Death in the Family

I’m feeling a bit like I’ve had a death in the family.  The Sony notebook that has been my near constant companion for the past few years died a horrible death yesterday.  Even worse, I didn’t have everything backed up.

This Sony went with me to many continents, many conferences, many US cities and played DVS movies, talking books and music.  It, through JAWS read my email, lots of documents, web pages and other information of interest.  I used this laptop to buy Christmas presents for my nieces and nephews, order musical toys for myself and make many, many Skype calls to people all over the world.

A week ago, I thought things were looking bad so I backed the old laptop up to my desktop, reformatted, reinstalled and things were starting to look good again.  Alas, my hopes were short lived.  Yesterday, I turned the laptop on to call a friend over Skype.  The hard disk chunked along and then started making a ka-chug sound over and over.  I left it alone for 20 minutes or so.  When I returned, it was making the same noise.

Today, I’ll bring it to Dr. Laptop and see what they can do.  Hopefully, they can recover some of my data.

Tomorrow, Blind Confidential will return to its regular scheduled programming and will hit on another topic of interest to me and, hopefully, to other blinks as well.

Please help promote this blog.  If you’re a blind blogger, add a link and I’ll do the same.  If you are a reader, please post about this blog to other mailing lists and such.  Also, remind people to read posts before this one and Friday’s as they are not indicative of Blind Confidential’s mission.

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Screen Reader Weirdness…

This morning a friend of mine who uses JAWS called me over Skype. She told me that yesterday’s post on the failure of capitalism and competition in assistive technologies for people with vision impairments appeard twice. So, I went into the BlogSpot edit facility and tried to correct the problem.

Using JAWS, this proved to be impossible so I called my sighted wife into the room to help. When we thought we had the body of the post on the sight only once, I double checked it with JAWS. There, in the BlogSpot Preview screen, it appeared twice. So, my wife took another look and could only see the article once. This is weird.

People using JAWS can read yesterday’s post and assume it was only supposed to be there once. Sighted people needn’t worry. I’d like to hear from people using Window-Eyes, HAL, Freedom Box System Access and MSP if they could read it.

I didn’t have a specific topic for today so I’ll just rant about inconsistencies between screen readers and web sites. I believe quite strongly that all screen reader developers do their very best to make the Internet as usable as possible. Freedom Scientific hits the W3C/WAI guidelines more closely than anyone else (see the article on their web site authored by an independent web accessibility expert and presented at CSUN for details) but Window-Eyes, FB and MSP do a great job as well. I cannot comment on HAL or its pocket sibling as I haven’t tried either. I am most familiar with JAWS so it’s the one I use the most. The Freedom Box implementation does have some very nice aspects to it as it seems to be the most intelligent in choosing where on the page the user wants to begin reading.

Web developers, though, seem increasing less interested in accessibility. I find many sites that were once very accessible deteriorating to somewhat accessible as additions and modifications often ignore the guidelines. I feel like I’ve been fighting the web accessibility battle for so long and watching the overall accessibility decrease lately makes me both sad and angry.

The various methods used to fill out forms on the web vary from one screen reader to another and often behave strangely. JAWS, for one, always seems to get very slow when in its forms mode. I can’t speak to the other products as I haven’t tested them enough.

I will post more about screen readers and web accessibility in the future.

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When Capitalism Fails

The basics of free market capitalism as proposed by luminaries like Adam Smith in his seminal work, “Wealth of Nations,” Max Weber in his study of the system, “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Growth of Capitalism” and in what still stands as the greatest critique of the system, “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels all depend upon some basic fundamentals. Competition, according to the theory, will improve quality, increase innovation and, ultimately weed out poor products. Supply and demand will set prices for products and, supposedly, the best product at the best price will win in the long run.

With the advent of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt and the economic visionaries of his day saw that the theory needed some tweaking. Companies that became more efficient were able to eclipse smaller operations, acquire them and, through practices like predatory pricing, could steal their markets. Thus, the notion of a free market that would benefit the consumer disappeared into a market where a few giants dominated various industries and, through anti-trust legislation, had to be pulled back and placed under control.

Throughout the twentieth century, free market capitalism has also been frequently disrupted by government intervention. Farm subsidies keep staples at consistent prices, military spending skews the price of everything from steal to chemicals to petroleum to labor. Fixed prices set by national health care systems often keep prices unnaturally high and competition for competition’s sake often works against the good of the consumer. It is these last two items that I will explore in this article as they seem to have the greatest effect on people with vision impairments.

