Wednesday, 28 October 2009
The Straits Times (Digital Life)
Assistive technology is helping the visually impaired adopt IT in their lives
Dr Wong Meng Ee, 39, rattles off points on PowerPoint slides to his class of about 100 students taking a diploma in special education course at the National Institute of Education.
Nothing exceptional about the scene except that the well-built associate professor cannot see.
He uses Jaws – a software that makes his notebook speaks into the earphone he wears – as his "eyes" instead. The screen reader software tells him in a robotic voice what is on the screen of his notebook – like which windows are open, the words on his slides or the text on a website.
Apart from Jaws, other assistive technology aids include personal data assistants (PDAs) with built-in readers, full-sized keyboards and magnifiers.
The range has improved over the past decade and the gizmos have shrunk, making them portable.
The idea, say three visually impaired people Digital Life spoke to, is independent living.
"I depend on assistive technology entirely for my livelihood," says Meng Ee, who holds a PhD in Sociology from Cambridge University.
He has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – a hereditary degenerative eye condition – since he was 10.
He can see light – he has 5 per cent of sight left – but not much more.
On his notebook, which runs on Microsoft Vista, Meng Ee has tweaked Jaws to talk at such a machine gun pace that it is unintelligible to normal people.
A short e-mail sounds like it is read by Alvin the Chipmunk on fast forward.
The standard version of Jaws retails for US$895 (S$1,248) at freedomscientific.com.
For those who still have some degree of sight, like Walton Morais, 49, who discovered he had RP 16 years ago, a video magnifier comes to the rescue. Essentially, it is a video camera that is aimed at a book or cellphone to display a magnified image on a television screen.
Walton, who is head of journalism training for English and Malay newspapers at Singapore Press Holdings, has a Prisma device.
Looking like a sleek overhead projector without the bulky base, the video camera sits on his desk and enlarges text and images up to 52 times on a 21-inch TV.
The 1.2kg portable device is sold for 805.50 euros (S$1,686) at ashonlineshop.com
While high magnification improves legibility, a magazine will need to be moved continually under the camera from word to word.
I get one column width of text on my TV," Walton says.
This way, he manages to read five newspapers, including The Straits Times and Financial Times every work day.
He had also used the high contrast and magnifier functions in Microsoft Windows (see other story) until he switched from reading to hearing early this year for a "quantum leap" in productivity.
For computer files, he now relies on a Victor Reader Stream (US$349 or S$487 from humanware.com). The digital book reader reads text files – downloaded from his notebook to the device – aloud to him.
"I can now go through my materials four times faster," he says of his preparation before he conducts journalism classes.
Learning to 'skate'
Unlike Meng Ee and Walton, businessman Kua Cheng Hock, 54, was born blind.
However, you would not have guessed it from the way he handles e-mail and SMS messages.
The early tech adopter, who began using IT in 1984, runs Adaptive Instruments and Services, a company which supplies assistive technology products. Cheng Hock tests the products himself before he sells them.
"Sim Wong Hoo gave me my first computer – a Cubic 99," says Cheng Hock, referring to Creative's head honcho, who gave him the tool when he made a cold call to ask if a "talking computer" could help him.
"I started using e-mail in 1994 when SingTel called it Merlion," added the frequent Skype user.
Cheng Hock has been using a MacBook Pro since July which he says provides him with the assistance that he needs "out of the box".
He also runs Jaws on a virtual Windows PC on his Mac for demos.
But not all have jumped on the tech bandwagon, notes Meng Ee, who is the president of Retinitis Pigmentosa Society Singapore.
He says: "Not enough people with visual impairments are using assistive technology to enable themselves."
Cost is a factor. Apart from the iPhone, these gadgets cost at least $1,000.
The fear of the unfamiliar or change is another.
Even for a seasoned assistive technology user like Cheng Hock, getting used to a new phone can be daunting.
He switched three months ago to an iPhone 3GS from a Nokia N82. Despite the phone's built-in assistive technology, the learning curve was steep.
"It's like learning how to roller-skate," he says with a laugh.
Source: The Straits Times (Digital Life), sph