University of Edinburgh

Information Technology and Visual Impairment: how big are the holes in the basket?

given at the ANZAEVH Conference, Sydney, 14.i.99.


It's only fair when facing such an awesomely difficult topic as this to take some comfort as we start. First of all, people generally assume when something startling is invented that its effects will somehow remain hermetically sealed; this failure of imagination affects inventors more than anybody else. So, for example, it was a very long time before anybody understood the environmental implications of the automobile. Another very startling example is how we failed to understand what would happen to us psychologically after the invention of reliable female contraception; there was a lot of stupid talk about female promiscuity but very little discussion about how divorcing intercourse from procreation would change our whole outlook on children which has led most recently to a discussion about children as commodities or trophies, thirty years after the medical breakthrough.

Secondly, and paradoxically, we over-estimate the reach of new technology in irrational spasms of conservative pessimism; so, for instance, television was going to ruin all conversation and certainly reading; and then the Internet was going to do that and book sales keep rising. Media usually enhance each other rather than destroying each other. The only exceptions, for very special market reasons, are the steady decline of printed newspapers and the temporary dip in cinema between 1960 and 1980.

Thirdly, most people associated with new inventions are only usually a page ahead of the rest of us in the manual. Some great scientist makes a breakthrough which creates engineered products and the great engineers design the products but next dowtrictly vacational. In fact, if you don't drive it is perfectly reasonable to live inside ten metres; if you're mildly misanthropic you can probably live inside five metres; and you can spend hours of work and leisure inside three metres.

There it is, the magic figure, the threshold of standard eye testing; the way we talk about blindness and visual impairment.

Now picture the metaphor of our age, the network. It links, it meshes, it draws us ever more tightly together; its meaning throws us back to the fishing net for trapping food and the safety net which saves the trapeze artist from falling and, of course, the soccer net which is the goal, the prize, in "The Beautiful Game".

So why am I not using this metaphor in my title but, rather, the humble basket, the carrier of a small quantity of goods, the rigid structure, bringing to mind the "basket case" and, perhaps more cruelly, the blind basket weaver? The reason is this; when we look at the way that blind and visually impaired people interact with the Internet we are looking at tiny quantities of information in rigid packages, of primitive carriers and basic goods. We have to face up to the fact at the outset of this journey that what we will do with our children and clients will be imperfect, difficult and in very way inferior to that which we could provide for children with good vision. I will go on to show why the effort is worthwhile; in the meantime, remember my opening contrasted picture of new inventions, keep them in perspective.

I want to start out by dealing with a bundle of technical topics before moving on to some of the deeper issues which the ICTs revolution has thrown up.

Let me start with that critical distinction between those who have some residual vision and those who are totally blind; which takes us back to the eye test.

In terms of ICTs, vision testing has five basic requirements:

  1. First, with the exception of wide screen applications, we are essentially looking at life inside three metres not outside it. the current eye testing regime for agricultural and manual workers is no longer useful for looking at the kind of functionality which we utilise in our world. Even at the very basic level, have you ever wondered what use a static eye test is in assessing how people will function in a car at 100 kilometres per hour; if children play on simulators why can't we test eyes inside them?
  2. Secondly, the precise kind of functional capability and limitation needs to be mapped and measured very precisely. Such factors as static symbol size and font, tolerance to contrast, speed of uptake in moving picture environments and hand/eye co-ordination are all vitally important. Even in people with 20/20 vision the relationship between acuity, interpretation and manual dexterity is not of a standard configuration; I can think of many people who would not make good, high speed, brain surgeons or grand prix drivers.
  3. Thirdly, navigation and processing speed are vital in the environment both of the crowded school curriculum and the competitive economy. It will not do any longer to state that a child can read 12-point print if it can only be read so slowly that comprehension crumbles in the process. The lack of reliably timed reading tests undertaken with children with residual vision is unaccountable and an indictment. We live in a world of competitive examinations and high speed, competitive global economic markets and we haven't even got round to using time as an important factor in assessing the way our visually impaired children read.
  4. Fourthly, there is no scientific proof that functionality with hard copy print is identical with backlit, on-screen functionality, so test the two separately.
  5. Fifth, and finally, although it is important to test ocular reading from the page and screen in isolation, just as we very rarely watch television without the sound or listen to its sound without the picture, so, in the real ICTs world there is no reason why visually impaired people should not operate in a general multi-media environment; testing on-screen reading performance without and then with voice synthesis back-up may produce very different results; and on-screen pictures and other contextual material might also act as useful prompts; we can't be purist about the environment even if we're scrupulous about the testing itself.

An assessment of these factors should lead in turn to a maximisation of the use of residual vision and that vision should largely be seen in the context of standard ICT systems, in terms of the PC and the commercial GUI. For too long we have self-classified a small number of legally blind or visually impaired children and adults and locked them into dedicated, access technology systems which are created by small, fragile companies who load all their research and development costs into nugatory sales volumes which results in high prices.