If one performs a survey of the prices set by most Western European health insurance agencies, they will undoubtedly notice that, within a few Euros, the prices equal those charged by AT companies for Braille displays, reading machines, screen readers, magnifiers, CCTV devices and a panoply of other at products. As the majority of Braille displays and some other AT devices are purchased through these European health care systems and these national systems fix a price, what could possibly be the motivation to charge less to make the products more competitive. Certainly, no AT vendor is going to take less than offered by these government programs and the consumers who must pay out of pocket for said products are stuck with the artificially inflated prices that governments are willing to pay. If the European nations were willing to seek bids for such products, the prices would come more in line with reality.

The artificial inflation of prices for AT hardware also relaxes the motivation to innovate. If a national health system will buy the same old technology for the same amount of money, why should the AT vendors try to advance the state of the art?

When it comes to the screen reader wars, the issues become a bit more complex. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act required that all Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT) products purchased by the US Federal government be made accessible. Unfortunately, there was no definition of “accessible” added to the act but there were some guidelines published. The Access Board, for one, published a set of standards for web development which, for the most part is being followed on Federal web sites. Corporations in the corporate sector had a loophole called the VPAT and would pretty much claim that if their product worked somewhat with a screen reader that it was accessible.

A VPAT or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, is a form that any manufacturer of any E&IT product can fill out on their own to claim accessibility. There are no guidelines for how a product should be tested, at what level a product can be considered accessible or anything else that can put a impartial stamp of approval on a VPAT.

Some companies who wanted to do something to prove at least a marginal level of accessibility contacted the people at Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and likely others. First, these mainstream companies, often with billions of dollars in revenue, would ask for free products from the relatively small AT companies. If one company refused their request, they would run to another and play the AT vendors against each other.

The Assistive Technology Industry Association formed a committee to bring the AT businesses together with the mainstream companies so as to form some ground rules for making products compliant with the spirit of 508. One of the first items to which all companies agreed was that the expense of development should be paid by the billion dollar mainstream companies and not by the smaller and less flexible AT businesses.

Unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. The big businesses would approach the AT companies separately and offer all sorts of intangibles (co-marketing, publicity, etc.) and make claims like “we have more than 20,000,000 installed units of our product and a small company like yours can leverage that…” Of course, as the software was not yet accessible, zero of these millions of users were also customers of an AT company and the likelihood of many blind people getting Federal jobs that require this specific software was low and would represent few screen reader sales. So, in order to maintain their huge Federal contracts by coming into compliance with Section 508, enormous software companies would try to muscle the relatively tiny AT businesses into doing all of the work and receiving little or no benefit.

If the AT vendors stuck together as agreed in the AT/IT committee, the onus would have fallen on the big software manufacturers and the AT companies would have been paid consulting dollars to make changes to the screen readers and the big software developers would have had to modify their products to make them comply with the standards that screen readers rely upon to deliver information to their users.

So, what went wrong? The screen reader companies, especially those with market shares smaller than JAWS, would take on projects from big mainstream companies simply for the prestige of claiming that their product worked with some major third party application. Typically, upon close inspection, few features of the products with which they claimed compatibility actually worked. Certainly, a screen reader could do something with the mainstream product but rarely enough to actually use it in a job site. The AT company would boast in their release notes that they worked with product X and their competitors would then have to fall in line and provide some level of support as well for competitive reasons. The reality is that, in almost all of these cases (products like Flash and PeopleSoft come to mind) the users are left with a half assed solution that their boss claims is accessible because the vendor’s VPAT says it works with one or more screen readers. Sadly, the poor blink with the job, saddled with the inaccessible software, may get fired because of the inaccurate claims by mainstream and AT vendors alike.

This is clearly an example of how competition hurts the consumer. The competition is not addressed at the consumer but, instead, at some nameless, faceless bureaucrat who makes decisions based upon things like a VPAT without regard to quality.

A Few Exceptions

For the most part, mainstream companies do as little as possible to become accessible. A few companies, though, stand out as leaders in the field and are tremendously cooperative with AT companies and seem motivated to do the right thing. These companies deserve acclaim and the continued business of blind consumers.

To start with, IBM has been on the forefront of making the work they do accessible. Most recently, IBM employee and old buddy, Aaron Leventhal did a terrific job making FireFox accessible. The ATG at Microsoft, under the leadership of Madelyn Bryant McIntyre and more recently Rob Sinclair, have done a great job of helping AT companies work through problems and by evangelizing accessibility throughout the company. Adobe, under the leadership of Loretta Reed is amazing and is definitely the shining light in the e-book business. Oracle, Sun and AOL also do a pretty good job and fairly recently, Citrix joined the good guy club.

I hope that MacroMedia, who always claimed that the myriad Flash authors were responsible for accessibility, will change their tune now that they are owned by Adobe. I hope that one of the GNU/Linux vendors does something other than claim that volunteers are responsible for accessibility and start funding some projects. Finally, I hope the 508 coordinators start truly testing mainstream products for accessibility so the entire E&IT communities will make a sincere effort to move toward a universally accessible world.

