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The Importance of Information Technology for Visually Impaired by vbf10787


									The Importance of Information Technology for Visually Impaired Children
      and Youngsters and the Expectations for Future Development


                                          Lars Ballieu Christensen
                                      Consultant, Ph.D., cand.comm.
                               Sensus ApS, Godthåbsvej 18, DK-3400 Hillerød
                                                 July 2000
                                     (presented at ICEVI Krakov 2000)

Introduction                                               the conclusions are equally valid in most other
Having been involved as an independent consult-            countries.
ant in research, development and consulting ac-
tivities on visual impairment, enabling technolo-
                                                           The Basic Assumption
gies and accessibility issues for the past decade          Integration. Independence. Participation. These
and a half, the author discusses the importance            are three key words in the Danish vision for visu-
of information technology, IT literacy and infor-          ally impaired children and youngsters. A visually
                                                           impaired person is merely a person who cannot
mation access for visually impaired children and
youth. The discussions focus not only on informa-          see properly. However unfortunate the case may
tion technology as an enabling technology to be            be, a visually impaired person has the same rights
                                                           and opportunities, as well as the same obliga-
deployed by disabled users. Additionally, it dis-
cusses the importance of general-purpose IT skills         tions, as everyone else in society.
for everyone who wishes to play an active role in          Integration throughout the educational system
the information society.                                   and on the job market. Independence in the
As an advisor to a range of national and interna-          meaning of self-sufficiency – without the need for
tional companies, organisations and agencies, the          personal assistance and centralised support or-
author has maintained close links with                     ganisations. And the ability to participate actively
Refsnæsskolen in Denmark. Refsnæsskolen is the             in all aspects of society.
Institute for blind and partially sighted children
                                                           The Importance of Information
and youth in Denmark and has national responsi-
bility. The visions, opinions and positions dis-
                                                           Is information technology, computer literacy and
cussed in this paper are the sole responsibility of
                                                           access to information important in today’s soci-
the author. However, Refsnæsskolen and the
                                                           ety? Looking at the facts and figures, the question
visions presented by the institution have been
                                                           is rhetorical beyond doubt:
significant sources of inspirations.
                                                            The Danish population is approx. 5.3m with a
Although the cases discussed in this paper are
                                                           total of 2.9m households [1]. According to 1999
Danish, most have a global perspective; hence,
                                                           figures published by the Danish Ministry of Re-

search, some 1.7m people use the Internet regu-       information that would otherwise be inaccessible
larly and an estimated 1.4m households have a         or require manual processing to become accessi-
PC. 77 per cent of all companies with more than       ble can be automatically transformed into for-
20 staff have Internet access and all (99 per cent    mats better suited for the visually impaired; as
plus) use computers and networks extensively          technologies emerge and mature, technologies
[2]. A recent survey of Internet usage showed         that were used solely as enabling technologies in
that 95 percent of all university graduates use the   the past are becoming mainstream, thus affecting
Internet [3].                                         price as well as quality; and finally, the ability to
                                                      establish a virtual framework through the use
Denmark is, along many other developed coun-          computers, geography and physical location mat-
tries, transforming into an information society
                                                      ters less, hence increasing the opportunities in
where value is based on the ability to use, share     terms of employment and education.
and create knowledge and information as well as
on other intangibles [4].                              At the same time, however, information tech-
                                                      nology and the ways in which the technology is
Obviously, the success in the information society     deployed represent an equal range of challenges.
demands computer literacy. It is more or less         Although the Internet – in theory – makes infor-
impossible to complete an education let alone         mation available to anyone who can use a com-
get and maintain a position on the job market         puter, poor web-design raises new barriers. Fur-
without IT skills. Likewise, the ability to utilise   thermore, the short learning curve combined
information technology is important in most           with relatively inexpensive solutions based on
other aspects of life. Consider email for corre-
                                                      speech synthesis may further erode basic skills
spondence, home-banking, access to public ser-        such as Braille literacy.
vices, access to library services, e-commerce,
access to traffic information, the ability to book    The Opportunities
theatre tickers – just to name a few examples.        That the computer can be used as an intelligent
                                                      interface between the visually impaired and the
As such, information technology, computer liter-
                                                      sighted is not new. For years, visually impaired
acy and information access is important to every-
                                                      have been able to command the user interfaces
one in information society, the visually impaired
                                                      of computers using screen readers, speech syn-
not excluded. In fact, these competencies may be
                                                      thesis, Braille displays and screen magnification
even more important to people with a visual dis-
                                                      systems. Furthermore, the visually impaired have
ability, as discussed in more detail in subsequent
                                                      access the vast majority of all business applica-
sections. To some extend, IT competencies may
                                                      tions, personal productivity tools, office applica-
eventually resolve some of the issues of under-
                                                      tions, email systems and web-browsers. Using
employment and unemployment amongst the
                                                      enabling technologies in combination with gen-
visually disabled.
                                                      eral-purpose computer systems, the blind and
Information Technology is a Double-                   partially sighted have been able to transform
                                                      information from formats aimed at the sighted
Edged Sword
                                                      into formats more suitable to meet the needs of
Information technology offers a range of possi-
                                                      the visually impaired. Enabling technologies for
bilities to the blind and partially sighted: The
                                                      such automatic transformation include Braille
computer can be used as an intelligent interface
                                                      translation systems, screen magnification sys-
between the visually impaired and the sighted;
                                                      tems and text-to-speech engines [5].

