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Workplace Breakthroughs For The Blind: Technology Has Been a Serious Barrier in The Past Now It's Opening Opportunities in Some Key Ways

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, April 19, 2003. Images: (Page One) Adaptive equipment Visuaide (Page Two) Alva Satellite on Laptop and (Page Three) Man using the Trekker with a note stating that the trekker only weighs 600 grams

MONTREAL - Every weekday morning, Maryse Legault wakes up at 6: 15 a.m., showers, has a bite of breakfast, does a quick scan of her e-mails and the day's headlines, says hello to a few friends on instant messaging service ICQ, kisses her husband goodbye and then leaves her home in suburban Montreal for the 40-minute bus ride to work, laptop in tow.

A pretty typical morning for any working executive - only Legault is blind.

Maryse (pronounced Ma-eez) Legault is one of thousands of so-called "Rubella babies" - children born to mothers who became infected with the rubella virus while pregnant between 1963 and 1965. Some were born deaf, others with cerebral palsy and still others with smaller-than-normal arms and limbs. Legault was born with no sight at all in her right eye and only a pin-sized tunnel of vision in her left that just allows her to make out some shapes and colours.

She uses a cane when she walks outside and is slated to receive her first seeing-eye dog within the next few months.

All that aside, Legault can and does just about anything any other person in the workforce can do.

She learned to read and write in Braille when she was a child, she studied human and computer sciences in college and has worked for more than 10 years testing and refining devices made and distributed by a company based in Drummondville called Visuaide, which develops and markets products geared toward helping blind and visually impaired people.

"I'm lucky because I work here and have access to all different kinds of technologies," Legault, 39, said in a recent interview at the company's Greater Montreal branch office in Longueuil. "The computer and technology is like a pen and paper for me."

Cheaper and more refined technology in the last couple of years has helped thousands of people like Legault to not only join the workforce but excel at their jobs.

Various kinds of equipment ranging from Braille readers that tell the user what is on the screen to voice synthesizers that can read out drop-down menus and text in a 'You've Got Mail'- like voice have allowed people with visual challenges to join the computing generation.

But despite incredible advances in computing, the cost of developing specialized Braille readers, keyboards and other equipment that allow blind or visually impaired people to operate a computer like anyone else has been - and still is - very expensive.

That, in turn, has been a deterrent for employers who might otherwise hire people with visual impairments, and for blind and visually impaired people who, because of limited incomes, cannot afford to buy all the equipment, software and other retrofits.

A 2001 study by Statistics Canada identified 610,950 Canadians as having a "seeing disability," that is, a person who has difficulty seeing ordinary newsprint with corrective lenses, or has difficulty seeing another person's face less than four metres away.

Of those, some 104,000 are registered with The Canadian National Institute for the Blind and are eligible for medical treatment, counselling and job placement, among other initiatives. Of that number, the CNIB placed 160 individuals through its various employment services programs into full-time jobs last year - the highest number ever, according to Bob Eichvald, the CNIB's national coordinator of employment services.

The database, which is operated in conjunction with Workopolis.com, has more than 400 resumes of job-ready candidates that the CNIB markets to potential employers across the country - candidates who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind.

Even so, it is only in the past two to three years that technology has given way to more affordable products that allow both employers and visually impaired people to work together. And there is plenty more in the works behind the scenes that will make it even better and cheaper in the not-too-distant future.

Some of those newer and better things are coming from a small lab tucked inside the engineering building at McGill University in Montreal.

Professor Vincent Hayward , director of the Centre for IntelligentMachines, has been working on a new kind of technology that promises to turn a regular old computer mouse into a cheap, effective tool for blind and visually impaired people that will completely change the way they use a computer.

What Hayward and a mushrooming field of researchers have been focusing their attention on is the study and application of haptics - the science of how humans communicate with each other through touch.

It was a fairly innocuous field until about 15 years ago when the computer revolution ushered in a whole new set of ways to mix human interaction with communications, technology and hardware. And it has been steadily producing a growing array of consumer-friendly devices that promise to change the computing experience for everyone -whether they can see or not.

Hayward is all science when he talks about his invention, which has been patented and is being developed into a prototype by Visuaide. With excited gestures, the sciency-looking 49-year-old with messy black hair and Montrealesque glasses runs his index finger back and forth over a simple black pocket comb to explain the scientific basis of how this invention is going to work.