Let me take as my example my bËte noir, the monochrome closed circuit television. We have used this for at least two decades after the marketing of the much cheaper, full colour, moving picture video camera and recorder. Why? The answer surely is that we have locked ourselves psychologically into special equipment for special children and adults. To take another example, we are still using expensive, stepped screen magnification packages when just about every standard PC with a commercial application can provide much cheaper, better, continuous magnification.

We need to delve further into this issue. Perhaps as many as 15% of the adult working population cannot read Times New Roman 12-point print on screen even though this is the font and size to which most ordinary PCs default. So there is not a small group of classifiable blind and visually impaired people in antithesis to the population as a whole which has no problem with rigid, commercial systems. We know this when we think about it carefully. There are totally blind people and there is then the rest of the population which sees differently: some people have poor accommodation and some of those do not change their spectacles regularly enough; some people are susceptible to glare; others are temporarily incapacitated as they wait for cataract surgery; most people suffer some form of deteriorating natural vision as they grow older.

This means that we need to get away from our own agencies' classification of blindness and visual impairment in order to make out the commercial case for better general design of commercial ICTs systems which will allow more people with poor vision to use them effectively. If we can do that then the per capita budget will be larger for those who genuinely need highly specialised and expensive access technology.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this situation is the apparent impossibility of communication between designers and engineers on the one hand and disabled people and those who work with them on the other. There is a raft of aspirational, legislative waffle about accessibility but a dearth of technical specifications to help the designers and engineers to deliver the goods. I referred to this in my main keynote address. In the field of visual impairment the epidemiology does not tell us enough about functionality and so it is difficult to reduce a wide variety of needs to technical specifications; but this is vitally important. Let me demonstrate this with a few examples.

  • It is clear, I think, that nobody expects every public access terminal to be accessed by a refreshable Braille bar; the ratio between the cost and the number of users is too great to justify such expenditure; better to provide the few people who need Braille bars with their own kit.
  • At the other end of the spectrum it is equally clear that being able to alter font and print size on-screen is highly beneficial and costs little or nothing; that is why this option is already available though, having said that, operating the customisation function can be extremely difficult because it's often adjusted from the operating system rather than the tool bar and in many Companies the operating system is off limits to everybody except the IT Manager and his staff.
  • What, then, about everything in between? Should speech output be incorporated into general design, probably yes, because of a rough calculation of cost and the number of beneficiaries; relatively cheap implementation, rather a lot of people who don't see screens all that well.
  • Should a slow/freeze frame function on your television/PC allow people to read and look at their own speed, over-riding the intention of the author who has set the frame replacement speed? Again, probably yes. This costs very little but just think how difficult many people find it to see a moving right hand digit on a stock market index indicator; if you're wanting to bet a few million dollars that last digit is rather important and you only want to stop it as often as you can jab the button just to see whether it's going up or down; you're betting on selling when the price in the right hand digit is at its peak.

The more you think about it - added descriptive text for screen readers to complement images, added audio in moving pictures - the more you come to the conclusion that general design can take care of very many of the special needs of blind and visually impaired people at very little cost and with very great benefits. What we need to do is to mark and measure, to take note of special requirements and to ask whether these are simply for a tiny niche market or whether they might help substantial market segments.

I have lately been undertaking some work on this subject with Dr. Helen Petrie of the Sensory Disabilities Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire. We have published a consultative accessibility standard for the general ICTs industry and will soon be launching a public Version 1.0 but there is still a great deal of work to be done in this field. Our aim is to get away from aspirational words like accessible to actual print sizes, contrast specifications, key configurations, screen angles from the horizontal, screen travel away from a fixed base, that could be delivered by general design in mass market products in order to improve their usefulness for people with disabilities. This might be an argument about rights of access but it will only be won when designers, engineers and telecommunications executives recognise, and I'll come on to this later, that this is a matter of sales volume.

I should not have to say this but I am going to in order to avoid any confusion. To set standards - maximum and minimum letter size, sound pitch - is not the same as making everyone have the same thing; in fact it is just the opposite; we must not confuse setting technical standards with making everybody use a standard configuration. What we need within standards is customisation. A simple example of this would be a standard specifying a minimum and maximum volume of output for a radio; operating within this standard are a large group of people in a nursing home who listen to their individual radios at different volumes; operating rigidity is when the old dears are all crowded into one room and have to listen to Neighbours at a single level of volume no matter what the condition of their hearing.

Even if customisation is made simpler, operated, for instance, from the tool bar rather than the operating system, it will still be a complex and time consuming operation.

