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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 3
Photo on cover: Darren Burton talking on the Audiovox 9500 cell phone

Caption: Darren Burton talking on the Audiovox 9500 cell phone

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

Answering the Call: Top-of-the-Line Cell Phones, Part 1

How accessible are today's multitasking cellular telephones? Part 1 of this investigation explores Audiovox's top-of-the-line offering—Darren Burton and Mark Uslan

It's in Your Hands: A Review of the PAC Mate and the VoiceNote

Just how helpful are the latest Personal Digital Assistants designed for visually impaired users?—Jim Denham and Jay Leventhal

The Object Is Accessibility: An Interview with Madelyn Bryant McIntire

The director of Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group had her own reasons for becoming an advocate for accessibility—Deborah Kendrick

Programming the Future: A First Look at Microsoft's .NET Environment

The coming revolution in the underlying language of computing will affect efficiency and accessibility for computer novices and professionals alike—Joe Lazzaro

Book Review: Finding eBooks on the Internet, by Anna Dresner

Find everything you need to know to download all your summer reading—Reviewed by Deborah Kendrick

News

Calendar

Editor in Chief Jay Leventhal
Contributing Editors Paul Schroeder, Senior Editor
Crista Earl
Deborah Kendrick
Mark M. Uslan
Executive Editor Ellen Bilofsky


Editor's Page

Assistive technology manufacturers, advocates, and consumers have fought many battles to make mainstream software and consumer products accessible. In November 1995, the Missouri State Division of Purchasing, Office of Administration, barred all Missouri government agencies from purchasing Windows 95 software until it was made accessible to users who were blind or visually impaired. This action caught Microsoft's attention, and things slowly began to change. Six years later, in November 2001, versions of screen readers that would work with Windows XP were announced just two weeks after the operating system's release by Microsoft.

Two articles in this issue examine Microsoft's accessibility efforts, and the company's plans for future products. Deborah Kendrick interviews Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Access Technology Group at Microsoft. As Microsoft products are developed, McIntire's team evaluates them for accessibility and works to make the products accessible to all users before they reach the marketplace. This has come to mean involving assistive technology vendors in the process, so that those companies' products work with Microsoft's products upon release, rather than going through a months-long process of retrofitting. McIntire believes there will be a total shift to seeing accessible design as a fundamental of good business practice.

Joe Lazzaro, freelance fact and fiction writer, and project director for the Adaptive Technology Program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, provides an introduction to what Microsoft hopes will be the future of computing for both programmers and novice users alike. The company's .NET (pronounced dot NET) environment is designed to have all the software programs we use reside on and communicate via the web. Is this approach a cause for excitement or concern? Will .NET software be accessible? Read this article for an introduction to what we will get with .NET.

Another battle for accessible mainstream products has been fought around cellular telephones. Mark Uslan and Darren Burton of AFB's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington, West Virginia (AFB TECH), present Part 1 of an evaluation of top-of-the-line cell phones. This month they present their evaluation of the Audiovox 9500 phone. In July, they will present similar reports on products from Motorola, AT&T, Sanyo and Nokia. AccessWorld has published three previous articles documenting the frustrations of shopping for cell phones and the inaccessibility of specific phones. An indication that not much has changed is an informal complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) alleging that the Audiovox CDM9000 was not designed to be accessible to consumers who are blind or visually impaired. Subsequently, in a letter to the complainant dated December 6, 2002 (which was shared with AFB) Audiovox stated that "many of the accessibility issues have been addressed and are standard features in our newest model the CDM9500." In an effort to provide a more useful product evaluation to our readers, we decided to evaluate the CDM9500. The original informal complaint against Audiovox is now a formal complaint. (See AccessWorld News for further information.)

Jim Denham and I review Pulse Data International's VoiceNote and the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific, two PDAs (personal digital assistants) specifically designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. The PAC Mate is the first product to provide direct access, using a screen reader, to the Windows CE environment and applications used in pocket PCs sold on the mainstream market. In contrast, the VoiceNote uses a menuing system that does not require knowledge of Windows. This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, so that you can decide which product is best for you.

Deborah Kendrick reviews Finding eBooks on the Internet, by Anna Dresner, published by National Braille Press. For most of our lives, those of us who are blind or visually impaired have had access to a limited number of books. Now we can choose from a vast number of books from many sources, if we can find and download those books. The book covers Web-Braille, Bookshare, and Project Gutenberg, as well as many mainstream e-book sites. Check out our review of this extremely useful guide. Happy hunting and reading!

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

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Product Evaluation

Answering the Call: Top-of-the-Line Cell Phones, Part 1

Editor's Note: As of this writing, a consumer has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the Audiovox 9155, an earlier version of the product evaluated in this article. See the Editor's Page and AccessWorld News for more information.


Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.


This is the first of two articles that will provide a snapshot of the fast-moving evolution of cellular telephones, focusing on the current situation regarding accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired. We are concentrating on top-of-the-line telephones from major manufacturers that feature cutting-edge technology, excluding the free or inexpensive telephones offered by the various service providers. Cell phones are covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires that cell phone manufacturers and service providers do all that is "readily achievable" to make each product or service accessible.

This article evaluates the Audiovox CDM9500 offered by Verizon Wireless. Priced at $230, the 9500 was Audiovox's top cell phone at the time we purchased it in January 2003. We started our ongoing evaluation of cell phones with this model because it was Audiovox's top of the line. We had actually begun evaluating the Audiovox 9155, this telephone's predecessor, when the 9500 was introduced. We decided to go with the 9500 instead because we wanted the most recent model, and because we wanted to see the differences the rapidly evolving cell phone technology made between the two models. Future articles will review top-of-the-line phones from other manufacturers.

Figure
1a. Photo of Audiovox 9500, closed. Figure
1b. Photo of Audiovox 9500, open.

Caption: The Audiovox 9500 sports a large, high-contrast color display but inaccessible keys.

The 9500 does indeed offer many of the latest and greatest options found on today's cell phones, such as a color display, high-speed web browsing, voice-activated dialing, and a global positioning satellite (GPS) system. The "clamshell" style telephone is both lightweight and compact, weighing 4 ounces and measuring 4 by 2 by 1 inches when folded, so it fits nicely into a shirt pocket, purse, or briefcase. Flipping the phone open reveals a relatively large color display, measuring roughly 1 1/4 by 1 3/4 inches, with highly contrasting colors. The size of the text averages about 10 points (for comparison, typical book type is about 12 points). The keys are small and irregular in size, but a more serious issue is that they are flush with the panel, making them difficult to identify by touch.

Despite the relatively large illuminated color display, the Audiovox 9500 does not have zoom capability or letters large enough to be readable by most people with visual impairments. The keys on the keypad are not illuminated or color-coded, and they feature low-contrast black print on a gray background. Large print on the keys would also be preferred by people with low vision, but that would require larger keys. Considering the trend toward smaller telephones, however, that might not be a realistic possibility. These and other access issues were addressed in our evaluation.

Rating Accessible Features

Before beginning our evaluation, we first surveyed 20 cell phone users who are blind or visually impaired to determine which features they would most like to have made accessible. The survey used a questionnaire that asked respondents about cell phone use and their opinions of their current telephones. The questionnaire listed 40 cell phone features, which respondents were asked to rate from 1 to 5. A low number indicated that the feature had little or no importance to the respondent, and a high number meant that it would be extremely important for that feature to be accessible. The 16 highest-rated features, representing 40% of the features surveyed, all scored an average rating of 4.0 or higher.

These 16 features (listed in Box 1) became the basis of our evaluation of the Audiovox 9500. We looked at whether a blind or visually impaired person would be able to use those features and noted the barriers to accessing those features. The evaluation methods we used included

Box 1. The 16 Most Desirable Accessible Cell Phone Features (in rank order)

Caption: Box 1.

