Curtis Chong speaking to an audience.(20416 bytes)
Curtis Chong

The Current State of Technology for the Blind And the Challenge for the Twenty-first Century

by Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Curtis Chong is the Director of the National Federation of the Blind’s Technology Department.

I am very pleased to be able to talk with you today and to tell you where I think we are with respect to technology for the blind. I also hope to share some of my thoughts about what I think we should do in the next century to ensure that the blind get a piece of the action in the area of technology.

It is fair to say that we, the blind, have entered the age of technology with a vengeance. Technology has profoundly affected our lives. We see this in the classroom, where the blind child learns to use an electronic note-taker, Braille embosser, or computer. We see this in the colleges and universities, where blind students routinely write and spell-check their college papers with word-processing software and communicate using e-mail. We see this in the vocational rehabilitation system, where clients ask their counselors for computers, screen-reading programs, print-reading systems, and electronic note-takers to help them compete with the sighted. We see this in the office, where blind employees use the same computer programs as their sighted peers. We see this in the home, where blind people struggle to learn enough so that they can use computers to manage personal finances, send e-mail to friends and relatives, and shop on the Web.

Much of the technology we use today was designed specifically for the blind. Other technology, developed for the general commercial market, is used by the blind with the help of so-called assistive technology. And to a growing extent there is commercial off-the-shelf technology which has in it enough nonvisual access that a blind person can use it out of the box.

We have speech output and refreshable Braille note-takers which, while pretending not to be computers, allow us to take notes, organize information, execute ordinary and scientific calculations, and keep track of time and appointments. You might think of these devices as personal digital assistants (PDA's) for the blind. However, unlike PDA's for the sighted, our PDA's still can't send and receive faxes or e-mail, they don't fit very well into fanny packs, and they cost a lot more.

We have Braille embossers of all types that receive text from computers and produce anything from personal letters to magazine-style publications. Because of these embossers and the Grade II translation programs which are necessary accompaniments, we can get more literary Braille than has ever been produced before. Because of improvements in Grade II translation software, the level of skill required to produce readable, properly-formatted literary Braille depends less upon an understanding of the Braille code than on an understanding of the differences between print and Braille formatting. The Brailling of mathematics and highly technical material still requires more sophistication, however; the electronic source format for these materials cannot yet be converted automatically into properly-formatted Nemeth Code or Computer Braille.

We have refreshable Braille displays with which we can read a single line of rapidly-changing text. However, these devices are still beyond the financial reach of most blind individuals, and the cost of manufacturing a refreshable Braille display with multiple lines is still prohibitive.

We have stand-alone reading machines and computer software that can convert pages of printed text into speech. For those blind users who don't mind working with a system that is not necessarily blind-friendly, this technology can also be found in the commercial market--for a lot less money. But the technology still misses on average about one in every hundred letters, does not handle cursive writing or pictures, requires at least thirty seconds to process each printed page, and is not portable by any stretch of the imagination.

We have NEWSLINEŽ for the Blind and America's JoblineŽ. These technologies were developed by the National Federation of the Blind to close the gap in access to information technology for the blind. With NEWSLINE the texts of seven national and more than twenty local newspapers are made available to blind people around the country who need only a conventional touch-tone telephone to access the system. With America's Jobline blind people and many others now have access to job announcements on America's Job Bank, and they don't need a computer to get this information. While these technologies provide the blind with unprecedented access to important information, there are still not enough local service centers to blanket the country.

Moving away from blindness-specific technology, we have the personal computer, made nonvisually accessible with the help of screen-access software and hardware. The combination of blindness-specific technology with off-the-shelf commercial technology has given us unprecedented access to information in a way that we have never had before. It has also given rise to challenges whose solution requires the blending of technical expertise from the commercial sector and from the blindness sector.

Today, no matter what professional job you have, the personal computer is an important and highly visible part of getting your work done. If you can't use a personal computer or if you can't find a way to get somebody else to do your computer-related tasks, you will be operating at a severe disadvantage, and your ability to produce quality work will be diminished. This is the reality today, and I predict that the ability to use a computer will become even more important for the professional jobs of tomorrow. This will be as true for the blind as for the sighted. The difference for us, the blind, is that unless the technology moves in a radically different direction, we will still have to rely upon so-called third-party or assistive technology to use the computer--technology which introduces added complexity, requires additional training, and demands its own unique brand of technical expertise.

