Assess ways in which information technology can enable visually impaired students to access their studies and employment.
Research Brief 9469 - I.T. (2000 words, May 2004)
- Assess ways in which information technology can enable visually impaired students to access their studies and employment.
Independence, integration and participation are three fundamental concepts for visually impaired citizens. Independence in the sense of self-sufficiency, thereby eradicating the requirement of everyday personal assistance and support functions, integration not only in the work place but also throughout all levels of education, and (active) participation pervading all facets of society. Are these concepts, or goals, wholly achievable however? There are many ways in which these aims can be fulfilled for visually impaired citizens, but perhaps one of the most powerful means is through the use of information technology. This is particularly relevant when it comes to visually impaired students and the ways in which they access their studies (in further and higher education) and their modes of employment. This work is concerned with such ideas - firstly an overview will be presented in terms of a visually impaired citizen - what it actually means to be visually impaired, what differing levels of sight such a person can have, and what difficulties such a person could encounter when studying in further or higher education. The focus then shifts to technology and what ways information technology (hardware and software) can aid the life of a visually impaired student. Some examples of enabling software are presented and discussed; what the software can achieve and also its limitations. Finally the essay concludes with a look into the future and what it may hold for the visually impaired.
The term visually impaired encompasses a wide variety of sight problems. Many people on hearing the term think blandly of blindness, but this is not always the case. Furthermore the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), a UK body, estimates that there are approximately 2 million people in the UK with such sight problems. The main categories are as follows (and are relatively self explanatory); blind with no useful vision, blind with some useful vision, partially sighted (some sight available) and colour blindness (where people are unable to differentiate between certain colours - usually green and red. Incidentally the website of Vischeck provides excellent examples of what colour blindness is actually like). Why then is it difficult for people, or students, with such sight problems to become integrated into the education process, or working environment? Today's society (especially in developed countries) is becoming more and more an information society. Value is founded in the context of creating, sharing and using information and knowledge. To succeed in the information society, computer exposure is a fundamental necessity. Whether it is to complete an educational course or thrive in the work place, computer literacy is elementary. What some people may take for granted, for example reading information from a web page, for visually impaired people it could be a laborious, or indeed impossible, task. Indeed, with specific relation to higher or further education so many tasks or necessary undertakings are computer or Internet related; whether it is accessing electronic journals, retrieving lecture notes or writing essays. It is therefore no surprise then that students with a visual impairment could find it potentially difficult to complete, or indeed enrol in, a course of further (or higher) education.
This is a preview of the whole essay
During the 1980s when the microcomputer was all pervasive the general configuration of operating systems tended to be text-based. This was also the case during the early 1990s, with the rise in prominence of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW), when most web pages were generally only text-oriented. Most operating systems still ran on DOS (Disc Operating System) and Lynx (a text-based browser) was used to access web pages. When this was the case access to such information for visually impaired people was not too much of a problem as text can quite easily (using specialist software) be converted to synthetic speech. However, with the subsequent rise of the ’user-friendly’ web, and the growth and development of the graphic-based Windows environment, the state of affairs for the visually impaired has become much more complex. With the web being so all-encompassing in almost every aspect of life (particularly within educational structures and also throughout many features of the workplace) it is almost impossible to imagine contemporary society without it. However, although many of us take for granted ‘surfing the net’, it now can prove very problematic for the visually impaired. Consider the following issues; text (obviously if it’s too small this can be a problem but there are also matters concerning colour contrast and font), screen background (if this is textured or patterned - as many web sites now are - it can complicate matters for those with sight problems), and also links (when these are graphical or grouped together again problems can arise). Indeed there is a growing market in the area of web site design and accessibility, and many journals, books and web sites are dedicated to this topic. There is even software available (Bobby Software, created by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST)) which can determine the accessibility of any given web site, and if deemed appropriate and suitable the Bobby-approved logo can be exhibited on the site.
What then of the actual technology that is available to visually impaired citizens? What difference can it make to them? And how can it benefit their access rights to education and employment? When assessing the needs of the visually impaired in terms of access to electronic information it should be stated that requirements tend to differ from person to person. Furthermore, as advised by Jones and Tedd, any of three senses can be used - touch, sound and any remaining vision - and the technology tends to fall into these groupings. With regards to touch technology Braille ‘covers’ can be used in conjunction with a standard QWERTY keyboard, or alternatively Braille stickers can be placed on the keys of a computer. When it comes to output this can be achieved via a ’Braille display’ which presents the information from the monitor using a mechanism comprising of rows of cells, made of metal or nylon, with pins that move up and down to show Braille characters. An alternative method is to produce Braille printout through the use of a Braille embosser, however when using such a system it is necessary to make sure that compatible software is available as well as adequate memory. One downside of using such hardware for this form of output is that it does tend to cost a considerable amount of money. A Braille display, for example, can cost in the region of £10,000.
In terms of sound technology many software packages are available for the visually impaired. With regards to input, voice recognition systems can be used in which the software ’learns’ the user’s voice and how to adapt it into the required information. Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional (DNSP) is one such voice input system and is acknowledged by the RNIB. This particular package claims to perform to a 95% voice recognition standard after only a modest amount of time. In relation to output there are many screen readers on the market. According to Konicek, Hyzny and Allegra the most popular screen readers for Windows-based applications are JAWS (Job Access With Speech) and Window-Eyes. Basically, what these software packages do is to allow the (visually impaired) user to hear what is displayed on the screen, and in the case of JAWS a selection of varying voices and reading speeds is permitted. A full description of the two products (out with the scope of this work) is provided by Speir. There are however other software packages, or enabling technologies, available to be used by the visually impaired as screen readers. Two further examples are Supernova and Lunar, and these will be discussed later on in this work.
