jump to article
AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 2

In This Issue

Editor's Page

Lighting Up Your Night Life

Evaluations of lighting devices that make nighttime travel easier—Bryan Gerritsen

A Catalyst for Technology

A talk with Harvey Lauer, pioneer, catalyst, and shaper of assistive technology—Deborah Kendrick

The Reading Machine That Hasn't Been Built Yet

A pioneer evaluator of reading machines reveals their secret history and possible future—Harvey Lauer

Still Scanning after All These Years: A Profile of Kurzweil Educational Systems

An inside look at the evolution of the company that brought us access to the printed word—Deborah Kendrick

The Open Source Course: An Overview of Linux

Find out why this freeware operating system is becoming the choice of more and more computer users who are visually impaired—Janina Sajka

You Can Bank on It, Part 2: Advocacy, Outreach, and Legal Authority for Talking ATMs

The second part of this series on Talking Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) focuses on the efforts of accessibility advocates to achieve this advance—Lainey Feingold

News

Calendar

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

AccessWorld is published bi-monthly by AFB Press, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. Products included in AccessWorld are not necessarily endorsed by AccessWorld or AFB staff.

All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind.

AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind. AccessWorld is made possible by generous grants from John T. Bourger and Slena Vanderwerf and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.

Photo on cover: Using the latest Kurzweil Reading Machine.


Editor's Page

When we think of pioneers, it is natural to remember people from the past. Their accomplishments are documented in books, and retold in legends and stories. We have no trouble conjuring up images of Christopher Columbus discovering America, George Washington crossing the Delaware, or Orville and Wilbur Wright coaxing their flying machine off the ground.

The history of assistive technology is relatively short, and many of the pioneers are still among us. We take accessible computers and personal digital organizers for granted, but many of us clearly remember completing school and working at jobs without access to these powerful tools.

In this issue, AccessWorld brings you an interview with, and an article by, a pioneer of assistive technology as well as a profile of a key company in the field. We are also compiling a timeline of the history of assistive technology for publication in a future issue. The timeline will include dates when products were released; when companies were formed, merged, and went out of business; and when important laws went into effect.

Deborah Kendrick interviews Harvey Lauer, one of the pioneers in the assistive technology field. Lauer's name may not be as familiar to users of assistive technology as are names such as Raymond Kurzweil, Deane Blazie, or Jim Fruchterman, and Lauer did not develop a product that is used on a daily basis. However, in his 36 years with the Veterans Administration center for blinded veterans in Hines, Illinois, he evaluated reading machines, provided feedback on a wide range of products being developed, and was committed to sharing knowledge and experience with other people who were blind. Without Lauer and a small number of other committed people in the early days of assistive technology, we would not have made the progress that we have made, and we would not know how far we still have to go.

Harvey Lauer presents his provocative view of the history of reading machines for people who are blind. He draws on his experience as a tester and a user to describe the products under development in the late 1970s that came on the market around 1980. He states that all of these products, as well as the products on the market today, are less than ideal as tools for reading. He outlines his idea of the ultimate reading machine–one that would combine auditory and tactile feedback to provide access to a wider range of printed materials.

Deborah Kendrick profiles Kurzweil Educational Systems, the present incarnation of the company that has sold Kurzweil reading machines and software for the past 25 years. She documents the company's journey from Kurzweil Computer Products through ownership by first Xerox and then Lernout and Hauspie and then back to independence as Kurzweil Educational Systems.

Bryan Gerritsen, a low vision therapist practicing in Utah, writes about lights for night travel for people who are visually impaired. He describes high-powered rechargeable flashlights, headlamps, and the Wide Angle Mobility Light. He discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of products, and selects one product in each category as his choice for the consumers he works with. Find out which product is best for you.

Janina Sajka, Director, Technology Research and Development, American Foundation for the Blind, provides an overview of using Linux. She outlines the history and development of the Linux operating system and details where Linux is already being used. This article will provide the basics of Linux, and give you an idea of the passion its users feel for their operating system. The commitment of users is clear. However, technical support is a concern that must be addressed before Linux really catches on. Other concerns are the availability of a wide range of applications equaling those available for Windows, as well as fully functional screen readers and screen magnifiers.

Lainey Feingold, a Berkeley, California disability rights lawyer who has represented organizations and individual members of the blindness community in efforts to obtain Talking Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), presents Part 2 of her overview of Talking ATMs. She discusses advocacy efforts, the need to promote the presence of the machines, legal authority for installing Talking ATMs and briefly describes international efforts. She stresses the importance of advocacy by reminding us that advocates were meeting with industry representatives and serving on regulatory committees pressing the issue of accessible ATMs for years before the first machines were installed.

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

Back to top


Product Evaluation

Lighting Up Your Night Life

Some people with visual impairments experience "night blindness," whereby travel at night or in poorly lit areas is either impossible or greatly hampered, unless they use strong lighting. This is especially true of persons with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited condition that affects the rods, the specialized cells in the retina of the eye that assist in night vision. As a low vision therapist at five ophthalmology practices in Utah (low vision rehabilitation services), over the years I have helped scores of persons with RP get lighting devices for night travel or even for use in dark auditoriums, hallways, and stairways. There are many kinds of lights that people who are visually impaired can use for night travel. First, there are conventional halogen or krypton bulb flashlights. Second, there are dual "sport lights" with a combination fluorescent tube for general travel, illuminating a wide path, and a spot krypton bulb for checking a specific area or item. However, many persons with RP or other conditions that lead to night blindness often find that these first two categories of lights are just not bright enough for mobility purposes.

Among the most useful lighting devices for people with night blindness are three other categories of lights for night travel. First, there are high-power, adjustable beam flashlights that are rechargeable. Police officers often use this powerful type of bright light for work at night. Next, high-power headlamps have recently become available for night travel and other uses. They allow the traveler to be hands-free while seeing the path ahead at night. Finally, there is the extremely wide-beam Wide-Angle Mobility Light, whose features put it in a category by itself. This article discusses and recommends the best lamp in each of these three categories. (High-tech night vision aids, which amplify existing light, are also available, but they are not covered here because the products that are sophisticated enough to be useful are prohibitively expensive.)

High-Power, Rechargeable Lights

The Streamlight brand of flashlights is my choice for a high-power, adjustable-beam rechargeable light. Streamlight flashlights are available in a variety of models and with a variety of features. The PolyStinger (8.7 oz., 7.4 inches long), made of supertough nylon, is available in a polymer cover that is either solid black, yellow and black, or olive and black. The Stinger model (10 oz., 7.4 inches long) is made of machined aluminum and is black. The PolyStinger and Stinger models deliver up to 15,000 candlepower for one hour between charges. Both units have a brilliant xenon bulb and come with a spare bulb in the tail cap. Both units have a push-button switch and a snap-on charger. For their size, they are the most powerful rechargeable flashlights ever built. The PolyStinger, in a yellow-and-black nylon case, has been the favorite of people visiting our clinic because of its compact size; its bright light output; and its comfortable, easily visible, yellow-and-black case.

Streamlight also makes several even more powerful lights, which were originally designed for police work. These models have an intense light output, ranging from 25,000 to 75,000 candlepower. The new UltraStinger delivers up to 75,000 candlepower for one hour between charges. However, it weighs 1.1 pound, so is almost double the weight of the PolyStinger, and is 11.75 inches long. Other bright units by Streamlight weigh up to 2.8 pounds and are bulkier, measuring from 13 inches to 17.5 inches. I have found that for most persons with low vision, these models are too heavy and bulky to carry. Despite their higher light output, most people generally prefer the lighter, more compact, PolyStinger or Stinger models that fit into a pocket.

A number of other models by Streamlight are even smaller and more lightweight than the PolyStinger or Stinger. However, these models may not deliver enough light for most persons with low vision for use in night travel.

