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The Importance of Information Technology for Visually

Impaired Children and Youngsters and the Expectations for


Future Development
By

Lars Ballieu Christensen


Consultant, Ph.D., cand.comm..
Sensus ApS, Godthåbsvej 18, DK-3400 Hillerød
lars@sensus.dk - www.sensus.dk
July 2000

Introduction The Basic Assumption


Having been involved as an independent Integration. Independence. Participation.
consultant in research, development and These are three key words in the Danish vision
consulting activities on visual impairment, for visually impaired children and youngsters.
enabling technologies and accessibility issues A visually impaired person is merely a person
for the past decade and a half, the author who cannot see properly. However unfortunate
discusses the importance of information the case may be, a visually impaired person
technology, IT literacy and information access has the same rights and opportunities, as well
for visually impaired children and youth. The as the same obligations, as everyone else in
discussions focus not only on information society.
technology as an enabling technology to be Integration throughout the educational
deployed by disabled users. Additionally, it system and on the job market. Independence in
discusses the importance of general-purpose the meaning of self-sufficiency – without the
IT skills for everyone who wishes to play an need for personal assistance and centralised
active role in the information society. support organisations. And the ability to
As an advisor to a range of national and participate actively in all aspects of society.
international companies, organisations and
agencies, the author has maintained close links The Importance of
with Refsnæsskolen in Denmark.
Refsnæsskolen is the Institute for blind and
Information Technology
partially sighted children and youth in Is information technology, computer literacy
Denmark and has national responsibility. The and access to information important in today’s
visions, opinions and positions discussed in society? Looking at the facts and figures, the
this paper are the sole responsibility of the question is rhetorical beyond doubt:
author. However, Refsnæsskolen and the The Danish population is approx. 5.3m
visions presented by the institution have been with a total of 2.9m households [1]. According
significant sources of inspirations. to 1999 figures published by the Danish
Although the cases discussed in this Ministry of Research, some 1.7m people use
paper are Danish, most have a global the Internet regularly and an estimated 1.4m
perspective; hence, the conclusions are equally households have a PC. 77 per cent of all
valid in most other countries. companies with more than 20 staff have
Internet access and all (99 per cent plus) use enabling technologies in the past are becoming
computers and networks extensively [2]. A mainstream, thus affecting price as well as
recent survey of Internet usage showed that 95 quality; and finally, the ability to establish a
percent of all university graduates use the virtual framework through the use computers,
Internet [3]. geography and physical location matters less,
Denmark is, along many other developed hence increasing the opportunities in terms of
countries, transforming into an information employment and education.
society where value is based on the ability to At the same time, however, information
use, share and create knowledge and technology and the ways in which the
information as well as on other intangibles [4]. technology is deployed represent an equal
Obviously, the success in the range of challenges. Although the Internet – in
information society demands computer theory – makes information available to
literacy. It is more or less impossible to anyone who can use a computer, poor web-
complete an education let alone get and design raises new barriers. Furthermore, the
maintain a position on the job market without short learning curve combined with relatively
IT skills. Likewise, the ability to utilise inexpensive solutions based on speech
information technology is important in most synthesis may further erode basic skills such
other aspects of life. Consider email for as Braille literacy.
correspondence, home-banking, access to
public services, access to library services, e- The Opportunities
commerce, access to traffic information, the That the computer can be used as an intelligent
ability to book theatre tickers – just to name a interface between the visually impaired and
few examples. the sighted is not new. For years, visually
As such, information technology, impaired have been able to command the user
computer literacy and information access is interfaces of computers using screen readers,
important to everyone in information society, speech synthesis, Braille displays and screen
the visually impaired not excluded. In fact, magnification systems. Furthermore, the
these competencies may be even more visually impaired have access the vast majority
important to people with a visual disability, as of all business applications, personal
discussed in more detail in subsequent productivity tools, office applications, email
sections. To some extend, IT competencies systems and web-browsers. Using enabling
may eventually resolve some of the issues of technologies in combination with general-
underemployment and unemployment amongst purpose computer systems, the blind and
the visually disabled. partially sighted have been able to transform
information from formats aimed at the sighted
Information Technology is a into formats more suitable to meet the needs of
Double-Edged Sword the visually impaired. Enabling technologies
Information technology offers a range of for such automatic transformation include
possibilities to the blind and partially sighted: Braille translation systems, screen
The computer can be used as an intelligent magnification systems and text-to-speech
interface between the visually impaired and engines [5].
the sighted; information that would otherwise
The Danish Concept for Blind Children
be inaccessible or require manual processing
