By Tim Noonan,
Adaptive Technology Services Manager
Royal Blind Society of NSW
This paper was Presented at the first Australian Conference on Technology for People with Disabilities, held in Adelaide (May 1993).
It has been Minimally updated January 1995 and January 2006
The ability to read and access information is an essential component of modern life. This paper explores the changes in technology and the increases in availability of information and considers the impact of these changes on people who are blind or vision impaired (BVI). For an excellent coverage of existing reading technologies, see the article by Dickson & Mandelbaum in the December 1990 issue of the journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness.
Human readers, raised print, Braille, enlarged print, phonograph and tape recordings, Optacon output and computer access devices have all been used as a means of accessing information (reading) by BVI people. Debates often break out about whether one reading method is better than another, and about which is the most important to learning. It is not my intention to enter such debates here, but instead to suggest that all reading methods have a vital and increasing role to play in assisting BVI people to participate in education, employment and recreation. In almost all cases, new reading technologies serve to supplement and enhance the reading process, rather than taking the place of existing reading methods.
In addition, newer computer-based technologies are contributing greatly to the timeliness and quantity of more traditional reading resources by automating and enhancing braille and large print production efforts. Software developers are working hard to diminish the amount of human intervention required to convert word processing documents directly into quality braille, thus making braille much more available and accessible. Telephone-based voice digitisation means that a single reading by a human of a newspaper or memo can be instantly available to any users of the voice messaging system via the basic touch-tone telephone. Fax machines are being used to send short print documents to voluntary readers who are then able to read the contents of the documents to the sender over the telephone.
computerisation of databases and optical character recognition (OCR) has meant that vast numbers of documents can be available to BVI people. Using a computer equipped with synthesised speech, large print display or soft-copy braille, most computer-based materials can now be accessed independently and in many cases embossed or printed in large print.
Now available on disk, CDROM or from on-line information services are:
over 1000 texts now out of copyright;
many modern computer manuals and text books;
several encyclopedias and dictionaries;
modern fiction titles and abstracts as well as full texts of research documents newspapers and magazines.
One of the most exciting developments in the last few years has been the growth of the international network of computers known as the Internet. This network links hundreds of thousands of computers and millions of users.
The Internet contains information on every imaginable topic from over 5000 different newsgroups (discussion areas). It provides electronic mail facilities internationally and access to other electronic mail networks including CompuServe, MCI Mail, Fidonet and X400 based services.
The Internet is a fully accessible source of information for people with disabilities, professionals and policy-makers.
Information Archives on the Internet include ASCII books out of copyright, disability discussion groups and adaptive technology software, several daily newspapers, professional and hobby newsletters and articles, all in ASCII.
An exciting range of emerging services are based on the standard touch-tone telephone. Banking, insurance, and a variety of other information services are becoming available in this manner.
For people who cannot access print information, the growth of these services will be of immense use. Further developments in speech synthesis are likely to make information accessible not only to technically competent users, but to all people with print handicaps.
Most accessible books available today consist of ASCII files. This has advantages in that almost all computers can access ASCII, but a variety of material which can appear in a print book can not be represented through ASCII alone. Royal Blind Society has been producing mixed format books comprising various combinations of cassette, braille, large print, tactual/bold print diagrams, and ASCII.
While the bulk of the text of a book might be read on cassette, the contents and bibliography might be produced in braille, while diagrams are produced tactually with brief cassette descriptions to assist in comprehension. This kind of production serves to make the book as a whole more accessible while conserving scarce resources.
George Kerscher of RFB is working on the design of a system for representing a book in its entirety, using several output modes. This project will involve developing methods for representing scientific and mathematics systems through speech, as well as the ability to emboss or print portions of the book in braille or tactual form.
Such a system requires that the book be marked up according to structural components such as chapters, headings, paragraphs, tables etc. Some portions of the book will have several representations, dependent on the output mode chosen by the reader. Text 2000 has attempted to incorporate some of these ideas into their book products. Unfortunately, in its current form, the copy protection and limited commands often serve to limit, not enhance, effective access to the text.
Author’s Note: DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) is an internationally developed system for making talking books available in digital form, such as via CDROM delivery. More information can be found about DAISY from the Daisy Consortium website www.daisy.org .
Several barriers and challenges to effective access still exist which will need to be overcome both technically and socially before BVI people have equal and efficient access to all the resources available to sighted people.
One cause of inaccessibility of information is the equipment or user interface between the user and the information of interest. Public terminals like ATMs, ticket dispensers, credit card phones, electronic notice-boards, public directories and vending machines are just a few examples of public information and product sources which, more often than not, cannot be accessed independently by BVI people.
About 90 percent of new databases and reference works being released on CDROM only run under a Graphics User Interface (GUI) such as Microsoft Windows. Most new educational software is likely to be GUI-based also. Several companies are working on access to GUIs, but it is likely that access will, for some time to come, be a step behind the latest visual display methods employed by information providers.
Portable wireless networked computers are expected to be the next growth area in the small computer market. Such equipment would allow 24-hour a day access to on-line databases and electronic mail networks. The currency and timeliness of information is becoming crucial for competitive industries. Again, these need to be accessible if BVI people are to compete. These computers are expected to run using either pen-based or special editions of Microsoft Windows operating systems making immediate access for BVI users unlikely.