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Who Has the Power?

I have never felt too strongly about political correctness or the language of disability. I don’t find anything wrong with “blind person” as a label. I am, after all, a person and I am blind. I do, however, find the language of empowerment important and will devote today’s blog entry to the language of blindness and of empowerment.

I started thinking about this subject while working on a grant proposal I need to submit soon. One part of the proposal required that I make up a table of notetakers and PDA solutions that can be used by people with vision impairments. Thus, I spent some time reading the web sites offered by Dolphin, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and Humanware. Linguistically, I found the FS site far less offensive than the others. This is due in large part to Ted Henter’s legacy but I wonder why the concept of who possesses the power hasn’t spread throughout the industry.

If one reviews the Freedom Scientific web site and compares it to the others, one major linguistic difference jumps out. FS always says that they will sell a blind person a product which the customer can then use to do their job, access computers, enjoy the Internet or do whatever it is that the consumer wants to do. FS, therefore, does not claim that they are doing their customers some kind of favor by selling them some software or device. I commend this approach as it puts the power into my hands and not that of the manufacturer.

JAWS, Window-Eyes and HAL are all tools. If we take a metaphoric look at a different kind of tool manufacture red and sold by a mainstream company, we will see how silly the language used by most AT vendors actually sounds.

Let’s use a chainsaw from Sears as our example tool. Could you imagine an advertisement claiming that Sears “enables” a person to cut down a tree? Would Sears ever suggest that Craftsman tools “empower” you to perform your yard work? Would they even go as far as saying that their chainsaw “helps” you do your job?

Why, then, do most AT companies use phrases like, “Our product enables its users to read web pages?” Or, “We empower users with the most easy to use…?” Why do these companies believe that they should be so condescending to us blinks? They do not “enable” me nor do their products “empower” me to do anything.

Products from AT companies, just like chainsaws from Sears, serve as tools for their users. If I buy a copy of JAWS and never learn to use it, I have spent $900 and am not “enabled” or “empowered” to do anything. If I buy a BrailleNote and leave it in my study to collect dust, I have less money and no more power. This is true for the chainsaw as well, if I buy one and leave it in the shed, Sears will happily collect the money from my credit card and my trees will remain untrimmed.

On the other hand, if I buy Window-Eyes and learn all of its cool features, browse the Internet, learn to use the MS Office applications and apply my new skills to find a job or get an education, I will be using the tool to empower myself. If I use a PAC Mate with a wireless modem to get the train schedule before I go out in inclement weather, I am helping myself by using the tool that FS sold me.

So, to all of the AT companies who believe they are helping, enabling or empowering their customers, please take a look at your own egos and ask whether you are doing someone’s job or providing a tool with which they can do it themselves? Once you have answered this question, go back and change the language on your web site.

RSS Subscription Update

If someone can send me instructions as to how to turn on the footer in a BlogSpot Template, I will put the link to the RSS feed there and it will show up at the bottom of each post. I don’t know HTML well enough to figure out how to do it myself. If it was C code, I’d be fine. I guess I’m turning into a dinosaur.

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Ted Henter to Receive Human Factors Award

Ted Henter will be presented with the prestigious 2006 CHI Social Impact Award at the CHI 2006 conference ( in Montreal this April. SIG CHI is the special interest group within the ACM that focuses on human factors in computing.

I’ve known Ted for a lot of years so I will use this space today to embarrass him a little. No, I’m not going to reveal any deep dark secrets nor tell stories of his wild years as a motorcycle racer but, rather, I will focus on Ted’s achievements in building products that we blinks can use to do our jobs, go to schools and better enjoy our lives. As Ted is one of the most humble people I know, this sort of praise will likely make him blush.

When Ted Henter first started Henter-Joyce other screen readers already existed. Thus JAWS did not become the first entry in what is now possibly the most important category of assistive technologies available to blind people. JAWS was not always number one in sales or market share. For years, JAWS sales lagged behind GW Micro and, possibly Arctic as well. [Editor’s Note: It is very difficult to get accurate market data from the MS-DOS period of screen reader sales. I am working purely from anecdotal evidence. It is, however, largely agreed that GW Micro led the market with Vocal-Eyes.] So, how did JAWS move from second or even third place to the overwhelmingly dominant position it holds today?