I prefer the Streamlight flashlights to the competing MagLite brand of flashlights because of their limited lifetime warranty, excluding the bulb, battery, and charger holder. Also, parts and repairs for the Streamlight can generally be obtained and done locally, as opposed to the MagLite. In addition, the level of brightness, polymer coating, and quality seem much better in the Streamlight units.

Headlamps

Many of the headlamps that are on the market are intended merely for reading in bed or for doing crafts. My brother, who has done volunteer dental work in rural areas of Peru, recently took a headlamp with him to help provide sufficient illumination while performing surgeries. A headlamp used for night travel by a person with RP or a similar visual impairment must be very bright, yet have sufficient battery life to be practical. After careful comparisons, I found the Vor Tec Headlamp, by Princeton Tec, to be the brightest unit available. It offers the highest power-to-weight ratio of any headlamp in its class.

Part of the reason for this superior brightness may be that the dimpled reflector used by Princeton Tec with its halogen bulb helps to concentrate the halogen light beam. Other headlamps use a standard flat or smooth reflector, which generally produces a more scattered or diffuse light. Also, other comparable headlamps (like the Petzl or the Streamlight) generally use only a krypton bulb. Although they have an adjustable beam, which illuminates either a broad area or focuses on a specific spot, they do not have nearly the same bright output of the Vor Tec Headlamp because of the type of reflector and bulb they use. The Vor Tec can use either a halogen or a krypton bulb with a corresponding reflector.

The Vor Tec Headlamp has an adjustable headpiece, which can tilt to almost any angle desired while walking, that helps to illuminate curbs, stairs, and drop-offs in the path of travel. Three straps secure the headlamp to your forehead and minimize the already light weight. The unit uses four AA batteries, which are included.

Sealed O-rings prevent water from getting into the bulb and batteries, and the entire unit is rated waterproof to a depth of 2,000 feet. The headlamp has a lifetime warranty, yet is extremely affordable, at only about $40.

As noted, two types of bulbs and two types of reflectors are included with the Vor Tech headlamp. The halogen bulb, when used, provides a narrow beam but with a very bright light. The krypton bulb allows a wider beam, but with a more diffuse and less-bright light. When using the krypton bulb, you also insert the standard flat reflector in place of the dimpled reflector (which concentrates the light). The bulbs and reflectors are easy to interchange. However, most users with low vision would likely prefer to use only the halogen bulb with the dimpled reflector because of its much higher intensity and focused light.

The Wide-Angle Mobility Light

The Wide-Angle Mobility Light (WAML), made by Innovations, is a heavier light, but its extremely wide beam is not available in any other unit. It comes with a shoulder strap for more convenient carrying and is rechargeable. It is so bright that a person with low vision who uses this light may feel like he or she is carrying a halogen headlight from a car. A full charge takes approximately 14 hours and lasts about 1.5 hours. The biggest drawback of this unit is its size and weight, which may be a deterrent for older persons who cannot handle the heft or younger people who do not want to stand out by using a larger light.

A competing light in this category is the LiteBox, by Streamlight, which has an extremely powerful, 70,000 candlepower lamp and can run up to 8 hours between charges (much longer than the WAML). It can be used in a spot or flood mode, on either DC rechargeable or AC. Its weight, 7.4 lbs., is comparable to that of the WAML. The WAML is slightly brighter than the LiteBox, and has a much wider beam, which is very helpful for a visually impaired person who travels at night.

Over the years, I have dispensed many WAMLs to persons with RP, who have difficulty with night travel. The WAML has been the brightest wide-angle light on the market.

Bottom Line

Within the three main categories of lights for visually impaired persons who have difficulty with night travel, the three lamps highlighted here are my top picks. The PolyStinger or Stinger is my choice for a high-powered, rechargeable flashlight with an adjustable beam. It is lightweight and compact, yet has a bright light output. The Vor Tec Headlamp is my recommendation for a headlamp. It provides a bright light, while allowing the traveler to be "hands free" when walking. Its lamp can tilt to almost any desired angle, and it has a lifetime warranty. The WAML has an extremely wide beam and is almost equivalent to carrying around your own headlight. Its main drawback is its weight and size. The final choice among these three lights will depend on your specific needs and personal preferences.

Product Information

Product: Streamlight PolyStinger or Stinger rechargeable flashlights

Manufacturer: Streamlight, 1030 West Germantown Pike, Norristown, PA 19403; phone: 800-523-7488; fax 800-220-7007; web site: <www.streamlight.com>. Price: $80 to $100 at hardware, lighting, or police supply stores.

Product: Vor Tec Headlamp

Manufacturer: Princeton Tec, P.O. Box 8057, Trenton, NJ 08650; phone: 609-298-9331; fax: 609-298-9601; web site: <www.ptsportlights.com>. Price: $40 at many sporting goods stores.

Product: Wide-Angle Mobility Light

Distributor: Maxi-Aids, 42 Executive Boulevard, P.O. Box 32009, Farmingdale, NY 11735; phone: 800-522-6294; web site: <www.maxiaids.com>. Price: $165.

Correction

The following ratings chart of accessible voting machines was printed incorrectly in the November 2002 issue of AccessWorld. The correct version appears here and in the online version of the November issue, available to subscribers at http://www.afb.org/ accessworld.asp. Because the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (H.R. 3295), which was signed into law by President Bush on October 29, 2002, makes this article so timely, the online version of this article is available to nonsubscribers as well.

Product Ratings

Accessible voting machines: AVC Edge: eSlate: iVotronic: Vote-Trakker:

Portability: AVC Edge: 3 eSlate: 3 iVotronic: 3 Vote-Trakker: 3, Clarity of instructions: AVC Edge: 2 eSlate: 2 iVotronic: 2 Vote-Trakker: 2, Tactilely identifiable controls: AVC Edge: 2 eSlate: 2 iVotronic: 2 Vote-Trakker: 2, Overall ease of use: AVC Edge: 3.5 eSlate: 3.5 iVotronic: 3.5 Vote-Trakker: 3.5.

Back to top


Interview

A Catalyst for Technology

If conversation with Harvey Lauer was a computer screen, then all applications would be running, with lots of dancing and singing in a multitude of windows. That's a Lauerist way of saying that Lauer has remarkably varied interests and a range of knowledge and experience to match. But for decades in the field of assistive technology for visually impaired people, his name has been synonymous with pioneer.

Maybe his pioneering spirit began as early as high school. He began his education in a public school in Milwaukee over 60 years ago and then transferred to the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped in Janesville. For six years in that public school with only 15 classrooms, he could not go anywhere by himself. "It was miserable, humiliating," he says. "I was scared to go to the school for the blind in Janesville, but within a week, I could go anywhere I wanted to go.… It opened my mind to wondering, "What else could I do as a blind person that I didn't know I could do?'" Lauer has never stopped asking that question and sharing the answers with other people who are blind as well.

For 36 years with the trailblazing Veterans Administration center for blinded veterans (now the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) in Hines, Illinois, Lauer evaluated reading machines; experimented with talking computers; and, most important, dedicated himself to sharing knowledge and experience with other blind people. When I was about to launch TACTIC in 1984 (the technology magazine that was the precursor to AccessWorld), Lauer responded to a request for information by sending reams of brailled articles and evaluations he had written on a variety of products and approaches. That generosity and information sharing marked his career and, both directly and indirectly, helped countless blind people.

Hired in 1961 as a braille teacher by the Veterans Administration in Hines, Lauer became interested in reading machines in 1964. He says that he has used a total of 14 different electronic reading machines, some of which were never brought to market. His own passion for reading is what led to such involvement and experimentation, and his desire to help others with what knowledge he was able to acquire. In 1967, Lauer's title at the VA was changed to electronic reading specialist, and he began to devote all his time to evaluating reading devices, tape recorders with speech compression, talking calculators, and similar prototypes and products.

