[nfb-talk] The craze for touch-screen gadgets is raising worries that a whole generation of consumer electronics will be out of the reach of the blind

Chris Foster cfoster at nfbco.org
Fri Jan 9 21:58:03 UTC 2009

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The craze for touch-screen gadgets, sparked by 
Apple Inc's popular iPhone, is raising worries that a whole 
generation of consumer electronics will be out of the reach of the blind.

Motown icon Stevie Wonder and other advocates came to the world's 
biggest gadget fest, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las 
Vegas this week, to convince vendors to consider the needs of the blind.

Wonder told a CES event that his wishlist included a car he could 
drive -- which he acknowledged was probably "a ways away" -- and a 
Sirius XM satellite radio he could operate.

"If you can take those few steps further, you can give us the 
excitement, the pleasure and the freedom of being a part of it," said 
the famed musician.

Wonder said some companies had managed to make their products more 
accessible to the blind, sometimes without even meaning to. He cited 
an iPod music player and Research in Motion's BlackBerry as gadgets 
he likes to use.

Advocates argue that if product designers take into account blind 
needs, they would make electronics that are easier to use for the 
sighted as well.

The good news is that manufacturers do not need to put large sums of 
money into making products accessible, nor would they have to forsake 
innovation, said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National 
Federation For The Blind.

"We don't want to hold up technological progress," he said. "What 
we're saying is, think about the interface and set it up in such a 
way that it's simple .... The simpler you make the user interface of 
a product, it's going to reach more people sighted or blind."


With the popularity of touch screens, once simple products such as 
televisions and stereos have become difficult for blind people to use 
as they often require navigation of multiple menus that need to be 
seen to be used effectively.

"That's an increasing problem with new digital devices. It's easy to 
add feature after feature that's buried under menu after submenu," 
said Mike Starling, chief technology officer of National Public 
Radio, which is working on accessible options.

Manufacturers have been putting touch screens in everything from 
calculators and watches to computers and music players.

Sendero Group President Mike May, who is blind, joked, "Can I ski 60 
miles an hour downhill? Yes. Use a flat panel microwave? No." Sendero 
makes GPS navigational devices that have an audio output for the blind.

There are also screen readers that give an audio reading of a phone's 
menu. But Anne Taylor, director of access technologies at the 
National Federation for the Blind, says they do not yet help her to 
use a touch-screen phone.

She said the ability to use a device without needing to look at it 
could help sighted people who are driving or older people whose 
eyesight is starting to deteriorate.

While blind users can buy screen-reading software for $300 upward, it 
tends to only work on certain phones, often the most expensive 
smartphones. Sendero said accessible technology is often expensive, 
and about 70 percent of the U.S. blind population is unemployed.

Taylor is using CES as a forum to present vendors a set of 
suggestions for product design that she sees benefiting both sighted 
and blind consumers.

For example, manufacturers could include an easy-to-use start-over 
button, different sounds for different menus, and controls with good 
tactile feedback.


Ahead of the show, there were some signs that vendors, while unlikely 
to give up on the touch-screen trend, may be more ready to consider 
consumers with disabilities.

Developers at Google Inc are working on ways to make touch-screen 
phones, including those based on its own Android mobile software, 
usable for blind people.

National Public Radio announced a special radio receiver technology 
and software that would connect a digital radio to a dynamic Braille 
generating device. It has also created special digital radio channels 
for readings of the day's newspapers.

Dice Electronics has made a prototype radio that incorporates the NPR 
technology, and NPR's Starling hopes this will become a commercial 
product in 2009.

Starling has also set up meetings at CES with other manufacturers in 
the hope they will include NPR's technology. He said responses to 
requests for information, which often go unheeded, are much more 
active this year.

Some manufacturers could use their production facilities to make such 
devices, as demand weakens for more mainstream products in the 
economic downturn, he said.

"I think in general there may be a view that accessibility may be 
becoming the new green," said Starling.

(For more news from the Consumer Electronics Show, please click on 
and visit the Reuters MediaFile blog at 

(Reporting by Sinead Carew; editing by Richard Chang)

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