Reporters Look at Technology for the Blind
From the Editor: In recent weeks several prestigious newspapers and one distinguished magazine-format television news program have taken a considered look at various aspects of technology for the blind. The first to address the topic was the Louisville Courier Journal, which did a profile of long-time Federation leader Tim Cranmer in its Sunday, February 15, 1998, edition. Here is the story as it appeared:
Visionary in a Sightless World
Blind Inventor is Working on a Touchable Language
by Bob Deitel
Ideas and information literally whirred around Tim Cranmer as he sat in his small at-home office in Louisville.
From a desktop scanner the pages of a book on physics were being methodically transferred to computer and then reprinted in Braille for Cranmer to read later. On the computer's screen flashed Cranmer's morning e-mail, the words being recited aloud by software that instantly converted the text into speech.
Most ear-catching of all, however, were the thoughts Cranmer himself was offering.
So much of science, he said, has involved turning the unseen into the visible. Microscopes and telescopes reveal incredible detail. Machines convert brain waves to drawings. All aim at uncovering new information by enhancing sight, he said.
But what if science also could devise a way to represent images in a touchable, or tactile, way for people with impaired vision, Cranmer suggested. By starting with raised forms representing common objects, blind people might learn a new language to help them observe and understand the untouchable from distant stars to tiny atoms.
Like sight, touch is a unique window to the brain, Cranmer explained. What's needed are new tools to enhance that window.
"I know what a dog, cat, rubber ball, and chair look like, but they aren't visual imagesthey are tactile images that I have acquired over the years. We have to find a way to invoke those memories that blind people have stored...and then go from there and begin to teach about other things," he said.
"I think that's where we're going in the next millennium. I don't know that we'll be done by the end of it, but we're going to start. We are starting."
And Tim Cranmer will rank high among the pioneers.
He already has that distinction for many other innovations. Now seventy-three, Cranmer has spent much of his adult life thinking up or promoting technological advances, big and small, to help people wholike himselfare visually impaired.
His earliest contributions date from 1952 to 1982, when he guided various Kentucky state services for the blind.
Nearly forty years ago he devised the Cranmer Abacus, a variation on the ancient Oriental tool for using beads on wires to solve math problems. Cranmer's idea: add a felt backing to keep the beads from moving accidentally. Thousands are sold annually to blind people worldwide.
In the early 1960's he came up with the Say When, a compact, battery-operated device that hangs over a drinking cup and signals when poured liquid nears the top.
Around 1970 he devised a Braille display pad that could provide readings from electronic medical thermometers, timers, and calculators.
In the mid-1970's Cranmer thought of modifying a computer to search a database of phone numbers and read out the numbers in sound and Braille. He had engineers work out the details, and the result was a talking telephone directoryfirst used by blind switchboard operators at the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky.
Cranmer took the same tack to promote what eventually became the Cranmer Modified Perkins Braille Writerthe first electronic desktop Braille embosser. It did for blind readers what the dot-matrix computer printer did for the sighted.
"My main interest has been in learning how things work and how we can change the way they are to make them serve a better purpose," said Cranmer, who shies away from being called an inventor. "I think the most important thing I do is to influence the work of others."
And influence others he certainly has, said Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's largest advocacy group for the visually impaired.
"Dr. Cranmer may be the best-known inventor dealing with blindness in the U.S.," Maurer said. "I think he is certainly the best-known blind inventor."
His reputation may soon spread further. He was interviewed last month by the CBS News program "60 Minutes" for a planned segment about technology that helps people with disabilities.
Although Cranmer officially retired sixteen years ago, he never has stopped working. He first persuaded the National Federation of the Blind to start a research departmentwhich he then volunteered to head, at no pay.
That in turn led to global conferences on technology for the blind. It also gave Cranmer a budget to pay for engineers to work on new ideas, including his own. One of Cranmer's early acts, Maurer recalled, was to convince the Federation that a talking computer could be developed for only $4,000. The ultimate cost neared $20,000, but the result was "the best technology for computers that existed anywhere," Maurer said.
Cranmer's work duties today involve voluntarily heading the International Braille Research Center. Some travel to headquarters in Baltimore is necessary, but e-mail, phone, Internet, and fax let him handle most chores from his home.