to become accessible can be automatically In Denmark, a comprehensive concept for
transformed into formats better suited for the blind children has been defined and created by
visually impaired; as technologies emerge and Refsnæsskolen. The concept is based on the
mature, technologies that were used solely as LogText, and 8-dot Braille computer that can
be used both as a stand-alone system for
reading, writing and note taking, and as a Today, the situation has changed
control device for a personal computer. For dramatically. All information is produced
years, Refsnæsskolen has produced and electronically and is – at least in theory –
distributed electronic Braille books to be read available directly from the publisher. A
on the LogText. number of issues still remain, especially in the
Key additions to the LogText are the areas of copyright and copy protection. In
WinLog “Screen Reader” and the Sensus addition to information published in print, vast
Braille translation system. Although it amounts of information are available directly
provides functionality comparable with other on the Internet and on CD ROM and DVD.
screen readers, WinLog is not really a screen Finally, electronic books (or eBooks) are
reader as it does not read the visual display. emerging in the mainstream market. A recent
Rather, WinLog is a Windows survey estimated that by 2005, electronic
communications programme that provides the books will account for as much as 10 per cent
blind with an alternative blind-friendly of the total American market for published
interface to Windows. As such, WinLog is books [6].
based on a non-visual concept of Windows
and provides logical and linear navigation and Enabling Technologies are Becoming
orientation capabilities. Mainstream
Sensus Braille is a two-way, multilingual Although enabling technologies developed
Braille translation system capable of especially for people with special needs
translation to and from contracted Braille in represent powerful tools, these enabling
both 6-dot and 8-dot Braille format. Currently, technologies are typically developed using
modules have been developed for Danish, proprietary technology. Their limited markets
English and Swedish. However, as the system result in relatively high prices while at the
is modular, new languages can be added with same time demonstrating rather low quality.
minimum efforts. The manufactures cannot be held to blame for
The Danish concept for blind children this. The high price/low quality relation is
did not, however, invent itself. It is the result simply a reflection of the market conditions.
of strong and visionary leadership and However, in recent years many
dedication from the management at technologies that used to be utilised more or
Refsnæsskolen as well as significant less exclusively as enabling technologies are
investments in terms of time financial being adopted by the mainstream market. The
resources, and the recruitment and continued result could well be high-quality, low-price
support of a product development team. products based on industry and/or de-jura
standards.
Information is Available An example of a technology that is being
In the mid-1980’s, the capture of information adopted by the mainstream market is speech
was one of the key challenges in making synthesis/voice recognition. As talking
information available in Braille and other computers, voice controlled computer
suitable formats. Word-processing and desktop interfaces and voice-response systems become
publishing were not used as widely as is the the norm, the quality of speech synthesis and
case today. Consequently, most information voice recognition will improve while the
was available only in print only. The solution prices of these technologies will drop.
to this problem turned out to be scanning, Likewise, as more and more people
OCR processing and – simply – manually begin to use portable, hand-held computers
retyping and storing the printed text on a such as Palmtop computers and WAP-based
computer. mobile telephones to access information on the
Internet and elsewhere, current restrictions on
bandwidth, navigation and accessibility will be That it is unnecessary to be present in a
lifted. The hand-held computers have many of physical location to perform a job addresses
the same characteristics as we know from practical issues of mobility. Similarly, it may
enabling technologies including limited address psychological problems that
displays, poor resolution, limited power supply organisations may have in terms of employing
and slow network connection. Whereas the disabled staff. The solution may not ideal in
information providers may be able to get away that sense, and home-working may have
with not providing access to people with significant negative side-effects in terms of
special needs on their Internet sites, the isolation and segregation. However, more
general public and – especially – the business disabled people may get the opportunity to
community will not accept these limitations. work in ways that match skills, education,
Finally, a word on electronic books. As abilities and personal interests.
mentioned earlier, the main problems relating Another aspect relates to training.
to having access to electronic versions of Distance training is becoming a significant
printed material are copyright and copy source of revenue for many educational
protection issues. As electronic books become institutions and a growing number of courses
an integral part of any publishing activity in are being offered via the Internet. The fact that
the mainstream market, these issues are bound students can receive course material, interact
to be resolved. Once available as an electronic with teachers and instructors, and submit
book within a framework that protects the assignments over the Internet without being
rights of authors and publishers, little needs to physically present is appealing to many.
be done to ensure that the books can be Having access to the Internet will broaden the
rendered in formats suitable for the blind and range of educational opportunities for the blind
partially sighted. and visually impaired.

