Speech Turns People with Disabilities into Technological Leaders

Speech input for computers is here and promises to revolutionize the way we use them. Many experts think speech input is the most important development in computers since the advent of the PC. Speech simply makes the computer easier and more intuitive to use.

This technology has been well received by people in many different occupations, including lawyers, doctors, business people and students, usually bringing greater efficiency and cutting costs.

But if there is one group that benefits more from speech technology than any other, it would have to be people with disabilities. Developers and dealers invariably talk about this market segment being the most rewarding group with which to do business.

For many people with disabilities, speech input enables them to run their computer and communication with others and to gain employment. In this market, speech is a mission critical application. Whether the physical impediment has been repetitive stress injury, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, or a host of other diseases, speech input has allowed these individuals to further their education and to gain an income and open up to them the world of computers and the internet.

Their interest in speech technology in many ways continues a tradition of people with disabilities being technological leaders. While the need for a technology may not be immediately evident to mainstream marketers, fulfilling the needs of people with disabilities often drive the innovations eventually benefiting us all.

The most important example of this was no doubt when Alexander Graham Bell's work with the deaf led to the development of the telephone. And more recently, people with disabilities were clearly among the first and heaviest users of the Internet.

For developers, working to bring speech input to people with physical disabilities can be very fulfilling. In most cases, if it is possible to make speech input so easy to use that a person with physical disabilities can use a computer effectively, that same technology would transfer directly to users of computers that do not have physical limitations.

Some examples of how speech technology is helping people with disabilities: A quadriplegic with no movement from the neck down, who prior to his accident was a writer for a ski magazine. Using a speech technology system that was primitive by today's standards, he was able to write, send faxes, and generally operate his system in a hands free mode.

A legal secretary with a neurological disease is able to resume working at her old job after being out for two years.

Several students with cerebral palsy who are continuing and excelling in their high school and college.

An entrepreneur with multiple sclerosis has been able to open his own business and manage it through the use of his computer.

A house bound quadriplegic who is able to control his environment by voice from any place within his home. From turning on the television to answering and placing telephone calls, to opening doors, he is able to function without assistance.

An international lawyer with dyslexia, who at the age of 60, is using his computer for e-mail, writing letters, and generating contracts. He reports now that he does not know how he had been able to do his work before getting a Chatterbox system.

Speech therapy

Speech therapists report that speech input to computers is one of the best therapy devices they have ever used. With speaker-dependent, discrete recognition systems, the patient must say each word separately and distinctly for the system to have maximum recognition. Often after several months of using the system, a marked improvement is seen with speech impediments caused by strokes or cerebral palsy. If users are able to keep their utterances consistent, the system "learns" and adapts to the user's pronunciation of words.

We are on the threshold of being able to provide opportunities for education, employment and recreation no matter what the user's physical capabilities are. Now more than ever, people can be judged on the quality of their minds and their work effort rather than on their physical capabilities.

Both the keyboard and the mouse have been blamed as major causes of repetitive stress injuries to users of computers. Speech input may be the only long term solution for the problem. Most users are faster and more accurate using speech input than they ever were with the keyboard or mouse.

One of the greatest problems with the present user interface to computers for both the physically disabled and the physically able users, is the use of menus for command and control of programs. Very often the user must go down several layers of menus to execute a command for the program they are running.

For example, in Microsoft Word, if you wish to change the margins on a document, you must know the change margins commands is not under the format menu or the edit menu, but rather under the file menu. Under file menu, you must access page setup which then allows you to change the margins. With speech input, the user can say "change margins" without having to know where the command fits into the menu structure.

We recently speech enabled one of the most popular contact management software packages. The program had approximately 200 functions. By the time the program was speech-enabled, we had over 1,000 voice commands.

By having logical, multiple voice commands to do the same functions, the program became much easier and simpler to use.

With the integration of speech input with other emerging technologies, the way we use computers is changing fast. Computers are first and foremost tools to allow us to do our work. They should be as intuitive and easy to use as a wrench. Soon, computers will be able to recognize continuous speech and handwritten text and both verbal and graphical output.