Copyright can be a major barrier to information access. Some publishers just won’t grant permission for their books to be made available in alternative formats. When Recordings for the Blind (RFB) experienced this problem once too often, they contacted all tertiary institutions with details of the publishers concerned. The outcome was a rapid turn-around by publishers when their books stopped being nominated by academics for student book lists.
More common is the difficulty in gaining permission to produce a book on disk for BVI readers, because of the fear of copyright breaches. Computerised Books for the Blind, (now merged with RFB) addressed this problem through a signed contract with each of its borrowers to the effect that no received books would be copied for others.
Obviously, this system relies on honest and ethical behaviour from all parties concerned. As service providers and people with disabilities, the obligation falls on us to ensure that such trust agreements are not destroyed by the irresponsible actions of a few people.
Copy protection is seen as another solution to publishers’ fears of unauthorised access to books in computer format. In most cases, copy protection of software or data usually results in the end user being disadvantaged and restricted in the ways they can access the information in question.
When the Macquarie Dictionary was approached about making a disk version of the dictionary for BVI readers, permission was granted conditional upon use of a copy- protection scheme. This dictionary is floppy-based because of the scheme and cannot be backed up.
Conversely, Text 2000 (associated with American Printing House) often promote their copy protection scheme to publishers as an ideal solution when seeking to make books available on disk. Unfortunately, publishers may have been happy to look at other alternatives, but Text 2000’s approach may serve to amplify minor fears of publishers, and result in greater restrictions than necessary. Text 2000 produces a range of disk-based books for the IBM compatible which employ a hardware key security system (dongle). This system requires the reader to have a totally compatible IBM PC, and means that users of Macintoshes, Eurekas, Braille & Speaks etc. cannot access the Text 2000 books.
Copy protection and proprietary encoding schemes are a last resort solution. We must strongly discourage situations in which a BVI person’s reading options are curtailed, or which exclude potential readers of the information. Such stances support the concept of least restrictive alternative.
A recent trend which may change our attitudes to copyright is called FreeLore. The idea behind FreeLore is to use copyright law to widen – rather than restrict – free access to information. FreeLore protects against public information being restricted, limits people’s rights to encode FreeLore information in proprietary formats, and actively promotes the accessibility and sharing of information. FreeLore is a variant of the GNU Public Licence, which is a method protecting and promoting computer software and information in similar ways.
Universities, government departments, charities and libraries are all likely to begin using and promoting systems such as this in reaction to the prohibitive costs and restrictions placed on much information by commercial information providers.
National and international standards are vital to people with disabilities in two ways. Product developers, consumers and disability organisations must make every effort to work within and build new developments on existing and emerging standards. Standard Generalised Mark-up Language (SGML) is an example of an emerging standard where different disability bodies in the United States have got together to develop software which can interpret SGML documents.
Because SGML clearly defines the structure and components of a document, rather than the way a printed version of the document might look, conversion software can be developed which will convert properly encoded files into perfectly formatted braille, large print and disk files with little or no human intervention.
An international committee has been formed to develop a sub-set of SGML called ICADD (International Committee on Accessible Document Design) format. This will ensure that materials used by organisations dealing with BVI and people with print disabilities will all be able to share materials. Benefits will include compatibility, more efficient use of resources, greater accuracy, faster turn-around times and lower production costs. Commitment to open systems and non proprietary computers and software is another example of using standards to our benefit.
In the longer term, I believe that the only way we can ensure that truly accessible products and operating systems will be available to BVI at the same time as they are made available to sighted consumers, is to be involved directly in the standards process from the formulation stage onwards.
Access requirements of people with disabilities need to be visible, and must be clearly articulated by people with both a solid technical understanding of the access issues and a realistic awareness of user needs and abilities. This involvement needs to occur at national and international standards levels, and disability organisations also need to work together to develop disability-specific standards on an international level.
The Unified Braille Code project, international efforts to increase compatibility of braille codes, ICADD and text communications equipment for people with hearing impairments are all examples of moves already occurring in this direction and which are helping to ensure that future information is as efficiently accessible as possible.
Another recent factor which shows great promise to attain more equitable access to computers, jobs and information is disability rights and anti discrimination legislation. The Americans with Disabilities Act is the strongest legislation so far of its kind. Its impact is still being realised and the extent to which it will change our lives is still unclear. It is quite certain, however, that computer manufacturers and publishers are all taking the legislation very seriously and that products and services which are not accessible will not be compliant. Employers and Government will be required to ensure that their computer equipment and other facilities are accessible.
Other recent U.S. legislation such as Public Law 508 requires that computer equipment and software must be accessible to be eligible for Government Contract status. The Braille Bill of Texas and other recent bills are ensuring that materials are available in braille for school students.
The recent Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Australia is already having an exciting impact in the Australian context. Legislation in Australia must be inclusive and not exclusive if we are to benefit the widest number of people and utilise scarce resources effectively.
Developments such as these will profoundly impact the lives and futures of BVI people. The responsibility rests with us to ensure that this impact results in affordable and wide-scale information accessibility. We can only hope to achieve this through cooperation across organisations, adherence to and participation in standards, technology awareness and training for professionals and BVI people, and by clearly expressing and lobbying for the needs and rights of people with disabilities.