Blind World Magazine

Team works to increase accessibility to computer career fields.

The Daily, University of Washington USA.
Thursday, May 04, 2006.

A team of UW researchers and faculty is actively working to improve computer access for students with disabilities.

The UW has spearheaded a national program called the AccessComputing Alliance dedicated to helping disabled students pursue careers in computing. The group is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Among the UW's active projects is improving Tactile Graphics technology. Tactile Graphics is an automated conversion of printed or electronic graphics to Braille format, enabling blind students to translate graphs and charts.

The tool dramatically decreases the amount of time needed to convert and make tactile images from textbooks.

The technology can translate 1,100 figures in six minutes, reducing the time it takes to translate a textbook from 300 hours to 100.

To complete these kinds of projects takes time, but the tool should be ready within the next year, said Richard Ladner, a Boeing professor in the computer science and engineering department.

Other UW products designed to assist disabled students include keyboard and mouse alternatives, along with high-speed text scanners that capture textbook material and convert it to a format for the visually impaired. The UW is also developing speech recognition software that can be used as a writing tool.

These resources may be the key to encouraging more students with disabilities to enter computer fields, said Dan Comden, manager of the Access Technology Lab (ATL) in the Department of Computing and Communication.

"Getting the students into the [computer science] programs in the first place is the biggest challenge," Comden said. "That's why the research with the Tactile Graphics Project, as well as other projects and AccessComputing, is so important -- it helps get the tools out there on all levels."

The ATL is also looking into using the DAISY standard of digital talking books. This standard would render a human voice in a multimedia representation of a publication, as opposed to the traditional analog depiction.

The AccessComputing Alliance teamed the Department of Computer Science and Engineering with the Department of Computing and Communication's Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) program to facilitate learning.

Even with the groups' combined resources, making technology such as Gmail or Flash accessible is beyond their ability right now, Ladner said. The Department of Computer Science and Engineering is attempting to halt the University's use of Flash media until there is a product that can make it sufficiently accessible.

"It's kind of a step backward to say we're accessible when a Flash page comes up, and suddenly you're not," Ladner said. "You don't want to move forward until you're really accessible."

Although assistive technology developments tend to lag behind the latest innovations, they usually catch up eventually, said Sheryl Burgstahler, co-director of the alliance and director of DO-IT.

These developments make it feasible for the disabled to enter computer fields, Burgstahler said.

"A lot of [the disabled] and their parents, family members and supporters don't realize that the technology is there, and they think of the computing field as being very difficult," she said. "Sometimes they shelter individuals with disabilities because they don't know the possibilities are there and they're not encouraging them."

End of article.

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