The Braille Monitor

             Vol. 40, No. 1                                                                                                    January 1997

Barbara Pierce, editor

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The National Federation of the Blind
Marc Maurer, President

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THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND IS NOT AN ORGANIZATION
SPEAKING FOR THE BLIND--IT IS THE BLIND SPEAKING FOR THEMSELVES

ISSN 0006-8829


Contents


         Vol. 40, No. 1                                                                                          January 1997


Proceedings of the Third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind

What Technology Can Contribute
by Ray Kurzweil, Ph.D.

The Role of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind
by Richard Ring

Low-Tech Devices: Do We Have What We Need?
by Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D.

Universal Access: The Goal and the Reality
by Curtis Chong

A Touching View of the World
by Tim Cranmer, Ph.D.

The Future of Braille
by Joseph E. Sullivan

Teaching Science to the Visually Impaired: The VISIONS Lab
by David Schleppenbach

Why Doesn't Technology for Blind People Cost Less, and What Can We Do About It?
by Larry Israel

Better, Smaller, Cheaper
by Tony Schenk

Technology for the Blind: What Is Left to Do?
by David Andrews

The Rehabilitation Services Administration and Technology
by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

Summary of Remarks

Access, Literacy, Equality, and Change
by Jim Halliday

Discussion and Comments

Copyright 1997 National Federation of the Blind

 

[LEAD PHOTO DESCRIPTION: The lead photograph is a view of the entire length of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. A number of work stations filled with equipment are visible. CAPTION: The tangible expression of the NFB's commitment to assisting blind people make sensible technology choices is the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTCB) housed on the second floor of the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. Every screen-reading product, every Braille embosser, every refreshable Braille display, every note taker, and every reading machine on the market today—all these are on display and can be tried in the eighteen-thousand-square-foot facility. No wonder then that those attending the third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind seemed to gravitate to the IBTCB in their free time to examine and work with the displays.]

 

[PHOTO: Dr. Jernigan and Euclid Herie are seated at the east end of the fourth-floor conference room at the National Center for the Blind. The U.S., Canadian, and NFB flags can just be seen flanking them. CAPTION: Dr. Jernigan opens the third U.S./Canada Technology Conference for the Blind. Dr. Euclid Herie is seated to his left.]

PROCEEDINGS OF THE THIRD U.S./CANADA CONFERENCE
ON TECHNOLOGY FOR THE BLIND

November 14-15, 1996

 

TECHNOLOGY FOR THE BLIND
AS WE APPROACH THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Planned and Hosted by the National Federation of the Blind
Kenneth Jernigan, Chairman
Note from the Chairman

The first U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind was held in Baltimore in September of 1991 at the National Center for the Blind. The occasion was historic since it was the first time that the decision makers of all of the major organizations of and for the blind and of the major vendors of technology in the field had come together to discuss common problems. The meeting was also significant because of the exchange of information and the decisions concerning technology which came from it.

At the conclusion of the first U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind it was decided that a second conference would be held in 1993. Again invitations were restricted to decision makers. This meant that the organizational authority of the participants was sufficient, and the numbers small enough, to permit meaningful discussion and follow-up.

We now convene the third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology. The theme is Technology for the Blind as We Approach the Twenty-first Century. The National Federation of the Blind, as host and coordinator, welcomes you. We believe that this meeting will be as positive and productive as the ones held in 1991 and 1993.

That statement appeared at the beginning of the agenda of the third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology. Dr. Jernigan opened the first session at 9:00 a.m. Thursday. President Maurer and Dr. Euclid Herie then welcomed the guests. Following the keynote address by Raymond Kurzweil, the first panel of five speakers presented papers. After lunch two more panels made presentations. That evening the NFB hosted a reception and dinner for conference participants in the dining room at the National Center for the Blind. The Friday morning session began with remarks from the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and the representatives from IBM and Microsoft. The remainder of the day was devoted to discussion and plans for the future.

As one might expect from speakers as diverse as those invited to present at this third Conference on Technology for the Blind, the topics, points of view, and outlooks diverged widely. The problems caused by the graphical user interface (GUI) and the increasing complexity of visual control panels on consumer electronics and public-access information kiosks continue to escalate. On the other hand, real advances are being made in a number of areas. Conferees were eager to define the problems facing this field, discuss useful directions for further research and development, and describe the advances being made. As accurately as possible, here is the report of what was said. We begin with an alphabetical list of attendees.

David Andrews, Director
Communication Center
Minnesota State Services for the Blind

Susan Benbow, Senior Policy Advisor
Rehabilitation Services Administration

Deane Blazie, President
Blazie Engineering

Geraldine Braak, Past President
Canadian Council of the Blind

John Brabyn, Program Director
Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Foundation

Brian Buhrow, Chairman
NFB Research and Development Committee

John Bullen, President
Canadian Council of the Blind

Elizabeth Carr, National Vice President
Blinded Veterans Association

Brian Charlson, First Vice President
American Council of the Blind

Curtis Chong, Designer/Consultant
American Express Financial Advisors

Charles Cook, President
Roudley Associates

John Cookson, Head, Engineering Section
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Tim Cranmer, President
International Braille Research Center and Director of Rehabilitation for the Blind (retired)
Commonwealth of Kentucky

Frank Kurt Cylke, Director
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Suzanne A. Dalton, President
Association of Instructional Resource Centers for the Visually Handicapped

Judy Dixon, Consumer Relations Officer
National Library Service for the Blind/Physically Handicapped

Paul Edwards, President
American Council of the Blind

Emerson Foulke, Director (retired)
Perceptual Alternatives Laboratory
University of Louisville and
Director, International Braille Research Center

James R. Fruchterman, President and CEO
Arkenstone, Inc.

Ritchie Geisel, President
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic

Doug Geoffray, Co-Owner & Vice President
Product Development and Support
GW Micro

William Gibson, President
National Council of State Agencies for the Blind and
Director, Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Jim Halliday, President
Humanware, Inc.

Ted Henter, President
Henter-Joyce, Inc.

Euclid Herie, President & CEO
Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Larry Israel, President
Telesensory Corporation

Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus
National Federation of the Blind

Rosemary Kavanaugh, Executive Director
CNIB Library for the Blind

David Kostyshyn, President
Syntha-Voice Computers, Inc.

Raymond Kurzweil, President
Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc. and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Kurzweil Educational Systems

Mary Frances Laughton, Chief, Assistive Devices Programme Office
Industry Canada

Carlene Lebous, President
National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind and Visually Impaired

David Lepofsky, Lawyer
Government of Ontario

Gary Magarrell, Executive Director
Ontario Division

Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Vicki Mains, National Director, Technology
Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind

Brian McCarthy, President
Betacom Inc.

Dale McDaniel, Vice President for Marketing
Artic Technologies

Herb Miller, President
Council of Schools for the Blind

Caryn Navy, Vice President
Raised Dot Computing, Inc.

Dennis T. O'Brien, Product Manager
IBM Special Needs Systems
IBM Corporation

Charles Oppermann, Program Manager
Windows Accessibility Group
Internet Products and Tools Division
Microsoft Corporation

Gilles Pepin, Directeur
VisuAide 2000, Inc.

Kevin Perry, Senior Program Coordinator
Assistive Devices Program
Ministry of Health, Ontario, Canada

David Pillischer, President
Sighted Electronics, Inc.

William M. Raeder, Managing Director
National Braille Press

Lloyd Rasmussen, Senior Staff Engineer
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Richard Ring, Director
International Braille and Technology Center

Noel Runyan, President
Personal Data Systems

Sharon Sacks, President
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired

Mohymen Saddeek, President
TFI Engineering and Myna Corporation

James Sanders, National Director
Government Relations and International Services
Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Tony Schenk, President
Enabling Technologies Company

David Schleppenbach, Director
VISIONS Lab at Purdue University

Elliot Schreier, President
4X Products, Inc.

Fredric K. Schroeder, Commissioner
Rehabilitation Services Administration

Dave Skrivanek, President
Repro-Tronics

Larry Skutchan, President
Microtalk

Susan Spungin, Vice President
National Programs and Initiatives
American Foundation for the Blind

Ian Stewart, President
Association of State Educational Consultants for the Visually Impaired

Joseph Sullivan, President
Duxbury Systems, Inc.

Tuck Tinsley, President
American Printing House for the Blind

Jocelyn L. Tremblay, Directrice
Direction des Services hors-Qu‚bec et programme d'aides techniques

Robert Trimbee, Executive Director
National Broadcast Reading Service

Robert Wynn, President
Hadley School for the Blind

 

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Ray Kurzweil]

WHAT TECHNOLOGY CAN CONTRIBUTE

by Ray Kurzweil, Ph.D.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc.

It is a great pleasure to be here and see so many people I have known and worked with over the years. This conference marks twenty-three years that I've been in this field, and it is remarkable to me how many of the people who have devoted their careers to this field have remained the same over the past couple of decades.

I'd like to talk to you today about the nature of information technology and the impact it is having on our world, particularly in creating opportunities for those with disabilities, especially visual disability. I would also like to comment on the proper role of technology—what it can contribute—but also what is outside its province.

Incidentally, I have always felt that there is a salient difference between the word "disabilities" and the word "handicaps." A disability does not necessarily need to result in a handicap. Through technology and the fostering of improved public attitudes, I believe most handicaps can be overcome.

Computer technology in general has been a very positive development in providing access to information for persons with visual impairments, and indeed the blind population is significantly more computer-literate than the rest of the population as a result. Information in computer form can be made readily accessible through screen readers, Braille displays, and the like although the graphical user interface (GUI) has been a bit of a setback. A GUI, such as Microsoft Windows, is a computer operating system which uses those little icons, a mouse, and bitmapped graphics. It is difficult to translate into speech because it places information on the screen in two dimensions.

If you recall the last U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind over two years ago, someone asked "What is Windows anyway?"

Euclid Herie responded "it's a real pane."

I'll have more to say about technology for the visually

impaired, but let me start with a little story that my parents liked to tell. They were from Vienna, so they liked to talk about Viennese pastries:

Four pastry shops competed on the same street, eking out a living, but the market demand was not sufficient to support four shops. So one shop brought in a management expert, and the next morning there was a small sign in the window, "Best Pastries in Vienna," and they started to get a lot of curious pastry shoppers, and pretty soon they had a booming business.

So the second shop brought in their own turnaround consultant, and the next morning they had a bigger sign in their window, "Best Pastries in Austria," and they too attracted a lot of curious shoppers. The third shop soon followed suit with a really big, six-foot-high sign—"Best Pastries in Europe." So shoppers flocked to this shop.

Finally, the fourth shop owner decided that she needed to do something as well, so the next morning there was a really big sign that took up the entire window—"Best Pastries on this Block."

The moral of the story is that you don't have to be the best in the world; you only have to be the best in your neighborhood, and you have to be in the right field. In the Vienna of 1930, the right field was pastries. I grew up eating those Viennese pastries, but I don't eat them anymore, not since my nutrition book came out.

In 1996 the right field is software. But you don't have to be in the right neighborhood anymore. It doesn't matter whether you're in Vienna or Massachusetts or St. Louis because the Internet is the great leveler, the great equalizer. Everyone has ready access to the marketplace.

A couple of Yahoos in California can be as prominent as Microsoft. I was in Israel recently, where access to export markets used to be a big issue, but with the Internet high tech, and software in particular, is booming. So Israel today has a gross national product that is twice that of Saudi Arabia. Software and the intellectual content it represents exceed the value of oil.

Some of you remember the movie The Graduate; for some of you it may be before your time. Remember the enigmatic advice that Dustin Hoffman received? (I don't remember the name of his character.) I remember thinking at the time, "Plastics?" Even then I thought "computers" would have been better advice. Today, the advice would be "software." Some might say Internet, but in my view that is just another manifestation of software. After all, NetScape is a software company. You've no doubt noticed the extraordinary value of software companies. In my view this is not a passing trend; it is not a bubble that's going to burst, which is not to say that there will never be a correction or that none of today's high flyers will crash.

But what we are seeing today is a fundamental transformation of the nature of wealth away from commodities and towards knowledge, as embodied in intellectual property. In fact, you can draw a reverse exponential curve where the y axis is the percentage of value of a product represented by natural resources and the x axis is time, and the percentage of value represented by natural resources is asymptoting to zero as we go forward in time, and every product and service is on the curve. Some are closer to zero than others, and some categories of products are moving faster than others as they travel down the curve, but every product is on the curve, marching on down to nearly zero contribution from material resources and nearly 100 percent contribution from intellect.

Indeed, over the past twenty years the value of commodity resources, as measured in constant dollars, has fallen substantially, about 40 percent, and this trend is accelerating. So sell short on your natural resource stocks. That is my only stock tip for today. Today the correct answer to the question of how to advance economic competitiveness is to foster the creation of intellectual property, which is information—that is, sequences of 1's and 0's that have economic value. And that has not always been the case in human history.

Now what is fueling this extraordinary and, in my view, permanent shift to knowledge, to intellectual property, to software as the foundation of wealth and power in this second industrial revolution? The answer in my view is Moore's Law. Moore's Law is the driving force behind a vast revolution. Okay, now what is Moore's Law? Moore's Law states that computing speeds and densities double every eighteen months. In other words, every eighteen months we can buy a computer that is twice as fast and has twice as much memory for the same cost.

Now I won't subject you again to my chessboard analogy since I think that most of you have heard it before. If you recall, it concerns the reward that the inventor of chess receives from the Emperor of China. He gets one grain of rice for the first square, which is then doubled for each square of the chessboard. And we end up with a very big number of grains of rice—about eighteen million trillion as I recall, which would require rice paddies covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included.

So actually I've ended up sharing the chessboard analogy with you anyway. That might remind you of the Presidential debates when Senator Dole said he was not going to bring up Whitewater and then went on to talk about it anyway. The chessboard analogy is meant to illustrate the power of exponential growth. What appears to start out in a subtle fashion ends up being rather overwhelming.

Now one might object to the notion of Moore's Law continuing for very much longer on the basis that exponential trends cannot continue indefinitely. For example, if a species happens upon a new habitat, its numbers will grow exponentially for a time until its needs outstrip the capacity of that habitat to provide for those needs. But it would be premature in my view to predict the demise of Moore's Law anytime soon.

First of all, Moore's Law is not a recent phenomenon. It has actually been going on for at least one hundred years from the mechanical card-based computing technology of the 1890 census, to the relay-based computers of the 1940's, to the vacuum tube-based computers of the 1950's, to the transistor-based machines of the 1960's, to all of the generations of integrated circuits that we've seen over the past thirty years.

If you put every calculator and computer for the past 100 years on a logarithmic chart, it makes an essentially straight line. Actually, it has been going on even longer than that. In my view, Moore's Law is a corollary of a broader law I modestly call Kurzweil's law on the exponentially quickening pace of technology that goes back to the dawn of human history—I mean, not much happened in, say, the tenth century, technologically speaking. In the eighteenth century quite a bit happened. Now we have major paradigm shifts in a few years' time, but that's another speech.

If you look at the computing technologies currently in development, we can have confidence in at least several more decades of the turning of Moore's screw. We have not even begun to explore the third dimension in chip design. Chips today are flat, whereas our brain is organized in three dimensions. We live in a three-dimensional world; why not use the third dimension?

Improvements in semiconductor materials, including the development of superconducting circuits that do not generate heat, will enable the development of chips (I should say cubes) with thousands of layers of circuitry, which when combined with far smaller component geometries, will improve computing power by a factor of many millions. There are more than enough new computing technologies being developed to assure a continuation of Moore's Law for a very long time.

Moore's Law is providing us the infrastructure in memory, computation, and communication to embody all of our knowledge and methodologies and to harness them on inexpensive platforms. It enables us to live in a world today in which all of our knowledge, all of our creations, all of our insights, all of our ideas, our cultural expressions: pictures, movies, art, sound, music, books, and the secret of life itself are all being digitized, captured, and understood in sequences of ones and zeroes.

Now I would like to examine some of the ways in which technology can contribute in the future, but before we do that, I think it would be worthwhile reflecting for a moment on the proper role of technology. The delegates to this conference hail from two great democratic nations, and perhaps the most important goal of a democracy is to provide equal opportunity for all of its citizens. To accomplish the goal of equal opportunity for people with physical and sensory disabilities, there are in my view three requirements.

The first is education. Consider the issue of mobility for the blind. A blind person can travel across town and across the globe as the participation at this conference attests and as Euclid Herie's travels over the past four days particularly attest. Despite efforts at creating effective mobility aids, it can be said that technology has not yet made a contribution to this issue, nor does it need to. The requirement is education—in this case mobility training. The state of the art is a low-tech device—the modern, lightweight cane, together with modern mobility training. An effective means of reading and writing literacy for blind persons is Braille. But Braille needs to be learned, so again education is the critical requirement.

The second requirement is the fostering of positive attitudes, specifically the attitude that a disability, such as blindness, is a characteristic—a characteristic which does not impart limitations on what a person can accomplish. The positive attitudes needed are both social and personal. Society needs to understand what its citizens, blind or sighted, can accomplish and contribute. And an individual needs to appreciate her own capabilities and reject the negative stereotypes that the deeply ingrained prejudices of society may attempt to impose.

I won't belabor this issue. One could examine it engagingly at great length. It is an issue in which we have made great progress, in large part because of the devoted efforts of people in this room, such as Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Herie, and all of the organizations represented at this conference.

As just one small example, if you remember, at the last U.S./Canada Technology Conference almost three years ago, we watched a video of a then current TV show in which the basic premise was how hilarious it was that the show's blind star was apparently unable to walk across the room without knocking over numerous lamps, vases, and other breakable objects. That was considered funny, at least by the show's producers. That was the entire premise of the show. The show was quickly canceled, in large part, apparently, because of the strong reaction of people in this room. Today such a show would be unthinkable, at least on mainstream TV. But that was not the case three years ago. There's certainly a lot left to do, but progress is being made.

And finally there is technology, which also has a part to play. Technology can also provide a means for independence, particularly in the area of access to information and knowledge. Blindness is a sensory disability and therefore involves access to information. Human intelligence has a great deal of redundancy, and there are many routes to access information. Technology can provide a bridge to supply visual information through our other senses. An obvious example is a reading machine, which provides the information from printed documents through either spoken words or Braille displays.

So, using Moore's Law as our road map, let's consider where we are headed in the area of technology for the disabled. Reading machines for the blind have certainly benefited from Moore's Law. I examined this issue recently with regard to reading machines. I have incidentally started a new company, Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc. which is devoted to creating the next generation of reading technology. I've gathered up some of the best people that I've worked with in this field over the past twenty-three years, and we have created a new type of reading machine for the blind, for persons with low vision, and for persons with learning disabilities and dyslexia.

I recently did a comparison of the first reading machine, the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which I introduced in 1976, to OMNI 1000, which is my new reading machine. Without tracking through all the details, the 1996 product provides about 256 times the performance of the 1976 product, at about one forty-second of the price, which is a price-performance improvement of 10,752. Interestingly, that's just about what you'd expect from Moore's Law in twenty years.

Now reading machines constitute an area of technology with which I have some familiarity, so let's consider the future of reading machines. Moore's Law will continue to improve all aspects of reading machine price and performance in the years ahead. Recently two-dimensional scanning chips have emerged which can scan a full page of text with 300-spot-per-inch resolution without any moving parts. These two-dimensional scanning arrays, which have over 5 million pixels, are prototypes and are, therefore, expensive. But within a few years these chips will permit the development of pocket-sized scanners the size of a small camera that can snap a full page instantly.

Thus, within a few years a full print-to-speech reading machine will fit in your pocket. You'll hold it over the page to be scanned and snap a picture of the page. All of the electronics and computation will be inside this small camera-sized device. You'll then listen to the text being read from a small speaker or earphone. You will also be able to snap a picture and read a poster on a wall or a street sign or a soup can or someone's ID badge or an appliance LCD display and many other examples of real-world text.

This reading machine will cost less than a thousand dollars and will ultimately come down to hundreds of dollars. Algorithmic improvements will also provide capabilities to describe non-textual material such as graphs and diagrams and page layouts. These devices will also provide on-line access to knowledge bases and libraries through wireless connection to the World Wide Web. By the end of the first decade of the next century, the intelligence of these devices will be sufficient to provide reasonable descriptions of pictures and real-world scenes. These devices will also be capable of translating from one language to another.

The scanning sensors of the future reading machine will ultimately become very small and could be built into a pair of eyeglasses. The advantage of doing this is that it would allow the user to control the direction of scanning through motion of the head in the same way that a sighted person does. Once these devices can provide reasonably intelligent descriptions of real-world scenes, they will evolve into navigation aids.

