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Talking browser speaks to blind Net users

WeMedia launches a talking browser with oversized buttons and print to make Internet surfing easier for the blind and the visually impaired.

    WeMedia said Tuesday it had launched a talking browser to make Internet surfing easier for the visually impaired.

    The New York-based media company said the new browser converts Web pages to a text-only format and speaks portions selected by the PC user. Developed and designed by Customized Computer Software, the browser uses oversized buttons and print.

    Interest groups for the disabled have been pressuring companies and the government to support greater Web access for the blind and visually impaired. Although talking browsers will help this effort, advocates said, deeper changes may also be needed in Web page design.

    "I think it's great people are investing a lot of effort into providing talking browsers for the blind," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind, which has aggressively pushed companies for accessibility technology such as electronic Braille readers. But "even the best talking browser in the world can be defeated by a poorly designed Web page."

    In September, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled an e-book reader for the blind that transforms electronic text into Braille. The Braille reader connects to a computer or a portable device and translates any document.

    Microsoft and Pulse Data International also have said they plan to create an e-book reader for the blind and visually impaired by integrating Microsoft Reader software with Pulse Data's BrailleNote, a family of screenless devices that translate text into speech and Braille.

    The talking browser released Tuesday uses a Windows compatible sound card and speakers. The WeMedia browser is available for free download and is compatible with PCs that have Windows 95, 98, 98 SE, ME, 2000 or NT operating system. It also requires Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.

    WeMedia said that because this technology converts an entire Web site to a single page of text, people with disabilities could jump from link to link using the up and down arrows on the keyboard and select the text that they would like to listen to.

    The company added that it is developing another browser that people can navigate vocally.

    "Without access, you have nothing," said WeMedia Chief Executive Cary Fields. "We look at the Internet as the ultimate prosthetic. If you happen to be homebound, and you don't have a computer that gives you access to the world, you've got serious access problems. To the extent that the Internet will allow that, then it's just a matter of the technology expanding itself."