Blind World

Sightless Surfing.

May 23, 2005.
The Wall Street Journal.

On the day Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, Arnold Roth, chief executive of the Israeli company VirTouch Ltd., decided to give a little demonstration of a product his company is developing for visually impaired Internet surfers.

Mr. Roth, who was in Portland, Ore., for a business meeting, asked VirTouch programmers back in Israel to take online news stories, photos and maps about Saddam's arrest and, using a process created by VirTouch, convert them into special Web pages he could display at the meeting.

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The pages were to resemble those of any news Web site, but with an important difference: Their entire contents -- including visual images -- would be in a format a blind person could navigate and absorb using a mouselike VirTouch tool called the VTPlayer.

Within hours, the completed pages were posted on the Web and in the hands of Alan Holst, a Los Angeles-based IT consultant who has been blind since birth. Guided by audio prompts linked to different elements, he navigated the pages using the mouse. And he read the headlines and articles in Braille, using an already available technology that converts computer-screen text into raised Braille characters on a connected device -- in this case, the VTPlayer. The characters are created by tiny metal pins that move up and down in panels on the surface of the device.

But the pins on the VTPlayer do more than make Braille letters, and this is what makes the Israeli device unique: The VTPlayer's pins also rise and fall according to the outlines and contours of pictures and graphic images on the computer screen. Thus, Mr. Holst could feel with his fingers what Saddam's face looked like in a photograph shot moments after he was taken into custody -- adding another dimension, literally, to Mr. Holst's appreciation of the event.

"I was surprised by the length of Saddam's beard," Mr. Holst quips.

Unlocking Potential

Innovative devices and software for years have attempted to help the visually impaired harness the full potential of personal computers and the Web. The most common tools are software programs called screen readers, which use Braille and synthesized-voice prompts to guide users through a variety of PC programs, like spreadsheets, PowerPoint and more. However, all but the most basic readers -- those that work only with email and word processing -- are expensive, with the most versatile costing around a thousand dollars. And relatively few Web sites have adopted the code screen readers need to identify page elements -- a state of affairs that limits most blind Internet users to a few familiar addresses.

All of this is changing, slowly, thanks to advances in technology and to political pressure from governments and advocacy groups. Web sites of government agencies in both the U.S. and Britain, for example, are now required by law to be completely accessible to screen readers. This means all of a site's features must be tagged with a code that screen readers use to recognize and identify the feature to the user. Laws protecting the rights of disabled workers, meanwhile, coupled with pressure from advocacy groups, are expected to help more blind people enter the workplace in the coming years, which in turn should increase demand for more advanced and affordable assistive products. In the U.S. alone, there are about 250,000 individuals of working age who are considered legally blind, only around 30% of whom are employed. There are around 10 million people with visual disabilities in the U.S.

[image] HE "The pace of change is accelerating as customers continue to demand more, which drives the development of new, more complex, technologies with more powerful features," says Brad Davis, vice president of hardware product management for Freedom Scientific Inc., a leading maker of screen readers, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The latest version of its Windows-based screen reader, Jaws 6.0, allows Web surfers to replace technical terms used by Jaws to identify Web page elements, like links, form fields and buttons, with labels of the user's own. The standard version retails for $895.

Another Windows-based reader, Window-Eyes, from GW Micro Inc., of Fort Wayne, Ind., now in its fifth version, supports every text feature and command in Microsoft Word, including the ability to navigate tables and columns. Users can find and fix spelling and grammar errors, read editing comments, and track multiple editing changes, all with keyboard commands and audible prompts. Window-Eyes 5.0 retails for $795.

Freedom Scientific and GW Micro, tapped by analysts as the industry leaders, are privately held and won't release sales or profit figures. But one indicator of how this market is growing is the recent arrival of a new competitor: Apple Computer Inc. last month released its new operating system for Macintosh computers with a screen reader built in.

Apple's move came in response to demand from Macintosh customers, advocacy groups and government institutions, says Phil Schiller, senior vice president, world-wide product marketing at Apple. The program, dubbed VoiceOver, focuses mainly on applications like word processing, email and Web browsing. It requires the user to learn only one set of commands, no matter which application is being used. But perhaps most important of all is the price: At $129 -- included in the price of the new Mac OS X system -- VoiceOver sells at a huge discount to most screen readers.

