Sunday, September 03, 2000

Software opens Internet to the blind

Advances create increase in job placements

By Jerry Gleeson
Gannett News Service

        SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — The synthesized voice on the speakers of Judith Bron's computer hasn't got much personality, but it delights her nevertheless.

        She has been legally blind for 14 years. Her disability has kept her at home in Spring Valley for most of that time, although she has done some writing and worked part time in public relations.

[photo] Judith Bron, who is legally blind, uses new computer equipment that converts what she writes into spoken language so she can confirm what she's typing.
(Vincent DiSalvio photo)
| ZOOM |
        About two months ago, she received a computer and sophisticated software that can translate the text on her monitor into speech that can be heard on her speakers. Ms. Bron, 48, has worked with similar software in years past, but this is the first time she has had a program that's compatible with the Windows operating system.

        It has opened up the Internet to her, and with it the possibility of doing more with her life.

        “This equipment is unbelievable,” said Ms. Bron, who recently took a county civil service exam for a social worker position. “It's turned it around 360 degrees. I could have never written like this on a typewriter.”

        Advocates for the blind say changes in technology are opening up employment opportunities for clients who historically have had trouble finding jobs.

        The New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired said that last year it placed 528 people into jobs, a 58 percent increase from 1995 levels.

        “The technology has definitely leveled the playing field for the visually impaired,” agency spokesman Kent Kisselbrack said.

        Others in the field sound a more cautious note, saying the growth of graphics-oriented operating systems like Microsoft's Windows in the mid-1990s left some blind users floundering until better software came along, and actually cost some their jobs.

        “There was a brief time where it was starting to look pretty dismal,” said Glenda Such, who directs computer training programs for clients of Lighthouse International, a Manhattan-based not-for-profit organization for the blind.

        About 42 percent of the 3.5 million Americans ages 21 to 64 who have difficulty seeing were employed in 1997, according to the U.S. Census, at a median salary of $16,835.

        As computer use expanded in the late 1980s, so did the development of screen readers, software that takes text that appears on screens and converts it to speech that blind users can hear.

        One of the leading developers of such software is the Henter-Joyce Group of Freedom Scientific in St. Petersburg, Fla. Five years ago, the company released the first version of its JAWS software (Job Access With Speech) for Windows.

        The current version costs $795, with a Windows NT version selling for $1,195. More than 45,000 copies have been sold in the past five years, said Jim Watson, Henter-Joyce's education institutional sales manager.

        Corporate customers include Honeywell and Aetna; with the tight labor market, employers are going to greater lengths to develop their work force, he said.

        Corinne Kirchner, director of policy research for the American Foundation for the Blind, said she likes to think the growing presence of the Internet in offices is making employment there more accessible for those with vision problems.

        “It works both ways,” she said. “If they're able to use computers, they're more likely to work, and if they work they're more likely to use computers.”


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