NFB Honored at Technology Showcase

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the December 10, 1998, edition of the Baltimore Sun.

Computers for Blind Open Eyes at Cyberfair

by Mark Ribbing Subtitle: A highlight of the opening of the state's Technology Showcase was the exhibit of the computer software and devices for the blind.

The hottest trends in high-technology are on display at the Maryland Technology Showcase, which began its two-day run yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center. Children line up three deep to try Apple's new computer; TV monitors show off crisp digital pictures; booth after booth heralds a better, faster way of connecting to the Internet.

Gaining access to such wonders, of course, requires a certain amount of technical know-how and money, but it often demands something even more basic: sight.

For the blind and visually impaired the digital age poses new difficulties as well as new opportunities, and society's ever-increasing reliance on video and graphics for information is not an entirely welcome trend.

"The world is becoming seemingly more and more visual," said Tom Ley, a product manager at Blazie Engineering in Forest Hill, who develops computer technologies for the blind. "More things are based on sight rather than on touch in a lot of ways. A lot of things are given to you in pictures rather than in words nowadays.

"We as blind people have been striving for years to incorporate ourselves into society. It's crucial for us to have access to new technology."

Toward that end, the National Federation of the Blind became the featured nonprofit of the Technology Showcase. The Baltimore organization, founded in 1940, is trying to make high technology more accessible to the sightless.

Ley manages a line of portable computers that the visually impaired can use as a personal organizer, clock, word processor, and phone directory.

The computer, called "Braille 'n Speak," has a seven-button Braille keyboard that is used to record words and data. To read what is on the machine, the user listens to the device's computerized voice. Much like a Palm Pilot or other hand-held electronic organizer, Braille 'n Speak can transfer its information to a regular personal computer.

The Federation seeks to encourage computer makers, software companies, and World Wide Web site developers to consider the needs of the blind and visually impaired as they develop new products, a campaign that the organization says has met with mixed success.

Curtis Chong, the Federation's director of technology, said the difficulty in persuading companies to take the needs of the blind into account stems largely from a lack of understanding. "It's hard to understand a blind person's having trouble using your Web site when you can't even imagine a blind person's getting out of his house to go to work," he said.

Blind and visually impaired people can gather information from a personal computer in one of two main ways. The more common method uses software that enables the computer to generate a voice that reads onscreen text. One example of this software is JAWS, which allows the sightless to use the Windows operating system.

Spoken-word systems can be pricey. Chong said JAWS and similar programs can easily add $800 or more to the cost of a computer.

However, this is less expensive than the other method for making computer screens legible to the blind, known as "paperless Braille." This system, also known as "refreshable Braille," is a line of small bumps at the bottom of a computer keyboard.

As the computer scans a line of text, it commands some of the bumps to rise and others to sink, creating a line of Braille that conveys the text to the reader.

After reading a line, a person presses a button, telling the computer to set up the next line of Braille. Blazie Engineering offers Braille Lite, a version of Braille 'n Speak that uses paperless Braille.

Betsy A. Zaborowski, the Federation's director of special programs, said these methods have made it easier for the blind to use computers and check out Web sites, but obstacles remain. "We have made a lot of progress in that we have pretty good access to text-based systems, but systems that have more graphics present tremendous challenges to us."

That was the article that appeared in the Baltimore Sun. A plaque was presented to the NFB at an afternoon reception during the Technology Fair. Here is the text:

Maryland Technology Showcase

December 9-10, 1998

with sincere appreciation to

National Federation of the Blind

in recognition of your

outstanding contribution to

Maryland Technology Showcase

Parris N. Glendening


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Lt. Governor