Chaotic Progress

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by Janet J. Barron

“Reprint Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © International Business Machines Corporation”

Suppose that, for some reason, society confined you to a self- contained world and tagged you as "disabled" or "handicapped." Although your mental capacities were OK, you couldn't travel around unaided or get a job to support yourself. With the advent of the microcomputer and devices that let it speak, however, you qualified for a job, and life changed for the better.

Then along came the GUI, a technology that quickly became popular and pervasive in the enabled world (see "Windows of Vulnerability," June BYTE). But because it couldn't talk, you began to wonder if you'd have to return to the kind of isolated existence you knew before GUIs. It was a pretty scary thought.

Now organizations and people have begun to develop ways to provide access to the GUI. And therein lies the most recent good news regarding adaptive technology. "Talking" graphics are on their way. Enhanced screen readers will allow those disabled people who were almost shut out of the computing environment by the GUI's coming to do their jobs and keep up with the changes in technology.

For a good while now, several companies have been working in the field of adaptive technology (e.g., Berkeley Systems of Berkeley, CA, and Dragon Systems of Waltham, MA). Also among the organizations involved in these efforts are the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research and Development Center and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. As a result of increased activity in assistive technology, some great things are happening.

Ten years ago, Johns Hopkins held a competition to motivate people to create innovative computer technology to help the disabled. The competition was very successful, and many of the ideas entered in the contest have become mainstream products and programs used by people who may be blind, deaf, learning disabled, developmentally disabled, or physically disabled. The computing world has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. So Paul Hazan, the Johns Hopkins project director who directed the first national computer search, is doing it all over again this year.

This year's contest is cosponsored by the National Science Foundation and MCI Communications. Besides the top prize of $10,000, numerous other awards and recognitions include smaller amounts of money, computers, and certificates. Winning entries will be exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., in February. The main payoff, however, won't be the money or the other prizes. It will be new and innovative technology developed to help disabled people actualize their potentials.

The Trace Center works in several areas to address the communication needs of people who are nonspeaking and have other severe disabilities. Much of the work at Trace is directed toward studying ways in which nonspeaking and physically impaired people can converse and write using high-technology aids. Trace scientists are also researching and establishing standards for the control mechanisms used to operate computers, communication devices, and home environmental controls, and are investigating ways to make computers and other electronic equipment more accessible to disabled people.

Gregg Vanderheiden is director of the Trace Center and a specialist in assistive technology. Early on, Vanderheiden realized that blind and learning-disabled computer users lacked ways to access GUIs. Since then, he has devoted a great deal of his time and efforts to making GUIs accessible to the disabled.

Also working in the area of technology for disabled people is Joe Lazzaro, project director for the adaptive-technology program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. His full-time job is trying out technological devices and matching and fitting them for disabled people so that they can obtain jobs and become self-sufficient.

Joe writes for BYTE (see "Opening Doors for the Disabled," August 1990 BYTE), is a whiz-bang computer programmer and user, and is finishing up a book devoted to the subject of adaptive technology. Because he is legally blind, this subject is important to him-adaptive technology actually did open up his world. Now, because of computers, he can help others become enabled.

One man whom Joe and technology have helped become productive is Dennis, who is blind and wheelchair-bound, is missing fingers and a leg, and has other complications caused by diabetes. Joe's first adaptation for Dennis was speech output for MultiMate on his DOS-based computer.

Because Dennis's job is as a counselor (ombudsman) to help disabled people obtain services and get help, he must make phone calls and write effective formal letters to service companies and vendors. He must also prepare reports regarding clients and contacts that go to his supervisors once a month.

Because of Dennis's missing fingers, speech capabilities for his computer are not all that he needs. Joe is considering providing a program for him called Dragon Dictate by Dragon Systems. To use an application such as a word processor or a database, Dennis would loadhis software by speaking verbal commands into a desktop microphone. Then he could dictate rather than type his letters and documents and use verbal commands to edit, format, and access and control the information.

The new technology will double Dennis's output almost immediately. And as he grows more proficient with this type of technology, he can expect a four- to five-fold increase in his productivity. With a system such as Screen Reader/PM, Dennis would also have access to the GUI to produce a pictorial representation by job of all the clients he deals with across the state. For instance, he could import his client database into his spreadsheet and produce a pie chart or other type of graph.

According to government figures, 25 million Americans are disabled. Two laws have recently been passed that, besides indicating concern for the quality of life of people who are disabled, have significantly stimulated new work in adaptive technology (see the main text).

Because of these new laws and the efforts of those who are tweaking technology, many formerly disenfranchised people are finally reaping benefits from using computers that open the world of the enabled to the world of the disabled. But, as Richard Schwerdtfeger says in the main text, there is still much to do.