Originally created 01/11/00

Web surfing now possible for the blind



WASHINGTON -- Charlie Crawford's computer access to the Internet helps him complete a couple of months' work in a couple of days.

That would not be so unusual in today's high-tech environment, but Crawford has been blind for 30 years.

He is among 10,000 to 15,000 blind Americans who can read most of what appears on the Internet using special software that takes electronic signals that put print on a computer screen, and converts them to signals that produce Braille, the system of raised dots for reading by touch.

"I used to go into a music store and depend on someone else to read me the new CD titles," said Crawford, who is executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "That gave me maybe five or 10 titles to choose from. Now I can get them all by myself. It makes the difference between a vacuum of information and a plethora."

"I don't need a car, so I can buy computer equipment," said Judith Dixon, a Library of Congress official who deals with users of Braille and has herself been blind since birth.

Studies have found that fewer than half of all Americans have access to computers, but more than three-quarters of the disabled do, Crawford said.

"When a sighted person goes to the dentist or up in a plane, there's something to read there. The blind have to carry their reading material around, and if you can do that on a laptop ...," Ms. Dixon said, pondering the possibilities.

An embosser, costing $3,000 and up, impresses the six-dot patterns of the Braille system onto a sheet of paper. Each set of six dots represents a letter or a punctuation mark that the blind reader recognizes with his or her fingertips. The embosser attaches to the computer, just as a printer does.

Another device, a display system costing $5,000 or more, produces Braille patterns using tiny metal pins. It's a small metal box that also attaches to the computer terminal.

"Mine fits under the keyboard -- just for convenience," Ms. Dixon explained in a recent interview. "It's attached to the terminal, not to the keyboard."

The metal pins emerge only about one-fifth of an inch from the flat top of the metal box, forming the six-dot patterns that the reader touches. The pins form the patterns for 40 or 80 letters at a time -- about five to 15 words that move like a news crawl on television.

"But they only move when I make them," Ms. Dixon noted.

The reader of a Braille display system can follow the text but does not get a permanent record.

There are some problems. The increase of interest among the blind in using the Internet was underlined in November by a lawsuit filed against America Online Inc., the nation's largest Internet provider, by the National Federation of the Blind. Curtis Chong, the federation's director of technology, said the software needed to use AOL doesn't work with the software required to translate computer signals into Braille.

"The lawyers are talking," Chong said.

Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman, declined comment on the legal aspects of the case but said the company is working on a special new interface for the blind to be introduced this year.

Crawford said many more blind people use the Internet with the help of software that turns computer signals into speech. Only some can use Braille easily -- perhaps as few as one in 10, he estimated. The speech software also is cheaper.

Computer designers have devised many kinds of help for the disabled. An "instant messaging" system, for example, enables the deaf to conduct rapid conversations on computer screens.

The Library of Congress has posted the texts of 2,850 books for Braille readers since August, when a reader in Vienna, Austria, called up the first book from its National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Each user must sign up and get a password because of copyright laws.

Monthly magazines also are on the way.

"We now have 526 users signed up -- some of them are libraries -- and we get in a steady trickle of about 10 new ones a day," Ms. Dixon said.

The Library of Congress began a "talking book" service for the blind in the 1930s on phonograph records, switching later to cassettes. Nearly 800,000 users have access to thousands of titles in 55 languages. International standards are being negotiated for a digital system.

By about 2005, the library hopes to have digital talking books available on a piece of plastic the size of a credit card, said Michael Moodie, head of research and development at the service for the blind and handicapped. They would be played on a machine no bigger than a small portable radio, with no moving parts.