Married for forty-eight years, Cranmer and his wife Thelma live in a small house just outside St. Matthews. They raised one daughter Linda, now a school counselor in Scott County.
Cranmer's talent for tinkering dates to his boyhood in Louisville's Portland neighborhood.
He was the kind of kid who would dismantle clocks and locks to see how they worked. He would happily slice open a golf ball to learn how it bounced. At fourteen he sent away for books on chemistry after hearing that rust on an old pocket knife came from oxygen and iron.
A combination of eye problems left him blind after he turned nine, and a lack of opportunity for blind people steered him away from his dream of being a scientist.
Instead, he first made his living by playing piano for pay, making costume jewelry, and tuning and rebuilding pianos. He still plays piano and loves music, especially classical.
His hair is white and wispy-thin, but his voice remains youthfully enthusiastic, and he flashes a wry and playful sense of humor.
Educated at the Kentucky School for the Blind, Cranmer in 1979 received an honorary doctorate in applied science from the University of Louisville. But of many honors through the years, he most cherishes two: when his name was attached to a National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky award given to people who enhance the lives of the blind and when he received the NFB of Kentucky's Susan B. Rarick Award for Servicean award named after one of Cranmer's first teachers.
"I think recognition by blind people has meant more to me than anything else," he said.
His lack of formal university training still astounds some of his friends, one of whom recalls having many a conversation with Cranmer about calculus before learning that Cranmer never took a calculus class.
To encourage future blind scientists, Cranmer in recent years has helped lead an ongoing effort to standardize and consolidate the various Braille codes used in English-speaking countries. Different codes cover non-technical writing, computer notation, and math-science notation. Those Braille divisions create education limitations, Cranmer said.
Which brings him back to his push for a new, touchable language to convey more knowledge and information.
Much of what people learn is said to come from vision, Cranmer said, "but that's not true for blind people. So tactile image is an alternative. I think much of what is now passed on to sighted people, through sight, can be communicated through touch."
It's a different way of looking at and making sense of the world, he said.
Which is exactly how Tim Cranmer has pursued most of his seventy-three years.
That was the Cranmer profile. Then, on March 26, the New York Times weighed in with its story about access to the World Wide Web for blind people. The reporter came to the National Federation of the Blind and spent a good bit of time in the International Braille and Technology Center at the National Center. She interviewed a number of people. Here is the story she wrote:
Bringing the Visual World of the Web to the Blind
by Debra Nussbaum
Curtis Chong has been using the World Wide Web for three years to look up topics like music, fund-raising, and medical research. He also uses it as a way to teach and encourage other blind people to get on the Web.
How does someone who cannot see the screen navigate the computer and Web, which is full of glitzy graphics and icons?
Chong communicates all his commands through the keyboard. His printer prints in Braille. He uses the Internet Explorer 3.02 with a piece of software called a screen reader and a speech synthesizer to turn the written words on the screen into words spoken in a computer-generated voice.
"We want to use the Web, and we want to use it like everybody else does," said Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind, based in Baltimore. "We don't believe the computer is the great equalizer for the blind, but it's one way to make our lives better."
For the more than half-million blind people of working age in the United States, getting on the Web may not only mean being able to research topics of interest but may also be a necessary skill for staying employed.
It certainly affects the jobs of thousands of blind people," said Gary Wunder, a blind man who is a senior computer programmer at the University of Missouri Hospitals and Clinics. He is required to use the Web in his job for project assignments and updates. "It isn't just optional anymore."
While current statistics on the use of computers and the Web by blind and visually impaired people are hard to find, technology companies and advocacy organizations say the numbers are rapidly increasing. Tens of thousands of blind people are on computers, and every year more of them are learning to use the Web, Chong said.
A 1991 study published by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York found that 43 percent of blind and severely visually impaired people were using the computer for writing, said Emilie Schmeidler, senior research associate for the foundation. Her impression is that more visually impaired people are using computers and the Web now, she said, and "more and more jobs require the computer."
Being able to use the Web is critical to thousands of employed blind people.
A screen reader or screen-access program like the one Chong uses is the translator that tells a speech synthesizer what to say when the visual icons are accompanied by a text description. "It's my white cane that helps me know what's on the screen," Chong said.
