Technology and the handicapped; talking computers help blind students hear what they cannot see

Technology and the handicapped; talking computers help blind students hear what they cannot see

John M. Williams

Jeane Blazie and John Eulenberg are among many nationally known computer scientist developing talking microprocessors and terminals so that blind, visually impaired, speech impaired and other handicapped people can receive an education regardless of the severity of their disability. Their efforts are paying off, but there is still a long way to go.

“Many people believe that the synthetic speech used in talking terminals, typewriters, calculators, microprocessors and other talking products has been around for about a decade. Actually, synthetic speech was developed about fifty years ago. It has only been within the last ten to twelve years, particularly the last five years, that there has been a rising demand from teachers and teaching institutions who have seen for themselves the multiple benefits that synthetic speech offers to blind and visually impaired students. In future years, the demand for these products will rise more dramatically,” says Blazie, president and co-founder of Maryland Computer Services, Inc., Forest Hill, Maryland.

Eulenberg, director of the Artificial Language Laboratory in the Computer Science Department at Michigan State University, adds, “Synthetic speech is producing a revolution throughout our entire educational system.”

Teachers of handicapped children agree. “Synthetic speech has had tremendous impact in recent years in making it possible for our blind or visually impaired students to go through the same educational system that nondisabled students participate in,” says Mrs. Phyllis Brunken, Communications Specialist, Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped in Nebraska City.

The Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped was founded in 1875 by Samuel Bacon, who stated, “Education for the blind should provide not just for a living but a life.” The school continues to work toward that goal. It is a pioneer in the use of electronic equipment for visually handicapped persons. Through vocational grants, donations, trust funds, business grants and general funds, the school has developed a program to meet the following goals:

* Using the equipment tutorially to provide drill and practice in areas such as mathematics, spelling, social studies, science, and language arts;

* Using the equipment in the instruction of a computer literacy course;

* Teaching the skills for a career in computer technology;

* Career planning through the use of computer career searches; and

* Applications of technology, especially synthetic speech, to personal use to enhance the independence of the visually handicapped person.

To achieve these goals, the school purchased a talking terminal to interface with the computer. The talking terminal is also used as a talking typewriter to reinforce accuracy in typing. In one particular instance, a young man with motor disabilities would type “kkk” rather than a single “k.” After 20 minutes of using the terminal, this problem was eliminated.

The school serves as a resource to blind and visually handicapped people in Nebraska and surrounding states. They come to test the types of equipment being developed for use by blind and visually handicapped students and adults to see if it will meet their needs or solve some of their vocational problems. Other schools interested in starting similar programs have often sent their representatives to observe the students and the school’s program.

How speech is produced

Some talking terminals and computers are programmed to speak in much the same way a child is taught to read phonetically. Its speech is produced by a synthesizer board which is capable of producing 64 different phonemes (a sound that distinguishes one utterance from another, such as “th” and “sh”, and long and short vowels). A microprocessor converts letters and groups of letters into digital codes corresponding to the phonemes. The result is synthetic speech.

Talking computers and terminals are meeting the demands of blind and visually impaired students in record numbers. As the need increases, they will become an even more effective way for handicapped people to have independent access to information.

“Our blind and visually impaired students have the same access to information as our nonhandicapped students at Catonsville Community College (CCC), and now have many more opportunities available to them in education and other careers because of the talking products we have at the college,” says Bill Hadlock, coordinator of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Students at the college in Catonsville, Maryland.

The Baltimore County Board of Education established CCC in 1956. Its 26 blind and visually impaired students use a variety of speech products to help them with their class work. CCC’s Board does what it can to encourage the use of such products and to purchase them.

“The synthetic speech used in our talking terminal enables me to hear what I cannot see,” says a blind CCC student. “When I leave here to further my education, I am confident I will be competitive with the other teachers when we graduate, because synthetic speech–or rather talking computers–eliminates the traditional reasons employers have thrown at blind people for not hiring them. The most obvious one is, ‘How can you work if you cannot see?'”

More than 2,300 miles away from CCC at Arizona State University (ASU), blind and visually handicapped students, as well as those with either learning disabilities or orthopedic impairments, are using talking products.

“Students, particularly disabled ones, have to learn to view technology as their equalizer or compensator. They have to embrace it and master it. Having done so, they are the equal of nondisabled people,” says B. J. Maxson, counselor for Visually Impaired Students, Disabled Student Services, at ASU. “Our students are working very hard and very well with technology. Many of them have an easier time with it than nondisabled students. This is attributed to their individual drives and because they have more at stake than nondisabled people do.”

Last summer, ASU purchased a talking computer which has become a marvelous, productive tool for the students who use it. “I have more versatility than I would have if I were using a non-talking computer. I can write, edit and proofread my own reports with it,” says a blind student.

“There are a number of features that people should look at when they go out and purchase a talking computer,” says Maxson. “Good speech quality, user definable speech, intelligent terminal capabilities, information retrieval capability, the number of languages that can be used with it, such as COBOL, BASIC, FORTRAN, Pascal and others, storage capability, and the flexible disk drives it can use. Also very important is whether it can produce braille.”