The first question to ask, to which we don't yet have a very good answer is: if you are going to customise

  • foreground and background colour
  • contrast
  • font
  • print size

to take one cluster; and

  • sound pitch
  • sound speed
  • sound volume

to take another cluster.

I haven't at this point mentioned a cluster of factors concerning moving images.

You might think the question simply relates to ordering elements within one cluster but all the evidence shows that people with a visual impairment, like the rest of us, operate in a multi-media environment where accessing information in one medium reinforces another; the question might be: which is primary and which reinforcing. If you doubt what I am saying I can cite research but it would be better and quicker to apply the Carey Critical Point Model (or CCPM).

I developed the CCPM in the mid 1980s when the UK Government said that top managers needed more pay as an incentive and ordinary workers needed lower pay as an incentive. I simply ask people to tell me if I put the worker in Dollars right at the bottom of a frame and Rupert Murdoch (or somebody like him) at the top of the frame, and you move the top person down towards the bottom and the person at the bottom up towards the top, at what point do you draw the horizontal line which defines where the requirement for more pay stops and the requirement for less pay begins.

In this case we can use the same methodology to ask ourselves the following question: if all fully sighted people almost always watch television pictures, read credits and other text and listen to sound all at the same time, how poor does their vision have to get before they switch off one or more elements and only access information through one medium. In the case of electronic media the answer is, of course, that people only abandon text when it is too small, pictures when they can no longer see them and sound when they can no longer hear it. I remember when I was losing my own sight how I fought to hang on to a visual information input until light perception itself finally disappeared, literally, in a firework display against a black sky. Why else would so many visually impaired people distort their features and undergo immense physical discomfort in order to peer at screens and, in some cases, literally walk amongst their enlarged print sheets spread on the floor because it's the only surface big enough?

So the first questions are:

  1. in which order do you take the clusters; and then,
  2. secondly, within each cluster, in what order do you customise the elements; and
  3. thirdly, can you even assume that you take one cluster at a time or must you plait the factors from the different clusters?

Remember, these are not the only two clusters, such as the moderation of the contextual environment within which the screen is placed - lighting power, positioning and eveness and then there is the fatigue factor: somebody may perform very well in all fields but only for a very short time before tailing off which might be all right for navigating a programme schedule and downloading a movie but not much good for watching it.

Overall, then, there is a deal of work to be done in this area if we are going to enable people with residual vision to make the most of what is available; but there is another equally important task for the technicians. We need to make these customised settings portable.

In a recent European Union project called TESTLAB, dealing with the access by blind and visually impaired people to catalogue information through computer workstations in public libraries, one of the main constraints to efficient access which we found was the time it took library staff to work with clients to customise equipment.

  • A first client, whose primary access medium was very large print, would want all key symbols and objects centred;
  • a second, using a screen reader for primary access, would want everything set left with print minimised to fit as much on a page as possible;
  • a third would need to go into the operating system to change the foreground and background colours.

This is why we need to make these customised files - what I call "My Environment" or "ME-files" - portable so that you can save your own ME-file to a disc, personal Web site or smart card and then recall it when you are at another computer.

Of course, it would help if you could install your ME-file at any point in any application with a single key-stroke and then put the machine back to default by a similarly simple process. This is not by any means far-fetched. It is so time consuming to train voice-in programmes to recognise the characteristics of each human voice and turn the input into correct text that when you have trained your system to do this you can copy your own voice file characteristics onto a floppy and put it into another computer and load your voice characteristics into the same programme and get it to work. In another development there is work on putting screen access characteristics into smart cards to operate cash dispensing machines (known in the trade as ATMs). The tragedy is that the two developments have not meshed; if you can do it for smart cards in the future and for some applications on a PC now, why not all applications on PCs now?

Finally on the issue of customisation, another experience from TESTLAB struck me most forcibly. Even though I have two refreshable Braille bars which are quite different from one another, the one used in TESTLAB was different from them both and it took me quite a long time to become familiar with it; either manufacturers must be forced to standardise certain access technology controls or customisation must contain a requirement simply entitled "behave as if you were a ..". the argument against this, in the case of Braille bars and speech synthesisers is that each model has advantages and disadvantages; that might be said of the standard PC keyboard but we don't have to learn a new set of keys every time we buy a new keyboard; we expect it to be qwerty. Neither, incidentally, should we have different numeric keypads; they should all follow the standard telephone configuration.

If you look back on what I have been saying it will not be difficult to form a clear picture of our client who needs to be tested and have settings customised, only to find that accessing the machine is difficult. I have to say this again; it's quite bad enough being visually impaired without all this extra time and nonsense. I have given up any idea that this will be altered very much by compassion and think that our only route is the market, so let us get our market analysis put together and let us make a case that is so strong that it cannot be denied.