Box 1 The 16 Most Desirable Accessible Cell Phone Features (in rank order)

  1. *Keys that are easily identifiable by touch
  2. *Voice output
  3. *Accessible documentation
  4. Battery level indicator
  5. Roaming indicator
  6. Message indicator
  7. Phonebook
  8. Phone lock mode
  9. Keypad lock mode
  10. Power indicator
  11. Ringing or vibrating mode indicator
  12. GPS feature
  13. Signal strength indicator
  14. Ringer volume control
  15. Caller identification
  16. Speed dialing

*Tied for first place.

  • measuring the ability to identify and use the keypad tactilely;
  • determining the ability to navigate menus;
  • noting auditory and vibratory feedback; and
  • assessing the readability of the visual display.

People who are blind or visually impaired are used to developing techniques to work around the inaccessibility of certain features, such as memorizing several keystrokes to navigate through a menu and activate a certain function. However, using "work- arounds" is not true accessibility, and we would expect top-of-the-line telephones to be designed so that people with little technical savvy can easily operate them. Did the Audiovox 9500 meet this standard? The following analysis lists the 16 cell phone features rated as most important for accessibility and how the Audiovox 9500 measured up on each.

The Sweet 16

Keys That Are Easily Identifiable by Touch

Scoring an average rating of 4.9, keys that are easily identifiable by touch landed in a three-way tie for first place among the most desirable cell phone features. But, as noted earlier, the keys on the Audiovox 9500 are extremely difficult to identify by touch, because they are flush with the panel. Although there is a nib on the 5 key, it is too small to be distinguishable, and is placed on the top left corner instead of the center of the key. This keypad was a major accessibility problem, making many of the other features we evaluated inaccessible.

Voice Output

Voice output, the second feature that tied for the lead, was also missing from the Audiovox 9500. No text-to-speech feature was available to access any of the information on the screen or to navigate through the telephone's menu items. Memorizing keystrokes to access certain menu functions is not an effective strategy because some menus change, depending on the last action taken. Also, the inaccessible keypad makes it impossible to come up with effective work-around solutions such as memorizing keystrokes.

Accessible Documentation

Accessible documentation, the final feature in the tie for the most desirable, was again missing from this phone. A print manual was the only documentation available, and efforts to contact the manufacturer resulted in no response. Checking the Audiovox web site for manuals, we only found a short list of the telephone's features.

Battery Level Indicator

An icon on the screen picturing a battery that slowly disappears as the battery discharges is used to indicate the battery level, but there is no auditory notification of this information. Although a unique tone is emitted to indicate a low battery warning, the battery dies completely less than 30 seconds later, so the warning is not very valuable.

Roaming Indicator

The roaming indicator lets the user know if he or she is outside the service area and thus paying more for talk time. The Audiovox 9500 displays a small triangle icon on the display to indicate roaming, but there is no auditory indication.

Message Indicator

A small envelope icon appears on the main screen when you have a text or voice message. The user can program tones to sound when a message is coming in, but after that initial warning, feedback is only visual. So, if you are not there when the message comes in and you cannot see the small icon, you will not know you have a message.

When it comes to retrieving the actual messages, the text messaging feature is inaccessible because of the lack of a text-to-speech output. Had it not been for the inaccessible keypad, the voice mail features would have been accessible. As with most other cell phones, users of the Audiovox 9500 access messages by calling their own cell phone number and navigating through a standard menu system, similar to that utilized by typical answering machine systems.

Phonebook

The 9500's phonebook feature is inaccessible to visually impaired users because it is accessed via the menu system, which has no speech output to assist in navigation. Using sighted assistance, one could, theoretically, memorize the step-by-step keystrokes to make phonebook entries. Again, however, it would be virtually impossible to actually accomplish this because of the inaccessible keypad. Features such as speed dialing and voice-activated dialing are dependent on the phonebook, so they are in turn, also rendered inaccessible without sighted assistance.

Figure 2. Photo of man with dog guide dialing the Audiovox 9500.

Caption: Dialing and using the phonebook are both difficult for visually impaired users

Phone Lock Mode

To lock the Audiovox 9500 to prevent unauthorized use, the user would press the function key, then the 1 key twice. However, there is no tone or confirmation sound. Once locked, nothing on the telephone works until it is unlocked by entering a 4-digit security code, but there is no confirmation that the telephone is unlocked.

Keypad Lock Mode

A keypad lock mode is used to prevent inadvertent dialing if a telephone is jostled while in a pocket or briefcase. The 9500 does not have this highly rated feature, but it does not need it, because the telephone is folded up when not in use, and the keys are protected by design.

Power Indicator

People who are blind or visually impaired actually have equal access to the power indicator, which consists of a tone that sounds when the telephone is turned on or off. There is no specific visual power indicator, other than seeing that the display itself is on or off. One can determine if the telephone is on or off without using vision by pressing any of the number keys, which all sound a tone when pressed. If no tone is heard, the phone is off.

Ringing or Vibrating Mode Indicator

A visual icon appears on the display to indicate which ringer mode is active, and there is also a nonvisual way to get at this information. By simply pressing and holding the Star (*) key, the telephone will toggle between ringer and vibrate modes. It will vibrate briefly to indicate it has moved to vibrate mode, but provides no nonvisual notification when it is switched to ringer mode.

GPS Feature

The GPS feature allows the global positioning satellite system to assist 911 services in locating the telephone in an emergency, as long as the local 911 service has GPS capabilities. This feature is on and works automatically out of the box. Our local 911 service does not have GPS capabilities, so we were not able to evaluate this feature. Our impression is that having GPS could be very valuable to a security-conscious blind or visually impaired individual.

Signal Strength Indicator

A small icon on the display indicates signal strength, but there is no audible equivalent, so this feature is inaccessible.

Ringer Volume Control

Like many of the features we have discussed, the ringer volume is controlled through the menus. Although it is relatively easy to memorize the keystrokes to change the ringer volume, we must again stress that this is not real accessibility. Voice output while navigating through menus is the only way to provide real accessibility to these types of features.

Caller Identification

Caller identification is inaccessible, because the telephone number of an incoming call is displayed visually with no speech output. However, while the user is on the phone with one party, a unique tone is heard to indicate that another party is calling. It is also easy to switch between two calls using the call button. Once again, however, it is difficult to locate the call button because of the poor tactile nature of the buttons.

Speed Dialing

Speed dialing relies on the phonebook feature, which is inaccessible. However, if a visually impaired user gets assistance to make the phonebook entries, speed dialing is accessible. You simply press and hold a number from 1 to 9 and the phone will dial the person associated with that number's phonebook entry.

Other Notable Features

Voice-activated dialing is an intriguing feature of many of today's new telephones, and it is included in the 9500. You simply press and hold the call button and the phone prompts you with the phrase "Name, please." You then speak the name of a person in your phonebook, and the telephone dials that person's number. On the surface, this seems to be accessible, but problems arise because this feature is dependent on first using the inaccessible phonebook feature to program in names and numbers. This leaves voice-activated dialing as a feature that cannot be fully accessed without sighted assistance.

Web browsing is another innovative feature that is available on the Audiovox 9500, but no components of this feature are accessible, mainly due to the lack of text-to-speech and problems with the inaccessible keypad.

Where Are the Trends Taking Us?

Overall, the Audiovox 9500 has very few accessible features. It certainly has some exciting new innovations such as GPS, web browsing, and voice activation, but with the exception of GPS, these new features are not accessible. If the Audiovox 9500 represents a trend in the evolution of cell phones, then it is a step backward with regard to accessibility. Historically, people who are blind or visually impaired have at least been able to make and receive cell phone calls. But, with this telephone's keypad, it is virtually impossible to do even that efficiently.

In fact, the 9500 is even less accessible than its predecessor, the Audiovox 9155. Although most of the features discussed here were also inaccessible on the 9155, the earlier phone did have a tactilely identifiable keypad so that at least calls could be placed and received independently. In addition, although the display was smaller on the 9155, the font was actually larger, averaging about 14 points, compared to the 10-point font on the 9500.