Henter-Joyce, a company in St. Petersburg, Florida, that manufactures the popular screen reader called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows, has between 15,000 and 18,000 customers, said the company's president, Ted Henter. He said the customer base had increased four to five times since 1995.
At least seven companies make the screen readers. Henter-Joyce's JAWS is one of the top sellers and costs about $795; the company's new version, to be released this spring, will include a speech synthesizer. The National Federation of the Blind Web site includes a computer-resource page that has information on how to get in contact with the companies that sell the readers.
But getting the technology right is only one piece of the package. If Web pages do not have text that identifies graphics or if they have moving type, they will not be accessible. The World Wide Web Consortium, made up of universities, corporations, and research organizations and based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started a three-year project in 1997 called the Web Accessibility Initiative that is creating guidelines to make technology and Web pages more accessible to blind, deaf, and disabled users.
The National Federation of the Blind has eight accessibility guidelines for Web pages that can be found on its Web site.
The Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit research and development organization in Peabody, Massachusetts, has a free service in which it analyzes Web sites and offers suggestions for their accessibility.
The change from DOS, a text-based operating system, to Windows, a graphics-based operating system, was a setback for the blind.
"The world enthusiastically embraced Windows, and we were left out," said Wunder, who is also President of the Missouri chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. But in the last two and a half years, Microsoft "has shown concern and responsiveness" to the blind, Wunder said.
Version 3.02 of Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, includes a component called Microsoft Active Accessibility, a layer of codes that are compatible with accessibility aids like the screen reader. In addition to aiding blind users, these codes also hook into software that helps users who are deaf or have other disabilities.
But a newer version, Internet Explorer 4.0, was released on October 1, 1997, without the Active Accessibility component. Angry letters, phone calls, and e-mails let Luanne LaLonde, Microsoft's accessibility product manager, and others at Microsoft know that this was unacceptable.
"We got a lot of e-mail," she said. In early November, about thirty-five days after the release of Explorer 4.0, Microsoft released Explorer 4.01, including Active Accessibility.
Web page design, of course, is an element of accessibility. Vito DeSantis, manager of field operations for the southern regional office of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, uses the Web to find research on the eye condition that has made it impossible for him to see the computer screen for the past three years. He also likes to read newspapers on the Web.
For visually impaired Web users like DeSantis, the vertical columns on the Web present the biggest problem because screen readers pick up the information horizontally.
"You have to really know how to navigate around the screen," DeSantis said. "I imagine quite a few people might get frustrated. Sometimes it's just not worth the effort."
While screen readers help, Wunder said, "no screen reader has made the Web as easily accessible for the blind as for the sighted."
Even with top-of-the-line screen readers, Web pages have to have text explanations for graphics and icons or the visually impaired computer user cannot move.
"You get a screen, and it says, 'Image, image, image,'" Schmeidler said, quoting the sound her screen reader makes when the cursor hits an icon without accompanying text. "You have no idea how frustrating it is."
In addition to the advice on making a Web page accessible from the National Federation of the Blind and the Center for Applied Special Technology, the World Wide Web Consortium has a group of volunteer computer experts who are leading the Web Accessibility Initiative. The group's goal is to write guidelines for Web page authors who want to make their pages accessible for all disabled users. A rough draft of the recommendations can be found on the consortium's Web site.
"Everything is voluntary, and the documents are called recommendations," said Professor Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a member of the group. But for businesses and government agencies, making sites accessible may not be voluntary, he said.
In a policy ruling in September, 1996, the Department of Justice said the Americans with Disabilities Act did cover access to Web pages.
"A Web site is an electronic front door," Vanderheiden said. "But blind users often have to let individual Web page authors know that they can't understand their pages.
"Sometimes people instantly go and fix it, and sometimes people don't care."
Blind users say they want basic instruction on how to navigate the Web and get what they want. They do not need long descriptions that are intended to help them see pictures or other graphics.
"Don't try to tell me how wonderful the Mona Lisa is," Wunder said. "You can't do that, but you can tell me how to get the picture and print it out for my daughter."
