2001 Conference Proceedings

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Jim Halliday
President, HumanWare, Inc.
6245 King Road
Loomis, CA 95650
Phone: 800-722-3393 x 412
Fax: 916-652-7296
Email: halliday@humanware.com

Three years ago, I published a paper entitled, Braille vs. Speech: Making Sense of the Debate. (A copy is still available in the Forum section of HumanWare’s website at www.humanware.com). In this paper I discussed the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of speech and Braille and stressed the importance of the brain pathways as they relate to learning through these very different media. The ultimate conclusion of the paper stressed not only the validity of using multiple forms of media (speech, Braille, and tactile graphics), but also the need to combine these various media. The paper also projected into the future the kinds of technology needed to achieve greater success. Moore’s Law has proven that technology doubles in its speed of processing and its sheer capacity every eighteen months. This means that since writing the 1998 paper, technology has made monumental leaps into new realms. Let’s see how we are doing.

Speech technology has moved from hardware-based solutions to software-based solutions. Braille has moved from "dumb" terminals that are totally dependent on screen reading software to terminals with the intelligence to add power and simplicity to any screen reader. Just three years ago, the technological limitations of both speech and Braille devices, especially portable devices, trapped people who were blind in "blindness" environments or forced them into full-blown computers with complicated screen readers just to perform simple but necessary functions like email.

New technologies are enhancing a blind person’s ability to use their preferred media for reading and writing without being confined to the world of blindness. The advantage of having mainstream applications presented in an environment that is intuitive and efficient has been the domain of those who have sight. In just three years, new technology has advanced to the point where blind people can have the same advantages of environment and yet still produce results that are compatible and in many cases indistinguishable from those produced by their sighted counterparts.

This paper is about these new technologies and how they can be used to increase productivity, improve competitive performance, and enhance the likelihood of success for people who are blind. My 1998 paper compares Braille and speech and explains their strengths and weaknesses while suggesting how they are best applied. The fundamental philosophies expressed in that paper remain valid today, but the technology has changed and a new generation of products means that the future is really starting today.

"Sight is an amazing sense that instantly and simultaneously detects broad spatial characteristics, intricate patterns, complex symbols, multiple color combinations, juxtaposed data points, spatial relationships, and even subtle variations that add depth of meaning to an image." JCH 1998

In the early 80s when Apple Computers introduced the Macintosh, many people scoffed at the cutesy icons that were designed to make using the computer more intuitive and friendly. These skeptics looked down on this graphical user interface as something no "real" computer user would ever take seriously. Today 95% of the desktop computers in the world use a very similar graphical user interface called Windows. Why? Most people don’t really care about the mechanics of a device. They simply want to put the device to use to generate a result in the easiest, most efficient, most effective way possible. The graphical user interface was just such a solution for people with sight.

Although a user interface and a computer operating system are two different things, Microsoft bound them inextricably into one when they created Windows. As a result, people who are blind are forced to navigate through a visual obstacle course just to access the Windows operating system and the applications that run under it. To accomplish this wonder, they must use a piece of software called a screen reader. Unfortunately, although a screen reader does provide access to Windows and its applications, that access is not the same fast, friendly and intuitive interface enjoyed by sighted people. We talk a lot about equal access in our industry, but the fact it, ACCESS IS NOT EQUAL UNLESS THE ENVIRONMENT IS EQUAL. A visual environment is by definition NOT equally accessible to someone who is blind.

The goal of screen readers has been to provide access to a graphical user interface. However, the goal of a computer user is to control specific applications (word processor, email program, address list manager, scheduler, etc.) in order to produce a specific result. Unfortunately, the more a user is forced to deal with access technology before he or she can focus on the desired applications, the less enjoyable, efficient and competitive that process becomes. We will talk more about screen readers later in this paper, but for now let’s be clear that as important as screen readers are to the blindness community, they add an extra level of complexity that sighted people do not confront when accessing computers.

One way of getting around this extra step is to create a computer with a closed environment. Traditional notetakers fit into this category. They have their own user interface that is more or less intuitive for speech or Braille users. They also have a series of proprietary applications, with varying degrees of capability, that are built on an operating system that will process the data and produce a result. Unfortunately, these traditional notetakers have lacked the power of true applications and they have not been built on a modern operating system that is compatible with mainstream technology. IF THE RESULTS ONE PRODUCES ARE NOT COMPATIBLE WITH OR INDESTINGUISHABLE FROM THE RESULTS PRODUCED ON MAINSTREAM TECHNOLOGY, THEN THE USER IS AT A HUGE DISADVANTAGE AND MUCH LESS LIKELY TO COMPETE EQUALLY IN A SIGHTED WORLD.

Truly effective computer technology must possess three key elements: 1) An intuitive, fast and friendly user interface (environment) that gives people who are blind direct access to applications. 2) A suite of powerful applications that all "feel" the same even though they are used for totally different purposes. 3) An operating system that allows the final results produced by those applications to be compatible with mainstream technology. Such a device not only offers equal access, because it has an equally intuitive environment, but it provides equal results because those results are indistinguishable from those produced on mainstream computers.