The outlook for accessibility may not be as bleak as it seems, however. Because this telephone's electronics include an operating system with download capability, just as a computer does, it would seem easy for Audiovox to include text-to-speech features in the next version. Also, if the keypad is redesigned so that the keys are tactilely identifiable, the Audiovox 9500 would actually be a very user-friendly telephone for everyone, disabled or not.

Many of today's other top-of-the-line cell phones include innovations such as digital cameras, video games, and music download and playback features. We hope that accessibility will be another innovation that manufacturers will see fit to develop. In our next article, we will evaluate additional top-of-the-line cell phones with cutting-edge technology and discuss promising efforts to build accessible cell phones.

Product Information

Product: Audiovox 9500 Cell Phone

Manufacturer: Audiovox Communications Corporation, 555 Wireless Boulevard, Hauppauge, NY 11788; phone: 631-233-3300; customer service: 800-229-1235; web site: <www.audiovox.com>. Telephone and service available from Verizon Wireless,800-2-JOIN IN, web site:<www.verizonwireless.com>. Price: $230: Various service plan rates available.

Correction

An incorrect web link was inadvertently published in the March 2003 issue of AccessWorld in the article "You Can Bank on It, Part 2: Advocacy, Outreach, and Legal Authority for Talking ATMs," by Lainey Feingold. The passage should have read:

Other countries that have been mentioned in recent stories have included India (where the Talking ATMs speak both Hindi and English); see the story at <www.the-week.com/22sep29/life4.htm>.

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Product Evaluation

It's in Your Hands: A Review of the PAC Mate and the VoiceNote

The personal digital assistant (PDA) has become an essential personal and business tool. PDAs typically include an appointment book, address list and simple word processor in a small, portable package. These days, almost everyone, from computer expert to technology novice, carries one. PDAs can be especially useful for people who are blind or visually impaired. With a PDA, you can say good-bye to a desk filled with notes in large print that you struggle to read, hundreds of braille sheets with old addresses crossed out, or all the print business cards you can't read. Using a PDA can make you much more efficient on the job, and simplify your life as well.

This article reviews the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific and Pulse Data International's VoiceNote, two PDAs that are specifically designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. Although both products are based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system (a version of Windows specifically designed for handheld computers), the way that this operating system is implemented with each product is dramatically different.

PAC Mate

The PAC Mate can run a variety of off-the-shelf applications that are designed for handheld computers. Freedom Scientific has modified its JAWS for Windows screen reader to provide access to the CE environment. Several applications that are specifically designed for the PAC Mate have also been created.

There are two models of the PAC Mate. The PAC Mate BNS, reviewed here, has an eight-dot braille keyboard. In addition to the traditional six keys, dot 7 is the Backspace key and dot 8 is the Enter key. The PAC Mate TNS features an 88-key QWERTY keyboard. Both models provide speech output using the Eloquence speech synthesizer. Currently, refreshable braille is not available for the PAC Mate. According to Freedom Scientific, a PAC Mate with a refreshable braille display should be available in the second half of 2003.

Figure 1a. The PAC Mate with QWERTY keyboard is shown here. Figure 1b. The PAC Mate with braille keyboard is shown here.

Caption: The PAC Mate comes with either a QWERTY or a braille keyboard

Physical Description

Weighing in at 1.75 pounds, the PAC Mate BNS is only slightly larger than the original Braille 'n Speak. The top of the unit features the eight-dot braille keyboard, four function keys, and a rubber cross known as the cursor cross. In the way of ports, the PAC Mate features a variety of options for connecting to computers, printers, and embossers, including a standard 9-pin serial port, a built-in microphone, audio-in and out jacks, a USB port, an infrared port, a PC card slot, and a compact flash slot. Note that the PAC Mate does not have a built-in modem or a parallel port. A pocket PC-compatible modem or Ethernet network card can be purchased separately. Printing is accomplished through either the infrared port or the USB port. PAC Mate is powered by a user-replaceable lithium ion battery, which is included. Freedom Scientific sells a replacement battery for $179. Disconnecting and reconnecting the battery is a fairly simple procedure that is well documented in both the manual and the tutorial.

PAC Mate comes in a leather carrying case that ostensibly provides access to most of the ports while the unit is in its case. In reality, however, it was difficult to use the product while in the case, since the case sometimes held down several of the function keys and blocked full access to some of the ports.

Getting Started, Getting Help

PAC Mate comes with a CD containing a complete user's manual in HTML and a tutorial recorded in MP3 format. This tutorial is also available on audiocassette. The tutorial jumps in almost immediately to setting up Microsoft Active Sync, a program that allows you to transfer files between your computer and the PAC Mate. This advanced topic will be a bit confusing for new users. Once this material is covered, however, the tutorial provides a basic introduction to some of PAC Mate's features and applications. A quick reference card in print and braille is also included.

Command Structure

The PAC Mate uses "layered" commands. The Help command, for example, requires two separate key strokes to get any type of help. When you press a braille question-mark chord (dots 1 4 5 6 with the spacebar), PAC Mate simply says "help." From this point, you can press any one of a number of characters to get such things as context-sensitive help, keyboard help, or basic PAC Mate commands. Since the letters for reaching these various topics are not always mnemonic, it can be difficult to remember all these commands. One feature that does help is PAC Mate's context-sensitive help. When the first character of a layered command is issued, pressing the question mark gives a list of all the commands available from that particular command.

Launching applications from PAC Mate's Start menu can be tedious. Many of the applications start with the same letter, so opening the Start menu and pressing the first letter of an application doesn't always get you immediately to the application you want. It can take a lot of keystrokes to navigate from one application to another and through menus. This is the same way that PDAs on the general market operate, but it will take some getting used to for many blind users.

PAC Mate has two features that are designed to help you launch applications more efficiently. Pressing the F4 key brings up a list of recently used applications. This key is great for quickly opening previously worked-on documents and their associated applications. In no place in the documentation or help, however, does it state how many items this menu will hold or when an application is no longer considered recent. The second method is through the use of hardware buttons. In the Control Panel, you can associate applications with each of the eight braille input keys. Once you do so, pressing a particular keystroke followed by one of these keys will launch the associated application.

Figure 2. The PAC Mate BNS: The next generation in accessibility

Caption: The PAC Mate BNS: The next generation in accessibility

Turning It On

The PAC Mate indicates its on/off status through a series of tones. When the unit is switched on, nothing is spoken, and an ascending tone is played. For individuals with mild hearing loss, determining the on/off status may be a challenge. It is possible to disable or change the on/off tones in the Control Panel. If left inactive for four minutes, the PAC Mate automatically shuts off to conserve battery power. The default sound used to indicate that it is shutting off is a shrill whistle that will definitely get your attention and the attention of anyone around you. Once activated, the unit returns you to what you were doing when the PAC Mate was turned off. Unless you specifically remember what you were doing, however, you must issue a command to find out what application is currently active.

The PAC Mate's main screen, the Today Screen, displays several critical pieces of information, such as battery status, upcoming appointments, and the number of new e-mail messages. You can easily navigate through this information using the cursor cross. Pressing Enter on any piece of information launches the application associated with that information. Pressing enter on the message informing you of how many new e-mail messages you currently have, for example, launches PAC Mate's e-mail application. This is a convenient way of quickly getting to the information you need. Pressing one of the function keys opens the PAC Mate Start menu. This Start menu, which is fairly similar to the Start menu on a desktop computer, allows you to access all the applications PAC Mate has to offer.

Applications

Since the PAC Mate runs Windows CE, it can run Microsoft's Pocket PC applications—a version of Microsoft Office that is designed for handheld computers. Many mainstream PDAs, such as the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ, run the same applications. The PAC Mate includes Pocket Word, Pocket Outlook, Pocket Internet Explorer, and Pocket Excel.

