Saturday, January 26, 2008

New technology for the visually impaired

Disablement, needless to say, significantly reduces the life quality of a person as it substantially diminishes their work ability. Assistive or adaptive technology, however, can bring back the individual's employability at an acceptable level. Unfortunately, most people, even the disabled themselves, in the third world countries are not aware that assistive technology may become their real friend in assisting them in everyday life.

I would like to highlight in this article some assistive technologies for different types of disabilities; before that it is worth mentioning what an assistive technology means.There is no specific definition of Assistive Technology (AT). It simply denotes any item, piece of equipment, or system that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.The definition does not necessarily imply that AT must include computers, or that it must be expensive, or that certain medical professionals can only prescribe it.

This definition permits AT to be restricted by your own creativity and imagination.The followings represent samples of the many types of AT, grouped by the nature of a user's disability, that are available.AT for visual impairmentsVisually impaired users face a great challenge when interacting with graphical user interfaces. Typically, they use software applications known as screen readers that turn the texts, events, and elements in applications and websites into synthesised speech.

For example, when a user opens a new window in Microsoft Internet Explorer, a screen reader such as JAWS (Job Access with Speech) or Home Page Reader might say "new browser window".A physically challenged person, I took part in a specialised training program last year, where 19 other physically challenged people also participated. Of them, 12 were visually challenged. I observed with sheer astonishment how my visually impaired friends worked smoothly on computer using screen reader software like JAWS or FSB reader.

They used special key combinations to move around screen in order to direct the screen what to read. By listening to this speech, they were able to understand a screen's content.Another AT for the visually challenged is refreshable Braille display, which may be used as an alternative to screen reader. These devices convert screen text into Braille and display the Braille on a number of cells comprised of independently controlled pins.

When editing and reviewing text, refreshable Braille displays can be much better to work with because a vision-impaired user can easily reread characters on the same line and check spelling. Screen readers are capable of reading words character by character, but the process of moving backwards in text to review and then moving forwards can be cumbersome. Despite their potential advantage, refreshable Braille displays are less common due to their higher cost.

In addition, a Braille embosser converts computer-generated text into embossed Braille output. Braille translation programs convert text scanned in or generated via standard word processing programs into Braille, which can be printed on the embosser. The results on thick paper are the individual dots that constitute Braille characters. However, choice of appropriate hardware and software will depend on the user's level of functional vision.

Put another way, it relies on the intensity of impairment. For example, low-vision users can use hardware such as large monitors, adjustable task lamp, Copyholder, closed circuit television, modified cassette recorder, and scanner to improve visibility. Moreover, this can be helpful to people who have difficulty reading or seeing self-voicing applications such as talking web browsers. AT for the hearing challengedAlthough hearing impaired individuals encounter less accessibility than the visually challenged do, they face tremendous difficulty in terms of learning, job access and social inclusion.

These are due to the traditional way of learning. However, computer technology has emerged as blessing to the hearing impaired. As computer prompts such as spoken messages and beeps can be misunderstood or go unnoticed by hearing impaired individuals, this problem is solved through the use of tools that produce visual warning when the system plays a sound and/or display captions in place of a spoken message. Light signaller alerts the computer with light signals. This is useful when a computer user cannot hear computer sounds.

As an example, a light can flash alerting the user when a new e-mail message has arrived or a computer command has completed.In addition, hearing impaired person can use TTY/TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf), which is an electronic device for text communication via a telephone line, telecare, closed captioning, teletext and multimedia projector to address accessibility problem. Moreover, newer text-based communication methods such as short message service (SMS), internet relay chat (IRC) and instant messaging have also been accepted by the deaf as an alternative or adjunct to TDD.

AT for mobility impairmentsMobility impairment refers to any condition that limits an individual's ability to navigate through their environment. Mobility assistive technology products and services for the physically challenged are used to ensure freedom of movement around the home or office. For example, persons with mobility impairment can use wheelchair or electric wheelchair to overcome challenges to daily activities.

A permanent or portable ramp can also help in this regard.In addition, alternative pointing devices allow mobility-impaired individuals to control the mouse pointer via a mechanism other than the mouse. These are typically used when someone lacks dexterity to manipulate a standard mouse. Again, some software exists that converts the keyboard arrow keys into directional movements for the pointer. Other keys are used to signal a left and right mouse click.

Besides, for individuals with severe impairments who are entirely unable to manipulate the mouse and/or use a standard keyboard can use HeadMouse wireless pointing device that converts the movements of a user's head into corresponding movements of the mouse pointer by tracking the motion of a single point on the user's head.

A standard keyboard may be completely replaced by using this system in conjunction with software that produces an on-screen keyboard. Mobility-impaired individuals may utilise speech recognition applications. This software can be used to both control applications via speech commands and as a means to dedicate text, with speech converted into text in real time.Disability is not inability; rather, it is a blessing in disguise. If the disabled get some opportunity, they can also prove their potential in the real field.

As evidenced by the above descriptions, assistive technology services address a variety of disabilities in numerous ways. Regretfully, technology, created without regard to people with disabilities, often creates undesired hindrances to hundreds of millions of people. We should know that assistive technology, or more specifically universally acceptable technology, equally yields great rewards for the typical users.

One example is the kerb cuts in the sidewalk at street crossing. While these kerb cuts enable pedestrians with mobility impairments to cross the street, these also aid parents with carriages and strollers, shoppers with carts, and travellers and workers with pull-type bags.And here in Bangladesh, though the availability of disabled friendly or assistive technology is alarmingly low, YPSA -- a specialised non-profit social development organisation -- is doing some exciting work in this respect.

As a result, the organisation has been selected by DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) Consortium, to ensure information in accessible format for people with disabilities (PWDs), especially for the print disabled. We sincerely hope that other organisations would follow YPSA's effort in this regard to make the PWDs lives somewhat easy and enjoyable. The author, a physically challenged person, is a trainee at Thakral Information Systems Pvt Ltd, Dhaka.


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