Then on March 29 the CBS program, "60 Minutes," devoted a segment, narrated by program co-host Lesley Stahl, to technology innovations assisting the disabled. Parts of the story dealt with various new wheelchair designs developed by users, but the largest portion was devoted to technology for blind people. CBS is nothing if not thorough. The three minutes or so devoted to Tim Cranmer's work and life were culled from more than three and a half hours of tape, much of it recorded at the National Center for the Blind. Tim's rather acid comment about the experience was that, if he had realized they were going to filter out all references to the National Federation of the Blind and eliminate his clarifications of simple statements, he would never have agreed to submit to the interview. Here is the transcript of the relevant segment of the story:
STAHL: (Voiceover) A blind person can't see when his coffee cup is filling up. But Tim Cranmer can, thanks to his own invention...
TIM CRANMER: It's a Say When.
(Footage of Cranmer with Stahl)
STAHL: (Voiceover) ...the Say When.
CRANMER: It lets you know when to stop pouring. So we put this over the thing.
CRANMER: And then we pour. (Beeping sound) There you are.
STAHL: Before you invented this...
STAHL: ...how would you know when you had gone to the top?
CRANMER: You dip a pinky over the top, and you burn your finger.
(Footage of Cranmer; Cranmer with Stahl; Braille 'n Speak;
Cranmer using Braille 'n Speak)
STAHL: (Voiceover) Tim Cranmer, blind from the age of nine, has come up with scores of inventions over the last forty years. Call him the Thomas Edison of devices for the blind. His crowning achievement is the Braille 'n Speak.
CRANMER: Open a file.
Computerized Voice: (From Braille 'n Speak) Option zero, one...
STAHL: (Voiceover) It's a powerfulbut very light, less-than-a-poundportable computer with a Braille keyboard that blind people carry with them everywhere.
STAHL: What have you stored in there? This is something you use. This is your own machine.
CRANMER: I use this every day, yes. I have my database in here, all the telephone numbers and addresses since 1976. (Footage of Cranmer with Stahl; Cranmer using Braille 'n Speak)
STAHL: (Voiceover) And his calendar, and a month's worth of reading.
STAHL: You could store a whole book in there, for instance?
CRANMER: Yes. I could store a novel. Right now I have the poetry of John Keats. That's just temporary. I'll erase that one of these days and replace it with War and Peace or something.
STAHL: (Voiceover) Anything he puts into the Braille 'n Speak can be retrieved instantly, either in a computer-generated voice...
CRANMER: I'll have it read that back.
Computer Voice: (From Braille 'n Speak) My name is Lesley Stahl.
STAHL: (Voiceover) ...or, with this advanced model, in Braille. These dots pop up and down on a display bar to form Braille letters.
CRANMER: Now, you see, there is your name spelled, L-E-S-L-E-Y, right there.
(Footage of Millicent Williams using Braille 'n Speak in class)
STAHL: (Voiceover) From home, to the business world, to the classroom, the Braille 'n Speak is erasing a lot of the You-can't-do-thats for the blind. Without it Millicent Williams would have a hard time keeping up with her classmates at Georgia State University. With it she's probably taking better notes than anyone else.
CRANMER: (Voiceover) They just type away in class.
STAHL: What? And then they go back to their room...
STAHL: ...and play it back?
CRANMER: They play it back. They search for things so that they can listen to specific items.
STAHL: This has to have made a...
CRANMER: That'sthat's right.
STAHL: ...an enormous difference...
CRANMER: An enormous difference.
STAHL: ...to people inin holding information.
CRANMER: I think it will be regarded as the most significant technology in the twentieth century for the blind. That's my feeling about it.
(Footage of Cranmer; Ted Henter water-skiing)
STAHL: (Voiceover) What Tim Cranmer has done with the Braille 'n Speak is helping blind people accomplish things society never expected of them. Ted Henter is another blind inventor who's demolishing stereotypes. Water-skiing is just his hobby, though he was world champion a few years back. His breakthrough invention is something called JAWS.
TED HENTER: JAWS is software that makes the computer talk.
(Footage of Henter with Stahl)
STAHL: (Voiceover) Ted was blinded twenty years ago in an auto accident. What did you do before?
HENTER: Before I was blinded?
