OPENING DOORS FOR THE DISABLED
(from BYTE magazine, August 1990, #26)
Adaptive technology lets blind, deaf, and motor-disabled
personal computer users lead more productive lives
Joseph J. Lazzaro
Imagine what life would be like if you couldn't see, hear, or move around
freely. Now suppose you'd like to pursue a job or get an education. What
would you do? Explore the world of adaptive microcomputer technology.
Over the past five years, microcomputers have invaded nearly every aspect
of business and education. While the able-bodied take for granted the power
and flexibility that personal computers offer, microcomputer technology
represents an electronic bill of rights to the physically challenged,
granting them broad independence. Although I am legally blind, I have used
the microcomputer to build a career as a technical author, freelance
consultant, and director of an adaptive- technology project. But none of
this would be possible without the aid of adaptive electronic equipment.
These devices allow disabled people access to mainstream personal computers
and the educational, employment, and social opportunities they offer.
The field of adaptive computer technology extends the best hope for people
facing either sensory or physical disabilities. This technology includes
synthesized speech for the blind, telecommunications devices for the deaf,
and voice recognition and other control devices for the motor-impaired.
Most of this adaptive hardware and software is compatible with
off-the-shelf personal computers like the IBM PC, the Apple IIGS, and the
Adaptations for the Blind
Traditionally, the visually impaired have not had access to the latest
printed information because of the time it takes to transcribe printed
material into either braille or audio formats. Several microcomputer- based
technologies are changing that.
Prior to the advent of optical character recognition technology, blind
people employed human readers, braille, or talking books. Nowadays,
however, they can read printed information by using sophisticated OCR
systems that interface with most personal computers (or operate as
stand-alone devices) and output the material in speech-synthesized form.
Synthesized speech is one of the most powerful and least expensive access
devices for the blind. Numerous speech products designed with the blind
community in mind are on the market. Some are internal circuit cards, while
others come in the form of external serial- or parallel-compatible devices.
Many internal varieties can emulate a serial or parallel port, and most
cards come equipped with jumper blocks and/or DIP switches to change
interrupts if necessary.
Also available are numerous screen readers -- software packages designed to
direct all keyboard input and screen text directly to the voice
synthesizer. Current speech-synthesis products retail for between $250 and
$4000, although most high-quality products retail for under $1000. The
Apple II was one of the first computers to become popular among the blind
because of the inexpensive Textalker screen reader and Echo II synthesizer
(see "The Search For Speech," December 1984 BYTE, page A48). But the Apple
II couldn't make off-the-shelf software talk, because it couldn't run two
programs at the same time; it could use only software that had speech
ability written in. Microtalk and GW Micro offer specially written, talking
Apple application programs, as does the American Printing House for the
Blind. Most screen-reader software development is currently based on DOS
because of its popularity and the PC's ability to stack more than one
program in memory at a time. The current DOS-based screen readers work
with almost all PC-based software, except those based on pure graphics.
These screen readers are also highly programmable and can be taught to
track highlight bars, inverse video, selected screen colors, pull-down
menus and windows, blinking text, dialog boxes, and so forth.
By necessity, all screen readers are TSR programs. The normal DOS prompt
reappears after the voice is loaded, so the user can run another program on
top of the speech-access system. It is a relatively uncomplicated matter to
make popular off-the-shelf software talk with an unlimited vocabulary.
Included in this domain are most databases, programming languages, word
processors, spreadsheets, terminal emulators, CD-ROM systems, and
Henter-Joyce's Job Acquisition with Speech program is a DOS-based screen
reader that retails for $495. JAWS can drive a multitude of synthesizers
from various vendors and has sophisticated programmable features, allowing
the user to track and vocalize many different video attributes. JAWS can be
programmed to read any color on the screen and can define regions of the
screen as verbally inactive. JAWS was hailed as the most powerful screen
reader by the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, a
The Macintosh has a screen reader all its own in the form of Berkeley
Systems' OutSpoken, which can be programmed to verbalize icons, pull- down
menus and dialog boxes. OutSpoken does not require the addition of any
speech hardware, and thus it drives the built-in Macintosh speech chip
directly. The current version supports many Macintosh programs but does not
support HyperCard. Plans are in the works, however, to support this
important software package in the next version of OutSpoken.