To complete the summation of the various types of technology available, there still remains sight technologies to consider. These are primarily aimed at visually impaired people who still have some form of sight remaining. Firstly in hardware terms, there are stand-alone machines (known as video magnifiers and closed circuit televisions) which can scan printed documents and then display them, often with a wide range of magnification levels and sizes. When it comes to software there are a number of packages which will enhance text size, and normally make life easier for the visually impaired user. ZoomText is one such screen magnification product which principally deals with the size and navigation of electronic text. ZoomText also allows the user to alter background colour and vary text font.
As previously mentioned, Supernova was created in the UK by Dolphin Computer Access and boasts a range of features which would seem particularly attractive to the visually impaired. Supernova is an all-in-one software package incorporating the three aspects of touch, sound and sight previously referred to. Supernova has speech output, can magnify text and can present information in Braille. Supernova claims it is easy to use regardless of ones visual impairment and it guarantees access to Windows applications, the Internet and e-mail. With regards to Lunar this comes in two variations. Firstly, there is the basic Lunar package – this is a modest screen magnification piece of software and really only performs that task. It does claim to provide clarity (text can be magnified up to 32 times larger) and high contrast colours which can be modified in accordance with personal taste. There is, however, also Lunar Plus available and this is a slightly more advanced piece of software. Lunar Plus offers the same features as Lunar but also has the added benefit of speech output. There is a choice of nine contrasting voices and output can also be heard in nine different languages.
Are these software packages however all that they make out? Do they provide all the benefits they claim? And do they really create a hassle-free environment for the visually impaired to enjoy the benefits of electronic information the way other people take for granted? The short answer is no (but also yes!) – these technologies do work, but only to a certain extent. None of them provide 100% accuracy, however having said this, the real problem perhaps lies out with the actual software. As previously stated when operating systems and the web were largely text-based there were little complications when using such enabling software, but with the introduction of graphic based platforms certain problems have arisen. With the web being so predominate in contemporary living styles it is one of the key features of an information society and is frequently used in both educational and workplace environments. However, there are still problems for visually impaired people when accessing it even with enabling technologies (as in those already described). Examples of such problems include; navigation problems – when navigation bars are ‘image maps’ then this can cause confusion even with the most advanced of screen readers; speech recognition problems – most enabling software will provide accuracy of up to 95% but this still leaves some amount of error which could be critical; and lastly; design problems – when web pages are filled with continuously scrolling text, blinking messages and pop-up screens they can be very difficult for even sophisticated enabling software to interpret, making them practically inaccessible for the visually impaired.
What then of the future and the relationship between visually impaired citizens, information technology and accessibility? As we live in an ever-growing information society, access to information and IT literacy are fundamental aspects of everyday culture. Information technology provides an exceptional opportunity to facilitate the independence, integration, and participation aspects of a visually impaired person’s life. Enabling software such as voice recognition and speech synthesis will continue to grow in quality, and as it becomes more mainstream will come down in price, thus bringing down more barriers for the visually impaired. However, there are still issues concerning web site design and it is crucial (visually impaired) end users are involved in the construction process. It is hoped that this could and certainly should be the case, and the underlying (future IT) trends will be of integration and not alienation.
- Axtell, Robert and Dixon, Judith M., ‘Voyager 2000: a review of accessibility for persons with visual disabilities’, Library Hi Tech, 20 (2) (2002), pp 141-147.
- Jones, Allison and Tedd, Lucy A., ‘Provision of electronic information services for the visually impaired: an overview with case studies from three institutions within the University of Wales’, Journal of Librarianship And Information Science , 35 (2)
(June 2003), pp 105-113.
- Konicek, Kathy, Hyzny, Joy and Allegra, Richard, ‘Electronic reserves: the promise and challenge to increase accessibility’, Library Hi Tech, 21 (1) (2003), pp 102-108.
- Lewis, Valerie and Klauber, Julie, ‘[Image] [Image] [Image] [Link] [Link] [Link]: inaccessible Web design from the perspective of a blind librarian’, Library Hi tech, 20 (2) (2002), pp 137-140.
- Royal National Institute for the Blind, ‘Press Center Statistics’, (6 February 2004), <http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/publicwebsite/public_presscentrestatistics.hcsp>, [accessed 3 April 2004]
- Speir, Michelle, ‘Screen readers open Windows for the blind’, (7 August 2000), <http://www.fcw.com/fcw/articles/2000/0807/cov-access3-08-07-00.asp>,
[accessed 3 April 2004]
- Vischeck, ‘About Vischeck’, (2 May 2002), <http://www.vischeck.com/vischeck/>,
[accessed 3 April 2004]
1 RNIB, www.rnib.org.uk
2 Vischeck, www.vischeck.com
3 Lewis & Klauber, ’[Image] [Image] [Image] [Link] [Link] [Link]: inaccessible Web design from the perspective of a blind librarian’, p. 138
4 Jones & Tedd, ‘Provision of electronic information services for the visually impaired: an overview with case studies from three institutions within the University of Wales’, p. 108
5 ibid., p107
6 Konicek, Hyzny and Allegra, ‘Electronic reserves: the promise and challenge to increase accessibility’,
7 Speir, ‘Screen readers open Windows for the blind’