In summary, then, on the technical side, there are six key points; we need:

  1. A much better eye test based on timed functionality and concerned principally with that functionality inside 3 metres. At any distance hard copy and backlit performance may not be identical; and a test without a movement factor is of limited relevance.
  2. A clear distinction between those who cannot use vision in ICTs applications and those who can, no matter how slight that vision use is.
  3. A numeric, measurable, constantly updated, accessibility standard.
  4. Criteria for deciding which accessibility features can be cost/effectively built into general design.
  5. A procedure for customisation.
  6. Portable customisation capacity.

I think that is quite enough to be going on with.

Let me now turn to the second main topic in this presentation, the way technology is likely to develop and how it will affect blind and visually impaired people.

I am going to deal with eight facets:

  1. The image and the word
  2. Hypertext, navigation and selection
  3. Data processing and execution
  4. Content creation
  5. Description
  6. The wired house, voice-in and virtual reality
  7. Television, shopping and banking
  8. Ubiquity.

I am sorry if that sounds like rather a lot of material in a short time but I will only sketch the main points concerning each of these.

1. The image and the word

It ought to be a truism to say that in our century the image has become paramount, usurping the role played by the word since the invention of printing. The problem this raises for blind people is obvious enough but it is almost as acute for those with even moderate visual impairments. We may safely dismiss the pictograph and the icon for these are simple and unambiguous, so let me take the example of irony; I might equally have chosen pathos, paraphrase, collage, exaggeration.

Despite the ridiculously self-contradictory outpourings of post-modernists theorists such as Derrida who wrote books saying that there was no significant intellectual content in one piece of writing over another, condemning themselves to a kind of suicidal recursion, in spite of this we live in an age of extreme sensitivity to nuance. This is not the sensitivity resulting from the minute study of a tiny number of texts but, rather a sensitivity brought about by association and allusion; and a central tenet of that sensitivity is openness to irony. In this form of communication there is a polarity between the apparent meaning of an image and its meaning vested with irony: what are the small but significant details which distinguish a soldier standing for the glories of patriotism and the same soldier promoting pacifism? This is not simply a matter of art criticism, though that is important, it was Stalin's answers to these kinds of questions which decided which painters, writers and composers lived or died.

To draw attention to the ambiguities - another distinct attribute - in images is an important first step but we need to know how far those we work with can individually or collaboratively derive the essence of what they are looking at. Of course, an image might be ambiguous, being both straight and ironic; and what it is might simply depend on the angle from which it is being viewed; it might, for instance, be literally two-faced, a two-dimensional holograph.

Just to mention another couple of factors by way of example and as triggers for discussion: images, like words, often, I noted above, allude and without the knowledge of the allusion the apparent content is empty; images, depicting deceit or any emotion for that matter, frequently contradict audio information (the knowing smile contradicting speech, unseen by the victim and only intended for the viewer); and, perhaps worst of all in the circumstances, many images are strictly tangential or even irrelevant to the understanding of authorial intellectual content, just thrown in as eye candy.

How much needs to be explained and, having got that far, how much are we capable of explaining; and, finally, within the constraints of our short lives, how much is worth explaining, compared with other activities we and our children and clients might alternatively be undertaking?

These have been critical questions for as long as professionals have struggled to make sense of the world of blind and visually impaired people but they become ever more critical as the Internet bears more and more pictures, still and moving, into every home and as our tiny televisions service explodes with the advent of cable and satellite. We know so little about how the impaired eye deals with the movement of small objects. We can freeze a frame but do we want to freeze every frame? Until the super intelligent agent arrives, who is going to choose which frames it is best to look at carefully?

Although I mentioned this in my main presentation, this account of images, brief though it is, would be incomplete without mentioning the cultural importance of imagery. I am not making a moral point, that things are better or worse now than they were when I was a boy, but it is an inescapable fact of life that all of us consume huge quantities of sexual and violent imagery, real and fictional and that a person who is totally blind or who cannot absorb such content clearly is at an immense social disadvantage. Whether innocence is a fair compensation for such naivety is a fascinating moral subject; but, again, we are left with questions about how much to describe and how long we can spend on the task. There are separate, more tangled, questions which I won't go into in detail now concerning censorship and sensibility? To what extent should a teacher, for instance, censor pornographic material or lie about it simply on the basis that a child cannot see very clearly? Or, put into a different context, how much detail can I reasonably ask my wife to convey about the physical attributes of young women on the beach? I have to leave these for another day, for a moral essay on whether guardianship is about shutting doors or opening them.

We are also, in making decisions about the use of time, forced to weigh the merits of social education and the demands of formal education and employment. Whether we make this decision consciously or not, we tend on the whole to favour the utilitarian or the didactic; few blind people I have ever met manage irony without its descending into sarcasm - the ambiguity is too difficult to bring off successfully - and most almost blind or totally blind people, whether or not they are supremely employable, are shockingly naive all I know is that I am; that at least is a start.