HENTER: I was a motorcycle racer.
(Vintage footage of Henter's racing motorcycle.)
STAHL: (Voiceover) Clearly Ted Henter needed to find something else to do.
HENTER: (Voiceover) I was a sighted kid; I grew up with dreams. But once I was blinded, Inone of those were relevant anymore. Theythey weren't going to work for me. So I had to think up new dreams. So I had a few minutes of despair, but II got over it real quick. Ten minutes. And I realized...
STAHL: Ten minutes? No.
HENTER: Ten minutes of despair. Because then I realized, well, there have been blind people around for centuries. And I knew that what happened to me was for my own good. I knew something good was gonna come out of it. (Footage of Henter using computer with Stahl watching)
STAHL: (Voiceover) The good that came out of it was that Ted began studying computers. And before long he developed software that read computer text and turned it into speech.
COMPUTER VOICE: (From JAWS program) I have several other questions.
(Footage of man using computer)
STAHL: (Voiceover) With JAWS reading the computer screen, suddenly blind people, with a 70 percent unemployment rate, could compete for all kinds of jobs that used to be unthinkable.
HEATHER STUBBS: (On phone) FedEx. Heather Stubbs speaking, may I help you?
(Footage of Heather Stubbs; Stubbs using JAWS program for customer service call at FedEx)
STAHL: (Voiceover) If you call FedEx, you might get a blind customer service agent.
STUBBS: (On phone) Is this on a shipment that you're about to make?
STAHL: (Voiceover) You're in one ear of her headset asking her to track a package. The JAWS voice is in her other ear...
COMPUTER VOICE: (From JAWS program) Nine-one-three...
(Footage of computer screen)
STAHL: (Voiceover) ...telling her what's on the computer screen.
COMPUTER VOICE: (From JAWS program) T-R-A-C-E-apostrophe...
(Footage of FedEx employees)
STAHL: (Voiceover) FedEx has about a dozen blind employees working the phones using JAWS.
HENTER: You don't have to be limited by your blindness. You can go out and do these things. You can go to college. You can get a Ph.D. You can get a job as a computer programmer, as a software designer, as an attorney.
(Footage of computer screen using Windows)
STAHL: (Voiceover) Ted's biggest challenge has been Windows with all those icons and graphics. It's made computers much easier for most people, but how in the world can a blind person point and click?
HENTER: Windows was very, very difficult. When-when Windows came along andand companies started switching to it, blind people were losing their jobs. And we were getting calls all the time that "Hey, if you don't come out with a Windows product soon, I'm gonna lose my job." And a lot of people did.
STAHL: What you're saying is thatthat when the computer does something to make it easier for me, it's a disaster for blind people. I mean, the very progress that helps me hurts you.
HENTER: In many cases, yeah. And you have all these people that are creating vision-oriented systems, sight-oriented, then we have to come along andand make it work for someone who can't see.
(Footage of Henter; computer screen; man using computer)
STAHL: (Voiceover) Ted figured out a way to make Windows work for blind people. Now he's making the Internet accessible. But every day he and his team of programmers have to overcome new obstacles the sighted computer world throws their way. How often do you have to change your software 'cause there's a new problem out there?
HENTER: Wewe change it weekly.
HENTER: Allalmost daily, depending on the week. So we're constantly working on it.
(Footage of Henter's employees)
STAHL: (Voiceover) The "we" includes twenty other blind employees.
Unidentified Man #1: Open a start menu.
STAHL: (Voiceover) So if you're a blind customer using JAWS and you have a question; you're likely to get a blind technical support guy to answer it.
Unidentified Man #2: We just wanna really stay on fixing problems.
STAHL: If you were to choose a word to describe what this does to help a blind person or what your goal is, what would it be?
HENTER: I think "equality" is a good word.
This broadcast created quite a bit of comment in cyberspace. The Blazie listserv fielded a good deal of traffic, including some inquiry about the precise origins of the Braille 'n Speak. Deane Blazie, who certainly should know what happened and when, wrote the following e-mail explanation, which we include with an eye toward history. Here it is:
Monday, March 30, 1998
Subject: Who Invented the Braille 'n Speak?
I knew this would start a lot of discussion, and you'll probably hear a lot of replies from others about this.
