Network: Who needs braille when a keyboard can do the talking?

A new project aims to improve online access and create better software for the visually impaired. By Mike George
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) estimates that 7,000 blind or partially sighted people in the UK could access the Internet for work or education; if personal use is added, the number increases to 10,000-20,000.

Surprised? You shouldn't be, says Peter Bosher, manager of the RNIB's Information Superhighways Project: "The Internet can be a great leveller, giving you access to printed material that you can't get otherwise. Sighted people have always been able to get printed information, most of which just isn't available to people with visual impairments, but now, for instance, it's possible for us to access national newspapers and magazines more quickly and easily than through braille or cassettes."

A pocket English-French dictionary in braille requires no less than 19 large volumes, or an awful lot of cassettes, and something like the Encyclopaedia Britannica is almost unmanageable, Bosher adds. By comparison, keyword searches on the Net are relatively easy. And of course only a tiny proportion of printed material of any kind gets put on to cassettes or into braille form. "You can now have the Bible, a dictionary, the Kama Sutra, Delia Smith, or the Beatles on your PC, taking up no shelf space at all or on a diskette or two, or on CD-Rom. You can search in seconds for what you want, hear it read back, print out an extract in braille, or enlarge it on your screen."

The late Dave Whitton, who was registered blind and an amputee, was another enthusiast. He was having trouble with his new artificial limb, and said he found a site in the US for wearers of prostheses. "There was a lot of practical advice around, for instance lightweight shoes seemed to be important, and so I junked the heavy shoes I had and now the limb works much better," he said. He also used the Net to access the US Library of Congress list of books on cassette, searching by author name, and then ordered them through the RNIB.

Because he had a little sight, Dave used enlargement and enhancement software with Windows. But many visually impaired people hate graphics: although only 4 per cent of visually impaired people are completely blind, a higher proportion than this are thought to have difficulty in dealing with graphics, preferring large text or speech synthesis.

"Unless you are used to visualising things, the graphical interface is anathema to those of us who find it difficult to image in that environment. Does an elephant look like a tree, or a fat long hulk, or a long snake?" says Henry Brugsch, a user who has been blind from birth. Speech synthesisers, or rather the recognition software, is not adept at identifying icons, so for anyone with too little sight to use enlargement/enhancement programmes, graphics are out.

And while standard sound cards are getting better at producing acceptable speech quality, Mr Bosher says the screen reading software has to become more clever before it does the job properly. "If, for example, I'm reading an electronic newspaper, some software will just go across the whole page, which means that I might pick up the first line of each of three headlines, rather than get a full headline followed by the story."

While screen-reading software is improving there is a new product thatcould eventually replace screen readers. Mr Bosher is one of many who is testing pwWebSpeak, a web browser designed specifically for visually impaired people. The New Jersey-based Net software company, Productivity Works, is keen to have it tested by real users. "So far, it seems OK, I haven't had to struggle with it," he adds.

In the meantime most visually impaired users prefer text-based interfaces, especially if they use speech synthesisers or braille. Here, the online service Delphi gets the thumbs-up because it has straightforward text, rather than the fancier graphics of AOL or CompuServe. While a Delphi spokesman admits that originally its interface just happened to suit visually impaired people, the organisation has gone on to provide additional free online time to blind or partially sighted people, and to run a dedicated forum and other support services. "We recognise that we're probably the best Internet provider for blind users, and want to remain so," he says.

With more than 27 million visually impaired people in Europe and the United States, providers and software companies have a large potential market, and Mr Bosher is upbeat about the possibilities. The RNIB project has on board other agencies such as the British Computer Association for the Blind, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the Association of Visually Handicapped Office Workers. One of its key priorities is to press developers and authors into thinking about whether they're excluding potential customers.

Anyone who is interested in RNIB's work should go to their home page at http://www.rnib. org.uk; or try the discussion group at alt.comp. blind user discussion group.

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