Eventually, Lauer became convinced that blind people needed a word processor every bit as much as a reading machine, but it was some time before he persuaded his employer. "People thought I was some kind of expert," he smiles, "and I didn't even have a computer!" In 1982, he purchased an Apple computer and an Echo speech synthesizer, took a three-month sabbatical, and concentrated on teaching himself to use this new technology. When his self-imposed training course was finished, he returned to work with the computer and told his boss, "You can fire me, or you can buy me a computer, but you can't separate me from this computer!"

From recommending fixes for the first Kurzweil Reading Machine in the 1970s to having a version of Braille Edit (the braille translation software for Apple computers developed by Raised Dot Computing) dedicated to him, his opinions of technology products for blind people helped move products forward. Of that first Kurzweil Reading Machine, he says in typical Lauer imagery, "They had an engine powerful enough to drive a car, and they were trying to fly an airplane." While the Veterans Administration was purchasing those machines for blinded veterans, Lauer's view that it was a mistake was an unpopular one. The first truly consumer-ready reading machines, he believes, came to market in 1989 with Kurzweil's computer-based PC/KPR and Arkenstone's OPENBook.

Not an Inventor

Although his role has been a major one in shaping technology for blind people, Lauer says he is not an inventor. Rather, he has offered "little ideas for improvement" that have enhanced various products. The only product for which he acted as the driving force was one that, although he still uses it, never came to market. The product was developed around 1980 and conveyed printed text through a combination of tactile and audio output that Lauer still believes represents the elements that would define the ultimate reading machine. Sometimes called the Opta-Audiphone, sometimes the Touch and Hear, the device combined the Optacon and Stereotoner into one unit. The Optacon, developed by Telesensory Systems in the early 1970s but no longer manufactured, displayed printed characters in a vibrating array of pins, so that shapes were literally felt exactly as they appeared visually on the page. The Stereotoner used a system of audible tones and patterns to represent printed characters. The Touch and Hear enabled the user to feel the shapes and hear the tone translations of printed text. About 10 units were produced, some of them still in use, including the one in Harvey Lauer's collection of technology. "I use the Stereotoner to check margins or page numbers," he says, explaining that he was never one to use the Optacon or Stereotoner for large blocks of reading. "Reading a book with an Optacon," he delivers another Lauerism, "is like going across town in a wheelchair" rather than using a car. "You can do it, but you shouldn't have to."

Other technological tools that Lauer maintains in his Hillside, Illinois, home are a fully working Apple II computer; two Windows-based PCs; one DOS-based system; and a Braille Lite, which he uses for writing daily. Always a prolific writer, he now lends his talent far beyond the scope of evaluating reading machines and talking consumer products. As chairman of his Lutheran congregation, he became immersed a few years ago in addressing a child molestation case involving his minister and children in his church. The tragedy led, for Lauer, to more than a year of research and the writing of a book on sexual addictions and how to protect children. Although the book is not yet published, he is seeking a publisher and continuing to work on myriad other projects. Lauer writes for a variety of church-related publications and has written about his own near-death experience when he suffered a life-threatening respiratory illness three years ago. Every week, he visits a local nursing home, where he plays his accordion, is "helping one guy get going on his guitar," and generally feels that he is giving back some of the support that his wife, two daughters, and eight grandchildren gave him during the long hospitalization.

Wandering from Windows

"I keep wanting to get serious about teaching myself to work in Windows," he explains, "but I keep being waylaid by these other branches." The other "branches" include his illness, the investigation of the child sex offender, teaching workshops for his church, participating in Toastmasters International (a worldwide organization that fosters public speaking), and enjoying his grandchildren and now his great- grandchild. Despite his humility about his Windows expertise, he obviously knows how to work in a Windows environment when necessary. One of his many projects is preserving uncontracted (grade-2) braille books for the Lutheran Library for the Blind, based in St. Louis. Using Optical Braille Reader software and a scanner, he scans the braille pages and saves them as Duxbury files for transcribing new editions of timeworn braille texts.

"Who Helped Us All"

Over the years, a variety of tributes have recognized the tremendous contributions Lauer has made. One of his most treasured is the award bearing his name, the Harvey Lauer Technology Award, which was presented to him in 1996 by the Association of Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired and then presented by him to Jim Allan of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired at the AFB Technology Odyssey Conference in August 2001. "I especially like the braille error on that plaque," he says. The award reads, in print, "For a lifetime of service, mentoring, and spearheading accessible information through technology." In the braille version of the same words, however, the contraction for "st," rather than the one for "ch," appears in the word "technology," rendering it "testnology." "They swore it was a mistake," Lauer chuckles, "but I like to think it was intentional."

Figure 1

Caption: Harvey Lauer (left) presenting an award to Jim Allan. (Photo courtesy AER)

Another honor that deeply touched him, he says, was found in a book published in 1992 by National Braille Press. As he began reading his complimentary copy of Solutions: Access Technologies for People Who Are Blind, by Olga Espinola and Diane Croft, it gave him tremendous pleasure to recognize so many of the names of individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of assistive technology. Then his fingers came to the dedication, which read "to Harvey Lauer, who helped us all."

Lauer's humble assessment of his role during the past four decades is that he has been a good "consumer helper." There are four levels of that role as he sees it. First, there are the guinea pigs, then the trained seals. The next level is that of midwife or teacher, and finally test pilot. "I have been all those things at different times," he says. "Sometimes I've been a test pilot. With Windows, I'm still a trained seal.… Mostly, I like to think of myself as a midwife of technology."

Back to top


Access Issues

The Reading Machine That Hasn't Been Built Yet

There are pieces of the history of reading machines for blind people that were never told. They were not supposed to be secret, and the blame belongs to many, including me. Having used, tested, and taught 14 reading machines for over 30 years, I hope not to carry these "secrets" to my grave.

I believe that reading machines are not all they should be and all they can become. It makes me wonder how many other potentially valuable ideas fall through the cracks of research projects and human circumstances. In this article, I attempt to tell the bare essentials of what is missing in our reading machines and computer access technology— the hidden part of the history of reading machines—and to suggest how we can supply those essentials in the future. Many of the events to which I refer here happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the developers and evaluators did not envision that any of the machines of that day would have a permanent place as tools for visually impaired people.

The Scene in 1980

In 1980, three machines were on the scene, but the Optacon was the only one in use by more than a handful of blind people. Its columns of vibrating reeds presented letter shapes as you tracked the print. High hopes and exaggerated claims in the 1970s had left a backlash of people who were disappointed at the long training needed to use the Optacon, the difficulty of learning to use it, and the price. The blind public grew disillusioned and all but forgot how useful the instrument had become to several thousand of them. These people were reading much of their mail, checking their printing, and doing other small-quantity reading tasks that the sighted public takes so much for granted as barely to consider them reading. A few people could read more than 60 words per minute, so they used the instrument for intermediate-quantity tasks like reading articles and studying manuals. The Optacon is no longer being produced, to the deep disappointment of many of its users.

Figure 1

Caption: Optacon in use, 1970

The second reading machine that was used by only a few people in 1980 was the Stereotoner, which rendered the shapes of letters as a column of 10 auditory tones. It was used for the same tasks as the Optacon, and although it was less costly, fewer people attained speeds above 60 words per minute. Although I may be the person who was most influential in recommending the development and use of the Stereotoner, my colleagues at the Hines, Illinois, Veterans Administration rehabilitation center and I, who were testing adaptive computer technology, never recommended it for wide use. We saw it and the Optacon as transitional and as components of a larger reading system. By 1980, the Stereotoner was no longer produced, and if people think of it at all, it is considered a curiosity at best.

The third reading machine that appeared in 1978, after several years of incubation, was the early Kurzweil Reading Machine. Although the first machines were large, they had only a tiny amount (48 kilobytes) of computer memory. They scanned automatically and used a computer to present synthetic speech to users. The cost was high, and the computer was too small to do the job well. A few were placed in libraries, and the Veterans Administration issued some despite the objection of myself and my colleagues, but few of them were used productively.

