1998 Conference Proceedings

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James E. Schroeder and Kevin S. Templer
Applied Human Factors, Inc.
P.O. Box 781076
San Antonio, TX 78278
Voice/Message: (210) 408-0098 Toll-Free: (888) 243-0098
FAX: (210) 408-0097 Paper Session Number: 287
Exhibit Booth: Marriott Hotel, Imperial Ballroom, Booth #81
Internet Web Site: http://ahf-net.com 
e-mail: info@ahf-net.com

This research and development effort was supported by a Small Business Innovation Research Grant (#2 R44 HD28864-02) from 1992- 95 awarded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (Opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommen- dations expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health.)

Can a single comprehensive software program be created that significantly increases computer access for most physically challenged users?

What features and options should such a program have?

Can assessment tools be incorporated to assist the professionals who service the physically challenged computer user?

In what ways can the traditional concept of a "keyboard" be updated to provide an enhanced learning and performance environment (e.g., can multimedia components be incorporated to increase performance in children)?

These were some of the questions continually asked during the six-year (and counting) research and development effort described in this paper. Of the products developed, the one described here is called the REACH Interface Author(TM) Software ("REACH" in this paper), designed to provide a comprehensive set of tools for increasing accessibility to computers for the disabled community.

The most important (and, unfortunately the most unusual) aspect of this work was that it was guided to a large extent by the end users. Specifically, a human-factors design approach was used in which the target users were involved throughout the design process. User input was obtained through nine user tests conducted by the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. The purpose of those user tests was to gather performance data and solicit opinions and ideas about what features should be included in a comprehensive accessibility software tool kit. Disabled and non-disabled adults, adolescents, and children were included in the user tests. Also, an expert panel of 12 professionals (rehabilitation, occupational, and speech therapists, teachers, physicians, parents, etc.) who work daily with the target population was formed and their advice was solicited and incorporated.

When this project started, there were virtually no on-screen keyboard programs that allowed a user to use off-the-shelf Windows(TM) applications. Hence, the first goal was to show the feasibility of that approach. That turned out to be fairly simple and an on-screen keyboard was available by mid-1992.

However, the final REACH software goes far beyond on-screen keyboard emulation. Early evaluation showed that simple key entry, while important, does not necessarily mean simple computer access. For example, the "windows environment", although a tremendous step forward in the evolution of computer interfaces, can be disorienting, confusing, and difficult to operate for any user. Consequently, a set of "windows management" tools were incorporated into REACH. Many of these tools are automatic and "seamless"; a REACH user might not even know they are operating (unless already a sophisticated Windows(TM) user). Maximized applications are sized automatically above the REACH keyboard and dialog boxes automatically pop to the top when pointed at. Also, a "Program Turntable" button is provided so that users can quickly page through all open application programs.

To help overcome the all-too-common feeling of being "lost in a sea of windows", it was decided early in the project that an "anchor" or "home base" would be included to provide a sense of familiarity to the often changing windows display. Consequently, a REACH Button Bar was adopted that is always present at the bottom of the display (this was some time before the Windows(R)95 Task Bar was announced, which can provide a similar common "landmark"). From the REACH Button Bar, the REACH Menu Bar, Status Bar, and selected keyboard can be displayed or hidden.

Another major concern from the onset was display "real estate", that is, the fact that the amount of space available on the computer's display is quite limited. In most cases, the minimum requirement is an on-screen keyboard and an application program such as word processing, spreadsheet, database, etc. Such programs typically come with substantial real estate of their own (e.g., title bar, menu bar, button bars, etc.). In addition, for many users, the keys on the keyboard must be relatively large in order to make accurate selections.

In REACH, there is no promotional title bar (that takes up real estate). The Menu Bar, Status Bar, and keyboard can each be removed or displayed with a single button press. If a user needs large keys to improve accuracy, the size of the keyboard and the size of the keys on the keyboard can both be adjusted. Another option for users requiring large targets is the "Keyboard Turntable(TM)" feature that can page through four favorite keyboards by pressing the "Next Keyboard" button. For example, the standard QWERTY keyboard might be one keyboard (or half the QWERTY keyboard if larger keys are required), a numeric keypad on a second keyboard, function and control keys on a third, etc. Also, the keyboard easily can be hidden for programs that require little text entry by pressing the "Hide Keyboard" button.

REACH was designed to be extremely adaptable to accommodate a variety of users and uses. No single end user will probably ever use all the features in REACH, but having all the features in one program allows the user, teacher, therapist, care provider, etc., to customize REACH to suit the user's special needs and abilities. Also, providing a comprehensive package which quickly can be modified is a great advantage in some educational or assessment settings, where the same computer system must be quickly adjusted for many different users.

Many of the features in REACH are innovative but many are components that have been around for some time. The important thing is that REACH combines them into one comprehensive package.

Perhaps one of the most important and innovative REACH feature is the multimedia keyboard authoring module, which allows users to modify or create their own custom keyboards. Sounds (wav files), pictures(bmp files), text, colors, key size/shape, key transparency, and speech can be combined with four types of keys (standard, special, word, and "get keyboard"), three key states (normal, pointed at, and pressed), and background features to allow an entirely new and innovative concept of "keyboard".

As a result, 20 "types" of keyboards have been created including Standard, Special, International, Children's, Speech, Musical, Reading-Assistance, Quiz, Interpreter, Game, Storybook, Scanning, Exploratory (stimulus-response), Puzzle, Performance-Aid, Secret Code, Template, Point/Click Motor Skills, and Memory Assessment.

Some of the more innovative keyboard types are briefly described here. Reading-Assistance(TM) Keyboards allow a user to "break down" a sentence into its component words, words into their component sounds, and sounds into their component letters. Storybook(TM) Keyboards allow a child to read an "animated" book. Text and corresponding speech can be combined. "Get Keyboard" keys allow the user to go from one page(keyboard) to the next. Quiz(TM) Keyboards allow a multimedia (combined sounds, speech, pictures, text) method of presenting or testing information. Scanning Keyboards (auditory and visual) can be created using the Scanning Expert(TM) module (e.g., scanning patterns can be set). Point/Click Motor-Skills(TM) Keyboards provide practice in using a pointer or operating a switch (usually in a "game" context). Memory-Assessment(TM) Keyboards can measure perceptual, short- term, or long-term memory (useful in some settings). Performance Aid(TM) Keyboards are customized to a user/work setting to help quickly find information, enter canned text, or use the phone.

Examples of each keyboard type are included with REACH, but the goal is to provide the tools for users to create their own keyboards and share them with other users. To assist, Applied Human Factors, Inc. is setting up two web pages to help users share their keyboards(i.e., go to the "Keyboard Library") and word prediction user dictionaries (i.e., go to "Dictionary Library"). Both are found on the Internet at ahf-net.com.

Applied Human Factors, Inc. continues work to further extend the concept of an "on-screen assistive keyboard". For information or free demo software, attend our paper session (#287), visit our booth (#81 in the Marriott), visit our web site, or call.

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