New Technology and the Research Activities of a Visually Handicapped Person at the Université du Québec à Montréal

This communication is firstly a testimonial and secondly an overall perspestive on the working conditions which I have pursued both educational and professional activities. This overall perspective will be centered on the equipment wich has allowed me to have access to the printed world and master its key elements.

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New Technology and the Research Activities of a Visually Handicapped Person at the Université du Québec à Montréal

1 Introduction

This article is firstly a testimonial and secondly an overall perspective on the working conditions under which I have pursued both educational and professional activities. This overall perspective will be centered on the equipment which has allowed me to have access to the printed word and to master its key elements: reading and writing.

After first presenting the technological environment in which I work as a researcher at the Université du Québec à Montréal, I will go on to mention my general tasks and the specific activit­ies concerning the research project for which I am responsible. I will briefly go over the ground covered during the last ten years from the point of view of the tools which allow the visually handicapped closer contact and more direct access to written communication. Finally, I will conclude by sharing with you a few of my hopes for the future but also a few apprehensions and a wish that these thoughts will be taken into consideration by everyone involved in technological develop­ment in general, and particularly in the area of technological development for the visually handicapped.

2 My Technological Environment

The technological environment of my work area is similar to that of the sighted but rather more elaborate. It consists of:

      • an IBM-compatible computer,
      • a screen,
      • an extended keyboard,
      • an 80-cell braille display window equipped with an autono­mous program,
      • a standard printer,
      • a braille printer,
      • an electric typewriter,
      • a braille typewriter,
      • an integrated reading system with its scanner, its opticalcharacter recognition unit (OCR), a synthetic voice in French and a software program,
      • a word-processor program,
      • a contraction program for printing braille texts.

I also have the old standbys: a cassette recorder and recor­ded cassettes.

3 My Professional Activities

My professional activities are identical to those of any resear­cher: document consulting, compiling, analyzing, conceptualizing, writing, communicating, teaching, etc.

In the more specific framework of the research project with which I am associated: project for the standardization of braille text processing in French, I must:

      • conceive norms, which consequently entails being acquainted with existing work, establish and propose a grouping by theme of the subjects to be covered,[1] compile and analyze current printing practices (symbols and format), evaluate possible braille adaptations;
      • elaborate working papers;
      • present these to the normalization committee;[2]
      • rework them taking into account the reactions and positions of the committee;
      • combine all the working papers into a volume for publication;[3]
      • direct training sessions for teachers and transcribers throug­hout Quebec with a view to the establishment of the Code.

When all the activities related to reading and writing, activit­ies inherent to the tasks enumerated above, are performed by a person who has no direct access to printed material, the work management process is very complicated compared to that used by a person who has direct access to printed material. Technological innova­tions progressively introduce a positive and encouraging aspect into the framework of such work management strategies.

4 Perspectives

4.1 Pre-computer Tools

Until the early 80’s, the tools available to the visually handi­cap­ped which allowed them first to have access to printed infor­mation and then to produce that information, was made up of, in the best of cases:

      • a braille desk slate and stylus,
      • a braille typewriter,
      • a tape recorder and tapes recorded by volunteers without profes­sional assistance,
      • a cassette recorder and cassettes recorded by amateurs and gradually by special organisations,
      • a manual ordinary typewriter and later on, an electric one.

To this one always had to add a pool of volunteer readers.

It must be noted here that beginning in the 60’s the advent of the recorder and audio tapes significantly broadened the access to printed information by the visually handicapped. It was during that period that an important number of reading services on pre-recorded tapes was made available in French in Quebec.

4.2 Computer-age Tools

Since the beginning of the 80’s the equipment of the visually handicapped has been affected by the new technology. In my case, the computer entered my life in 1985 and it gradually changed my work habits and my equipment. This new tool simultaneously simplified certain aspects of my work,[4] but it cost me an enormous amount of time and energy.[5]  My first contact with paperless braille was the braille display processor, Versa-Braille, and over the years I have successively used three models of that braille terminal.