In most of these applications, the default setting for data entry is uncontracted (grade 1) braille. The grade of braille can be toggled in the Settings menu. In addition to the Pocket PC applications, PAC Mate comes with a second editor, a calculator, a calendar, a task manager (similar to an appointment book), and a file manager. Since JAWS has been designed to function in the CE environment, it is possible to install additional off-the-shelf applications that are written for the CE environment on the PAC Mate. A version of Windows Media Player, for example, can be installed and run. Since PAC Mate has a multichannel sound card, Windows Media Player allows you to listen to MP3 and Windows Media audio files.

Word Processing

PAC Mate comes with two separate word-processing applications: Pocket Word and FS Edit. Pocket Word can be used to create and edit Microsoft Word documents. Although it doesn't include a spell checker, this application has most of the same features that are found in its desktop equivalent. FS Edit, a word processor written specifically for the PAC Mate, includes a spell checker, features many powerful formatting and editing commands, and allows you to send documents to a braille embosser.

Surfing the Web

Since PAC Mate is running a version of JAWS for Windows, all the functionality of using the web with JAWS is built in to the PDA. You can get a list of links, jump to blocks of text, and fill out forms. Most of the commands necessary to accomplish these tasks are intuitive and easy to learn.

PAC Mate uses its web browser for more than simply browsing online web pages. The user manual and online help are all supplied as html files. PAC Mate also works with Microsoft's AvantGo service. AvantGo is a service that can automatically download content from several major newspapers to your handheld device each time your device is connected to a PC that is connected to the Internet. So, using AvantGo, it is possible to download articles from newspapers, such as USA Today, the New York Times, and CNET, and read them anywhere, any time, on your PAC Mate.

Planning Your Life

The Pocket Outlook calendar is accessible and easy to use. It is possible to schedule, reschedule, and review both onetime and reoccurring appointments. Shortcut keys allow you to jump immediately to a specific day of the current week. Once an appointment is set, PAC Mate can be set up to remind you of this appointment. The only real problem we experienced with the calendar was when more than five or six appointments were scheduled for a single day. In this situation, PAC Mate was often sluggish when moving among appointments.

Connecting Without Wires

The PAC Mate's infrared port can be used for wireless transfer of data to and from other infrared capable devices. Using a USB-to-infrared adapter connected to a desktop, we transferred several files to and from the PAC Mate. As is the case with other infrared devices, PAC Mate emits a series of tones to indicate when it is successfully communicating with the other infrared device. When this connection is established, many of PAC Mate's menus have a beam option that allows you to transfer data easily. The only problem we encountered when transferring files via infrared connection occurred with large files. By default, PAC Mate automatically shuts down after four minutes of inactivity. When we attempted to transfer a large file to the PAC Mate, the unit shut down after four minutes, thus interrupting the file transfer.

The PAC Mate is a significant step forward in the journey toward totally accessible PDAs. Since it is new on the market, however, it does have some glitches that need to be worked out. Some users will have to adjust to the many steps required to navigate through PAC Mate's menus and applications, after being accustomed to using a Braille'n Speak or Braille Lite.

VoiceNote

Pulse Data began offering a line of PDAs based on Windows CE in March 2000. The BrailleNote line features speech output and a refreshable braille display. The VoiceNote has speech output, either a braille or a typewriter-style keyboard, and no braille display.

Physical Description

The VoiceNote's case is gray, and the braille keys are green. On the top surface of the unit, which measures 9.5 inches x 5 inches x 1 inch and weighs 1 pound, 10 ounces, are nine keys (representing an eight-dot braille keyboard plus a space bar) arranged on a curve for comfort. The unit also includes a PC card slot, serial port, parallel port, modem connection, AC adapter, earphone jack, compact flash slot, and infrared port. The VoiceNote also includes a rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery.

Getting Started, Getting Help

The VoiceNote's online manual is easy to use and can be accessed quickly from the Task List. In the online menu, you are given the choice of Table of Contents or Index. After choosing an option, you can move through the topics listed by chapter or alphabetical listing, respectively. Context-sensitive help (the letter H plus the space bar), which is available throughout VoiceNote's functions, is useful and reliable.

Figure 3. VoiceNote with a braille keyboard

Caption: VoiceNote with a braille keyboard

Command Structure

The VoiceNote's commands within various functions are issued by key combinations, or chords, involving holding down some of the braille keys along with the Backspace or space bar. Access to almost all the menus is available from anywhere within the unit via the Task List (accessed by pressing the space bar with the letter O). For example, if you are in a word-processing document and want to schedule an appointment, the calendar is just a few keystrokes away. A major exception is that the File Manager, used for copying, erasing, and renaming files, is not on the Task List. It is necessary to exit the current application, go to the File Manager via the Main menu, and then reopen the application.

A welcome feature in VoiceNote's File Manager now allows you to delete files when you are looking at a folders directory. This feature eliminates the need to select Directory from the File Manager menu, find the file you want to delete, and then go back to the File Manager menu to select the Delete File option.

The VoiceNote runs Pulse Data's KeySoft suite of applications with its proprietary KeyWord word processor, KeyPlan appointment calendar, and so on. The unit's menu system provides quick access to applications and the information that you need, and it does not require knowledge of Windows. However, you cannot load and run conventional Windows programs on the VoiceNote.

Word Processing

KeyWord is powerful and easy to use. The Key Announce feature lets you review commands quickly. The context-sensitive help is effective in the word processor and elsewhere. Block commands and the spell checker work well.

The VoiceNote can import and read Word XP and WordPerfect 5.1 files. Files can be converted and exported in other formats through the File Manager.

Surfing the Web

A significant recent enhancement is VoiceNote's ability to browse the web. In addition to adding the browser software to its standard suite of applications, a hardware upgrade includes a faster built-in modem.

KeyWeb, the VoiceNote's browser, reformats web pages in a word processor-type environment. The reformatting is different from that performed by most screen readers. Unlike JAWS and Window-Eyes, for example, each individual link is not placed on a line by itself. When you encounter a page that contains multiple links on a line, you move to the link using the space bar or the first letter of the link before the link can be activated. KeyWeb has many of the commands of other web browsers, including a Favorites and a History list and the ability to save web pages for off-line viewing. Web pages can be traversed by link, frame, or heading. All this is presented in a simple-to-learn-and-use command structure.

VoiceNote's web browser gives status tones to indicate that a page is loading. You can also check the current status of a page load.

We found browsing to be straightforward. We were able to enter a user name and password, such as at the New York Times site <www.nytimes.com>. We were also able to download and then open files.

Getting Connected

The VoiceNote can use its internal modem to connect to the Internet. An additional accessory can be purchased that allows you to connect the product to a LAN or broadband connection. This accessory simply fits into VoiceNote's compact flash port. Setting up either the modem or the Ethernet connection is fairly simple and well documented.

E-mail

It is easy to set up the VoiceNote to send and receive e-mail. The unit announces how many messages are waiting to be downloaded, announces each message as it is downloaded, and announces how many of the messages downloaded are new messages. However, the VoiceNote does not distinguish between new and old e-mail messages when downloading. It downloads all messages each time you check e-mail, keeping you online longer than is necessary.

After reading a message, you are asked which folder you would like to move the message to; leaving a read message in the inbox is not offered as an option. However, typing the Exit command, Spacebar with the letter E, exits the message, leaving it in the inbox.

Planning Your Life

The KeyPlan planner lets you schedule, reschedule, and set alarms to remind you of appointments. You are simply asked to enter the day, time, and name of an appointment and then to indicate whether you want to set an alarm to remind you of that appointment. Appointments are stored and can be reviewed, in chronological order by appointment, no matter what order you schedule them in. This makes it simple to coordinate your calendar with that of a supervisor or assistant. Rescheduling appointments is quick and simple and does not require retyping any information. The default volume for the alarm is extremely loud; you can change the setting in the Planner menu under Setup Options.