While we are on the subject of the personal computer, we cannot avoid talking about access to the Windows operating system and Windows applications. Today we have fairly good access to the Windows 95, 98, and NT operating systems. Most operating system functions are accessible through the keyboard, and the screen- access vendors have enough information about how these operating systems work to keep track of what most operating-system functions send to the screen. Windows 98, released by Microsoft last year, tries to make things on the screen appear as if you are browsing the Web. This confuses many of the screen-reading programs. Fortunately, with a bit of customization, the Web-like appearance can be turned off. (This is, by the way, one example of some good work that has been accomplished by Microsoft to aid the accessibility effort.) On a less positive note, with Windows NT, it is still not possible today for a blind computer user to run a screen-reading program while identifying him- or herself to the operating system. Logging in is still more a matter of faith and good keyboarding skills.

Nonvisual access to Windows-based word processors, data base programs, accounting packages, Web browsers, and e-mail clients is still not what it should be. Yes, to a greater or lesser extent we can use Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, the Access data base program, various e-mail programs, and other Windows applications, but our ability to use these programs with 100% efficiency leaves a lot to be desired. It is also far too easy for any access that might have been gained on a current version to be lost when a new version is released. There are also too many programs, developed internally by employers for their employees, which work either poorly or not at all with screen- access technology for the blind. This is a significant barrier to employment.

All of this is to say that our access to Windows and its applications is far from perfect. I still cringe whenever I hear about a new Windows program or a proposed upgrade to Windows itself. Why? Because the first thing I ask myself is, "Will the upgrade or program work with screen-access technology for the blind?" In the case of a Windows upgrade, it is almost certain that the screen-access technology will have to be updated to deal with internal changes that have been made to the operating system.

In the case of a new program--such as a new customer service application used by XYZ employer, it is more likely that the program will not work well or at all with screen-access technology for the blind. We can't go out and hunt up a new financial management program, a new data base program, or a new word processor and just buy it because we like its features. We have to pay for the program, test it with our screen-access technology, and if it doesn't work, return it and hope to get our money back.

The World Wide Web is likely to become a critical element of the solution to our nonvisual access problem. Although most of us think of the Web in the context of Windows, Netscape, and Internet Explorer, the fact is that Web-based information is not dependent on a specific operating system or computer platform. The technology of the Web is very quickly becoming central to all manner of inter- and intranet applications. E-commerce, electronic forms, online encyclopedias, and chat rooms: these are but a few of the applications which either are or soon will be based on Web technology. In order for the blind to have nonvisual access to the Web, we must have nonvisual access to the Web pages themselves, the Web browsing and other software which brings the Web pages to the user, and the tools which help us to design and publish our own Web pages.

All of these access issues are currently under consideration by the Web Access Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium. What this means for the blind is that the entire range of nonvisual and other access issues is being considered internationally. So far as I can tell, a good deal has already been accomplished. The WAI has already released a recommendation on Web content accessibility and is hard at work on accessibility guidelines for user agents and authoring tools. If the recommendations emerging from the work of WAI are followed, we stand a very good chance of having the kind of access we need in order to take full advantage of this burgeoning technology.

I want to talk briefly about access to electronic copies of published works. At one time there were those who thought that, if you wanted an electronic copy of a printed book, it was sufficient to get a plain ASCII text version from the publisher. Anyone who has done any transcription with today's Braille translation software will tell you that converting straight ASCII text to properly formatted Braille is a labor-intensive process. The reasons for this are too complex to discuss here, but suffice it to say that what is needed is material from the publishers with more information about how the material is structured. Is a line of text a sidebar, a heading, a line item in a table of contents, an index item, or simply a normal paragraph? Which text is supposed to go into a footnote? What should be done with the repetitive information that often appears at the top or bottom of each page?