By 1989, personal computer memory had "grown" exponentially. The first useful automatic reading machines were produced that year by Kurzweil and Arkenstone. Since then, a stream of small improvements has added substantially to their utility and efficiency. It should be noted that the talking reading machines we now have are commercial optical character recognition (OCR) machines for office use, with added features to make them "friendly" to blind people. This hybrid nature makes them useful and more affordable, but they are also why the machines are a source of disappointment and frustration. They do not have some of the major features that visually impaired people need.

Computers versus Reading Machines

Access to computers gave blind people the ability to read what we typed and much else that we needed to read. It thereby removed at least half the reasons for learning to use the Optacon of that day, sealing its fate as an isolated tool. The trouble is that although people who were skilled at using an Optacon could read most of their mail, long items like books and magazines were impractical to read. People who have an OCR machine (either stand-alone or attached to their computer) can read lengthy items like most books fairly well but not most of their mail effectively. When the computer misses something important, which often happens, one must remove the document from the scanner and either show it to a sighted person or search for the passage with the little Optacon camera. (I usually use a Stereotoner.) That procedure perpetuates dependence and is much more time-consuming than it should be, considering all the investment in equipment, training, and effort.

It is no wonder that people no longer wanted to learn to use the Optacon. It also explains why people who can use it well do not want to give it up. The combination of the Optacon and a computer with a scanner is helpful, but it is like having a happily married couple live in separate quarters. I assure you that most of us who worked hard on the development and testing of reading machines in their early days did not plan things this way.

How We Planned It

Some people accused my colleagues and me of being sadistic and masochistic. Some just hated us for telling what we believed is the truth. The truth is that we never expected people to read exclusively with the machines of 1980. But we questioned then, and we question now, whether computers of the foreseeable future can handle highly degraded print. We were quite certain that computers would not act exactly like a sighted reader and describe bills, forms, and the fancy creations of artistic printers and desktop publishers. After all, print is designed to be read with the eyes. We wanted the Optacon and Stereotoner for those tasks; that is, we wanted a means of examining shapes ourselves, but only when necessary.

Nor did we expect to scan entirely by hand as we must now do with these small machines like the Optacon and the Stereotoner. (Print is not made to be tracked by hand.) We envisioned the small machines integrated into our computerized ones. We wanted to be able to have the image of the page scanned into our computer, which is now the case with the large stand-alone reading machines and the computers. We could then choose automatic reading or take a "closer look" by switching to manual tracking, which would allow us to examine a passage or the layout of a page more easily by using a mouse or puck on a tablet. Then we would have choices. We could hear spoken words, hear tonal shapes, feel vibrating patterns, feel a matrix of raised dots, see a screen with large print—whichever ones the individual needed. We wanted to choose either guided or freehand tracking.

We expected a greater range of zoom capacity than we now have with the small machines. Larger shapes and page formats would be more accessible and not as difficult to examine as they are now with current small machines. We also wanted access to computer screenfuls of information, including the ability to examine the shapes of icons in the same ways.

We also wanted software, the beginning of which is being implemented in the latest versions of reading machines. We planned that once the image of a whole page or screen image could be stored in computer memory, which is now the case, software would be written to describe the layout or format of a page in much the way a sighted reader can. We could then select the titles, columns, or captions we wished to read. As noted, we also hope in the future to choose the media in which to examine them.

Several attempts were made to implement the plans I just listed, but they failed because of the small memories and slow processors of their host computers at the time. There was the Cognodictor, the Talking Optacon, and Raymond Kurzweil's effort to do it in his second computer, the 64-kilobyte desktop model of 1980. There were others of which you probably never heard. You may be surprised to learn that in 1971, the first computerized reading machine that worked was built. It had eight kilobytes of memory and delivered spelled speech.

Once we realized that the personal computers then being introduced had far too little memory, some of us urged that the job be postponed until the1980s. Then, when personal computers "grew" to hold 50 megabytes or more of memory, as we assumed they would, our reading machines would be "ready to fly" for us. We could not get support.

Learning to use the reading machine I propose would require effort, but it would not demand the high level of skill required to use the Optacon or Stereotoner. The payoff would also be greater. For one thing, building reading speed would be optional because users would usually choose to examine only short, "problem" passages with the tactile and tonal outputs. The effect of adaptation—the reduction of sensitivity in the fingers that occurs after continuous exposure to a vibratory output—would also be reduced. And people would be free to choose only a speech- or braille-display output if they wished. Everyone, however, would gain the advantage of the format descriptions I described. That is an improvement in software that can and should be added to current designs.

This leaves us with some important questions. If the machine we wanted then and which I now propose is developed, would it sell? Would people who are blind and our educational and rehabilitation systems invest in the equipment and the necessary training? The amount of investment will depend on the options chosen and whether development costs are to be recovered by the developer. I believe that a sufficient number of people would choose it and that the market would be worldwide. The hardware would be functional in any language.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Some further investigation and testing remain to be done. If it is successful, the question will be this: Will visually impaired people ask for and work for the reading machine and computer-access tools we really need? I hope so.

The personal computers are now big. The goals described here are no longer long-range ones. They are achievable in the short range. Also, more of the blind public now has a clearer understanding of what we can and cannot do with computers.

For example, I am tired of hearing it said that technology is our friend. We have learned that it is the people who sponsor, develop, test, market, teach, and help each other with technology who can be our friends. We now know that computers do not work with us nor play with us; we work and play with them. They can be our tools and toys. We are told that machines can read to us. We have found that machines do not read to people. It is people who read with machines.

We need a reading tool that is configurable in different ways. A young blind child should be able to use it. Blind adults should be able to read their mail with it even if we have to work at it. Blind engineers should find it challenging and useful. If we expect merely to be played with and read to by a machine, then perhaps developers will give up trying. Or if the right product is developed, then maybe blind people will not bother to undergo the training or even to study the manual. In short, we have learned that there are trade-offs that we will ignore if we expect too little or too much.

Developing this reading machine will not be easy, and it will not be cheap. Do blind people feel worthy enough, ambitious enough, and desperate enough to take action? Will we work and advocate for the development hard enough to get it done? I believe we will if we learn the secret history behind the development of reading machines.

Back to top


Access Issues

Still Scanning after All These Years: A Profile of Kurzweil Educational Systems

In libraries and rehabilitation centers in the late 1970s, rumors would sometimes surface about the new and almost unbelievable Kurzweil Reading Machine. The size of a washing machine and more expensive than a home in the suburbs, this remarkable invention by Ray Kurzweil sounded like science fiction to many. A blind person could put a printed page on the glass and slowly, very slowly, the machine would interpret and read the page aloud. Accuracy was not stellar, but the machine could actually read! Of course, the machines were so expensive that only libraries and other institutions could purchase them.

Only 25 years after Ray Kurzweil's fantastic breakthrough, the company that bears his name and benefits from his insights as technical consultant and chairman emeritus is going strong. Today, Kurzweil Educational Systems is selling reading solutions at a fraction of the cost (and size) of that 1976 piece of furniture. The products sold today by Kurzweil Educational Systems have come a considerable distance in technological evolution, and the company itself has undergone perhaps as many changes. Sales were up 30% in 2002, and enhancements to Kurzweil's two chief products are being delivered at an impressive pace.

A Company of Its Own

The company that began as Kurzweil Computer Products has changed names and ownership over 21/2 decades. In 1980, it was purchased by Xerox and renamed Xerox Imaging Systems (XIS). Under that banner, Kurzweil developed up to five generations of the original Kurzweil Reading Machine, priced at about $22,000 in the early 1980s. Also in the 1980s, the Kurzweil PC/KPR product was launched. This product comprised a flat- bed scanner, a dedicated DECtalk synthesizer board, and DOS-based software that allowed the user to "read" with an already existing computer. In 1992, the Reading Edge, a stand-alone and almost-portable reading machine was launched. At less than $6,000, a Kurzweil reading machine was finally falling into the range of possibilities for many consumers who were visually impaired.

