New Gear for Disabled Web Surfers

Better software and hardware is making a big difference. Still, improvements -- and lower prices -- are needed

By John M. Williams

Ann Adams, 25, sits in front of her computer preparing for class. The Miami Beach educator who specializes in home teaching for the blind is searching the Web for information on stock prices for her economics class. But these days, Adams, who is blind herself, is having an easier time of it than ever. Until six weeks ago, she had to have someone else do Web searches for her. Today, she uses Home Page Reader, a $995 IBM program that allows her to surf the Web on her own, either through verbal instructions or by typing on her Braille keyboard.

Home Page Reader is eerie to watch in operation until you're familiar with it. In a clear, understandable voice, it speaks text and describes frames, image and text links, alternate text for images, and image maps. With special table-navigation features, Adams says she understands even the most complex tables, such as television listings. Guided by the program's commentary, she knows where she is on the Web all the time.

Web-access challenges are nearly universal for people with disabilities, who number 500 million worldwide, according to the U.N. "Providing access to the Internet will help people with disabilities advance economically, as well as provide them the technical skills to compete professionally in today's digital economy," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a recent conference in New York. And a wide range of new technologies are on the market to help the disabled access the Net.


  Here are a few: People with visual impairment or reading or comprehension difficulties can rely on speech output, Braille displays, and screen-magnification software that makes type and images larger and easier to see. In many cases, they can use the keyboard instead of the mouse to navigate pages. People who can't use a keyboard can rely either on voice recognition for spoken commands or on switch devices controlled by head, mouth, or eye movements.

The Internet has been a major boon to deaf or hearing-impaired people, who now have instant messaging and e-mail to use in lieu of the telephone. Now, relay services can alert them when a message is on its way. "The Internet is a great communications tool for deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals," says Sue Leader, 44, a deaf librarian in Philadelphia.

However, much still needs to be done to improve Web access for the disabled. Leader notes that the Web "would be greatly improved if streaming videos were captioned." Adds Rita Choy, 32, a systems engineer for Star Systems in Honolulu: "My problem with using the Web is many sites use light colors on their hyperlinks or articles, even though their background is light colored. This limits me in what I can see, and therefore pull off the Web."


  Choy has diabetes and is losing her eyesight. She requires a 21-inch monitor, 20-point copy, and a medium to dark background to read articles or click links. She desperately wants international standards requiring Web designers to use only black and white backgrounds on pages and their links, but she knows she'll never get her wish.

Quadriplegic Richard Johnson, 36, of Lexington, Ky., can't use a keyboard. A freelance technical editor, he uses voice-recognition software made by Europe's Lernout & Hauspie that costs $495. That's a midrange price for such software, which runs from about $59 to around $1,000. Johnson's system is a good one and allows him to create his own Web pages. But even the best voice-recognition products are buggy and tend to be much slower than conventional browsers. "Once I'm on the Web, it's still difficult for me to use it. My talking software isn't always accurate," says Johnson.

It bothers him to recall the days before the 1995 diving accident that left him a quadriplegic. Now, he uses a variety of switches on his wheelchair that give him Internet access and function like a mouse. But using a real mouse was easier, quicker, and less frustrating, he says.


  Most disabled computer users already have a product called a screen reader, which allows them to navigate their computer's operating system using speech or Braille output. This lets them use most mainstream applications. One good screen reader I've used is Automatic Screen Access for Windows, which supports DOS and Windows 95 and 98 and retails for $595. It's made by MicroTalk, a Louisville (Ky.) company that specializes in speech products for people with disabilities. An alternative product, called HAL, is offered by Dolphin in London. It retails for $500 and supports DOS, Windows 95, 98, and NT, and not only can read what's on the screen but can print it out on a Braille printer.

Now, Microsoft, Compaq, IBM, Adobe, Freedom Scientific, and others are also developing Web browsers specifically for disabled users. These often augment screen readers, making it easier and quicker to navigate the Web. Some voice browsers for disabled people even have voice-driven magnification. It allows people who can't see well to tell the computer to, say, increase the type size of a message from 8 points to 20 points, making it far easier to read. Some of them also read aloud with the user to reinforce and clarify the text.

Another worthy product I've tried is BrookesTalk, made by an Oxford (Britain) company called Intelligent Systems Research Group. Priced at $595, it features speech output and screen magnification. Like other European browsers, it can be used with German-, Spanish-, and French-language Web pages. Another good bet is the $500 MultiWeb browser developed by Deakin University in Sidney, Australia. It has speech output, scanning abilities, screen magnification, and works with switch devices.


  ConversaWeb is a fine $500 voice-activated browser that allows users to click on links through spoken commands. Made by New World Creations in West Palm Beach, Fla., ConversaWeb doesn't have the magnification feature, but its ease of use and accuracy largely make up for that.

As you may have noticed, a major drawback of all this new technology is its high price. Braille printers made by Freedom Scientific in St. Petersburg, Fla., are a good example. They go for $3,495 to $5,595. They're expensive to use, too. Thick Braille paper is very pricey -- and Braille uses up a lot more paper than regular text. Sometimes Medicaid or private charities, such as Lions International, will pick up the tab, but that's far from certain.

Despite the cost, such technology seems sure to become far more common. Congress' passage of Section 508, which became effective on June 26, makes that almost certain. The new law requires manufacturers who sell their products to the federal government to make them accessible to disabled people. The federal government's own online offerings also must be accessible.

Just getting the word out more will help, too. "Until I learned at the Carroll Center for the Blind, in Newton, Mass., that there were ways to access the Web for my son, I was convinced Charles would never enjoy the richness of the Web," says Terry Winter, 32, a Boston construction worker. Charles, 7, who is severely learning-disabled and stutters, now uses easy-to-maneuver switches rather than a mouse to operate his computer and surf the Net.

The technology developed so far isn't perfect, and much of it is still very expensive, but it has brought the ideal of a truly accessible Internet much closer to reality.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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Edited by Thane Peterson

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