2000 Conference Proceedings

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New Braille Technology to Assist Visually Impaired People to Maximize their Literary Productivity

James C. Halliday, President
HumanWare Inc.
Loomis, CA

Russell Smith, Managing Director
Pulse Data International Limited
Christchurch, New Zealand

Larry Lewis, Blindness Products Manager
HumanWare Inc.
Loomis, CA



This paper discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of alternative text access methods for visually impaired people. In particular methods, which use screen readers working with standard applications, are compared with purpose-designed devices, which create and access the same documents as the target applications.

In conjunction with the presentation of this paper, the authors will announce and demonstrate a family of new portable Braille and Speech text devices, which realize the productivity gains available from purpose-designed devices.


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Application Access versus Document Access for Visually Impaired Readers and Writers

There are clearly at least two different approaches to providing a visually impaired person with the ability to create, read, and exchange documents with colleagues. One way is to provide an application access device, which will allow the visually impaired person to operate exactly the same computer application as his or her colleagues, and use this to create or exchange compatible documents. Another way is to provide a document access device, with which the user can directly generate or read the same documents as his colleagues is working with, but which may not use either the same application or even the same type of hardware or operating system.

Application access devices in common use include such screen-reading products as Zoomtext, JAWS for Windows, WindowEyes and many others. Document access devices in common use include such products as the Keynote Companion and Braillelite. These are physical devices, which have been purpose-designed for use by visually impaired people. Both types of device utilize large print, synthesized speech or refreshable Braille displays to display information to their users.

Both approaches have inherent limitations and advantages.

The application access approach suffers most from complexity. To learn to use a graphical interface, even for a sighted user, is challenging. The relatively intuitive point and click control is probably the only reason many users persevere with it. For a blind user, who must first manipulate the underlying document to make the relevant part appear in a window, which is itself invisible, is a tough ask, and the point and click function is no help. The strength of this approach is that it has the capability of handling a range of different applications, which is useful, in particular, for the users who are using non-text programs.

The document access approach has complementary strengths and weaknesses. Since these products are purpose-designed for visually impaired people, they are dramatically simpler to use. They are therefore capable of allowing the user to complete particular tasks much more quickly. For instance, the user can move freely around the whole document and does not need to be concerned about which part of it is visible through a screen window. Controls can be much simpler also, since they act directly on the document, rather than acting on an application, which in turn acts on the document. The weakness is that this method is limited to the creation of only the document types the designers have decided to support.

How well each approach works in practice depends more on what kinds of document the visually impaired user needs to deal with. Documents have changed considerably over the centuries and never more rapidly than in the last 5 years.


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When an early caveperson discovered that a burnt stick would leave a mark on a cave wall and that a simple outline picture drawn on a cave wall could tell a story, the world's first document was born. For the first time, an idea had been transferred from the mind of the author onto a physical medium so others could review it.

When William Caxton invented the printing press in England in the 15th century, he provided a method by which a single document could be duplicated any number of times and be reviewed simultaneously by any number of people. The document, at this point, was still a physical thing but it was now able to exist in parallel lives.

The photocopier allowed anyone to instantly create a duplicate of a document from the original. The fax machine then allowed the creation of a replica of a document at a remote site, anywhere in the world wherever there happened to be a telephone line.

Following such transitions, it is difficult to define exactly what a document is. Is a document the page that falls onto the floor from your fax machine? Or, is it the sequence of 1's and 0's that are carried along the telephone line from the sender?

The advent of computers and then the emergence, in the last few years, of electronic mail as a major communication medium has further confused the definition of the document. Whereas once one could cling to the idea that a document was a physical thing one could pick up and review, now a document might never exist in a physical form. Most email never gets printed out by either the sender or the recipient. So, where is the document? Or is this document-less communication? If there is a document there somewhere, what is its form? Is it the computer file that briefly exists while an email is being composed, then is transmitted through the telephone system or around the office network to the electronic mailbox of the recipient?

If the document, in order to be readable, needs to be processed with the same computer application as was used by the author, that application must also be considered a necessary part of the document. If the document was to become universal in nature, so standard applications running on any terminal device, could allow it to be read, then the document would no longer require an application to be complete.

Nowadays, with email being sent and received on computers of all sorts, proprietary document formats are clearly doomed. Universal accessibility has become far more important than cosmetic aspects of the documentation. Communication has supplanted aesthetics.

The growth of simple document formats that has occurred in the past few years, as a result of the paramount need for documents to be carried as email to every imaginable platform, has been astounding. Suddenly the need for the bells and whistles found in a typical word processor, such as fancy type fonts, tricky tables, headers and footers, etc., have gone. Email is both simple and generic. It has to be. If people are going to be able to receive email on all sorts of terminal devices such as pocket organizers, cellular phones, and pagers, as well as desktop computers of every type imaginable, then there is no way that a Microsoft Word? format will do the job. What is needed is a universal document format. This seems certain to evolve in the next few years.


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Lets consider the suitability of the two access methods for handling modern email documents. With email, we have a document format, which is relatively simple, but typical email applications use rather complex screen presentations.

The application access approach uses a necessarily complex process to create or read a simple document - the worst possible scenario. Hours of training would typically be required to familiarize a novice user with an email application/screen reader combination.

The document access approach, on the other hand, uses a simple process to create a simple document - an ideal scenario. Since the email document format is elementary, designing an editor to create and read such a format is very easy.

Now lets consider the creation and editing of a Microsoft Word? Text document using each of the access techniques. In this case, we have a complex document format.

The application access method again involves a complex procedure as Word utilizes a complex visual screen format. The task of familiarizing a novice user with this combination of screen reader and application, is very substantial.

The document access method can again yield a simple solution. From a user perspective, it is not much more difficult to create a Word document than an email document, using a purpose-designed device. The difficult task of ensuring the output is fully compatible with Microsoft's Word format is entirely handled by the software.

It can therefore be concluded that for simple text formats, such as those used in email and for specific complex formats, if they are supported by the device, such as that used by MS Word, document access methods have real advantages. They offer visually impaired people significant advantages over application access methods, due to their simplicity of operation and the productivity gains they offer.

It is realistically possible for any document access device to generate documents, which are fully compatible with Word or any other proprietary format. It is not easy to achieve this, but it is possible. As progress is made towards a universal format for text documents, however, the task for designers to support such a complex format will greatly reduce, since there will be only one universal format to deal with. Once available, such a common format will further increase the effectiveness of such access systems in assisting visually impaired people to greater productivity in their literary endeavors.

It is often argued that visually impaired people are disadvantaged if they cannot use the same computer applications as their sighted colleagues. But really, it's irrelevant which application is used. What is important is that a visually impaired person be able to create, read and exchange fully compatible documents with their colleagues. How they achieve that should not be at issue.

The interests of a blind individual can best be met by providing him or her with the simplest and most efficient work environment, and for the device used to take care of the compatibility with the outside world.


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A New Generation of Braille and Speech Devices Offers New Solutions

A new range of refreshable Braille and Speech devices from HumanWare and Pulse Data makes its first public appearance at the CSUN "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" Conference, March 2000. For reasons of commercial sensitivity, no details of these products can be included in this paper. Full details will be available at the Conference presentation of this paper, however.

This family of products will offer new opportunities for visually impaired people to be more productive and more competitive in their handling of text documents.


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Dedicated Document Access Devices - A User Perspective

At the presentation of this paper, Larry Lewis, co-author of the paper and an experienced user of many of today's access devices for the visually impaired, will present his views on the significance of the new products being released.


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