blind_html Re: FW: Article: For the blind, technology does what a guide dog can't

  • From: Nimer <nimerjaber1@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: blind_html@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 04 Jan 2009 16:27:44 -0700

I like this artucle. This man is an inspirational blind guy in the sense that he does not complain and moan about every little thing. He comes up with solutions and implements them. Now, there's a thought.

Nimer J

"Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very 
wise cannot see all
ends." LOTR

Nimer M. Jaber

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Sarah Alawami wrote:

For the blind, technology does what a guide dog can't By Miguel Helft The
New York Times Sunday, January 4, 2009

T. V. Raman was a bookish child who developed a love of math and puzzles at
an early age.

That passion didn't change after glaucoma took his eyesight at the age of
14. What changed is the role that technology  and his own innovations played
in helping him pursue his interests.

A native of India, Raman went from relying on volunteers to read him
textbooks at a top technical university there to leading a largely
autonomous life in Silicon Valley, where he is a highly respected computer
scientist and an engineer at Google.

Along the way, Raman built a series of tools to help him take advantage of
objects or technologies that were not designed with blind users in mind.
They ranged from a Rubik's Cube covered in Braille to a software program
that can take complex mathematical formulas and read them aloud, which
became the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell. He also built a
version of Google's search service tailored for blind users.

Raman, 43, is now working to modify the latest technological gadget that he
says could make life easier for blind people: a touch-screen phone.

"What Raman does is amazing," said Paul Schroeder, vice president for
programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, which conducts
research on technology that can help visually impaired people. "He is a
leading thinker on accessibility issues, and his capacity to design and
alter technology to meet his needs is unique."

Some of Raman's innovations may help make electronic gadgets and Web
services more user-friendly for everyone. Instead of asking how something
should work if a person cannot see, he says he prefers to ask, "How should
something work when the user is not looking at the screen?"

Such systems could prove useful for drivers or anyone else who could benefit
from eyes-free access to a phone. They could also appeal to aging baby
boomers with fading vision who want to keep using technology they've come to
depend on.

Raman's approach reflects a recognition that many innovations designed
primarily for people with disabilities have benefited the broader public,
said Larry Goldberg, who oversees the National Center for Accessible Media
at WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. They include curb cuts
for wheelchairs, captions for television broadcasts and optical
character-recognition technology, which was fine-tuned to create software
that could read printed books aloud and is now used in many computer
applications, he said.

With no buttons to guide the fingers on its glassy surface, the touch-screen
cellphone may seem a particularly daunting challenge. But Raman said that
with the right tweaks, touch-screen phones  many of which already come
equipped with GPS technology and a compass  could help blind people navigate
the world.

"How much of a leap of faith does it take for you to realize that your phone
could say, 'Walk straight and within 200 feet you'll get to the intersection
of X and Y,' " Raman said. "This is entirely doable."

ADVOCATES for the blind have long complained that technology companies have
done a generally poor job of making their products accessible. The Web,
while opening many opportunities for blind people, is still riddled with
obstacles. And sophisticated screen-reader software, which turns documents
and Web pages into synthesized speech, can cost more than $1,000. Even with
a screen reader, many sites are hard to navigate.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind reached a settlement of a
landmark class-action lawsuit against one company whose site advocates found
unusable, Target. In the settlement, the retailer agreed to make its Web
site accessible to blind people. The federation assesses the usability of
Web sites and currently certifies only a handful as being fully accessible.

One challenge is that technology often evolves much faster than the
guidelines that ensure Web sites work well with screen readers. In December,
the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet standards group, released Version
2.0 of its accessibility guidelines for Web sites. The previous version
dated back to 1999, when the Web consisted largely of static Web pages
rather than interactive applications.

Obstacles on the Web take many forms. A common one is the Captcha, a
security feature consisting of a string of distorted letters and numbers
that users are supposed to read and retype before they register for a new
service or send e-mail. Few Web sites offer audio Captchas.

Some pages are just poorly designed, like e-commerce sites where the
"checkout" button is an image that isn't labeled so screen readers can find

"The overwhelming percentage of the industry really hasn't stepped up to the
plate to provide the blindness community with equal access to their
products," said Eric Bridges, director of advocacy and governmental affairs
at the American Council of the Blind. Bridges and other advocates argue that
accessibility should be built into new technologies, not added as an

People with other disabilities face similar challenges on the Internet. "On
the deafness side, the frustration is huge because of all of the video out
there without captions," Goldberg said.

