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Improving Tech for the Visually Impaired

Organization Works to Make Technology Accessible

The Herald-Dispatch (Huntington, WV)
Friday, February 13, 2004

Rebeccah Cantley-Falk, Staff

HUNTINGTON - Advances in technology have meant more than having fancy gadgets, amusement or convenience for Darren Burton. Technology has given him independence.

Burton, who lost his vision 11 years ago, has access to computers, e-mail and cell phones through devices with voice capacity. When Burton lost his vision because of a tumor, he thought about the stereotypes. He thought he would be unemployed, maybe "selling pencils on the street," he said.

"The technology I do have access to - like talking computers - has affected my life so greatly," Burton said. "The basics of reading and writing were given back to me, as well as the ability to be employed."

Technology, however, isn't without flaws, and people who are blind or visually impaired have limited access to the same technology that sighted people buy off the shelf. Burton, a researcher for the nonprofit organization American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), wants to change that.

The AFB Technology and Employment Center at Huntington (AFB TECH), which located to the city two years ago, has drawn national attention to problems with cell phones, voting machines, diabetes equipment and computer software. Researchers have proposed product changes, and companies including Adobe Systems Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. are starting to listen.

"Our goal is to make our products more accessible so that all people can use them," said Cherie McKinney, director of product process management for Adobe in San Jose, Calif. "(AFB researchers) have some very unique expertise. They came to our site, tested some of our products and gave us feedback that we couldn't get from our own internal teams."

AFB TECH is one of several AFB sites throughout the country. The foundation is dedicated to addressing independent living, literacy, employment and technology for millions of blind or visually impaired Americans. It is the same organization to which Helen Keller devoted her life's work.

Inside the AFB TECH lab, 949 3rd. Ave., researchers conduct a battery of tests to determine whether products meet the needs of blind or visually impaired consumers. Their goal is to increase awareness and influence companies to think about accessibility during initial design stages, said Mark Uslan, director of operations and technology.

Although special products are available for individuals with visual impairment, they are often expensive and bulky. A blood glucose monitor at a local drug store costs around $25, Uslan said. A device that's added onto the monitor to make it useable by the visually impaired costs around $500.

"There is a need for some special products; I don't mean to underplay that, but in many cases, you're much better off designing products to be useable by everyone," Uslan said. "If you can make it useable by a blind person, it's going to be more useable for everyone."

As baby boomers age, more people will require products designed with visual impairment in mind. The leading cause of vision impairment and blindness is age-related eye disease, according to "Vision Problems in the U.S.," a publication of Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute.

Accessibility could be an important issue for West Virginia, which has one of the nation's highest median ages.

"We're outliving our eyes," Burton said.

The ever-evolving characteristic of technology also poses challenges for the visually impaired. Information is difficult to access because devices increasingly rely on graphic icons, touch screens, scrolling menus or complex visual displays, according to the AFB Web site.

"Although there have been improvements, it seems like we're going backward in other areas," Burton said. "Ovens coming out now all have flat touch screens, instead of knobs. I don't even know where to touch. If they put some type of a tactile nature of where I could feel 1, 2, 3, 4, that would be nice."

AFB TECH is spreading its message through national conferences and publications. Working with the Marshall University School of Medicine has given AFB TECH the credibility to publish its research in well-known medical journals such as Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, Uslan said.

People who need the information most - those with visual impairment - read about the research through Access World, a publication of the AFB.

"We've been able to provide a level of information that helps people make decisions about what technology best meets their needs," said Paul Schroeder, vice president of policy, research and technology with AFB in Washington, D.C.

In the Lab

AFB TECH's recent work has focused on cell phones. Researchers, many who are blind themselves, work alongside sighted people to analyze products and manuals. Burton "borrows their eyes," when he needs to see.

The first test a cell phone receives is what Burton jokingly calls the sanity check - can he feel the buttons?

"I can feel the 5," Burton said in the lab Friday as he picked up a Toshiba model. "There's a little nib there, although it could be more substantial."

Other phones don't pass the initial test.

"These are probably the worst buttons I've seen," Burton said, rubbing his fingers across the face of a Samsung VI 660. "They're flat, totally flush with the panel."

At Burton's feet lay Levi, a Labrador retriever, whiter than most. Levi stretched his front legs and then laid his head near Burton's feet.

"That's my assistive biology," Burton said, nodding toward the floor.

In addition to the actual products, manuals - especially those on PDF (Portable Document Format) files - can be a "nightmare" for the visually impaired, Burton said. AFB TECH is working with Adobe to improve PDF files, which are problematic because of the inability of screen readers, or devices that present text in audio, to accurately read the document.

"It just says, 'Press.' Well, press what?" Burton asked as he accessed a cell phone manual on his computer.

AFB TECH conducts its research through standardized methods to determine factors such as how often certain operation failures occur, what the implications are and how a visually impaired person is notified that something has gone wrong. Each area is then given a design priority score to rank recommended product changes.

"I think (manufacturers) are starting to take notice, and they respect the work we do because it's unbiased and of high quality," Schroeder said.

A voting system that AFB TECH influenced should be on the market by June, said Yung Nguyen, president and CEO of IVS LLC., a voting services company in Louisville, Ky. The company has designed a system with voice output and a special keypad that resembles buttons on a telephone.

"One of the things we got from talking to people like Darren was that the telephone would be the one device most people would be familiar with," Nguyen said.

A Location for Success

AFB TECH is committed to moving into KineticPark, Huntington's planned business and technology park near the W.Va. 10 and Interstate-64 interchange. Uslan, who relocated to Huntington after working for years in New York, said the lab has benefited from its new site the past two years.

"When I was in New York, I couldn't collaborate with a doctor like I can here," he said. "It's a small town, and everyone is approachable and accessible. People are more than happy to give us time and work with us."

Working with Marshall has been a happy marriage in several ways. AFB TECH uses university interns in its labs and plans to consult with the university on making its online learning more accessible.

Friday, Burton worked with Steven Taylor, a sophomore physics and chemistry major and member of the university's prestigious Yeager Scholars program.

"I've really learned a lot about authorship and presenting research and ideas," Taylor said. "I've also learned about visually impaired people because I didn't have any contact with them before I came here. Darren still amazes me every day."

Researchers hope to expand their work to other products such as stereos, DVD players, ovens - the potential is limitless, Burton said. Product changes take time, but by using careful research and raising public awareness, AFB TECH should increase its opportunities to consult with manufacturers, Uslan said.

"You have faith and you keep cranking away at these things," he said. "You keep your work in print, and you never know when somebody's going to call."


More than two-thirds of working-age blind or severely visually impaired Americans are not employed, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. In addition to product testing and evaluation, AFB TECH has a program to help visually impaired people identify possible careers and find support.

CareerConnect is an online database of hundreds of career options and contact information for visually impaired professionals who can serve as mentors. Another function of CareerConnect is to educate employers who may not recognize that blind or visually impaired people are working successfully in a variety of fields.

For more information, visit CareerConnect at

Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch

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