Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Computers still need simple, inexpensive audio solutions for blind people's access

From the Fort Worth, Texas, Business Press:

Technology has gotten smaller, faster, easier to use and less expensive.

But for all the quality improvements — brighter screens, more durable buttons and controls, a variety of applications — one of the most important and in-demand feature for some people is an audio component.

People who are blind or visually impaired have embraced technology as a way to get and share information, just as much of the world has. But for all of the gadgets that are helpful — from talking calculators to voice-activated computers — there’s still a need for simpler, more affordable solutions.

There’s also a technology gap as the sighted population gets a new product, like a new version of software, and the blind or visually-impaired population has to wait for adaptations to make that product accessible to them.

“Blindness and low vision is kind of a niche market, so it’s getting to be a bigger niche as the population ages,” said Bobby Druesedow, employment assistance specialist at the Fort Worth Division for Blind Services, which falls under the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

The division is geared toward helping individuals and businesses use solutions to help people remain employed or independent, Druesedow said, and people tend to fall into two groups. There are people like himself, who have been blind or visually-impaired for most of their life, and there are people who lose their sight with age due to conditions like macular degeneration.

Druesedow has been blind since he was about one year old. He attended public school, using books in Braille, a manual Perkins Braille writer (much like a typewriter) and tape recorders. In college, computers started becoming more accessible, and Druesedow said he used a device for reading printed material.

Today, he uses a screen reader for computer access, software to read printed materials, software to let him access his cell phone and texting functions with speech, a digital bookreader, MP3 players to download audio versions of text and GPS units with voice functions. All that technology adds up, he said.

“It gets pricey,” he said.

However, there are more low-tech solutions. For people who still have some vision, there are devices that you can slide a printed page under in order to see a large version on a TV screen, making it easier for people to read their mail, for example. Also, he said, something as quick as enlarging font sizes on computers and adjusting contrast can help some people.

Tess Shell, senior services specialist at Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth, said although there’s a stereotype of older people shunning technology, it has been embraced by people of all ages who have sight problems because it fosters more independence.

“It eliminates a lot of the historical problems seniors have had in the past because they always had to have a second person come in to help them with these things,” she said.

Shell went blind in her late teens and early 20s, and she said that younger people who lose their sight still have to make adjustments to the way they relate to technology, even if they’ve grown up with computers and other gadgets.

“The sighted kids of today and the sighted adults, they’re crippled by the mouse,” she said. “The mouse was developed so that your everyday Joe could use a computer, and they do not have to memorize the computer, use the function keys, use keys together.”

Embracing technology has brought a rift into the blind and visually-impaired community, however. The National Federation of the Blind estimated that 90 percent of blind children today fail to learn to read and write in Braille, instead learning information acoustically, with the help of computers and MP3 players.

However, Braille, which can be easily read and produced without the need for special apps or computer software, is only one type of communication and should be complemented with technology, Shell said.

“Certainly, Braille is functional for a blind individual to use, for themselves to keep paper files, telephone numbers, things like that,” she said. “As far as being able for them to be able to communicate with a sighted person with Braille, they cannot.”

Ginger Kraft learned basic Braille when she started losing her sight to macular degeneration. She had to retire from her job as an executive when her sight became bad, but now she sits on the board for Lighthouse for the Blind and works past-time for a consulting business.

Most of Kraft’s work is done via computer today, but she said the cost of technology can be prohibitive. A computer that can read what’s on the screen to the user, for example, is not the norm, even though there are ones available to the general public.

“That equipment, it’s not given to you. Those companies don’t make that stuff cheap. It’s expensive, like $1,500 or a $1,000,” she said. “For someone who’s not wealthy, that’s a big chunk to budget for, and on top of that you have the maintenance, and keeping it in repair.”

As general technology becomes more affordable, though, so do solutions for people with sight problems, said Dr. Yu-Guang He, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He also holds the Zora Meagher Macular Degeneration Research Professorship, and he said the iPhone, for example, holds a lot of potential because of its applications.

There is research under way to create an application that will act as a vision test and then store data about the user’s eyesight, He said. With an application like this, someone could easily monitor their eyesight and then a physician could access the data to track the progression of a disease like macular degeneration, which can be treated if caught early.

“Compared to three, four years ago, this is revolutionary,” He said.

By working with engineers and researchers from various disciplines, more devices can be developed that are accessible no matter how good a person’s eyesight. And easily functioning within the larger sighted community is something that every person wants, said Donna Clopton, a teacher of the visually impaired and blind for the Fort Worth Independent School District.

“Our kids just want to be like everybody else,” she said. “They just want to fit in and be a part of the crowd.”

The school district teaches all of its students Braille and how to use a manual Braille writer, Clopton said, and then when they’re in about 4th or 5th grade they are introduced to more high-tech devices that have full keyboards and memory and can print in Braille. Students have dedicated items which they can use at school and at home as long as they are in school, she said, which means price doesn’t have to be an obstacle.

“We want them to be really proficient on them so they can use it in college or [when] they’re at work,” she said.

The mix of high-tech and low-tech is essential today for people who are blind or visually-impaired. However, Kraft said she thinks all people should be wary of depending too much on something that can be easily disrupted with a glitch or during a power outage.

“If you’re dependent on that technology and suddenly it breaks down or whatever, it’s very difficult,” she said.