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New Devices Can Let The Blind Use Computers, But Cost Denies Access For Many

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Winnipeg Free Press, February 6, 2006.

GLEN Sepke loves his computer. He spends his days developing software for Great West Life, while online shopping, chatting and reading about current events are some of his favourite after-hours activities.

But unlike many of his fellow tech fanatics, Sepke has never laid eyes on a computer screen. He is completely blind and part of a growing trend.

"I saw the technology was going to level the playing field and we could be productive and compete with everyone else," he said.

In the 80s, technology began making it possible for the blind and visually impaired to use computers. More recent developments have paved the way for screen-reader software for cell phones, pocket computers and GPS systems.

But Dan Monchak, executive director of the Canadian Council of the Blind Manitoba, said most people are still unaware of how the blind can use computers and other gadgets.

"The general public, the majority, hasn't even heard of these kinds of devices or seen them in action," he said.

Although the technology is as sophisticated as it's ever been, access is still a problem. According to a report released by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in November 2005, only 25 percent of working-age blind people are employed. Many feel that employers don't fully recognize their potential.

"It is such a technical world, if you can't type on a keyboard, there are a lot of jobs you can't do," said Geoff Fitzgibbon, national director of the access technology program for CNIB.

Fitzgibbon said the high cost of the technology is one of the major barriers for most people. Magnifiers, screen-reader software and scanning software are some of the most widely used technologies, but most retail for more than $1,000.

The screen reader uses a synthetic voice to read aloud what is written or typed onscreen, and users have control over how much or little they would like to hear by using special keyboard commands. Magnifiers like ZoomText and MAGic allow users to select how large they would like to make images on their screens.

Out of CNIB's 100,000 blind and visually impaired clients, Fitzgibbon said about 10 percent use magnifiers and five percent use screen readers.

Provinces like Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan all have funding programs that cover 75 percent of the cost for qualified individuals, but Fitzgibbon said that still leaves many Canadians in other provinces like Manitoba at a disadvantage.

Recently, Vic Pereira completed a project management course at Red River and said his experience was far different than it was when he was completing his computer science course in the early 1980s. Instead of relying on a volunteer to help transcribe notes or read him the study material, he was able to access online texts and electronic handouts at the same time as his classmates.

"It's still a challenge for me as a blind person in a sighted environment," he said. "They still don't know what I can do."

As the baby boomers and their parents continue to age, Fitzgibbon said there will be more of a demand for these kinds of devices, and it's up to manufacturers to respond to the need.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," he said.

C. Winnipeg Free Press. Reprinted with permission.