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Computer access and visual disability: remaining barriers.

Computer Access and Visual Disability: Remaining Barriers

The microcomputer and computer access revolutions have opened new opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired to enter the labor market with independent, immediate access to information required on the job. However, the multiplicity of services needed to apply the potential of the technology have not been comprehensively developed. This paper reviews the nature of computer access for people with visual disabilities and the services needed to insure its effective application

During the past 10 years, new methods for information access have developed for people disabled by vision loss. With the advent of microcomputers made usable through synthetic speech, electronic braille and character-enlarging systems, people with visual disabilities are freed from the major information access handicap their loss imposes. This access has become increasingly important as "the information age" has unfolded. While statistics vary, it is widely agreed that information workers currently comprise the single largest and fastest growing sector (between 45 and 55 percent) of the American workforce (Cotes 1985).

Computer access systems have become more important as more categories of employment come to depend on computers for the manipulation, storage and exchange of data in the workplace. Yet, people with visual disabilities are not obtaining access to information handling jobs that available technology might enable. This phenomenon is particularly disturbing when set against the backdrop of chronic unemployment and underemployment experienced by people with visual disabilities. It is estimated that a rate of between 65 and 70 percent chronic unemployment exists among people of working age who are severely visually disabled (Kirchner and Peterson 1978). The mass introduction of computers into the workplace provides a potential boon to well-prepared job seekers. But, as the workworld changes, job retention has also frequently become linked to the individual's ability to adapt to the computer as a principal tool used on the job. At the STORER Computer Access Center, a leading evaluation, training and engineering support center for computer access for people with visual disabilities, most clients require services to assist them in maintaining their employment through computer access.

The solution to the "macro" problem is not principally technological; computer access technology by itself is usually not enough. A range of services are required for most people to successfully become access technology/computer users. There is a continuum of services required for successful integration of access technology in the workplace.

These services include the job evaluation process, the evaluation and access technology selection processes, training, engineering services interfacing the device into the computer environment, and ongoing support to maintain the access system.


The evaluation process is accomplished through a detailed analysis of the requirements of the job setting and with the client's involvement. If the placement has been identified, an assistive device specialist, rehabilitation engineer or applications technician should review the technical nature of the computer environment and develop the parameters for the system to successfully interface into the employment site. This analysis may suggest systems that will or will not work based on these technical specifications. The end user should undergo a thorough assessment concerning such skills as keyboarding, spelling, abstract reasoning, problem solving, memorizing, and ability to work alone. This process can be enlightening for the naive person who does not understand the nature of work involving computers; also it can be fruitful for the counselor seeking some objective measures of the client's likelihood of success. A program of remediation can follow to address deficit areas. When job retention is the goal, the responsibility of the computer access center is naturally to provide services to help the client maintain employment. In such cases, the evaluation phase will focus on the optimum access system for the client's application. Selection of the optimum modality for the client (i.e., braille output vs. synthetic speech output or enlarged character display vs. speech output) should be based on speed and ease of use, accuracy, hearing as a factor with various grades of synthetic speech, and, most importantly, individual preference. People with partial sight require assessment for response to varying contrasts, image quality size requirements, and fatigue as a factor in use of low vision.

The person with low vision should first be evaluated for "low tech" solutions which involve optical systems or filtering of the video display image. However, handheld magnifiers are never recommended due to the necessity for "hands free viewing" as well as the potential problems which may arise from prolonged viewing of the computer screen at close viewing distances. If focusing telescopic lenses will enable the candidate to view the computer screen successfully and efficiently, then an optimum, flexible and multipurpose solution has been found without having to interact with the electronics of the job station. A magnifying screen placed on or in front of the computer monitor may be all the magnification required for some low vision computer users. Perhaps an enlarged monitor will be required to provide adequate magnification for the potential user to view the screen comfortably. If so, there will be no loss of any aspect of normal system use. However, even such a seemingly simple solution as attaching a larger monitor may be a complex and vexing technical matter requiring the involvement of a skilled technician. If a person is photophobic (light sensitive), light filtering lenses, such as Corning CPF or Younger PLS filters, which block the ultra violet and visible blue portion of the light spectrum may be very useful. Such specialized light filtering lenses will naturally provide enhanced visual efficiency and visual comfort for noncomputer related tasks. More simple terminal filtering systems, such as theatrical "gels" of various colors placed over the computer monitor, may also provide helpful reduction of glare or enhancement of the visual image. The general lighting of the worksite should be studied to ensure optimum lighting of all visual tasks specific to the nature of the visual functioning of the client.

With some people, combined systems which offer speech and enlarged characters or electronic braille with synthetic speech might be selected. Such dual modality output provides speech review for reading quickly through long passages, while also providing braille or enlarged character output for the careful review of data.

Following the critical assessment phase of the evaluation process, important data will have been gained.


A critical stage of the access technology cycle is the review and selection of available alternatives. In the general computer market, showrooms abound in which the shopper can compare systems and make choices with the support of a variety of publications devoted to system analysis and comparison. But choices made among computer access alternatives are more complex than those concerning standard computer systems. The field has many options, ranging from complete computer systems and peripheral devices, such as a braille embossers, to integrated hardware systems and software. The selection process is complicated by the needs of the user, the preferred mode of access and the compatibility of the systems; hence, the need for a technical specialist's involvement.

