Assisted Visual Technology: Bringing the World within Reach

July 15, 2012 in Community Voices, Featured News, Technology

Blind Access CinemaAccess to the printed word is a troublesome thing as a blind person, even in today’s technological age. College students, especially, have accessibility issues with many websites and documents. The good news is that technology is making this less of a hassle or headache.

While not providing equal access, technology has helped to level the playing field in many different ways. Ever since the Library for the Blind, laptop, cell phones, and more advanced technological devices have been equipped with more and more accessibility features. Though still a work in progress, it has helped the visually impaired to catch up to their sighted peers. For example, College for the Blind is a lot easier now than it was three years ago.

For instance, my college requires a lot of document sifting. And they love PDF documents. Unfortunately, most of these are not accessible using NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access, the software that speaks aloud what’s on my laptop’s screen). But there are adaptations to make reading even these PDF documents a snap. One solution I devised myself. When given an inaccessible PDF document that was scanned by machine, I have my scanning software, called Kurzweil, scan the document as if it were a printed page. It then exports the result as a text file.

One device I consider obligatory to my daily exploits is my BookSense Reader. It allows me to log onto Learning Ally, the world’s largest provider for audio textbooks to the blind and physically handicapped. It allows me to access school textbooks. I also can get books via ISBN or place a request to have them recorded in audio format. It also allows me to download books in a special format allowing me to navigate by page, section, sub section, or chapter. I just put them on my BookSense and start reading.
My BookSense is more than just a reader though. It’s a music player, radio, alarm clock, calendar, calculator, and a note taker. I use it to do simple and scientific calculations when I don’t want to whip out the laptop and boot it up. It’s an iPod for the blind with no screen necessary!

More services are being developed which greatly improve access to simple things sighted people take for granted. For example, through the National Federation of the Blind, the visually impaired can call a direct telephone number and listen to newspapers and select magazines from all over the United States. New audio book services also are coming out, such as the Braille and Audio Reading Download program (BARD). It provides access to an online library for the blind or physically handicapped where users can download their favorite novels for free, and in a DAISY format compatible with their readers. If you really want a book, you can download it in a matter of minutes. No more will you have to wait for audiobooks to come in the mail. And the service is free to all visually impaired people in the United States.

Aside from other accessible technology coming out, one development I can’t wait to test out is Google’s new self-driving car. That would offer a previously unheard access to transportation for the visually impaired. Perhaps one day even I can have a driver’s license!
Less excitingly, there are new captcha solving services being developed. No more will anyone have to battle the lack of audio captchas. There’s also Hope, a desktop application for the blind which makes it easier to listen to your favorite Pandora radio stations.

Despite technological advances, the visually impaired are still behind in access to TV shows, movies and other media here in the United States. The BBC provides audio description narration in 87% of television, slipping in descriptions of key visual elements between sound effects and dialogue in movies. Here, legislation was only recently introduced in July to provide 5 hours of accessible programming a week.
Across the pond, 700 DVDs a year have audio description. In the U.S., the only two film makers actively putting audio description tracks on their DVDs are Universal Studios and Sony. For most blind people here, if they want a described movie, they’ll have to sign up for the Blind Mice Movie Vault and download the movie in mp3 format.

Despite the inaccessibility of a number software solutions, services and websites, there is hope in that many do make the effort to provide equal access. Such improvements and innovations are the gold amongst the dross in the effort to better serve those with a visual disability. There also seems to be every reason to expect such courtesy will increasingly become an expanded practice in the future.
Still, I can’t wait to see the day on which such special technology will no longer be needed.