My answer to this question is simple, Ted Henter made JAWS the best product on the market and, over time, it eclipsed all of its competitors. Ted did this by taking nearly every dollar that came into HJ and reinvested it back into the business. He spent the money hiring top flight programmers like Glen Gordon, one of the finest minds I’ve met in 27 years of professional software development. He hired Jerry Bowman, an outstanding General Manager who brought the 12 person company to the powerhouse it was on the day it merged to form Freedom Scientific. Ted also hired the infinitely optimistic, incredibly hard working and tremendously energetic Eric Damery to handle sales, marketing and evangelism. Together, this team with its combination of intelligence, very hard work and a willingness to take major risks, brought JAWS to the top.

Possibly more than any leader of an AT company in the history of the industry, Ted embodied the ideals of having blind people build and test products that blind people will use. As president of Henter-Joyce, Ted could also boast that over 40% of the staff were users of HJ products. Other AT companies will sometimes boast of having a staff that is 40% blind but that is pretty easy when a company only has ten people. HJ had some individual departments which had more blind people than entire companies had staff. Ted advocated for blind people in the workplace and proved it by staffing his own company with as many blinks as were qualified for the jobs.

Ted has always been the top JAWS beta tester. His fame and elevated position in the company never stopped Ted from rolling up his sleeves and banging on new releases of the software. He would personally ensure the quality of the product before he would let it out the door.

Over the years, Ted has received many other awards. Perhaps the most impressive came in 1999 when JAWS was added to the permanent collection at the Smithsonian as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. In my mind, Ted has few peers in the history of technology for blind people. In my personal Blind Hall of Fame, I would, of course have Ted Henter as well as Louis Braille, Jim Fructerman (who invented the first scan and read product for use by blind people as his senior project at Cal Tech), Ben Weiss (the man who made ZoomText, the most popular and usable product for low vision people) and Ray Kurzweil, who didn’t actually invent much but did a tremendous amount to promote assistive technology for blind people in a manner that the more humble types I have mentioned might not have been able to have done. I’m sure there are others out there, maybe Blazie, or the person who first invented refreshable Braille, Braille embossers and such and others whom I am unaware of. If you, my readers, have any ideas, maybe we can start a BLV technology Hall of Fame web page. We can include those above and some others as charter inductees and add more over time.

With that said, please join me in congratulating Ted on this latest award and in celebrating his entire career. If he hadn’t been pushing the state of the art forward, no screen reader would have reached the levels at which they are today.


Last week, in my ATIA report, I neglected to mention the release of the EasyLink 12 from Optilec. This product combines a Blue Tooth Braille keyboard with a small (12 cell) Braille display in a very portable package. I don’t know the price of this device but it can probably be purchased as a bundle that also includes Pocket HAL and a PDA. For more information, go to the Optilec web site at:


I’ve received complaints from more than one continent that the link to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog is too hard to find. As I write and edit Blind Confidential using JAWS, I didn’t actually know where the link showed up on the page and, because I write these posts, I rarely check out the format of the web page. BlogSpot tells me that those links are on the side of the page. When JAWS forms its virtual buffer, they get put at the bottom. Blog Spot templates must be edited in raw HTML, a mark-up language with which I have some familiarity from the standards point of view but haven’t really done much more than the minimum with before. So, I will try to move those links up, if I can’t figure it out, I’ll get help and they will move soon.

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ATIA 2006: Boring…

Well folks, I’ve decided to hold off my Hunter Thompson tribute for a future Blind Confidential entry. ATIA 2006 disappoints so heavily with its lack of new announcements and virtually anything exciting. The weirdness of a Disney resort where even the hotel soap is shaped like that psychopathic mouse notwithstanding, ATIA 2006 bores one to tears.

A few exceptions to the same old, same old stand out. Code Factory has brought its Mobile Speak Pocket to its first major US conference since its release last September. This product truly impresses, it runs on virtually all Windows Mobile 2003 and Windows Mobile 5 mainstream PDA devices. One can buy a kicking Dell Axim, with a processor in excess of 600 mhz for around $350 and add MSP for less than $500. This gives you a talking PDA with Wi Fi, Blue tooth, lots of memory and multiple input methods for under $1000. For an extra $65-100 you can add a Blue Tooth keyboard for long notetaking sessions. MSP introduces the first ever touch screen interface for blind users and, quite impressively, it works amazingly well. If you want a new notetaker solution, BC suggests you check out the solution from Code Factory.

Dolphin has its Pocket HAL screen reader for mainstream PDA devices on display. It differs from MSP in a number of ways. Pocket Hal provides output to Blue Tooth Braille displays, a feature Code Factory promises “soon” and Pocket HAL requires an external keyboard as its only input method. The biggest criticism of the Dolphin entry is that it lists a handful of specific PDA units (all from HP) on which it can be run. Knowing the Dolphin people, though, I’m sure they have already started working on improvements.

Both MSP and Pocket HAL can accept Braille input from the Blue Tooth Braille keyboard sold by Optilec. This device costs a lot for a keyboard but it has a terrific form factor, being both lightweight and relatively small.

