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Efforts aimed at blind Net users

As the nation observes National Disabilities Month, two firms and a standards organization are honing in on the needs of visually impaired Net users.

As the nation observes National Disabilities Month, two firms and a standards organization are honing in on the needs of visually impaired users.

IBM today announced the English version of Home Page Reader, its browser for the visually impaired. The product, already available in Japanese, will be sold and packaged with Netscape Communications' Navigator browser.

The product advances beyond traditional screen readers by providing navigation tools for links and other HTML elements such as forms and tables. The browser reads standard text in a male voice and links in a female voice. It also provides searching capabilities for links, helping users negotiate sites with dozens or hundreds of links per page.

IBM is not the first firm to provide a browser for the blind. Productivity Works debuted its voice-based browser in 1996. pwWebSpeak is a stand-alone browser, rather than an add-on.

Productivity Works is gearing up for the launch of another voice-based browsing product, which will utilize the telephone.

The firm's pwTelephone is geared not only to the visually impaired, but also to people without access to Internet-ready PCs. The software may also prove useful to firms that want to provide information, such as schedules or price lists, both by phone and over the Web and from a single source.

Another Web-telephone product is General Magic's Web-On-Call.

Interest in phone-based Web access systems is reflected in activity at the World Wide Web Consortium, the standards body whose recommendations are widely respected and recognized among Web developers internationally. The W3C this month held a workshop to discuss phone-based Web access.

The workshop will likely result in a W3C working group for voice browsers, according to Productivity Works cofounder and senior vice president Mark Hakkinen, who attended the workshop.

"In the world today, far more people have access to a telephone than have access to a computer with an Internet connection," the W3C noted in a call for participation. "Voice browsers offer the promise of allowing people to access the Web from any telephone, vastly increasing the number of people who can use Web sites."

The W3C has an arm devoted specifically to issues regarding Web users with disabilities, the Web Accessibility Initiative. The initiative has worked to make both Web languages and Web developers more friendly to visually impaired users, pushing for more descriptive alternative text for images and tables, for instance, and for standards that make tables and columns readable by voice browsers.

The English version of IBM's product will be available in January. PwTelephone will be available next week.