Carolyn O'Grady welcomes the latest technology at the RNIB's annual exhibition for the visually impaired. The visually impaired have much to gain from technology. This was obvious at the fourth Royal National Institute for the Blind exhibition, Vision '95, held at Kensington Town Hall in London last week. The huge range of exhibits from software, Braille writers and closed-circuit television screens to speech synthesisers, bore witness to this.
The problem for the visually impaired is not to work out what technology can actually do for them but to make sure that what it does is designed with their needs in mind. In the past, developments have left organisations and companies struggling to keep up because the needs of the visually impaired were not sufficiently considered. As Paul Ennals, RNIB's director said, "We must now make sure we get on the bandwagon and stay on it."
The advent of Windows systems for computers, with their graphical screens, has posed immense accessibility problems for the visually-impaired user. Now, however, several speech and Braille screen readers exist for Windows, which describe what is on the screen or translate the text in to Braille, and many were on show at Vision '95.
These include Outspoken (speech only) and Windots (Braille only) both from Alphavision, and Protalk (speech and Braille) from Professional Vision Services. Recent American legislation now requires software and systems providers to accommodate the needs of the disabled, which means that Microsoft's long-awaited Windows 95 due in August should perform better with screen readers.
This would be of enormous benefit, for the fact is that information which appears on a computer screen can in theory be more easily accessed through a Braille, large-print printer or speech than from books. The Internet could also open up a whole world of information to the visually impaired and the RNIB is currently lobbying organisations to put information on to the Internet which is useful for them.
Also at the exhibition were many resources which, although less high-tech and global than the Internet and Windows, offer much to visually-impaired pupils in schools.
Magnifiers of all sorts were on display, simple and sophisticated. An easy way of enlarging the television picture by up to 50 per cent was offered by Structured Wholesaling with Magnascreen, a portable Perspex screen which fits or just stands in front of the television set and comes in various sizes. Prices range from Pounds 42.99 to Pounds 119.99.
The Angle-Scan from Scantec is a versatile CCTV magnifying system: a camera on a stand which displays on a normal television screen, it can magnify up to 1,000 times and be directed at almost any angle. It is so light and small that the company recommends that pupils have stands at home and school and carry the camera home with them. The black and white version costs Pounds 475; the colour version Pounds 875.
Among the few exhibitors in the area of leisure and sport was SpaceKraft, a manufacturer and designer of interactive multi-sensory units, who are now working with several schools to install visual and sound effects in swimming pools. Many of these are designed with the needs of visually-impaired pupils in mind, incorporating tactile experiences such as water jets and fountains; underwater speakers and improved acoustics. Particularly attractive for those with some sight are large shapes, a star, for example, which is projected on to the pool's surface and moved around so that the child can follow it.
General information on education and leisure facilities for the visually impaired is available from the RNIB's Education and Leisure department, which can also supply a large product guide on games and puzzles which are available from the institute. These include Braille bingo cards; Scrabble with the letters and values printed in Braille and dominoes with raised dots.
Also on display were many relatively simple machines redesigned for the visually handicapped. These included the Easiplay Cassette Player Model 1322 (Pounds 49) and Radio Cassette Recorder (Pounds 95) from Clarke and Smith. Attractive machines, they have large, uncomplicated, tactile operating controls and contrasting colours.
Computer-based systems have become increasingly portable recently, but the visually impaired often need an even greater level of portability than the smallest, lightest Notebook computer with speech can offer. One of the more recent and sophisticated notetakers available is the Braille Lite from Sensory Systems, which is usually used as a sort of computerised Filofax. Pocket-sized, it has a comprehensive word processor with spell checkers. Text is keyed in using a six-dot Braille keyboard. Information is accessed through synthetic speech, but also a Braille display which enables the blind person to "read" what he or she has inputted. The machine can also be plugged into a Braille embosser or another computer. At Pounds 2,995, however, this extraordinarily versatile machine does not come cheap.
The RNIB has full listings of many different sorts of products as well as other information on resources for the visually impaired.
Alphavision, Seymore House, Copyground Lane, High Wycombe, Bucks HP12 3HE. Tel: 01494 530555
Clarke and Smith Manufacturing Company Ltd, Melbourne House, Melbourne Road, Wallington, Surrey SM6 8SD. Tel: 0181 669 4411.
Sensory Systems, 1 Watling Gate, 297-303 Edgware Road, London NW9 6NB. Tel: 0181 205 3002.
Professional Vision Services, Wellbury House, 90 Walsworth Road, Hitchin, Herts SG4 9SX . 01462 420751.
RNIB Customer Services, RNIB, PO Box 173, Peterborough PE2 6WS. Tel: 0345 023153.
RNIB Education Information Service, 224 Great Portland Street, London WlN 6AA. Tel: 0171 388 1266.
Scantec Vision Aid, 6 Ellenborough Close, Bracknell RG12 2NB. Tel: 01344 425096.
SpaceKraft, Crowgill House, Rosse Street, Shipley, West Yorkshire BD18 3SW. Tel: 01274 581007.
Structured Wholesaling, 287 Finchley Road, London NW3 6ND. Tel: 0171 431 5423.