Braille Monitor                                                 July 2010

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More Absurd Research to Bother the Blind

Mary Ellen GabiasFrom Barbara Pierce: In the past, would-be helpful Hannahs have invented combination white canes and snow shovels for the blind, special toilet paper dispensers for the blind, red strobe lights and flashlights clipped to the cane for use at intersections, and dozens of other pointless devices. Now Swedish researchers have decided that, because we can’t identify facial expressions, we need computerized assistance in order to converse effectively with others. It is possible that such technology might be helpful to some people on the autism spectrum who cannot make connections between facial expressions and the emotions that cause them, but aiming such research at solving nonexistent problems for blind people is perverse and will only complicate our efforts to persuade people that we are normal folks who can’t see. As Mary Ellen Gabias pointed out in her message transmitting the following report, “This sort of research is particularly harmful to parents of blind children who already wonder how their kids will interact socially. If some of these researchers have their way, the blind will become bionic people with computers and other machines poking out of every pocket and attached to every body part. I understand that some sighted people don't know what to do at first when they can’t make eye contact with a blind person, but let's not get carried away.”

Mary Ellen is a longtime Federationist who lives with her husband and children in British Columbia, where she is a leader of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. After she read this article in the April 28, 2010, issue of Science Daily, she wrote the following letter to the chief researcher. Here is her letter followed by the Science Daily article:

I read in Science Daily for April 28 about a new device which your organization has researched to help blind people read the emotional content of facial expressions through a tactile display. I believe your research is predicated on a false premise. It is true that sighted people use facial expressions to determine the emotional state of the person with whom they are interacting. However, the fact that millions of telephone conversations take place every day, some including highly emotional content, demonstrates that observing facial expression is not necessary for complete communication.

Human beings are highly resilient and adaptable. Deaf people have developed a thoroughly articulate language that requires no sound transmission. Blind people are able to understand nuanced emotions using auditory cues and without visual clues. The fact that most people use one sense for gathering information does not mean that other sources of that information are inaccurate or inferior.

I recommend that your organization work with the Jernigan Institute, an internationally renowned research organization operated by blind people for blind people. I also invite you to read The Value of Decision, a speech delivered by Dr. Marc Maurer at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in the United States. It can be found at < > by following the links from the Publications page.

I have shared the news report of your research with a number of blind friends and colleagues. Their reaction has been universally derisive. They feel, as I do, that blind people suffer more from negative attitudes reinforced by the promulgation of such research than we do from being unable to see facial expressions.

I have written bluntly because scarce research dollars should be spent on truly meaningful projects, not on creating devices that have the effect of increasing social isolation by reinforcing the notion that sight is necessary for normal communication.

Very truly yours,
Mary Ellen Gabias


New Braille Technology Helps Visually Impaired “See” Emotions

Without vision it's impossible to interpret facial expressions, or so it's believed. Not any more. Shafiq ur Réhman, Umeå University, presents a new technology in his doctoral thesis—a Braille code of emotions. "It gives new opportunities for social interactions for the visually impaired," he says. Lacking the sense of vision can be very limiting in a person's daily life. The most obvious limitation is probably the difficulty of navigation, but small details in everyday life, which seeing people take for granted, are also missed. One of those things is the ability to see a person during a conversation. Facial expressions provide emotional information and are important in communication. A smile shows pleasure, amusement, relief, etc. Missing information from facial expressions create[s] barriers to social interactions.

"Blind persons compensate for missing information with other senses such as sound. But it is difficult to understand complex emotions with voice alone," says Shafiq ur Réhman. His thesis addresses a challenging problem: how to let visually impaired "see" others' emotions. To make this possible, the research group has developed a new technology based on an ordinary Web camera, hardware as small as a coin, and a tactile display. This enables the visually impaired to directly interpret human emotions. “Visual information is transferred from the camera into advanced vibrating patterns displayed on the skin. The vibrators are sequentially activated to provide dynamic information about what kind of emotion a person is expressing and the intensity of the emotion," he explains.

The first step for a user is to learn the patterns of different facial expressions by displaying the emotions in front of a camera that translates the emotions into vibrational patterns. In this learning phase the visually impaired person [has] a tactile display mounted on the back of a chair. When interacting with other people, a sling on the forearm can be used instead.

The main research focus has been to characterize different emotions and to find a way to present them by means of advanced biomedical engineering and computer vision technologies. The project was funded by the Swedish Research Council.

The research group's spin-off company Videoakt AB has been granted a patent for the technology, which soon will be available as a product on the open market. Tactile feedback is also interesting in other areas as a future communication tool for seeing people as well. "We have successfully demonstrated how the technology can be implemented on mobile phones for tactile rendering of live football games and human emotion information through vibrations. This is an interesting way to enhance the experience of mobile users," explains Shafiq ur Réhman.


Consider a Charitable Gift

Making a charitable gift can be one of the most satisfying experiences in life. Each year millions of people contribute their time, talent, and treasure to charitable organizations. When you plan for a gift to the National Federation of the Blind, you are not just making a donation; you are leaving a legacy that insures a future for blind people throughout the country. Special giving programs are available through the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

Points to Consider When Making a Gift to the
National Federation of the Blind
            •  Will my gift serve to advance the mission of the NFB?
            •  Am I giving the most appropriate asset?
            •  Have I selected the best way to make my gift?
            •  Have I considered the tax consequences of my gift?
            •  Have I sought counsel from a competent advisor?
            •  Have I talked to the NFB planned giving officer about my gift?

Benefits of Making a Gift to the NFB
            •  Helping the NFB fulfill its mission
            •  Receiving income tax savings through a charitable deduction
            •  Making capital gain tax savings on contribution of some appreciated gifts
            •  Providing retained payments for the life of a donor or other beneficiaries
            •  Eliminating federal estate tax in certain situations
            •  Reducing estate settlement cost

Your Gift Will Help Us
            •  Make the study of science and math a real possibility for blind children
            •  Provide hope for seniors losing vision
            •  Promote state and chapter programs and provide information that will
              educate blind people
            •  Advance technology helpful to the blind
            •  Create a state-of-the-art library on blindness
            •  Train and inspire professionals working with the blind
            •  Provide critical information to parents of blind children
            •  Mentor blind people trying to find jobs

Your gift makes you a part of the NFB dream!


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