I think the products from Code Factory and Dolphin demonstrate a further shift in the AT landscape. First, we blinks had Blazie notetakers, an entirely proprietary hardware and software system. Then PDI (now called Humanware) released its Windows CE based Braille/VoiceNote series of products. Although the PDI products used a mainstream operating system, the user community would soon learn that they did not have access to third party software and most peripherals. Then Freedom Scientific made history when it introduced PAC Mate, the first hybrid product that would marry mainstream PDA technology with a form factor designed by and for people with vision impairments. PAC Mate users could attach most third party peripherals, plug in all sorts of expansion cards and run lots of third party software. The JAWS scripting language added power and flexibility to those inclined to customize and make accessible applications that previously were not so.

Now, Code Factory and Dolphin have raised the bar another level. With MSP running on my HP 6515 PDA/Phone, I have a 5.7 ounce device sitting in my breast pocket. This device has my mobile phone (GSM 4, GPRS) built in, it runs the Wayfinder GPS system using the built in GPS receiver, it has Blue Tooth and IRDA included as well. The 6515 also comes with a thumb keyboard which I found quite usable after a few days of practice. I also purchased an external keyboard for times when I need to take a lot of notes and an 802.11 Wi Fi SDIO card for attaching to wireless networks. The 6515 is now available for around $450 from HP (after rebate), the Think Outside keyboard sells for around $80, I purchased the Wi Fi card for about $75 and MSP can be found for as little as $475 on the Internet. If one shops around, they can find a wide variety of Windows Mobile PDA units at a wide range of prices that should meet their needs and budgets.

Other New Entries

While not exactly “new” the people from Serotek, Nuance and Wayfinder boast of the combination of the Freedom Box Network, Talx and the Wayfinder GPS system running in concert on Symbian Series 60 telephones. Talking about this combination with Mike Calvo, Serotek’s CEO, is like talking to a kid in a toy store. As one of the last blind people who run an AT company with the designed by and for blind people ethic, Mike shows a level of excitement for this combination that I last saw from the guys who made PAC Mate when it first hit the market. The combination provides the user with an excellent talking GPS solution, a talking mobile phone and all of the streaming audio and other useful information available on the Freedom Box network. The price/performance ratio of this system truly impresses as one can get the phone for free with a cellular contract, Talx carries a very reasonable price tag, the Freedom Box network runs about $100 per year, a separate off-brand Blue Tooth GPS receiver is available for $60 at Wal-Mart and, perhaps most impressively, the Wayfinder service costs $85 per year and includes downloadable maps of most of North America and Western Europe. This may just be the bargain of the year.

Freedom Scientific continued its movement into the CCTV market by announcing the upcoming release of Opal, a portable magnifier for the low vision community. As my vision deteriorated, I never tried a CCTV and now that I have nothing but a little light vision, I cannot see well enough to try out the newer CCTV models and cannot, therefore, provide an honest assessment of those available today. If one of the BC readers wants to write up a review or comparison of various CCTV devices, I would be happy to post it here.

Newcomer to the AT industry, Plustek Inc. announced a new entry into the scan and read market segment earlier this week. This new entry to an ancient market provides nothing that cannot be found in OpenBook from Freedom Scientific, K1000 from KESI or a commercial OCR package with JAWS, Window-Eyes or the screen reader of your choice. Plustek does include a scanner and sells the entire package for roughly $700. A quick look at the Plustek web site did not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Imaging and OCR makes up their primary line of business and the vision impairment market seems to be an afterthought. The text on their web site sounds like a mediocre ESL student wrote it which portends poor communication skills in their technical support group (if they have one). Finally, their web site fails the W3C/Wai test and contains many unlabeled graphics and such. I believe that blind people should ignore AT businesses that will not provide the simple courtesy of making an accessible web site.

With all of that said, I will leave the ATIA topic behind but, to conclude, I recommend that BC readers check out Mobile Speak, Pocket HAL, Freedom Box with Talx and Wayfinder, the new line of CCTV products from Freedom Scientific and ignore the Plustek people entirely.

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Project Paddle Odyssey Technology Update

Project Paddle Odyssey is a not for profit based in Florida. Its objective is to design, build and deploy kayaks that can be paddled solo by a blind person. You can learn more about and hopefully make a contribution to PPO at The following is the most recent technology update about the project.

Project Paddle Odyssey started in 2003 with a few ideas of my own and a number of others added by friends of the project. In the two years hence, we have spent a lot of time and energy getting our tax exempt status, getting the web site up and running, fundraising and getting the effort coordinated. As we put the organization together, we had little time to actually work on the technology.

