While Amanda Massaro’s classmates download information instantly from distant libraries and laboratories, she waits for taped books to arrive by mail, or for someone to read her textbooks aloud.
A music and literature student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, the blind 21-year-old needs materials converted into Braille or audio form.
So the World Wide Web, with its computer links to research centers around the world, was off-limits, she says--until December, when her school began testing a Web browser designed for the disabled.
“I had so much freedom all of a sudden. . . . To think that you can just sit there and learn so much,” she said, recalling her first hours exploring the Internet. “It was like, this is what everybody else is doing, and now I know why they’re all so excited!”
The software--pwWebSpeak, made by the Productivity Works of Trenton--improves on existing programs that read computer screens aloud. It enables disabled users to browse through the headings and highlighted hyperlinks on a Web page, finding what they want and jumping from page to page like a sighted person.
For those with limited vision, it can display text in large type. And its developers say it should help people with dyslexia, learning disorders and dexterity impairments such as multiple sclerosis.
Amy Parker, senior program analyst in SUNY-Binghamton’s department of computing services, said pwWebSpeak likely will soon be installed on several campus computers--because class materials, course registration and other functions increasingly are posted on the Web and by law must be accessible to the disabled.
In Wisconsin, blind job-seekers now can use the software at all 21 district offices of the Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, thanks to client John Gunn, who recommended pwWebSpeak.
“Since everybody’s getting into computers, blind people shouldn’t be excluded,” said Gunn, a 42-year-old Wisconsin Rapids piano tuner. “This is a very inexpensive way to get on the Web and get up and running” quickly.
Gunn said pwWebSpeak moves easily through text and hyperlinks, is compatible with most hardware and doesn’t require a costly speech synthesizer as screen-reader programs do.
Introduced in mid-August, it works with most existing hardware for speech synthesis, but can be used with a much-cheaper software synthesizer called SoftVoice.
Charges for pwWebSpeak vary from $250 for commercial users to $125 for government, education and nonprofit agencies. Disabled individuals can get it free, but are asked to pay $50 for software support.
A January upgrade integrates access to “Real Audio 3.0,” which allows people to catch broadcasts of news programs, live concerts, college football games and more through the rapidly growing number of Real Audio sites, according to Productivity Works senior vice president Mark Hakinnen.
Two more upgrades, both with SoftVoice integrated, are due in late March: pwReader, designed for dyslexics and people with some vision, integrates Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to display Web graphics; pwWebSpeak-PRO allows voice commands to run the software.
The latter lets users give complex commands by voice, such as telling the computer to display a particular newspaper’s front page, said Productivity Works executive vice president Ray Ingram.
Versions for foreign languages will be available over the next couple of months, starting with Finnish, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Ultimately, the market for such technology includes millions with vision problems, attention deficit disorder and arm disabilities such as degenerative nerve disorders and repetitive strain injuries. Hundreds of millions of illiterate people worldwide also could benefit from voice-controlled equipment, from computers to ATM machines and informational kiosks.
“It makes good business sense and, by the way, it helps people with disabilities,” says Steve Jacobs, chairman of NCR Project Freedom, which works to make NCR computer equipment accessible to the disabled.
“Anyone in an eyes-busy, hands-busy environment is no different than a person who is blind,” adds Jacobs. “I have pwWebSpeak read my e-mail to me on my way home,” through a laptop computer.
Project Freedom has donated pwWebSpeak to Wright State University in NCR’s hometown, Dayton, Ohio, which is installing the software on hundreds of campus computers.