Blind World Magazine

Access for all.

Wisconsin State Journal, WI, USA.
Friday, September 15, 2006.

Neal Ewers of Madison is an exceptionally fast reader.

"I can read about 750 words a minute," he said.

That's three times faster than the reading speed of the average person.

But what makes Ewers' ability so amazing is that the 63-year-old has been blind since birth.

"I use a computer. I use the Windows features, Excel, Word." Ewers said. "The difference is you can see the whole page. I can only see one word at a time."

It's more accurate to say that he can only "hear" one word at a time. Voice-synthesizing software on his computer translates text into spoken words through a screen-reading system called Job Access with Speech. The software plays text at a pace that is incomprehensible to anyone without Ewers' years of practice.

It's just one of the ways that technology is aiding people with disabilities.

"With all the new ways that screen readers have to help you skim read, like reading the first line of each paragraph or reading whatever you search for, I not only have the ability to read fast, I also have a greater ability to skim read," Ewers said. "I'm not all that handicapped when it comes to reading the page."

What has made innovations in adaptive technology - technology for people with disabilities - possible is not only the introduction of new gadgets and software. A dramatic shift in design philosophy is making technology accessible to more people regardless of their abilities.

The Trace Research and Development Center in UW-Madison's College of Engineering has pioneered the creation of products with ease-of-use features using universal design. Trace Center director Gregg Vanderheiden said technology designed just for the disabled is missing the point.

"There are some that say that accessibility and usability are two completely separate topics. They say that accessibility is for people with disabilities and usability has to do with everybody else," Vanderheiden said. "The first problem with that is there is no difference between people with disabilities and everybody else. It's just a continuum."

Sometimes people with perfectly good eyesight need help seeing what's on their computer screens. One minor injury and you can suddenly find yourself incapable of using one of your hands. In a crowded room or on a busy street anyone can become hard of hearing.

"Universal design makes technology easier for everyone," Vanderheiden said. "Especially as the population ages accessibility eventually becomes an issue we'll all have to face."

Trace Center improvements include text labels embedded in the standard HTML codes of most Web sites that help a screen reader differentiate between text and graphics. Alternative text provides a verbal description of an image.

"But not only does that work for me," said Ewers, who helps the Trace Center test its products, "it works for people who are using PDAs and hand-held (computers) and aren't downloading the graphics anyway. The pages download faster."

The Trace Center is responsible for creating several accessibility features that are now common to most computer systems. With the help of consultants such as Ewers, Vanderheiden and his team of researchers created StickyKeys that allow computer users to perform keyboard tasks with one hand that usually require two.

Other features developed at the Trace Center include FilterKeys, ToggleKeys, SoundSentry, ShowSounds and MouseKeys

The Trace Center also developed accessibility features now used on automated postal stations at post offices and automated teller machines at banks across the country. Both devices are equipped with voice output that provides blind or low vision users with instructions and transaction details.

A variety of other accessibility devices are available for students at UW-Madison through the McBurney Disability Resource Center. Computer programs include those that convert text into audio or services that create real-time transcripts of lectures on laptop computers for the deaf.

Director Cathy Trueba said that new systems are becoming available that have implications for how everyone learns, not just those with disabilities.

"This technology is so exciting because it's changing how we think about reading," Trueba said. "It's not just a static process where you have text on a page. It really changes what you can do."

Computer programs available through the McBurney Center help students develop their reading and writing skills by pairing textual and auditory information. Textbooks can be scanned and converted into digital files, making those texts more portable and allowing learning to occur almost anywhere.

"When I think about little kids who have great capacity to understand and interact with language, but who're not proficient readers, the last thing you want that kid to do is stop reading and interacting with language," Trueba said. "But the provision of this multisensory seeing and listening benefits the kid who's just not ready to read, has a learning disability, who's fidgety and can't sit still with a book but really wants to engage in language. It hits a lot of different populations."

James Edward Mills 608-252-6158

End of article.

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