4.2.1 The First Small Miracle

The addition of a standard printer to the Versa-Braille was, in my life, the first small computer miracle. The fact of not having to type a text twice (first in braille for personal use and then in print for all other communication), what a burden of work this removed!  To the wonderful amount of energy and time saved can be added all the other advantages of the printers, not the least being the possibility of almost instan­taneous correction.

The addition of the braille printer to the Versa-Braille and to the standard printer quickly became necessary for the production of braille documents on paper for personal use.

4.2.2 The Second Small Computer Miracle

Recently, a new instrument was added to my equipment: the IBM computer. This computer was connected successively to the Versa-Braille, to the Navigator braille display window, and finally to the Alva-Braille. I have gone then from a 20-cell braille display window to the 40-cell and finally to the 80-cell display window.

This last 80-cell braille display window (giving me direct access to a screen line) and its autonomous program (a major tool for a tactile visualization of the screen[6]) represents the second small computer miracle.

4.2.3 The Third Small Computer Miracle

The third small computer miracle is the IRIS reading system. Such a system is a new step towards the direct access to printed information. Once the information has been « read » by the scanner, treated by the optical character recognition unit, it can be decoded primarily by the synthetic voice (available either in French or English), and also in braille via the tactile display window.

To increase the scope of this third small miracle called IRIS (or any equivalent system), the inventors and researchers should give as much importance to tactile decoding as to aural decoding, so that:

      • the visually handicapped may have access to both technologies;[7]
      • the user may know the precise format of the printed text;[8]
      • the operations of the text format may be limited;
      • reading via the tactile display may be easier and swifter.

The program should produce a screen page (and also a tactile one) that respects the format of the printed page.

4.2.4 A Very Precious Tool

In order to arrive at the satisfactory printing of a document both in print and in braille, a few specifications must be taken into account. The first point is the format: paragraphs, line spaces, letter headings, margins, print characters, etc., are not treated the same way in print and in braille. The second point concerns the « integral » text versus the text with contractions. By « integral » is meant the use of each letter that makes up a word,[9] while contractions are the use of one letter or a group of letters that refer to a complete word or a part of a word.[10]  Most lan­guages (including French) use an organized and recognized system of contractions to be used in braille. For any reader familiar with braille, a text with contractions, besides taking up less space than an « integral » text, is read much faster and much more easily.

The contraction program Converto-Braille, created for the production of French texts, includes the code of French contractions[11] and the norms for the treatment of braille in conformity with the Code de transcription de l’imprimé en braille. This program, with a few operations[12] in the « integral » text treated by the computer and presented for printing according to print norms, is able to produce the same text with contractions and print it in the specific format of quality braille. The program offers, then, to a visually handicapped person, a wide spectrum of possibilities and an increased efficiency (parallel printing of a same text in print and in braille) without doubling the time invested.

4.2.5 The Advantages

Basing myself on my present technological environment, on my work experience and my needs, the computer elements I have mentioned (or equivalent ones) allow a efficient and productive use of the Wordperfect program (and no doubt also a large number of standard programs). With such tools, the information stored on discs and also obtained from various sources is directly accessible to visually handicapped persons who are adequately equipped. Com­munication within a work team is then greatly improved and accelerated.

4.2.6 The Pitfalls

In six years I had to « tame » and master several braille terminals in a professional context, and that meant that work had to be produced and deadlines had to be met. The most important dif­ficul­ties were the result of incompatibility between the systems. For example, I’ll mention here only my very painful trans­ition from the Versa-Braille to the IBM computer. At that point, I had already accumulated more than 1200 files on the Versa-Braille discs.[13]

Part of these files had been stored in the « integral » form. When transferring them, the majority of the specifications of the processor program were lost and the text had to be completely reformatted. Other texts in French and in English had been treated in contracted form. When they were transfered, the form of many symbols was modified and the texts inserted in the IBM computer had to go thr ough a gigantic operation in order to recover a certain degree of reading and printing quality. Despite the considerable amount of time dedicated to the treat­ment of such a large number of files, a certain number of them are still practically useless on the new equipment.

