues to convey the shapes of graphs on a computer screen.

Another everyday activity--reading the newspaper--also is becoming possible. Norman Gardner, sixty, a professor of finance at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah, has been blind since birth. For decades he was unable to converse with his colleagues about the morning's Wall Street Journal. "If there was time in the day, I'd have someone read me the headlines," he says, "but it always left me feeling ill-prepared."

Professor Gardner is one of 42,000 Americans using the National Federation of the Blind NEWSLINEŽ, a free telephone service that lets him search through and hear articles from the Journal and eighty-nine other publications. "Now, when I talk with my colleagues," says Gardner, "I'm the first person with something to say."

Interacting with the World

A conundrum of the digital age, says Curtis Chong, is the fact that the smarter technology becomes for the sighted world, the more difficult it becomes for the blind. Laundromats, for example, are switching from coin-operated machines--equipment accessible to the visually impaired--to ones controlled by digital displays that a blind person can't see.

But changes are slowly taking place. "Ten years ago we wouldn't use a money machine at the bank," Chong says. "Or, if we did, we had to memorize the sequence of buttons to push. Today we have talking ATMs." These machines are now being employed by banks around the country, including Citibank, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

Similarly the NFB, working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, debuted a Tactile Graphics Display (TGD) that allows the visually impaired to literally feel an image. The device--expected to be commercially available within two years--consists of 3,600 tiny pins that adjust to convey the impression of an electronically scanned image. With a TGD a blind grandmother can receive a digital picture of her grandchild over the Internet, then run her fingers over the bed of pins to feel a tactile rendering of the child's face. "A picture is truly worth 1,000 words," says John Roberts, the lead researcher at the National Institute.

Looking toward the Future

Chong already is discussing the next innovations for the blind, such as handheld reading devices that can be passed over a page to convert the text into speech. "My hope is that, in the next five to ten years, technology will focus on ease of use and reduce the learning curve for blind people," he says.

In the meantime, Ivan FitzRandolph is savoring his Jordy. He uses the goggles at sporting events and at church. And if his grandson makes the team again for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, FitzRandolph will be there to root him on--and to watch.