Technology Leaps Some Barriers


    GRAND RAPIDS — For Eric Marcus, many of the amenities his peers take for granted are entirely inaccessible.

    The CPR systems engineer is deaf and finds barriers in many of the primary forms of communication in the business world. Meetings with two or more people are hard to follow, phone communications, voice mail messages and intercom are useless to him, as are instant access devices like cell phones and two-way radios.

    But other new technologies are making life easier for people with hearing impairment and those suffering other disabilities such as blindness.

    “I use e-mail as my primary mode of communication,” Marcus explained. “I have a BlackBerry (a combination PDA/cellular phone) and I use that quite a bit.”

    Prior to e-mail, Marcus used a TTY (also known as TDD, Teletype for the Deaf) with a landline to make phone calls, a service involving a third party translating text messages for the listener on the other end. In the past, at meetings when several people were speaking at once, Marcus often used an interpreter and looked to other engineers — whom he repaid with pop — to fill in the gaps.

    While he still must rely occasionally on interpreters and other engineers, Instant Messenger — both AOL and MSN — has allowed him quick access to other engineers, while e-mail has replaced most of the need for phone conversations. If a phone call is necessary, he can use IP-relay — a service similar to TTY that also employs a translator communicating with Marcus’ BlackBerry, Web cam or computer.

    “All the barriers still exist,” Marcus said. “I just use different things like IM to get around it, which is considerably easier than just using TTY.”

    With the onset of voice recognition applications, voice-to-text solutions are now available. But Marcus said they are not practical until they can function in a meeting with one other person, not to mention meetings involving numerous voices, accents and stress levels.

    When senior business systems analyst David Cummins, blind since birth, came to Wolverine World Wide in the late 1970s, there were no PCs or other equipment available that would allow him to access the materials on the company’s mainframe. Before he could start, a printer had to be rigged that could provide him that information in Braille.

    “They purchased a software package that could run a particular hardware to emboss and print out my computer listing so that I could program,” Cummins recalled. “Then in 1985 I got my first PC.”

    One of the first employees at Wolverine with a PC, Cummins’ PC had the ability to read the information to him, giving him full access to the mainframe and ability to scan the cursor through it and quickly make changes as needed.

    As technology has progressed, Wolverine has provided Cummins with all the necessary updates and new software to allow him to read e-mail, Word documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, and to create them as he works on various computer systems within the company.

    He even has software (JAWS from Freedom Scientific) that allows him to access the Internet and view Web content.

    “I can reach the Internet,” Cummins said. “But things on the Internet are only as good as the people who put it out there.”

    “Internet access is kind of a challenge,” added Charis Austin, a client advocate for the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Grand Rapids. “Where it gets bad is with SPAM, security stuff and graphics.”

    SPAM is an obvious problem for business and private use alike. It has become an accepted routine to devote some time each day to skimming and deleting junk e-mail. But imagine the difficulties if a user’s only way to learn the subject of an e-mail were to have it read aloud. Cummins’ e-mail is kept relatively clean by Wolverine’s security systems, and he has no personal account.

    Speaking of security, the measures taken by sites like Yahoo, PayPal and to protect their systems from SPAMers, thieves and scalpers, as well as a multitude of other threats, have all but eliminated access for the blind.

    For sites such as these, the final security clearance consists of deciphering a passcode hidden in a graphic display. These are unreadable to the software used by Internet evildoers, but also to the software packages that reads the content to the blind.

    “We get really frustrated and they say, ‘Call us up and we can help you,’ but we want to just do it,” explained Austin

    Nearly as annoying to all consumers as SPAM, pop-up advertising is another deterrent. When a pop-up appears, often times in multiples, the blind user is forced to muck through these pages until returning to the original site.

    “A lot of times you can’t figure out what’s going on,” Austin said.

    In some situations, in both pop-ups and the computer’s own alert messages, JAWS does not register the new window, and the computer will remain locked until someone with sight comes along to fix the problem, or the computer is restarted.

    The most common barrier for the blind, however, has no comparison to the sighted like SPAM or pop-ups. The Web Access Initiative (WAI) of the World Web Consortium has developed guidelines for creating accessible Web pages. The IBMAccessibilityCenter, Microsoft, the U.S. government and several watchdog groups have also released standards. But developers often overlook or ignore the guidelines.

    Because the reader recites text on a left-to-right, up-to-down basis, tables are a problem, and the navigation bar often times found on the left side of the bar is tedious to negotiate through before reaching meaningful content.

    Many Web sites are developed with technology generations ahead of the reader software, so new applications might not be compatible. A current example is the Flash player. While older JAWS versions could not read the JAVA language, the latest version has difficulty reading .pdf files.

    The worst problem — misuse or not labeling graphics —  is actually easy to fix.

    Austin used the two Web sites associated with GRBJ as an example. Upon logging onto the GRBJ Express Web page, after a brief explanation of the page’s format, the first bit of content recited was “Link, Graphic,” then 20 seconds worth of indecipherable numbers and letters. The “Subscribe Now” graphic in the upper left corner had not been labeled with text, so the reader explained it by file name.

    Had Austin desired to access that link, she would not have been able to, as she would have no clue what that link was. If the information she was looking for was at that link, she would have missed it.

    “If a designer wants to use an icon, like a little man, and have it mean something,” Cummins said, “if you don’t put whatever it means, the software that reads it isn’t going to know what it means — and that makes things very hard for someone like me.”

    Further down that column, the next graphic, an illustration of the weather ball, read, “Link, Graphic, Weather Ball,” clearly explaining the purpose of that link.

    From there she examined the Gemini Publications site, finding all graphics coherently labeled with an easy to navigate one-column format.

    Even if a graphic does not cover a link, failure to label these still causes frustration with a disruptive burst of meaningless numbers and letters.

    Mislabeling is another problem. Austin recently persuaded the Lions Club to change their Web site after she wrote them a letter explaining how she had been directed to its Chinese site.

    “When I go to a site and I have trouble navigating it, I just leave and not come back,” Cummins said. “Some people investigate and find out what’s wrong and write them to change it. I don’t often have the time to dink with it.”

    Both Cummins and Austin currently use JAWS, but there are several reader software packages on the market. The final barrier to Internet access is that on top of everything else, all of those reader packages are a roughly thousand-dollar investment on top of the hardware purchase. The software is more expensive than most consumer hardware packages on the market today.

    Macintosh is rumored to be developing a PC with a built-in screen reader, which would almost certainly penetrate deeply into the blind market.

    JAWS and comparable solutions also are used also by the severely visually impaired, often seniors. Magnification programs are also available for those with lesser visual impairment, while a large magnifying glass can also be mounted on the screen to serve the same purpose.

    If Marcus could have his wish, he would like a cell phone with a keyboard that works when making direct TTY calls. BlackBerrys, Sprint Treos and the like are not yet able to make TTY calls directly to another TTY.

    “I would also like an implant in my eye that lets me know what people are saying around me,” Marcus added. “But at this point in time, ears would be nice replaceable parts — I’d just have to go to Quick-Lube to have them changed. Implants are making strides, but I don’t feel it is advanced enough to be considered 100 percent effective replacement parts. But that’s a new can of worms.”    

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