Technology does not always make life easier. People with disabilities are learning this lesson — the hard way. Companies often ignore their needs or present them with unfriendly systems.
Many disabled persons require specialized add-ons to use computers. For example, the visually challenged use software applications called screen readers, which interpret the text on computer monitors and direct it either to a speech synthesizer for audio output or to a refreshable Braille display for tactile output.
There are several Microsoft Windows-compatible screen readers available on the international market, and market share varies by country. In North America, Jaws for Windows, manufactured by St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Freedom Scientific Blind, is dominant.
However, according to one expert, all Microsoft-compatible screen readers share a common flaw. “These readers don’t provide the visually challenged with standardized keyboard commands,” said Geoff Fitzgibbon, national director of assistive technology at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization.
Fitzgibbon said screen reader manufacturers find it difficult to keep up with the frequent changes to the Windows operating system. Whenever Microsoft makes changes to its OS, screen readers also have to be modified. “Some keyboard commands become redundant, and the visually impaired have to learn a new set of commands.”
That’s tough for someone like Bobby Lakey, who lives in Texas and has been a Jaws for Windows user for more than 10 years. “Even the sighted have to adapt, but for the visually impaired, it’s more difficult to get used to changes.”
And the situation is even worse for visually challenged Macintosh users. There is no compatible screen reader at all for Macs, said Fitzgibbon.
He urged tech companies to make their existing products more accessible and usable by the disabled. “Universal designs as opposed to specially designed technology keep costs down for the visually challenged,” said Fitzgibbon.
He pointed out that mobile phone companies have been launching sleeker and smaller handsets without considering the needs of the large number of customers who have poor eyesight, let alone the visually challenged. “They could launch handsets with larger screens for the visually challenged. Even the sighted might find larger screens attractive.”
A product that has found acceptance in both the sighted and the visually challenged world is bluffmail, a voice-based e-mail service developed by Telmatik Network Inc., a call centre services provider based in Boucherville, Que. Bluffmail allows users to send audio e-mails from cell phones, regular phones and BlackBerry devices as MP3 attachments.
The service was originally developed for the sighted world. “After our service started, we had the idea of introducing it to the visually challenged. We thought an audio e-mail system would be especially helpful to them,” said Benoit Brunel, president of Telmatik.
Telmatik approached CNIB with an offer to allow its clients to use bluffmail for free for a three-month trial period. Telmatik had to make some minor changes to its software to make bluffmail accessible to the blind. “It usually does not take a major technological overhaul to make most tech products disabled-friendly,” said Fitzgibbon.
While the private sector has been sluggish in introducing products for the people with special needs, the public sector has its own set of problems. There are several programs in place to assist them but these have not been funded appropriately.
For example, the Adaptive Computer Technology (ACT) program was introduced in 1991 by Environment Canada to integrate employees with disabilities into the general workforce of federal government agencies.
ACT has a broad mandate to design new products for employees with special needs, conduct research on how to modify existing technologies, and provide training to employees with disabilities and technical staff to support assistive technologies.
“The mandate of this program does not match its budget allocation. We are not able to operate because of insufficient funding,” said an ACT official who wished to remain anonymous. Due to inconsistent funding, ACT has not been able to deploy its hardware and software tools, he said. “We have lots of work to do, but we don’t have sufficient staff to do it.”