I’m proud to announce that the PPO Proof of Concept v.01 software has been written and tested by a pair of graduate students working under my supervision. This version works quite well on land and has never been tested on water. We can successfully have one unit running in leader mode and a second unit in follower mode. The two units communicate their locations to each other and the leader tells the follower when and where to turn.

The History of PPO Technology

When we first started, the Paddle Odyssey activists envisioned a system that would run on a laptop computer, probably running Windows XP and JAWS, a terrific screen reader from Freedom Scientific. Then, as time passed, we started to work on a design that included a PAC Mate PDA also from Freedom Scientific but we discovered that, although a PAC Mate provided us with a nice form factor, it would be extraordinarily difficult for us to waterproof the device – an essential as the goal is to use the PPO system in a pretty wet environment.

We contemplated a home grown solution but that thought lasted about five minutes before we started looking hard at the iPaq from Hewlett-Packard and the Axim from Dell. These two lines of consumer products provided us with all of the computing power we would need and had wireless networking built in. Selecting a mainstream device also gave us a big economic savings as well as the ability to take advantage of the rapid upgrades that come from HP and Dell. The latest entries from HP even have GPS built into the unit so we can eliminate another part from our list.

So, the development challenge moved from a mostly hardware integration project to one that can be done primarily in software. The Proof of Concept v.01 runs on one iPaq and one Axim and, on solid ground, provides very good tracking information.

How It Works

The idea for the current proof of concept came up in a conversation between University of Florida Professor Sumi Helal and I. The most difficult problem we had at that point was trying to create an algorithm in which the leader/follower concept could work with an arbitrary number of followers. Sumi asked why we didn’t simply set up an ad hoc network among the PDAs – a feature built into Windows Mobile. So we did.

The current leader/follower system works by setting up an ad hoc network with the individual user logging in as either a leader or follower. Once a leader has logged into the system, no others are permitted to join with this status. The leader’s PDA broadcasts its GPS coordinates across the wireless network to the followers whose PDAs calculate the line between the follower’s position and provides them with compass points to tell them which way to turn. Currently, there are a number of talking compasses available for blind people so this system will work for the audio only version of the final system.

The proof of concept sends data directly to the speech synthesizer, a technique known as self voicing. Each follower may hear different information depending upon their location relative to the leader. In principle, the follower should then be able to paddle to the leader’s position. As the leader moves, the follower’s PDA will change trajectory and tell them to make a turn or correction in their movements.

What’s Next?

The people who lead PPO (our directors, advisors and volunteers) all share a common philosophy about assistive technology. Stated simply, use as much mainstream technology as possible and only build what we cannot buy (or have donated). Thus, our first proof of concept fits the model to a point, it uses off-the-shelf PDAs and GPS mouse units but the software remains self voicing and, therefore, far more difficult to maintain than if we used a screen reader. So, the next step will include rewriting the code so it can be read off the screen by Mobile Speak Pocket (MSP), a screen reader for Windows Mobile based PDAs, written and published by Code Factory, a software development company based in Spain.

MSP provides PPO programmers with an interesting feature – it uses Lua, an off-the-shelf programming language that provides programmers with access both to the screen reader as well as the operating system. It is still quite uncertain if PPO will build its final product in Lua but, for now, it looks like it provides us with the power and flexibility we need.

Other immediate steps include making the software aware of marine charts so the system doesn’t try to lead a paddler through an island and, of course, wet testing the software to determine how well it works in its intended environment.

Open Questions

Research has brought PPO to the point described above. More research will be needed to answer questions like, Is the paddler receiving too little or too much information? Can a blind person react quickly enough in a moving kayak to compass points in order to be an effective follower? Would a stereo headset that “pointed” the paddler to the leader be more effective or, conversely, would such a headset take away too many of the ambient sounds that can also provide useful information?


Yesterday, Joe Clark, a notable web accessibility expert and my favorite Canadian curmudgeon, posted a comment that said that DVS audio can be found by playing the DVD and then striking “audio” until the DVS comes up. I use a Bose Lifestyles system at home and I don’t know if and/or where the audio button might be. So, if Mr. Clark sees this post, please add a little more description as to what hitting “audio” means.

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Random Musings

I didn’t have much time to work on a cohesive topic for today’s Blind Confidential post so I’m going to toss out questions, comments and, of course, a bit of opinion in hopes of generating comments and discussion.

My Conversation with Mike Calvo Yesterday

My good friend Mike Calvo suggested that I add an RSS feed to this blog. Now, when you come to the page, you can activate the link “Subscribe to the Blind Confidential RSS Feed” if you prefer receiving information that way.