Figure 1

Caption: The Reading Edge.

When Xerox began decreasing the size of its XIS division, Ray Kurzweil, Aaron Kleiner, Michael Sokol, and Jerry Elkind took steps to form a new company. (They were soon joined by veteran engineer, Stephen Baum, and now vice president of sales, Forrest Dobbs.) In January 1996, Kurzweil Educational Systems was born, and later that year, first one and then the other of Kurzweil's now-flagship products were released.

In 1998, the company was purchased by Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) Speech Products, foreshadowing a change that could have been devastating. Under the umbrella of L&H, the Kurzweil division was languishing. "It became clear that L&H would not be pushing Kurzweil products forward," says Cindy Johnson, Kurzweil's vice president of marketing. "We were selling products despite the lack of investment by L&H, but it became clear that the company would have to buy itself back."

Many from the Kurzweil team joined forces to buy the company back. With the help of additional investors— including Ray Kurzweil and many of the company's 75 resellers throughout United States and Canada—the mission was accomplished. Meanwhile, L&H was attracting media attention for scandals of embezzlement, fraud, and bankruptcy, indicating that the foresight of the Kurzweil group could not have been more serendipitous. It took more than a year to complete the transaction, but by November 2001, Kurzweil Educational Systems was its own company once again—and thriving. "We're not quite an employee-owned company," Johnson explains, "but we're very close to that."

The Many Faces of Reading

Although the product has changed dramatically in size, appearance, capability, and configuration, Kurzweil has been doing pretty much the same thing all along: developing computer products that provide access to the printed word to those who have problems reading standard print. With the formation of Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996, that mission flourished and expanded. "The first version of Kurzweil 1000 was probably the first reading program to ship with its own software speech, FlexTalk," recalls Baum, the chief technology officer who has been at the center of developing most of the company's products since the mid-1980s. "It also had a great OCR engine, ExperVision, which brought really great accuracy."

In October 1996, at the Closing the Gap conference in Minnesota, Kurzweil unveiled the Kurzweil 3000, a product targeted to those who struggle with print for reasons other than vision. People with learning disabilities have embraced this technology, which assists with reading, writing, and learning.

Figure 2

Caption: The Kurzweil 3000 at Landmark College.

Johnson estimates that more than half the company's current sales are generated by the Kurzweil 3000. Speaking text while highlighting it, offering a variety of fonts and contrasts, and providing students with built-in aids for making notes, reviewing material, taking tests, and more, the Kurzweil 3000 is now popular with students in the fourth grade and up, as well as among graduate students and professionals. At Landmark College in Putney, Vermont—the nation's only accredited college exclusively for high-potential students with learning disabilities—it is now routine to equip every incoming freshman with the Kurzweil 3000 on his or her laptop computer.

Two-part Harmony

The company's two products—the Kurzweil 1000 (for users who are visually impaired) and the Kurzweil 3000 (for users with learning disabilities)—coexist harmoniously, sometimes converging, sometimes parallel, and sometimes borrowing from one another. The staff of 30 (about half of whom are engineers) includes some people who focus exclusively on the Kurzweil 1000, some who work only on the Kurzweil 3000, and a few who work on both products. In version 7.0 of the Kurzweil 1000, for example, which was released in summer 2002, one of the new features to generate particular excitement was the e-book feature. With this efficient addition, users can go online directly from Kurzweil 1000 in search of electronic books. The program searches three large repositories of electronic books and then downloads the desired title, which can then be opened and read in the Kurzweil program. While many enhancements to the product have come directly from customers' suggestions, Baum admits that this outstanding addition was actually rooted in a few engineers' constant obsession with tweaking of the software.

"We were really impressed with File Ferret," a piece of shareware the engineers had discovered, he recalls. "It was a really cool piece of software that could go out on the web for you, find whatever you were looking for, and download it." The e-book search was the task they ultimately assigned to this fascinating little program. "We really liked the idea of avoiding a browser," Baum says in regard to streamlining the process.

John Mattioli, a lead engineer with the company who is also a user of the Kurzweil 1000, agrees. "I thought at first that the e-book feature was nice for new users," he says, "but I personally was happy surfing the web, going to Bookshare.org or other sites, and finding what I needed." Then one day, he was in a hurry and used Kurzweil's e-book feature to download some reading for a trip. "I'll probably never do it any other way now," he says. "It took four or five steps down to two. You can go online, download the book, and transfer the file to a portable device—all from one location."

It is not surprising, then, that the e-book feature is now being added to the Kurzweil 3000 as well. Still, premier features in one Kurzweil product are not always desirable in the other. As Baum points out, the two populations of customers have distinctly different preferences and needs. "When we were with L&H, we developed a high-quality speech called RealSpeak," Baum cites as example, "but it was really a much bigger deal for people with learning disabilities than for blind users. It is really natural speech, but slow; blind users tend to prefer accuracy and fast responsiveness and are more interested in getting the information than in speech quality."

Honey, I Shrunk the Reading Machine!

Since 1976, Kurzweil's product for reading has been reduced from the size of a washing machine to software that can be installed on any laptop. The price has dropped from approximately $100,000 (not actually for sale at that point) to about $1,000. Capabilities, however, have grown just as dramatically in the other direction. Today, the Kurzweil 1000's speed and accuracy are many times higher than that of the original cumbersome appliance and, perhaps more significant, the product not only reads with astonishing accuracy, but performs a multitude of other tasks as well. Version 7 of Kurzweil 1000 offers such additional features as a photocopy application, a fax application, and the ability to edit and manipulate files and e-mail portions directly from the Kurzweil program itself; the program can also open files in virtually any popular format and can go online to fetch electronic books and then translate them (or any other file) into Grade 2 braille. "The best thing that's happening," Mattioli sums it up, "is probably the integration of functions, the crossover stuff, having multiple features all in one place." No one at Kurzweil is saying what is on the drawing board for the next updates, but asked for a blue-sky rendition of what would make the product even better, Mattioli comes back quickly with a great idea. "Everybody knows that scanning is a drag," he says. "We do it all the time because we have to—but it would be great if there were a way to get around it."

Scanning a book without having to turn all those pages? The idea sounds like science fiction, but then, so did the first washing machine-sized invention of the man whose name is on the products that thousands of people now depend on and love.

Back to top


Access Issues

The Open Source Course: An Overview of Linux

One by one, day by day Linux—a free software operating system—is becoming the choice of more and more computer users who are visually impaired. And while there may be only several thousand now, the numbers are growing steadily. Linux, or more properly, GNU/Linux (pronounced "ga new Linux"and meaning "GNU's Not Unix") and the "free and open source software" (FOSS) movement that GNU/Linux typifies, are attracting both computer professionals and ordinary users.

Some who try to delve into Linux become confused and frustrated by the myriad terms and unfamiliar procedures that seem to attend even the simplest tasks; others revel in the opportunity to fit their computing resources precisely to their needs and tastes. Linux is like that. The wealth of choices for accomplishing any particular task can be both daunting and liberating. It is daunting because it is so different for most users, coming, as they do today, from using Microsoft Windows. Yet, it is also liberating in that, because Linux is nonproprietary software and can be modified at will, you can set up your computer to do almost anything and have it work just as you want, day after day, without crashes or reboots. Two key factors make Linux highly crash resistant: (1) When many knowledgable programmers, from around the world, collaborate on finding, reporting, and helping to fix bugs, the programs really do become more nearly bug free; and (2) Linux and FOSS programs operate independently of one another, to a great degree. So, when one does crash, it doesn't usually affect other programs that are running.