The present state of the art of speech in the PC world excludes OS/2 and
Presentation Manager, but there are speech schemes based on OCR in the
works for these graphics-based operating systems and applications. IBM has
demonstrated an experimental version of its Screen Reader program to work
with selected portions of OS/2 and PM, but there is no commercial product
TeleSensory's Personal VERT (verbal emulation in real time) is one of the
new synthesizers. Personal VERT comes with text-to-speech screen- reading
software and a half-size PC-compatible plug-in circuit card. The system
works with most DOS-based application programs. The unit comes with a
printed manual, braille cheat sheets, and an audiocassette version of the
owner's manual. The CD-ROM has opened many doors because of its ability to
store entire reference works on a single disk rather than taking up a whole
room with braille volumes. Many of these CD-ROM systems are compatible with
adaptive technology. Talking Computer Systems (Watertown, MA) markets an
adaptive version of Microsoft Bookshelf that comes with a CD-ROM disk, a
printed manual, and an audiocassette manual as well as configuration files
for speech- access systems. With the invention of personal computers, and
adaptive devices to work with those computers, the blind now enjoy
up-to-date information and job access via either speech synthesis,
large-print processing, or braille output systems.
Adding Large-Print Capability
While speech remains a popular method for screen access, other modes of
operation are also in constant use. The two basic ways to add large print
to an existing personal computer are to connect a hardware-based
large-print processor or to load a software package that increases the size
of the video display. Hardware-based large-print systems use a special
video card, a larger monitor to increase font size, and a special joystick
or mouse to move the cursor around the screen. The software based
large-print systems provide larger letters and graphics without any
Vista is a TeleSensory hardware-based large-print processor. The system
comes with a full-size IBM-style circuit card, a mouse, and cursor-tracking
software. The software allows the user to vary the magnification, and it
can display a navigation window, showing the enlarged screen in relation to
the normal video image. Vista can also enlarge graphics. There is a version
for machines based on the Micro Channel architecture.
HFK Software produces Qwerty Large Print, a software based screen-
enlargement program compatible with the popular Hercules-style video
boards. It offers an inexpensive large-print environment for low-vision
computer users. The software is a TSR program, so you can load off-
the-shelf software on top of it. AI Squared's ZoomText is another popular
large-print software package, compatible with EGA and VGA display systems.
Electronic Braille Capabilities
Although braille is not as widely used as either speech or large print,
many blind users rely on it to access their computer systems. Braille
systems fall into two basic groups: printers and access terminals. Braille
printers are identical in concept to standard impact printers, and they
interface to most computers via either a serial or parallel port. They are
well suited for providing hard copy, but they are not designed as an access
device for operating a computer independently.
Imagine what it would be like running your computer using only your printer
and printscreen switch as an output device. This is the reason braille
access terminals were created, to provide the blind user with a movable
braille window on the world.
The braille alphabet comprises characters having a 6-dot code. The display
of a braille display terminal consists of a strip of 20 to 40 braille
cells, with six solenoids per cell. When you press a key or update the
screen, you activate one or more of the six solenoids. The system can be
programmed to track highlight bars, as well as selected video attributes.
TeleSenory's Navigator is one of the new paperless braille terminals. This
hardware and software system can interface to any DOS-based computer via
the RS-232C serial port. The Navigator comes with a DOS- based braille
screen-access program called Gateway, which allows for interaction with
With this system, users can input text by typing on a regulation keyboard
and at the same time review it on the 1-line braille display that sits in
front of the keyboard. They can also receive a signal when there is any
change (such as an error message) in any part of the screen that they are
not working on at the time. Then the program outputs the message on the
braille display. The Navigator can attach to many desktop and several
portable computer environments.
HumanWare also markets a paperless braille terminal, KeyBraille 360,
compatible with laptop and desktop DOS machines. You can connect KeyBraille
to the PC with a simple parallel interface cable.
Blazie Engineering's Braille 'n Speak is a pocket talking computer with
speech hardware and software built into the unit, and a braille keyboard.
You can upload and download text to a PC via a standard serial port. The
unit has a word processor, stopwatch, calculator, and terminal
communications in a paperback-size unit.
Computers for the Deaf
For more than 20 years, the deaf have relied on telecommunications devices
for the deaf for daily communications needs. The typical TDD linkup is very
similar to two personal computers that connect via a telephone line and a
modem. Of course, devices on both ends of the conversation must be equipped
with a TDD. If a deaf person wants to talk to a hearing person who doesn't
own a TDD, they must both use a Relay Bureau, a service responsible for
conveying incoming TDD messages by voice.