Mike also told me that Freedom Box System Access was being featured on Main Menu last night. The Serotek guys have gone a long way with System Access in the 2.0 release and I think they will be noticed as a real force in the screen access market fairly soon. I’ve very much enjoyed the work they have done in MS Word and their Internet Explorer support rivals that in some of the more famous screen readers. Mike is a good guy and he, more than most AT CEOs today, represents the “designed by blind people for blind users.”

Descriptive Video Movies

Amazon has started stocking DVDs with audio descriptions of the video. Apparently they have been doing this for a while but I only noticed recently. The problem with having DVS on a DVD is that, if you hope to play it on a standard DVD player in your living room, you will need a sighted person to help you navigate the menus. If, however, you watch it on your PC, Microsoft Windows Media Player does a good job of exposing the menus.

Looking Forward to ATIA

I arrive in Orlando tomorrow to attend some meetings at the ATIA conference. I haven’t heard too much from the conference other than Freedom Scientific announced a new portable CCTV device called Opal.

On Friday, in honor of Hunter S. Thompson, I will post a Fear and Loathing at ATIA 2006. I will try to blend real news with my feelings of warped reality that always occur when I enter a Disney resort.

More on Turing Tests

Yesterday, Will Pearson, a friend of mine from abroad, posted a comment on Blind Confidential about security, screen readers and Turing tests. It is definitely worth a read. I plan on doing an article on AT devices and possibly compromised security at some time in the future.

Audio Representation of Visual Items

Recently I have been playing around with a web camera and the VOIC software. You can find the software and download it from its author’s web site. This is a pretty interesting way of hearing the visual aspects of the world. I will be writing about this next week after I’ve had more time to practice with it.

I have also been spending a lot of time studying how audio games, particularly those from GMA Games (, represent very complex scenarios using three dimensional sound. I think that these techniques can be brought to other areas of access technology. What do you think?

That’s all for today, with my attendance at ATIA tomorrow and Friday, I need to focus today on some more professional tasks (which are also very cool). Sorry for being a bit lame today.

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Quiet Week

The ATIA conference starts this week in Orlando, Florida. New product announcements, some very good presentations and enough marketing propaganda to choke a blind elephant will abound. Bright lights, annoying music, the sound of Eloquence speaking from booths all around while booth babes lure their prey to listen to a demo they could care less about. Yes, the assistive technology trade show season has begun and Blind Confidential will attend.

Until I get to Orlando, though, the deafening silence around the industry grows daily. Every company wants to make their big announcement at the conference so remain tight lipped until the PR machine kicks into gear. Never fear, BC will don his Gonzo disguise and travel with his attorney at his side to witness the fear and loathing at ATIA 2006.

More on Turing Tests

After posting my article yesterday, I received a number of comments from sighted people who asked the question, “if a screen reader can break its way through a Turing test, what can stop the spammers from employing the same techniques?”

My first reaction reminded them that we celebrated Martin Luther King yesterday and that a Turing test is the 21st century version of a “Whites Only” sign on a door. Barriers to accessibility discriminate against a specific class of people, just like the old Jim Crow laws did. If we view a web site as a “virtual place of public accommodation,” it follows that its owners should make reasonable accommodations.

The response I got to this argument came in the form of, “Why should everyone suffer the annoyance of spammers just to protect the rights of a fairly small minority?”

I went back to MLK but they continued to rebuke my arguments. The truth is that, by act of congress, people with disabilities comprise the only class of US citizens who do not necessarily receive equal protection under the law (a topic for further exploration in a future posting).

So, I started noodling with ways that blinks could gain access to these sites without opening the door to spammers. While I do not accept that people with vision impairments should be required to do anything special to access these web features, the pragmatist within feels that we will probably lose this battle.

Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and probably other AT companies worked closely with Adobe (one of the most cooperative of the mainstream companies) to find a solution to the problem of digital rights management (DRM) and the screen reader. Publishing companies who wanted to use the Adobe format for their e-book releases noticed the obvious fact that if a screen reader could access the information, a less honorable sort could use the same technique to pull the text out of the reader and publish it for free. The solution the screen reader companies and Adobe developed gave each AT product that needed to access this protected information a kind of digital signature that told the Adobe reader that it can trust this program because it contains the magic words that inform the reader of its purpose.

I propose that the screen reader developers get together with the W3C/WAI and start working on a digital signature scheme that will give screen reader users the same trusted status as they now enjoy in some digitally protected documents. Highly encrypted digital signatures appear all over the Internet. Paypal, MoneyBookers and other payment systems all use digital signatures. This, therefore, shouldn’t be too hard for the smart folks in the AT business, the W3C and the web site hosting community to put together.

Until these “trusted user” signatures can reach the market and web sites changed to accept them, a moratorium on this type of Turing test should start immediately. So, please sign the petition in yesterday’s post and write to web masters who discriminate against we blinks with the 21st century moral equivalent of segregated busses.