Getting Around

VoiceNote users can add an optional global positioning satellite (GPS) system. A receiver that is a little larger than an audiocassette case attaches to the unit's serial port, and GPS software, based on the Arkenstone-developed Atlas Speaks program, which Pulse Data HumanWare has acquired, is installed. The receiver determines your position by communicating with 24 satellites in the Earth's orbit. The current version can tell you how fast you are moving, in what direction you are going, and your distance from landmarks that you have entered into a list of "way points." You must be outdoors for the receiver to receive a satellite signal, and you must be at your waypoint when you add it to your list.

Points of interest are included in files, one file for the state of Florida, for example. These files include lists of businesses, mainly restaurants, hotels, and banks. When you access the appropriate file for your location, you are told how far away each point is and in what direction. You can add points to a file—such as your house or your favorite bakery.

The GPS program will be much more useful when maps are added, making it possible to plot and follow a route to your desired destination. Also, the GPS receivers that are currently being used are not entirely accessible. A person who is blind cannot program the receiver or tell if the receiver is on or off. The result can be dead batteries.

The VoiceNote offers access to the power of a Windows CE-based PDA in a menu structure that will be familiar to many users who are blind or visually impaired. Its strengths are its calendar and word processor. The e-mail and GPS applications need improvement. Pulse Data International's continued efforts to add power and versatility make the VoiceNote a good choice and a device to watch in the future.

Manufacturers' Comments

Freedom Scientific

"It is correct that the PAC Mate interface differs from that of the traditional notetaker. JAW users will see many similarities with the desktop including navigation shortcuts. Standard Compact Flash and PC Card slots support off-the-shelf peripherals beyond just modems and network cards. A redesigned carrying case is shipping now. On, Off and all system event sounds are fully assignable, including creating your own. The default 4-minute sleep mode on battery power is changeable in the Settings Menu."

Pulse Data International

"Over the past three years, the BrailleNote Family has given to persons who are blind the first portable alternative running Windows CE; integrated, accessible GPS system; and an intuitive, portable web browser with high-speed Internet and cellular phone access. In the coming months, this product line will allow for seamless synchronization with the Microsoft Outlook application, support the playing of MP3 files, and enable direct access to Bookshare.org via refreshable braille and synthesized speech."

Product Features

Product Features

PAC Mate VoiceNote

Operating system: PAC Mate: Windows CE; VoiceNote: Windows CE, Price: PAC Mate: $2,595; VoiceNote: $2,295, Memory: PAC Mate: 64 MB RAM and 32 MB Flash; VoiceNote: 32 MB RAM and 16 MB Flash, Size (height/width/depth): PAC Mate: 5.4 inches x 9.75 inches x 1.25 inches; VoiceNote: 9.9 inches x 5.9 inches x 1.6 inches, Weight: PAC Mate: 1.75 pounds; VoiceNote: 1.65 pounds, Battery type: PAC Mate: Lithium ion; VoiceNote: Nickel metal hydride, One-handed mode: PAC Mate: No; VoiceNote: Yes, Battery gauge: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: Yes, Available with braille display: PAC Mate: No; VoiceNote: Yes, Both braille and QWERTY keyboards available: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: Yes, Can play MP3 files: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: No, Ports standard: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: Yes, Stopwatch: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: No, Multilingual: PAC Mate: German, French, Spanish, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese; VoiceNote: French, German, Italian, and Spanish, Word processor: PAC Mate: Pocket Word and FS Edit; VoiceNote: KeyWord, Internal modem: PAC Mate: No; VoiceNote: Yes, Can run third-partyapplications: PAC Mate: Yes; VoiceNote: No.

Product Ratings

PAC Mate VoiceNote

Documentation: PAC Mate: 3.5; VoiceNote: 4, E-mail: PAC Mate: 4.5; VoiceNote: 3.5, Word processing: PAC Mate: 4; VoiceNote: 4.5, Web browser: PAC Mate: 4; VoiceNote: 4, Calendar: PAC Mate: 4; VoiceNote: 4.5, Address list: PAC Mate: 4; VoiceNote: 4, File management: PAC Mate: 3.5; VoiceNote: 4, Speech quality: PAC Mate: 4.5; VoiceNote: 4.5, Battery life: PAC Mate: 3; VoiceNote: 4.

Product Information

Product: PAC Mate

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, Blindness and Low Vision Group, 11800 31stCourt North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-444-4443;e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>. Price: $2,595.

Product: VoiceNote

Manufacturer: Pulse Data International, Ltd., 1 Expo Place, Christchurch, NZ8006; web site: <www.pulsedata.com>North America sales and service office: Pulse Data HumanWare,175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: (800) 722-3393 or (925)680-7100; fax: 925-681-4830; e-mail: <info@humanware. com>. Price: $2,295.

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Interview

The Object is Accessibility: An Interview With Madelyn Bryant McIntire

Photo of Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Director, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group

Caption: Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Director, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group

There was a time when brand names such as Microsoft and Windows were bitter medicine on the tongues of people who were blind or visually impaired whose employment involved technology. Touted as the "great equalizer" in the early 1980s, technology heralded a wave of enviable employment for many blind people who learned to harness its power. A decade later, however, the familiar technical terrain of text began yielding to the power of the graphical user interface. And blind people lost jobs.

While the release of earlier versions of Windows forced assistive technology vendors to scramble to extract the information that they needed from the operating system to allow their users to function, the approach today to accessibility by Microsoft Corp. has the potential for becoming an industry model.

Madelyn Bryant McIntire, the current director of Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group, supervises a team of some 40 people on the Redmond, Washington, campus, and espouses principles of accessibility and inclusion that would satisfy the most venerable advocate. For example, Are there keyboard alternatives to mouse actions performed in a new program? Are there options for altering color and font and size of characters? Are there audio and visual alerts built in to applications to signal individuals with dyslexia, attention deficit, or other cognitive impairments about shifts in on-screen activity? Can the actions of a program be performed with a head mouse or alternate keyboard? As Microsoft products are developed, McIntire's team evaluates them for these and other measures of accessibility, working to make them accessible to all users before they reach the marketplace.

Issues Close to Home

Although McIntire herself does not have a visible disability, the path of her experience with and comprehension of access issues began long ago and has led her through numerous twists and turns and layers of understanding over time. "My grandmother lost her sight when I was a very small child," she recalls, "so I used to practice walking around in the dark. My grandmother had diabetes and lived with horrible health for a number of years, so I became somewhat obsessed with knowing about blindness. I read about the lives of blind people and, with the arrogance of a child, believed that if I lost my sight, I'd be ready for it!"

Severe Type II diabetes runs in both sides of her family, affecting both of her brothers. One brother has serious vision problems, although he's not quite ready for the products McIntire's team works to make accessible. "He goes around without a cane," she says, "but he's an accident waiting to happen on a bicycle."

There are other close-to-home reminders of the significance of her work. Her husband has dyslexia resulting from brain trauma, and was, she says functionally illiterate when graduating from high school. "When I first showed him Narrator [a bare-bones screen reader in Windows 2000 and XP adequate only for emergency use by people who are blind] in Windows," she remembers, "he responded to it right away....He's a much better aural learner— when he hears a sentence he remembers it—so text-to-speech learning works well for him." Her father used a wheelchair for a few years and her 7-year-old nephew has severe disabilities.

Ironically, however, despite personal experience, McIntire didn't initially set out to work with assistive technology. An engineer working in computer science for over 20 years, McIntire muses that in the beginning of her career she'd never heard of accessibility. "I first heard the term accessibility [while employed] at Compaq," she recalls. "My team was working on a new infrastructure, and one of the requirements was that it be accessible....A certain spark was set in the engineers on my team, we all just really got into it. I believe all engineers actually want to change the world—in a good way—with technology, anyway, and we all got really excited."

When Microsoft first approached McIntire about a position there, she was reluctant. A long time San Francisco Bay Area resident, a hiker and outdoors person, she was hesitant to relocate. "But when they offered me the job in accessibility," she says, "it was something I couldn't turn down." In 1999, she became a member of the team on the Redmond campus and was serving as its director by the end of 2001.