RAMAN, who before joining Google in 2005 worked at Adobe Systems and as a
researcher at IBM, is intimately familiar with accessibility problems, both
personally and professionally. In 2006, he developed a version of Google's
search engine that gives a slight preference to Web sites that work well
with screen readers. The system had to test millions of Web pages.

"You wouldn't have found a single page that fully complied with the
accessibility guidelines," Raman said. Still, the system could detect which
pages worked reasonably well with screen readers.

The service is not being used as widely as he had hoped. Still, it has had
an impact. Several Web site operators whose sites weren't showing up
prominently in Google search results asked Raman how they could fix their
sites so they would rank better.

The service includes a screen magnifier that enlarges individual search
results. Raman says the feature is intended to help low-vision users, but it
could also prove useful to a much larger population, especially on
cellphones and other devices with small screens.

For his own use, he has built a highly customized system that allows him
efficient access to much of what he needs on his PC and on the Web,
stripping out anything that could slow him down. For instance, the system
goes directly to the article text on the news sites he reads regularly,
bypassing navigational links and other features found on most Web pages.

On a recent day, Raman was working on a research paper about the future
structure of the Web. A monitor hung above the desk. It is usually turned
off, unless he wants to show a colleague or visitor what he is working on.
He typed at his keyboard, his head slightly tilted to one side, listening to
his screen reader through a pair of wireless headphones.

The screen reader is calibrated to speak at roughly triple the speed of a
normal voice. To the untrained ear, the output is incomprehensible, but it
allows Raman to "read" at roughly the same speed as a sighted person.

Processing information quickly is a skill he has developed over the years: a
video on YouTube shows him solving his Braille Rubik's Cube in 23 seconds.
When he is not typing, Raman, who wears large sunglasses, is often folding
and unfolding pieces of paper into tiny, origami-like geometrical shapes at
prodigious speed.

He shares a work area at Google with Charles Chen, a 25-year-old engineer,
and Hubbell, Raman's guide dog. (Hubbell has his own Web site.)

Chen, who is sighted, developed a free screen reader for Web pages that
works with the Firefox browser. Working together, the two recently added
keyboard shortcuts that help blind and low-vision users navigate quickly
through Google's search results. They've also developed tools to make
sophisticated Web applications, like e-mail and blog readers, suitable for
screen-reading software.

Now, much of their effort is focused on touch-screen phones.

"The thing I am most interested in is all of the stuff moving to the mobile
world, because it is a big life-changer," Raman said.

To show their progress, Raman pulled his T-Mobile G1, a touch-screen phone
with Google's Android software, from a pocket of his jeans. He and Chen have
already outfitted it with software that speaks much like a screen reader on
a PC. Now they are working on ways to allow blind people, or anyone who is
not looking at the screen, to enter text, numbers and commands.

That development would complement voice-recognition systems, which are not
always reliable and don't work well in noisy environments.

Since he cannot precisely hit a button on a touch screen, Raman created a
dialer that works based on relative positions. It interprets any place where
he first touches the screen as a 5, the center of a regular telephone dial
pad. To dial any other number, he simply slides his finger in its direction
up and to the left for 1, down and to the right for 9, and so on. If he
makes a mistake, he can erase a digit simply by shaking the phone, which can
detect motion.

He and Chen are testing several other input methods. None of these
technologies have been rolled out, but Raman, who is already using the G1 as
his primary cellphone, hopes to make them freely available soon.

(Few screen readers are available for smartphones today, and they can often
cost as much as a phone itself.)

What may become the most life-changing mobile technology  a phone that can
recognize and read signs through its camera  may still be a few years away,
Raman said. Already, some devices can read text this way. But because blind
users don't know where signs are, they can't point the camera at them or
align it properly, Raman said. Once chips become powerful enough, they will
be able to detect a sign's location and read skewed type, he said.

"Those things will happen," he said. When they do, sighted users will
benefit, too.

"If you have the technology that can recognize a street sign as you drive by
it, that is helpful for everyone," he said. "In a foreign country, it will
translate it."

Raman's innovations have already made their way onto millions of PCs. At
Adobe in the 1990s, he helped to adapt the PDF format so it could be read by
screen readers. That was required for PDF to be used by the U.S. government,
and it eventually led to the technology's being embraced as a global
standard for electronic documents.

"It was incredibly important to us as a business, and to the blind," said
John Warnock, the chairman and founder of Adobe.

Raman says he thinks he has the largest impact when he can persuade other
engineers to make their products accessible  or, better yet, when he can
convince them that there are interesting problems to be solved in this area.
"If I can get another 10 engineers motivated to work on accessibility," he
said, "it is a huge win."

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