5 My Hopes and Apprehensions

Because I have used braille since the beginning of my schooling and have never had direct access to the printed word, I am able to measure the enormous progress that has been made in the field of equipment destined to give the visually handicapped access to printed information and also to produce it themselves.

When I first learned braille, the only tool I had to write with was the desk slate and stylus.  When I worked on my doctoral thesis, I used a cassette recorder, pre-recorded cassettes, the braille type­writer for note-taking and writing, plus the regular typewriter for texts that had to be presented to professors. Today I am working with colleagues thanks to computer discs and I can consult printed documents thanks to a computerized reading system.

It is undeniable, then, that compared to former working conditions, giant steps have been made from the technological point of view and we can only applaud the fact.

5.1 My Hopes

Considering the present requirements in the work place and the many operating methods in everyday life, one would hope that:

      • the rhythm of technological development for the visually handicapped may be maintained and even accelerated;
      • the material developped for them be compatible with standard equipment in the work place;
      • instruments become more and more refined and efficient;
      • the number of programs used for the braille display window and synthetic voice be increased;
      • standardization of the equipment be considered, and that it become an objective;[14]
      • technological developments allowing the blind to read and write (via the tactile display window) not be neglected, but be maintained and even strengthened;
      • the treatment of the particularities of different languages be taken into account and respected.

5.2 My Apprehensions

If all technological development is directed towards graphic representation and visual operations for the larger number of users, leaving aside the visually handicapped, these last will find themselves once again in a technological dead-end. In those cir­cumstances, (that only those involved in systems development can help us to avoid) we must realize and even be certain that the visually handicapped will be left behind just as they were before the advent of the new technology, despite the giant steps ac­complished today. Once more they will be light years away from what the sighted will be using every day, even for the simplest operations.

The visually handicapped have reason to be thankful for the equipment now available.  But, since the rhythm of general technological development is so rapid, they must be part of it (not only adapting their needs to the equipment available but making their needs known) so that after having so much hope, and making efforts to catch up, they are not left behind.

The visually handicapped must not only have access to the new technology and use it to increase the potential for integration into the work place, but they must especially make efficient use of these instruments and be able to remain in constant intercommu­nication with all those involved in the various milieux of everyday life and work.

Nicole Trudeau Ph.D. (UQAM)

Traduction en anglais: Florence Blouin

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Notes :

[1] I am presently working on tactile graphics, among others.

[2] This committee was set up in 1985. It is made up of braille users, teachers at various levels, transcribers, etc. A representative from the Ministry of Higher Education and Science of the Gorvernment of Quebec (which is financing the project) acts as president of the committee.

[3] Gouvernement du Québec, Code de transcription de l’imprimé en braille, tome I, 1989, 374 pages, the first reference work dealing with the normalization of braille in French.

[4] An example is given in paragraph 4.2.1.

[5] See explanations in paragraph 4.2.6.

[6] It allows me, among other things, to recognize text formating as it appears on the screen (bold characters, underlining, reverse video, etc.) and thus to maximize the control over the word processor and consequently over the quality of the produced document.

[7] To the same extent and with the same degree of efficiency for tactile reading as for aural reading.

[8] In its present version, page format is not entirely respected.

[9] In print, the text is always « integral ».

[10] In braille, the text can be presented in « integral » form or with contractions.

[11] American Foundation for Overseas Blind, Index de l’abrégé orthographique français étendu, second edition, 1955.

[12] I would hope there could be fewer operations in the future versions of the Converto-Braille program.

[13] The size of the files in the Versa-Braille was very limited.

[14] I am referring here to the many different computer keyboard displays. These variations complicate autonomous access to the keyboard by the visually handicapped and hinder the user’s efficiency.

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Article publié dans: 

World Congress on Technology Conference Proceedings / 1-5 decembre, 1991, Arlington Virginia / vol. 3, pp. 22-35 / Nicole Trudeau Ph.D. / New Technology and the Research Activities of a Visually handicapped Person at the Université du Québec à Montréal / (communication prononcée dans le cadre dudit Congrès).

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Sur des sujets apparentés :

La nouvelle technologie et les activités de recherche d’une personne handicapée de la vue à l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

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