You Say Potato …

The first barrier that most potential users trip over is language. The words for things are simply different. Your floppy disk drive, for example, is not A:, it is /dev/fd0. Your serial port is not com1, it is /dev/ttyS0. The problems continue into computing concepts. No, you really do not need to run Scandisk or to "defrag" your hard drive. Then, as if that is not enough, Linux people talk about "freedoms," as if there's something political about computing. As you will see, to the Linux enthusiast, computing IS a political act.

It is important to acknowledge the passion that many of us who use Linux feel for the philosophical principles that undergird it. Because GNU/Linux is really a kind of Unix, it is not anything new. The various flavors of Unix operating systems have been in use since well before the days of DOS and Windows. It was the introduction of a FOSS philosophy that transformed Unix into a force to be reckoned with. To the FOSS adherent, computing is not just about technical excellence in software. It is really about the terms under which computing resources are used. It is about the ownership of intellectual property and about who gets to decide how that software is used and developed. To the FOSS enthusiast, it is yet another aspect of life in which concepts like freedom are relevant and indispensable. Linux, in particular, and FOSS, in general, tend to inspire fierce loyalty among those who become comfortable using them. The basis for this loyalty has far more to do with the philosophy underlying FOSS than with the fact that the software is free of cost. As with most anything in the Linux world, there are numerous variations and shadings to this philosophy. The GNU "general public license" is probably the most famous and most widely used (see <www.gnu.org/philosophy>). GNU enthusiasts speak of "four freedoms":

  1. the right to use the software,
  2. the right to study the software,
  3. the right to modify the software, and
  4. the right to give the software to others.

Although it is not my purpose here to delve deeply into this philosophy, it should be obvious that it differs radically from what most people have been accustomed to. Can you imagine Microsoft saying, "You don't need to pay us for Windows XP, and we'd be happy for you to learn all about how it works and make any changes you'd like. If you do make changes, you're welcome to let us know, so we can consider including your changes in our software—but you don't have to. Feel free to give all your friends as many copies of our software as you like. But don't you dare charge them, because we will take legal action against you if you charge people money for this software." Little wonder, then, that this approach has caused consternation in the commercial and proprietary software industry. To get a taste of some of this controversy, look at the so-called Halloween documents at <www.opensource.org/halloween>.

Who Uses Linux?

Industrial use of Linux and FOSS software continues to grow. The Apache web server (<www.apache.org>), for example, commands some two-thirds of the web server market today. International Data Corporation expects that Linux will dominate on network servers by the end of the decade.

In fact, Linux and FOSS are already widespread. They are in use on mainframe computers and in watches and to run small and large business networks. They are the basis of the Tivo hard-disk television recorder and the Sony Game Station. They are coming soon to cell phones, digital television sets, and even microwave ovens. Strange as it may seem, companies like IBM, NEC, Sony, Sun, and Red Hat have jumped on the FOSS bandwagon. IBM has put a billion dollars into developing FOSS, and Linux now accounts for over $2 billion of HP computer sales annually. Instead of charging for the free software, these companies are making money by selling hardware, support, training, and various services.

Linux is certainly a viable option for the braille or synthetic speech user today. Most of what you want a computer for can be done accessibly today, including e-mail, web browsing, reading and making spreadsheets and databases, listening to Internet radio, or reading DAISY titles downloaded from Bookshare.org. Additional options for doing these tasks, and more, are on the horizon. I describe some of these options later.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Linux for the blind user, however, is its increasing adoption as the operating environment of ordinary electronic devices like televisions and cell phones. With their on-screen menus, these devices have excluded blind users who cannot read on-screen text and follow the on-screen cursor. But in a FOSS environment, no lobbying of uninterested corporations is required to make these menus talk. Only engineering is needed, and much of that has already been accomplished. Early examples of how this engineering may play out can already be found on the Internet by searching for user-community hacks to Tivo. That is, programmers, using the Internet to communicate and exchange software, have opened their Tivos and written software to do things that the manufacturer didn't. While I am not aware of anyone who has actually reconfigured a Tivo unit to make it accessible, all the elements to do so appear to be available, including menus that talk and a browser-based television program guide. As more ordinary devices adopt Linux, the opportunities to make them accessible will also increase.

What Is Available Today?

Emacspeak, available at <http://emacspeak.sourceforge.net>, was the first application to make a FOSS computing environment directly accessible. Now at version 17.0, its creator, T. V. Raman, continues to add features and enhancements. Emacspeak is not properly a screen reader but, rather, a speech-enabled interface to the Emacs environment. Emacspeak is a powerful tool for those who are willing to learn it, but a frustrating experience for beginners who are unfamiliar with Emacs. One can do almost anything from within Emacspeak, including playing music and listening to Internet radio; reading DAISY books from Bookshare.org, databases, and spreadsheets; web browsing; and doing all kinds of writing and publishing. The audio interface Emacspeak provides is sophisticated and a delight to use, but a challenge to learn. It should not, therefore, be your only choice in Linux tools if you are new to Linux, unless you are willing to spend a lot of time developing competence in it.

Speakup, available at <www.linux-speakup.org>, is the preeminent Linux screen reader. It, too, can help the speech user do most of the same tasks that Emacspeak facilitates. Although the spoken interface when using Speakup is not as precise, this screen reader is easy to learn, resembling the old DOS screen reader ASAP from MicroTalk Software to a great degree. Speakup requires a hardware speech synthesizer at this time. Many serial synthesizers are supported, as is the internal Doubletalk (ISA) synthesizer. The old internal DEC-Talk is not supported because it requires software to be loaded to it before it can be used. Speakup, a patch to the Linux kernel—the essential part of the operating system—loads and starts talking from the beginning of the operating system boot process. Because it is a kernel patch, it can be used to install, configure, and debug installations of Linux. Speakup provides speech for all console applications on Linux. (Console applications are character-based applications, either executed directly from the command line or with character-based menus. Examples that many users may recall using would include the Pine e-mail program and the Lynx web browser.) Console applications are not graphical, but they are multitasking. You can, for example, listen to a radio station from far away while you read e-mail and use your clipboard to add notes to a document you are writing in your favorite editor.

Brltty, the Braille Terminal application, available at <http://dave.mielke.cc/brltty>, supports many of today's refreshable braille displays. It also can be used to install Linux, and it supports all console applications.

Software speech is available on Linux and can be used effectively with Emacspeak and console applications using a screen reader called yasr (Yet Another Screen Reader). To find out about it, go to <http://yasr.sourceforge.net>.

Getting and Installing Linux

There is only one Linux because the term Linux properly refers only to the kernel of this operating environment. There are, however, many packaged distributions of Linux, all of which come with all the other things you need in addition to a kernel, like editors, e-mail clients, and web browsers. Typically, they come with far more software than most users will ever need or use, including full-fledged web servers, your choice of database engines, and compilers to help you build executables from sources. These distributions have names like Slackware, Debian, Red Hat, Mandrake, and Suse. There are many more.

Arguably, all else being equal, the easiest way to get and install Linux with speech is to buy a current shrink-wrapped copy of Red Hat Linux 8.0. Each boxed set of Red Hat comes with Speakup and Emacspeak. Brltty will be added when Red Hat releases version 8.1. So, everything you need to get started is available at your favorite computer software retailer. Of course, you will need to know how to activate speech (or braille) output. And you will need to get familiar with the process of installing and using Linux, whatever distribution you choose to try.

I have written a how-to manual on installing Red Hat Linux that is modified with Speakup, which is available at <www.linux-speakup.org/ftp/disks/redhat/HOWTO_INSTALL.html>. This how-to manual includes numerous hyperlinks to additional online resources about installing and using Linux. Similar help for the refreshable braille user is available at the Brltty web site.

Access to GUI Is Coming

Blind users' options with Linux software are about to increase dramatically. Work is progressing on access to GNOME, one of the leading graphical user interface (GUI) environments available on FOSS platforms. The Gnopernicus application for GNOME will be a screen reader, a screen magnifier, and a refreshable braille interface to GNOME 2.0 applications on Linux, Sun Solaris, and other platforms. It will include access for the Mozilla web browser and for the Open Office suite of applications. Needless to say, it has been eagerly awaited by many. You can keep up to date with Gnopernicus by monitoring <www.baum.ro/gnopernicus.html>.