The Danish Concept for Blind Children                 quently, most information was available only in
In Denmark, a comprehensive concept for blind         print only. The solution to this problem turned
children has been defined and created by              out to be scanning, OCR processing and – simply
Refsnæsskolen. The concept is based on the Log-       – manually retyping and storing the printed text
Text, and 8-dot Braille computer that can be used     on a computer.
both as a stand-alone system for reading, writing
and note taking, and as a control device for a        Today, the situation has changed dramatically. All
personal computer. For years, Refsnæsskolen has       information is produced electronically and is – at
produced and distributed electronic Braille books     least in theory – available directly from the pub-
to be read on the LogText.                            lisher. A number of issues still remain, especially
                                                      in the areas of copyright and copy protection. In
Key additions to the LogText are the WinLog           addition to information published in print, vast
“Screen Reader” and the Sensus Braille transla-       amounts of information are available directly on
tion system. Although it provides functionality       the Internet and on CD ROM and DVD. Finally,
comparable with other screen readers, WinLog is       electronic books (or eBooks) are emerging in the
not really a screen reader as it does not read the    mainstream market. A recent survey estimated
visual display. Rather, WinLog is a Windows           that by 2005, electronic books will account for as
communications programme that provides the            much as 10 per cent of the total American market
blind with an alternative blind-friendly interface    for published books [6].
to Windows. As such, WinLog is based on a non-
visual concept of Windows and provides logical        Enabling Technologies are Becoming Main-
and linear navigation and orientation capabilities.   stream
                                                      Although enabling technologies developed espe-
Sensus Braille is a two-way, multilingual Braille     cially for people with special needs represent
translation system capable of translation to and      powerful tools, these enabling technologies are
from contracted Braille in both 6-dot and 8-dot       typically developed using proprietary technology.
Braille format. Currently, modules have been          Their limited markets result in relatively high
developed for Danish, English and Swedish. How-       prices while at the same time demonstrating
ever, as the system is modular, new languages         rather low quality. The manufactures cannot be
can be added with minimum efforts.                    held to blame for this. The high price/low quality
                                                      relation is simply a reflection of the market condi-
The Danish concept for blind children did not,        tions.
however, invent itself. It is the result of strong
and visionary leadership and dedication from the      However, in recent years many technologies that
management at Refsnæsskolen as well as signifi-       used to be utilised more or less exclusively as
cant investments in terms of time financial re-       enabling technologies are being adopted by the
sources, and the recruitment and continued sup-       mainstream market. The result could well be
port of a product development team.                   high-quality, low-price products based on indus-
                                                      try and/or de-jura standards.
Information is Available
In the mid-1980’s, the capture of information was     An example of a technology that is being adopted
one of the key challenges in making information       by the mainstream market is speech synthe-
available in Braille and other suitable formats.      sis/voice recognition. As talking computers, voice
Word-processing and desktop publishing were           controlled computer interfaces and voice-
not used as widely as is the case today. Conse-       response systems become the norm, the quality