I will point out that access to the world of print has been a more important issue than navigation. Braille, of course, is a vitally important technology in that it provides access to the world of literacy for both reading and writing. It does, however, have the limitation that only a small percentage of books and topical literature is available in this alternative medium. Recorded material has the same limitation. Thus reading machines have provided the opportunity to overcome a principal handicap associated with the disability of blindness: access to ordinary print.

Until a navigation device can provide a level of intelligence sufficient to be truly helpful, the most useful navigational technology will, as I pointed out earlier, continue to be the modern lightweight cane. Electronic navigation devices have already been developed, but they have not yet proved useful. Unless such a device incorporates a level of intelligence at least comparable to a guide dog, it is not of much value.

Systems have been demonstrated which use satellite positioning systems to determine a person's location. Arkenstone, for example, has demonstrated systems of this type. These systems, using an on-line map of the community, will be able to inform a blind traveler of the location of nearby buildings, mail boxes, phone booths, and other permanent fixtures. It will sound like the buildings are talking to you, saying something like "I'm the library, and I'm over here." I think such a system will be useful for people, sighted or visually impaired. I'd like to have buildings talk to me as I walk by.

General purpose artificial vision is now being developed for robots and is in an early stage, although progress is being rapidly made. Today robotic factory inspectors can outperform human inspectors in many visually demanding tasks. Vision has lagged behind other developments in artificial intelligence because of the enormous flows of data required to process visual information intelligently. With the advent of massively parallel computing and the continuing progress made through Moore's Law, this difficulty is gradually being overcome.

Such a combination reading machine-navigation aid will be an assistant that will describe what is going on in the visible world. The blind user could ask the device (verbally or using appropriate manual commands) to elaborate on a description, or he could ask it questions. These artificial visual sensors need not only look forward; they may as well look in all directions. And they will ultimately have better visual acuity than human eyes. Everyone—visually impaired or not—may want to use them.

Persons with other disabilities will benefit from the continuing advance of computer technology as well. Another company I founded, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc., has developed speaker-independent, large-vocabulary speech-recognition, and one of our primary goals is to develop a speech-to-text sensory aid for the deaf, which I believe will be introduced within the next several years. We expect to introduce a device next year which will be able to understand fully continuous speech with a large vocabulary. Its primary limitation will be that you will need to restrict your topic of conversation to a particular domain, such as medicine or law. It will take several more years before our large-vocabulary, continuous speech-recognition technology is capable of understanding human speech without a domain restriction. I do believe, however, that a speech-to-text sensory aid for the deaf will become a popular device by early in the next decade.

A principal physical handicap is paraplegia, the loss of control over the legs. The most common prosthetic aid for this disability is the wheelchair, which has changed only in subtle ways over the past two decades. It continues to suffer from its principal drawback, which is the inability to negotiate doorways and stairs. Although federal law now requires most public buildings to accommodate wheelchair access, the reality is that access to persons in wheelchairs is still severely restricted. By the end of this decade we will see the first generation of effective exoskeletal robotic devices, called powered orthotic devices, which will restore the ability of paraplegic (and in some cases quadriplegic) persons to walk and climb stairs.

Overcoming the handicaps associated with disabilities is an ideal application of artificial-intelligence technology. In the development of intelligent computers, the threshold that we are on now is not the creation of cybernetic geniuses. That will come later. Instead we are today providing computers with narrowly focused intelligent skills, such as the ability to make decisions in such areas as finance and medicine, and in recognizing patterns such as printed letters, human speech, blood cells, and land terrain maps. Most computers today are still idiot savants, capable of processing enormous amounts of information at very high speed and with great accuracy, but with relatively little intelligence. When one considers the enormous impact that these idiot savants have had on society, the addition of even sharply focused intelligence will be a formidable combination.

It will be particularly beneficial for the disabled population. A disabled person is typically missing a specific skill or capability but is otherwise a normally intelligent and capable human being. There is a fortuitous matching of the narrowly focused intelligence of today's intelligent machines with the narrowly focused deficit of most disabled persons. Our primary strategy in developing intelligent computer-based technology for sensory and physical aids is for the focused intelligence of the machine to work in close concert with the much more flexible intelligence of the disabled person himself.

There are an estimated twenty million disabled persons in North America. Many are not able to learn or work up to their capacity because of technology that is not yet available or technology that is available but not yet affordable or pervasive and because of negative public attitudes toward disabled persons. As the reality changes, the perceptions will also change, particularly as formerly handicapped persons learn and work successfully alongside their non disabled peers. By the end of the first decade of the next century, I believe that we will come to herald the effective end of handicaps.

Finally, let's consider the long-term impact of Moore's Law. I made a rough estimate of the computational ability of the human brain, which comes to about twenty million billion calculations per second, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude. When does Moore's Law predict that your standard personal computer will be capable of that capacity—twenty million billion calculations per second? Without taking you through the details of this prediction, it turns out to be around the year 2020.

Now matching the raw computing speed and memory capacity of the human brain, even if implemented in massively parallel neural nets, will not automatically result in human-level intelligence. The architecture and organization of these resources—that is, the software—will be at least as important as the capacity itself.

There is, however, a source of knowledge that we can tap to accelerate greatly our understanding of how to design intelligence in a machine, and that is the human brain itself. By probing the brain's circuits, we can essentially copy, that is to say, reverse engineer, a proven design, one that took its original designer several billion years to develop. And it's not even copyrighted.

Just as the Human Genome Project, in which the entire human genetic code will very soon be fully scanned, recorded and analyzed, to enable our understanding of the human biogenetic system, a similar effort to scan and record the neural organization of the human brain can help provide the templates of intelligence. Now I won't track you through these details either, but I do believe that this will be accomplished as well by around the year 2020. And when that does happen, I think we will finally realize just how revolutionary Moore's Law really is.

So I'll leave with a final thought to underscore the revolutionary nature of Moore's Law. Another revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung, said that power comes from the barrel of a gun. That statement was true when he said it. But he said it in the last possible decade that one could make that statement because through physical coercion you could control natural resources. If you could control natural resources and compel people to labor, you could control wealth. And while not providing the happiest or most productive workers, it worked well enough.

The second industrial revolution, however, the one that is now in progress, is based on machines that extend, multiply, and leverage, not our physical, but our mental abilities. A remarkable aspect of this new technology is that it uses almost no natural resources. Silicon chips use infinitesimal amounts of sand and other readily available materials. They use insignificant amounts of electricity. It's a fortunate truth of human nature that, whereas labor can be forced, creativity and innovation cannot be.

But there's something else Mao said that is true today, although not in the sense he meant it, that is, the reality of permanent revolution. The exponential progress being created through Moore's Law and the move towards an economy based on knowledge and intellectual property is a permanent revolution. It's not just that densities of memory double and that computing speeds double; Moore's Law constantly changes everything—the means of education, the needs of the market, the methods of development, the channels of distribution.

It is a continual paradigm shift, and to understand how to create a product or an educational program or a program of social change, one needs to understand how our ideas will fit into, not just the world of today, but the world one year from now and two years from now, which will be very different. History is full of missed paradigm shifts. When the telephone was first invented, the chief engineer of the British post office said, "This is no big deal; we have plenty of messenger boys." But the mayor of Philadelphia had considerably more insight into the importance of this new development. He saw the paradigm shift. "This is of great significance," he said, "Someday every city will have one."

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If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following language:

"I give, devise, and bequeath unto the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, the sum of $__________(or "______ percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and bonds: ________") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."

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[PHOTO/CAPTION: Richard Ring with Charles Cook (left) and Duane Gerstenberger (right) behind him]

THE ROLE OF THE INTERNATIONAL BRAILLE AND
TECHNOLOGY CENTER FOR THE BLIND

by Richard Ring, Director

International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind

It is an honor and a privilege for me to share some thoughts with you today regarding the role of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. As its new director, I have to consider this question in one form or another every day. We are the world's largest demonstration and evaluation center, and because of this we come into contact with more consumers than perhaps anybody else in the field. I believe that we have a responsibility to highlight both the barriers to access and the possibilities that may cause those barriers to fall.

We must also do all that we can to find solutions that fit the needs of individual consumers, whether those solutions consist of the newest technology available or that which is tried and familiar. Since we are able to work with all of the technology on the market, we must also point out the areas where technology needs improvement. This is what consumers look to us for; this is what vendors and manufacturers look to us for; this is what governmental and private agencies look to us for; and this is what the general public is coming to look to us for. I might add that this is also one of the most challenging aspects of our work.

The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind opened six years ago this very week, on November 16, 1990. Our goal at that time was to house under one roof every screen-review program, every speech synthesizer, every note taker, every Braille embosser, every refreshable Braille display, and every Braille-translation software package being produced anywhere in the world. We also wanted to house an example of every reading machine as well.

Why, one might ask, did the National Federation of the Blind create, and why does it continue to maintain, the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind? Why have we spent so much time and money putting this facility together? Is it simply an elaborate showcase, designed to amaze the constant stream of groups and individuals who come here to see what we have and study our programs? If that were the only goal, one would have to say that we had achieved a resounding success.

One cannot help being impressed when visiting the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. My first such visit occurred in August, 1992. At that time the facility was housed in the central courtyard building here at the National Center. I was the editor of a cassette-based magazine for blind computer users, and I was excited about the opportunity to see nearly every piece of technology that blind people use to access computers, take notes, and emboss Braille. Where else could one find such a vast array of hardware and software gathered together in one place? True, the IBTC wasn't nearly as spacious then as it is today, but it was still an unforgettable experience.

In visiting the Center, I had two goals in mind. First, I wanted to interview its director, David Andrews; and second, I wanted to record live demonstrations of some of the devices. Though I was able to interview Mr. Andrews and with his assistance gain valuable exposure to many pieces of technology, it was the tried and true device that failed. The computers worked flawlessly, but my tape recorder battery pack didn't hold its charge. Could it have been operator error?

So none of the demonstrations were recorded. But I came away with something memorable. It was not simply because I was dazzled by a wonderful roomful of electronic marvels. Nineteen ninety-two saw the introduction of the first screen-access program for use with Microsoft Windows. SLIMWARE Window Bridge from Syntha-Voice Computers was released that summer, and during my visit to the IBTC I was able to see it for the first time. Though the program was quite primitive compared to its current version and to the many other Windows screen readers we have today, it was thrilling just to know that perhaps we who are blind weren't going to be left behind by the emergence of the graphical user interface.

It was the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind that gave me the chance to understand the barriers while seeing the possibilities. What, then, is the role of the IBTC? In part it is to make it possible for the technology here to be made available to blind people throughout the world, no matter what their expertise or their needs.

Employers, rehabilitation specialists, those interested in high-speed Braille production, and those interested in learning for other reasons can come to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind and receive hands-on experience with hardware and software they have hitherto only read about. They can use cutting edge technology, something that has never before been possible, something that has been only a distant dream.

Yet we are not here merely to watch while visitors enjoy their first experiences with computers or Braille embossers. Our role is to help those who come acquire the ability to find the right solution for them.

Consider the man, president of his own company, who recently lost his sight because of the rapid onset of diabetes. His self-confidence seemed nearly gone. He simply could not see a future in which he could continue to play a productive part. But he wasn't ready to give up. He still wanted to go on running his business as he always had. He visited the IBTC this spring looking for answers. Before he lost his sight, he had been using two programs in order to get his work done—Lotus 123 and Wordstar. We were able to show him that with the assistance of a DOS screen reader he could resume many of the duties he had thought were permanently beyond his reach.

There is no doubt that technology alone cannot overcome the problems faced by those losing their sight. The basic skills of blindness, such as cane travel and a thorough knowledge of Braille, are essential. However, this man needed a taste of success. Fortunately, a solution was available—one we could help him find, and we did.

During the last week of September an individual who told me she was employed by the Department of Justice visited the technology center. She came armed with numerous questions regarding Windows 95, refreshable Braille displays, and note takers. She also wanted to look at computer-based reading machines. She explained that her employer was switching within the next six months to Windows 95. We looked at several software packages, Braille displays, and embossers, as well as note takers and PC-based reading systems.

After choosing several items she decided would work well for her, she called her office to determine exactly what kind of system she would need. Perhaps this should have been her first call, but it was a telling one. After talking with her systems administrator, she realized that she was going to have to make a rather quick decision about what equipment she should buy. The Federal Government's fiscal year was almost at an end. If the money didn't get spent in the next several days, it would be gone. So she stayed several hours longer and asked more and better questions. It may be that, because she was faced with a decision she had to make immediately, she was better able to focus on her needs and whether the solutions we could offer would work.

I discovered during my lengthy interview with her that she was actually an employee of the FBI. I assured her that I was doing my best to live a clean life and that she would surely discover this for herself if she checked my records. In keeping with the spirit of my remarks, she said, "I already have!"

Sometimes the role of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind is not such a pleasant one. Even with state-of-the-art technology for the blind, solutions are not always easily attained. That, incidentally, is one of the principal reasons for holding this conference. All but two of the screen-review programs designed to provide access to the Windows 3.X and Windows 95 operating systems are equipped with some form of copy protection. If an employee's job requires that he or she be able to work interchangeably at any number of computers, such copy-protection systems can pose a significant problem.

An individual recently visited us whose job description required that he be responsible for trouble-shooting any computer on the premises when necessary. This meant that he was required to use screen-reader software on an ever-changing group of computers. Since he would be the only one using the screen-reader software, he was sure that his employer would be unwilling to pay for a site license—a license, incidentally, that cost thousands of dollars. Unfortunately he turned out to be right.

Copy protection is almost a thing of the past in mainstream software, but in the world of screen readers and other devices for the blind the practice is alive and well. In fact, it is growing. There was a time when only one or two of the DOS screen readers had copy protection. Now only one or two of the Windows screen readers don't. What if you experience the loss of a hard disk? Though the producers of screen readers for the blind do provide solutions to problems like this, they are a nuisance—and except for copy protection, they would be unnecessary.

We recently purchased from Artic Technologies their new note takers. These are Braillepad, Ergobraille, and Sqwert. The products seem to be well designed, and though they don't have all of the features contained in some of the note takers manufactured by the competition (such as built-in calculators and the ability to run external programs), their lower price tag makes them a viable option. But consider: note takers are often purchased by individuals who do not own a computer. How then could an individual without a computer read the manuals shipped with these products? The only documentation for these machines was provided in print and on diskette. Without some kind of immediately accessible manual, one wouldn't even be able to turn one of these devices on! I would suggest Braille, cassette, or both.

When people come to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, we show them any product they want to see. However, it only stands to reason that, when we are asked which products work best with specific software, we will emphasize the products we believe will best meet the needs of the person asking the question. Products for which documentation is written clearly and available in multiple formats will receive a better recommendation than those that offer documentation only on diskette.

Software developers that take the time to provide reliable technical support will find that their products are being recommended over those that do not, even if those products are otherwise well engineered and robust. The Graphical User Interface has made computer use by blind persons challenging enough that any advantages that one software package has over another will be discussed. Yes, sometimes the role of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind is to advise caution when considering a major purchase.

All of us in this room are involved in one way or another with the challenges that new technology brings. Whether you are a software developer, an educator, or merely a sophisticated user, you are directly affected by new ideas and concepts, whether yours or somebody else's. We here at the IBTC for the Blind are in the business of providing either the means by which new technology can be made accessible or information regarding solutions that already exist. Accordingly, when problems become easier to solve, when software becomes more stable, when manuals become more comprehensible, all of us benefit. We want to provide solutions that make doing a job easier, not ones that barely make it possible to accomplish the task.

In closing let me say that all of us have too much at stake to do anything but cooperate with each other. We need better, more meaningful, and more frequent dialogue among the people in this room. We need to insure that, when problems occur, they are addressed. Developers need to listen, not just to the agencies of government who will be making many of the purchases, but also to end users as well. Governmental and private agencies need to listen, not only to the sales representatives from the various developers, but to the end users. We at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind are constantly listening to consumers. Many of them simply do not believe that there is a future for blind people when it comes to computers.

I think otherwise. Though I believe that the future is not necessarily bright, I think it is altogether possible that it can be—that we can not only hold our own but advance, both in relative and total terms. But we won't do it unless we approach the task with goodwill. And we won't do it unless we understand what our long-term self-interest really is.

As a final thought, let me say something to those of you who produce technology. Your technology will be displayed at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. Blind consumers will come to see and work with it. And representatives of the governmental and private agencies who make purchases will also come. Both consumers and agency employees will be here without the influence exerted by a salesperson. This is threatening only if you do not produce a quality product and if you do not support your products effectively. Otherwise, it is a wonderful opportunity.

This is the role of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (and also one of the roles of the National Federation of the Blind) as we approach the twenty-first century. We want to provide an environment and an opportunity for the best solutions that can be found to the problems faced by the blind in an age of ever-increasing technology. It will take hard work and good will by all of us, but it can be done. Ultimately the blind consumer will determine what products will survive in the marketplace, but those products must first be invented and made available. Otherwise, there will be no choices to make. We stand at the nexus, and we will exert every effort to be fair, to be diligent, and to be absolutely fearless and impartial in calling the shots as we see them. This is what I think I must do; this is what I think the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind must do; and this is what I think the National Federation of the Blind must do.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Judith M. Dixon]

LOW-TECH DEVICES: DO WE HAVE WHAT WE NEED?

by Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D.

Consumer Relations Officer
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress

With all the attention being given to high-tech solutions these days, it is important that we not neglect the low-tech items that affect so many facets of our everyday lives. As wonderful and valuable as all the new technology is, there are many important tasks that can best be done quickly and simply by using a low-tech device. I refer to such items as label makers, Braille slates, and Braille watches.

While we have enjoyed recent advances in new high-tech items, it seems that some of the basic low-tech devices have not benefited from any development at all. How many new or improved low-tech devices have we seen in the past decade? Could modern manufacturing methods and materials be used to develop better low-tech devices?

I have considered several definitions of "low-tech." Are low-tech devices simply mechanical items? Or should we include in our consideration all devices without a microprocessor, i.e., devices that can't think for themselves? I have opted for the more inclusive definition for this discussion—any device without a microprocessor. Even though nearly all consumer electronics and even many toys these days are microprocessor-controlled, there is still a large universe of gadgets left for our reflection.

In an examination of the 1971 American Foundation for the Blind catalog of devices to assist blind people in performing everyday tasks, one finds a wide array of aids and appliances that are amazingly similar to what we find in comparable catalogs today. This catalog of twenty-five years ago included Braille and large-print watches, clocks, and timers; Braille-writing devices; handwriting aids; measuring devices; kitchen gadgets; thermometers; and much more. The most obvious difference between a catalog of low-tech devices of twenty-five years ago and one today is the current preponderance of talking items, ranging from functional talking watches, clocks, calculators, and thermometers to items intended to be humorous like talking salt and pepper shakers. The introduction of the low-cost speech chip for consumer products has no doubt benefited many people, especially the elderly blind person for whom a talking watch or clock is often more efficient than a tactile one.

If the output of a device can be made to talk, then we now have a wide variety of inexpensive and useful examples of new products. But what if the nature of the product or its use does not lend itself to speech output? Have we fared as well in these areas?

Braille Writing

In the United States we have seen some minor improvements in Braille slate design in the last twenty years: for example, the development of the cassette-label slate from Howe Press and the modification of the interpoint slate from the American Printing House for the Blind.

But there are many areas for improvement in Braille-slate design. Many of the Braille slates made in other countries incorporate a variety of intriguing features such as magnets to hold the paper in place, top-hinged designs to facilitate interpoint writing, folding designs, quiet-writing designs, very small and very large Braille characters, Braille line numbers, and holes that allow storage in a loose-leaf notebook. There is also a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from a tiny four-cell hingeless slate for making marginal notes to full-page models. There are bookkeeping slates and even antique varieties designed for writing print. However, it is usually not just a matter of importing these items for use in this country because, while they might include some clever ideas, their possible usefulness is frequently limited in other ways. They are often poorly made; lack features we are used to, such as notched Braille cells; are designed for nonstandard paper sizes; or are no longer available.

At the recent Closing the Gap Conference Quantum Technologies from Australia held a session entitled "Braille Dinosaurs." The company showed some pre-prototype Braille-slate designs they are considering making. Quantum is concerned that there is not enough interest in Braille-slate technology to warrant the up-front investment in mold-making. The meeting was well attended and included several dozen teachers of blind children. These teachers spoke eloquently of helping their blind students learn to use the Braille slate. So manufacturers can look forward to a continuing market for Braille-slate equipment.

And what about styluses? There are many sizes and shapes of hands but a limited array of styluses available in the U.S. Maybe styluses should be like shoes—one size doesn't fit all.

