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Collection: Technology for Students Who Are Visually Impaired

Purple arrow (1137 bytes)Access Technology for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons

REFERENCE: Schreier, E.M.*, Levanthal, D.D., Uslan, M.M. (1991). Access technology for blind and visually impaired persons. Technology and Disability,1 (1), 19-23.

Description of article:

CONTEXT: The authors describe four methods that persons who are blind or visually impaired use to access information: enhanced image, braille, synthetic speech and optical character recognition. These devices can be used separately or in combination to access consumer products, personal computers and printed information. Each category of device is described in detail and examples are provided of products currently available. Brief descriptions follow:

Enhanced image devices provide a method of accessing printed material or personal computer (PCs) through magnification hardware and software. Closed circuit television (CCTV) is used for print information. With technological advancements, CCTVs will probably use high resolution, flat panel color displays and smaller digital cameras, which will enhance both the color image and portability.

Optical character recognition (OCR) systems convert print into an electronic form accessible via adaptive equipment, allowing persons who are blind or visually impaired access to print materials. Drawbacks of current technology include the need to have reasonably high quality print and the inability to recognize handwritten materials.

A synthetic speech system, the major method by which blind and visually impaired person access information from a PC, is composed of a synthesizer for "speaking," and a screen access program "that tells the synthesizer what to say." The qualities and current limitations of synthetic speech are described, with a note emphasizing the likely improvements to come. These include human-like voices and easy access to all software, including graphics.

Braille access through paperless braille devices provide another means to access personal computers. These devices are described in detail. They offer a major advantage over speech programs by allowing the user to immediately learn the format of the data on the computer screen. When proofreading, the user quickly catches misspellings, extra spaces between words, and accidental capitalizations. The price remains the major disadvantage. The authors also describe the relative advantages of braille notetakers and braille printers. Braille notetakers, as small, portable devices with braille keyboards for entering information, use a speech synthesizer or braille display for output. They are popular for use in classrooms, meetings, and on business trips due to their size, flexibility, cost and quality of silence during data entry. Braille printers convert text files into hard-copy braille (computer braille, grade 1 or grade 2 braille). Current disadvantages of braille printers are that they are noisy and expensive. We can, however, anticipate developments in plastic materials to result in the production of a reasonably priced full-page braille display.


The authors conclude by noting the monumental advances in improving opportunities for people with disabilities made over the past decade in both access technology and societal awareness. The challenge continues in attempts to provide equality of access to information for persons who are blind and visually impaired, particularly in light of the trend toward pictorial information in lieu of text.

Note: NCIP's funding ended September 1998.  For more information about this resource, please contact:

Elliot Schreier is director of the National Technology Center (E-mail: of the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc. He supervises research and development, information dissemination and evaluations activities on technology used by blind and visually impaired persons.

Jay Leventhal is resource specialist at the National Technology Center of the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc. He has published product comparisons on assistive technology, including electronic braille displays, braille notetakers, laptop computers with speech, and technology-related publications. He coordinates the Careers and Technology Information Bank (CTIB), a data base that provides information about jobs held, and assistive technology used by persons who are blind and visually impaired. He holds a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Mark M. Uslan is manager of the Technology Center of the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc. For more than ten years he has been involved in research on orientation and mobility for persons who are blind and visually impaired.

* Journal article cites author as Schrier.


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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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