Technical Trust Dance

The focus of the access technology group is to build accessibility features into products before they are released. That doesn't necessarily mean designing those features. In many instances, the challenge is simply to make a product's underlying code available to vendors who specialize in assistive technology (AT), enabling them to carry out the job. "We've flown vendors here at times," McIntire explains, "in order to work closely together and ensure that accessibility is there."

Not every product is ultimately usable by all people with disabilities. Microsoft's priorities with regard to accessibility, McIntire says, are to place products that are used in employment first, education second, "and entertainment somewhere else down the list."

With the upcoming release of a new operating system and its anticipated emphasis on security (see "Programming the Future: A First Look at Microsoft's .NET Environment" in this issue), consumers who are blind understandably have concerns: Will tighter security measures mean the exclusion or, at best, awkward inclusion of screen readers?

"Some security efforts are reactive," says McIntire. "We don't have the opportunity to evaluate impact. We do have a plan to keep things protected. The partnership we have with AT vendors will be used to leverage [that protection]. We have pretty constant contact with AT vendors, but it's premature. [We've] not yet determined who needs to be involved."

When assistive technology developers are involved, McIntire details a kind of technical trust dance that ensues. "There's a technical process of establishing a 'tech trust': One program understands the existence of another; they share common knowledge through digital signing; one knows that the other is authorized to do certain things. That tech process of making that happen—[when it comes to] the matter of making a secure program that is authorized to run—has not involved AT companies, but now it has to."

An Integrated Team

When asked how many of the 40 employees on her team have disabilities, McIntire is slow to answer. Maybe a fourth, is her first halting guess. Then, she tries to tick them off—slowly trying to remember. Two are blind, one has a wheelchair, two or three have diabetes or multiple sclerosis, two or three have dyslexia, one is hearing impaired. She is quick to point out, however, that the members of her team who happen to have disabilities are not there to speak for people with disabilities as a group. "Coming from the perspective of being a woman who is an engineer," she says, "my view is that we should have formal processes that include people with disabilities in our design, but should not expect people with disabilities to speak for people with disabilities. I wouldn't want to be told that I had to work in a department where we only made software for women. To ask the people with disabilities on my team to speak for a group or a class is objectifying them in a way....I hope someday that we can't even tell, that we could work with someone for 20 years and not know if they have a disability." McIntire mentions a well-known Microsoft professional who is blind who was working with a group once and, she says, "I don't know how it happened—no one there knew he was blind until he picked up his cane to leave. That's the way it should be."

Certainly, people with specific disabilities on her team will comment on the pluses or minuses of certain features in a product, but the company also utilizes focus groups, people with disabilities from other departments within the company, and consumers outside. Her group is currently working on a plan to recruit people with disabilities who have extraordinary technical knowledge to serve as technical advisors. "Bill Gates reviewed our plan and was very excited, very engaged. He is a supreme technologist, so to have him like what you do gives a nice sense of assurance."

Looking Forward

"We never could have seen how difficult the transition from DOS to Windows would be on people with visual impairments," McIntire says, "but it was. What we've learned from that is to focus on how to predict what impact new products will have on people with disabilities." One current example is the recently launched Tablet, a device resembling a laptop without a back, on which the user handwrites with a stylus. It's more informal and portable for some employees to use to take notes but, McIntire points out, is not accessible to people who are blind. Consequently, an API (application program interface) was added to translate handwriting to text. Before sending her own notes originally made on her Tablet to her team, McIntire translates them to text. That, she concludes, is the only courteous way to proceed in any environment, since handwriting is often difficult to interpret. The current approach, she says, is to try to be proactive, to predict accessibility problems before a product is released, with a goal of having programs interact in a seamless way.

The major achievement McIntire celebrates to date is arriving at a point where accessibility is seen as good business practice. First, she says, there was a philanthropic phase—making products accessible because it was a nice thing to do. Next, there was the policeman phase. As demographics change and numbers of people with age-related and birth-related disabilities increase, she believes there will be a total shift to seeing accessible design as a fundamental of good business practice.

"The power of the job I do now is that I absolutely know what a difference we can make," McIntire says. "When you place technology in a position where a person is dependent upon it, you then have the responsibility to keep it available." If Microsoft's access technology group and its leader, Madelyn Bryant McIntire, keep that guiding principle in mind, people with disabilities won't have to be left behind or lose jobs again as we move into what Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has dubbed the "digital decade."

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Untangling the Web

Programming the Future: A First Look at Microsoft's .NET Environment

If you're a software developer, information technology professional, or just an ordinary computer user, you're all too aware that change is the rule, rather than the exception. Well, hold on to your hats because Microsoft is about to rock our world yet again. The software behemoth is shaking up the industry by launching a new platform, known as .NET. In brief, .NET is a vast initiative by Microsoft to make all its operating systems, applications, and development tools XML compliant. XML, or extensible markup language, can describe and define information, regardless of the operating system, so that information can be shared in a standardized manner. Think of XML as a wrapper for your information, allowing it to be transmitted and understood by web-based applications. This change may not sound like much on the surface, but it changes how applications communicate and the way we will interact with the Internet on a fundamental level.

The Semantic Web

.NET will enable application programs to "interoperate" with one another over the web and will allow this process to be automated. What this all means is that .NET technology will bring into being what Internet guru Tim Berners-Lee called, in his May 2001 article in Scientific American of the same name, the "Semantic Web." According to Berners-Lee, the Semantic Web will standardize information to allow applications to not just display but actually comprehend web data, and to make decisions based on that data. The Semantic Web will expand the way we communicate using the Internet like never before. It will do so by giving computers the power to interoperate on a level that is simply staggering. The Semantic Web of tomorrow will be much smarter because web content will be understood by computers, which will be able to manipulate those data.

The current generation of web browsers can only format data according to hypertext markup language (HTML), which only affects the way data look on the screen and does not interpret the data in any way. The current crop of web content is thus comprehensible only by human beings, not by computers. .NET will change this paradigm by relying on XML to define information, allowing computers and user agents (software, such as web browsers and media players, that retrieves and presents web content) to process standardized data and make decisions about what to do with it. .NET and its related technologies will thus transform web content—such as standard text, graphics, sounds, and other data format types—into documents with machine-processable semantics, enabling user agents to perform a wider variety of tasks for end users.

It goes without saying that this brave new world will have a strong impact on developers and end users alike, because there will be a great deal to learn. If you're a developer, you face a constant uphill struggle to stay up to date with technologies that are constantly changing. You're probably not looking forward to learning yet another development environment, especially if you access that environment using a screen reader or screen magnifier. For developers and information technology professionals, .NET means learning a new set of tools and skills for building, deploying, and running applications. But according to Microsoft, all this learning may be more than worth the effort. Once developers master .NET, they should be able to bring more powerful and capable applications to market in less time. You may be asking, why is this such a revolution? Haven't development tools like Perl and CGI, to name just two, been available from third-party vendors for some time? The simple answer is yes. But .NET brings all these development tools together in one place for the first time, and developers will no longer have to learn solutions from several third-party vendors to build and deploy applications, making the development cycle more streamlined.

What About the Rest of Us?

While .NET may offer some clear benefits for developers, what effect will it have on the rest of us who are end users? The short answer is that .NET will result in richer and more powerful web services that can be accessed from a wider variety of hardware platforms, personal digital assistants, and mobile telephones, not just desktop personal computers. Because .NET leverages XML technology, application programs will be able to talk directly with web services and with one another across the Internet, bringing on the so-called Semantic Web. .NET will give more types of applications the ability to access data on the Internet directly without using a browser, which has been the primary application for surfing the web until now. If you're an end-user, this will mean that your user agent will be your primary tool for finding, retrieving, and making decisions for common tasks like schedules, shopping, and a whole host of other jobs.