What about the Braille writer? We have had no significant improvements since 1951. Is a small, lightweight mechanical Braille writer that would accommodate an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch sheet of paper even a remote possibility?

Handwriting and Templates

I am a great fan of Tim Cranmer's pencil for the blind. Many times a computer is not available, and jotting a quick hand-written note would be a handy thing to do. I personally know many blind people whose handwriting is clear and legible, but for many others of us this skill is elusive. Some handwriting tasks such as check-writing can be accomplished very nicely with templates, but an area needing further development is the ability to write on things, either for quick labeling, where the print can be read tactilely, or for allowing others to read the text, such as writing a postcard while on vacation.

Labeling

I believe we desperately need a number of things in this area. Many people feel that the old metal Dymo label maker was superior to anything available today. Although one can make labels with a slate, it is tedious and time-consuming. Many blind people are reluctant to use appliances with flat, pressure-sensitive panels, but if labelled properly, many of these are easy to use. However, this kind of labeling can be some of the most difficult. How about a device enabling the user to apply a Braille character to a flat surface as though using a glue gun. The material would have to be durable enough to survive many readings without rubbing off but removable when necessary. With such a device we could easily label flat control panels; very small controls; and maybe even CD's, cassettes, and the like.

Measuring and Drawing Devices

The measuring and drawing devices available today are pretty much what we have had for years. No real improvements have been made on the Sewell Raised-Line Drawing Kit, which was fairly imprecise to begin with. I think that current rulers, yardsticks, and tape measures are functional enough, but when precision is required, can we be as precise as the task warrants? Many people have devised their own measuring tools. We have had a lot of discussion in the last few years about meter-reading devices, LCD-reading devices, and so forth; but as far as I know, none of these has made it to commercial fruition. Things could be worse; we could still have the circular slide rule made from thirty-three-and-a-third rpm records that many of us used in high school.

Kitchen Items

While a number of the kitchen items found in the catalogs may strike many as unnecessary, even ridiculous, here again there is little new. Personally, I would like a measuring device that could dispense specified amounts of batter and the like by volume or weight. This would be a very useful device for quickly and reliably making candy, filling muffin tins, making drop cookies, and the like. And what about a device to assist with reliably and attractively frosting a cake without touching it to see how you're doing?

Watches, Clocks, and Timers

While today's watches and clocks are functional enough, doing what watches are intended to do best—keep time and effectively communicate it—the only real breakthroughs have been the emergence of talking items. Braille watches have remained virtually unchanged for quite some time. Compared to the high-tech watches available today to the general public— watches that tell the time in twenty-five sites around the world and are equipped with calendars, telephone directories, and even little keyboards for recording short notes—our watches are limited indeed. What do we need? A wrist-watch-sized organizer? A fashionable Braille watch for blind women?

Travel Aids

Here we may already have the best low-tech solutions we will ever find. Improvements in materials are possible, but we have all seen numerous high-tech approaches to solving travel problems, none of which have come close to replacing the low-tech long white cane or guide dog.

Conclusion

This, of course, has been a very brief overview of low-tech items, but I believe that we need developments in these areas just as much as in computer access and other microprocessor-controlled devices.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Curtis Chong]

UNIVERSAL ACCESS: THE GOAL AND THE REALITY

by Curtis Chong

For the past few years advocates for people with disabilities have begun promoting an idea they call Universal Access. They have said that, if universal access is built in during the early design stages of any piece of technology, the cost of implementing it will be less than the cost of retrofitting the technology. The goal of universal access is to ensure that regardless of sensory, physical, or cognitive disability, everyone will be able to use and benefit from the Information Superhighway and the technology required to travel along it.

This is indeed a laudable goal. The idea here is that if proper attention is given to the design of hardware (the physical devices themselves), software (the computer instructions which tell the hardware what to do), information content, and information presentation, technology will be accessible to everyone, regardless of any physical, cognitive, or sensory disability.

How does this concept of universal access apply to the blind? Will it improve our chances for equal access to the technology which, more and more, is becoming an integral part of our daily lives? Can technology really be designed to ensure equal access for everyone in a way that ensures that the needs of one group do not supplant those of another? Is there today any piece of technology that is really universally accessible?

Generally speaking, just about everybody agrees with the notion that technology should be accessible to everyone. It's like saying that everyone should follow the Ten Commandments or that no one in this country should be the victim of a crime. In other words, you would be hard pressed to find a person who would quarrel with the goal of accessibility for all. It is only when we begin to consider the specific steps to achieve the goal that we run into problems.

Consider the question of access to electronic textbooks. Since February of this year, I have been serving on the Texas Task Force on Electronic Textbook Accessibility. It was organized by the Texas Education Agency to determine ways in which information contained in electronic textbooks could be made available to blind and visually impaired students. The task force looked at some electronic textbooks used in schools today. There was a program for very young children which taught the alphabet by singing the alphabet song and highlighting each letter on the screen. Another program reinforced a reading lesson by speaking or spelling words that a student could highlight with a mouse. We talked about some more elaborate electronic textbooks designed to teach science—for example, an animated chemistry experiment which allowed the student to combine dangerous chemicals in a test tube and watch the resultant explosion. All of these programs required sight—not only for their operation but also for learning about what has taken place. In fact, the program designers probably never envisioned that they would be used by a student who couldn't see the screen.

As you might imagine, the task force had some difficulty figuring out how these and other electronic textbook applications could be made accessible to the blind. We talked about providing descriptive video (audio descriptions of pictures) on alternate audio tracks, providing static text in hard-copy Braille, using refreshable Braille displays, eliminating the need for the mouse by providing keyboard input for all functions, and making it possible to stop the video action so that it could be described by someone who could see the screen. Our efforts to come up with strategies specifically tailored for blind students were hampered somewhat by the natural desire to consider accessibility issues for all disability groups. For example, in some of our initial discussions blindness-specific recommendations were often interspersed with admonitions to ensure that closed captioning was available for the deaf.

I should point out that I personally have nothing against closed captions for the deaf. It is just that the task force was charged with recommending strategies for the blind—not for all people with disabilities. Closed captioning may be right and proper for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, but for the blind it is only usable if seeing the screen is not a problem. To put it another way: the natural desire of some members of the task force to ensure access to electronic textbooks for all people with disabilities interfered with our charge to focus specifically on issues pertinent to the blind.

I myself have given considerable thought to the question of electronic textbook accessibility. Although it pains me to have to say this, I do not believe that blind children can really benefit from electronic textbooks in their current form. Although it is possible for static electronic text to be Brailled or read using assistive technology for the blind, we cannot benefit from the purely visual methods of presentation used by today's more sophisticated electronic textbooks. Until the developers of these textbooks design their products specifically with the blind in mind, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for blind children really to learn what the textbooks are supposed to teach. Moreover, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for blind students to participate in instructional programs in which electronic textbooks are a major component.

How does all of this relate to universal access? For one thing, I believe blind people will not benefit from considerations of universal access unless the specific characteristic of blindness is taken into account. Talking about universal access in purely general terms may help people understand the goal to be achieved but will not result in meaningful strategies that will benefit the blind. The experience of the Texas Task Force on Electronic Textbook Accessibility clearly illustrates this.

As I said, everybody agrees that technology should be accessible to everyone. However, the current state of technology is such that we will inevitably leave out the access requirements of one person or another. There will always be someone who can't use the keyboard, someone who can't see or read the video display, someone who can't speak into a microphone, someone who can't hear what is being spoken, someone who can't read a Braille display. Unfortunately, the human-machine interface is still relatively crude. Even under the best of circumstances with the best of intentions, technology cannot be made accessible to everyone today. However, technology can and must be made accessible to many more people.

We must ensure that as a group, the blind are not forgotten in the quest to make technology accessible to all. We must develop the strategies and propose the solutions which will allow as many blind people as possible to use as much technology as possible. What we propose must be specific; achievable; and, above all, targeted at the specific characteristic of blindness. This is the only way I can see for us to help achieve the long-term goal of universal access in a meaningful way for the blind.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Tim Cranmer]

A TOUCHING VIEW OF THE WORLD

by Tim Cranmer, Ph.D.

In the next few minutes I hope to bring to you a touching view of the world from the perspective of one blind person— not a total view, of course, just a glimpse where it comes close to the subject of our conference. With this purpose in mind and a hope of finding the right words, I went to my desk to write.

I was sitting before my computer with both hands on the keyboard waiting for the muse to point the way, when a clear three-dimensional image of a golf ball I had held in my hands more than sixty years ago plopped into the center of my mental tactile field with the vividness of a real golf ball dropping into the cup at a real golf course. I could hold in the hands of my mind this sixty-year-old memory of the first golf ball I ever saw. I was about ten years old and had been totally blind for a year. It's surprising how vivid a tactile memory can be after so many years.

I rotated this old memory in my mind's hands and felt again its roundness and the dimpled texture of its slightly resilient surface. Always a curious child, I had reached for my pocket knife and quickly cut a shallow equator around the ball to facilitate peeling away its tough outer cover, revealing an interior tangle of a thin rubber strand, endlessly wound layer after layer to form the springy mass of the ball. It took a long time to unwind this filament of rubber and uncover a marble-size sack of viscous liquid that filled the very center of the assembly. I wonder: Do they still make golf balls that way?

Recall is often fleeting. The golf ball was soon replaced with another ball—one with the weight of a feather and a surface as smooth as paper, but with the plastic feel of celluloid. Surely they no longer make ping-pong balls and other toys of flammable celluloid. I don't know exactly when I first saw a ping-pong ball, but it must have been before I became totally blind, because the tactile image in my mind was white!

Jumping from one image to another, as one does in undirected thought, I remembered:

A clear blue sky with a brilliant sun;

A blue sky with drifting clouds that momentarily obscured the sun;

A night sky with a moon that followed me a little behind and to my left as I walked along the sidewalk on the street where I lived. Passing telephone poles, I could make the moon disappear, then reappear in the exact same position over my left shoulder.

This state of quiet reflection continued longer and with much more detail than I will recount here. It ended with an understanding of this first message that I bring to you: These memories that I have described were formed from things I have seen and things I have touched. There is no qualitative difference between them.

The tactile sense is a worthy peer of sight for perceiving the real world and for building an understanding of material objects, concepts, and relationships. It is a parallel channel of perception that should be developed for the blind in the same way that improving visual acuity has long been the focus of research for the larger population of sighted people.

Scientists through the ages have been preoccupied with making visible those things and phenomena that cannot be seen by the unaided eye. The telescope was invented and endlessly improved for several centuries, enabling man to see ever fainter points of light from stars ever-farther from Earth. And to detect the presence of dark matter, we study the distorted orbits of the visible stars and infer the mass of their invisible companions. At the other extreme we invented the microscope to view ever-smaller particles and again infer the presence of other, still invisible, particles by photographing trails of their passage through liquids, plasmas, or other electromagnetic fields. We harnessed x-rays to peer inside the human body and other opaque objects of interest. We sense electric waves and print their shapes on paper to see functions of the brain, heart, and other biological structures. The list of tools and techniques invented to permit visual observation could be greatly extended, and volumes of information about each have been written. And yet the effort to improve our ability to see continues.

I invite you to substitute the word "feel" for the word "see" and its conjugations in the preceding paragraph. You will then know where I am coming from and where I am going in this paper.

Much of what I know about the real world I have learned through touch. Knowledge acquired by touch is, by definition, palpable, solid, and durable. I have heard it said that the retina is a direct window to the brain. In a very real sense, the sense of touch is also a window to the brain. Both sight and touch are hard-wired—that is, physically connected to the brain. Reading by sight and by touch are essentially the same. Seeing an object is direct observation. And feeling an object is also direct observation.

The power of visual observation is so well understood and widely accepted that it seems useless to argue this point further here. Suffice it to say that the history of science and education is recorded in advances made in tools and techniques for extending the power of vision. The magnifying glass, telescope, microscope, magnetic resonance imaging, x-rays, electrocardiographs are but a few examples of the ways scientists have worked to make things visible that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

So I arrive at the major proposition of this paper: We should embark upon a sustained effort to develop the tools and techniques that enhance the tactual communication path to the brain to the same degree we have achieved to enhance human vision. We should pursue development of the tactile transducer that enables observation of things too hot, too cold, too large, too small, too distant to permit direct physical contact. To put it more plainly, we must develop the tactile equivalent of the eyepiece, of the telescope, microscope, and the other tools of observation to which I have just referred.

To free us from endless monitoring of optical instruments, the eyepiece has long since been replaced by photographic film, chart recorders, and other means of capturing and storing images over a period of time. We can do the same. Let us apply currently available technologies to produce tactile representations that will let us feel the untouchable. That is, we should begin by developing the transducer that creates tactile images over several minutes or hours. Only after achieving time-delayed tactile images should we expect to make a display that operates in real time.

There is another persuasive reason for beginning our quest with a time-delayed tactile transducer. We already know how to make one. In fact, we know of several technologies that may serve this purpose. Most of these are currently in use in rapid-prototype manufacturing and in phase-change printing methods. These technologies can be adapted to produce solid, three-dimensional models using computer algorithms.

An example: Photolithography, a process for solidifying a liquid polymer using a computer-controlled laser, has been used by Dr. William Skawinski and his colleagues at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to produce three-dimensional, solid models of several molecules. Dr. Skawinski has provided me with three molecule models for showing at this conference. I will mention only one at this time. Cyclohexyl chloride, C6H11C1l, as the formula indicates, contains six carbon atoms, eleven hydrogen atoms, and one chlorine atom. But the practicing organic chemist needs to know more than the quantitative analysis of the compound. He needs to know the physical arrangement of the atoms in order to understand the chemical properties and how to manipulate the molecule. To describe the precise arrangement of atoms on a molecule of cyclohexyl chloride may require hundreds of words. And even then the mental picture of the molecule could be inferior to a haptic examination and study of the solid model. I will leave the molecule at the podium for your later examination.

Skawinski et al. produced these models of organic molecules with a photolithographic machine controlled by an algorithm derived from chemical databases. It may be equally plausible to produce solid models from other databases, like 3-D, CD-ROM clip art, biological specimens, topographical maps, etc.

Any practical method of producing tactile models must include provision for magnifying and reducing images so that the results will be scaled to the requirements of tactile interpretation. Thus a model of a molecule must be magnified by many orders of magnitude, and a tactile view of a portion of the cosmos must be reduced by many orders of magnitude. We see this process of scaling for tactile perception to be a subject of investigation by the International Braille Research Center.

I would like to conclude by suggesting a minimal approach to produce tactographs. A tactograph, as you might guess, is a three-dimensional photograph—not a true photograph, but something like one, except that it extends into the third dimension. Start with a human face as our subject. Using currently available rapid prototyping techniques, deposit on paper or other substrate successive layers of material representing cross-sectional slices of the image, until a cameo is formed. The X and Y dimensions of the solid image should be accurately scaled to the original model. However, the Z axis of the cameo is foreshortened to avoid exceeding tolerable depth. This limit might be on the order of two or three hundred one thousandths of an inch, but can best be determined experimentally. In any case, it seems likely that it will require a non-linear adjustment from the real value. The final result should be an accurate image of a face in relief with high resolution and with details customized for tactile interpretation.

Once the basic technique for creating relief images has been perfected, we can move on to the challenge of illustrating textbooks, manuals, and magazines. It's time to begin this research! Thank you.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Joseph Sullivan]

THE FUTURE OF BRAILLE

by Joseph E. Sullivan President, Duxbury Systems, Inc.

Let me start by confessing that my very presence here today is proof that I am not always very good at predictions. For when I was first introduced to Braille almost thirty years ago, I could not help thinking that surely such an old technology—invented in the early nineteenth century, after all!--would soon be supplanted by advances that would give blind people direct access to print. I figured that, in about fifteen years or so, Braille would take its place in museums, alongside the telegraph and other outmoded means of communication.

At least I can say that I learned better, and before the fifteen years were up. Today we still regularly hear that Braille is disappearing for one reason or another—sometimes from people who are advocating some supposed replacement, and sometimes from people who genuinely fear that a cherished resource may be declining into scarcity. I no longer agree. Rather it seems to me that Braille is not only holding its own but poised for a strong resurgence, not so much despite our modern technology, but partly because of that technology in conjunction with its own inherent characteristics.

Before considering any influence of other technologies, it is well worth reflecting on Braille itself as a technology. In particular we should ask ourselves why it came into widespread use—despite many rivals from Louis Braille's own time—and remains so solidly popular among its users to this day.

First and foremost, users of Braille are unanimous on one point: Braille is reading and writing; all else is something else. If that message needs to be elaborated for those who use print but who think that audio alone is an adequate way for blind persons to access text, think again. Considering all the wonderful ways you may use audio in your own life, do you consider dispensing with the printed word or, for that matter, your pencil and notepad? It is the same with Braille.

That leads us to Braille's most basic and arguably most important property: its simplicity. Braille is easily and rapidly read by the fingers. That is, the dots allow the information to flow at a speed well matched to the tactile sense—much more so than would be the case if print letters, which after all were designed for visual scanning, were raised. Braille is also easily and rapidly created by simple means, the slate and stylus, which do for Braille what paper and pencil do for print.

The dot system that Louis Braille devised thus has the elegance of simplicity. There are also other claims to elegance in the ways that the dot patterns are arranged and assigned meaning, which require closer study to appreciate. Specifically, we find that the sixty-three possible combinations of one or more dots have not been ordered arbitrarily or in purely numeric sequence as in a binary computer code. Rather they have been arranged and assigned in groups so that principal information, such as the alphabetic characters, are in upper-cell Braille while ancillary and connecting information, such as punctuation marks and indicators, are carried in cells having only lower or right-hand dots. As a result, Braille provides not only speed in the flow of information but also a discernible pattern and rhythm, which is both aesthetic and useful as an aid to understanding.

Louis Braille thus clearly achieved an elegant, eminently practical, and deeply human design. For that reason, far more than for any other technology of the past or foreseeable future, Braille has stood the test of time. We could almost say that Braille endures primarily because it is not deeply dependent on sophisticated technology.

Technology as Challenge

Nevertheless, it remains true that advances in technology, especially at the seemingly breakneck pace of the present age, pose many challenges for Braille and indeed any kind of access to information by blind people. These challenges are due to the sheer volume and speed of information flow on the one hand and the type of information on the other. I doubt that there is any need to elaborate on the increased volume of information, which has overwhelmed the traditional manual transcription process, just as it has overwhelmed just about everything else.

An even more difficult challenge is attributable to the type of information that must now be accommodated. No longer is it the norm for print information to come in the form of the simple text for which our standard Braille codes were devised. Rather that text is now more likely to be liberally interspersed with complex technical notation, such as mathematics or fragments of computer programs, which must be transcribed in a special way. Finally, we are also more likely now to encounter diagrams, pictures, icons, and similar visual elements in the material that must be transcribed, which require even more difficult specialized attention.

In the meantime the blind worker in an office or student in a university has the same need as his sighted colleague to assimilate and respond rapidly to the overall flow of information.

Technology as Ally—Three Key Technologies

But certain technologies, including some of the very same ones that have contributed to the problem for Braille, have also provided at least part of a solution. Three technologies in particular may be regarded as natural allies of Braille: computer software and hardware, communications methods such as the Internet, and Braille embossing and display devices.

Computer Software and Hardware

Because computer software is the focus of my own work for Braille, I naturally tend to consider it first, and I like to think that computerized transcription software in particular has made a positive difference. With a computer program doing the routine but high-volume transcription work, scarce human resources are freed to concentrate on the more complex material. The result is a great increase in the overall availability of Braille.

Software to enable access to computers, usually through speech, has also been advancing steadily. Essentially the same software can be made to drive a Braille display device. Even apparently graphical systems, such as Windows, are becoming more accessible as these techniques are tied into the underlying system structures. Last, scanners and OCR [optical character recognition] software have contributed significantly to the quantity of text available for automatic translation to Braille.

Communications

Improvements in communications, now most notably the Internet, also contribute to the quantity of available text. But perhaps even more important, a part of the Internet, the World Wide Web, is setting a standard for the representation of documents in a way that is highly beneficial for the conversion to quality Braille. That is because Web documents are coded in a form, called HTML, which is a particular kind of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). This means that proper HTML documents are not merely finished text and images but rather contain definitive information about which parts of the text are headings, subheadings, footnotes, author references, and so on—information that can be put to good use by computer programs that transcribe to Braille. This is a very important advance because, in cases where only finished documents are available for transcription, it generally takes human judgment to discern the document's structure reliably—for example, to decide whether an isolated line is a heading or perhaps a quoted line of poetry. As the HTML standard itself is improved and as it is even more widely observed (areas where we must acknowledge there is still much to be done), the potential for Braille is truly unbounded.