This naivety, the inability to grasp nuance, leads, as I said in my other presentation, to callousness and to a sad crudity of apprehension and sensibility. The grey, dulled ocular outlook makes for a paradoxically black and white intellectual and emotional outlook. Blind and visually impaired people are horribly stereotyped but, at root, there's some truth in the stereotype and it would do no harm to admit it.

2. Hypertext, Navigation and Selection

We have to take some of the responsibility for this naivety. I have already mentioned CCTV and video but this is an opportune moment to think about the computer and television. They will soon merge, together with the telephone, into one device but we still need to identify as an error the confusion of the medium with the message.

Whereas educators have largely thought of the computer as serious and worthy, they have condemned television as vulgar and frivolous. Niche market digital television and pornography on the Internet should erode the stereotyped dichotomy. This cannot come quickly enough. Again, as I pointed out in my main presentation, we are in danger of confusing the utilitarian with the useful; access to undirected visual stimulus is a vital part of development and there is no better way of increasing this than through surfing the Internet. This is because the wonderful new Internet tool which provides such serendipitous opportunities is hypertext.

So what we are about to face is the first generation of visually impaired people with too much potential information which they more or less apprehend and comprehend. How do we decide what information will best suit their needs? How do we strike a balance between directed information gathering and that wonderful pastime which we all enjoy but has until now been denied to blind and visually impaired people, just browsing for the fun of it?

There is no substitute in this context for understanding the essence of hypertext as opposed to linear and hierarchical information structures; we then need a good strategy for defining a search and navigating the material and then, of course, thinning down search results to manageable proportions.

The most important thing about hypertext, its essence since its discovery 300 years ago by Leibniz, is that any piece of information can be accessed from a variety of starting points. Take a famous historical figure, King Henry VIII of England; you might find him by, starting from:

  • Pictures by Holbein
  • Household accountancy in the 16th Century
  • English formal music composers
  • The development of late Renaissance Catholic theology
  • The development of early Protestant theology.

You might be looking for a very specific piece of information about King Henry through these routes but you might equally, on the other hand, wander down Henry's life as a pleasant byway from your main task of finding the link between the dissolution of the monasteries and the hyperinflation in England in the second half of the 16th Century.

In a real sense the only principal of navigation involved is an understanding of the way searches can be defined from the broadest to the narrowest; the narrower the search the more directed the result, the broader the search the more serendipitous, browse-like, it will be. What you choose depends on how narrowly you want the answer defined. If we go back to Henry VIII for a minute, it's not difficult to imagine that a land economist looking at the dissolution of the monasteries would probably define a much narrower search than an historical novelist.

We should teach our children and clients to go wider than the historical novelist. People with standard vision browse all the time: they browse advertising and shop windows, night clubs and fashion pages, maps and landscapes. It is not a contradiction to say that blind and visually impaired people need to be taught to browse. In a recent piece of research with colleagues in an attempt to establish the size of print accessed by visually impaired adolescents with a standard reading age that corresponded to their chronological age we found that only a fraction of the sample read anything outside course work and that few of them considered the PC as a potential source of entertainment and fun; they watched the less interactive, more rigid, television. When these two pieces of hardware merge we will need a new strategy for triggering interaction and activity rather than passivity.

3. Data Processing and Execution

I don't think that there is now any doubt that blind and visually impaired people are going to suffer comparative disadvantage from the expansion of ICTs, especially in the area of data processing. I can briefly explain comparative, as opposed to absolute, disadvantage by looking at television; no doubt everybody has benefited from it in some way - it gives even totally blind people pleasure and information - but there is no doubt that it comparatively advantages those who can see. Thus, in data processing, blind and visually impaired people will master these tasks using a PC but they will be so slow compared with their sighted peers that I fear the education and employment implications.

Whereas someone with good vision simply looks at a set of ten options on a screen and clicks on one of them, a person with poor vision either has to magnify the screen objects and travel slowly through them, perhaps dividing the content between two screenloads; or has to wait for a voice synthesiser to read the whole lot even if option one is ultimately chosen; or has to go through text on a Braille bar half a line at a time.

Worse is to come, I'm afraid. there will soon be an increase in the use of moving pictures and dynamic scripts such as JAVA, to convey information. Freezing dynamic imagery, by definition, slows processing. I think, though, in the medium term the biggest single problem for us will be the so far little mentioned explosion in domestic digital photography. The advantages of this technology are obvious; instead of re-keying hard copy text and turning it into HTML for Web sites and even instead of photocopying or putting text through a scanner, we will be able to take a picture of any text and load it into our C: drive; this will be both quicker and cheaper. This presents two particular problems for those with whom we work: first, the text will simply be another photograph so it will have a structural status very similar to legible biblical text in 17th Century oil paintings; secondly, until special metascanning software is developed which can look at a page and extract text elements which can then be manipulated in respect of size, font &c., we will be subjected to whatever whimsical mix of text and image, fancy script and arrangement, that the author desires.