The rehabilitation and computer access fields are sadly lacking in resources for this critical step. Published evaluations of similar devices are available, but these become dated very quickly. There are a few comprehensive computer access centers which offer orientation to the alternatives for computer access, and there are vast regions of the country beyond the service range of such resource centers. Further, no center can afford to have "one of everything," or can maintain staff skill levels concerning all devices in the face of rapid technological change. Review of the many alternatives for computer access may be made simpler by considering some broad categories of types of systems.

Enlarged characters can be achieved through optical systems such as headborne telescopic lenses, full-screen magnifying lenses (capable of roughly two power magnification), software, integrated hardware, and custom computer systems/terminals.

There is only one electronic magnification system, VISTA from Telesensory Systems, Inc., which provides access to graphics for IBM compatible computers, increasingly important for many computer applications. Braille and speech systems cannot access graphics; however, this type of access is improving and currently some systems can access graphic character sets used to highlight or enhance screen displays.

Electronic braille provides two major categories of options for the braille user. Electromechanical braille displays offer refreshable viewing "windows" which present 20 or more cells of electromechanical braille characters. One can navigate around the computer screen reading with this transient, character-for-character braille display. The alternative is to print the data on screen or in file via a braille embossing printer. This method provides the user with a permanent hard copy of data which can be converted into Grade II or contracted braille, the braille format used for normal reading. Software translation programs or custom hardware peripherals provide this conversion.

As stated earlier, neither braille nor speech systems for IBM compatible computers can presently access graphics material. Synthetic speech is provided through a screen review program which, comparable to refreshable braille displays, enables the listener to use speech synthesizers to access electronic data. These programs give the user the same flexibility the sighted user automatically applies to skim, stop, re-read, check spelling, and quickly scan columns or other formatted screens.

The quality of synthetic speech itself should not be confused with its usefulness. Naturalness and intelligibility are distinct characteristics and people with normal hearing can quickly become acclimated to less natural sounding, and less expensive, speech synthesizers.

Factors which may be useful when assessing seemingly comparable devices are:

* the number of keystrokes required to accomplish the same task;

* the company's ability to provide adequate training materials;

* support after purchase; and

* service which will affect the true viability and cost of the product over time.

If a decision is being made without serious consideration of the alternatives in a computer access center, an exploration process using national resources should be undertaken. Examples include the National Technology Center of the American Foundation for the Blind, which provides a human data base of users through the Careers and Technology Information Bank and the Job Accommodations Network (JAN) of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, both of which are resources for consumers, employers and rehabilitation professionals providing optimum methods of modifying worksites.

Training is a necessary requirement for most employment-related computer applications. The training process is usually not a single system matter. For example, if a person is being prepared to work in a job which requires use of an IBM 3278 terminal workstation, the employee would probably require training on an IBM personal computer or compatible, the selected access system, a 3278 terminal emulator, and whatever software is being used for the application performed by the employee. Thus, the person would need to learn a variety of levels of system operation in order to perform job functions successfully.

Training centers staffed by competent, appropriately trained people are woefully few, but, hopefully, programs developed under the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act will alleviate this shortage. Even the best training, however, should be viewed as an orientation which leads the student into a longer path of self-study and system mastery. Therefore, the training cycle should be seen as a time for thorough notetaking, learning to use the reference material provided by the various manufacturers, and gaining the confidence necessary to "jump right in" as a user of what might otherwise be seen as an intimidating and overwhelming system. The comprehensive integration of the multi-leveled computer system is accomplished after considerable practice and by learning through doing.

Engineering and Support Services

As mentioned above, the technical aspects of successfully integrating custom workstations into computer environments requires a high degree of expertise, with the involvement of an assistive device specialist or skilled technician. Such services may be available from the manufacturer or developer of the custom system, from a rehabilitation engineer employed by a state department of rehabilitation, from a private contractor, or through a private agency offering computer access services. The earlier in the process that the "access manager" (i.e., rehabilitation counselor, college placement officer, jobsite supervisor) brings the client onto the team, the better. One primary service, as mentioned earlier, is the analysis of the new or redefined computer operator position of the candidate who is visually disabled. This process requires a review of the computer environment. Technical factors, including historical precedents, the nature of the computer environment itself, the degree of onsite technical support, the type of access possible, and even funding and administrative hurdles must be considered prior to device selection and interface planning.

At this time, appropriate questions include: Has this type of interface been done before? Is there documentation available from the access manufacturer or other source? If so, has anything changed within the computer environment since the previous interface? For example, have there been internal programming or hardware updates which would change the nature of the technical requirements?

The nature of the computer environment must be considered by deciding which alternative would make the most economical, technical and functional sense. Will a dedicated line to the computer be used or access through a modem be more practical? Will the employee interconnect to a mainframe system or local area network, or will a stand-alone system be used? Can any changes be foreseen in the computer environment?