Linux Redux

In closing, it seems important to say something about the zero cost of all the programs described here. It is what most people think of when the topic of free software comes up, but it is not what most enthusiasts of FOSS mean, as noted earlier. Still, it is an important fact. Too many people who are blind struggle to make ends meet. Especially when we consider blind people worldwide, it becomes clear that cost matters. The cost of a Windows screen reader is beyond the realm of possibility for most people who are blind in the world. Even in the United States, many cannot afford today's proprietary computing environments.

Whether or not any one of us takes to Linux, the challenge that Linux and FOSS software pose to the world of proprietary computing will be good for all of us. At the least, it should help push costs down and help make our choices broader and more usable.

Back to top


Access Issues

You Can Bank on It, Part 2: Advocacy, Outreach, and Legal Authority for Talking ATMs

My article on automatic teller machines that produce audible output (Talking ATMs) in the January 2002 issue of AccessWorld covered basic features and technology, vendors and availability, and how to find machines in your area. This time, I focus on the advocacy efforts that led to the advent of Talking ATMs and other accessible banking services and the need to promote the presence of Talking ATMs, explain the legal authority for the machines, and highlight some progress in introducing this technology internationally.

Importance of Advocacy

All the Talking ATMS in the United States (which generally work with a standard audio jack and standard audio headphones to provide privacy) are operational because of advocacy by the blindness community, in particular, and the disability community, in general. Years before the first Talking ATM was installed in October 1999, advocates met with industry representatives and served on regulatory committees, pressing the issue of accessible ATMs. The first Talking ATM in the country was installed in the Office of the Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco during a push by advocates and city staff to make City Hall (where the office is located) 100% accessible. Still other Talking ATMs were installed as a result of lawsuit settlements (against Diebold, Chevy Chase Bank, and Mellon Bank) or individual advocacy efforts. In 2000, the blindness community mounted a rigorous and effective advocacy effort to ensure strong regulations on Talking ATMs in the proposed joint revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and the Architectural Barriers Act guidelines (discussed in the section on Legal Authority for Talking ATMs).

Most of the Talking ATMs have been installed as a result of settlement agreements negotiated by lawyers for the blindness community and the country's largest financial institutions. Almost all these settlements—legally binding documents requiring the installation and maintenance of Talking ATMs, as well as other accessible services, such as braille and large-print bank statements and accessible online banking—were entered into without lawsuits being filed. Instead, we have used a method we have termed "structured negotiations" to emphasize the formal and serious nature of the negotiations, which include elements such as written demands and the use of lawyers and legal authority. A key component of this method is the willingness and ability to file a formal lawsuit should the negotiations be unsuccessful. This system of structured negotiations has resulted in Talking ATM agreements with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, First Union/Wachovia, Fleet, Bank One, Washington Mutual, Sovereign Bank, and Union Bank of California. Other agreements are in the works.

The decision not to file lawsuits has been critical to the success of the Talking ATM effort for many reasons. First, the Talking ATM technology evolved quickly, a situation that is not typically suited for the static nature of most litigations. Most important, collaboration between blind end users, ATM developers, and bank personnel (both business and technical) has been critical to the advancements made to date, and that collaboration would have been unlikely or, at least considerably delayed, if lawsuits had been filed. There is no substitute for bankers who are deciding how to spend a bank's money to hear firsthand from a blind person what it is like to be unable to perform as basic a function of modern society as withdrawing cash from an ATM. Likewise, there is no substitute for coders and script writers experiencing firsthand how a blind user is reacting to the work they have done. Lawsuits can cause people to dig in their heels and inherently set up roadblocks to real communication. Although they are, of course, an important and useful tool, their use must be carefully considered when technology is involved.

Although the national grassroots effort by the blindness community has been successful, that effort will not be over until every ATM location has an accessible ATM. The simplest form of advocacy involves using the machines that exist and sharing information about Talking ATMs with other people who are blind. Some members of the community have real concerns about the security of using an ATM, and dialogue with users of Talking ATMs may be important in addressing some of these concerns. Most important, because ATMs have been inaccessible for the past 30 years, people have found other methods of conducting their financial transactions. The ability to conduct these transactions independently has been unavailable for so long that many persons are slow to alter their practices in this regard and are often encouraged to do so by other members of the blindness community.

Another form of needed advocacy is for people to contact their financial institutions about installing Talking ATMs or requesting institutions that have already installed some machines to install Talking ATMs at particular locations. Requests should always be in writing, and responses should be recorded. Highlighting vendor information and examples of Talking ATMs in the area should prove useful.

Need for Outreach and Promotion

One of the biggest hurdles facing the national Talking ATM effort today is the lack of outreach by most banks that install the machines. (Bank of America, as discussed later, is a notable exception.) From the beginning, the developers of ATMs considered the need for outreach critical to consumers' acceptance of banking by machine. Don Wetzel, co-patentee of the first ATM, summed up the prevailing philosophy in the early 1970s:

We had designed posters that [banks] could buy and use, we had a video that we would show to the tellers to train them as to what to tell the customers. We had mockups of the machine that we put in the lobby so that one of the customer personnel at the bank [could show customers how to use the models].

(This quote is taken from a fascinating interview with Wetzel, conducted in 1995 by the curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, that is available on line at <http://americanhistory.si.edu/csr/comphist/wetzel.htm>.)

Outreach and promotion of the availability of Talking ATMs are no less important today than was outreach and promotion of the original ATMs. Audio is not simply a new feature on a machine that has been around for 30 years. It makes the machine available for the first time to persons with visual impairments and others who have difficulty reading ATM screens. Unfortunately, most financial institutions are doing little, if anything, to promote their Talking ATMs to either the public in general or to the blindness community. The bank that deserves the greatest kudos in this regard is Bank of America. This bank, which will soon have over 3,000 Talking ATMs, has developed outreach tools that are available to disability groups, rehabilitation offices, and orientation specialists. Tools include an audio-described, high-quality video describing the Talking ATM, audiotapes of the orientation, and brailled information. In March 2001, Bank of America brought the first Talking ATM to the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, and in August 2001, it ran national advertisements promoting its Talking ATM program and featuring a blind woman doing karate with sighted opponents. It has also exhibited Talking ATMS at both the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind national conventions for the past two years.

Fleet Bank, with close to 1,000 Talking ATMs, staged community-based press events when it introduced its Talking ATMs in February 2001 and when its Talking ATMs became available in additional states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut. Other banks, including Citibank, First Union, Wells Fargo, Union Bank of California, Sovereign Bank, and Bank One, have issued useful press releases with quotes from community members, but have done little else to promote or publicize the machines.

Although the banks are ultimately responsible for promotion and outreach of Talking ATMs, members of the blindness community can do their part. Most important, people can aid the national Talking ATM effort by using the machines in their communities and helping to spread the word about their importance. Most banks will send speakers to or set up tables or booths at local meetings or conferences. The local mass media have been interested in this story, especially in states where there has been little or no coverage. Relevant newsletters, web sites, and radio reading services should be encouraged to cover the Talking ATM issue and provide information about nearby locations.

Finally, an avenue for promoting Talking ATMs that has barely been explored is to reach out to persons with disabilities outside the blindness community. Anyone who has difficulty reading an ATM screen—whether because of dyslexia, mental retardation, or illiteracy—will benefit from Talking ATMs. Advocacy and outreach for Talking ATMs thus provide an opportunity for coalition building among all members of the disability community who can benefit from inclusive and accessible technology that is the core of Talking ATMs.