Braille Embossers and Displays

Turning to the output mechanisms for Braille, we must first acknowledge the great strides that have been made towards production in the traditional medium, namely paper. Today Braille embossers regularly put out paper Braille at quite high speeds, embossing on both sides of the paper, with capabilities for 8-dot Braille and in some cases graphic images as options. There are also machines capable of embossing plates, preparatory to press Braille production.

Even more varied are the methods that have been developed for producing Braille to be used on signs to be affixed to buildings, vending machines, and so on. Today it is routine to create a sign that contains not only Braille but also large-print text and graphic images, all of them raised, using computer software that shows the complete working image on screen while it is being created.

Methods for creating raised graphics on paper also deserve mention here. For example, there are now computer programs that allow blind users to compose and edit tactile images and even combinations of special papers and pens that permit blind persons to create tactile images by direct drawing. While we may expect Braille itself to remain in use for the text, there are clearly a great many potential uses for augmenting the text with tactile graphics.

But while devices for preparation of paper and other fixed forms of Braille are certainly important and will remain so, I believe that there is an even more significant future for electronically-driven devices that can show arbitrary Braille text, and perhaps one day even tactile images, that may vary from one moment to the next. Such devices already exist, of course, and have for some time. However, the goal of a Braille display that allows rapid and reliable switching, and that is also inexpensive, has so far proved elusive. Nevertheless, if we have the resolve to keep working on the problem, we can certainly anticipate that one day there will be portable, affordable, full-page Braille displays that can be attached to portable computers for instant access to Web and other documents in Braille anytime, anyplace.

Two Consequences for Braille

So we have explored three technologies: computer hardware and software, communications methods such as the Internet, and Braille embossing and display devices. We have noted a very desirable consequence of these technologies, namely that Braille is already more quickly and easily produced from a wider selection of sources than ever before, and we have projected that the trend can only be expected to improve. In short, Braille is more available and will become more so. With availability it is only reasonable to expect that there will also be increased interest in learning to use Braille.

Besides availability there is a second and less obvious consequence that these developments will have on Braille—a push towards unification of the Braille codes. To understand what unification means and the reasons for it, it is useful to look back to an earlier period—typically several decades ago--when most of the codes were designed in their present form.

I am not talking about the original, very solid basic design of Louis Braille himself, which still forms the core of all Braille. Rather I am speaking of modifications and additions that have been made since his time to meet various real and perceived needs.

At the time we are speaking about, computers had not arrived on the scene, and all Braille was transcribed by human labor. Moreover, the material itself was likely to be fairly easily divided into categories—ordinary literature vs. mathematics and science, for example. Finally and perhaps most significantly, the reader was assumed to be working or studying in an environment isolated from the world of print and, therefore, to have little or no interest in the print representation as such. What mattered, therefore, was that the meaning rather than the form of the material was to be conveyed in the Braille.

Those conditions and assumptions, and the perfectly natural decisions that flowed from them, have greatly influenced our present Braille codes. The most obvious effect is that, even for a given natural language, there are usually several codes, according to subject matter. For example, in American English Braille we use one code for literary material; a different code for material containing mathematics; and a third code for computer notation, such as the text of computer programs. Note that this requires subject matter to be determined, which can be tricky even for human transcribers.

A second effect is that preciseness is sometimes sacrificed to convenience. In literary Braille, for example, the actual punctuation marks in dates, whether they be hyphens, slashes, or periods in print, are supposed to be written as hyphens. Likewise in mathematics Braille, any spacing around the "plus" sign is to be ignored. Note that these rules typically require the transcriber to judge whether a particular series of numbers and punctuation marks is a date or something else that may have a similar appearance. Note also that meaning can be lost in cases where the precise form of notation does have significance, and in any case the reader is prevented from knowing the precise form, significant or not.

As we have seen, conditions at the present time have changed, so corresponding changes in the Braille codes are inevitable. Those changes are in the direction of unification, which interestingly enough is something of a return to Louis Braille's original straightforward design, which was based on a direct representation of symbols regardless of meaning. For as the history books tell us, Louis Braille actually set aside a complex, sound-based system (Charles Barbier's "Sonography") in favor of the simpler spelling-based system that comes down to us today. His example remains instructive for our time.

Unification implies preciseness as well as universality. Preciseness means that Braille is parallel and equal to print in representing all that is significant about symbols. This is not to be confused with print ornamentation—such as most uses of fonts. This characteristic has two beneficial effects: first, the Braille reader is better informed about details that matter, and second, computer programs are better able to carry out accurate transcription because less judgment about meaning is involved.

Universality is the ability of a Braille code to represent wide subject areas without resort to separate codes and associated judgments. This makes computer transcription easier, for one thing. But there is also a considerably more important benefit of universality: a user of Braille need not undertake substantial new learning, that is, the acquisition of a whole new code, when venturing into new subject areas. Rather one can simply build upon prior knowledge, learning just the new symbols and their meanings as one goes along. For all these reasons Braille unification projects for several languages, including English, have been underway in recent years.

A Single Bright and Busy Future

We have projected a future for Braille that is encouraging on many fronts, both for the system itself and in benefits for its users. I could sum up by saying that the future is bright, but I think that a better word might be "busy." For those of us involved with Braille must remain busy with the work of carrying forward the technologies that will help to bring Braille into the coming millennium, busy also with the task of unifying the Braille codes so that they will work better for meeting present and future users' needs, and of course busy with teaching, promoting, and just plain making Braille. At the same time no doubt the users of Braille will be equally busy, not so much with Braille as a subject in itself, but in a more important way: with Braille as a means for simply living one's life in an information age.

 

TEACHING SCIENCE TO THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED:
THE VISIONS LAB

by David Schleppenbach, Director, VISIONS Lab

Purdue University Department of Chemistry

The areas of science and mathematics have traditionally been inaccessible to students with visual impairments. Complex and high-tech fields such as chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, and mathematics are rife with visually presented concepts and information. Historically this complex visual information has not been made available for widespread use in a format easily accessible for blind and visually impaired students.

This lack of information, in turn, leads to decreased interest in scientific fields by the blind, and thus few visually impaired scientists exist both to provide standards for imparting scientific knowledge to the blind and to serve as mentors and role models for those visually impaired students wishing to pursue careers in the sciences. The Purdue University VISIONS Lab, which stands for Visually Impaired Students Initiative on Science, is a research laboratory dedicated to providing access to the numerous science courses at Purdue.

Since its inception in the summer of 1995, this university-funded lab has served both as a production facility for providing visually impaired students with educational materials and as a research lab for developing new adaptive technologies. The VISIONS Lab was part of a university-wide response to the problems that visually impaired students face when attending a major university and included the efforts of individuals from the Office of the President to the individual Teaching Assistants themselves and everyone in between.

As of Spring 1996 the VISIONS Lab has worked with two blind pre-medicine majors and one low-vision graduate student in chemistry. The VISIONS Lab has been involved with course work from many different departments, including but not limited to Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, Psychology, Biology, Agronomy, and Spanish. As can be seen, the VISIONS Lab has rapidly expanded beyond its initial design to become a gestalt facility, encompassing and supporting the daily needs of the students as well as predicting and planning for future needs.

The approach of the VISIONS Lab to solving specific academic problems encountered by visually impaired students can be divided into two halves: educational needs and technological needs. Often the technology is most easily provided; however, it is of paramount importance that the educational requirements of learning not be lost in the forest of high-tech, glamorous equipment. To this end the VISIONS Lab administrators participate in planning the student's course needs each semester with the help of case conferences with the student, his or her instructors, and several university student-service organizations such as the Dean of Students Office.

After the needs have been assessed, the scientists involved in the daily operation of the lab take charge and develop the necessary technology to solve the educational problems. The VISIONS Lab currently employs several graduate and undergraduate students, under the administration of the director, who develop and produce the educational materials needed by the students on a daily basis.

In order to understand the power and usefulness of this approach, the two halves of the VISIONS Lab problem-solving strategy will be examined for two courses from two disciplines—organic chemistry and calculus. These classes serve as excellent examples of the technological and educational advances developed by the VISIONS Lab and available as educational standards on the World Wide Web. In every case the adaptive technologies used for a particular class depend primarily on the abilities and strengths of the students. For example, a student skilled in Braille will receive most of the course information in tactile format, whereas a student used to learning by ear will receive taped lectures, computer-synthesized screen readers, and other vocal learning methods.

The VISIONS Lab was originally conceived as a means to solve a nagging problem in mathematics specifically dealing with a particular calculus course. Calculus is a special challenge for the blind because it is very difficult (and sometimes not possible) to interpret all of the mathematical information orally. What was needed at Purdue was a way for the blind students and faculty to interact quickly and easily and communicate complex mathematical ideas. Since the two blind students at Purdue were different types of learners, one auditory and the other tactile-oriented, a general strategy to serve both was desperately needed.

The solution to this problem, which was produced by the VISIONS Lab during its initial development stages, was to develop a software program that would translate mathematical and scientific equations into a format appropriate to blind students. The initial approach was to convert the equations into the standard Nemeth Braille code for mathematics; later, modifications were made to allow speech output of the equations (this is still in development). The program is available on the VISIONS Lab homepage at http://www.chem.purdue.edu/facilities/sightlab.index.html and is freeware, together with a manual explaining its use. Also available is a tutorial manual to the Nemeth code that follows most example equations in the Nemeth Braille Code for Science and Mathematics, 1972 rev., and translates it into Braille, using the program.

The program was created as a giant macro for WordPerfect for Windows version 6.0 or 6.1 and produces all output in proper Nemeth Braille code. This allows the various secretaries at Purdue who type materials for the calculus courses to submit the tests in electronic format to the VISIONS Lab. The secretaries must follow a few simple typing conventions when creating the documents, but these conventions in no way prevent the final document from being used by both sighted and blind students. Also the typing conventions are clearly detailed with examples in the manual and are usable by someone with no knowledge of Braille. Upon receipt of the electronic copy of the document, the VISIONS Lab converts the equations into Braille using the macro. The literary portion of the document is then translated using a commercially available Braille translator, the Duxbury■ Braille Translator for Windows. Many other translators would be suitable as well, however, such as MegaDots■ from Raised Dot Computing. The final Braille document is embossed on a Braille printer such as the VersaPoint Braille embosser.

This entire process, from receipt of the electronic document to the printing of the Braille copy, takes on average about five minutes per page. Of course, documents that are not in electronic format or that include special items may take longer. This process is certainly easier than translating the entire document by hand, which may take days or weeks.

After the development of the Braille translation software, the next natural step was to allow for speech output of equations as well. This project, currently under development, will allow students to translate the equations themselves and have the information read to them via a standard software package (TextAssist■ for the SoundBlaster■ family of sound cards).

Concomitant with this project is another in sound imaging. This project attempts to image vocally two- or three-dimensional objects (such as matrices in math or molecules in chemistry) in three dimensions around the listener's head. This is currently being done with the SoundBlaster■ card and the Qsound■ software technology, as well as a pair of Altec Lansing■ SurroundSound■ speakers.

Of course, some aspects of calculus require more advanced treatment. For example, much of advanced calculus deals with the interpretation of two- and three-dimensional graphs and the way aspects of them relate to mathematical equations. This information simply cannot be communicated orally, yet it is vital that the student understand graphical relationships since many key ideas in science and math are too complex to be interpreted symbolically. Indeed, the use of models and visualization to simplify complex ideas is a critical skill for future scientists; blind students, like any other students, must be able to assimilate vast amounts of data at a glance by the use of graphs and diagrams.

In order to deal with this problem, the use of a Tactile Image Enhancer■ from Repro-Troniks■ was used. Various standard computer graphing packages such as MathCad, Maple, and Mathematica were modified to produce graphs with Braille labels created by the Duxbury Braille Font for Windows■. After these images were printed in ink, they were transferred via Xerox to Tactile Image Enhancement paper and converted into a raised Tactile Image via the Tactile Image Enhancer. When appropriate, these graphs and diagrams were embedded in the Braille text of the document by cutting and pasting.

For images that are not reproducible by the computer or available in electronic format, scanners were used with a graphics program like CorelDraw■ to produce ink output for subsequent image enhancement. This general technique, like the equation translation, has two advantages: the ability to accept electronic forms of diagrams for enhancement and the overall speed of the process. For diagrams received in electronic format, the entire process from modifying to pasting into the Braille document can take less than fifteen minutes.

The second subject dealt with by the VISIONS Lab, and perhaps the most challenging, is organic chemistry. This field involves several problems that are especially difficult for blind students. First, organic chemistry involves a tremendous volume of material, which is barely tolerable to many sighted students and can be too much for some blind students to keep up with. This is mainly because of the lengthy process of listening to taped or read materials. Second, most of the material in organic chemistry is two- or three-dimensional in nature, and it is critical to have an understanding of spatial relationships of molecules to be a functional organic chemist. Finally, the laboratory part of the class must be modified to allow blind students to use the laboratory equipment, perform experiments, and take data.

For the organic chemistry lecture the main problem was in translating the material into Braille or tactile images for the blind students. The main process once again involved the translation macro, which can also translate all chemical reactions not involving complicated two- or three-dimensional molecules. For those molecules which are not expressible in linear format, tactile images were once again embedded in the appropriate part of the text.

For producing Braille tactile diagrams of chemical structures, several standard chemical drawing programs were used, including HyperChem, ChemDraw Pro, Chem 3D, and Chem Windows. These modifications have been standardized and are available on the World Wide Web. Also, some modifications and/or additions to the existing Nemeth code had to be developed to allow for complex chemical reactions and structures since this was not a part of the existing code. Whenever possible, the spirit of the Nemeth code was kept in mind when developing new conventions. Thus, many of the conventions are very small adjustments to existing rules and symbols to allow for inclusion of information from the world of chemistry. These new Braille conventions are also available via the VISIONS Lab homepage on the World Wide Web.

One problem with converting chemical diagrams is that often the diagrams are too complex or too crowded for successful tactile interpretation. Because it is difficult to decide what information (if any) can be excluded from a complex chemical diagram without loss of meaning, careful consideration was given to educational adaptations. With the help of chemistry faculty and teaching assistants, the diagrams are simplified on a case-by-case basis, with the main goal of remaining as true as possible to the original diagram. In general, many diagrams can have their original meaning preserved by simply enlarging the details to allow proper tactile resolution of things such as location of atoms, movement of electrons, etc.

A final problem for the blind chemistry students was in the evaluation of their learning. Often, when taking tests or quizzes, the organic chemistry student must demonstrate knowledge by drawing detailed diagrams of reaction mechanisms or chemical structures. Three different approaches were used to combat this problem. First, a Velcro box was constructed with Velcro pieces that attach to the surface and stick. The pieces are differently shaped and their identity labeled in Braille. (The geometry of the piece indicates its identity as well.) For example, carbon atoms are squares labeled with a "C," and in chemical reactions carbon bonds with four other atoms (indicated by the four sides of the square). Electrons are represented by small circles. This allows the student to work with a tutor, teaching assistant, or proctor and demonstrate a reaction to someone who does not know Braille but does know chemistry.

A second approach was the use of raised-line drawing kits, such as the Swail dot inverter or the Sewell raised-line drawing kit, both available from the American Printing House for the Blind. Here both the student and proctor can draw stick diagrams (which are commonplace means of expressing reactions in organic chemistry) and interact in real time just like a sighted student with an ink pen.

A final approach was the creation of software, still in development, that will take Braille-typed-on carbonless copy paper (which makes an ink image of the Braille dots), scan this Braille into electronic format with a scanner, and re-convert this scanned Braille into text. This would allow blind students to hand in assignments in Braille to a professor who knows nothing about Braille, to grade later and return. The eventual goal for this would be to have a computer act as the intermediary between professor and student; that is, the computer would translate from print to Braille or vice versa and serve as the interpreter for the blind student and the professor.

The chemistry laboratory also presented several formidable challenges. The first concern of many members of the chemistry faculty was the safety of both the blind student and the assistants in the laboratory. Thus any adaptations made must account for safety and prevent any possible dangerous situations from arising. To this end it was decided that a sighted laboratory assistant and technological adaptations would be best for all involved. This situation has proven beneficial for the blind student as well as the other students and teachers because the blind student has the opportunity to explore the laboratory fully with immediate feedback from the assistant and can learn interactively along with the other students.

Some modifications were made to the actual laboratory equipment, allowing Brailling of knobs and buttons, and all of the laboratory materials were available in Braille. Most of the readings and measurements were taken with the help of the lab assistant, who acted as the blind students' eyes and arms for some of the work, such as taking a reading from a dial, mixing chemicals, heating solutions, etc. Some work is currently being done in the VISIONS Lab to connect several laboratory instruments such as spectrophotometers to voice-output systems.

However, the more promising area of research in the VISIONS Lab has been in virtual instrumentation. With the use of both in-house and commercial programs such as LabView, the VISIONS Lab is currently exploring the creation of virtual experiments on the computer that would have voice-input and voice-output control interfaces. Purdue currently uses virtual instrumentation for a number of its laboratory courses, so the task is to modify the existing software.

As can be seen, the VISIONS Lab is both adapting existing technology and creating new technology to solve specific problems presented by having blind students in science. We have made these advances available on the World Wide Web in the hopes that others working on similar problems will join with us in an attempt to solve some very challenging problems. It is our sincere hope that the advances developed in the VISIONS Lab will serve as impetus for blind students to begin to explore the realms of science that have been difficult to learn for so long. Purdue's long-range plan for the VISIONS lab is one of optimism and hope that many blind students both at Purdue and around the world will take advantage of some of the standards developed here. Together with adaptive technologists around the globe, the VISIONS Lab hopes to make the future of science education for the visually impaired brighter indeed.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Larry Israel]

WHY DOESN'T TECHNOLOGY FOR BLIND PEOPLE COST LESS,
AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

by Larry Israel

President, Telesensory Corporation

Thank you, President Maurer, Dr. Jernigan, and the National Federation of the Blind for the invitation to be here.

The theme for this conference is "Technology for the Blind as we Approach the Twenty-First Century." Many sub-themes could fit under that broad heading. As I prepared my remarks for this conference, it was not easy to choose an appropriate theme from among many I could see.

The challenge for all of us who are developers and suppliers of products and services is how we can best advance the interests and needs of our blind clients. But it's essential that be done in an affordable way—affordable for the blind consumer, when that is possible and appropriate, or at least affordable for an appropriate agency or organization whose charter includes dispensing government funds for rehabilitation, education, public access, or similar purposes.

Why is stuff for blind people so gosh-darned expensive and often not really affordable? I'd like to answer that question and then tell you what I think might be done about it, although unfortunately with no absolute assurance of success.

Let's start with some examples. Why does a stand-alone reading machine, such as Telesensory's new Domino product, or Xerox's Reading Edge, or Arkenstone's Open Book product, cost $5,000 or more? How can people charge $500 to $1,000 for software for blind people when lots of equally complicated software sells for less than $100, and entire suites of software, with many applications in them, can be had for a street price of $200 to $300, or sometimes even less than $100, if you're trading in a competitive suite?

The problem is that there aren't really a lot of blind people. Put another way, there aren't enough blind people to permit economies of scale to come into play, to permit mass-market production, and to permit product development costs shared over a very large population.

In our field the development and tooling costs for new technologies and products must always be amortized over a relatively small number of units. Let me give you some examples. Consider a TV set or VCR for mass markets: development is spread over many millions of units. There is hardly a consumer electronic appliance around for which the product development costs cannot be spread over hundreds of thousands of units. And once the development is complete, the tooling necessary to allow each individual product to be built at the lowest possible cost can also be amortized over a large number of production units.

By comparison, one of the most popular electronic devices in our field, Telesensory's Aladdin video magnifier for people with low vision, involved about a million dollars in product development cost and nearly another million dollars in what we call "hard tooling," to permit the individual products to be made at the lowest possible cost. We wanted to set a new, lower price point in the market with a high quality product, and we did so. The basic Aladdin is priced nearly 20 percent under the Voyager, which it replaced, and nearly 30 percent lower than the Telesensory Vantage CCTV reading machine, which it also replaced. It's the lowest price full-featured quality unit on the market, worldwide; and, to give our customers greater comfort, we also added a five-year warranty, which is unheard of in most any industry.

But even so we had to take a considerable risk because, if our startup costs could not be spread over a fairly large number of units, this would have been a losing proposition for Telesensory. Fortunately our market planning was correct, and our unit volume—the number of units we sold—jumped 53 percent in the first year after Aladdin was introduced.