of speech synthesis and voice recognition will         workplace every day, five days a week. At the
improve while the prices of these technologies         same time, on the organisational and business
will drop.                                             side of the equation, a number of trends are fuel-
                                                       ling this practice: A looser connection to any sin-
Likewise, as more and more people begin to use         gle employer, an increase in the number of free-
portable, hand-held computers such as Palmtop          lance workers or self-employed consultants, out-
computers and WAP-based mobile telephones to
                                                       sourcing of non-core areas, creation of call cen-
access information on the Internet and else-           tres, customer support centres, etc., are exam-
where, current restrictions on bandwidth, naviga-      ples of this development.
tion and accessibility will be lifted. The hand-held
computers have many of the same characteristics        That it is unnecessary to be present in a physical
as we know from enabling technologies including        location to perform a job addresses practical is-
limited displays, poor resolution, limited power       sues of mobility. Similarly, it may address psycho-
supply and slow network connection. Whereas            logical problems that organisations may have in
the information providers may be able to get           terms of employing disabled staff. The solution
away with not providing access to people with          may not ideal in that sense, and home-working
special needs on their Internet sites, the general     may have significant negative side-effects in
public and – especially – the business community       terms of isolation and segregation. However,
will not accept these limitations.                     more disabled people may get the opportunity to
                                                       work in ways that match skills, education, abilities
Finally, a word on electronic books. As mentioned
                                                       and personal interests.
earlier, the main problems relating to having ac-
cess to electronic versions of printed material are    Another aspect relates to training. Distance train-
copyright and copy protection issues. As elec-         ing is becoming a significant source of revenue
tronic books become an integral part of any pub-       for many educational institutions and a growing
lishing activity in the mainstream market, these       number of courses are being offered via the
issues are bound to be resolved. Once available        Internet. The fact that students can receive
as an electronic book within a framework that          course material, interact with teachers and in-
protects the rights of authors and publishers,         structors, and submit assignments over the Inter-
little needs to be done to ensure that the books       net without being physically present is appealing
can be rendered in formats suitable for the blind      to many. Having access to the Internet will
and partially sighted.                                 broaden the range of educational opportunities
                                                       for the blind and visually impaired.
Mobility matters less
High unemployment figures and under-utilisation        Threats for the Future
of the skills and abilities of the visually impaired   Over the past decade we have resolved a large
are well known problems. Information technol-          number of issues relating to information technol-
ogy may not be the sole answer to these prob-          ogy and access to information. However, as some
lems. However, IT can play a major role in terms       problems get resolved other materialise. In the
of improving the conditions.                           remaining part of the paper, two of the most
                                                       important issues are discussed: Inaccessible web-
Tele-commuting and home-working are becom-
                                                       design and the decline of Braille literacy.
ing accepted by most employers, either as a per-
manent solution with virtual teams of co-
workers, or as an alternative to going into the