Price Breakthrough

Louis Herrera, chairman of the technology committee for the California Council of the Blind Inc., believes VoiceOver will "revolutionize the way computer accessibility is treated," because it makes assistive technology far more affordable to blind people with low incomes, and to potential employers of the blind. Indeed, a $499 Mac Mini computer with VoiceOver in the operating system can be purchased for less than the cost of a single Jaws or Window-Eyes program.

VoiceOver is not without its faults, nor is it as sophisticated as the main Windows-based screen readers, says Mr. Herrera, who has been blind since birth and whose organization, based in Hayward, Calif., provides services and acts as an advocate for the blind and visually impaired. He finds VoiceOver's spell-checker difficult to use, for example, and says getting VoiceOver to read pull-down menus is tricky. But he expects the product to improve, adding, "Apple has built this product into the operating system, which shows it's committed to it."

Windows-based readers hold a huge lead in this market, reflecting the dominance of Windows operating systems world-wide. But Microsoft Corp. has no screen reader of its own. Instead, there is a speech-recognition feature in Windows that allows users with disabilities to operate their computers by speech.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to say whether the company plans to include a basic screen reader in the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn and expected to be released in 2006. Longhorn could, however, pose a challenge of a different sort to screen-reader and assistive-product makers. Software-industry insiders say that Longhorn will present significant changes in how Windows works and the way in which its applications are designed. That means development costs for screen-reader makers could rise significantly -- as they have been already for years -- as they try to keep their products compatible.

Therein lies the main challenge facing the industry right now: making increasingly sophisticated products that keep up with changing technologies. Perhaps nowhere is the challenge greater than in efforts to promote wider screen-reader accessibility to Web sites.

For screen readers to work seamlessly on the Web there has to be cooperation from Web programmers and Web-page designers; they must include special coding for screen readers to detect and correctly identify different elements of a page. Without such coding, surfing the Web for the blind can be, at best, a very frustrating experience.

Jaws user Liz Cooke, a visually impaired editor at the London-based Royal National Institute of the Blind, says she's comfortable using Jaws while working on her PC offline. But the first time she used it to open a Web page, she says, "Jaws was speaking gibberish. I didn't understand that he was reading the banner."

A screen reader navigates a coded Web page the same way it navigates a document in Microsoft Word or any other compatible program. It reads aloud tags on each element that identify whether it's a headline, say, or a registration window, or an ad. As users move between elements using keyboard commands, like the tab and arrow keys, audio prompts let them know roughly where they are on the page, what it says there, and what their choices are. The reader also reads text aloud or converts it into Braille.

Jaws, said by many to have the best browsing ability, has improved since Ms. Cooke first tried it. Newer features make it easier to navigate familiar sites and to register on others. But the overall surfing experience can still be trying, as one must be well-versed in keyboard commands, and almost no two sites can be navigated in exactly the same way.

While a handful of countries have enacted laws pushing for Web accessibility, no law exists in the U.S. requiring private companies to make their Web sites more accessible to blind visitors. Some have adopted the coding anyway under pressure from rights-advocacy groups. In Britain, meanwhile, a law enacted in October that requires all U.K.-based companies to make their Web sites accessible by screen readers is having little impact.

Help could come from the World Wide Web Consortium, a group backed by some of the world's largest computer companies that encourages standardized and improved Web programming language. The consortium is lobbying alongside research institutes and other advocacy groups for a global standard of accessibility coding -- an effort supported also by the European Union Commission.

'Saddam's Beard'

Web accessibility is crucial for Mr. Roth's VTPlayer. While VirTouch already offers a Windows-based, offline version for about $970, the Web version is still in development.

No special coding is required to render simple line drawings, like a skeleton or a building plan, into a tactile surface on the VTPlayer's panels. But more complex images, like the photo of Saddam, contain different colors and shades. These require a special VirTouch code that produces the tactile outlines and embossments on the pin panels, as well as audio prompts that identify areas within images, like, "This is Saddam's beard."

Obviously, it's not possible for one group to annotate even a small fraction of the images found on the Internet. VirTouch's proposed solution is to host a collaborative Web site that would make its coding publicly available and encourage others to help code more images for use with the VTPlayer.

Meanwhile, Mr. Roth reckons his company is about five months away from a product that will help the visually impaired fully navigate the Web and work with all Windows applications. Says Mr. Roth, "We are trying to see how close we can come to the holy grail."

--Ms. Knight is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Brussels.

Write to Victoria Knight at

End of article.

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