Sunday, July 01, 2007

Are computers better than Braille?

Clients and employees of North Central Sight Services may be blind or visually impaired, but they are as dependent on computers as much as anyone else is.That’s why training on software programs for enhancing their lives was deemed so important, according to officials of the city-based social service agency.

“We live and breathe this computer stuff,” president and CEO Bob Garrett said. “Like it or not, it’s part of life.”Garrett is standing in the middle of the agency’s Access Technology Center, tucked away inside its new location at 2121 Reach Road.Three computers, each equipped with specialized software, will serve as the training site for visually impaired or blind people.

Garrett, who has been blind since age 5, could not emphasize enough the importance of the newest software training.“From my perspective, the computer is the most valuable tool for a blind person since Braille,” he said.Among the software programs are JAWS, which reads aloud information appearing on the screen, Garrett said. JAWS has been around for quite some time, but it was not until now that the agency decided to begin offering training for people to use the program.Brian Buck, North Central Sight Services associate, said to understand the concept of JAWS is to think of the index of a book.

Once the keystrokes for accessing the JAWS system are learned, it’s simply a matter of accessing the desired Web page and having JAWS read it aloud back to the person.“Screenwriting programs have been around,” Garrett said.

“The nice thing about the newest programs is they are more affordable.”They also are more easily accessible by the user, he added. “This will open the door to learning more about what’s out there.”In addition to JAWS, the agency is offering training on a similar read-aloud program known as Window-Eyes.“I think we’ll figure out early on which works better for people,” Garrett said.ZOOM Text, still another software program, does not read information aloud but rather magnifies it on the screen to enable visually impaired persons to see it.

“I like ZOOM Text a lot better,” said Buck, who is not blind, but visually impaired. “You can crank up your magnification to make it gigantic.”

The mission of North Central Sight Services is a three-pronged approach:

• To provide resources for helping people become independent. It includes home visits for services and education;

• To offer services for preventing blindness;

• To provide on-site work operations for employees.

The new software training, Garrett said, will do nothing but help everyone involved with or helped by the agency.“I know it’s been important to me to have this access,” he said. “I believe we’ve created a culture here where technology is important.”Improving computer technology is a vital part of growing the agency, he said.

But just as important to that growth is taking the leap of faith to commit to a vision.Part of that commitment involved moving the agency to its new location in the city’s industrial park as a means of offering more expanded services.He credited the board of directors for helping the agency move forward.“We are delighted to have these new facilities,” Garrett said.


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