Inaccessible Web Design                               Erosion of Basic Skills
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Ac-     Over the past 30 years, Braille literacy has shown
cess by everyone regardless of disability is an       a dramatic decline. In America [9] and the UK
essential aspect.” The statement has been made        [10], alarming statistics have been published and
by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World         although less significant, similar trends are re-
Wide Web and currently the director of the            ported from other countries (e.g., [11]).
World Wide Web Consortium.
                                                      Many people fail to recognise the importance of
Within this context it can be argued that accessi-    Braille: It is difficult to learn as a visually impaired
bility is really a matter of providing as many peo-   person, difficult to read and understand as a
ple in as many different situations and from as       sighted person, it is costly and time-consuming to
many different browser platforms with access to       produce and Braille devices such as Braille print-
web-based information. It should not matter           ers and Braille displays are expensive. In many
whether the user is disabled, whether (s)he           cases, speech synthesis appears to be an attrac-
browses using a mobile telephone in a car with-       tive alternative.
out the ability to use hands and eyes, or whether
(s)he uses a non-mainstream platform such as a        However, a symbolic written medium is as impor-
Palmtop computer when accessing the Internet.         tant for the blind as it is for the sighted. Braille is
                                                      a fundamental means of communicating and
Yet the fact is that the web is not accessible.       plays a significant role in the process of intellec-
Studies in Denmark document that it is the rule       tual development: It is so much more effective to
rather than the exception that a web site is inac-    be an active reader than a passive listener. Fur-
cessible with no improvement year-on-year [7].        thermore, Braille literacy is an integral part of the
And public web sites are just as bad as private       personal identity for disabled people [10]. In gen-
web sites. The area is well documented with mul-      eral, lack of Braille skills equals illiteracy – a
tiple guidelines and recommendations [8] and          rather serious issue in the information society.
few - if any - reasons exist why web sites should
not be accessible.                                    In Denmark, must time and efforts are being
                                                      spent on Braille and Braille literacy. Despite a
On a slightly more positive note, it would appear     growing resistance towards the importance of
as if there is a growing interest to address the      Braille literacy, especially amongst sighted and
issues of inaccessible web sites. Especially public   the late blind, Braille is a key part of the concept
institutions are under pressure to improve their      for blind children and youth at Refsnæsskolen.
sites, at least from a point of view of political     The Braille codes (6- and 8-dot) and contraction
correctness. The solution may, however, come          policies are being continuously refined, as are the
from a different angle:                               Braille translation tools. Finally, Refsnæsskolen
                                                      continues to promote Braille literacy and the use
 As mentioned earlier, portable hand-held com-
                                                      of Braille as the primary medium for the blind.
puters such as Palmtop computers and WAP-
based mobile telephones share many of the             Would it not be sad if we finally managed to re-
characteristics of enabling technologies. Web-        solve the problems of inaccessible information
sites that are inaccessible or difficult to use by    only to find that our target audience – the blind –
disabled users will be similarly inaccessible         is no longer capable of reading?
and/or difficult to use by mainstream users.

Summary                                                [7] Web tilgængelighed i 1999, Center for ligebe-
General IT literacy and access to information are      handling af handicappede, 1999. Web publica-
critical if visually impaired children and youth are   tion:
to have a chance in the information society.
                                                       [8] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,
The technologies represent tremendous oppor-           W3C/WAI, 1999. Web publication:
tunities as an intelligent interface between the
blind and the sighted, thus facilitating integra-
                                                       [9] Schroeder, F.K.: Perceptions of Braille Usage
tion, self-sufficiency and active participation.
                                                       by Legally Blind Adults, Journal of Visual Impair-
Emerging mainstream technologies such as               ment & Blindness, May-June, 1996. Web publica-
speech synthesis, voice recognition, mobile com-       tion:
puting and electronic books will lower the prices
and increase the quality of enabling technologies.     0.htm

However, a number of issues remain outstanding         [10] Bruce, I., McKennell, A., and Walker, E.: Blind
especially in terms of web accessibility and Braille   and partially sighted adults in Britain: the RNIB
literacy.                                              survey, RNIB/HMSO, 1991

References                                             [11] Kahlisch, T., and Lötzsch, J.: Services for the
[1] Danmark i tal år 2000, Danmarks Statistik,         Blind and Partially Sighted in Germany, Tech-
1999. Web publication:               nischen Universität Dresden. From Congress on
                                                       Rehabilitation of the Disabled, Dubai, United Arab
[2] Omstilling til Netværkssamfundet, Forskning-       Emirates, Oct. 6.-9. 1996, Web publication:
sministeriet, 2000. Web publication:                   http://elvis.inf.tu-               

[3]Den digitale forbruger, PLS Consult, 2000.

[4] Digital Denmark - Conversion to the Network
Society, Forskningsministeriet, 2000. Web publi-

[5] Christensen, L.B.: Applying Information Tech-
nology as an Intelligent Interface for the Blind,
University of Roskilde, 1996. Web publication:

[6] Sajka, J., and & Kerscher, G.: Surpassing
Gutenberg, A Historic Opportunity in Access to
Published Information for Blind Readers, Ameri-
can Foundation for the Blind, 2000. Web publica-


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