St. Louis, Missouri, was the location of the 57th Annual American Council of the Blind (ACB) Conference and Convention in early July. Benetech, the parent nonprofit of Bookshare, the world’s largest library of ebooks for people with reading barriers, is a strong supporter of the ACB and sent me and Jake Brownell, another engineer, to the event. The conference provided moments of inspiration, exciting new assistive technology devices, and a chance to network with other participants.
One of the keynote speakers, professional low vision actor Marilee Talkington, who played a blind character on the television show NCIS, offered these words of encouragement that resonated strongly with the audience:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. Create your own reality, own your magnificence, uniqueness, brilliance and fabulousness.
Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Make Accessibility a Priority
Austin Hertell, a member of the Google Accessibility Engineering team, talked about Lookout, a new Android app that provides assistance to the blind in object and text recognition. I told Austin that several years ago I participated in a study hosted by Google where a group of international students built one of the first iOS apps to feature object recognition based on machine learning. We’ve come so far since then.
An example of this progress is the Microsoft Seeing AI app that was highlighted at one of the general sessions. It offers text and object recognition, identification of currency, color, and products, light detection and more. In another presentation, Google stated that accessibility improvements to their search results page are coming soon.
Further proof of how far and fast the technology has advanced was provided by Peter Korn, Director of Amazon Accessibility, who mentioned that over 1,500 shows with audio descriptions were added this past year. Fire tablets now feature braille output. Third party sellers must provide alt-text for images. Kindle PC offers table navigation and Math ML support using NVDA. Amazon lockers now speak.
National Library Service Updates its Offerings
Even the NLS is getting in on the act. Karen Keninger, director of the NLS, said they plan to start a pilot project to begin distributing braille eReaders next spring and expect to offer access to their books through Amazon Alexa. BARD Express is a PC-based desktop app that makes it easy for patrons to find and download books.
New Products for Blind and Visually Impaired
A stroll through the exhibit hall gave me the opportunity to explore the various devices and apps designed to assist users and increase independence. Some of the exciting new developments are:
- QBraille-XL – new braille display from HIMS that features a combination of a Perkins style keyboard, plus all the function and modifier keys associated with a QWERTY keyboard.
- Brailliant BI14 – improved braille display from Humanware
- Cyber Eyez – new product that uses machine learning and “smart glasses” to provide optical character recognition, object recognition, color identification, Mood Ring mode, Amazon Alexa, Skype and real time magnification.
- AIRA – a product that connects users with individuals who are trained to provide help.
- Blind Insites LLC – offers a system called WayAround to label clothing, food, and other items. Buttons of varying size are tagged with text labels through an iOS app that reads them back using Voiceover.
- Votec promotes accessible voting using touch screen technology modeled on iOs and Android devices to complete and submit a ballot.
Bookshare Office Hours Answers Members’ Questions
Jake and I co-hosted an informal session with Bookshare members to answer questions and share features under development. The attendees provided valuable feedback on some of the reading tools, variety of books in the collection, and features they would like to see.
All in all, it was a real pleasure to attend the conference. I was reminded of the importance of advocacy, learned about new products, heard interesting presentations, and enjoyed meeting old and new friends.
Bookshare is just one of several inclusive education initiatives at Bookshare’s parent organization, Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good. We believe that access to information is a universal human right, yet more than ninety percent of books and published materials cannot be read by people with reading barriers such as dyslexia. Our work in education is focused on one big thing: making information accessible to everyone around the world through software.
One of the biggest challenges is making STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) content accessible so that students with learning barriers can see and read equations, tables, and images. Benetech has been fortunate to have Clayton Lewis, Professor of Computer Science and Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, as advisor to Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center to research ways of creating inclusive digital math.
It’s estimated that between 25-35% of students in general education classrooms struggle with math application skills. Think, for a moment, how difficult it is to work through math problems if you can’t see well, have trouble holding a pencil, or struggle to keep your work organized and legible. In a Benetech blog post, Clayton defines inclusive digital math, explains why it is important, and shares how it can benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. He also discusses some technical challenges as well as recent advances in the field.
Read the full blog post to learn more about inclusive digital math and other Benetech education initiatives.