The Quest for Access to Science by People with Print Impairments
by John A. Gardner
"I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night". Milton's dream of his dead wife was put onto paper by the poet's daughters. Their devotion allowed Milton to create some of our most beloved poetry after he became blind. When my own days suddenly became night in 1988, my old computer, new screen reader, and new voice synthesizer were the "daughters" that permitted me to continue my intellectual life.
At that time the computer could give me access only to words. Words may suffice for a poet, but not for a scientist. I needed to read, write, and manipulate math. I needed to understand the graphs and diagrams of scientific texts and professional articles in order to continue my teaching and research.
I learned to read braille haltingly but quickly realized that braille is hopelessly inadequate as a medium of modern written communication. This led me to develop DotsPlus, an extension of braille that is actually a tactile font with distinguishable characters for more or less anything that can be put on a computer screen.
A wax-jet printer specially modified to pile up thick wax images permitted one simply to change fonts to DotsPlus and then print scientific documents in a form useful to blind people. Math equations, graphs, and line and block graphics became accessible without special incantations by experts in transforming technical materials for use by the blind.
The National Science Foundation encouraged me to continue research into DotsPlus and other innovative methods for access to scientific information and has funded the Science Access Project (SAP) at Oregon State University since 1992. The SAP is devoted to research and development on "display-neutral" methods for electronic information storage (Barry 1994, Gardner 1997) and non-visual access to that information. Most of our projects are still basic research intended to make future products more accessible, but the future is drawing nearer.
The most serious single problem with widespread application of DotsPlus has been lack of an adequate tactile graphics computer printer. The wax-jet printer was marginal at best and was a commercial failure. It was available for only a couple of years.
In 1996 Peter Langner, then a student in the SAP, invented a new technology capable of inexpensive tactile embossing and won the B. F. Goodrich prize for Collegiate Invention of the Year. The first true printer for blind people based on his technology is expected to reach market by mid-1998. When it is introduced other blind students and professionals can share the joy I felt last April when I presented a paper at a professional society meeting (Platzer 1997) using viewgraphs for my sighted audience and excellent "identical" tactile copies for myself. The two forms were just printed on different printers.
This anecdote is an example of how different display technologies can be used to access the same information. The application from which the copies were made could have been more display-neutral however by using better electronic storage methods that permit authors and editors to include non-displayed information about objects in figures. The SAP has recently begun to develop "smart graphics" methods (Gardner 1997) that could make all graphics more display-neutral and a great deal more useful for all authors and readers, not just those with print disabilities.
These non-visual display methods are rapidly improving prospects for me and others with severe print disabilities to gain access to scientific information written by other people. However a student or professional must also be able to write and manipulate scientific information as well as read it. No common math authoring application or symbolic math program is presently accessible to me, but the SAP is working with a few companies to develop accessibility methods for their products.
Realistically, we do not expect most math/graphics authoring programs to be accessible for years. Consequently the SAP has developed TRIANGLE, a computer application intended primarily for today's blind students and professionals who need to read, write, and manipulate scientific text, do computations, and read graphs and figures.
Of necessity, TRIANGLE is demanding of screen readers, and most of them have deficiencies or bugs that have frustrated users who have tried TRIANGLE. We are now making a self-voicing version that will overcome these problems, so we hope soon to hear from more people like Robbie Miller, a student at the University of Illinois Chicago, who recently wrote "I don't have any idea how I could successfully complete advanced math, statistics, and other related subjects at UIC without Triangle. Thank you for broadening/brightening my horizons, thank you for Triangle."
According to a famous Chinese proverb, "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness". I well remember cursing darkness in 1988. In 1998 I am happy to realize that I have lighted a candle - a candle that will allow Robbie and many other dedicated people with print disabilities to light more candles.
John Gardner (email@example.com) is Professor of Physics and Director of the Science Access Project at Oregon State University. The Science Access Project is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation. He also teaches physics and directs a materials physics research program (funded primarily by the Department of energy) on microscopic structure and point defects in nonmetallic solids. His recent honors and awards include the VISTA award for outstanding achievement on behalf of blind people, by the Northeastern Association of the Blind, Albany, NY, 1993; the Alexander von Humboldt prize by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Bonn, Germany, 1993; and the B. F. Goodrich faculty advisor award accompanying student Peter Langner's award for Collegiate Invention of the Year, 1996.
Copyright © 1998 by John A. Gardner. All Rights Reserved.