Although I’ve been promoting the creation of such a device for years, the only products that currently begin to approach this lofty goal are BrailleNotes and VoiceNotes. All models of these products have intuitive user interfaces designed specifically for auditory or Braille users. All models also have a full suite of applications that include a word processor, a standard POP3 email program, an address list manager that is actually relational database, a true scheduling program, a book reading program, and a scientific calculator. All models are built on a Windows CE operating system, which allows the user to produce results that are compatible with those produced from standard Windows applications. For example, a Grade II document produced on a BrailleNote can be saved as a Microsoft Word file, which instantly back translates the file into standard print text and saves it in a format that is literally a Word file, readable on any standard PC running Word. Likewise, a file originally produced on a standard PC in Word can be opened on the BrailleNote and read in its original format or instantly converted into a Grade II Braille file. At the writing of this paper, Word is the only instantly compatible application in these products, but because BrailleNotes and VoiceNotes are built on a Windows CE platform, it is just a matter of time before other standard applications are likely to be equally compatible.

Although products like the BrailleNote or VoiceNote effectively address the equality issues relating to standard computing, they contain only a limited number of applications. Many sighted people carry Palm Pilots or Pocket PCs, but these people also have PCs that perform more powerful or esoteric functions. For those jobs that require more than just standard applications, screen readers again become the only way of access for someone who is blind.

There are a variety of screen readers on the market. Some are powerful, yet complicated. Others are more straightforward, but also more limited. Some are configurable, yet still approachable. And still others offer the ability to write special scripts that can be extremely time consuming and costly to produce, but which streamline access once those scripts have been written. Still, many applications don’t require complicated scripts. In our office, we recently paid nearly $4,000 to have someone write special scripts for a screen reader to access our in-house database. To our regret, we later tried a less expensive screen reader that worked right out of the box without any need for scripting whatsoever.

Most screen readers in the US have been written from an auditory perspective with Braille as an afterthought. As a result, the Braille access is often limited or it contains access elements that are less intuitive or friendly for a Braille user. Traditionally, Braille displays have been totally dependent on screen readers to give them access to a computer. The strengths and weaknesses of the screen reader are reflected onto the Braille display. As a result, the screen reader with the best Internet access might have the worst Braille access or the one with the best Braille access might be less configurable. As a result, users have been forced to either use multiple screen readers or to settle for the one with the least weaknesses for his or her access purposes. One of the two key issues in using Braille displays is that a Braille user wants great Braille access, but doesn’t want to give up the ability to configure his or her screen reader (preferable without paying someone big bucks to do it). The second key issue is that anyone who uses a Braille display wants to be able to control Windows right from the display rather than constantly returning to the computer’s keyboard to enter commands, which takes valuable time and increases fatigue. Most Braille displays have exacerbated this problem because their command-keys have no relationship to Windows, which uses optional mnemonic keyboard commands to replace mouse moves and clicks. For example, ALT F opens the drop-down menu in a Windows application. CTRL S saves a file. CRTL P prints the file. X exits or closes the application. Windows makes all of these commands easy and fast, but Braille displays have had limited or no ability to control Windows directly.

In the future, Braille displays will need to rise above the limitations of a screen reader. Braille displays will come with their own software, which will enhance the performance of any screen reader. This software will limit the need to purchase screen readers that require complicated and costly configurations because the Braille display’s software will already contain easily programmable yet extremely powerful macro capabilities. New-generation Braille displays will also have command-keys configured in such as way as to take advantage of the mnemonics that are already built into Windows.

At this writing, there is only one of these new-generation Braille displays on the market. Braille Voyager comes with its own software, called Tieman Express, which is a powerful macro program and you don’t need to be a programmer to configure it. It also has command-keys configured like 8 Braille writing keys. Dots (keys) 7 and 8 are CTRL and ALT keys, so all Windows commands are easily and intuitively controlled right from the Braille display.

As we look into the future, we can predict that breakthrough products like BrailleNote, VoiceNote and Braille Voyager will fundamentally change the way people who are blind think and function. These products will evolve further and other developers will copy these fundamental ideas and add their own ideas to create new variations. People who are sight and people who are blind will all download electronic books from Barnes and Noble or some other on-line bookstore and be able to read those books in print, large print, speech, or Braille. All they will need is the appropriate reading device. I am convinced that mainstream technology will move toward personal wireless controllers for everything from microwaves to automated teller machines to coke machines. As this happens, previously inaccessible machines and technology will suddenly become accessible through both speech and Braille devices that ride this same wave. As I noted earlier, the future starts today as the first signs of these new technologies enter our market. The infrared port on a BrailleNote can already print to a printer, or transfer files to a computer, or display what’s on the Braille display in fully back-translated text on a computer’s monitor without even connecting any wires. As fully wireless communications becomes more widely available, devices like the VoiceNote will not only function as one’s personal organizer, but it will become a controller to the mainstream world.

These advances seem mind-boggling today, but in five years they will be commonplace. And the greatest thing about all of this technological change is that people who are blind will have better access than ever before. They will simply carry a different controller from the ones carries by sighted people. Everyone will have a unique user interface tailored to his or her unique needs. The communications will be universal, so that all controllers will be compatible with the devices that we will all be controlling. And because each person will have a friendly environment controlling universally compatible technology, the results will be far more equal for everyone.

Jim Halliday has been intimately involved with a number of major developers and manufactures of braille and speech technology since the mid-1970s. He is currently president of HumanWare, Inc. in Loomis, CA. E-mail: halliday@humanware.com

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