Varying work environments have differing levels of onsite technical support. A technical expert for the worksite's computer system should be identified. This technical liaison will be the primary link with the assistive device specialist in assessing and developing the actual device interface. Onsite installation support may well be required to establish "online" operation. In addition, ongoing support should be planned for troubleshooting problems that might arise and informing the access manager about changes in the computer system that might impact the custom workstation user.

Part of the realities of computer access are also the inevitable limitations of most funding sources. Selected access systems, peripherals or off-the-shelf computers can vary widely in cost, and third-party payers understandably must be convinced about the cost effectiveness of the system selected.

Occasionally, the computer access user who relies on his or her system for job performance is faced by the dilemma of "down time," when the access system is being repaired or serviced. Rental of comparable systems is typically not an option, although a few manufacturers do provide a rental service during repairs. However, there is a great need for such services and very few private and public programs rent equipment for short-term use. The STORER Center operates a rental program for over 50 devices, a critical and important service for clients who need devices until new or repaired systems can be delivered.

Print Access. A few noncomputer access considerations may likewise be germane to many computer environments. In almost every situation, the employee will require access to at least some printed materials. This may be accomplished through the use of readers, an Optacon, a closed-circuit television reading system, optical aids, or an electronic optical character recognition system (provided the needed material is "machine readable"). The more integrated the systems can be, the more funcational (i.e., reading camera and computer screen sharing one display or optical character recognition system interfaced to the computer). Certainly, the work area should be well-organized so the employee may comfortably access the keyboard, reading system, telephone, or other required tools. Basic requirements also dictate that the heights of chairs and tables be considered for ease of keyboard access and optimum viewing of monitors and print data.


Due to space constraints, the complex matter of funding will not be covered herein; however, for a variety of creative funding alternatives, the reader is directed to the following publications: Financing Adaptive Technology: A Guide to Resources and Strategies for Blind and Visually Impaired Users, written by Steven Mendelsohn and published by Smiling Interface, New York, New York; and Assistive Financing for Assistive Devices: Loan Guarantees for Purchase of Products by Persons with Disabilities, Revolving Loan Funds: Expanding Equipment Credit Financing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, written by Kenneth G. Reeb, and other finance related publications of the Electronic Industries Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Cost in and of itself is not a single dimensional factor. Rather, cost should be considered as one of a matrix of interrelated factors. Some seemingly low cost solutions require scrutiny to assess the true cost benefit. That is, operations which may be possible with a "low end" solution may be cumbersome or hard to memorize due to their complexity and, therefore, may present factors of inefficiency for the user. Other systems within the same cost category, on the other hand, are quite "elegant," and present no such problems.


There is no question that, while the demand for computer access services of the type described herein is growing, the field of rehabilitation has not kept pace with the changes the computer revolution has wrought upon the workplace.

The future presents even greater challenges. While Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act legislates access to office equipment purchased by the Federal Government, the largest customer for computer systems, there are still unsolved technical hurdles to converting graphics and bit mapped screens into accessible modalities other than enlarged characters. Rehabilitation professionals often fear computers, due, perhaps, to their own lack of understanding. The funding levels under the new Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act do not seem adequate to fully address the tremendous need, particularly for low incidence groups such as people with visual disabilities. A momentous challenge presents itself if the promise of access technology is to be realized. Private and public agencies must commit their resources to the establishment of new programs offering the type of services demanded by the evolution of "the information age." Administrators and special education teachers must demand that their programs enable visually disabled students to keep pace with their sighted classmates concerning the use of computers in education and through enhanced career exploration efforts. Vocational counselors, placement specialists and career guidance personnel must acquire a working knowledge of the capabilities of this evolving technology and resultant new career paths. Program managers must envision new professional teams with members drawn from the technical community. While many of us chose careers in human services because we wanted to work with people and did not feel comfortable with technological matters, our entire society is being thrust into a new "mode," to borrow a term from "computereze." Professional training programs which prepare specialists for work in this field and which maintain their skills through inservice training must incorporate serious course work concerning computer access. All professionals need to accept the personal responsibility for ongoing learning concerning computers and access. Skilled specialists are needed to provide direct services in all categories described herein. The penalty for our not keeping pace with the dramatic changes currently sweeping the contemporary workworld will be experienced by the person with a visual impairment who finds opportunities lost and doors shut due to our computer phobia or our inability to marshal the required energy to establish new programs on personal strengths. The time for action is upon us and we all have new work to do.

Computers are no longer only tools for sophisticates. The information age is changing all areas of work and relevant vocational opportunities. A revolution of unparalleled proportion presents itself. It is an exciting and demanding challenge for us all. Together, we can, and must, rise to meet this historic opportunity, for it is of particular consequence in the lives of people with visual disabilities.

Mr. Moyer is Director of Rehabilitative and Educational Services for the Cleveland Sight Center. He has spearheaded the development of the STORER Computer Access Center, a comprehensive program providing access services to consumers and providers from across the United States. His experience includes development and management of various rehabilitation and technology evaluation programs. His combined background in rehabilitation administration and access technology makes him uniquely qualified to write about this timely and critical topic.
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Author:Moyer, Jeffrey J.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Sep 22, 1989
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