In the area of products for people who are totally blind, especially Braille-related products, it's even tougher. To sell as many as 500 to 600 units a year of a particular product using Braille output is a challenge to most manufacturers in this field, and that's a very small number of products over which development costs and hard tooling can be spread. As a result, Braille products seem very expensive, and they are!

We can imagine what it would be like if 100,000 Braille displays were being produced every year, such as the refreshable Braille line displays of the type made by Telesensory, Alva, Blazie, and a host of European companies. We could expect costs to drop significantly, probably by at least 50 percent, and perhaps even more.

That's likely to remain just a dream, unless someone comes up with a significant advance in Braille-cell technology. And even that is unlikely, because the potential volume is not enough to justify the kind of investment which might produce a low-cost Braille cell. That's what's called a vicious circle, and it's been with us for as long as people have tried to apply technology to meet the needs of blind people more effectively.

So there's a problem I've described: there aren't a lot of blind people, so there isn't a large potential user base over which to amortize the costs of product development and tooling. The result? We don't get substantially lower-cost products, as we'd like to have.

I've always hated describing problems without at least trying to offer some sort of solution, or at least a path to be followed. So I'll do that here as well and describe an approach to product development and to the application of technology to meeting the needs of blind people better, which I think has some reasonable potential for getting around the dilemma I've just described—at least in some cases.

Let me approach this topic by describing two product developments with which most of you will be familiar. Many years ago Telesensory designed and produced what I believe was the world's first talking calculator. It was called "Speech Plus," and many of them are still in use today. It was relatively bulky, had limited battery life, had limited functions, and sold for what seemed like the enormous price of $395. That's probably equivalent to nearly a thousand dollars today.

Telesensory sold around 15,000 of the Speech Plus calculators over a period of a few years. Then what happened? You know the story: our Japanese friends came out with talking calculators for the mass market, initially priced under $100, and I understand you can get some today for prices as low as $29. Perhaps they were not as well-optimized for the needs of blind people as was the Speech Plus calculator, but who was going to complain, with that enormous price difference?

What's going on here? Was Telesensory ripping off its blind consumers? Of course not! Telesensory's direct internal costs were well in excess of a hundred dollars. The profit level made on the product was reasonable, not excessive. But Telesensory did not have the wherewithal or perhaps did not have the means to attempt to develop a talking calculator which could be sold profitably for less than a hundred dollars in large volumes to mass markets. As soon as the Japanese entered the market, Telesensory dropped out. Well that was a success story for Telesensory for a while, but eventually it had to be abandoned.

Let's look at another example. Ray Kurzweil, whose name is familiar to all of you, invented reading machines for blind people. Initially they cost $50,000 or more, well beyond the reach of virtually all blind people, and even unaffordable to public agencies for individual client use.

Many years later Xerox acquired Ray Kurzweil's company. Still, almost no reading machines were sold, despite massive subsidies by the Xerox Foundation to place machines in various libraries. It was still beyond the reach of the ordinary blind consumer or even of most rehabilitation agencies.

What changed this picture? First, ask yourselves the question: why did Xerox buy Ray Kurzweil's company? Do you think it was because they wanted to enter the field of products for blind people? Think again. Their motivation, from a business perspective, was clearly to obtain access to optical character reading technology for general office use. The product for blind people was an incidental by-product, which they continued to produce, but in which they have invested very modest development resources since then. There's not been much new in that field for quite some number of years, except for a Telesensory product which I'm going to talk about before I'm through. In fact, Xerox's adaptive devices division was, according to industry information, on the market to be sold for quite a period of time, although I don't know whether that's the case at present. Xerox wasn't a bad corporation because of this—it just didn't make business sense for such a large corporation to invest money in such a low-volume industry.

Even so, reading machine prices have dropped from $50,000 in Kurzweil's early days to $5,000 or so for stand-alone systems today and $1,000 for the software alone to be used with your own PC and scanner.

Now we begin to see the answer. We begin to see what it is that can make technological wonders available to blind people—and not at a high price, but at reasonable prices which can be afforded by ordinary consumers, or at least by the rehabilitation agencies whose mission is to help blind consumers obtain jobs and lead fuller and more independent lives. The key is the connection between mass-market technology and the unique needs of blind people.

Video magnifiers, so common today, would not have been possible were it not for the growth of the market which uses video cameras for inexpensive high-volume applications, such as security and surveillance in parking lots, office buildings, and residences, as well as countless other applications. There are not enough low-vision people to justify the development and production of low-cost cameras, but by using cameras developed for mass-market applications, a whole new industry was born in the early 70's.

Similarly, Ray Kurzweil's invention could never have been made affordable, as it is today, were it not for the development of personal computers and scanners for mass markets unrelated to the needs of blind people.

"Well, that's great!", you might say. "So we're just supposed to sit around and wait for the technological crumbs to fall off the consumer mass-market table." That would be a dismaying scenario, if that were the only way we could hope for truly significant advances in our field, since we would all be doomed to follow, not lead. In addition, we'd be subject to the problems still being experienced with, for example, Windows 95 access, where the mass-market product, Windows 95, just won't work for blind people without significant adaptation, which remains costly and sometimes inefficient or kludgey.

There is, I think, another approach which developers of products for blind people can take. That involves tying in other needs—needs which aren't directly the needs of blind people—in order to support the kind of product development which will nonetheless benefit significant numbers of blind people. For example, if Telesensory had been able to develop speech technology in such a way that talking calculators became a desirable appliance for everyone, not just blind consumers, the cost of talking calculators might have been reduced at an earlier stage. Unfortunately that didn't happen.

Let me give a more pointed example using some of Telesensory's newer products as an example. Last month, at the Closing the Gap convention in Minneapolis, we conducted private showings of a new device we call Domino. It's the world's first battery-powered, truly portable reading machine for blind people, weighing only fourteen to fifteen pounds and the size of a briefcase. It's lighter, smaller, faster, and easier to use than Xerox's Reading Edge, which had previously been the closest the world had seen to a portable reading machine for blind people and, at twenty-seven pounds or so, not truly portable.

We're putting Domino on the market at less than $5,000, which is a fair price and less than anything which is even remotely comparable to it. But even at that price, it won't be a very profitable product for us, and we need profits to pay for development and tooling costs, so that we can keep on doing good things.

Are we crazy? No, we're not crazy. We're just betting again, as we did with Aladdin, that we've got some ideas which will have applicability in such a way that we can substantially increase the market base for this product. We want to sell Domino—or parts of it, or other products based on some of its unique and patent-pending technology—to people who aren't blind for other applications. If we're successful in doing that—and, remember I said it's a bit of a gamble— then we think we can lower the cost of Domino in the future so that blind people can benefit immensely.

This is an example of what I mean by trying to create crossover applications between what we do that benefits blind people and finding other applications for the same products and technology for people who aren't blind.

Another example of the same concept at work is our recently-introduced Marco (as in "Marco Polo"). This is an audible-signage navigation system for blind people. Here there are two parts to the story. First, it's of equal benefit to people who have low vision. With the much broader audience and market that provides, we've been able to make a commitment to considerably reduced pricing for the Marco products, which will benefit blind people as well. The second major part of this story is that the part of a Marco system which a blind or low vision person would want to buy—the receiver—costs less than $100. We've designed the system so that the greater part of the cost is in the transmitter, or audible sign, and that's the part that someone else (a building owner or transit-system operator) will need to buy and install. This also operates to hold down the ultimate system cost for the blind user.

Finally, there's one other observation I'd like to make. As many of you know, Telesensory decided, with considerable regret, that the time had come to stop producing the Optacon, the world's first electronic reading appliance for blind people. There are many Optacon-lovers who have lobbied for continuation of the Optacon or some sort of new development to provide the same functions. Deane Blazie and others are working to see if that can possibly be done.

I think this effort, while commendable for what it tries to accomplish for blind people, is misguided in the path it takes. The Optacon will never be used by truly large numbers of people. If one believes, as I do, that resources are finite and limited and that development funds spent in one place are therefore unavailable to achieve more in some other place, and that sometimes-difficult choices need to be made, then the consequence is clear: money spent on low-volume technology to try to replace the Optacon is money which cannot be spent on other technological advances which have far greater potential to help blind people. If small amounts of government funding are used as seed money, perhaps the cost is moderate. But it still leaves the problem of commercialization, which will continue to be a costly process in the very small volumes which are likely to be involved.

In conclusion, let me summarize the situation as I see it, regarding the cost of products for blind people—and much of this probably applies to other disabilities as well. There aren't many blind people. Therefore, there's not much expectation of being able to produce technological advances for them in the high volumes which are characteristic of consumer appliances. As a result, both development costs and tooling costs must be amortized over relatively small unit volumes, which makes the resulting device costs seem to be fairly high.

But despite that picture, there are areas in which the possibility exists of adapting mass-market technology for use by blind people, or of developing devices for blind people which have other uses so that the costs I mentioned can be spread over much higher unit volumes. And Telesensory certainly hopes to lead the way in doing just that: better and better applications of technology to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired people, while driving costs as low as we possibly can.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Tony Schenk]

BETTER, SMALLER, CHEAPER

by Tony Schenk

President, Enabling Technologies Company

On an auspicious occasion such as this gathering, it is not necessarily easy to identify a topic of conversation which will be an object of fascination to everyone present. But, when you come right down to it, my chosen topic, "better, smaller, cheaper" is just another way of addressing technology's future, which is something we in this field never tire of talking about, or we probably wouldn't be in this field in the first place. I think it would be safe to summarize the future of virtually any successful technology with those three irresistibly catchy words: "better, smaller, cheaper."

I suspect I could earn the gratitude of this audience if I stopped right there and sat down. But life stubbornly refuses to be so simple. There are always underlying issues to be considered and choices to be made. It is about some of these choices that we have made, and still have to make, that I want to talk for a few moments. It is easy to focus on critical choices when there is a glaring crisis afoot, such as the closing of the Federal government seemingly every day or two last Winter. But even at the best of times we all have to make choices. Even lottery winners have to choose whether to take the cash in a lump sum or have it paid annually, whether to invest the whole sum of cash or keep some out to buy a faster, cheaper, Braille printer.

And all of you have future shaping choices to make both as individual consumers of technology and as leaders. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not going to try to sell you a Juliet, though I'll be glad to talk to you about that during the break. The choices of which I would speak will affect your future and mine whether you happen to be in the market for my particular product or not. I can say this with a good deal of confidence, not because Enabling Technologies has a fortune-teller tucked away somewhere in the attic, but because of history; or to put it another way, because of hindsight, which as we all know, is always twenty-twenty.

It always shocks me to realize it, but my company has been in existence for twenty-five years already. Although I wasn't around for the first ten years or so of the ride, I've heard lots of stories, as you might well imagine; and I've seen some fascinating reports and inspected some ancient pieces of equipment, to see if we could figure out how to fix them. Believe me when I tell you that, compared to these antique boxes loaded with discrete transistors instead of microprocessors, and paper tape instead of full-width Braille paper, anything you are using today is better, smaller, and cheaper, including a slate and stylus. Of course, the slate and stylus couldn't be made to Braille electronic data, which is why these big clumsy machines got developed in garages and old warehouse buildings in the first place. These first- and second-generation wonders with names like BD-3 and LED-1 were huge dinosaurs with mechanisms so complex that they could only be tuned and maintained by craftsmen with the hands of Mr. Goodwrench, the ears of Stevie Wonder, and perhaps the vocabulary of a longshoreman. Nobody with any other choice at his or her disposal would have worked to maintain these machines or tried to use them in any productive way. Flawed though it was, that was cutting-edge technology in the 1970's. And because someone needed it, someone else found a way to maintain it and later figured out how to build something better.

It's a familiar story isn't it? I can't speak for any of the other manufacturers represented here, but I would bet a Florida golf course against a California earthquake that every company president here could tell a similar story. And I'll take my winnings from that wager and let them ride on another safe bet: that all our products are somewhat better and most are less expensive than they were ten years or even three years ago.

I'm going to stop betting while I'm ahead and go back to my company's experience. Although we have made some long strides in our Braille printer technology over the past few years, the truly dramatic breakthroughs and massive design improvements leading to huge cost reductions don't come quite as often as they used to. Perhaps I could illustrate this point with the briefest possible summary of our evolutionary curve on interpoint Braillers, that is, printers which place Braille on both sides of a sheet. Our TED-600 was released in 1985 to sell for $37,500. It prints at 600 lines per minute or about 400 characters per second. In 1990 we released the Braille BookMaker: speed about 80 cps, price about $8,000. In 1992, it was the Juliet, average speed about 40 cps; price, about $4,000. Now we have a slightly faster, slightly less expensive model of the Juliet which we call the ET, but it certainly isn't as dramatic a price reduction as going from $8,000 down to $4,000.

Now, if I seem to be standing here saying that our best work is in the past, don't you believe it for one minute. I'm only saying what many hardware makers have said before me. From here on the cost reductions are going to become much more challenging, and sooner or later some tough choices will have to be made.

So, you see, we did get back to the subject of choices after all. So what kind of choices are we talking about here? When you want to cut the cost of a product such as the hardware we manufacture, you have three major areas you can look at. First, there's the cost of the materials themselves, the metal enclosures, the carriage assemblies, the styluses and their mountings. If you can buy enough of these items or make enough of them at one time, you can realize some substantial reductions, which we have done several times. But if you insist on selling durable hardware, as we do, there are certain minimum requirements for strength and hardness of parts which cannot be compromised. That will limit your ability to cut the cost of the actual components beyond a certain point.

The second major cost of a product such as ours is labor. If you insist on holding onto good workers for development, assembly, support, and administration, then you just have to face slowly but steadily rising labor costs as a fact of life. You can offset these somewhat by improving assembly techniques to reduce the hours per unit, but truly dramatic cuts in this area are rare, once you get past the first generation of a technology.

Now we come to the third major cost area: for the moment I'll call it marketing, though it is actually somewhat broader than the strict definition of marketing. The activity I'm talking about is the whole process of bringing the technology before the providers and possible consumers in a setting where they can decide fairly on its usefulness and its competitiveness. As you have often heard, most hardware manufacturers consider our market to be so small that they find it not worth the trouble. But for all that, it is a complex marketplace, and the cost of conducting it is relatively high.

Much of the marketplace actually takes place in the exhibit halls of hotels hosting annual conventions and conferences on a national, regional, or local scale. Some agencies receive visits from marketing representatives who demonstrate or conduct workshops on their products before groups of potential providers and consumers. Some agencies and organizations maintain technology centers where products may be worked with at length, often without the intrusion of a marketing representative.

When the time comes for the actual purchasing transaction, a local dealer is frequently involved. Sometimes, but not always, this dealer contributes productivity to the interaction in the form of a helpful demonstration, a question-and-answer session, or perhaps hands-on support. And, speaking of support, the responsible manufacturer and/or distributor must make some allocation of resources for supportive interaction with the operator of the newly-arrived device in order to insure that it ultimately becomes a productive tool. Each of these activities costs something, and since the costs are not paid in the marketplace, they must of necessity be added to the price of the product.

As I comment on each of these marketing activities, I do not want to be interpreted as a harsh critic of this process. Without question much of the interactive marketing process we have all evolved in this field is extremely productive. The only question is whether there might be some duplication of effort and perhaps some activity which is not productive enough to be cost- effective. Ultimately, of course, the choices are yours.

Let's start with an easy one. Taken as a whole, the schedule of conferences and conventions provides a crucial opportunity for many consumers to take a reasonably long look at new technology. I imagine I would be ridden out of here on a rail if I said anything else. And yet, speaking strictly for my own staff, the scheduling decisions made by some can have unnecessarily extravagant consequences. If a conference whose exhibits justify my sending only a single representative schedules one or more twelve-hour days, I have to send at least two staff members, or at least I choose to do so on humanitarian grounds. This doubles my costs for such a conference, and though it may sound like a small matter, it happens several times a year and actually plays a part in our pricing structure.

A similar result is produced if a conference exhibit schedule calls for more days than it takes to serve our guests or if few of the conference attendees examine the exhibits. I sometimes think we now suffer, if that is the correct word, from an over-abundance of exhibit invitations so that some interested parties have many chances for inspecting what's new, while some others, perhaps because they live in remote areas, may have no opportunity at all.

Beyond the issue of duplication, some exhibits, especially those held in or near our nation's capital, seem to be excessively expensive, in the cost both of actual space and of small amenities such as chairs and waste-baskets. You wouldn't believe what we have sometimes paid at the President's Committee just to plug our forty-foot extension cord into the nearest wall socket. I'm not sure what can be done about that kind of problem except to ask for your understanding if we don't show up to exhibit in some of these truly extravagant exhibit halls.

Incidentally, in no way do I mean to imply that exhibit activity or any of the other functions discussed here must lead to sales in order to be judged productive. All we are talking about is a reasonable flow of potential consumers to justify the time and other resources expended. If a reasonable number of sales don't result from that, then we're in the wrong business or at least we have the wrong products.

On the subject of technology centers, I believe most companies in this field offer discounts, as we do, to help the agencies in question with the tremendous cost of owning and maintaining a full set of demonstration equipment. Such centers provide invaluable service to consumers, particularly when they can spend enough time working in the center to complete at least one actual project using a fully functional system. If there is waste or extravagance in the handling of this equipment, it would be when agencies take a machine out of the actual technology center and place it permanently in someone's office to boost that person's productivity on the job. When this occurs, the discounted equipment simply represents an empty marketing cost, which has to be passed on to future buyers.

I said earlier that the participation of a local dealer is sometimes, but not always, productive. I hope I'm not shocking anyone by pointing out that a dealer or a regional distributor frequently receives anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the purchase price, and in rare cases the rate can run as high as 40 percent. This is money which has to be figured into the price of a product, over and above the cost of goods, maintenance through the warranty period, shipping, and collections. And what do you get for your 15 to 25 percent? Well, very often you get extremely knowledgeable installation, training, and even ongoing support for the user. In those instances you are receiving excellent value for your money.

In other instances a dealer has no trained personnel to help with installation or training and thus contributes nothing but cost to the transaction. Such dealers are often placed in the loop by state or even local governments in the form of a requirement that all publicly funded computer-related purchases be made through a single designated source. When this occurs, it is unlikely that the dealer who obtains such an exclusive state or local contract will feel obligated to do more than dial our support number should any questions arise during installation. And while we are glad to provide such support to each and every customer, we don't feel you should have to pay twice for that support, when you only need to get it from one reliable source.

I will not burden you with further examples on the subject of getting what you pay for because I believe most of you have more than a little skill in this area yourselves. Let me just say that, when I look around our plant in Stuart, Florida, trying to find ways to increase our efficiency in the factory, the service and support center, the engineering labs, or the accounting department, the key word is always productivity. If I can find a way to build more units without increasing staff or relaxing exacting quality standards, I have increased productivity and lowered costs. If we collectively decide we can conduct an effective marketplace without paying for some of the activity we have been paying for, we will be effectively doing the same thing.

I think we can all agree that the kind of technology some of us in this room manufacture costs more than comparable technology designed for larger markets. Even so, the natural forces of this small but bustling and reliant market have helped bring prices dramatically down in this field over the past twenty years. As I said earlier, from here on the ground may get a bit tougher to win in the area of cost-reduction. And we will all need to remain vigilant in the marketplace to insure that we not only pay for what we get, but get what we pay for.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: David Andrews]

TECHNOLOGY FOR THE BLIND WHAT IS LEFT TO DO?

by David Andrews

Director, Communications Center
Minnesota State Services for the Blind

I am going to talk about two areas today: access to applications under the Graphical User Interface and access to consumer electronics. I believe these are the two biggest areas of concern facing us in the access technology field today. I also believe that much of the brains and the metaphorical brawn in the blindness field are present, or at least represented, in this room today. If we combine our strengths, resources, and efforts and work together, I believe we can solve the problems we face in these areas.

For most of the past ten years we have been preoccupied with access to the so-called Graphical User Interface (GUI). In a relatively short time we have seen the development of software which allows blind persons to use the Apple Macintosh; Microsoft Windows 3.0, 3.1, and 3.11; Windows 95; and Windows NT. There has also been software for IBM's OS/2 and X-Windows running under Unix. Some of these operating systems have only one commercial product, and others aren't yet commercially viable or available products. Nevertheless, there have been much development and an amazing amount of progress in a relatively short time.

The Microsoft Windows area has seen the most activity. There are at least twelve products either on the market or announced. In the Windows 95 area there are just as many products, although more of them are announcements, not shipping products. Things are a little sparser in the Windows NT arena. Only one product has shipped as of this writing, and there are several other announcements of intended products. Access to Windows NT is of increasing concern to blind computer users as more and more corporations switch to it.