Web Services

Before going any further, let's take a brief look at the overall skeletal structure of .NET, known as the .NET Framework. The most important new technology offered by the .NET Framework is known as web services, which are essentially programs waiting for another program or person to send them a request. The big difference with .NET is that programs, not just persons, can query a web service. Thus, application programs, not just a browser, can query a web service. For example, an application running on a web server could query the user's browser for the user's language and location so that it could provide data in the most appropriate language, units of measure, and currency. Web services are thus computer-to-computer interactions, returning XML-formatted documents, rather than being limited to simple HTML. Microsoft hopes that XML-based web services will allow you to search and retrieve information as before but also to allow application and programs to automate some processes as well. What this means is that application programs will have the ability to query the web and return information to your desktop, personal digital assistant, or other device automatically and to format that data appropriately for your platform of choice. Web services will increase the ability of organizations and individuals to collaborate with one another on complex projects, irrespective of geographic distances and differences in computer platforms or operating systems.

Clearly, web services offer new power and capability, but they also make some information technology professionals uncomfortable because of new security challenges. Security will be tighter because software programs will be able to access these services directly. Web services will allow enterprises to connect their applications together over the web and allow applications from several enterprises to communicate with one another, with web services providing the hooks to connect all these diverse applications.

Web services are defined using web services description language (WSDL), which uses XML to provide standard methods for defining how to control remote web services and for defining input and output parameters, allowing data to be passed back and forth with a recognized protocol among different platforms. .NET will thus have more extensive support for handheld devices, mobile telephones, and other devices. Therefore, .NET will be able to talk with devices that have different screen displays and to adjust data to fit on those displays properly. With all this in mind, let's look at some of the new .NET products entering the market.

.NET Products

The new .NET platform consists of server operating systems, development tools, and application programs.

Servers

The Windows Server 2003 Family is based on the .NET Framework and consists of four editions: Standard Edition, Enterprise Edition, Datacenter Edition, and Web Edition. The Standard and Enterprise editions are suited for small and large organizations, respectively. The Datacenter edition is aimed at large enterprises, and the Web edition is geared for entities that need high-capacity web services.

Development Tools

Visual Studio .NET is a development package that lets you build XML web services and applications that can share data over the Internet. The package includes Visual C, Visual C+, and Visual Basic. Visual Studio allows developers to leverage object-oriented code, as well as the technology of web services according to the .NET Framework. It also allows developers to build client-side and server-side applications with increased security to protect the new generation of web services. Furthermore, Visual Studio allows developers to build applications for a wide variety of hardware platforms, including desktop, palmtop, mobile phones, and other platforms. Visual Basic.Net includes the Mobile Internet Toolkit, which includes support for about 80 mobile devices and will enable applications to work seamlessly on these portable platforms, similar to the desktop environment. This is clearly a development tool that will bring portable devices to the forefront. The package also includes an upgrade wizard, which will let developers migrate their code to the .NET platform with less effort and more accuracy. According to GW Micro, it is supporting Visual Studio in Window-Eyes, its screen reader, to assist developers who are blind or visually impaired.

Figure 1. A sample screen from .NET. The "Manage Your Server Wizard" automatically runs at logon

Caption: A sample screen from .NET. The "Manage Your Server Wizard" automatically runs at logon

Accessibility Issues

While this may be all well and good, how will .NET and the Semantic Web ultimately affect users with disabilities who use adaptive technology? At the time of this writing, the jury is still largely out. However, several vendors of adaptive technology informed me that .NET will be accessible and that work is ongoing. But it's too soon to quantify .NET's overall accessibility.

The .NET Framework clearly raises security to a higher level than was found on earlier versions of the Windows operating system. Within the .NET Framework, security can be thought of from two angles. One angle is from the network-infrastructure side, with file system permissions and tighter default controls on network services, which will have an effect on everyone, not just those who use adaptive equipment. This aspect of .NET security is unlikely to have a negative impact on those who use screen readers and other adaptive equipment.

The other angle of .NET security is from the operating-system side and could have an impact on screen readers and other assistive technologies. As managed code and other data security components are introduced into future applications, the effect could be profound. For example, this could prevent a screen reader developer from providing an update because the new program code provided isn't authorized. Managed code authenticates the software before the operating system allows it to run, so patches and software updates will have to conform to the .NET standards. Also, the way in which .NET applications render data to the screen could be another potential problem for users of screen readers in particular. To be fair, work on this and other issues is ongoing, and that's typical for a project of this magnitude at this level of development.

So will the .NET framework stand in the way of screen readers and screen magnifiers? It's simply too early to know for sure, so we should stay on our toes, not just trust that everything will work without glitches. The adaptive vendors and Microsoft are still playing the back-and-forth game of fixing problems, and every time Microsoft makes changes, something breaks. The adaptive vendors have a vested interest in making things work, but they can only work with what they've been given by Microsoft. Playing this back-and-forth game of "break and fix" is certainly not a recipe for fostering accessibility.

Although web services and the coming Semantic Web clearly have a lot of potential, they will be of little value if they are not accessible for users with disabilities. It will thus still be of maximum importance to adhere to sound practices involving web accessibility, even for those coming, newfangled web services. XML and CSS (cascading stylesheets) should help in this arena as they do now, but to a greater extent as they gain more converts and the technologies mature.

Figure 2. The Accessibility Options menu in .NET

Caption: The Accessibility Options menu in .NET

In closing, .NET is about to become a reality, and it may herald a new day of a smarter, more powerful web. It is in our best interest to learn how to thrive in this changing landscape, and this goes for developers as well as end users. If you use a screen reader or screen magnifier, I urge you to get involved with your favorite assistive technology vendor and join its beta testing programs. Doing so will give you a sneak peek at the newest development from Microsoft, as well as the adaptive vendor community. It is in our direct interest to become familiar with this new platform for our own professional survival. On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic about reports from the adaptive vendor community regarding .NET. I've heard that there are problems, but these problems are being worked on by Microsoft and the 26 adaptive vendors that signed up as partners with the software giant. Let's hope that's not a false sense of security, for all our sakes. Stay tuned to this space for further developments as I dig deeper into specific components of .NET in a later article.

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Book Review

Finding eBooks on the Internet, by Anna Dresner

Boston: National Braille Press, 2002. Web site: <www.nbp.org>.$14, braille or large print.

Figure 1. Finding eBooks on the Internet

Caption: Finding eBooks on the Internet

There was a time when I had read and reread every braille book available in my tiny elementary school "library." It was housed in the corner of the resource classroom where I learned to read braille and consisted of three small shelves of children's books. Never, I believed then, could there be enough books to satisfy my reading appetite. Of course, I was wrong.

A decade ago, I began loading electronic books, mostly obtained from Project Gutenberg (<http://gutenberg.net>), into my Braille Lite and reveling in the fact that I could carry a book, even a number of books, along with me to read anywhere, anytime. With Web-Braille (sponsored by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at <http://lcweb.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/webbraille.html>) and Bookshare.org (<www.bookshare.org>), also designed specifically for people with visual or learning disabilities), the number and range of books blind people could read with screen readers or braille displays increased exponentially. With each new and magnificent offering of electronic book riches, however, I had to take time, examine the site, learn the most efficient ways to find desired information, and experiment with downloads and transfers in order to gain a certain comfort level with a given site. Anna Dresner's Finding eBooks on the Internet does all of that work for us.

Even if you're crazy about books and enamored with the delicious availability of so many of them on the Web, there is only so much time allotted to each of us to learn new skills. If you're anything like me, a year or two after you first heard about a fabulous web site, you find that it's the topic of conversation once again—and you still haven't taken the 15 or 30 or however many minutes at your own keyboard to look it up and figure out its navigational quirks. This book goes beyond name-dropping (or site-dropping) great Internet book resources. It tells you, very specifically, how to go there, do that, and download the e-book.

