Surfing By Sound

Kate Reardon

The following article was originally published in the Sunday, January 26, 1997 edition of The Everett Herald. Reprinted with permission.

Man Explores Internet Without Seeing Screen

LAKE STEVENS -- The man sits quietly at a desk, swiftly moving his fingertips across a computer keyboard as words flash upon the screen.

The only sounds in the room are the click, click, click of the keys and the hum of a fast-talking voice.

Dean Martineau makes his way around the information superhighway, just like he does nearly every day.

Martineau is blind.

Although Martineau can't see the words rolling across the computer screen, he hears them with the help of the voice in the background. That voice comes from a small box sitting inconspicuously on his desk.

The box, called a speed synthesizer, works in conjunction with a screen-reader software program that translates the words on the screen into sound. The sound, a computerized voice, is transmitted through the box.

More and more blind people are surfing the Internet with the help of these synthesizers and other techniques, but Martineau says some Web sites are still inaccessible to the blind.

Three techniques make computers user-friendly for the blind and vision-impaired. The are screen enlargements; Braille output, which can cost up to $12,000; and speech output, which is what Martineau uses. The 44-year old Lake Stevens man, who works part time at Tacoma Community College as a computer consultant, has been zooming around the information highway since 1989, he said.

"It looks amazing to people if they don't know about alternative skills and don't find out there are other ways of doing things," he said. "If people are provided with an education, and learn other ways of doing things, there's nothing amazing about it."

Martineau, who was born blind, learned to type when he was 6.

But typing isn't the problem, he said. Reading and scanning what's on the screen is.

Through DOS, a text-based computer system, Martineau can access e-mail and the Internet, as well as perform telecommunications, word processing and data storage functions.

"One of the nice things about the Internet is nobody really knows who's got a disability," Martineau said.

The Internet can be a wealth of information, especially for the blind, he said.

"I can read newspapers now. I can look up things in library catalogs. I can look up encyclopedias," Martineau said. "I can look up phone numbers in phone books anywhere in the country or in the world. All the information is out there, some of which is total garbage; some of which actually has some merit."

But as technology advances, the blind are constantly trying to keep up, he said.

"We (the blind) were getting read good with DOS, but now Windows has come along," he said. Martineau is currently learning Windows.

"And I'm learning because I want to stay in the business," he said. "It's a constant catch-up situation."

Martineau also records computer-related topics on tape. He travels to Tacoma a few days out of the week and works at his home in Lake Stevens other days, he said. Martineau's business, Top Dot Enterprises, specializes in taped tutorials that teach computer usage to the blind. He is also a mediator with the Dispute Resolution Center in Snohomish County.

But blind people have limited access to Web sites highly formatted with graphics, he said.

"People need to write their Web pages in a manner that works with software," Martineau said. "Images maps are impossible for blind people to access."

Because most Web page creators want glitz and graphics, they cut off access to the blind -- people who are potential customers, he said.

"There's a very vocal, maybe not huge, but very vocal network of blind people on the Net, and they keep each other informed as to what works," Martineau said. "They tend to patronize businesses that are accessible and that make an effort; and they tend to make a bit of noise if somebody isn't. While they may not be an enormous market, they are a grateful one," he said.

Blind people want to get the information and not the cute stuff, he said.

"All these things (information) really make the Internet really worthwhile for blind people, and our big fear is that everybody is going to take off into glitz and graphics and not bother even putting information there or making it accessible," he said.

When he finds a site that is not accessible, he'll zip off an e-mail stating his concerns to the site administrator. Sometimes he'll hear back and other times he won't, he said.

"I suspect we're losing some ground because so many people are doing things that are just for Netscape or Internet Explorer and content is yielding to form and cuteness," he said. "But some victories are happening, like the fact that newspapers and magazines are out there and available."

According to Martineau, it doesn't take that much more work to make sites accessible to everyone. Creators should just be aware when designing a site, he said.

Martineau also works part time and as a volunteer for a project called DO-IT, which encourages disabled children to pursue careers in science, engineering, and math.