Equal Access For All

Web tools make the Internet accessible to the blind

Can a computer discriminate? If the Internet was designed to provide access to a world of information to anyone with a phone and a computer, who’s looking out for the blind community?

There are several different ways to provide physically challenged users access to the Internet and PCs. For example, screen readers provide a synthesized voice, which, in conjunction with software, allows the user to hear what is displayed on the screen. Braille displays provide access to PCs, translating on-screen graphics and text to refreshable Braille. Users can both position the cursor and roam the screen, with reading and basic page routing accomplished by keyboard controls. The systems will also receive speech. Lastly, screen magnification techniques can include a magnifying lens placed in front of the system monitor; software programs; or a combination of hardware and software solutions that magnify the screen output.

Programs like the free WeMedia Talking Browser replace traditional browser technology used for surfing the Internet by converting Web pages to a text-only format and speaking portions selected by the PC user. Oversize buttons and keystroke commands enable easy navigation. Users can control the appearance of the Website, converting pages to text-only for easier access, the speed and volume at which the browser reads the Web page, and the color contrast of the screen to make viewing easier.

“[We believe] that no one should be shut out from communications in any format,” says Cary Fields, president and CEO of WeMedia Inc. “With this technology, WeMedia opens up a few more ramps to the information superhighway.”

This technology, however, is only as good as the Web page it’s translating. “Even the best talking browser in the world can be defeated by a poorly designed Web page,” says Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind. And although these programs can talk your ear off, they’re not very good listeners; however, there are plans to create speech-recognition software that will allow people to interact with Websites via the spoken word not only through browsers but through household devices.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently introduced an e-book reader for the blind that translates electronic text into Braille. The Braille reader connects to a computer to translate documents. Microsoft and Pulse Data International are also developing an e-book reader for the blind and visually impaired using Pulse Data’s BrailleNote, which translates text into speech and Braille.

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