We are not alone. The world Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has established a special initiative, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Which has been established specifically to set standards which will make the Web more accessible to disabled people, primarily those who are visually impaired. Accessibility legislation in general and that in the United States in particular is forcing manufacturers to look at their products in accessibility terms but this is still a retro-engineering situation; we have just about managed to make WINDOWS accessible; the gap between shipping product and making it accessible has narrowed with JAVA; and we can look forward to the time when accessibility is built into general design.

In the meantime, no matter what accessibility we integrate into ICTs systems or add on as peripherals, we still have to face up to the incontrovertible problem that almost al of our children and clients, no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they work, will not be able to keep up with their sighted peers in the area of data processing; so, having got so many of the brighter ones into offices, we will now have to think very carefully what they do when they get there.    

4. Content Creation

If accessing output is as difficult as I make out, what about input or, to use a more constructive term, content creation?

I was quite pessimistic about this aspect of ICTs until quite recently. My starting point was the maxim that if you were not open to the output of other people then your own input would be rather thin. It is just possible that someone could, starting from no experience whatsoever, write a wonderful poem, novel or play but it is highly unlikely; and, given the hegemony of the image, where does this leave people who have limited or no image handling ability?

Well, my mind was changed quite recently when I participated in a multi-media interactive exhibition led by a dyslexic sculptor. He set up a huge touch screen through which participants could drive a PC which, in turn, switched on hair dryers that activated 16-foot organ pipes. The public could also interact with video clips, evoking shrieks of pain when a man's eye was poked; and one of my poems was set up on the screen and by touching it my voice in real audio was triggered, along with a number of contextual material triggered through touching hot links. So, in the case of my poem there were LP sleeves that had triggered certain phrases, there were pictures, music clips and references to other texts; it was the exploration of a poem in hypertext.

Even though I never saw very much, even though I remembered a great many pictures and the sleeves of my large LP collection, in the main I had to trust my dyslexic collaborator and a number of video makers in order to create a piece of interactive multi-media sculpture/experience in which the whole was more than the sum of the parts. A congenitally totally blind person might find the visual part of such a collaborative venture difficult but would be at home with marrying music and text. Another clue to the future was the alternative option for driving the PC; instead of using a touch screen or a keyboard, there was a large, red wheel and when you turned it, it drove the hair dryers and organ pipes. this was, high-brow fun, admittedly, but it was a collaborative piece of content creation in which I did not feel at a disadvantage. At this point, we are back in a different form to my comments in the previous presentation dealing with negotiating skills.

I am prepared to admit the limitations in content creation which low vision imposes but I think there is a way forward as long as we construct rich, multi-media, interactive environments; only in exceptional cases will a person with a severe vision loss, locked in a back bedroom with a PC, voice synthesiser and screen magnification create stunning multi-media content but, then, the kind of people who create such material alone, without the refinements of others, are very few. Which leads, not quite sequentially, to games and toys. One of the aspects of ICTs development and accessibility by our child and client group which has really pained me has been the almost complete indifference to games and toys. Here we are again, puritanical and worthy, imposing all this high level literacy kit on visually impaired children when all of their peers are zapping Martians; it's a poor manifestation of all this rhetoric about equality and mainstreaming.

A decent Martian game with a large screen and a variable response window might, you know, even improve hand/eye co-ordination!

Another thought and possibly a provocative one? If blind and visually impaired people are going to be so slow at content processing and limited in content creation in this land of multi-media plenty, why not teach them to specialise in areas where knowledge is so scarce that the ability to piece knowledge together through lateral thinking processes is at a premium? There is also the large area of real history and re-written history. By this I mean that governments, institutions, society as a whole, subtly alters history for the purpose of shaping events, suppressing guilt, transferring guilt, simplifying complexity; whatever the reason, it is sometimes a social requirement that the actual history is brought to the surface, that the re-write is exposed, not only as part of an anti consensus movement; it might be that a community has genuinely forgotten how to navigate backwards to some root idea or experience. In such circumstances a good, contemplative, steady brain is better than a febrile scurrying through millions of pages of hypertext.  

5. Description

I want to break from the list of eight points for just a minute, to take a break from the technology and look at a central idea that will not quite fit anywhere else; and that is, the problem of description.