A Couple of Odds and Ends

A reader sent an email informing Blind Confidential that Apple Computer has an opening for an intern to work on its Voiceover screen reader. For the sake of promoting competition, I think that if Apple had a credible screen reader, the Macintosh might make some inroads into the population of blind users. Some people, including the person who sent me this job notice, really enjoy Voiceover . Others, however, argue that it lacks even the most basic features available in the popular Windows screen readers. In AccessWorld, Jay Leventhal really blasted the product in an article titled “Not What the Doctor Ordered” which you can read at:

I don’t have a link to the job posting and hope that our friend can post it as a comment and, perhaps, describe why she prefers Voiceover to JAWS or Window-Eyes.

Other Upcoming Events

BC will present a position paper on how interface concepts found in audio games might form the next major step forward in screen reading and other technologies for people with vision impairments. The conference takes place in April up in Montreal and you can learn more about it at

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Turing Tests on Web Sites

What is a Turing Test?

Alan Turing, one of the founders and early theorists of what we now call computer science, posed the question, “Will it ever be possible to build a computer that can be mistaken for a human being?” Since then, computer scientists, experts in artificial intelligence and robotics have tried but have not succeeded in building a machine or crafting a piece of software that, under scrutiny, would be mistaken for a human. Every year, there is a competition where a panel of experts can ask questions of a hidden person or computer. They don’t know to which they are talking and, afterward, they vote on which contestants are human and which are machines. In the history of the competition no computer has fooled the panel.

What does this have to do with vision issues?

There are many web pages that contain inaccessible graphical word verification systems, also known as CAPTCHA. These intend to distinguish between actual humans legitimately trying to use the site and bots employed by spammers that will use the site for a commercial or malicious purpose. Thus, these graphics serve as Turing tests to separate the humans from the software.

The popularity of these Turing tests increases as spammers find more ways and web sites to use for their purposes. Some very popular sites, including BlogSpot, the host of this blog, Yahoo! And many other very useful web sites have implemented these tests.

The web version of the Turing test works by presenting a graphic that contains a word or sequence of characters drawn in such a manner that OCR software would probably not decipher it properly and then requiring the user to type it into a box on the web form. In its most basic form, no blind person can use it independently as they cannot see the graphic. Some web sites, Yahoo! For one, also provide an audio sample, distorted somewhat to prevent voice recognition software from understanding it. The audio samples, though, also make it difficult for people (like me) with perfect hearing to distinguish between the characters in the sample and virtually impossible for our friends with some hearing loss to use at all.

Who should be fixing this problem?

As a web accessibility advocate, I have long argued that such problems must be fixed by the content providers. Some advocates for people with vision impairments have suggested that Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act which requires all telecommunications equipment and services to be accessible to all would actually cover web sites as they can only be accessed via telecommunications products but this topic requires more attention and I’ll hold it off for a future posting. The web site hosts, though, would counter that they must do something to keep the spammers and other undesirables away.

The next group that could solve this problem are the Screen reader vendors. Historically, the AT companies have delivered many technologies that people believed too difficult to present in a manner that a blind person can understand. For many years, programmers at Henter-Joyce, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Dolphin Systems and others have proved the skeptics wrong by presenting an increasingly more complex collection of information to users of their products.

Why, then, do the AT companies claim that solving these relatively simple Turing tests evades the current generation of very smart people who work on screen readers? Clearly, this problem falls out of the scope of the work that some of these same programmers do today. But, those still involved in making screen readers, though, claim that this problem remains impossible.

Until about a week ago, I agreed that this problem is possibly too difficult to be solved in a screen reader. Then Blind Confidential received an anonymous tip from the world of research. Apparently, a graduate student has demonstrated software that can analyze these bitmaps and convert the contents to speakable text. My source said that this software runs pretty quickly and has shown a success rate between 95-98%. Although not perfect, I will take a probability in the high nineties over the near 0% we blinks have today.

This also begs the question, why does the multi million dollar screen reader industry claim this problem impossible while a graduate student, working on a meager university stipend, can solve it? Wouldn’t such an invention bring an AT company a terrific patent and a competitive advantage over the competition? Why do screen reader companies avoid doing research to advance their craft?

I believe that, until this technology reaches blind computer users, it should be removed from the web sites that currently employ such tests. I also believe strongly that screen reader companies should take a long look at this problem and, as Richard Stallman once said, “innovate, don’t litigate!”

Please join me in signing the petition below that specifically addresses Google’s use of this technique and, hopefully, we can start making headway in this problem in web accessibility.

The petition is entitled:

“Google Word Verification Accessibility”

It is hosted on the web by, a free online petition
service, at the following URL:

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