I mentioned that we have seen great progress in this area. As an example, Microsoft Windows was originally introduced in the mid 1980's. We saw no access to it for blind users, however, until 1992. Conversely, Windows 95 was introduced in August of 1995--who could forget—and we saw the first access packages introduced less then six months later.

While we have seen significant progress, access to Windows is not without its problems. As I mentioned earlier, the number of choices is uneven. While Windows receives good coverage, there is only one product each for the Macintosh, OS/2, and Windows NT. There is not yet a commercially available product for X-Windows although there has been some work in this area. To a large extent this is controlled by the commercial success of the underlying operating system. Since DOS and Windows dominate the market, they will necessarily receive more attention from the access developers. Nevertheless, for those who work in a Mac, a Windows NT, or an X-Windows shop, this issue is going to seem pretty important. I am not sure what the ultimate answer is since marketplace forces will always drive development work.

Let us concentrate on Microsoft Windows, because that is the area that affects most people. As I see it, access can be divided into two parts: using the operating system and its tools, and using applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, and web browsers. I think that the first part, while not perfect, is pretty well solved. Most of the access packages on the market today do a pretty good job of letting us use the basic operating system and its built-in tools. This has come about in part through the hard work and ingenuity of the software developers working on screen-access products and in part through the assistance of the Windows Accessibility Group at Microsoft.

The current crop of screen-review programs gives us access to the operating system and the applications run on top of it using facilities in the operating system. They hook into the operating system to know what is going on. Because of the aforementioned ingenuity and effort, this works pretty well for Windows itself. However, it doesn't work at all well for some applications. Many programs, such as databases and spreadsheets, may use their own methods for representing objects such as text, graphics, and controls on the screen. If they do not use the facilities built into the operating system, then the operating system doesn't know what they are doing. Consequently the screen-review program can't know what that application is doing. Thus interaction with specific applications is the big unsolved problem in Windows access today. We have partial access, but it is often unpredictable and inconsistent.

Microsoft has developed a mechanism to help with this situation. It is called "Active Accessibility." While it was being developed, it was also called OLE Accessibility, Helper DLL, AbleHelp, and ActiveX Accessibility, among others. You might be more familiar with one of those terms.

Simply put, this is a method for an application to pass out to the operating system information about what it is doing. If, for example, Microsoft Excel draws a pie chart on your computer screen, it can pass out information about the different sections of the pie: their labels, coordinates, size, color, etc. This information can then be used to provide an alternative representation of the pie chart.

Active Accessibility is not necessarily the only way we can gain access to applications and the data they contain; but, while a few people don't think it will work or is unlikely to be implemented, most technical people assure me that it will. In fact, Microsoft announced Active Accessibility at the Closing the Gap conference last month, and it has already been implemented in Microsoft Internet Explorer version 3.0. I am sure that Chuck Oppermann will update us on it.

What is left to do? A number of things. First, screen-review program developers need to support Active Accessibility in their products. While this has been difficult to do before now, when Active Accessibility was in a beta-test form only, it is near completion, and the time has come to adopt it. Second, there are two things Microsoft can do. It must adopt Active Accessibility in its own products. For it to work, an application developer does have to write some code in his or her application implementing Active Accessibility. While this is not an excessive amount of work, apparently it is somewhat more than a trivial task. Nonetheless, Microsoft needs to lead the way in implementing Active Accessibility. Also they must add tools and documentation to their programming languages, such as Microsoft C++ and Visual Basic, making it simple and painless for programmers to implement Active Accessibility in their applications. Since Microsoft is so dominant in the software field, if they do these two things aggressively, they will pave the way for others to adopt Active Accessibility.

The second part of the equation involves all of us. I believe that adoption of Active Accessibility will ultimately be a political matter, not a technical one. Active Accessibility will not succeed unless all of us go out and lobby software developers, including divisions of Microsoft, to implement it in their programs. As you well know, we are a small minority, of no commercial interest to most software companies. Thus we will have to be creative and persistent in our efforts to get Active Accessibility adopted and supported. Ultimately we may find it necessary to get legislation adopted that would make it mandatory, the way the deaf community did with closed-caption decoders, although I doubt this approach will be necessary. Nonetheless, I call on all the organizations and companies gathered here today to support the Active Accessibility effort. I believe it offers the best chance for us to gain access to applications that are now closed to us.

I now wish to turn to access to consumer electronics devices such as VCR's; stereo receivers and boom boxes; CD players; televisions; and even microwave ovens, stoves, clothes washers, and dryers. In my opinion access to these devices poses a much bigger problem to blind people than access to computers. This is because computers are software-based open systems. It is possible to add software or hardware and intercept data to find out what is going on inside. On the other hand, most consumer electronics devices are closed systems. They are generally self-contained and operate alone or with similar or related devices from the same manufacturer.

I did some research by going out to my local electronics superstore and checking out a wide variety of products in the categories just mentioned. In general I found that I was able to operate the basic functions of most devices. Most products have physical controls that I could use. The one major exception to this was microwave ovens. All of these had large, flat panels with different buttons or pressure points located underneath the clear plastic covering. While some makers offer Braille templates, not all do, and it could be difficult to create them oneself because of the restricted space.

Many devices today have controls or display and menu systems based on digital electronics. As an example, I bought a video cassette recorder about three years ago. I can watch videos, but more complicated tasks, such as programming a timed recording, are impossible. The system uses a series of on-screen menus which are completely inaccessible to me. These on-screen menus are becoming much more common and often make access difficult or impossible. Further, many devices now display information which, while not necessary for operating the device, would be nice to have. For example, there are radios that will tell you what artist, album, and song you are currently listening to or display other information the radio station chooses. Services are also now available that provide on-screen TV listings. With cable systems having dozens of channels and hundreds more coming in the future, access to this kind of information will be increasingly necessary for users.

In the June, 1996, Braille Monitor Curtis Chong, President of the NFB in Computer Science, wrote a piece called "guidelines for making commercial technology accessible to blind persons." If you have not read this excellent article, I urge you to do so. While I agree with everything that Curtis says, I think that one of his principles isn't achievable in the real world. Chong says, "One method for accomplishing this goal would be to provide speech output, either built into the appliance or available as a low-cost accessory. Given the increasing sophistication of digital technology, this may well become a necessity for the appliances of tomorrow." The goal to which he refers is what he calls "usability built-in." This means that whatever we need to operate the device should be a part of that device. Chong further says that we shouldn't need a $1000 accessibility aid to operate a device costing a few hundred dollars or less.

While I agree with these statements, I also do not believe that manufacturers are going to build speech into the thousands of consumer electronic devices on the market. I even think it is fairly unlikely that they will offer low-cost speech add-ons for their products. For this reason I believe we must develop a low-cost universal means of access.

As you will recall, I titled these remarks: "Technology for the Blind: What Is Left to Do?" This is where you and I come in. I think that as a field we must work together and devote resources to developing a universal means of access to consumer electronic devices. Greg VanDerheiden and his colleagues at the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin have done work in developing an infrared link. This would involve installing an infrared port in each consumer device and having a receiver/controller, which would pick up the infrared output and change it to speech, large print, or Braille output. This receiver could be an add-on to an existing device such as a Braille 'n Speak or a separate device.

An infrared port, produced in mass quantities, could be relatively inexpensive—probably a dollar or two, or less, per device. It could also be used by other groups of disabled people and general market peripherals, such as universal remote controls, which would make its adoption more likely. Finally, I think that, while an infrared port isn't the best solution in an ideal world, it is a pragmatic solution that we can bring about.

So what do we need to do? As a field all of us involved with blindness and blind people need to work together to define our access needs for consumer electronics and propose a system that we can then lobby for. It may well be that my infrared proposal isn't the best one; however, we need to come to consensus on this matter and get going.

This situation is only going to get worse. Once we have a proposal we all can live with, we can work together to get it adopted. It may well be that we will want to do what the deaf community did with closed captioning. Now, by law, most television sets must have an internal closed-caption decoder built in. If we develop a universal infrared port system or a universal speech output port, we can then work to get it built into all devices.

I would like to commend Dr. Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind for having the wherewithal and desire to bring all of us together. In this room we have represented the majority of the leadership in our field, including consumer groups, agencies, and developers of technology. Let us not waste this opportunity to develop a plan of action that will benefit all blind persons for years to come. I believe that our access to the Graphical User Interface can best be served by getting on the Microsoft Active Accessibility bandwagon. It offers the best hope for us to increase our access to computer applications.

Second, I do not think that we have devoted the time and resources to the problem of access to consumer electronics that they deserve. While they are not generally as dramatic as computers that can provide employment to blind people, we are finding it increasingly difficult to use all the features of many devices. This situation will only get worse. It also may impinge on the employment arena, as office devices like fax machines, photo copiers, and even telephones become more difficult or impossible to use.

Let us work together and concentrate our resources on guaranteeing blind persons access to computer software and electronic devices for years to come!

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Fred Schroeder]

THE REHABILITATION SERVICES ADMINISTRATION
AND TECHNOLOGY

by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

Commissioner
U.S. Department of Education
Rehabilitation Services Administration

There is no doubt that technology, in all of its modern forms, offers greater opportunity for employment than has ever before been possible. The number and variety of jobs now available to blind people is greater today than at any time in history. Nevertheless, we must not confuse the capacity of blind people to compete with the tools by which that capacity is demonstrated. Technology represents a collection of tools, nothing more and nothing less. This is not to say that it is, therefore, unimportant. Without technology many vital opportunities for employment and integration would be lost. Yet it is not technology that gives blind people the capacity to compete.

It is tempting to ascribe to technology the credit for the advances which blind people have made; and of course many of these advances could not have been made without new technologies. While an inseparable relationship exists between human capacity and the tools that enable us to express that capacity, I believe the two must be viewed in their proper relationship. Michelangelo was not a brilliant artist because of the tools that allowed him to paint and sculpt, although without these tools his brilliance could not have been expressed in the ways the world reveres. Yet society does not ascribe to the brush and chisel the marvel of the Sistine Chapel or the magnificence of Michelangelo's David. Yet too often society regards the achievements of the blind as disproportionately attributable to the tools we use.

I believe this is due to what I regard as the major impediment to the full integration of the blind into society. In the United States blind people have been organized for more than half a century through the National Federation of the Blind. As you know, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus of the Federation, has taught us that the real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight but societal misunderstanding about blindness. As we discuss exciting new technologies, we must keep this principle in mind and help society and blind people themselves understand that the capacity of blind people may be expressed through technology, but technology does not give us our capacity.

I will begin by discussing a number of technology-related issues within the U.S. federal government. I would like to start by thanking Don Barrett, who works with me at the Department of Education, for his assistance in providing the technical information in this discussion.

It is estimated that the communications and information sector of the economy amounts to about $713 billion, or roughly 11 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Last February President Clinton signed landmark telecommunications legislation. The act makes clear that the forty-nine million Americans with disabilities are entitled to share fully in the benefits of the telecommunications services and equipment becoming such an essential element of our educational, social, political, and economic future.

In adopting Section 255 of the Act, Congress expressed its clear intent that telecommunications services and equipment be made accessible to all people with disabilities to the extent such access is readily achievable. The Act requires manufacturers of telecommunications equipment to meet accessibility guidelines.

In the Spring a federal advisory committee was formed by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) and has been meeting regularly to develop recommendations to serve as the basis of the regulations implementing this Section. The thirty-five-member group will have its recommendations finished by December, 1996. The ATBCB plans to publish implementing regulations in August, 1997. I believe the current state of technology—if you will, the maturity of the technology—has made it possible for such a broad-based piece of legislation as the Telecommunications Act to be proposed, passed, and now signed into law.

The Rehabilitation Act recognizes that for blind people and others with disabilities to work competitively, federal agencies must purchase equipment useable by people with disabilities. Specifically, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the establishment of guidelines "...for electronic and information technology accessibility designed to ensure, regardless of the type of medium, that individuals with disabilities can produce information and data, and have access to information and data, comparable to the information and data, and access, respectively, of individuals who are not individuals with disabilities."

These guidelines and supporting bulletins were developed a decade ago and were published as part of the Federal Information Resource Management Regulations (FIRMR). Recently, as part of regulatory reform, the FIRMR was eliminated and replaced by the Information Technology Management Reform Act, which is intended to improve upon existing acquisition processes, believing that past practices moved too slowly, were out of sync with technological change, and in general needed to be more aligned with acquisition processes in the commercial world.

A small portion of the requirements previously contained in the FIRMR were retained and incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). The FAR is a brief, streamlined document; and therefore much of the guidance contained in the previous FIRMR and its accompanying bulletins, C-8 and C-10, has been lost. The only reference to accessibility now contained in the FAR is a general statement that Federal agencies need to be responsive to accessibility requirements.

While many have expressed concern that these changes have weakened accessibility requirements, it should be noted that in the absence of penalties for noncompliance in the past, many federal agencies had only minimally complied with or, in some cases, totally ignored accessibility requirements. I believe that the commitment of federal agencies to provide useable technology for people with all types of disabilities is stronger today than it has ever been.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education now employs two full-time assistive technology consultants. Their job is to assist employees with disabilities in identifying their assistive-technology needs and to make recommendations for the purchase of specialized equipment for their use. In addition, when the Department is considering software purchases for general use, the Department's assistive-technology consultants are part of the planning and selection process, ensuring that accessibility issues have been appropriately addressed. For example, the Department's Information Resources Group is presently considering the purchase of a Windows-based software suite that will meet Departmental requirements for compatibility, flexibility, and accessibility.

In addition to purchasing commercial software, the Department of Education contracts for the development of a substantial quantity of customized software. In the past accessibility issues were often not addressed until after a piece of software had been developed and tested and was ready to be put into general use. Today the Department is addressing accessibility issues at the design and development stage, thereby eliminating the lost time, inconvenience, and often substantial added expense associated with modifying customized software for accessibility after the fact.

As part of a Departmental effort to address the recruitment and advancement of people with disabilities, in September of this year the Department hired a Section 504 Coordinator to provide technical assistance to Principal Offices throughout the agency. This position was established at a senior level and is located in the Department's Office of Management. Within one month the 504 Coordinator, Jenni Mechem, recommended the purchase of six Braille printers for use throughout the Department. Within the Department's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, plans are underway to create an alternate formats center to facilitate the production of Braille, large-print, cassette, and electronic materials.

These efforts by the Department of Education are increasingly commonplace throughout federal agencies. This may be a result of heightened awareness about accessibility as a result of civil rights legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and, more recently, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, adaptive technology has matured to the point that in many cases it is now readily compatible with ordinary technology, thereby making it less intimidating, less foreign, and easier to install and operate.

In spite of significantly streamlined regulations, many federal agencies are aggressively pursuing accessibility in large computer acquisitions. For example, this summer the Social Security Administration made a very large purchase which contained more than ten pages of specific functional performance, accessibility-related specifications. This award was for a national installation of approximately 50,000 workstations, which will affect the jobs of over 600 disabled people throughout the country.

As you know, the development of accessibility specifications is only the first step. What remains to be seen is the degree to which federal agencies insist that performance testing meets specified accessibility requirements. The General Services Administration (GSA) is using the Social Security specifications as a model and providing them to agencies to include in similar procurements. One difficulty which we and other federal agencies have experienced concerns the need for a relatively concise, usable, and performance-based document that outlines accessibility requirements for developers. Microsoft has produced a number of technical documents; however, we still need a simple, functional document that could be used government-wide by Chief Information Officers as part of the procurement process.

Also GSA is discussing the adoption of accessibility-related performance testing for software and hardware similar to that already in use by the Canadian government. We hope that such a system will be established as a way of assisting agencies in addressing many of the complex issues surrounding accessible technology. I am told that GSA is developing a white paper on this topic and that a Web page may be forthcoming to distribute information on this issue.

As you may be aware, the entire Rehabilitation Act, including Section 508, is scheduled for reauthorization next year. It is imperative that the Congress have appropriate information on which to base any changes to the Act. I believe it is critical to the future employment of blind people and others with disabilities in the federal government that Section 508 be preserved and, where appropriate, strengthened.

In addition to federal employment, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is concerned with the employment of blind people and others with disabilities in all aspects of the American workforce. The RSA was established by Congress as the principal federal agency authorized to carry out specified portions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended; the Randolph-Sheppard Act, as amended; and the Helen Keller Act. These Acts establish comprehensive and coordinated programs of vocational rehabilitation and independent living for individuals with disabilities through services, training, research, and economic opportunities in order to maximize their employment, independence, and integration into the workplace and the community.

The Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program is the largest program authorized by the Rehabilitation Act and accounts for nearly 2.2 billion dollars of RSA's more than 2.4-billion-dollar budget. This program provides a wide variety of services intended to assist eligible clients in securing, maintaining, retaining, and advancing in employment. The program is administered through State Rehabilitation Agencies, which all states have. In fact, in twenty-five states there are separate agencies that work exclusively with the blind.

An important responsibility of RSA is to support state-agency efforts to deliver high-quality technology-related training and services. For example, in the past year we have funded programs at the Mississippi State Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision and the National Federation of the Blind to provide training to state vocational rehabilitation personnel in the use of adaptive technology for the blind.

We believe it is critically important that rehabilitation personnel have appropriate training and information on the very latest technology available to assist blind people in employment and in living independently. When blind people turn to the rehabilitation system in need of help, the system must have the expertise to assist them in preparing for high-quality employment. The cornerstone of good rehabilitation practice is a partnership between the rehabilitation professional and the client, a partnership in which the client has access to the information, professional experience, and expertise necessary to make informed choices about his or her vocational goal and the services that will enable the client to reach that goal. Integral to this partnership is a fundamental belief in the ability of blind people to compete on terms of equality with others.

The tools which blind people use offer increasing opportunities for the blind to demonstrate their talents and abilities in competitive and efficient ways. Yet it is blind people themselves who possess these individual talents and abilities. The capacity of all people is expressed through the technology which we, as human beings, have created. In the third century B.C., Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, engineer, and physicist, proved the law of the lever. With this knowledge, he is reported to have boasted to Hero, King of Syracuse, "give me a place to stand, and I will move the entire earth." The lever constituted the means, but it was man who had the inspiration.

Too often technology has excluded the blind; hence our efforts have been concentrated on making accessible those technological devices others take for granted. The blind need technology as do others in our society. We need usable technology that allows blind people to demonstrate efficiently their talents and capacities. To accomplish this, we must first complete the process of educating society and ourselves about the true meaning of blindness—the truth that the blind have the ability to compete on terms of equality with others, that we are able to contribute fully to the social and economic mainstream, that this ability is not the product of the technology we use but is expressed through this technology.

In all of its forms technology provides tools which more than ever before give blind people today the opportunity to pursue the same interests and ambitions as others. If we Americans are wise, we will design our emerging technologies to serve the greatest possible number of people. By creating an inclusive society, we are made stronger as a nation. By recognizing the ability of all people to contribute, we can begin to break down the artificial barriers which have too often kept blind people and others unemployed and isolated.

Perhaps President Clinton said it best when he stated:

Universal design of our National Information Infrastructure will give us the technology we want with the flexibility we need. Not only will it make information technology work better for us all, but also it will make it easier for people with disabilities to access and use the powerful new information tools of the future.

 

SUMMARY OF REMARKS

David Lepofsky

Mr. Lepofsky began by identifying himself as a longtime consumer in the field of technology for the blind. He also heads an organization of visually-impaired lawyers and co-chairs a province-wide lobby seeking new disability access legislation. He pointed out the ironies surrounding blind people who use technology. He is the most computer-literate attorney in his fifty-person office, but computer stores have almost no software he can use. In the eighties computers provided a true employment opportunity for blind people, but today, because of the barriers to efficient access for visually impaired users, computers are providing roadblocks to employment. Moreover, the software producers whose products are causing most of the problems are the very ones whose size, creativity, and wealth make them the best equipped to help resolve the difficulties. The final irony is that, although many of the technological gadgets blind people use are denigrated as meeting special needs, sighted people often express interest in having such technology available to them as well. He cited optical character recognition, which was first developed for reading machines and is now chiefly used in the general marketplace.

Turning to the concept of equality, Lepofsky said that today achieving equality is no longer understood to mean merely removing existing barriers to full participation but rather insuring that new barriers do not arise. The excuse that, "We never realized we were causing you a problem," is no longer acceptable; it is an offense. It is far easier to eliminate barriers at the design stage than it is to correct the problem in the finished product.

The problems faced by blind computer users today are serious. For most of us, identifying the product that will meet our individual needs is next to impossible. Most shoppers have many other things on their minds: adjusting to blindness, deciding on a career, finding a job. They have no expertise in access technology.