Mobility matters less Threats for the Future


High unemployment figures and under- Over the past decade we have resolved a large
utilisation of the skills and abilities of the number of issues relating to information
visually impaired are well known problems. technology and access to information.
Information technology may not be the sole However, as some problems get resolved other
answer to these problems. However, IT can materialise. In the remaining part of the paper,
play a major role in terms of improving the two of the most important issues are discussed:
conditions. Inaccessible web-design and the decline of
Tele-commuting and home-working are Braille literacy.
becoming accepted by most employers, either
as a permanent solution with virtual teams of Inaccessible Web Design
co-workers, or as an alternative to going into “The power of the Web is in its universality.
the workplace every day, five days a week. At Access by everyone regardless of disability is
the same time, on the organisational and an essential aspect.” The statement has been
business side of the equation, a number of made by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the
trends are fuelling this practice: A looser World Wide Web and currently the director of
connection to any single employer, an increase the World Wide Web Consortium.
in the number of freelance workers or self- Within this context it can be argued that
employed consultants, outsourcing of non-core accessibility is really a matter of providing as
areas, creation of call centres, customer many people in as many different situations
support centres, etc., are examples of this and from as many different browser platforms
development. with access to web-based information. It
should not matter whether the user is disabled,
whether (s)he browses using a mobile However, a symbolic written medium is
telephone in a car without the ability to use as important for the blind as it is for the
hands and eyes, or whether (s)he uses a non- sighted. Braille is a fundamental means of
mainstream platform such as a Palmtop communicating and plays a significant role in
computer when accessing the Internet. the process of intellectual development: It is so
Yet the fact is that the web is not much more effective to be an active reader
accessible. Studies in Denmark document that than a passive listener. Furthermore, Braille
it is the rule rather than the exception that a literacy is an integral part of the personal
web site is inaccessible with no improvement identity for disabled people [10]. In general,
year-on-year [7]. And public web sites are just lack of Braille skills equals illiteracy – a rather
as bad as private web sites. The area is well serious issue in the information society.
documented with multiple guidelines and In Denmark, must time and efforts are
recommendations [8] and few - if any - being spent on Braille and Braille literacy.
reasons exist why web sites should not be Despite a growing resistance towards the
accessible. importance of Braille literacy, especially
On a slightly more positive note, it amongst sighted and the late blind, Braille is a
would appear as if there is a growing interest key part of the concept for blind children and
to address the issues of inaccessible web sites. youth at Refsnæsskolen. The Braille codes (6-
Especially public institutions are under and 8-dot) and contraction policies are being
pressure to improve their sites, at least from a continuously refined, as are the Braille
point of view of political correctness. The translation tools. Finally, Refsnæsskolen
solution may, however, come from a different continues to promote Braille literacy and the
angle: use of Braille as the primary medium for the
As mentioned earlier, portable hand-held blind.
computers such as Palmtop computers and Would it not be sad if we finally
WAP-based mobile telephones share many of managed to resolve the problems of
the characteristics of enabling technologies. inaccessible information only to find that our
Web-sites that are inaccessible or difficult to target audience – the blind – is no longer
use by disabled users will be similarly capable of reading?
inaccessible and/or difficult to use by
mainstream users. Summary
General IT literacy and access to information
Erosion of Basic Skills
are critical if visually impaired children and
Over the past 30 years, Braille literacy has youth are to have a chance in the information
shown a dramatic decline. In America [9] and society.
the UK [10], alarming statistics have been The technologies represent tremendous
published and although less significant, similar opportunities as an intelligent interface
trends are reported from other countries (e.g., between the blind and the sighted, thus
[11]). facilitating integration, self-sufficiency and
Many people fail to recognise the active participation.
importance of Braille: It is difficult to learn as Emerging mainstream technologies such
a visually impaired person, difficult to read as speech synthesis, voice recognition, mobile
and understand as a sighted person, it is costly computing and electronic books will lower the
and time-consuming to produce and Braille prices and increase the quality of enabling
devices such as Braille printers and Braille technologies.
displays are expensive. In many cases, speech However, a number of issues remain
synthesis appears to be an attractive outstanding especially in terms of web
alternative. accessibility and Braille literacy.
References
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] RNIB survey, RNIB/HMSO, 1991
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] Technischen Universität Dresden. From Congress on Rehabilitation of the Disabled, Dubai,
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