Wednesday, July 12, 2006

New technology make books available to the visually impaired

Visually-impaired students are increasingly joining mainstream education, but most cannot instantly access the same books as their sighted classmates. Help is at hand from online transcription tools and a new digital library that offers secure documents that can be quickly transcribed and distributed to those who need them.

“We are mainly talking about paper-based books,” says Dominique Archambault, coordinator of the IST project VICKIE, “although sometimes books are also released in digital versions that a computer can read. But of course books first need transcribing into Braille or a digital format, a job undertaken by specialist transcription centres with only limited staff.”

As a result, visually-impaired students must often wait several months at least before they can get hold of a newly published text which may crucial for their coursework. “This lack of access to documents makes life much harder for students like these,” adds Archambault. “It also runs counter to the idea of an inclusive European education environment.”

Under the project, six partners from France, Italy and Ireland joined forces to tackle the problem, focusing on extending access to written documents. The main fruit of their work is Hélène, an online library launched in January 2006 and now offering readers more than 2,200 books – mainly in French, though with a small selection in English too.

Key project partner Braillenet, an association dedicated to increasing access to documents over the internet, runs the library. Any blind or partially-sighted readers who own an IRIS – a high-tech Braille-reading machine developed by the company Eurobraille, which also took part in VICKIE – can subscribe for free to the library and ‘borrow’ digital books by first registering for an authorisation certificate.

English and Italian versions of the server interface were developed for demonstrations to partners. The software is designed to run on a big national server and can be installed anywhere.

Security a priority Creating Braille or digital versions of a book is not hard. But placing them in a digital library inevitably raises concerns among their publishers. “Before Hélène could get off the ground, we met lots of publishers in France,” says Archambault. “We needed their contractual agreement to put documents online with us. In an age when digital files can be distributed globally for free, publishers naturally want assurance that their documents will only be read by those with authorised access.”

To assuage publishers’ fears, the project developed e-book software. Offering secure transmission and now marketed by one of the partners, this allows users to download any copyrighted book from the Hélène server to read on their Braille terminals. The website also offers a demonstration of online reading using text placed securely on the server.

The partners have published the specifications of their security process. This enables any Braille-display manufacturer to include the software in their devices.

Transcription tools A number of publishers that were initially approached gave complete digitised books to the project. But because each came in its own variety of XML format, the partners decided to build a set of special transcription tools in English, French and Italian. Students can now download software from the Hélène server for converting any kind of XML book file into a format of their choice. Formats include Braille, Big Print and even XHTML, for use with speech-synthesis software.

“XHTML is ideal for the Digital Talking Book [DTB] format, used widely by the visually impaired,” says Archambault. “A multimedia representation of a print publication with a human voice, DTB lets users navigate around text. This helps when reading textbooks that present information hierarchically, such as in sections and chapters.”

The project partners also came up with a set of macro tools to work in Microsoft Word. “Most transcription centres scan using this software before printing in DTB. Previously they opened files in MS Word and then used Braille tools.”

Student environment “Uniquely, our tools allow a visually-impaired student to view a book’s specific page as a page on their Braille reader,” says Archambault. “The software enables online transcription, synchronising a graphical view that includes maths symbols with a 40-cell Braille screen. This makes it easier for teachers and students to work together.”

One specific challenge is doing mathematics in Braille. “Very few blind pupils can do maths in Braille today,” says the coordinator. So the project created different programming libraries to transcribe figures and formulae in this language. Various software prototypes were developed and will be tested in autumn 2006 in France and Sweden under the follow-up IST project Micole.

Lastly VICKIE helped set up and worked with the International Group for Universal Math Accessibility, involving universities in Europe and United States. The group is developing a programming library (the UMCL pack) that works under Linux and Windows, for transcribing different forms of Braille from language to language, or country to country.


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