Thursday, June 19, 2008

WebAnywhere screen reader wins top accessibility prize

Jeff Bigham, 27, and a Ph.D candidate in computer science at the University of Washington, won the first-ever Accessible Technology Award for Interface Design in the 2008 Imagine Cup technology competition sponsored by Microsoft, according to Imperial Valley News.

Bigham will receive $8000 in prize money and be flown to the Imagine Cup in Paris in July to demonstrate WebAnywhere, the technology he created that makes it possible for blind people to access a screen reader from almost any computer.

WebAnywhere means blind and visually impaired people don’t have to carry their own computer with them or install expensive screen-reader software. From any computer, they just access the WebAnywhere Web site ( and its screen-reader interface translates Web-based text to speech and reads the content aloud. (You can see a video about WebAnywhere on its Web site.)

Many traditional screen readers cost $1,000 or more, have little tech support and are usually not loaded onto public computers.

Because it uses the Web, no software installation is needed for WebAnywhere; Bigham’s screen reader should work with any browser or operating system.

“One of the primary advantages of everything moving to the Web is that people can access information and applications anywhere, at any time, and from any computer,” Bigham says. “For people who use their computers in different ways - whether it’s a blind person who uses a screen reader, or someone with low vision who needs to see things magnified, or someone with a learning disability who requires information to be presented in a specific format - that advantage doesn’t exist.

“WebAnywhere solves that problem for people who are blind, and it’s easy to imagine how the technology could provide personalized views of any computer for people with other disabilities or preferences,” he says.

Founded by Microsoft in 2003 to encourage young people to visualize a better world enabled by technology, and to realize that vision by using their imaginations and technical skills to solve real-world problems, Imagine Cup is now the world’s premier technology competition for college and high school students.