Computer Technology for the Blind and Visually Impaired
In 1829 by adapting a secret code used by the military to communicate in the dark, Louis Braille brought the power and wonder of the written word to those who could not see. And while Braille remains a primary method of access to many types of information for the blind, today’s growing reliance on electronic communication, is creating new challenges for the visually impaired. John Vaughn, blind himself and a Rehabilitation Counselor, talks about the challenges he faced. “Braille was developed in the 1830’s in France, and was the primary means of reading and writing for blind people until recent years. Fortunately for me and others who were losing their eyesight in the late 1980’s that’s when we started to see the first real screen reading technology in the computer arena, unfortunately this was more custom made kinds of systems, there wasn’t a lot of standards that were being followed so sometimes your screen reader would work and sometimes it wouldn’t”
Instrumental in changing this and unlocking computers and the world of the Internet to the blind and visually impaired was a gentleman named Ted Henter. A computer engineer and motorcycle racer, Ted was blinded in an auto accident. He then put his knowledge to work to help not only himself, but also others like him. “Once I recovered from the accident, I realized I had to get a job, I couldn’t race motorcycles any more. I couldn’t get a job as an engineer being blind it was pretty tough, we didn’t have the technology we have today. I got one of the very first quote “talking computers” unquote, that would just spell, it wouldn’t even talk complete words, it would just spell, so it was very laborious very difficult to use…” The experience led Ted to develop an improved screen reader software known as JAWS, – Job Access with Speech. It allows blind or visually impaired computer users to read or write e-mail, access databases, create spreadsheets, and even surf the ‘net. Says Ted “being a natural engineer and a user of this technology I was constantly up against the limitations of the technology. I always wanted to do something better, do something faster, do something easier, and I just naturally got into the thought process and the creativity to make those things happen”
Speech synthesizers and software like JAWS, were only the first step in bringing the digital world to the blind. Many other devices have been developed, from note takers to Braille printers, that are helping to level the playing field for the visually impaired. These technologies not only increase employment opportunities for people who are blind, they are assisting organizations to comply with The Americans with Disabilities Act. Says Brian Carver a visually impaired computer user, “I was passed over for promotions in many other jobs because of the fact of reports and things like that, that I wasn’t able to do, management positions passed me by. But now because of the technology, I was able to demonstrate my abilities and talents and get promoted. It’s not only enriched my professional life but my personal life as well, it allows me to do so many things I was not able do before”. David Andrews, Chief Technology Officer, for The Minnesota State Services for the Blind couldn’t agree more. “I think if a blind person is technically savvy they certainly can add value to any organization. Unfortunately one of the major problems that we have is peoples attitudes, people and I refer to the sited public as a whole, tend to have negative views of blindness and blind people I think people have the idea that there’s lots of things we cannot do and overcoming those attitudes is often more difficult than the technology end of it.”
Assistive technology for the physically challenged not only gives us a glimpse at tomorrow, it can help many people both sighted and not, see a little more clearly today.