Working Together: Computers and People with Sensory Impairments

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A generation ago, personal computers began to make their mark on the world. It was the beginning of an incredible change in the way we do things. For people with disabilities, that change was even more profound.
[Dan] For the first time, people with disabilities, particularly people who are blind, had a chance to compete successfully, using the computer.
[Stephanie] I found that computers opened up a whole new world, and I could get a lot of stuff in Braille. What I can do is I can use my screen reader to get into a different program; I can type something up just regularly on the computer, hit three buttons, and it will be in Braille right in front of me on a piece of paper.
[Israel] The program I use for speech helps me read everything like email, and if I look for information about something, it will tell me the results.
[Narrator] They're talking about adaptive technology: software and hardware systems that assist computer and Internet access for people with disabilities.
[Dan] The technology that we have available is appropriate for people with a wide range of sensory impairments. Everything for somebody with a minor hearing impairment, where we might do some captioning or special blinking on the screen, to somebody who's blind, who needs speech output, or maybe wants to incorporate speech output with speech input.
[Narrator] People with sensory impairment are affected in the way they use vision, hearing, or touch. They may have a slight loss of ability, or they may be completely unable to use one or more of their senses.
[Michael] Sensory impairments affect people in a variety of ways, depending on how well they've adjusted to their disability, how significant it is. For me personally, with a significant, profound hearing loss, I have issues with communication. Hearing and talking on a regular phone is nearly impossible for me. However, the use of computers lately has really enhanced my communication abilities, especially with the use of email. With email, I'm able to communicate with anybody anywhere, anytime.
[Narrator] Some people with sensory impairments may not need adaptive technology for computer access. Others will require significant enhancements. To decide what works best for you, start by determing what you want to be able to do with the computer. Then choose accommodations that help you do those things.
[Dan] It's absolutely vital that somebody with a disability be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to selecting their adaptive technology. They're the experts who know what they need, so it's imperative that they be part of evaluating what's going to be a successful solution.
[Justin] Adaptive technology has helped me out a great deal. I can get on the Internet and access anything I want to with voice output on the computer, and it, you know, it's just really helped me out a lot.
[Narrator] We'll show you some of the computing tools that people with sensory impairments have used successfully. These are just some of the options; there are always other approaches to try, and new hardware and software are being developed all the time.
[Computer] Summer study schedule...
[Narrator] We'll start with visual impairments. First, a definition. Low vision is a loss of visual acuity while retaing some vision. People may have uniform low vision, or they may have variations such as tunnel vision or alternating areas of vision and total blindness. There may be light sensitivity, or an inability to see colors. People who are blind have very little or no vision at all.
[Ryan] Now I'm going to Internet Explorer right now.
[Computer] H...T...T...P...
[Narrator] Speech output is the most popular form of access for people who are blind. This software allows the computer to read aloud text, email, or Web pages.
[Computer] Page has 31 links.
[Narrator] Ryan, a high school student who is blind, uses this type of software.
[Ryan] It can tell you all the stuff on the screen, and it speaks through your sound card. It's good for surfing the Web, doing email, or doing your reports. I can go into a Word document, I can start typing, it will speak the character as I'm typing it.
[Computer] W..I..N..D..O..W..S period.
[Ryan] I can also have it read to me exactly what I've typed, so I can know if I made any spelling mistakes.
[Computer] I like Jaws for Windows.
[Narrator] People who are blind use a standard keyboard for input. That standard keyboard also controls the screen reader.
[Computer] Link reference tools. Enter.
[Narrator] Braille output systems are also available for those who need more detailed information than speech output provides. Refreshable Braille displays echo information from the screen to a panel with Braille cells with moveable pins. To print materials for later reference, a Braille embosser gives a permanent record.
[Teacher] You have about eight minutes.
[Narrator] Portable notetakers, using speech or Braille, can be invaluable for people on the go.
[Student] I'm writing this down.
[Narrator] Many people with low vision use screen enlargement software. This enlarges text and graphics displayed on the monitor.
[Nate] Everything is magnified as much as you want, so I have it eight times the normal screen on the computer.
[Narrator] You can also use closed circuit TVs, or video magnifiers, to enlarge printed materials or photographs. This camera has auto focus and can be used with a computer monitor.
[Nate] You slide your paper under and then just fool with the knobs a bit and you can get it as big or as small as you like.
[Narrator] For those who are sensitive to light, the enlargement systems can also reverse the screen from black on white to white on black. And large print keytop labels may be helpful for people with low vision who are learning to type.
[Buffy] I have a question about this word. What does it mean?
[Narrator] People with hearing impairments may have partial or complete hearing loss. And for general computer use, there's very little need for adaptive technology. Built-in operating features offer visual alternatives to audio signals.
[Buffy] For example, when you get a signal from the computer like a beep or a honk that says you've done something wrong, then they can make it do something else to show me that something's wrong.
[Computer] Check out both academics and accommodations.
[Narrator] Streaming multimedia is a concern for people who can't hear. Captioning for videos, or audio transcribed into text, are ideal. However, most content developers don't include this. Some do.
[Jeffrey] When I use my computer at home, some of the games and so forth, and the Internet, has closed captioning.
[Narrator] For immediate conversation, people who are deaf or hard of hearing have some electronic options. One choice is instant messaging software. Another is to use a TTY or TDD device, which sends typed messages over telephone lines. The newer TTY or TDD versions allow conversation between someone with a computer and someone using the TTY or TDD.
[User] : Final fourth-quarter projections... [computer] Final fourth dash quarter projections.
[Narrator] People with limited sensitivity in their hands or able to use a standard keyboard and mouse. Speech input software allows them to control a computer and enter text. If the loss of sensitivity is peripheral neuropathy due to diabetes, there may be vision loss as well. In that case, speech output can be combined with speech input, using middleware to connect the two programs.
[Computer] : Pay close attention to the recognition accuracy of the system.
[Dan] Middleware allows the speech output software to work with the speech input software; it brings the two together so that the person who is speaking and listening to the computer can have a successful experience.
[Narrator] Selecting adaptive technology should be based on individual needs. For education, employment, and everything else, it's all about success.
[Michael] The advancement of technology and the use of computers in the last 10 or 15 years has just been phenomenal, especially for people with disabilities. And to see my peers, other people with disabilities, succeed well in school and careers is just a wonderful sight, and who knows what the future holds.