If electronic copies of published books contained this information from the beginning, the process of converting the material into Braille would be much easier. Unfortunately, publishing tools in use today are designed to provide visual--not logical--structural information. As long as the source material is prepared only for visual presentation, we will always have this problem of conversion from a visual format to a nonvisual one. This increases the amount of work required to get a good Braille textbook from an electronic copy supplied by the publishers.

No discussion of the current state of technology would be complete without mentioning digitally controlled appliances and the problems they pose for the blind. As far as I know, very little work is going on to attack the problem of on-screen menus, buttons that we cannot feel, rotary knobs whose settings can be ascertained only by looking at a visual display, and "smart" appliances which refuse to forget your last mistake and take you right back to your disaster even after you pull the plug.

The other day I went to look at some electronic appliances. Do you know that there are now stoves and ovens with controls on smooth glass surfaces that are completely undetectable by touch? Admittedly these digital controls appear today only on some high- end appliances. But if nothing is done, it is only a matter of time before they begin creeping into the lower-end appliances. At the very least the blind consumer shopping for appliances today must give careful attention in the store to how the controls operate or risk finding out after it has been delivered that the appliance cannot be operated without sight.

I want to turn now to considerations for the twenty-first century. I think everyone would agree that in the next century our use of technology will increase in ways we haven't even begun to imagine. We, the blind, must be able to take advantage of the new technologies that are sure to be developed or risk being relegated to the technological backwaters of society.

We must find ways to obtain nonvisual access to operating systems and application software without having to use software- and hardware-dependent strategies. We are fortunate indeed that Windows and the Intel-based processor on which it runs have achieved widespread use in the world today. This has permitted the development of a variety of screen-access programs, stimulating competition, and reducing costs to the consumer. But what will happen if we have to contend with ten or more different operating systems and dozens of different processor types? Where will screen-access technology be able to take us then?

One possibility is a smart screen reader capable of looking at and interpreting the contents of any video display. Another is the development of a cross-platform protocol which allows information to be transmitted between any computer-controlled system and a portable access device. I am sure there are other possible solutions. We just have to get busy and create them.

Developers and designers of commercial technology must be encouraged--if not required--to include nonvisual access during the design stage of their products and to provide the information we need directly--for example, a self-voicing application. This will allow nonvisual access to be added at a point where its cost is relatively trivial, and it will help to move nonvisual access into the commercial market, where its cost can be spread over billions of consumers.

Inevitably there will be times when we will be able to use specific devices only with a combination of sighted assistance and old-fashioned basic blindness skills. This underscores the continuing need for training programs which teach the alternative techniques of blindness while promoting a positive, can-do attitude which encourages innovation, creativity, and self-reliance. Remember, the human brain continues to be the most flexible computer in the world. Oftentimes the simplest methods provide the most effective solutions.

We must find ways to make complex technologies easier to use. For too long we have forced the blind user to accommodate his or her tasks and skills to conform to the requirements of the technology--not the other way around. Why can't technology be smart enough to accommodate itself to the blind user? If I can't see the screen of a computer, shouldn't it be smart enough to talk to me? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what if I need to hear the thousand words? If I don't know how to type, why can't the computer listen to what I have to say and do what I want? Yes, computers aren't smart enough to do these things today, but they surely will be tomorrow. Our challenge is to ensure that the development of more sophisticated technologies works to our benefit instead of putting roadblocks in our path.

We must find a way to bring together the concepts of visual and logical structure in electronic publications. At the very least, publishers of commercial books intended for the sighted must be willing to put some effort into the task of converting materials intended for visual presentation into a format which facilitates production of material in nonvisual formats such as Braille or speech.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing us in the next century is the unpredictability of technological change. We know that the one constant we can count on with respect to technology is change. We also know that even our best predictions are often proven wrong. In 1981 Bill Gates said, "640K ought to be enough for anybody." The desktop computers of today, with anywhere from 32 to 128 to 256 megabytes of memory, are vivid reminders of the fallacy of that statement. So, while we know that big changes are ahead, we must also bear in mind that the nature of those changes is hard to predict. If we exercise our human talents of flexibility, adaptability, and creativity and if we always keep in mind the competence and normality of the blind, the next century will indeed be a time of progress and accomplishment.