The Web at their fingertips

The internet is no longer an impossible dream for people who are both deaf and blind
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The Independent Online

Like most internet users, James Gallagher can reel off a list of his favourite websites in seconds. The BBC site gets a mention, as does the British Museum's online offering. A site called IT Reviews, which offers the latest reviews of IT gadgets, also makes the list. Yet in one very important way, James Gallagher is not like other internet users: he is totally blind and almost completely deaf.

Like most internet users, James Gallagher can reel off a list of his favourite websites in seconds. The BBC site gets a mention, as does the British Museum's online offering. A site called IT Reviews, which offers the latest reviews of IT gadgets, also makes the list. Yet in one very important way, James Gallagher is not like other internet users: he is totally blind and almost completely deaf.

With at least 95 per cent of what we learn reaching us via our eyes and ears, it is hard to fathom the extent to which many deaf-blind people find their communication and access to information affected, making the internet an unlikely home for the 23,000 deaf-blind people who currently live in the UK.

Whatever you may think of the internet, it would be hard to imagine a more visual medium. While television can be enjoyed from the next room, or without paying attention to what is on the screen, the internet relies upon user interaction to operate effectively.

However, against all odds, a small but growing group of deaf-blind users have embraced the internet with gusto, not only in terms of extracting information from it, but also by adding content, with a number of websites and newsgroups they themselves have created.

Gallagher, for example, is the creator and editor of the A-Z of Deaf-blindness (www.deaf-blind.com), a site which he has developed and funded himself. The most noticeable thing about this site is the overwhelming amount of information available on deaf-blindness, yet the lack of any on Gallagher himself.

"That decision was intentional," he explains. "When I started working on my site there were no real sites about deaf-blindness in the UK, only a few US-based sites. I wanted to develop a UK site in order to help other deaf-blind people and to try, in a little way, bring more awareness to the sighted-hearing about people with deaf-blindness."

Most questions that James is asked come back to the same thing: how does a deaf-blind person actually use the internet? Inputting information is the easy part; deaf-blind sufferers, like blind people, can often touch type on a Braille or regular keyboard without too much trouble. Getting information out of the computer is more of a challenge. Once explained, however, the actual mechanics involved seem surprisingly straightforward.

Because he is deaf as well as being blind, Gallagher is unable to use a speech synthesiser to let him access a computer. Instead, he uses something called a Refreshable Braille Display which is an electronic device used to read the text a computer sends to the monitor. The device is connected to the computer by a serial cable and produces Braille output on the display, one line of text at a time.

To identify the individual characters themselves, the display has rows of "cells" - as many as 80 on the larger displays - each containing eight small pins which rise and fall to translate the on-screen text into eight-dot computer Braille. The display also generally includes directional keys allowing the user to navigate through a document.

This equipment, however, comes at a price. Gallagher has spent thousands of pounds in his quest for internet access. "So many deaf-blind people out there will never get the chance that I have had," he explains. "A good part of my life savings has been spent on the equipment bought over the years to let me access a computer."

Fortunately, equipment like the Tieman CombiBraille Refreshable Display, which Gallagher uses, may soon be within the grasp of more people than ever before. A US government body known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently unveiled its own electronic reader for the blind, which places a rotating wheel underneath the user's fingers to transform the electronic text into Braille. The good news is that while current Braille readers can cost up to $15,000 (£10,500), the NIST estimates its latest reader will cost less than $1,000 (£700). This is great news, not only for deaf-blind users, but also for their families, who often play a key role in helping deaf-blind users to embrace the internet in the first place.

Gallagher explains that it was his mother and father who pushed him to go online. "I really thought one had to be quite bright to use the internet and to understand the way it worked, so I really thought the internet was out of my reach," he confesses. "I saw it as a place for the sighted-hearing, and so for a long time I would not try it in any way, but after some time - maybe a year or two - with a lot of pushing from my mother and father, I began slowly to teach myself to use the computer in a way that I could understand."

His love affair with the internet began with him sending and receiving a few e-mails, which soon gave him enough confidence to engage with a few newsgroups. Now on the internet for almost six years, he has taught himself everything he knows about computers - including web design - and feels he is still learning more and more every day.

His interest in newsgroups has led him to start up a new one called free.uk.deaf-blind, which he is currently attempting to promote to several UK ISPs. He hopes the new newsgroup will bring more British deaf-blind people together so they can begin helping each other more.

"For most people the equipment sitting on the desk in front of them is just a metal frame with some plastic around it and some boards that are within the unit. For deaf-blind people, however, computers are our gateway to the outside world," he says. "Like many other deaf-blind and blind people on the Net, I can access information, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as many of the great classic books via the internet.

"A lot of people might think 'so what?' But to people like me who cannot access such material easily, it is great. The internet to us is like our public library, and it is also our cornershop and newsagent as well."

At the moment there are still technical limitations for deaf-blind web users. Sites with a large amount of graphics or animation will still present problems, which could be bad news for visually impaired people. However, legal and social advocates for the blind and visually impaired continue to make significant strides towards bringing the internet within reach of deaf-blind users.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind sued America Online, claiming it discriminated because its system was not accessible to blind users. The federation ended up dropping the lawsuit in July when AOL agreed to make its software compatible with devices designed for blind and visually impaired users.

Milestones like these are incredibly important for Gallagher and his peers. In fact, Gallagher has already formed something of an alliance with one commercial website. What started off as a chance encounter (he had written to the editor of IT Reviews to praise the site's simple design) has ended up as more of a partnership, with the editor now submitting any design changes to Gallagher before implementing them, to ensure the site will still be accessible to his deaf-blind users.

IT Reviews' editor, Alex Cruickshank, explains: "When creating IT Reviews, I had no particular intention of gearing the site towards visually, or otherwise-impaired, Web users. My goal was to remain true to the principles of the inventors of the Web; to provide accurate and reliable information in an accessible fashion, with as little clutter as possible. The fact that visually impaired users can access it so easily is simply a welcome result of this."

Gallagher says he has enjoyed working with Alex to make the IT Reviews site as accessible as possible."I just wish that other Web designers would have some thought for people who cannot use a site because it is not accessible. Let's be honest, you do not need to be the Brain of Britain to design an accessible site, all you need is some common sense."

More information on the Tieman CombiBraille Refreshable Display can be found at the Concept Systems website (www.conceptsystems.net)

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