To make this become a reality, more development must be done to take these exciting technologies and adapt them to the real world of the physically disabled. It offers great rewards for those willing to invest their time and money in adapting this technology to the needs of the physically disabled. Development is directly transferable to the general computing market.

Investing in product development in this market offers the dual reward of making this a better world with the opportunity to make profits.

Harry Nielsen is the president of Talk to Computers, Inc., 3241 Southside Road, Frankfort, NY 13340
and can be reached at (800) 350-5042.

JAWS for Windows 95
Henter-Joyce, Inc. recently released their Windows 95 compatible screen reader for the blind and visually impaired, JAWS for Windows, (JFW) version 2.0.

Using a speech synthesizer or TextAssist, JAWS converts computer text and graphics into speech allowing a blind computer user access to the Windows operating system and applications.

JAWS features SmartScreen technology, the "hands-off" screen reading technology that allows JFW to speak any program automatically. It intelligently looks at the screen and determines what to speak so unfamiliar applications can be used immediately.

The new version will contain support for both Windows 3.1x and Windows 95 plus the JAWS features and benefits like improved screen sensitive help, ease of use with standard Windows keyboard commands and a new basic cassette training tutorial designed for Windows 95 users.

Contact Henter-Joyce, 2100 62nd Ave. North, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33702, or call (800) 336-5658.

Type 'n Speak 2000
Blazie Engineering recently introduced Type 'n Speak 2000, an enhanced talking notetaker for blind and visually-impaired people.

Type 'n Speak is a stand-alone word processor with voice output, which features a standard QWERTY keyboard. Its voice replaces a computer screen for anyone who has trouble reading print.

Type 'n Speak is available in 15 languages and can be programmed to hold two simultaneously. Users may switch between the two languages of their choice with a single command. Additionally, Type 'n Speak can perform as a fully-adjustable speech synthesizer, scientific calculator, clock, appointment secretary, address book, computer terminal and more.

Contact Blazie Engineering, 105 E. Jarrettville Road, Forest Hill, MD 21050 or on the web visit http://www.blazie.com

Interfaces from Alva Access Group
Alva Access Group produces intuitive interfaces for blind computer users. Available for Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and Macintosh, the interfaces work with all standard applications and support SoundBlaster and all popular speech synthesizers.

A powerful and flexible screen reader for Windows, outSPOKEN for Windows, version 1.1 provides a robust speech output interface that allows a blind or print impaired user to independently use mainstream software on a standard PC.

The software package features automatic cursor and highlight tracking, identifies all fonts, sizes and styles; announces new windows and dialog boxes, identifies buttons, check boxes and other graphical controls and identifies icons and other graphics in a distinctive Graphics Voice.

No programming is required and intuitive pointer navigation makes it easy to point, click, drag and drop.

For more information, contact Alva Access Group, Inc., 5801 Christie Ave., Suite 465, Emeryville, CA 94608; by phone at (510) 923-6280 or at http://www.aagi.com

Speech Recognition from Katalavox
Kempf-Katalavox designs and manufactures speech recognition systems used in several applications, many of which are related to assistive technology. The company produces a speech recognition system used in: control of surgical microscopes in operating rooms control of a power wheelchairs for quadriplegics control of environmental functions, such as TV, lights and telephones for quadriplegics control of electrical functions in automobiles for handicapped drivers.

Contact the company at 1080 E. Duane Ave., Suite #E, Sunnyvale, CA. 94086 or call (800) 255-6174, or send Email to info@katalovox.com

New from Compusult
Compusult develops speech technology products for personal use and industrial use, including helping to adapt workplaces for the visually impaired.

Among their products are DigiCite, which gives a voice output of electronic LED displays and ScanTELL, which is a talking bar code reader. ScanTELL uses bar code scanning, relational database and voice synthesis technologies.

Compusult also produces SounText, a multi-lingual voice synthesizer and WebCite, which allows users to navigate the Web, send E-mail, and download information within a text-to-speech environment.

Contact Compusult Limited, 40 Banister Street, PO Box 1000, Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada, A1N3C9; by phone at (709) 745-7914, or at http:\\www.compusult.nf.ca

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