The SM85 is a product of Krown Research (Culver City, CA) and is a dual
Baudot/ASCII modem designed to work from any standard RS-232C serial port.
(Baudot code is a non-ASCII-compatible five-unit synchronous code developed
around 1880.) The SM85 can operate at line speeds of 45, 110, and 300 bps,
making it compatible with both ASCII and Baudot systems. In other words, a
single unit can function as a TDD communications system and can also
interface with more widespread BBSes and information utilities, giving the
deaf or hard-of-hearing person the best of both worlds.
The deaf do not have major problems with personal computer access, because
the use of keyboard and screen presents no great barriers. But training can
be a problem, because many computer instructors do not know American Sign
Language, and the frequent beeps and blips that emanate from the PC speaker
are obviously meaningless to the deaf. To compensate for this problem, the
deaf user can employ special software to convert the audio output into a
The Macintosh can be adjusted to assist the deaf and hard-of-hearing
through the use of the volume control in the control panel. If you set the
speaker volume to 0, the Mac will flash the menu bar instead of beeping,
making it user-friendly for those who are deaf.
MicroSystems Software's SeeBeep is a DOS-based memory resident utility that
produces a visual signal whenever the computer's speaker beeps. The
software uses only 1K byte of memory and can be adjusted to either allow
the whole screen to flash or have the word beep flash at the cursor
location. Consequently, the PC can also be user-friendly for a deaf or
Computers for the Motor-Disabled
The list of adaptive technology designed to assist the motor-disabled is
long. It includes voice-recognition devices, adaptive keyboard technology,
software macro generators, and word prediction software, as well as
point-and-shoot devices and special switches. If a person has at least one
functional, voluntary movement -- be it a finger, foot, eye blink, or
whatever -- an adaptive system can be configured to suit that individual.
One of the most useful technologies for the motor-disabled is voice
recognition, although this continues to be an expensive answer, out of the
reach of many disabled computer users short on cash. The concepts behind
voice recognition are fairly simple, but lots of sophisticated software and
hardware have been designed to accomplish the task that nondisabled people
take for granted.
The typical voice-recognition system listens to the audio spectrum, using a
standard microphone. These signals are fed into the computer as analog
input and are run through an A/D converter. This digital stream is then fed
into a sophisticated software algorithm, which compares the incoming sound
energy against each word in a RAM-resident dictionary.
Once a match is detected, the system can be programmed to perform several
different tasks. It can send text to the console as if it were typed at the
standard keyboard buffer, or it can activate other devices plugged into the
system. In this way, a voice-recognition unit can perform many different
functions, such as DOS operations, entering text into a word processor or
database, or controlling remote household or office equipment.
The Kurzweil Voice Report voice-recognition system is a product with a lot
of potential in the adaptive computing field. However, it carries a hefty
$26,100 price tag (including a personal computer). It can be purchased as a
turnkey system, or it can be plugged into most PC compatibles. Dragon
Systems (Newton, MA) also provides voice-recognition products.
If a person has some manual dexterity, a specially adapted keyboard can
sometimes make the playing field more level. Adaptive keyboards come in
many forms, from miniature keyboards suited for one-handed operation to
larger-than-normal sizes with built-in programmability. The objective
behind an adaptive keyboard is elementary: Create a keyboard so that a user
with limited typing ability can enter data into a personal computer.
Technical Aids and Systems for the Handicapped (TASH) produces a line of
adaptive keyboards. The PC Mini Keyboard is a miniature keyboard, useful
for a person to use one-handed or with a typing stick. The keyboard
measures 7.5- by 4.5-inches. The device is most useful for people with a
small range of movement but with some typing ability. It has closely spaced
membrane keys, with the space bar in the center of the keyboard. TASH's
King Keyboard is a large adaptive keyboard, measuring 23.5- by 12-inches.
It plugs into the standard PC keyboard socket.
For a person who has some typing ability but is unable to press more than
one key at a time, a sticky-key program might be the answer. You can adjust
these programs to make the Shift, Control, or Alt key a toggle. When the
Shift key is pressed, it locks into position, making the next keystroke a
shifted key. The second time the shift is pressed, it is locked down into
position, until a third strike releases it altogether.