In a fairly small book (the braille version is two volumes, 163 pages in all), Dresner covers virtually everything a computer user who is blind needs to know before tracking down a single title or building a personal electronic library. In addition to more familiar sites such as Web-Braille, Bookshare, or Project Gutenberg, Dresner includes a fairly exhaustive list of other mainstream sources of electronic books and details the kinds of literature offered at each location. Rather than a mere listing of resources, however, Finding eBooks serves as a complete tour guide.

Getting the Lay of the Land

With the explanation of each site's holdings, the author provides specific instructions for navigating that particular site. Every time a keyboard action is referenced, the specific keystrokes required to accomplish that action in both JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes are given immediately afterward in parentheses. Dresner doesn't just tell us to go to a site because it offers good science fiction or best sellers; she describes the "lay of the land" to render that site more friendly to blind users—a feature most blind users will greet with gratitude. Details such as where to find the Search field on a given site, how many links there are and how they're categorized, and even shortcuts to get to a desired piece of information more quickly are all spelled out in these pages.

An explanation of the many file types and how to read them is a particularly useful section of the book, as is the detailed explanation of downloading, storing, and opening e-book files. Which sort of braille file is preferable when you want to emboss it? How, exactly, do you read a PDF file? Dresner doesn't just tell you to go do it, she explains exactly how to accomplish the task.

The five appendixes are particularly valuable, and are arranged in a manner that facilitates a quick check for specific information. How to read a particular file type, what is the key command to go back a page in Internet Explorer, or what is the web address for downloading Acrobat Reader are all bits of information contained and easily located in Appendixes A through E.

While the nuts-and-bolts information in Finding eBooks is valuable and well organized, there were a number of small errors related to language usage that were troubling. The misspelling of Martha Stewart's name in the title of her magazine, for instance, in a section describing the contents of the Web-Braille site, or the mention of "peaking" the reader's interest are the kinds of irritating little oversights that nibble away at some readers. A reference to a device called Bookworm, made by Handy Tech of Germany, as a "commonly used" braille device for reading books startled AccessWorld staff members, who could think of no one who uses the device. Sentence structure, too, is at times convoluted and awkward. Such minor flaws aside, however, the book delivers exactly what its title promises. If you want to learn where and how to find books on the Internet, you'll want to add this book to your collection.

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AccessWorld News

Imagine Accessibility

In February 2003 the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania (NFBPA) joined forces with three Pennsylvania state employees who are blind to file suit against the state and its governor, Edward Rendell. The suit asserts that Pennsylvania's multimillion-dollar computer upgrade, put into use in 2003, is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it is inaccessible to blind employees. The $40 million "Imagine PA" project developed computer packages for the state, including software for accounting, payroll, and purchasing. The plaintiffs' complaint has to do with a computer-based payroll system that cannot be accessed by state employees who are blind. If successful, the suit would prohibit Pennsylvania from widening the use of the Imagine PA system until it has been made accessible to all potential users. For more information, contact: Patricia Maurer, director, Community Relations, NFB; phone: 410-659-9314; web site: <www.nfb.org/coming/pa_sue.htm>.

Complaint about Accessible Cell Phones

In February 2003, Bonnie O'Day of Alexandria, VA, filed a formal complaint with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) against Audiovox Communications Corporation, a manufacturer of wireless products, and Verizon Wireless, a service provider, regarding the lack of accessible features in one of their high-end cell phones. This is the first formal complaint to ask the FCC to enforce the rights provided under Section 255 of the Communications Act (as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996), which requires telecommunications equipment and services to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, if readily achievable. Dr. O'Day was joined in her efforts by the American Council of the Blind. O'Day and ACB have also written letters to Audiovox and Verizon Wireless asking that at least one accessible wireless telephone device be made available for consumer purchase by June 30, 2003. A staff member of the American Foundation for the Blind and a consultant who works with them have supported the complaint with expert testimony. For more information, contact: ACB; phone: 202-467-5081; web site: <www.acb.org>.

Bookshare Books Brought to BrailleNote

Pulse Data HumanWare and Benetech joined forces in February 2003 to integrate Pulse Data's BrailleNote products—personal digital assistants (PDAs) with braille and speech output—with Benetech's Bookshare.org, a subscription service that provides an extensive online library of accessible digital books to people with visual impairments. Now, BrailleNote owners can access Bookshare.org using their BrailleNote's KeyWeb Internet Browser and download books directly into the device. To celebrate, both companies are offering discounts. A $100 discount on any new BrailleNote product is available to Bookshare.org subscribers. A $25 savings on an annual Bookshare.org subscription will be offered to purchasers of a new BrailleNote or Voice Note. For more information, contact: Benetech; phone: 650-475-5440; web site: <www.bookshare.org/web/AboutMembership.html>. Pulse Data HumanWare; phone: 800-722-3393; web site: <www.humanware.com/E/E-frm.html>.

Study on Internet Access Funded

The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences was awarded two research grants to help people with disabilities overcome access barriers to using computers and the Internet. The first grant, awarded to the school's Department of Health Information Management, totals $1.5 million from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. In addition to evaluating computer access barriers, the money will be used to evaluate new and existing accommodations, such as assistive technology and training. A second grant will fund the creation of a free computer server that will make any web site—regardless of its level of accessibility—available to those with visual impairments. This portion of the project will be funded through a $490,000 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. For more information, contact: The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, 4020 Forbes Tower, Pittsburgh, PA 15260; phone: 412-383-6556, fax: 412-383-6535; web site: <www.shrs.pitt.edu/index2.html>.

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Calendar

May 2–3, 2003

Conference for Assistive Technology Solutions

Baton Rouge, LA

Contact:

Adaptive Solutions; phone: 225-387-0428; e-mail: <sherry@adaptive-sol.com>; web site: <www.adaptive-sol.com>.

June 19–23, 2003

Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America's (RESNA) 26th International Conference on Technology and Disability

Atlanta, GA

Contact:

RESNA; phone: 703-524-6686; web site: <www.resna.org>.

June 28–July 4, 2003

National Federation of the Blind's 2003 National Convention

Louisville, KY

Contact:

National Federation of the Blind; phone: 410-659-9314; web site: <www.nfb.org>.

July 5–12, 2003

American Council of the Blind's 2003 National Convention

Pittsburgh, PA

Contact:

American Council of the Blind; phone: 800-424-8666 or 202-467-5081; website: <www.acb.org>.

July 15–19, 2003

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) 2003 Conference

Dallas, TX

Contact:

AHEAD, University of Massachusetts, Boston; phone: 617-287-3880; e-mail: <ahead@umb.edu>; web site: <www.ahead.org>.

July 17–18, 2003

Wales International Conference on Electronic Assistive Technology (WICEAT)

Cardiff, United Kingdom

Contact:

WICEAT, RE Unit, Rookwood Hospital; phone: 44-(0)29-2031-3931; e-mail: <info@wiceat.org>; web site: <www.wiceat.org>.

August 4–8, 2003

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP)

Washington, DC

Contact:

Center on Disabilities, CSUN; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <susan.ghaemi@csun.edu>; web site: <www.csun.edu/codtraining>.

August 11–15, 2003

Symposium Series on Assistive Technology

Chicago, IL

Contact:

Center on Disabilities, CSUN; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <ctrdis@csun.edu>; web site: <www.csun.edu/codtraining>.

September 29–October 1, 2003

Doors to Inclusion: Universal Access Conference

Baton Rouge, LA

Contact:

Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network; phone: 800-270-6185 or 225-925-9500; website: <www.latan.org>.

October 16–18, 2003

21st Annual Closing the Gap Conference

Bloomington, MN

Contact:

Closing the Gap; phone: 507-248-3294; e-mail: <info@closingthegap.com>; web site: <www.closingthegap.com>.

November 20–21, 2003

Techshare 2003

Birmingham, England, U.K.

Contact:

Royal National Institute for the Blind; phone: 44-0870-013-9555; web site: <www.rnib.org.uk/techshare>.

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