2003 Conference Proceedings

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David Johnson, Publications Director
Silver Spring, MD
Email: abledata@macroint.com


ABLEDATA is a comprehensive information resource for people with all sorts of disabilities, sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). Its centerpiece is a database that currently has records for over 29,000 products, of which about 10% are blind and low vision products. ABLEDATA's web site, www.abledata.com, has a variety of other resources, all of them including information related to blindness and low vision (B&LV). Among these resources are an AT Library containing literature abstracts; a Consumer Forum providing space for consumers to post their own product reviews; web links on disability and AT; a list of AT manufacturers and distributors; conference listings; and ABLEDATA's own Informed Consumer Guides and Fact Sheets in downloadable formats. A Resource Center on our web site brings together all of ABLEDATA's resources in each of seven selected areas, one of which is Blindness and Low Vision.

The ABLEDATA product database covers products for any condition that might be considered a disability under the ADA. It includes hypoallergenic products for people with allergies and ergonomic keyboards for people with carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as products for people with spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, deafness, cognitive disabilities, and blindness. We have a finite budget and staff, so there are a few limitations on the comprehensiveness of ABLEDATA's product database:

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are advantages to covering blind and low vision products in a comprehensive general resource on AT products. A comprehensive, general resource is especially useful for professionals who work with a diverse population. ABLEDATA is a starting place for teachers, therapists, counselors, and others who work with individuals with a variety of disabilities, and who benefit from having products for all sorts of disabilities in one place. A comprehensive, general resource is also especially useful for individuals who are developing disabilities as they get older. A comment we frequently hear from these individuals or their adult children calling on their behalf is that they don't know where to start. We get similar comments from parents of children with disabilities. For people unfamiliar with disability, ABLEDATA serves as a portal into the world of AT products and disability in general.

A disadvantage of being a comprehensive general resource is that we have to cover everything with a limited staff. In particular, the small size of our staff means that only a few disabilities are represented in terms of personal experience, and our expertise may be limited in certain areas. We get information on new products by attending conferences, through contacts with vendors and consumers, and by scanning disability publications, catalogs, and web sites. We succeed in finding most new products and describing them accurately, but omissions and mistakes in our product listings do occur.

Improving Coverage of B&LV Products

As noted above, over the years around 10% of the listings in ABLEDATA's product database have been for B&LV products. This makes our product database among the largest B&LV databases on the Internet. Our publications include Fact Sheets on Braille Writers and Electronic Notetakers, Computer Access, Manual Braille Writing Aids, and Portable Video Magnifiers, and an Informed Consumer Guide to Office Equipment for People with Visual Disabilities. All of the information resources on our web site include listings related to Blindness and Low Vision, and a B&LV page in our Resource Center brings everything together.

Since I joined ABLEDATA in December 2001, I have used my personal knowledge of products for people who are blind or have low vision to enhance and update our coverage of the B&LV area. My first assignment was to look at our coverage of B&LV products, and what follows is a summary of some of the problems I found and how we have responded to them.

Some popular new product categories were not yet in the ABLEDATA product database. For example, we had no audible pedestrian signals, although they have existed and even been a subject of controversy for years. Some other new product categories that we have added in the past year include braille music software, voice output bar code readers, and voice output medication reminders.

Our indexing terms included some outdated and redundant terminology for B&LV products, especially in the areas of electronics and computers, where products and terminology often change. For example, instead of "refreshable braille display," we were using "paperless braille machine," the name of an early brand that has been discontinued. Screen reader programs were covered under three different terms. These weren't terms that differentiated types of screen reader program, just alternative names for the same type of product, presumably added at different times. The result was that although many screen reader programs were already in our database, it was not easy for a user of the database to find all of them with one search. To make searching the database more intuitive, all screen reader programs are now indexed under one term.

In some cases our indexing did not use the terminology that would be most familiar to blind users. For example, before 2002 we did not use the term "white cane" as an indexing term because of uncertainty about its acceptability. We have since adopted this term on my recommendation.

We also made some improvements in the organization of our Guide to Indexing Terms, a publication available in print and on-line to help users of our database to find products. Changes include (1) putting all the headings related to Orientation and Mobility under that general heading, and (2) putting all magnification-related terms under the heading Magnification (previously most magnification-related terms had only appeared under Reading).

Since starting at ABLEDATA, I have identified additions and revisions to our indexing terms to more accurately reflect the range of B&LV products currently available. Many of these were incorporated in the May 2002 edition of the Guide to Indexing Terms, and since then we have added new terms that are available in the on-line version of the Guide and which will be included in the next published version.

Apart from indexing, our abstracts for B&LV products contained some misunderstandings of product features. For example, some of our descriptions of four track cassette player-recorders seemed to confuse variable speed output (a standard feature of four track players) with the ability to record at different speeds, and mistakenly credited modified player-recorders with the ability to record four track tapes (most of them only record two track tapes). I have carefully reviewed B&LV product descriptions in our database to remedy erroneous descriptions.

In the past, it was our general rule to cover products from non-U.S. manufacturers only if we could identify a U.S. distributor. Exceptions were made on a case-by-case basis for unusual products. With the approval of NIDRR, we now cover products from non-U.S. manufacturers regardless of whether we know of a U.S. distributor. This decision applied to products in all disability categories. In the B&LV area it has resulted in the quicker inclusion of products from almost a dozen countries.

We have also added some products in response to callers' information requests. These include Beepball bases, low vision padlocks for school lockers, and screen reader programs that can run in Linux.


In the last year we have added hundreds of new products in the B&LV area, and listed dozens of new manufacturers or distributors. We have also added dozens of new B&LV indexing terms and made numerous changes in our Guide to Indexing Terms. Our plans for the future include continuing to identify new products, updating our publications, and adding to our resource lists.

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