Devices help the blind cross tech divide

Specially designed gadgets help people with visual and other physical limitations stay connected.

Michael Singer Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Singer
6 min read
Jerry Swerdlick runs a 15-employee company that resells computers and devices that aid people with visual, hearing, learning and other physical disabilities.

Business is really booming these days, Swerdlick said, as more and more manufacturers are building so-called assistive technology gadgets to address a wide range of special needs groups.

And while he takes bigger and bigger orders from his clients, the mere fact that he is able to spend many hours on the computer is a testament to how far assistive technology designs have come in recent years.

That's because Swerdlick is legally blind.

Disability technology

"I can't see out of one eye and I've got 20/2400 vision in the other. When the doctor asks me to read the chart on the wall, I tell him, "I can't even see the wall much less the chart,'" Swerdlick joked.

He started his company, Electronic Vision Access Solutions (EVAS), in Westerly, R.I., 26 years ago. In the early days, he went door to door with his wife selling a camera that when hooked up to a speech synthesizer could read aloud what appeared in print. EVAS has gone on to improve its speech synthesizers and contribute bits to things like software that makes print appear larger.

In July, EVAS started work on what will be the first of four one-year contracts with Dell to provide technology for disabled veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 1,000 veterans participating in rehabilitation programs for the blind will receive customized Dell OptiPlex computers, monitors, printers and scanners. The PCs are shipped with both large print and Braille guides for quick, easy setup and outfitted with software and peripherals.


What's new:
More companies are making technology easier to use for people with disabilities.

Bottom line:
With baby boomers retiring, an already multibillion dollar industry is growing. People with visual, physical, hearing or learning disabilities now have plenty of products to choose from to help them interact with gadgets and the Internet.

More stories on this topic

Swerdlick's EVAS is part of a $5.4 billion assistive technology industry, according to the Smithsonian Institution. That's nearly double market estimates six years ago.

The market itself is broad. Some of the devices that are becoming increasingly common include Braille-based handheld devices with text-to-speech technology, tactile keyboards with oversize characters, and pointing devices that control PCs with a movement of an eyebrow.

An aging population in industrialized countries combined with a government effort to satisfy more special needs groups is lighting a fire under this industry, which adds 10 to 20 new companies every year, Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) executive director David Dikter said. The Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group advises companies and government agencies.

"I think what is happening in the handheld market is pretty dynamic with its huge focus on the blind, visually and hearing-impaired," Dikter said. "A person who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's or even had a stroke can find technologies that allow them to have speech output. That is powerful, if you think about it. If you are 50 years old and your disability caused you not to be able to speak, this technology creates an independence that lets them go into a bank."

There's a huge need for these products. The World Health Organization estimates that between 750 million and 1 billion of the world's 6 billion people deal with some form of speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive impairment.

In the United States alone, more than 54 million people have some sort of disability, according to census figures released in 2002. That's likely

to go up as the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 get ready to retire.

Microsoft, for one, has been taking a hard look at the issue. In addition to numerous studies, the software giant recently released a royalty-free software license called the Microsoft Windows User Interface Automation, which helps modify Microsoft Word, Excel, or third-party applications with screen readers, screen enlargers and other alternative inputs.

Besides Microsoft, other well-known tech companies are also working on assistive technology. Apple Computer, Adobe and IBM have been working on speech recognition and screen enlargement software for their various applications. Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell have offered technical support to third-party companies working on assistive technology hardware. The computer makers have also adapted their PCs, laptops and PDAs to include large, recognizable keys and plug-and-play USB ports that support various peripherals.

Smaller companies such as Freedom Scientific, HumanWare AgentSheets, WizCom Tecnologies, Digital Lifestyle Outfitters and DynaVox are also among the hundreds of assistive technology companies that the ATIA endorses.

"In some ways the mainstream movement of assistive devices is similar to the convergence of computers and consumer electronics devices," Dikter said. "For someone who is blind, there is adaptive software that can let the cell phone talk. Previously, they would have had to carry a couple of devices with them."

Some recent product examples include:

• Refreshable Braille displays such as ones made by Blazie Engineering, of Middlesex, England, provide tactile displays of information represented on the computer screen. A Braille "cell" is composed of a series of dots. The pattern of the dots and various combinations of the cells are used in place of letters. Refreshable Braille displays mechanically lift small rounded plastic or metal pins as needed to form Braille characters. The user reads the Braille letters with his or her fingers, and then, after a line is read, can refresh the display to read the next line. The technology is finding its way into handheld devices such as the PC Mate, which has a $2,022 starting price.

• HumanWare, in Quebec, Canada, has created the Trekker, a lightweight travel tool for the blind that uses an HP iPaq digital music player as a platform to provide the user with a talking personal guide. Weighing 1.3 pounds and equipped with an onboard microphone and a Braille touch screen, Trekker is the first global positioning system-based portable product offering digital maps for the visually impaired. It keeps pace with the user, announcing street names, intersections, addresses, stores, restaurants and area attractions as they come. Pressing a "Where am I?" key pinpoints the user's location. The units are available through distributors and cost $1,595 for the hardware, with local maps starting at $55.

• AgentSheets, in Boulder, Colo., is a software company that uses the iPaq handheld as the basis for a device that helps people with disabilities use public transit systems. The system tracks GPS-equipped buses, alerts the passenger when the correct bus approaches, helps the passenger on board through audio and visual cues, and reminds the passenger when the bus reaches the right stop.

• Eatoni, based in New York City, has developed a system that allows people with vision problems to read e-mail on their cell phones. The Eatoni software is based on Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) technology, which was developed by Qualcomm. The software reduces the number of keystrokes used to type text on a telephone keypad. It also can increase the font size of words appearing on a phone's screen.

• Enkidu Research, a subsidiary of DynaVox Technologies, has developed the Palmtop Impact. The portable communication device is designed to help people who are unable to speak. A user can touch letters, words, phrases or even picture symbols on a handheld touch screen, which are then converted into loud, clear speech. It costs $3,295.

Government intervention has certainly helped this industry grow, and that's where Swerdlick said his company comes in. He said 90 percent of his business comes from federal and state government customers, including New York, Maryland, Hawaii and Alabama. The remainder is split equally between corporate clients and individual purchases.

Like some of his customers, Swerdlick is hopeful that another generation of technologies can do more--perhaps something as seemingly obvious as making speech recognition and voice reproduction technologies sound like real people.

"We see, but we see in different ways," Swerdlick said of people with disabilities. "We hear, but we hear in different ways."