MicroSystems Software's HandiShift is a DOS-based sticky key program that
works this way. The software can also disable the repeat function of the PC
keyboard, making typing easier for typists with spastic hand movements. The
program displays the current shift status and lets you vary the length of
time the key must be held down before the character is accepted. The use of
macros to generate long strings of information is also an inexpensive way
to allow a disabled person with limited typing ability to enter large
blocks of text.
Word prediction software is another useful tool for those with limited
typing abilities. Once the predictor is loaded, it constantly watches the
keyboard. Based on incoming keyboard input, the predictor makes guesses as
to what word you are trying to type. These guesses are based on the first
and upcoming letters and do not involve context. For example, if you type
the letter T, the predictor would offer the, that, there, they, and so
forth. You could then pick one of these words from a menu choice, or you
could type more letters to further narrow the choice of words. Predictors
are also usually smart enough to know which words you use most frequently
and will move these preferred words closer to the top of the list. Two
popular word predictors are Brown Bag Software's MindReader and
Microsystems Software's HandiWord.
Point-and-shoot devices are another important way to give motor-disabled
people access to computers. These special hardware and software
combinations display representations of the keyboard or preprogrammed menu
choices. The disabled user can employ a head-mounted pointer or mouse to
select the desired choice and then use an adapted switch to fire the mouse
button. At the user's instruction, the system can then verbalize stored
voice messages or send commands to an application program. The switches
can consist of joysticks with a fire button for someone with spastic motor
control. "Sip and puff" switches are available that can be inserted into
the user's mouth and fired by breath control.
Prentke Romich's HeadMaster is a popular point-and-shoot device that is
widely used in education and business settings. HeadMaster, which emulates
a mouse, lets the wearer direct the cursor to keys on a virtual keyboard
displayed on the monitor. A simple puff into a straw (part of the headset)
will select that particular key and type it on the screen. The system can
be used to enter data into a word processor or other application and can
expedite its performance with the optional addition of word-prediction
Easy Access, which is shipped with every Macintosh, facilitates one- finger
typing and also lets the user employ the numerical keypad as a mouse. For
someone who doesn't have the motor coordination to use a mouse or to
accomplish compound keystrokes, this program can be very useful.
The past five years have seen an unparalleled growth in adaptive technology
for the disabled. This trend can only increase over time.
The United States Congress has recently amended the standing Vocational
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in a way that requires the computer industry to
make its equipment accessible to the disabled if it wants to sell its wares
to the federal government. The new Section 508 amendment prohibits the
federal government from purchasing any microcomputer technology unless it
has the hooks to become adaptable to the physically challenged. Current
federal regulations mandating hiring of the handicapped, as well as
purchasing adaptive computer equipment, should improve this atmosphere even
Presently, graphics and graphical interface are problems for blind users.
IBM has opened the source code for OS/2 and PM, hoping its graphics-based
operating system can be made available to the blind market through the
technology of synthesized speech. IBM has gone so far as to establish a
Special Needs Center in Atlanta, Georgia, to handle issues relating to the
physically handicapped. Apple has encouraged many third-party vendors to
create adaptive hardware and software for its line of personal and business
computers. Microsoft and other companies have encouraged distribution of
documentation in electronic-disk formats to aid in the production of
braille and large print.
You might get the impression that there are no serious obstacles for the
disabled now that the so-called major players are getting into the act.
Unfortunately, that isn't so. There are still real challenges facing the
disabled computer user. These challenges include graphical interfaces that
don't talk for the blind, non-ASCII telecommunications systems that isolate
the deaf, and hyperexpensive solutions for the motor-disabled that don't
meet the needs of most of them.
Adaptive technology has brought the use of personal computers to disabled
people, for whom the combination of personal computers and adaptive
technology means a more productive life.
Joseph J. Lazzaro is the director of the Adaptive Technology Program for
the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and is a freelance technical
writer and founder of Talking Computer Systems. He can be reached on BIX
as "lazzaro." (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Braille 'n Speak: $895
3660 Mill Green Rd.
Street, MD 21154
The Sounding Board: $395
Vocal-Eyes Screen Reader: $450
Word Processor: $195
310 Racquet Dr.
Fort Wayne, IN 46825
CCTV Viewpoint: $2695
Software only: $6995
6245 King Rd.
Loomis, CA 95650
Echo PC: $250
Echo II $130
(For Apple machines)
Street Electronics Corp.