Maxson believes that the technology must be made known and utilized in more schools. ASU, for example, has developed a statewide information program on the technology it has for disabled students, particularly its talking computer, to attract more blind and visually impaired students.

Spreading the spoken word

As more talking computers are being used with favorable results, teachers and administrators are looking for support from teaching organizations to help them to persuade other teachers to investigate the use of talking computers and to incorporate them into their curriculum. One such organization that has taken a leadership role in this area is the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

The Council for Exceptional Children is a strong advocate for the use of synthetic speech in all educational grades to help handicapped or gifted children, or both. “Synthetic speech has a unique and expanding role in assisting blind, visually impaired, and especially those students with communication disorders,” says John Grossi, project director.

CEC believes that it is everyone’s responsiblity to meet the challenge that computer technology presents to special education. They stress that a cooperative effort must be initiated among administrators, teachers, school boards, and the community at large to see that computer technology is utilized in their schools to achieve the maximum benefit for disabled or gifted children.

“In no other field does the state-of-the-art promise so much or change so rapidly. Existing uses are almost limitless, and new ones are being created all the time,” adds Mr. Grossi.

He is aware of workshops being held across the country on various uses of talking computers. Two that he would recommend are: “Making Microcomputer Talk for Blind and Speech Handicapped Students,” by Peter B. Maggs, University of Illinois at Champaign; and “The Microcomputer as an Efficient Speech Output Communication Aid,” by G. Evan Rushakoff, Department of Communication, New Mexico State University at Las Cruces.

“John Eulenberg is another person people should contact,” adds Mr. Grossi. “His work in developing talking computers is phenomenal. The benefits to speech-impaired people are a major breakthrough. His artificial language laboratory is amazing.”

The Artificial Language Laboratory, established in 1971, is a research laboratory within the Department of Computer Science at Michigan State. Its program of multidisciplinary studies is aimed at researching particular applications to address human communication needs. The lab has been involved with mass market applications of computer-based processing technology, such as two-way interactive cable television. The bulk of the lab’s efforts are directed at meeting the needs of persons with severe communication handicaps. It is supported by local foundations. United Cerebral Palsy of Jackson County, and some of the school districts in the state.

More and more research is being done in colleges and universities on applying synthetic speech to assist handicapped people. Colleges and universities are also buying talking computers, terminals, typewriters, and calculators to help handicapped students get the most out of education. Those colleges and universities are:

California State University at San Diego Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia/Pennsylvania Arizona State University at Tempe California State University at Long Beach Cuyahoga Community college, Cleveland, Ohio Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, New Jersey Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington Highline Community College, Midway, Washington Memphis State University, Memphis, Tennessee Catonsville Community College, Catonsville, Maryland North Carolina State University at Raleigh Stanford University, Palo Alto, California University of Wisconsin at Platteville University of Central Florida, Orlando University of South Florida, Tampa Taft College, Taft, California Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee University of Illinois at Champaign Valencia Community College, Orlando, Florida Another leader in this area is the federal government, which has historically funded projects dealing with different applications of talking computers.

Federal involvement

Dr. Paul Andereck, Education Specialist, Special Education Programs with the U.S. Department of Education, describes the work the federal government has undertaken to promote and fund research programs in the area of synthetic speech to assist handicapped people. He cites the results of three cases:

The work of Dr. David Lunney of East Carolina University in North Carolina involved analog instruments in a chemistry laboratory. For example, ph meter readings were hooked to a microcomputer which changed the readings to a synthesized voice so that a blind student could hear the instrument readings. Similar kinds of changes from analog readings to auditory signals for blind persons can be generalized from Lunney’s work.

Dr. Wesley Wilson of the University of Washington worked with non-vocal paralyzed people who learned the Morse Code and then could signal either a dot or a dash by any two body parts that could move. If necessary, this includes inhaling and exhaling through a straw. The Morse Code was converted by a microcomputer to printer language, or to synthetic voice, or to signals that turn a switch on or off on lights and radios. He programmed his computer to guess ahead, so that the subject seldom has to complete a word or a sentence.

Wilson’s procedure has been tested on a variety of non-vocal children who used other ways of communication before this development. His method has proved clearly superior.

Dr. Peter Maggs of the University of Illinois uses a microcomputer to take digital data and drive a commercial voice synthesizer. His software permits such readily available equipment to be used as talking terminals for blind people in many computer terminal situations, whether for education, business, or social purposes. His work also involves translating to foreign languages. Such a talking terminal has wide usage in the lives of young blind adults.

Andereck sees the role of the federal government as continuing to lead in this area. He says, “The federal government will continue to explore new educational delivery systems from high technology tools available. To make them affordable and versatile is very important to handicapped persons.”

Synthetic speech will play a major rule in reshaping the lives of disabled people. Properly used, it will open up career opportunities for them in business, government, education, and in other professional and nonprofessional fields.

Of course business is the major leader in this field, working with disabled people, special education teachers, and researchers to produce the best synthetic products. Business is also working to bring down the cost of the products. Talking computers or terminals can run from $3,000 to $11,000, depending upon the brand name and the peripherals accompanying it–including software.

“Businesses have discovered there is a market out there, particularly in the education area. Education is the place to start to shape the lives of disabled people so they can become active citizens,” says Blazie.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group