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New York Times -- "Circuits: Web Access For The Blind"

From: Jamal Mazrui <empower@smart.net>
Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 14:26:28 +0500
Message-Id: <199812101926.OAA09783@gemini.smart.net>
To: <webwatch@telelists.com>, <nfbcs@nfbnet.org>, <vicug-l@maelstrom.stjohns.edu>, <basr-l@tracecenter.org>, <easi@maelstrom.stjohns.edu>, <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
     New York Times News Service
     c.   1998 New York Times Company

     Thursday, December 10, 1998

     Circuits: Web Access For The Blind
     By DEBRA NUSSBAUM


     Every day, hundreds of blind and visually impaired people in
Asheville, N.C., rely on Bob Brummond's radio reading service for
their national and local news.

     One of about 150 such services in the United States,
Brummond's programming lets listeners who own a specialized radio
receiver listen to the reading of newspapers and magazines and
hear exercise programs. If they have a computer with Internet
capability, a screen reader and a speech synthesizer, they can
also listen to news off the Web page Brummond set up last year.

     But starting in January, Brummond expects, anyone with a
telephone will be able to gain access to his page, the Regional
Audio Information Service Enterprise site, raise.new-era.net, and
hear the news read without a special radio or a personal
computer.

     Brummond, who is general manager of the service, will be
trying out a new voice-based browsing device from Productivity
Works (www.prodworks.com) in Trenton, N.J., that will allow a
caller to make his way through the Web page by punching buttons
on a touch-tone telephone and picking out items of interest.

     Voice access to the Internet, along with ways of using
speech-recognition technology to make computers respond to voice
commands, is a growing focus of research.

     In October, for instance, Motorola Inc., Visa International
and several other companies announced an alliance to create
speech-recognition standards that could potentially make the
Internet accessible to anyone with a telephone, reducing the need
for personal computers.

     So new products like the Productivity Works browsing device,
while intended primarily to help the blind, are being closely
watched for possible broader applications.

     The Productivity Works product, Pwtelephone, runs on
software compatible with Windows, and will essentially turn
Brummond's Web page into a voice on the phone.

     "Any blind or low-vision person with a touch-tone phone can
now read the paper," said Brummond, who estimates that only about
5 percent to 10 percent of the blind people in his area use the
Internet. Many blind people use screen readers to surf the Web,
but the graphics elements are hard for such programs to digest.

     Many Web sites, however, including The New York Times'
(www.nytimes.com), offer alternative, low-graphics versions.

     Pwtelephone is among a growing number of products coming
onto the market that are designed to make computers and the Web
more accessible to the handicapped.

     The Pwtelephone, which will sell for about $550, was
introduced in month.  When a person with a Web page buys the
device, anyone can call in and listen to the contents of the page
via a regular telephone. Productivity Works is widely known among
the blind because it created Pwwebspeak, a browser that uses just
type, instead of the visual elements required by Netscape and
Internet Explorer, and therefore does not need a screen reader.

     About 20,000 customers use Pwwebspeak, according to Mark
Hakkinen, cofounder and senior vice president of Productivity
Works.

     The product's usefulness may not be limited to the
handicapped. Hakkinen said people who are on the road without a
computer or otherwise not near one
-    what he called "situationally disabled" - can also use it to
have access to the Web. If a company hooks its Web page up to
Pwtelephone, an employee can call in and listen to information
posted there.

     Speech-recognition and voice technology are developing
quickly, with some successes occurring in various areas. But the
current version of this particular product has a big limitation:
only one person can call in at a time to each pwTelephone,
because it responds to each user's request.

     Getting to the Web over the telephone, rather than using a
computer and having to manipulate a mouse, may also help others
who are disabled, said Neal Ewers, who is blind and does research
and product testing at the Trace Research and Development Center
at the University of Wisconsin.

     "Someone with use of one hand may find the keyboard
difficult, but he can use a touchtone phone," said Ewers. "It
opens up the web for that person."

     Another product to aid visually impaired computer users is
scheduled for release by IBM (www.ibm.com) in January. The Home
Page Reader for Windows, which will cost $149, will read computer
screen text out loud. It will be sold with Netscape
Communications' Navigator browser.

     "Both of these are examples of technology that provide
better access to internet and web pages," said Professor Gregg
Vanderheiden, director of Trace and a member of the World Wide
Web Consortium, a group of volunteer computer experts who are
working to make the Web more accessible. These products will
allow "more people to interact with more types of Web pages than
in the past."

     The Home Page Reader was developed in IBM's Tokyo Research
Laboratory with Chieko Asakawa, a blind researcher who worked on
the early development of the software. It has been available in
Japan for the last year.

     Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National
Federation of the Blind, said he sees the product as an important
step for the blind because it is made by the computer giant IBM.

     "It's great for a major company to be using speech on a
commercially available application," Chong said. "This is a step
in the right direction by a major company, which holds out a
promise for the future."

     He added, "The best way to think of this is a supplement for
Netscape."

     The Home Page Reader can read HTML tags and decipher tables
and columns, but like all top-of-the-line screen readers, it
cannot read a graphic unless there is a written description of
that graphic on the page.

     There are still some Web pages that will not be accessible
because they lack text, Chong said.

     "No matter how good the browser is, it won't help poorly
designed web pages," he said.

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Received on Thursday, 10 December 1998 14:27:15 GMT

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