Bridging a Lesser Known Digital Divide

SAN JOSE, Calif., March 10, 2000 — Describing a less visible “digital divide” that confronts people with disabilities, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said that new and future technology Microsoft is developing will ensure blind and visually impaired people experience the full benefits of computer technology.

“There’s a flavor of this digital divide that has gotten less visibility, and that’s the one that we’re gathered here to think about,” Gates told an audience of nearly 650 people on hand for the Sensory Access Foundation’s annual breakfast. “I think most of us are here to rededicate ourselves to helping with this digital divide, and that’s to make sure that people with disabilities can be empowered through technology.”

Noting that the PC took a step backward in accessibility for the visually impaired when it advanced from the character mode interface to the graphical user interface, Gates called the recent release of Windows 2000 “a big step forward” in making up that difference. By adding graphical elements such as photos and icons to a user’s screen, the graphical user interface made it more difficult for add-on utilities to describe information on the screen. Windows 2000 helps bridge that gap with new accessibility features such as “Narrator,” a text-to-speech utility built directly into the operating system. Narrator enables blind and visually impaired users to have some critical windows and menus read aloud when they’re displayed, hear typed characters read aloud, use their mouse pointer to follow an active item on the screen, and adjust the speed, volume and pitch of the computerized voice.

Windows 2000 also includes software hooks based on Microsoft Active Accessibility that make it easier for software programs that run on top of the operating system to describe information on the screen for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “Windows 2000 is a big step forward in terms of that architecture,” Gates said.

In addition to improved technology included in Windows 2000, Microsoft is working to develop future technology that will make technology even more accessible to blind and visually impaired users. For example, thanks to Microsoft’s work with AT & T and other partners, voice synthesis technology within the next three years will become so clear that users won’t be able to tell if it’s a computer or human speaking, Gates said. Future voice synthesis technology will also allow users to adopt different voices for different purposes. “You could say if it’s an error message, I want this voice; if it’s a nice thing, I want this other voice,” Gates said. “And so we’ll basically be able to mimic the sound of different speakers and make it sound very reasonable.”

While speech and handwriting recognition tools are more challenging to develop than voice synthesis features, Gates predicted the obstacles to developing those capabilities would be solved within the next decade. “That will allow us to take this idea of using the computer as a tool that lets everybody have access to the latest information, lets everybody reach out and communicate, lets people share in new ways [and] help us to realize that dream,” Gates said.

One of the biggest challenges, Gates said, is ensuring wide adoption of technology advances that help people with visual impairments. “How do we get every software application to be enabled so that people with visual disabilities are able to benefit from those applications?” he said. “How do we get companies to reach out to employees so people who’ve got talent, together with these tools, can express those talents as well as any worker who’s out there?”

Gates said non-profit organizations like the Sensory Access Foundation, which helps blind and visually impaired people find and retain competitive jobs through the use of technology, could play a big role. And Microsoft’s founding role with the Able to Work Consortium, a group of companies working to share tools and strategies for recruiting people with disabilities, will ensure technologies make their way into the workforce.

“Overall I want to paint a very optimistic picture here,” Gates said. “Because of the attention paid to this, because of the importance of the cause, we’ll be able to harness technology in a way that’s very exciting. And that’s part of what makes working in this business so much fun.”

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