6420 Via Real
Carpinteria, CA 93013
Microsoft Bookshelf: $295
Talking Computer System
12 Riverside St., Suite 1-3
Watertown, MA 02172
HandiWord (word predictor)
English version: $295
With some foreign languages: $395
Microsystems Software, Inc.
600 Worcester Rd. Suite 4A
Framingham, MA 01701
Prentke Romich Co.
1022 Heyl Rd.
Wooster, OH 44691
Berkeley Systems, Inc.
1700 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709
Job Acquisition with Speech
7901 Fourth St. N, Suite 211
St. Petersburg, FL 33702
King Keyboard: $700
PC Mini Keyboard: $700
Technical Aid and Systems for
the Handicapped, Inc. (TASH)
70 Gibson Dr., Suite 12
Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 4C2
Reader: $8000 to $12,000
Price depends on options
Kurzweil Computer Products
185 Alban St.
Cambridge, MA 02139
Kurzweil Voice Report: $26,100
(Includes personal computer)
Kurzweil Applied Intelligence
411 Waverly Oaks Rd.
Waltham, MA 02154
Brown Bag Software
2155 South Basco Ave., Suite 114
Campbell, CA 95008
Navigator: $3995 to $11,995
(Price depends on choice of 20-, 40-,or 80-character width)
(Includes software and hardware)
P/2 Model 50 and higher: $2495
455 North Bernardo
Mountain View, CA 94043
Terminal Program: $195
Word Processor: $195
337 South Peterson Ave.
Louisville, KY 40206
Qwerty Large Print: $400 to $500
(Price depends on features)
Qwerty Word Processor: $149
HFK Software, Inc.
68 Wells Rd.
Lincoln, MA 01773
Krown Research, Inc.
10371 West Jefferson Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Voice Scribe Systems: $1200 to $9000
(Price depends on configuration)
Dragon Systems, Inc.
Chapel Bridge Park
90 Bridge St.
Newton, MA 02158
1463 Hearst Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30319
How to Choose an Adapted PC
If you're in the market for a personal computer with which you will use
adaptive equipment, you need to consider several factors. Popular computers
that can readily handle adaptive devices are the Apple IIGS, the Macintosh,
and the PC. The machine you purchase should have enough expansion slots,
memory, speed, and power to run your adaptive equipment as well as your
off-the-shelf hardware and software.
When you make your decision, remember that a computer that has adaptive
equipment installed typically dedicates one or two slots to it. If you're a
blind user, you'll take up at least one slot for your speech-synthesis card
or for the serial board that will drive an external speech device. The
three-slot, small-footprint-style computers are too limited in slot space
for a disabled computer user. And since you will undoubtedly be running
many more expansion cards than in a standard system, you should choose a
machine with a hefty power supply.
If you are purchasing an IBM PC compatible, you should choose a machine
that has 640K bytes of conventional memory, because your adaptive software
will consume some of this lower RAM for itself. Machines with expanded of
extended memory also make a lot of sense, since these features give you
more loading options for adaptive and off-the-shelf software. A computer
with a megabyte of memory is a good middle-of-the-road system. This gives
you the maximum 640K bytes allowed by DOS, while leaving you expanded or
extended memory to use for other applications.
Consider what your minimum microprocessor requirements are -- you should
start with at least a 286. If you want to add an optical-
character-recognition system to your PC (to use as a reading machine, for
instance), you'll find that your scanner either won't run on an 8088-based
machine or will run very slowly.
Top-of-the-line Mac IIs, such as the IIcx, are fine as adapted computers
but currently will not run many large-print programs. The Mac ships with
Closeview, a large-print software package that is somewhat helpful. A Mac
with slots offers future expansion (it can be opened up without violation
of the warranty).
If you are considering an Apple II, the Apple IIGS offers the most in terms
of adaptations. It is faster than the IIe and offers more to the disabled
user because of its greater memory capacity and increased speed. The Apple
IIe is an older version of the IIGS and is an inexpensive machine suitable
for performing home-based word processing, database management, and
telecommunications with adaptive equipment. The IIe is very user-friendly,
but its capabilities don't compare in scope with what can be done on a PC.
As a platform for adaptive computing, the PC has some advantages: It can
stack more than one program in memory at a time, and you can expand its
capacity with a multitude of available expansion cards. Also, most of the
current adaptive hardware and software products are aimed at the PC,
offering disabled computer purchasers greater choices and greater
The above article is copyright 1990 Mcgraw Hill.
It was downloaded from BIX.