A couple of years ago at a conference I got myself into hot water by saying that no matter how well a person describes the smile of the Mona Lisa there is no way in which a congenitally totally blind person will ever know that smile. In a spasm of ludicrous political correctness I was assaulted with boards crammed with adjustable height pins and fine tuned vacuum duplicators; but you still don't get the smile. Well, frankly, I don't expect it but what I do expect is that professionals who work with blind and visually impaired people should be taught how to describe images and objects and they should be examined in it as part of their qualification. Let's face it, most people can't even describe the house they live in with any degree of accuracy, so there is no reason why people from a wide variety of backgrounds, all destined to work with visually impaired people, should be good at describing anything. I want to get special needs teachers and rehabilitation workers out of their lecture theatres and into art college for a spell. If people can learn to write about wine then they can surely learn to describe architecture intelligently and paintings vividly and lovingly. With that skill secure, professionals will have much more self confidence when it comes to solving the problem I mentioned earlier, the ability to choose what to describe and to decide how important and efficient such description is likely to be.  

6. The Wired House: Voice-in and Virtual Reality

As technology advances so rapidly it is dangerous to write about the future months before you give a speech, so you need to know that this was written in November 1998.

There has been a serious, unexplained problem surrounding attempts by computer manufacturers and consumer electronics manufacturers to invent the kind of wired, domestic environment which we've all heard about: where you pick up your television remote controller and pull the curtains; use your mobile phone to switch on the oven; or where the supermarket is alerted by your refrigerator when you're out of milk. If the combined might of Microsoft and Sony/Philips have trouble analysing what the problem is when they've all put so much money into the venture then there's not much hope for me; my main conclusion is that if so much research and development energy is going in this direction then the wired house is really on its way. This will have enormous benefits for blind and visually impaired people particularly when it is combined with voice-in technology.

There has been a lot of work recently on a new, digital generation of 'talking book' machines but my vision is that the stereotypical little old lady will simply stand in front of her digital television and should "book" and it will start to read; she won't know or care whether the text has been downloaded from a remote site or is still stored there and is being fed down the line as she needs it. She will then shout "stop" and it will stop; she will then shout "kettle" and it will say "no water in me". and she will huff out to get it filled.

I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that that time is not far off.

Another important development for an understanding of the environment, particularly if you have residual vision is virtual reality. This is just a posh way of saying that as a computer can create reality in two dimensions on a screen it can also support three-dimensional realisations allowing, for instance, architects to walk through their own buildings and surgeons to walk down your intestines. The current external image of all this perfectly simple technology is the person with gloves and helmet but what we need too concentrate on is putting people with poor vision inside a simulator whose entire inner wall is a screen which portrays the manufactured environment. So, for instance, the simulator might be a builder's cradle taking you steadily up the wall of the Sydney Opera House as if you really were in a builder's cradle; as a person with poor vision you would see, in a real dimensions context huge amounts of detail currently inaccessible. that, too, will come.

One enhancing feature of virtual reality that is already here is the use in the printing industry of image enhancement. You can already do this on a flat screen - you could single out a particular element and highlight it with heightened contrast or with a colour change; you could, borrowing from medicine, create a kind of angeographic identifier system for the feature you wanted to follow.

Finally, in this wild but not very distant world, there has already been a great deal of talk about 'intelligent agents' which sort out your in-bound data so that you are not overloaded with information. The theory goes that if your profile is properly established in your computer it will be able to book you the kind of holiday you like, or at least filter out what you definitely don't like, narrowing the options to a manageable number of choices. Well, we might not be there yet but I've seen a quite clever 'agent' that sifts email and decides which you should see first, middle and last; it's not long now.    

7. Television, shopping and banking

Let us, at this point, remember our history. The Internet was the child of the American military, nurtured by academics, adopted by hippies and fostered by nerds who didn't, on the whole, mind if they were occasionally challenged by a systems crash. It is about to be kidnapped by big business and that is the context in which we must see its next decade. The Internet will have room for intellectual exchange and exhibitionism but it will be driven by three related factors: electronic commerce (or e-commerce as it's known); domestic retail; and, above all, pay per view entertainment.

These in themselves are social benefits. There is no intrinsic merit in moving bits of paper around rather than using e-commerce, indeed, there might even be ecological advantages. There is certainly no great pleasure in physically shifting groceries from the supermarket to your house; it might be fun choosing fruit or cheese and checking out the fresh fish but surely somebody else can sort out your computer order for cola and cat food. Finally, in spite of some rather silly griping about the good old days, there's no real merit in a few broadcasters telling you what you can watch; and when, so the advent of infinite channel, unscheduled entertainment is an excellent development.

How do these changes affect our clients? Well, in the first instance, there's nothing wrong with e-commerce and domestic television-driven retail as long as the kit is accessible and/or there are still physical alternatives such as banks and shops within reasonable distance. The problem is that many elderly blind and visually impaired people have serious mobility problems but also enjoy their occasional trip, alone or with friends to the shops; if the nearest shop is ever further away we begin to have a problem of social isolation. The worst case scenario is inaccessible hardware and software and no alternative physical service.