Lepofsky's vision for the future is that he hopes to see the day when one doesn't have to be a computer expert before becoming a lawyer. He wants computer stores to be as accessible as bookstores have become. He wants access-technology developers to remember that the average user is virtually computer-illiterate. He urges mainstream software developers to create keyboard commands for every mouse command. This will please sighted users and cut down on carpel-tunnel syndrome. He thinks that these developers should ask themselves what the six most frequently used commands are and provide a screen listing them with simple commands for executing the commands. The pull-down menus would be available for those who like looking at them, but the rest of us would have a streamlined screen most of the time. Finally he would like to see program designers held to the same disability-access standards that building architects are now required to meet.

Education about the needs of disabled computer users may help, but ultimately software producers must be forced by litigation and legislation to do what is right. If governmental purchasers will refuse to buy software that is not accessible, the economic pressure will do wonders. Also, if the media will provide bad press to those producers who are not being constructive, they will quickly reform their ways.

Mohymen Saddeek

Mr. Saddeek is optimistic that we are approaching the point where specialized technology for the blind and mainstream technology will meet. Eventually computers will be operated primarily by voice commands and will speak to the user. The technology is improving rapidly, and soon it will be good enough to make computerized voices attractive to sighted users. Then the prices will go down.

Saddeek is now working with others to produce voice synthesis that is vastly better than anything that has gone before. Not only is the quality better, but it will be possible to replicate particular human voices. Some of these products should be in production within a year. In short, he looks forward to the future and is eager to work with anyone interested in collaboration.

Deane Blazie

Mr. Blazie began by demonstrating several new instruments with voice output for use in scientific laboratories. The first was a Multimeter, which can be purchased for under $200 at Radio Shack and cabled to a Braille 'n Speak or other such product to provide voiced readouts. The Multimeter can measure amps, milliamps, and microamps, as well as temperature. It also measures the gain of a transistor, capacitants, diodes, Ohms, logic states, frequency, volts, and millivolts. He then demonstrated a PH meter, which measures PH and temperature and gives the date and time. The final piece of equipment was a laboratory-quality scale that measures weights down to hundredths of a gram. These last two tools each cost less than $500 and can also be cabled to a Braille 'n Speak to provide speech output.

Blazie Engineering's web page (www.blazie.com) includes short manuals for operating these three pieces of equipment. Sources for purchase and model numbers of the exact devices that will work with Blazie products are also listed.

Blazie has also recently designed software which is a graphing scientific calculator. The program is called Graphit, and with it one can enter up to ten Y-is-a-function-of-X equations, connect the Braille 'n Speak to a Braille embosser with a graphics mode, and produce a raised-line graph of the equations on X and Y axes. The program costs $49 and runs on all the Blazie products.

Kevin Perry

Mr. Perry described a very successful program conducted by the Assistive Devices Program under the Ministry of Health of the Province of Ontario in which closed circuit television systems are purchased in bulk and distributed to people who need them and who qualify for the program.

Ritchie Geisel

Mr. Geisel announced that Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic would be demonstrating its Digital Audio Project later that afternoon. This is a Talking-Book system combining the fields of digitized recording, audio production, and electronic text. It enables RFB&D to index the text and place bookmarks for easy, quick, random navigation of the entire text. This will be of great use, particularly in academic texts.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Dennis O'Brien]

Dennis O'Brien

IBM's long-standing policy of hiring disabled employees drove development of its ScreenReader. Blind employees needed to read their screens, so an IBM team developed a screen-reading product, which was then marketed widely.

Companies with strong accessibility policies will have broad awareness of the problems and may well develop requirements for accessible equipment. In 1991 the president of IBM promulgated an organization-wide policy stating that all products were to be made accessible. Having a strong policy, while necessary, is not sufficient to guarantee access. Mr. O'Brien is the Product Manager for IBM's Special Needs Systems. His group works with the various product organizations within IBM to make sure they are aware of the requirements for accessibility and that they know how to interpret and apply the requirements in the products they design. This is not intended to result in universal access. For example, a product doing hand-writing recognition, while it may be used by some blind people, is clearly not targeted at a group needing speech recognition.

O'Brien's group also develops some of the accessibility extensions that are not necessarily part of a basic system but are required for a total solution. They see that all necessary interfaces and hooks are in the OS/2 Operating system, enabling any access developer to build a magnification or screen-reading product. But they also developed an IBM product to work with OS/ 2. They did so because they thought they were in the best position to develop a product that would stay current with changes in the operating system. This has had the effect of discouraging other developers from competing with IBM to provide access to OS/2. O'Brien added that he believes the success of a desktop or Internet system on a Windows or NT base is absolutely dependent on the establishment of and eager adoption of something like Active Accessibility, and IBM will do whatever it can to work with Microsoft to make that happen.

IBM works to promote development of emerging and future technologies that will benefit people with disabilities. It tries to sponsor applications of those technologies. O'Brien mentioned a couple of the many projects under development. His group is working with several universities and commercial partners to develop tools for assisting people with learning disabilities to read more effectively. Some of the tools used are already employed in reading machines. If a larger market can be identified for parts of this technology, the price of text recognition will come down and the understanding of the need to have it available will rise.

IBM is working hard on speech output and speech recognition. OS/2 now has voice recognition built in, which means that many more people will try it. Many will reject it as still too primitive, but many corporations are asking for voice-only systems. This means that many more IBM personnel are now devoting time and energy to applications that avoid the point-and-click, GUI solutions. In the long run this can only benefit blind users. It will, of course, make things harder for deaf people. IBM's policy is to build in as many alternative modalities as make sense for the given product and to make sure that each related modality is as accessible as possible.

O'Brien then announced that the new version of Screenreader would be shipped by the end of the year or shortly thereafter. It will capitalize on some of the features of OS/2 version 4 and has a number of enhancements for Lotus Notes. They are now working with the Lotus team to help ensure that in the future this program will be more useful and accessible to more screen readers on all platforms.

IBM is now putting almost all of its efforts into network computing. It is using the Internet for internal communication as well as providing information to customers on web pages. The Special Needs Systems has just published design guidelines to all organizations within IBM that create and maintain information on the Internet. They specify methods by which web content can be enabled for accessibility by the popular browsers and screen readers. The current guidelines deal primarily with HTML content, which is most of today's content. They are working for the same kind of guidelines for Java-based applications. With so many entities within IBM producing web content, there is wide variation in quality, structure, and design. All this is now beginning to be monitored by the IBM web police to impose some consistency, and they have agreed to use the Special Needs Systems' guidelines in their work.

The move toward networks with single units costing less than $1000 has pitfalls for those interested in access. In such units screen readers must be imbedded in the browser rather than in the terminal.

O'Brien concluded by pointing out that the real force for change in an organization like IBM is customer demand. It doesn't matter whether the demand arises from external or internal requirements or litigation or consumer demand; if IBM's customers ask for something in large enough numbers, IBM will respond.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Charles Oppermann with John Cheadle (left) and Craig Gildner (right) behind him]

Charles Oppermann

Seven people are now working at Microsoft on accessibility. The model Microsoft uses is to put a program manager or developer into a division and tell him or her to affect the accessibility of that product. This strategy is more successful than trying to effect change from outside the design group.

Microsoft, too, has a company policy on accessibility, and this is important, but it is not sufficient, as Dennis O'Brien said. Internet Explorer 3.0 is the first Microsoft product to be released that delivered on Microsoft's access commitment. The company committed to making this web browser a showcase of accessibility, but the first versions did not really live up to the promise. Microsoft continues to improve access in its browser, and the impact of these advances can be seen in the ease with which screen readers are now able to accomplish things that used to be hard for them.

Active Accessibility is Microsoft's effort to allow producers of access software of all kinds to learn more about what is happening inside the operating system and inside applications. Access to applications has been difficult because application programmers do not have to let the operating system know what is happening in the program, so screen readers haven't been able to recognize an O.K. button. But Active Accessibility is a conduit into an application for it to expose its user interface elements. Using this tool, a programmer can find out a great deal about a button—what it controls, whether it's been pushed, etc.—without caring what it looks like on the screen.

Active Accessibility is a foundation; it is not a complete solution. It merely allows applications to expose their information. It is up to the developers of application software to implement this interface and make changes to their code. The word "active" is in the title because applications must actively partake in the process of becoming accessible. Historically the entire responsibility has been for the screen reader to look at the screen, decide what was going on, and report it. But the application knows what is going on in the construction of a graphic and can allow that information to be passed along to the access software. Microsoft will be releasing the Active-Accessibility technology by the end of the year. It is an add-on technology that is shipped by the vendors who implement Active Accessibility. Several vendors have already signed on. Syntha-Voice Computing was the first screen reader producer to implement the technology. Henter-Joyce and Artic are doing so right now.

On the other side, producers are also beginning to sign on. Microsoft has made changes to Windows 95 to support Active Accessibility completely in all of its system-provider services. Office 97 will include Active Accessibility. Microsoft is trying to use its position as a leader to encourage other producers to participate in Active Accessibility. Increased accessibility is becoming a way of forcing others to pay attention to this concept. Netscape's developers had no interest in access until Internet Explorer demonstrated greater accessibility; now Netscape is working to improve the browser.

In conclusion Oppermann said that HTML is not the solution to accessibility on the Internet because people are using it to transfer objects rather than text. HTML is a conduit for code, not textual data. Microsoft did a lot of work to say that, no matter what the author specified, if the user has low vision, the text should be displayed accessibly. Today anyone who wishes can create a web page. It is impossible to educate all those people about accessibility. Instead you must see that authoring environments produce accessible HTML and that the objects are accessible.

In 1997 the challenge facing Microsoft is to see that Active X objects and Java objects are accessible. Microsoft will be adding Active Accessibility to the HTML object model, which is being submitted to the standards board for the web.They are proposing that for each HTML object there be a corresponding Active-Accessibility interface. Only by moving the web into the object realm can we get true access to it.

Years ago Bill Gates adopted the motto: a computer on every desk and in every home. Oppermann added one concept to that motto: a computer on every desk, in every home, and usable by everyone.

 

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Jim Halliday]

ACCESS, LITERACY, EQUALITY, AND CHANGE

by Jim Halliday, President

HumanWare, Inc.

From the Editor: Mr. Halliday sent this paper to us following the technology conference. It incorporated some of the comments he made during the discussion and responded to ideas presented by several of the speakers. It seemed appropriate to include it with these proceedings. Here it is:

If any group has the power and influence to revolutionize our industry, this is the one. Some of the following comments might seem provocative, but they are meant to stimulate thinking and promote further discussion.

I will concentrate on four issues: where equal access stops and equal environment starts; how we can dramatically increase student access to Braille materials without increasing current spending; why banks, utilities, insurance companies, etc. do not send out Braille statements; and what software speech means to the cost of product support.

1. Access or Performance—A Question of Environment

Whether one discusses a business or an individual, judgments regarding performance are inevitably based on results. It's a hard, cold fact: a business with a negative bottom line won't be in business for long, and an employee who can't get the job done will be looking for new employment.

Results are a consequence of many things: attitude, knowledge, access to information, dedication, hard work, teamwork, communication, caring, quality, accuracy, efficiency, experience, innovation, etc. But if one's job is to produce an accurate report filled with detailed statistics by Friday, then when Friday rolls around, only one thing counts. It doesn't matter how hard one works or how caring the person is or how many other activities distracted him or her from accomplishing the required goal. If the job is not done, the employee has failed and will be judged accordingly.

In the past a blind person's performance in many jobs was based on his or her ability to access word processors and other applications. Access was seen as the ultimate solution to a blind person's employment problems. Access has been so elevated in stature that equal access has become almost a graven image substituting for equal performance. Even today we often mistake access to WordPerfect or Word for Windows for our real goal, which is simply the ability to do efficient word processing.

But the rules have changed. Many of today's programs, as opposed to those that held access as our only alternative, allow us to save our work in multiple formats. For example, Jerry Kuns, one of HumanWare's four blind employees, can produce a document in a word processor called Keysoft, which runs on his Keynote Companion, or on his laptop or desktop. He can save the document as a WordPerfect file and give a disk copy to our PR person, who uses a Mac, or to me for use in Word for Windows 95 or to a friend who's still using a DOS version of WordPerfect. None of us knows or cares what word processor Jerry uses to produce the document because the results are transferable and ultimately indistinguishable. Compatibility and adaptability are no longer the issue; efficiency is. I'm interested in Jerry's productivity and performance, not whether he works in Windows. The fact is there's no way he would be nearly as efficient using a Windows screen reader with Word as he is with the Keysoft word processor. Results are the basis for measurement or judgment.

In his speech Mohymen Saddeek made this same point about a scheduling program/organizer designed specifically for blind people. He went on to note that the power of a particular computer becomes irrelevant as soon as we look toward an environment that is equal for a blind person. Blind people don't need Windows to get organized, take notes, do word processing, send e-mail, or access the Internet. Oh, they certainly need to perform these functions, but they will be much more efficient working in a blindness-friendly environment.

Curtis Chong made a very important point in his speech on Universal Access when he implied that it is not possible to accommodate every disability with the same environment. Windows is an environment designed specifically for sighted people. At some point the more kinds of disabilities Microsoft attempts to accommodate with so-called equal access, the more likely it will be to end up with a camel instead of a horse. In our heart of hearts we all know that the greatest portion of the Microsoft market wants a horse and that a camel truly won't meet the needs of any single disability group.

I'm certainly not saying that screen readers are irrelevant. The fact is, Jerry Kuns also uses JAWS for Windows 95 with speech and an ALVA Braille Terminal because there are still many other applications that have not been created with a blind person in mind, and therefore he still needs screen access. But screen readers provide access to constantly moving targets and are only as good as the speed with which they keep up with the latest changes to those targets.

My point in this issue is that we need to examine equal application or equal environment as well as equal access. In addition to screen access, developers need to concentrate on creating more applications specifically designed for people who are blind. The key is to ensure that the results of all work can be saved in formats that are readable by and thus indistinguishable from mainstream applications. We must get beyond our worship of equal access as our only answer and begin looking at new ways of enabling equal performance.

2. Braille Literacy Starts with Braille Access

Braille literacy determines a blind student's capability to learn, achieve, and compete in a results-oriented world. But true literacy takes place only when true access exists. Dr. Jernigan deserves our highest praise for his efforts in single-handedly getting publishers to waive the copyright limitations that have historically inhibited the production of Braille books. In time this monumental achievement should assure that Braille books, especially text books, will be readily available. At present, however, Braille books still take months to produce, are in very limited supply, and are produced and stored at horrific costs. Millions of dollars are spent each year on this slow, expensive, archaic method of providing blind kids with text books that are already sitting at the publishing houses on computer disks.

When I was talking with Ritchie Geisel, President of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, he mentioned that the production of electronic books would be dramatically increased in volume and turnaround, if publishers would use HTML code (the code used in producing Internet Web Pages) in formatting their books. Not only does HTML provide a breadth of visual formatting options for the production of printed materials, but it can be easily converted into electronic text that can be read with speech or Braille. Such a solution sounds perfect because it accommodates both sighted and blind readers. Additionally, publishers may ultimately want to make their books purchasable through the Internet and would, therefore, benefit from producing books using HTML.

In Chuck Oppermann's speech, however, he suggested that HTML needed to be replaced with a more complete and more powerful language. I was initially deflated by this information, but after some thought I realized that this might be a perfect time for the leaders of our industry to get involved in promoting the universal use of a language that truly accommodates the production of books, whether they be in print, Braille, or electronic formats. If we could all get behind this idea, the number of electronic books available could increase exponentially.

The greatest problem facing our school-aged blind kids is how to access these electronic books in Braille. Sighted kids carry their textbooks around with them. Blind students deserve the same opportunity. Paper Braille textbooks are generally impractical to carry, but electronic books are easy. Instead of spending millions on paper Braille production of a few books for a few kids, we could divert a growing percentage of those same funds to the purchase of portable Braille systems, similar to the Braille-Lite, which students could carry with them wherever they go.

We often hear how expensive Braille displays are, but would those prices remain so high if we put one in the hands of every school-aged blind child? How much would it cost to accomplish this worthy goal? Not as much as we might initially think. Think about the savings in time, effort, and storage, not to mention trees, if thousands more books were instantly available in electronic form and therefore readable on portable Braille systems. Consider the fact that blind kids would be getting a great deal more functionality than just accessing textbooks.

The current production of paper Braille books does nothing to help students access daily teacher handouts, all of which are produced on a computer and could be easily copied onto a readable disk. A portable Braille system could contain a terminal program to make the Internet accessible in Braille. Blind students could use the same device to send e-mail to each other or to blind or sighted kids all over the world. Another extremely important use for this product would be taking lecture notes and writing papers and reports. All of this would keep our children who are blind on a par with those who are sighted.

Perhaps what I'm suggesting turns the system upside down and threatens budgets protected for decades. But, as Dr. Ray Kurzweil quoted the visionary thinking of Philadelphia's mayor supporting the newly invented telephone, "Someday every city will have one of these." We must not allow our thinking to be too constricted by protecting the past. We are keeping school-aged blind kids from competing effectively and achieving their potential because we are not making writing and reading automatically available to them as it is to their sighted peers. I'm certainly not suggesting doing away with paper Braille any more than I would disconnect the printer from my computer. And I'm not suggesting coming up with brand new funding for this project. But I am suggesting the diversion of some of the existing funds into a project that is aimed at the future rather than one that is focused on the past. Blind children deserve a level playing field, and a portable Braille display/notetaker will provide just that, if we can get a ground swell of support for such products combined with the appropriate funding and commitments from publishers and Braille houses. I believe this is a vitally important project that we must all support.

3. Braille Access—Knock, If You Want the Door to Open

Every kind of data is now stored in computers, which means that it can be printed, which also means that it can be printed in Braille. I recently asked myself, "Why don't blind people receive their bank statements in Braille, not to mention their utility bills or insurance and investment reports? Why don't city and county governments have public information available in Braille? There are enough print pamphlets and brochures available on all kinds of subjects. Why not in Braille? There is certainly a need, and the hardware and software exist to handle most kinds of information. Some may require more formatting than others, but it's pretty straightforward.

So I hired a consultant to find out about this market and to determine how we can better serve it. You know what the study showed? Blind people were not asking for materials in Braille. Most banks and utilities companies were willing to look into producing Braille statements (or having them produced), but they had no incentive because no one was asking for it. In fact, they didn't even know which, if any, of their customers were blind.

Only a grassroots effort by all of us can get this sort of access off the ground. One shining example of this is Bob Sheffel of the Metrolina Association for the Blind in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bob worked hard to get the support of the Public Utilities Commission and is now producing monthly statements in Braille for Duke Power and other utilities companies.

This is one of those situations in which the door stays shut until somebody knocks; somebody who needs and wants the service. HumanWare, Enabling Technologies, and Telesensory can all provide Braille production systems; but banks, utilities, or county agencies will not come to us until blind people go to them. Just ask could be our new grassroots campaign.

4. Technical support—Getting What You Pay For

At HumanWare we spend between 3 percent and 4 percent of our gross sales revenues on technical support. This support relates almost exclusively to speech and Braille products, which are just under half our total sales. This means that about 6 percent of the selling price of every blindness product we sell goes to supporting the customers who use those products.

We rarely sell a stand-alone piece of software. In fact, it is usually sold with a computer and a synthesizer, but for the sake of this exercise let's say we sell it with only a synthesizer. We offer Keynote GOLDs and DECtalks, which usually sell for about $1,000. Let's say the screen reader sells for $500, making the total package $1,500. Our margin on that package is probably about 36 percent. In other words, after we pay the supplier, we have about $540 left. The sales channel generally costs us about 22 percent, which takes away $330 of that $540, leaving HumanWare with $210. Tech support takes 6 percent of the gross, which is another $90, so HumanWare has a grand total of $120 to cover marketing, administration, quality assurance, and whatever is left for the shareholders, who are wondering why they invested in this crazy business when they could get a 5 percent guaranteed return on their money in a bank CD.

Now for the real kicker. Software speech means that a synthesizer is no longer needed. Within the next year or so most new computers will come with some kind of multimedia card that may be able to work with screen readers. Let's say we still sell that screen reading software. Remember that the tech support is on the software, so losing the synthesizer sale will not reduce the support cost. In fact, it might increase it because the multimedia card may need to be activated or configured in some way. So if the screen reader sells for $500, HumanWare has $180 left after paying the supplier. The sales channel gets its 22 percent, $110, and tech support gets its $90, leaving HumanWare with a contribution of minus $20. This is where the shareholders stop wondering and start screaming!