While the teeth of the comb appear to bend and move as his finger runs across them, he explains, the actual effect is that the skin also shifts and moves to accommodate the bending teeth of the comb. In other words, the act of brushing your finger across the surface of a comb doesn't just make the teeth of the comb bend, it also makes the skin feel sensations that the brain interprets as movement and depth.

That is the essence behind Hayward's latest invention - and behind what Visuaide is currently working on to develop into a commercial product. It isn't much to look at. A round platform holds a small, square piece of metal that has little teeth that stick up - unlike a traditional Braille reader where a user has to run fingers over the line of Braille to read it.

The teeth of Hayward's product provide the physical sensations by constantly changing shape underneath their finger to form Braille characters. The device, originally called "virtual Braille," has only three working parts, meaning it will be inexpensive to produce.

It's a far cry from the device Legault currently relies on to navigate her laptop.

Called the Alva Satellite, it costs about $10,000 (Canadian) - and that's for the cheaper version that produces fewer combinations of Braille Characters. A more expensive version can run as high as $20,000.

The Alva itself is a testament to how far technology has come. It is purple and works like a miniature player piano.

As Legault navigates through Windows on her laptop computer, tiny white plastic dots poke up out of the keyboard, rapidly disappearing and reappearing like moving piano keys, forming Braille as she moves around and telling her what menu she is pulling down, what program she is either opening or closing and what the text says.

As she demonstrates the machine, her laptop unexpectedly freezes - twice - forcing her to reboot and wait for Windows to perform a scandisk.

Both times, the Alva silently wiggles its message to her fingers, including two white dots at the bottom right corner that steadily move up and down - the cursor - letting her know what's going on.

"The battery on the computer is low," she giggles. "That's why it keeps shutting down."

The Alva is just one of many products Visuaide sells to both individual consumers and companies.

A cheaper device called the Pac-Mate acts as a portable word processor, allowing users to type in a record Braille. It weighs about a kilogram and bears striking similarity to a stenography machine. It also has a serial port in the back to transfer documents back and forth to a laptop or a desktop computer.

The company also offers packaged software called Jaws for Windows - a speech synthesizer that interacts with a computer's sound card to read information from the screen aloud.

There's also the Victor Reader Vibe - a digital talking book player combined with a commercial, off-the-shelf MP3 player. And there's The Trekker - a modified PDA that uses the Global Positioning System, or GPS, to tell a blind person exactly where they are in any city in the world.

Legault and her colleagues were breaking out the wine in celebration of the official release of the Trekker this month when she agreed to be interviewed for this article.

The device, which weighs less than 600 grams, slings over one shoulder and rests on your hip like a rucksack. It will retail for $1,595 (U.S.). But while the Trekker is a promising product, it is Hayward's invention that has Legault and the rest of the folks at Visuaide very excited - for the simple reason that is promises to revolutionize the way blind and visually impaired people interact with a computer - and make it easier and cheaper for employers to outfit existing hardware and software for their needs.

For starters, it will be as simple as plugging in a mouse to the back of a computer; no fuss, no trouble and no mess with extra wires or ports. What's more, the virtual Braille mouse will act in similar fashion to existing Braille readers - it will read text on a screen and translate into Braille my motoring its 100 "teeth" into the raised dots that Louis Braille invented some 200 years ago.

Further down the road, Visuaide plans to expand the mouse's capability so that a person would be able to feel the bumps and dips of what is on the screen.

And the price tag? Less than $1,000, according to Visuaide President Gilles Pepin - significantly less than any of the Braille-reading equipment on the market.

Currently, a person reading Braille using the Alva or some other reader can only read the equivalent of less than one line of text on a page at a time.

The virtual mouse, by contrast, will be able to read anything that is on the screen in any particular order - not just left to right like current readers but also up, down and sideways.

It is those capabilities that Pepin believes will open up the flood gates in terms of allowing blind and visually impaired people to work and communicate just like anyone else without all of the expensive specialized equipment they -or their employers - currently have to invest in to keep them working.

"What most blind want is a screen that they could physically touch to feel what is in front of them," Pepin said. "Perhaps one day we will be able to come up with that. For now, what we have is the next best thing, and I think it will completely change the way blind people interact with computers and their ability to use technology effectively, wherever they are. It will definitely change things for the better."

Legault agrees wholeheartedly. "I'm really looking forward to using it," she said. "If I can carry around a regular mouse with my computer rather than all the extra equipment, and it helps me read better and it doesn't cost as much, then that will be very good for me - and very good for a lot of other people too."

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