By Curtis Chong
From March 15-19, I attended the 26th annual CSUN International Technology & People with Disabilities Conference held in San Diego. During the conference, I attended a number of formal sessions, visited with a few companies in the exhibit hall and engaged in discussions with companies working on access technology for the blind.
Comparing Notetakers and Mainstream Alternatives
This session was devoted to a comparison of refreshable Braille personal digital assistants (generally referred to as Braille notetakers) designed specifically for the blind with emerging nonvisually-accessible devices from Apple (e.g., the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch) paired with a growing number of Bluetooth refreshable Braille displays. Braille Notetakers designed for the blind are extremely costly (approximately $6,000), while devices from Apple with VoiceOver built-in coupled with smaller refreshable Braille displays can cost less than $2,500. There is a strong temptation to use this latter class of technology to reduce costs when state and federal budgets are under increasing pressure.
The presenter concluded that there will always be a need for specialized devices for the blind. However, as the Apple technology matures, the number of uses to which it can be put will doubtless increase as more experience is gained with this emerging technology. Although I am not yet prepared to adopt the Apple solution as a replacement for the traditional refreshable Braille notetakers that IDB purchases on behalf of its clients, I am keeping this technology on my radar screen for the future.
An LED/LCD Display Reader For Visually Impaired Users
This session was supposed to discuss an algorithm developed at Smith-Kettlewell for reading aloud LED/LCD displays for visually impaired users using a webcam or cellphone camera. What was actually discussed was the work that has been done so far by researchers at Smith-Kettlewell to extract digital information (digits 0-9) from a display in varying lighting conditions. Apparently, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before you can even see the digits with software, and this is where most of the analysis and work has been done so far.
In the long term, according to the presenter, a better solution would be to take advantage of the growing networking of home appliances. Nevertheless, Smith-Kettlewell hopes to release something in the near term as an open source application.
Mobile Devices: What’s What for Implementing Screen Readers and other TTS Solutions
This session was a panel discussion. Members of the panel included representatives from cell phone manufacturers such as Samsung , Microsoft, and Nokia; a representative from the American Foundation for the Blind, a representative from Nuance (distributor of a variety of speech synthesis engines and the Talks screen reader for cell phones), and the Director of Accessibility for America Online. A representative from Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, also participated.
Nonvisual access to mobile devices is now in flux. Some companies have made tremendous progress while others have only begun to make plans to support access to future products. As the cell phone accessibility landscape continues to change (and fairly quickly at that), consumers have many more choices to make and alternatives to investigate.
Federal Communications Commission Hearing on the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act (CCVA) of 2010
I spent a short time at this public hearing to get a sense of the FCC’s intentions in this area. The Communications & Video Accessibility Act is being hailed as the most significant piece of accessibility legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was signed into law by President Obama in October, 2010. From everything I could glean at this hearing, the FCC has decided to implement a very aggressive schedule in terms of developing and promulgating regulations to implement this law. In terms of access to mobile phones and similar devices, it used to be that industry did not have to make things accessible unless accessibility was “readily achievable.” Under the new law, accessibility is required unless it is “not achievable.”
Everyone believes this to be a significant improvement, but only time will tell whether any real improvements actually make it into the hands of blind consumers, who have been waiting for years to achieve meaningful and widespread access to the plethora of products that continue to be developed.
Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program
On a whim I decided to attend this 30-minute session, describing the assistive technology certificate program operated by California State University at Northridge. I had assumed that this certificate program was not one that would benefit persons whose specialty was access technology for the blind, but I wanted to be absolutely sure. The presenter emphasized that this is neither a credentialing nor a certification program. Participants are issued a certificate of completion by California State University’s College of Extended Learning after completing 100 hours of instruction, most of which is online and part of which is conducted in live in-person sessions. Students who complete the program continue to have access to all of the online information they were provided when they sign up for the course. There is about four hours of information provided on nonvisual access technology.
The Current State of Accessibility among the Top On-line Retail Sites
This session discussed and compared the usability and accessibility of the websites of the top 50 retailers selling products online. Jim Thatcher (a well-known expert and consultant in the area of accessibility) and Donald Evans from Deque (pronounced Dee Cue) Systems, a developer and distributor of Web accessibility checking software, conducted a study to see if retail sites had improved two years after the successful settlement between Target and the National Federation of the Blind. According to the presenters none of the top 50 online retailers obtained a passing score. However, there was a wide distribution of scores–from extremely bad to not that bad.
Interestingly enough, Target achieved the best score (not surprising in light of the recent settlement). Staples was ranked third best; and this is also not surprising because Staples recently entered into structured negotiations with accessibility advocates to improve its website. Amazon ranked among the top 10 online retailers.
The biggest accessibility problem seems to lie in the area of forms construction–that is, fields that are not properly labeled. The second biggest problem has to do with spacer images, which are labeled but provide a good deal of nonvisual clutter for the person using screen access technology.
Retailers ranked among the worst included Peapod (an online grocery delivery site), Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and Avon.
There was a variety of interesting exhibits on display at CSUN this year.
Code Factory demonstrated a talking television tuner program that can be used to watch digital television on a personal computer. The program can also be set up to record specific programs–either audio or video and audio.
