The following article appeared in the September, 1994 issue of Computing & Communications Windows on Computing.

Overcoming Challenges Via The Internet: Randy Hammer, UW DO-IT Scholar

My name is Randy Hammer, and I am a junior at Timberline High School in Lacey Washington. I am totally blind; with two glass eyes. I have been blind all my life, and have never known anything different. I have been mainstreamed in schools all my life, and have always had to depend on others to get me school materials. If I needed or wanted a book for class, it had to be transcribed into braille or put on tape. However, in August of last year a whole new door was opened to me. I am a member of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking Technology) Program at the University of Washington. This program is funded greatly by the National Science Foundation. It gives high school students with disabilities the chance to overcome their challenges by the use of the Internet.

Getting Internet access was the best thing that ever happened to me. In a way, my computer and access to the net has become my eyes to the world. I can read a newspaper, talk to people around the world, and get materials for class papers, unlike before when I had to depend on others to get the resources I needed.

Upon receiving my access in August of 1993, I was able to read a newspaper for the first time in my life. This may sound trivial but to me it was a great accomplishment. The Washington Post. I was not aware of the variety of topics covered by newspapers. I knew about the front page, feature articles, and sports section, for instance, but I did not know of the huge amount of stories in these sections. I was amazed. Before getting access I had to get sighted people to read me the paper. However, with the help of a screen reader and a host at the University of Washington called UWIN (University of Washington Information Navigator), I browsed through the paper, found just what I wanted to read, and read it. I can even mail myself the articles and save them; somewhat like how you cut articles that you like out of the paper to save for future reference. This was amazing to me. And not only can I read the Washington Post, but also the Moscow News, and several other papers mainly used by scientists. So, the net has helped me get in better contact with the world via online newspapers.

Many of you know of IRC or some other type of chat systems. This caught my by surprise when I first started on the net. I am taking German in high school, and plan to be a foreign language expert. If I want to try out my German on people, I just telnet to Germany, and try it on actual Germans (who are really strict teachers, and who catch every mistake you make. I know, I have made many.) Another aspect of the chat systems is talking to people about current events. I can telnet to a chat system and talk to people from California about the earthquakes there, or from Kansas City and ask about the chiefs chances in the Super Bowl. Thus, the net is a tool for me to get feedback from people all over the world on what they think of different things, and it's an interesting way to make new friends.

But the best aspect of the net is the ability to get information on any topic. There are lots of ways to do this. First, you can join a listserv and find out about a topic from experts. Though I haven't joined a listserv yet, I may do so in the near future. Second, you can e-mail an expert in a field with a question and get an answer to your question quickly. But the best way to get materials is through Gopher Space. I recently needed information on Poland. I entered Gopher Space, moved to a server in Poland itself, and there I found all the information I needed on my subject. Also, there are encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses in the Gopher Space. If a server does not have the information you need, you can just find another that will either have the exact material, or one that has some sort of information book and use it to get the information that you need.

In closing, the Internet has become a great part of my life. In the seven months that I have had access to the net, I have built up over two hundred hours on it. I use it to find out about current events, do research papers for school, and just talk to people about everyday life. I would recommend the Internet to anyone that needs these services. It is hard now to remember how I lived without this wealth of materials and information at my fingertips.

-Randy Hammer is an eleventh grade UW DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Scholar. His essay on Internet use was a runner-up in the grade 10 - 12 category in a national essay contest sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics, the NASA K-12 Internet Project, and the National Science Foundation.-

ABOUT RANDY'S COMPUTER

Randy uses a Toshiba model 1850 notebook computer connected to an external modem to access the Internet. His computer has been modified by Humanware, Inc. to enable use by blind computer users. His computer has a speech synthesizer (Keynote Gold) built in to the modem expansion slot that converts the on-screen characters to spoken text. Screen reading software (MasterTouch) controls the synthesizer and allows for control of a review cursor that speaks the words and letters on the screen. To further assist his schoolwork, Randy uses an inkjet and a Braille printer, and he will soon have a scanner with OCR software to read printed materials to him.

Speech technology for personal computers has existed for at least ten years. Initially produced for Apple II and CP/M machines, speech output technology has matched progress in microcomputer development to enable access on PC-compatible and Apple Macintosh computers. Current research and development by assistive technology vendors includes access to graphical user interface (GUI) platforms such as Microsoft Windows and OS/2. Access for blind users to the Unix-based X window GUI is also under development.

The overwhelming platform of choice for computer users who are blind is an IBM-compatible computer running MS-DOS as the operating system. With a speech synthesizer card and screen access software, it is simple work to utilize character-based applications, including word processors, spreadsheets, and communication software. The character-based (as opposed to graphical) interface lends itself to this type of access, as information displayed character-by-character to the screen can be intercepted by the screen access software and routed to the synthesizer to be spoken to the user.

The Adaptive Technology Lab in the Computing Resource Center has a number of options for computer users who are blind. If you would like more information, you can visit the lab in 102 Suzzallo Library or phone 685-4144.