WASHINGTON, D.C. - People who are blind, deaf, or have other disabilities could greatly benefit from computers and the Internet, and the steps that could improve access for these groups would actually improve the Internet for everyone. But those steps are often not taken, one expert says.
John Gardner, a professor of physics at Oregon State University, spoke Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He says both the government and industry have been slow to address this issue and make minor changes that could have a major impact. Federal support for research and private sector investment that could benefit both abled and disabled Internet users has been slow and halting, he said.
Gardner - a prominent scientist who lost his eyesight in mid-career and has since developed a major research initiative at OSU called the Science Access Project - said that computers and the Internet hold the potential to revolutionize information access and education for people with disabilities. Much of the technology already exists, he said, and more could be developed, if anyone noticed or cared.
"In the long run I'm extremely optimistic about the progress we can make with this technology to help people with disabilities," Gardner said. "But it's hard to predict how fast things will go. Frankly, we haven't convinced the government how important this is or major companies that it's good business."
Gardner says that may be a critical error in judgment on their part, largely because the same approaches, tools and technology that can make information or education accessible to people with disabilities will also make it far more effective for the average person or student.
For years, in a crusade both personal and professional, Gardner has been trying to wake people up to the reality that people learn best in different ways - some by seeing, others by hearing, touching, repeating, doing. Making information accessible in different ways on computers and the web, he says, could not only open new doors to people with disabilities but also greatly improve the usefulness of the web for almost everyone. And that, he says, is a smart, potentially profitable business advantage.
Gardner once was a traditional teacher who stood in front of a class and lectured. Since going blind as a result of complications from glaucoma, Gardner says he has developed a whole new vision of what education can and should be, in which modern technology, computers and the web are all integrated to help students absorb information in the ways that work best for them.
Gardner, who has struggled against antiquated learning systems, invented a new form of Braille called "Dots Plus" that can make advanced mathematics available for the first time to blind people. He has fought through government red-tape and bureaucracy - including one grant that was lost because he couldn't see that his application was not double-spaced, as an agency required. And he has battled through corporate indifference, helping to create a start-up company called ViewPlus Technologies in Corvallis, Ore., that can directly market some of the new technology his research has invented.
Work is now continuing with two grants Gardner has for $200,000 each from the National Science Foundation. Progress is steady. Recent advances include a free "triangle" computer software program that helps blind students read and write mathematics and science. A graphing calculator plays an audible tone that can help blind people conceptually understand the image. New systems have been created to display graphic images from the web. And an instrument called the "Tiger Advantage" has for the first time allowed easy printing of graphics in a tactile, raised-dot form that blind people can use.
"Products such as the Tiger Advantage are important technologies, and some blind people who use it are absolutely enthralled," Gardner said. "It's the first embosser that can print directly from standard Windows applications, permit easy one-step production of text and tactile graphics. Blind computer users will now have information never before available to them, all without the assistance of sighted helpers."
But there's still a lot of room for improvement, Gardner said.
"Some companies try to be very helpful," Gardner said. "But even when they make programs or information accessible, they do it the wrong way. They often think, for instance, that they need totally separate approaches for people who are blind, or deaf, or have no disabilities. They miss the point."
That point, Gardner believes, is for virtually all information on computers and the web to have multiple levels of access that anyone - abled or disabled - can tap into, to use in whatever way works best for them. For instance, some new graphics now showing up on the web are using a technology called "structured vector graphics" that significantly improves their quality. But if people could click on "accessibility links," a different format might appear and labels could be attached to certain points.
The information could then be made far more informative and useful both for abled and disabled users. A voice synthesizer might describe aspects of the graphic image, a "force-feedback" mouse could provide physical feedbacks so the user could help sense the graphic shape, a tactile image could be printed. Other innovations would also be possible. On a map, a user could move down a row of buildings, feel their outlines and hear descriptions of the building names or the streets in front of them.
This, Gardner says, is the key to making the web an educational revolution that can help everyone - blind, deaf, dyslexic or normal - learn in the way that works best for them, personally.
"These things are possible, they are not that technologically difficult and I think it's time for them to happen," he said. "Now."