The Kentucky Pocket Braille device was developed in the Kentucky Department for the Blind by Fred Gissoni. Without putting words into Fred's mouth, it was intended to be a reasonably priced, VersaBraille-like device. Fred noticed that, if you removed the keyboard circuit board from this device, you would have a notetaker without any output device. He and I and Tim Cranmer discussed this while I was at Maryland Computer Services, and we all agreed that, if you just added speech output, you could have a really nifty notetaker. When Maryland Computer Services was sold in 1986, I left and did consulting work. But I really wanted to get back into this industry, and I began developing the Braille 'n Speak in my basement. I took the Kentucky PocketBraille documentation, added speech, and changed the processor and memory circuits, and in July of 1987 I introduced the Braille 'n Speak at the NFB convention. Before that I consulted a lot with Tim and Fred on what it should look like. The first model was wedge-shaped because us sighted guys thought that Braille keyboards should be sloped like typewriter keyboardsDumb old sighted guys. So I fixed the case to be smaller and flat. I also sat with Fred and Tim, and we worked out the navigation chords so that they were mirror images. That was very significant, and it made the Braille 'n Speak a much better product.
By the way, Phil Hall was also instrumental in helping with the Braille 'n Speak. He did some of the speech programming. Another fellow, Bill Ashcraft, did the reverse Braille translator.
So you decide who invented the Braille 'n Speak. I certainly have no problem with Tim and Fred saying they invented it. Also don't forget that "60 Minutes" did more than four hours of interviews with Tim and only published about three minutes of it. I'm sure, if we heard the whole thing, it would be much clearer.
I'm just glad we are all around to have done it.
The concluding media examination of technology for the blind in the current go-round was a story that appeared in the Washington Post on Saturday, April 4. The story was apparently supposed to be a look at the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) Web site, which the reporter seems to have been told was the only accessible one on the Internet. The reporter, Paul Valentine, had previously done stories about the NFB, so he contacted us for background information and got several fairly substantive interviews and demonstrations.
Despite the more balanced comments of Curtis Chong, director of the NFB Technology Department, and Richard Ring, director of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, the notion that the BISM Web site is something special has been spread fairly widely, both by BISM PR and by the Post article. When asked for a clear and objective description of the BISM site, Mr. Chong provided the following statement to the Braille Monitor:
I have looked at the BISM Web site, and I find it no better or worse than many others I have come across. I appreciate the description of pictures and the meaningful labels for hypertext links, and I think the text is formatted reasonably well. Web page designers would do well to adopt the BISM Web design approach.
However, for BISM to portray its site as anything unique or extraordinary (implying that many other sites are not as accessible), is both misleading and irresponsible. It is unfortunate that the Washington Post article which appeared on Saturday, April 4, characterized the BISM site as a "rarity in the cyber world." In point of fact, sites such as BISM's are not as rare as the article would lead one to believe. I have always maintained that good Web design should incorporate graphics and text in a meaningful way to everyoneblind and sighted alike. BISM has simply followed good design principles in developing its Web site.
With Mr. Chong's statement to provide perspective, here is the Washington Post story of April 4:
Helping the Blind Handle Computers
Technology Allows Greater Accessibility
by Paul W. Valentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Richard Ring sat at his computer, tapping at the keyboard. He nimbly logged onto the Internet. A few more keystrokes and a query box popped onto the screen. Ring typed in the words "coral snake." Moments later the screen announced 738 hits.
Routine Net surfing? Hardly. Ring is blind, and his Internet voyage was accompanied by a voice synthesizer that talked him, keystroke by keystroke, through each step.
Ring, forty-seven, chief of international Braille and technology for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, is one of a growing number of the estimated 535,000 blind people nationwide who regularly use computers for work, education, and pleasure.
With technological breakthroughs occurring almost daily in text-to-voice scanners, Braille printers, and specially designed software to help overcome the barriers of icons and other graphics of the visually oriented World Wide Web, blind users are finding it increasingly easier to get on the information highway.
"There are lots of bumps on the road, but we're getting there," said Curtis Chong, the Federation's director of technology. "There are a lot of things on the Internet we still can't use, but more are becoming available."
