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Digital Curb-Cuts
Jamais Cascio, 17 Mar 04

The Tech Bloom needs to be accessible to all users. It's not, at least not yet; Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are an ongoing challenge for blind computer users. I worked at UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Program for several years, providing computer support for many disabled members of the UCB community (students, faculty, and staff), and I saw first hand how the shift from DOS to Windows made life difficult for blind users, as the screen reading programs which worked very well in the text-oriented DOS world were worse than useless in the multiple-window, multiple-task Windows world. Few blind users tried Macs, as Apple's efforts to make the interface accessible to people who couldn't see were half-hearted, at best.

Although the technologies for visual-impairment-accessibility for Windows have improved in the subsequent years, the solutions are largely bolted-on, and few Windows developers have the resources (or even awareness of the issue) to purchase an expensive add-on to test software compatibility. On the Mac side, however, Apple is now (finally) working on a Spoken User Interface for Mac OS X, built into the operating system itself. It's not yet available, but is intended to be part of the next major version of OS X (which would be 10.4, likely due out early next year).

Chances are you're not blind, and you probably don't even know someone who is. Why should this be important to you? Because accessibility improvements nearly always make life better for all users, not just those with specific impairments. Just like entry ramps and curb-cuts, designed for people in wheelchairs, are great for anyone pushing a stroller or cart (or have difficulty with stairs), computer interface improvements intended for those with disabilities can be of enormous value to anyone who could make use of a different mode of computer interaction. You could have the computer read important email aloud when you're not nearby, for example, or verbally identify windows you've clicked on as a way of cutting through on-screen clutter.

For aging populations, with the corresponding degradation of visual capabilities, having a Spoken UI as an alternative will shift from a convenience to a necessity. And let's not forget the illiterate. While the Spoken UI in OS X is undoubtedly English-only for now, there's no reason why a verbal interface couldn't work in any language. I am hopeful that Microsoft will once again take a cue from Apple and begin work to build good screen reading technology into the heart of Windows.

People shouldn't have to change to accomodate computers; computers should be improved to accomodate people. And as the Tech Bloom spreads, it should be able to embrace everyone. That wouldn't just be fair, it would be positively worldchanging.

Jesse Black adds, in the comments:

I work in this field (www.bookshare.org) and could probably go on for pages, but I'll just touch on one point and offer some links. As obliquely noted in this blog, the blindness market is a small one, so that innovation in the private sector almost inevitably comes with a high price tag. It will be interesting to see how comprehensive the integrated Mac screen reader will be, because the leading resources for the PC environment (Window-Eyes and JAWS) are still very expensive ($500-$1000 I believe). There is a great company called Choice in the U.K. trying to meet the challenge of low-cost adaptive tech. Check out www.screenreader.co.uk. As with anyone trying to provide low-cost alternatives in a difficult-to-reach market, the challenge for Choice is distribution. So spread the word!

Another cool company to check out: www.phoneticom.com. They're thinking about access to materials online in very interesting ways including a read-it-aloud tool that works on either whole pages or just highlighted tools, a speedy convert-to-text-only tool for websites, and, coolest of all, a tool that makes your website accessible by telephone by interpreting the HTML into menus and dynamically generating them over the phone using high-quality text to speech. I never thought I'd say that an automated telephone answering service was cool!

Thanks, Jesse!

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Comments

I'm really interested in what you are doing in California on these issues. I build the Assistive Technology system at Grand Valley State University in Michigan (couldn't get them to do everything, but focused on low-vision and learning disabilities and at least got the stuff into every computer lab). Now I work for Michigan Rehabilitation Services trying to push high schools and community colleges into doing the "right things." It's a hard slow battle in a backwards state. So any dialogue would help. (And I'd take a job at a committed college in a heartbeat, but that's another story). Contact me if you can. The above address or socoli@michigan.gov


Posted by: Ira Socol on 17 Mar 04

am I doing this right?


Posted by: Ira Socol on 17 Mar 04

When I was at UCB's Disabled Students' Program -- from 1992 through 1995 -- we didn't have the resources to push adaptive tech into every computer lab, so we ended up creating an adaptive lab with a variety of systems. Some did speech-to-text (for mobility disabilities), some did text-to-speech (for vision disabilities), and all were set up with an assortment of applications we found useful for LD students. I ended up spending quite a bit of time working with individual students and staff (not as many faculty) helping them create individual workstations at home or in their offices.

That was 10+ years ago. If you check out the DSP link in the body of the essay, you'll see how the program has evolved.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Mar 04

I work in this field (www.bookshare.org) and could probably go on for pages, but I'll just touch on one point and offer some links. As obliquely noted in this blog, the blindness market is a small one, so that innovation in the private sector almost inevitably comes with a high price tag. It will be interesting to see how comprehensive the integrated Mac screen reader will be, because the leading resources for the PC environment (Window-Eyes and JAWS) are still very expensive ($500-$1000 I believe). There is a great company called Choice in the U.K. trying to meet the challenge of low-cost adaptive tech. Check out www.screenreader.co.uk. As with anyone trying to provide low-cost alternatives in a difficult-to-reach market, the challenge for Choice is distribution. So spread the word!

Another cool company to check out: www.phoneticom.com. They're thinking about access to materials online in very interesting ways including a read-it-aloud tool that works on either whole pages or just highlighted tools, a speedy convert-to-text-only tool for websites, and, coolest of all, a tool that makes your website accessible by telephone by interpreting the HTML into menus and dynamically generating them over the phone using high-quality text to speech. I never thought I'd say that an automated telephone answering service was cool!


Posted by: jesse black on 18 Mar 04

Jesse, thank you *very* much. I'm going to bump your comment to the front page -- that's really useful information.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Mar 04

The "every computer lab" thing is, I believe, the most important. I don't know why a student with a disability needs to remain in a "resource room" environment when in college. These systems need to be wherever computers are used, especially in every computer lab used as a classroom (so students with disabilities have the same scheduling options as everyone else). People always talk about it being "so expensive." A few things are (blind adaptations can be), but most things, with network licensing, are very minimal in the typical college or even high school IT budget. It's not money. It's that people don't care.


Posted by: Ira Socol on 20 Mar 04



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