Clearly the cost of tech support has traditionally been subsidized by the remaining margin from the sale of the hardware. If the hardware goes away, there are only four likely options:

Bottom line, don't expect huge savings with the arrival of software speech, but do expect to pay for technical support. In discussing this issue with our blind customers and other industry leaders, we hear that they are much more interested in quality support than free support. The general recognition and acceptance of this reality will go a long way toward improving the quality of technical support throughout the industry.

 

[PHOTO: Those seated along the north leg of the U-shaped conference table are visible in this picture. Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Herie, and the flags can be seen at the far end of the room. CAPTION: One of the most valuable parts of these technology conferences is the time set aside for discussion. PHOTO: Ten of the conferees are pictured here obviously listening carefully. The table is strewn with print and Braille documents. CAPTION: Conferees listen attentively to the discussion. PHOTO/CAPTION : Tim Cranmer (left), Joe Sullivan (center), and Mary Ellen Jernigan (right) take part in the conference.]

 

DISCUSSION AND COMMENTS

From the Editor: The final three agenda segments of the conference were devoted to discussion and comment. Here is a summary of the points made:

Ray Kurzweil: Mr. Kurzweil praised Judy Dixon's enthusiasm for low-tech solutions by quoting Albert Einstein, who said that things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. He took exception to her definition of low-tech as something without a microprocessor. Her idea for a Braille gun for labeling, for example, would require very sophisticated material science engineering.

In addition to Larry Israel's strategy for lowering prices in this field by marketing its technology to a broader sector, he pointed out that adapting main-market technology to the particular needs of disabled users has the same effect. The PC is a prime example. PC's are becoming smaller, smarter, more efficient, and less expensive almost monthly. Software gives them personality, and though the initial cost of designing software is high, its production is very inexpensive.

He found Tim Cranmer's ideas intriguing and thought that more than just blind people would be interested in touching the untouchable. This technology will require many approaches, and user education will be important. He suggested that the technology of the Optacon may be useful in examining pictures. This would require higher resolution than currently possible, and some way would have to be found to introduce the Z axis.

David Lepofsky: Mr. Lepofsky began with a plea for more work to develop a tougher, portable, four-track recorder. He went on to say that the same people who don't read VCR manuals won't read documentation for Windows and Windows 95. They, along with blind people, would benefit from Microsoft's putting together basic commands on one easily accessible screen and leaving the rest of the pull-down menus to those who like them. He also said that, if Microsoft is really committed to Active Accessibility, it could build a component into the operating system that would force an application to crash if it does not include Active Accessibility.

Charles Oppermann: Mr. Oppermann rejected the idea that many general-market users dislike the pull-down menus. He cited the growing popularity of Windows products in the competitive market as proof of his view. He pointed out that while icons may be eye-candy, they represent much wider bands of information that is now readily available to the user. Adding the code for Active Accessibility must be done piecemeal with most pressing things done first. Office 97 will have it in handling tool bars and command bars. Excel cells will not yet be accessible, except in the way the screen readers have been doing it until now. Fourteen Microsoft products now have some Active Accessibility. The priority list is office products first, educational products next, and entertainment last. In building software, a programmer uses chunks of code from previous incarnations. As things go along, this recycling will make it easier to see that Active Accessibility appears in new versions of programs.

In response to David Lepofsky's reiterated suggestion that Microsoft provide both hooks for other applications to use and land mines to force them to do so, Oppermann said that Microsoft would be sued immediately if it tried to do such a thing. But he thought an outside group could design a program to check accessibility or publish a blacklist of developers whose products are not accessible.

Microsoft has a program in which its logo can now be used by producers whose applications work well with Windows and Windows NT systems. In 1997 keyboard access will be a requirement, and Active Accessibility will be recommended for those permitted to use the logo. The list of recommendations indicates to application producers the things that will soon be requirements for those wishing to display the Microsoft logo. This puts planners on notice for what they must do in coming years.

William Raeder: Mr. Raeder announced that by late winter a thirty-minute introduction to Windows 95 will be available in Braille. He then asked the group whether there is any point for National Braille Press to publish a tutorial on DOS. The vote demonstrated that all but one person thought the project would be a waste of money and effort.

Kenneth Jernigan: Dr. Jernigan asked Mrs. Jernigan to review how conference participants could try NEWSLINE. He then announced that a spelling feature was now available to help NEWSLINE readers learn new words and names. There will also soon be a profiling feature so that a reader can program the service to provide articles in a prescribed order if desired. Readers will also be able to conduct searches through all the papers offered for stories on a particular subject.

Emerson Foulke: A great deal of research has been done demonstrating that the human brain has great capacity to retain complex visual perceptions for a long time and that all kinds of other information can be attached to these perceptions. Unfortunately, very much less research has been done on audial and haptic perception. Such evidence as there is suggests, however, that, if tactile information is presented effectively—and this is not necessarily the same way as for visual observation—haptic perception may well be equally long-term and useful.

Dale McDaniel: Artic Technologies has corrected its early lack of Braille and tape documentation, mentioned by Richard Ring in his remarks. Ring also mentioned several functions that were missing in Artic products, but he failed to say that they were also 26 percent cheaper. Even when the functions were added, the Artic products were still 19 percent less expensive. He then commented that copy protection in this field is growing because producers need some way to protect against piracy. If they were producing a hundred million copies a year, they could raise their price slightly and make up what they were losing through piracy. Since this is not the case, is there something that people can suggest to solve this problem without resorting to copy protection?

Larry Israel: Mr. Israel urged the large software producers to find a way of bringing some kind of stability to their work so that the access software producers can have some assurance that their products will not be out of date in a year. With respect to universal access, there will be times when providing access to disabled people will mean inconveniencing that vaster audience. When such conflicts arise, we know which way the big producers will decide. We will never hear about it, but disabled people will lose. Surely we should be talking about what mainstream producers should consider when making such decisions.

Tim Cranmer: To clarify his earlier point, Cranmer said that tactile representations should not be merely touchable versions of pictures. This is doomed to failure. He wants to create solid, three-dimensional representations that reflect direct tactile experience or an intuitive representation of tactile experience so that blind people can gain information of the kind they would get from direct contact. We must demonstrate the practicality of reproducing solid, palpable imagery that is tactile, not visual in nature.

Jim Fruchterman: He is a member of the committee advising the Access Board on the Telecommunications Act. They are trying to get a ruling that the PC is a telecom device so that all the new functions promised on the Internet will be required to be accessible. The current standard is weak. It is that telecom equipment must be made accessible if that is readily achievable or, if not, compatible with specialized adaptive technology if that is readily achievable. The committee members agree that, if access can be achieved through software, that constitutes readily achievable. If providing a port or infrared link allows a blind user to have voice or Braille output using a notetaker, the port or IR link should be required. The FCC and Access Board don't have to take the committee's recommendations, and they can leave them as recommendations or incorporate them into mandates. Building in accessibility at the beginning is so easy for many products that the committee is hopeful that it will happen. Incorporating universal design increases the potential market for a product, and it means that unnecessary barriers are not created. Until now we have been jumping through hoops to meet the demands of computers. The time has come for us to direct the power of computers toward meeting our needs. Disabled people need options—not things that everyone is forced to use—but the opportunity to make the most of the computer.

Judy Dixon: In something like automatic teller machines, the convenience of having all of them usable by blind people is so great that she is willing to accept the lowest common denominator—speech. But if universal access in computers means using speech, she is prepared to protest. One should be able to have whatever kind of access one wants and can afford to purchase.

Robert Wynn: Somehow the field must work together to find ways of subsidizing access technology or otherwise bringing down the high costs of this important equipment. Also we must find a way to establish priorities for working on the various problems facing the field.

Mary Frances Laughton: She reported briefly on the work of a Canadian Parliamentary task force. It brought down a report with fifty-two recommendations made to the federal government about how to fund a number of social programs. One suggestion is to ask how people with disabilities will be affected by all activities in the federal government. Canadians are also talking about the Canadians with Disabilities Act. They will be talking with Americans about how our act is working and where the problems are. She is working to put in place some accessibility checkpoints in government procurement. Canadians are also looking at what should be done about the information superhighway.

Brian Buhrow: He advocated that continuing support for software purchases be paid for by blind users rather than having companies try to cover the cost of support in the initial product cost.

Larry Israel: A significant problem faced by the producers of access technology is that users turn to them for solutions to problems with the operating system or application even when they have little or nothing to do with the access software. Telesensory has not decided how to deal with this problem, and Mr. Israel asked for suggestions.

David Lepofsky: There is no way for most computer users to distinguish between access software, application, operating system, and hardware problems. And, since the access-software producers are the only ones who will bother to deal with blind users effectively, they are going to have to provide a range of technical support for which users will pay if it is good support, because the access software is worth nothing unless it can be made to work.

Kenneth Jernigan: It is a mistake to think that blind people are unwilling or unable to pay for the good service they receive. Lots of blind people—like many others—are destitute, but blind people who buy computers and software are certainly willing to pay for fairly priced service of this kind.

David Andrews: Everybody will have to throw something into the pot. The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind fields a lot of the technical support calls that should by rights go to access program developers. This technology is complex, and state agencies and governmental agencies have not been good about paying for training and installation. They take the lowest bid, and as a result users lose. Agencies buying technology for blind people and blind users will all have to begin paying for this service. The producers must begin providing better technical support across the board; it is currently very uneven. But there are still lots of people who want something for nothing; that has to change.

Kenneth Jernigan: If the support is first-rate and the vendors do not apologize for charging but make it clear from the start that there will be a charge, people will agree to pay for valuable services. Andrews and Jernigan agreed that the overall quality of the support would have to improve, or it will be worth what people are now paying for it—nothing.

David Pillischer: Mr. Pillischer's company puts systems together and provides training and service. If the producers will do a better job of controlling whom they allow to sell their products, they will find that the number of technical calls they receive will be greatly reduced and the quality of the questions they are asked will increase.

Curtis Chong:Perhaps charging for support could help solve the copy protection problem as well. If users had to begin each tech call by giving their registration number, it could be checked and support provided to those with a number and refused to those without one.

Charles Oppermann: The problem with Curtis's idea is the proliferation of demo products which must be installed before a user decides whether or not to buy, thereby receiving a serial number.

Dale McDaniel: The problem being discussed is broader than the blindness field. Virtually all computer support today comes with a charge, and as long as the user is paying, the technician is usually willing to answer any question he or she can.

Curtis Chong: We have been talking about computers here, and eventually these problems will be solved. True, some blind people will lose their jobs before it happens, but we are at least struggling to solve the problems of computer access. The problem of access to a lengthening list of appliances and public-access terminals of various kinds has not yet been seriously addressed. The problem is no longer inability to program the VCR or the microwave. It is becoming having no access to cellular phones, hotel TV's, and the like. More and more service people are disappearing from behind counters to be replaced by computers with flat keypads and changing menus. In two years or less this will be a serious problem for all of us. Dr. Jernigan asked if infrared sensors carried by blind people would solve the problem. Chong said that probably infrared sensors could be made to work. Dr. Jernigan then proposed passage of legislation to require manufacturers to provide infrared ports.

Deane Blazie: There are too many laws already. Manufacturers should be contacted and warned that, if a voluntary solution cannot be found, legislation is the obvious recourse. Blazie suggested that the Consumer Electronics Group of the Electronic Industries Association be approached. Conferees decided to draft such a letter to be signed by those present who wished to do so.

Tim Cranmer: The Telecommunications Act covers most of the phones, ATM's, and kiosks that are giving us trouble. It requires built-in access if readily achievable or access through compatible, consumer-owned equipment. The things still not covered are domestic equipment—washers, microwaves, and the like.

John Brabyn: A project has been initiated to establish a standard for an infrared link. The group working on this is tied into the industry association and is working to be sure that the link is not incompatible with talking signs and the rest of that technology.

David Lepofsky: This discussion is important to people in Canada because the argument will be offered that nothing can be done by the government to assist blind consumers since the manufacturers are mostly from the U.S. He then pointed out that overtures to the Consumer Electronics Group can be strengthened by pointing out that senior citizens as well as blind people need buttons that can be felt and are large enough to identify without a magnifying glass.

On the subject of automatic teller machines, he has been told that neither of the companies manufacturing ATM's today has built in the potential for speech output. What is the state of the art today?

Larry Israel: An engineer at Telesensory approached City Corp. several years ago about this subject. City Corp. had acquired one of the ATM manufacturers and would not talk with Telesensory. Israel believes that it may have been because they were looking into speech themselves and wanted to control it completely. But he believes that the producers will not voluntarily put in the $50 to $100 per machine to make them accessible to blind users.

Curtis Chong: The Access Board has so far gotten nowhere in establishing requirements, and meantime banks are posting instructions that are so cryptic as to be unusable. The NFB in Minneapolis went to the banks to see if they could work out a community solution, but the banks said they used eight different models. The NFB offered to Braille the brochures that describe how to operate each model so that the banks could reproduce them and hand them out. But they couldn't be bothered to hand over the brochures. Chong concludes that the problem will be solved only if it is attacked at every level and using every method of persuasion.

Dale McDaniel: NCR and perhaps some other companies have produced a prototype that would, if adopted, benefit everyone because it would be a single, universal ATM. The user would insert a magnetically encoded card carrying all of his or her requirements for language, speech, large print, etc. This solution is not around the corner, but it would be generally useful.

Charles Oppermann: ATM software is written using OS/2, so there is undoubtedly a group at IBM writing ATM code. It should be fairly easy for speech to be added. Maybe pressure should be brought to bear on IBM to help solve the problem.

After a break the group reconvened and approved the language of a letter to the Consumer Electronics Group. Here is the text:

November 25, 1996

Mr. Gary Shapiro, President
Consumer Electronics Manufacturers' Association (CEMA)
Arlington, Virginia

Dear Mr. Shapiro:

At the third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, the issue of access to consumer electronics was discussed at length. It was made clear to the group that, with the proliferation of digital technology, non-tactile buttons, and dynamic displays, the consumer products industry is inadvertently making it difficult, if not impossible, for blind and visually impaired people to use many of the consumer electronic products on the market today.

We request that the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers' Association (CEMA) begin a working dialogue with representatives of the undersigned organizations with the aim of deciding how best to move ahead in pursuing solutions to this significant problem.

Representatives of this group are eager to meet with you to discuss these problems and possible solutions. We will contact you in the near future to follow up on this matter.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus
National Federation of the Blind and Chairman, Third U.S./Canada
Conference on Technology for the Blind

David Andrews, Director
Communication Center
Minnesota State Services for the Blind

Deane Blazie, President
Blazie Engineering

John Brabyn, Program Director
Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Foundation

John Bullen, President
Canadian Council of the Blind

Elizabeth Carr, National Vice President
Blinded Veterans Association

Curtis Chong, Designer/Consultant
American Express Financial Advisors

Charles Cook, President
Roudley Associates

Tim Cranmer, President
International Braille Research Center

Frank Kurt Cylke, Director
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Suzanne A. Dalton, President
Association of Instructional Resource Centers for the Visually Handicapped

Paul Edwards, President
American Council of the Blind

Jim Fruchterman, President
Arkenstone, Inc.

Ritchie Geisel, President
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic

Doug Geoffray, Co-Owner & Vice President
Product Development and Support
GW Micro

William Gibson, President
National Council of State Agencies for the Blind

Jim Halliday, President
Humanware, Inc.

Ted Henter, President
Henter-Joyce, Inc.

Euclid Herie, President & CEO
Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Larry Israel, President
Telesensory Corporation

Carlene Lebous, President
National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind

Brian McCarthy, President
Betacom Inc.

Dale McDaniel, Vice President for Marketing
Artic Technologies

David Pillischer, President
Sighted Electronics, Inc.

William M. Raeder, Managing Director
National Braille Press

Richard Ring, Director
International Braille and Technology Center

Sharon Sacks, President
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired

Mohymen Saddeek, President
TFI Engineering and Myna Corporation

Tony Schenk, President
Enabling Technologies Company

David Schleppenbach, Director
VISIONS Lab at Purdue University

Elliot Schreier, President
4X Products, Inc.

Fredric K. Schroeder, Commissioner
Rehabilitation Services Administration

Dave Skrivanek, President
Repro-Tronics

Susan Spungin, Vice President
National Programs and Initiatives
American Foundation for the Blind

Joseph Sullivan, President
Duxbury Systems, Inc.

Tuck Tinsley, President
American Printing House for the Blind

Robert Wynn, President
Hadley School for the Blind

[The discussion continued:]

Brian Charlson: Mr. Charlson began by explaining that he does computer training at the Carroll Center. Windows products are almost always marketed as extremely intuitive. Whether or not they are to sighted people, they are not to those unable to see the screen. He asked vendors to stop compounding the problems faced by blind users in learning to use Windows and Windows 95 by making unrealistic promises about the simplicity of the operating system. Training is needed if blind people are to master Windows, and good training materials must be developed to help accomplish this goal.

David Schleppenbach: Purdue has been working to develop training materials for Windows and Windows 95. They hope to work with Microsoft to create a program that can be bundled with screen readers to help solve this problem. Richard Ring asked about rumors over the past two years that Microsoft was developing a cassette tutorial.

Charles Oppermann: The plans are still there, but nothing is currently happening about it. Microsoft does realize the importance of filling this gap, and he is willing to work with anyone to make progress, though it is not his area of responsibility.

Larry Israel: In Germany purchase of a computer Braille display or screen reader automatically brings with it eight to ten days of training at a cost of about $2500. In this country third-party purchasers refuse to pay for thorough training of this kind. Vendors cannot afford to provide anything like complete training without passing on the cost.

Brian Charlson: We must all work together to help develop good materials and to advocate that third-party payers agree to provide adequate training.

Kenneth Jernigan: The National Federation of the Blind has been providing week-long technology training seminars for groups of rehabilitation personnel because many of them have not known enough to help their clients wisely. He invited any vendors who wished to provide substantive instruction in the operation of their products to contact him.

Vicki Mains: The CNIB has tactile material to help explain what is happening on the screen in Windows, and they are working on Windows 95 as well. It is extremely helpful to people attempting to master an access program to understand the software it is working with. The Vendors' efforts to teach people to use their products can be much more successful when users begin with an understanding of the platform. She is willing to work with others to improve what they are doing and pass it on.

Paul Edwards: Standards are needed in determining the quality of training in access technology across the board. Would-be users don't know what they need, and rehabilitation personnel know too little to evaluate training options available. Maybe this is something for AER or other professional organizations to work on.

Robert Wynn: Where do the trainers go for training? We need collaboration across the board to improve whatever education is being done.

Sharon Sacks: Dr. Sacks expressed concern about the quality of the technology training given to students in personnel preparation programs in this field. At most they receive a semester of training, and the content of that training depends on what technology is available at the institution in question. She suggested that all students across the country might be brought in groups to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind for a week of intensive, hands-on training. Then we would know that they had been introduced to everything that is available. Funding such an effort would be the problem, but perhaps grants could be sought. Dr. Jernigan said that the NFB would be happy to work with her in looking further into this idea. She went on to express concern about the technology needs of blind children and adolescents. In a pilot study she has just completed, in a group of forty blind students only two had access to a computer at home. Every one of the sighted students in the study had that access. Parents must be educated to understand that, if their youngsters are to be competitive in school and in the workplace, they must have the same opportunities that their sighted peers have.

Kevin Perry: In Ontario every person under eighteen or receiving technology for the first time automatically gets ten hours of training. His office is developing a series of courses at a local training college. The sixth course concerns training. They are working on course content right now.

Deane Blazie: Vendors are treated very badly at the Closing the Gap Conference. We need to have an East Coast conference at the same time.

Jim Fruchterman: Arkenstone has had a complete computer system for under $2000 for the past two years, but people do not seem to have been interested in it. He doesn't know why. Arkenstone is about to begin a rent-to-buy program for a complete reading system so that within fifteen months the system can be purchased. If this does not attract interest, he will have to find out what people really do want.

Brian Charlson: There are other problems with Closing the Gap from the attendee's perspective. The conference hotel is very expensive. The ACB was offered that hotel at $56 a night, but he paid almost three times that for Closing the Gap. People continue to attend because it is all there is.

Richard Ring: Many people pass through the IBTCB, and the comments they make might well be of help and interest to the vendors. He also would appreciate more contact with the vendors.

Kenneth Jernigan: Four-track tapes of the entire conference will be available for purchase at $20 a set. Those interested in ordering a set should contact the National Federation of the Blind.

Euclid Herie: In closing the conference, Dr. Herie said that the blind are often thought of as a small minority, but worldwide there are fifty million blind people in the world, eight million in China alone. Ultimately this is the market for producers in this field, and most of the producers in the world were in attendance at this conference. Dr. Herie suggested that the group go forward, working together with the WBU and others to meet the needs of this vast market.