Traditionally confined to books and other documents published in Braille or recorded on audiocassette tapes, the blind are being encouraged by the Federation and other organizations to develop computer skills, not only to enjoy the fruits of the Internet but also to enhance their employability in an increasingly computer-dependent work world.
Despite training and work facilities designed specifically for the blindsuch as Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, with manufacturing plants in Baltimore, Salisbury, and Cumberlandnationwide unemployment of the blind stands at 70 percent, according to Federation estimates.
Making computers user-friendly for blind people involves several mechanical and electronic adjustments. Fundamental among them is elimination of the mouse and replacement of all mouse functions with keystrokes.
The user then tabs up, down, and across the screen, using the directional arrow, enter, and other keys to manipulate the cursor. As the cursor moves, an electronic screen reader scans any text it encounters and sends signals to a synthesizer that converts the written words to voice. If the cursor is moving through a blank area of the screen, the voice synthesizer says "blank" with each keystroke until the cursor comes to a block of text, where it starts reading.
When Ring called up "coral snake," he tabbed to a document called "Everglades Coral Snake," and the voice began, in a steady monotone: "A coral snake has a black head with alternating red, yellow, and black stripes . . . ."
Ring and others say there are two major stumbling blocks in converting written language to voice on the computer screen: graphics and any text arranged in columns.
The device cannot read a graphic, such as an icon or photograph, and simply calls it a graphic, or it reads a coded image file name assigned to the graphic by Web site designers that sounds like gibberish, such as "pic-dot-gif."
To get around this, blind users can electronically label icons with brief descriptions that can be scanned by screen readers. With photographs and other more complex pictures Web sites must be specially designed with additional captions, or text descriptions, that translate image file names into simple terms such as "green globe of earth" or "Orioles logo." Few sites are designed with that feature.
Similarly, text arranged in columns is a problem because readers scan horizontally from left to right across the entire screen, rather than down one column at a time before going to the next. However, a small but growing number of sites are being designed to permit column-reading. Others have reformatted columnar texts to read left to right.
Still another feature helping the blind is a text-only button, which, when activated by the user, instructs the screen reader to skip graphics and send only text to the voice synthesizer.
To encourage the spread of special sites, the World Wide Web Consortium, a network of academic and computer-industry specialists based in Boston, recently started forming guidelines for Web page designers to make sites more accessible not only for the blind but for deaf and other disabled users.
Chong, of the National Federation of the Blind, hopes the word will spread. So many Web sites, especially commercial ones, he said, are cluttered with graphics that "make them look pretty and sell lots of products . . . but blind people can't use them."
Blind Industries and Services of Maryland in Baltimore recently opened a fully accessible site including graphicsa rarity in the cyber world. It contains information for both blind and sighted people, ranging from job openings and vocational training for the blind to lists of products manufactured and sold by Blind Industries, such as paper notepads, tote bags, floor care chemicals, and washcloths.
The site was specifically designed to include graphics, said Blind Industries spokeswoman Angela Hartley. "We didn't want just a plain boring screen because sighted people use the site as well," she said.
Creating the graphics-friendly site required "a lot of major revisions" of conventional Internet design concepts, said Steven Crawford, chief executive of Columbia-based Shore Studios, which designed the site at no cost to Blind Industries.
The Blind Industries site, though far outnumbered by more conventional ones, "helps to make a level playing field for everybody," said Daniel K. Woytowitz, head of Blind Industries' computer technology center.
Jennifer Cocnavitch, twenty-six, a student undergoing an eight-month computer course at the center, spoke hopefully of becoming an English teacher as her fingers glided over a classroom keyboard.
"Knowing how to use a computer and getting on the Internet are important" to getting a job, she said.
Organizations with blind-related Web sites and their
Internet addresses include the National Federation of the Blind,
<www.nfb.org>; Blind Industries and Services of Maryland,
<www.bism.com>; World Wide Web Consortium, <www.w3.org>; Trace
Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, which does
research in Internet accessibility for the disabled,
There you have a report on what the media have been saying in recent months. It hasn't always been accurate, but all in all, a lot of Americans know more today about the challenges facing blind computer users than they did at the start of the year, and that fact is bound to be constructive.