Bookshare displayed its soon-to-be-released reading app for the iPad, which it proposes to sell for $19.95. What made the ap interesting to me was that it will read Bookshare books using a speech synthesis engine (Acapela) that is a bit easier to listen to than the Nuance Vocalizer.
Handy Tech demonstrated a 40-cell refreshable Braille display using something called Active Tactile Control or ATC. As your hands reach the end of the line, the display scrolls automatically to the next segment of text. Also, your reading patterns are stored in a log which can then be analyzed. Handy Tech is touting this technology as a way to improve Braille instruction. However, the 40-cell display I saw at CSUN costs nearly $7,000. It is difficult to imagine how Braille instruction programs can justify the cost without a lot more promotion and marketing from Handy Tech.
GW Micro demonstrated a CCTV (called Read Aloud) which could run selected enlarged text through an optical character recognition program and speak the results. There is one model with a 32-inch screen which costs nearly $7,000 where all of the controls talk to you. The $3,000 model has a smaller screen (22-26 inches), no talking controls, but does speak highlighted text. Only time will tell whether the Read Aloud system will supplant the existing CCTV market.
Braille embosser manufacturers are finding ways for their embossers to do more than to produce simple Braille text. View Plus and American Thermoform demonstrated Braille embossers that produce Braille and print on the same page–sometimes in color. Enabling Technologies demonstrated a $5,000 embosser, called the Phoenix which produces both Braille text and Braille graphics in a single pass.
I stopped by a booth staffed by someone from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving. Tactile bills are definitely in our future. Passersby were urged to touch bills with different types of tactile markings on them, and for doing so, everyone was given a bag of shredded money. I learned that we will indeed have tactile bills and that what the government proposes to do is to have raised print on one corner and a series of tactually-discernible bumps on another corner, placed in such a way as to provide balance for the bills when they are run through a money scanning machine. What I was told that this new design will not require the scanners to be redesigned–only to be reprogrammed. This is supposed to be a less expensive procedure. I was also told that for people with severe neuropathy, the government proposes to provide them with a coupon which would entitle them to a free bill reader, such as the iBill.
Informative Meetings and Discussions
Levelstar, developer of the Icon, has announced a successor product: the Orion. The Orion is planned to be a cell phone, book reader, media player and note-taker, all in one device; and it is designed to run under Google’s Android operating system. I met privately with representatives of Levelstar to discuss the Orion and to hear a sample of some new speech (Ivona) that the company is planning to use in the finished product. Levelstar is working with the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) on the final design of Orion; APH will sell Orion, and some people will be able to pay for Orion using Quota funds.
I met with the person who heads up the accessibility effort in Apple’s Education group. The purpose of my meeting was to discuss the long term accessibility of applications that are developed for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, all of which are now accessible to the blind because of Apple’s VoiceOver program. However, there are some applications that are not accessible to VoiceOver users because some of the controls are not properly labeled. I wanted to understand whether application developers were required to incorporate any accessibility features into their software or whether they were merely encouraged to do the right thing. I learned from the Apple representative that interest in accessibility has grown dramatically since the beginning of VoiceOver, some five years ago. In the early days, perhaps 25 people would show up at an accessibility session during a developer conference. Today, it is routine for several hundred developers to attend sessions on accessibility. However, there are no requirements as such to include accessibility features into every application. There are those who would say that this posture on the part of Apple needs to be changed.
I spent some time with Caroline Ragot, Managing Director of Code Factory in Spain. Code Factory has recently released Mobile Accessibility, a program for Android cell phones. Right now, Mobile Accessibility users must receive technical support directly from Code Factory in Spain, but it is possible that technical support could be provided by an American company if a viable business model can be developed. Ms. Ragot told me that Code Factory prefers to develop innovative products to make mobile devices accessible to the blind and that in an ideal world. support would be provided by a third party. Nevertheless, Android appears on a lot of phones sold by a lot of cell phone providers, and because of Mobile Accessibility, the blind now have access to more cell phones across more networks than ever before.
I spent some time with a representative from Adobe, the company which is responsible for (among other things) the portable document format (PDF), the Adobe Reader, and Flash in its various incarnations. While Adobe has made tremendous progress to improve nonvisual access to PDF documents and flash presentations, it is ultimately the author’s responsibility to follow Adobe’s accessibility guidelines to ensure that any given document or presentation is accessible to the person reading or viewing it. Also, Adobe makes a lot of other software (e.g., Adobe Connect and Adobe Audition) which has not yet achieved the same level of accessibility as it Adobe Reader program. The person with whom I spoke indicated that Adobe is indeed aware that it still has a long way to go. Unfortunately, I also got the distinct impression that while accessibility advocates within the company understand precisely what needs to be done, the rest of the company has not made a firm and unequivocal corporate-wide commitment to ensuring that all of the programs developed by Adobe are as accessible as they can be.
I met with Eric Damery, a senior executive with Freedom Scientific, makers of JAWS for Windows. Mr. Damery wanted to tell me that: (1) JAWS support for the Google Chrome browser was imminent; and (2) it is highly likely that Microsoft is working to develop a vastly improved screen reader to be included in its Windows 8 operating system. Eric was very proud of the former and very concerned about the latter, saying that it would not do the industry any good for Microsoft to produce a screen reader that would kill the market. He also informed me that in Internet Explorer 9, soon to be released, font smoothing for screen enlargement programs will not be possible; this should be of great concern to users with low vision, he said.