Microsoft Technology Enhances Portable Device for the Blind and Visually Impaired

REDMOND, Wash., March 22, 2000 — As the Cleveland-based Braille and speech products manager for HumanWare, Inc., a West Coast company that specializes in assistive technology for people who have difficulties reading print, Larry Lewis travels a lot. When he has a few minutes to spare in an airport, he wants to be able to send a few quick email messages. When he gets back to his hotel room in the evenings after a day full of meetings, he wants to catch up on the email he’s missed, refresh his schedule, and perhaps record a few notes on the day’s activities.

An added challenge for Larry Lewis is that he’s blind.



George Allen, program manager in the Accessibility and Disabilities Group at Microsoft and Jim Halliday, president of HumanWare, proudly display BrailleNote, a portable device that will enable blind users to work comfortably and efficiently.

Thanks to a new portable computing device called BrailleNote — with a suite of applications based on Microsoft’s Windows CE platform — Lewis can perform all of those tasks in an environment that’s comfortable for him as a blind person and produce results that are indistinguishable from those created by a sighted person.

“When you customize access with an operating system that allows results to be commercially acceptable or standardized, that’s when true equality begins to happen,”
said Lewis.
“Microsoft’s Windows CE is the vehicle that gives me acceptable results while at the same time allowing me to work in an environment that is comfortable for me.”

BrailleNote, developed by PulseData International Ltd. of New Zealand, is a two-pound portable device available through HumanWare that combines a Windows-CE based suite of powerful personal applications like word processing, email, a daily planner and scheduler and a phone directory with a relational database that can interface with mainstream computing. Blind users can operate in a familiar, structured environment yet have the capability to easily save and translate files between KeySoft, software for the blind, and Microsoft Word formats. Windows CE permits a user interface that enables blind users to choose options and browse files in a linear fashion rather than navigating through spatially oriented icons or pull-down menus.

“Our goal at Microsoft is to use our products and services to empower people with disabilities by making accessible computers a positive force in employment, education and recreation,”
said George Allen, program manager in the Accessibility and Disabilities Group at Microsoft.
“In BrailleNote, the Windows CE platform is used to create a new tool for the blind user, which is an excellent example of how versatile our products can be.”

BrailleNote’s utilities include Microsoft’s ActiveSync 3.0, which enables connectivity between desktop PCs and BrailleNote in an environment familiar to Braille users. ActiveSync provides an essential link among the user’s devices for file transfers and, according to Lewis, makes moving files
“a neat and tidy interchange that is uncluttered and easy to understand.”

“BrailleNote allows a blind person to go beyond an environment that is designed for him or her into the mainstream world,”
said Jim Halliday, president of HumanWare.
“Windows CE is a fundamental part of that, allowing us to create a front-end for blind people to communicate with the rest of the world in the most efficient, effective and friendly way possible while retaining a backend that is compatible with the mainstream operating system.”

In a speech to the Sensory Access Foundation on March 10, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates described a less visible
“digital divide”
that confronts people with disabilities. He said that one way of helping to narrow this “digital divide” is
“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 a character mode interface to a graphical user interface, Gates called the recent release of Windows 2000
“a big step forward”
in making up that difference. Graphical elements such as photos and icons made it more difficult for accessibility aids and 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. Another new feature,
“On-screen Keyboard,”
displays a virtual keyboard on the computer screen that enables people with mobility impairments to type data by using a pointing device or joystick. On-screen Keyboard provides a minimum level of functionality for some people with mobility impairments, and it can also help people who don’t know how to type.
“Magnifier”
is a previously introduced display utility that makes the computer screen more readable for people who have limited vision — it creates a separate window that displays a magnified portion of the screen.

Microsoft’s Accessibility and Disabilities Group works closely with product developers and disability advocates to ensure people with disabilities can easily use its software. Along with Windows 2000, a number of Microsoft’s other leading products, including Windows 98, Office 2000 and Internet Explorer, contain features designed specifically for people with disabilities.

In February, WE Magazine, a lifestyle publication for people with disabilities, placed Microsoft first among 10 companies that go above and beyond what is required in the Americans with Disabilities Act when it comes to recruiting and accommodating employees with disabilities. Microsoft was also recognized for its development of products for people with disabilities.

Microsoft is also working within the community to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Last fall, for example, Microsoft and the National Business & Disability Council created the Able to Work consortium, dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Its primary purpose is to develop tools and strategies that will help businesses tap into the pool of over 8.5 million job seekers with disabilities who want to work but remain unemployed.

According to the American Foundation of the Blind, over two-thirds of working-age blind or severely disabled Americans are not employed. HumanWare’s Lewis hopes that BrailleNote will be a primary means of bringing more blind people into the workplace.
“From a vocational standpoint, with BrailleNote, there’s now a device where a boss can have the same expectations from blind workers as from others,”
he said.

Halliday agreed.
“If we’re talking about putting blind people to work, then we have to understand where the rest of the world is. Most people are working in front of a computer screen that’s running Microsoft Windows.”

“We at HumanWare have the blindness part of it down. Microsoft has provided an operating system for us where we can keep our environment front and center but at the same time allow for the results to be acceptable by people who can see,”
said Lewis.

BrailleNote is on display this week in Los Angeles, at the Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference sponsored by California State University, Northridge, and is scheduled to be available in May.

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In a speech to the Sensory Access Foundation, Microsoft’s Bill Gates describes new Windows 2000 technology designed to empower people who are blind or have visual impairments.