Legal Authority for Talking ATMs in the United States

The legal mandate for accessible ATMs comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although there is much talk about the proposed revision of the accessibility guidelines for that law and for the Architectural Barriers Act—the so- called new ADAAG, which explicitly discusses audio output for ATMS—the existing version of ADAAG, in place since 1992 and incorporated into Department of Justice (DOJ) ADA regulations, already requires Talking ATMs. Section 4.34.5 of the current ADAAG (also known as the Standards for Accessible Design because they have been adopted by the DOJ) states that "instructions and all information for use shall be made accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments." But instructions and all information on an ATM cannot be "independently usable" unless there is audible output, coupled with the features such as tactile controls and clearly scripted orientations discussed in last month's article.

In April 2002, the U.S. Access Board issued the Draft Final ADAAG, based on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking first published in November 1999. While instructive and important, the guidelines will not become an official part of the ADA until (and unless) they are adopted by the DOJ.

Section 707 of the new guidelines specifically requires that ATMs be "speech enabled" and that speech must be capable of being repeated or interrupted. There is a specific requirement to voice balance inquiry and error messages appearing on a receipt, as well as other information. Exceptions to the audio requirement are narrowly tailored and include "printed copies of bank statements and checks" and details regarding the location of the machine, date and time of transaction, and customer's account number.

Because the current language of the DOJ regulations requires "independent usability," the fact that the Draft Final ADAAG is not yet legally binding on financial institutions is no excuse for the failure of financial institutions and others to begin installing Talking ATMs. Indeed, although no date is set for the final approval of the rules by the DOJ, some manufacturers of Talking ATMs are advertising that their products meet the proposed standard. Independent of the provisions of ADAAG, Talking ATMs are effectively mandated by ADA requirements that public accommodations "effectively communicate" visually delivered information. Information on an ATM screen is "visually delivered," and the only way to communicate that information effectively is to provide audio.

International Efforts

Talking ATMs are being introduced in countries around the world, as evidenced by recent articles posted on the Internet. The spread of Talking ATMs internationally is logical: the corporations that manufacture ATMs in the United States also manufacture them globally, as can be seen from this report posted on May 7, 2002, on the Italian web site <www.adnkronos.com>:

FIRST TALKING ATM MACHINE IN BRESCIA FOR PEOPLE WITH VISION PROBLEMS: Milan, May 7th (Adnkronos): ATM machines that talk for the blind and others, such as the elderly, who have difficulty in visualizing written words. The first four machines of this type in Italy are in Brescia, activated by the Banco di Brescia that purchased them from Diebold Italia Ltd. The new ATM machines, a press memo from the banking institute states, are identical to the standard ones and function with an ordinary card. Simply by pushing button 5 (which stands out on the console) clients can choose a vocal guide service that, with opportunely registered messages, accompanies the client through all of the phases necessary to draw money.

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.theweek.com/22sep29/life4.htm>) and Australia (also Diebold installations) and Spain (<www.atmmarketplace.com/research.htm?article_id=12109&pavilion=23&step=story>).

See the January 2002 issue of AccessWorld for how to get more information on Talking ATMs or find their locations in your neighborhood.

Back to top


AccessWorld News

Textbook Access

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $199,911 to the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum, part of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), to develop a voluntary national file format for the electronic transmission of instructional materials. The initiative will develop technical standards for accessible instructional materials, a timeline for implementation, and a process for assessing the success of the standards. Contact: National File Format Initiative; phone: 781-245-2212; web site: <www.cast.org/ncac/NationalFileFormat3138.cfm>.

Partnership

IBM and Crunchy Technologies recently formed a partnership to deliver accessible information technology solutions. The companies hope the alliance will extend the reach of their assistive technology offerings by sharing service contracts and licensing agreements, and, eventually, by developing new accessibility products and solutions. Contact: IBM; web site: <www.ibm.com/services>. Crunchy Technologies; web site: <www.crunchy.com>.

For Musicians

CakeTalking 3.0 for SONAR is designed to configure JAWS for Windows screen reader with Cakewalk's SONAR, which is professional, Windows-based multitrack recording software for audio and MIDI production. CakeTalking 3.0 for SONAR configures the JAWS for Windows screen reader with the Cakewalk software. The software is compatible with JAWS for Windows 4.5, Windows XP and 2000. Dancing Dots plans to release a version that is compatible with Windows98 and Millennium. The cost for CakeTalking 3.0 is $289. Cakewalk SONAR software costs extra. Contact: Dancing Dots; phone: 610-783-6692; web site: <www.dancingdots.com>.

Traveling Magnifier

The Traveller, a portable electronic magnifier, is the newest offering by Tieman Group. Traveller is a portable CCTV with an adjustable screen, photo mode, two high-contrast text modes, linear zooming, an integrated writing facility, and a magnification range of 4.5X-16X. The 1.76-pound magnifier costs $1,895. Contact: Tieman Group; web site: <www.tiemangroup.co>. Optelec; phone: 800-828-1056 or 978-392-0707; e-mail: <sales@optelec.com>.

Computer Magnifier

Genie Pro is the newest computer-compatible video magnifier made by Telesensory. Designed for use with most computer monitors or televisions, the features include 5.5X-50X magnification, split-screen, 24 color combinations, and shadow mask, which is designed to assist in text tracking and glare reduction. Genie Pro costs $3,295. Contact: Telesensory; phone: 800- 227-8418 or 408-616-8700; web site: <www.telesensory.com>.

Phone Home

Panasonic recently received the Consumer Electronics Association's Innovations Accessibility Award for its model KX-TG2258S digital cordless phone. The phone's accessibility features include talking caller ID and large, high-contrast keypad buttons. Contact: Panasonic Accessibility, Matsushita Electric Corporation of America; web site: <www.panasonic.com/accessibility>.

Spanish-Speaking Software

Freedom Scientific recently released its Spanish language version of OpenBook 6.01 scanning and reading software. Designed to provide people who are blind or visually impaired access to text and text imbedded in graphics in electronic formats like PDF, the software includes IBM's ViaVoice 6.4, a Spanish pronunciation dictionary, and optical character recognition. The software is compatible with most versions of Windows. The cost is $995. Discounted upgrades are available until March 31, 2003. Contact: Freedom Scientific; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; web site: <www.freedomscientific.com>.

Fax or e-mail information for AccessWorld News to: Rebecca Burrichter, associate editor, AFB Press; fax: 212-502-7774; e-mail: rebeccab@afb.net.

Back to top


Calendar

April 3-5, 2003

Still Where It's AT: Assistive Technology for Children and Youth Conference

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Contact:

Events of Distinction, 519 Nordstrum Road, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada S7K 7X9; phone: 306-651-3118; fax: 306-651-3119; e-mail: <eofd@sk.sympatico.ca>.

April 5-10, 2003

CHI 2003: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Contact:

CHI 2003 Office, Smith Bucklin and Associates; phone: 312-321-4096; e-mail: <chi2003-office@acm.org>; web site: <www.chi2003.org>.

April 17-19, 2003

Braille and Nonvisual Access Technology (BNAT) Seminar

Baltimore, MD

Contact:

National Federation of the Blind; phone: 410-659-9314; e-mail: <ajoyce@nfb.org>; web site: <www.nfb.org/cbt/application.htm>.

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>.

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>.

Back to top

AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

Download the free AccessWorld appDownload the free AccessWorld app
 
Back Issues
Search AccessWorld
AccessWorld Alerts Signup
For Advertisers
Contact AccessWorld
 

Related Links

Technology
AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide
Product Search
AFB Consulting
 
 Advertising
Blaze EZ Multiplayer with OCR

Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator

Did you know there is a direct link between total blindness and a sleep pattern that is out of sync with the 24-hour day? NON-24 a circadian rhythm disorder

Low Vision Simulators Plus VSRT (Pepper) Test LUV Reading Workbook

Cover for Physical Education and Sports for People with Visual Impairments and Deafblindness:Foundations of Instruction
 
 End of advertising