I am absolutely convinced that this worst case scenario will not develop; not because I think, that the owners of supermarkets and television stations are benevolent or compassionate but because they are interested in selling things to us; if you can't choose what to buy whether it's soap or a soap opera then they can't sell it to you. This is where we expand our horizon from the small, identifiable group of people we work with into this larger area of people who simply can't read standard text on a screen with poor contrast; the market is big enough and the profits tempting enough to make accessibility a key commercial issue.    

8. Ubiquity

Finally, I want to look at one more concept and that is ubiquity. Technological ubiquity is linked to miniaturisation and portability. It began with the personal pocket watch and chain, gathered pace with the transistor radio and has now come into its own with the smart mobile telephone. The breakthrough came with radio communications which currently apply to telephones but will soon make computers interactive; it won't matter whether phones become palmtops or the other way round, both movements are happening already. The portability isn't a problem but the miniaturisation will be; as machines become smaller and more powerful the keyboard function will transfer to a touch facility on the screen and the symbols and pictures will become ever smaller with the need for enlargement catered for by the ability, already in laptops, to project small screen images onto large screens. In time it will be the simple oddity of not having one of this miniature boxes of tricks that will strike home; just as we now think somebody who does not wear a watch is in some ways a bit cranky. The sooner we get voice chips in all standard equipment the better. The talking watch was a joke but the talking mobile phone cum palm top is a dire necessity.

There is another more optimistic side to this ubiquity and that is the spread of voice-in technology spurred on by traffic jams, backache and the need of the Japanese to get away from typesetting and typewriting. The hands-free solutions will make keying text much less necessary so more sophisticated systems of voice in, voice out will become widespread. There will be a temporary 'window' for development in this field when people want to listen to their email using their mobile phone but that will be a very small window because we will soon have miniature screens to display the emails or Web pages.

This is, then, a mixed picture which leads me to my final few points.


In a rapidly changing world it is even more important to know what you really really want than it is in a relatively static world. As long as you could only choose, because of your class or station, between being an arable farmer or a livestock farmer you spent a few years thinking about it and then turned to the plough or the breeding manual; that was your life. As long as you then shared the common entertainments of the tavern, the church and the annual fair, you were part of a coherent if rather repetitive pattern.

We know that that has gone but we haven't thought enough about what that means for people who suffer impairments in their ability to adapt and, therefore, in their ability to choose. Admittedly, in the choices I just laid out a totally blind person might not have farmed at all and might not, therefore gone to the pub and the fair except as a beggar and might only therefore have had church in common with the rest; but we expect much more now.

It is an iron rule of logical that the more variables in any situation the more difficult it is to conform to all of them; that's why the rate of mental illness is rising in the world; complexity is in inverse ratio to autonomous functioning and if you're bad at making arrangements for collaboration - what I called negotiating skills - then life becomes insupportable.

So the first requirement, if we are to help blind an d visually impaired people out of the rigidity of the basket metaphor towards participation in a network, is to decide exactly what individuals can and cannot do; what they might optimally learn and ignore; and, on that basis, we can devise a technical specification to be put to those who make the technology.

It is time we did away with fuzzy testing andn the hierarchy it's pretty grim. You can bet a barrel of fosters that most people in the personal computer field would look much less impressive if you weren't so frightened of them.

Finally, the first person to be killed by a steam locomotive was a politician, an English Member of Parliament.

Before starting out on my quest, which I will try to keep as jargon free as possible, I just want to underline how fast our world is changing - not will change, note, is chaining - with three small comparisons: in one day in 1998 the USA's economy grew by the same amount as it did in the whole of 1830; in one day last year we undertook as much scientific research as in the whole of 1960; and we sent as many emails in one day as in the whole of 1989; so let nobody think that what I am going to talk about is some time in the future; much of it has already happened and is happening now at an accelerating speed.

Standing up to speak about blind and visually impaired people and information and communications technology (ICTs) in Australia brings to mind two sharply contrasting images: the first is of the sheep farmer, lord of all he surveys as far as the eye can see in every direction; the other is of the international wool broker who sits all day at his screen, lord of the wool world in his small space.

We fly in aeroplanes, we surf the net, we drive on the freeway, we look at digital read-outs, we live at high speed in small ocular spaces; for most of us, the microscape is vocational whereas the landscape is s doing deals with half-mad, half-bankrupt accessibility peripherals and plunged into the real world of profit. We also need to recognise the limits of information interpretation that we can bring about and, again, know what can be optimally shared and what must be ignored. These are very, very hard issues, very hard to accept and even harder to implement; but then, if we don't do something it will be even harder being blind or visually impaired than it is now.