Hong Kong Society For the Blind
Keynote Address
by George Kerscher, Research Fellow
Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)
December 2 1996


For a person who is blind, access to information is a lifetime struggle. Information technology, computer based information, presents opportunities beyond our wildest dreams, but the information industry is complex. I will present my views of:

  • how print based publishing has changed

  • how information technology has evolved over the last 10 years

  • how the Internet and the World Wide Web has created a revolution

  • The role of organizations serving the blind

  • My predictions on what will come in the near future

  • I. Revolution and evolution

    Information Technology is in both a revolutionary and a evolutionary stage. Let me explain what I mean by both terms. In a "revolution" something occurs that changes the world for ever. We have had many of such occurrences in history. A good example is the invention of the airplane, which would revolutionize travel. Air travel did not start immediately, it had to go through an evolutionary stage. Then by "evolution" I mean the continuous improvement of a technology over time. Information Technology is in both a evolutionary state and a revolutionary state at the same time.

    A. Traditional publishing

    Traditional print based publishing is in the final stages of its evolution. Since the invention of the printing press, itself a revolutionary moment, print publishing has been evolving. Printed books, journals, and newspapers are the standard accepted method for accessing information. There are many advantages to this medium: its very pleasing to the eye; its easy to carry around; and its the accepted way of conveying information. However, the dominance of print based publishing will end during my lifetime.

    B. Electronic publishing revolution

    Electronic publishing is the delivery of formally published electronic documents through your computer. This revolution started in the late 1970's. Interestingly, one of the first electronic publishing operations started as a service for persons who are blind and print disabled. In 1988 Computerized Books For the Blind and Print Disabled (CBFB) published its first electronic book. In 1991 this small non-profit company merged with Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D). It was during this same time that main stream publishing figured out that there was a market for information delivered through your PC. CD-ROM publishing started with large collections. The electronic publishing revolution quietly started about ten years ago. The evolution of this form of publishing is now in full swing and there are powerful forces at work to shape the future of Information Technology. It is important to point out that there is a danger that for persons who are blind and print disabled, there is a chance that this publishing may not be accessible.

    C. World Wide Web -- the overpowering technology

    The hardware network of computers connected all over the world permitted the creation of electronic publishing that is evolving at light speed. The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) is the overpowering technology that is changing the world of publishing. I like to call the WWW the killer technology. It is so important that it cannot be ignored. This technology has almost a life of its own and changes almost every month. It is fascinating and beyond comprehension. The Information Technology that underlies the web is based on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), but is called Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). HTML is an application of the larger SGML specification, which is a formal International Standards Organization (ISO) standard (ISO 8879).

    SGML is a open standard and provides the mechanisms to provide structure and content in electronic publishing. As such SGML should be beloved to persons who are blind or print disabled. We don't care if something is 18 point, Roman font, bold, centered, and at a certain position on the page. We care about what it is! SGML identifies elements in a document by what they are, not by what they look like. The presentation of the information -- formatting is for another process to address. It can be formatted for print, braille or for presentation on the WWW. SGML is the science of Information Technology that examines the true nature of information and this transcends all presentation modes. It is this pursuit of the true nature of information that will allow persons who are blind and print disabled to access information in methods most appropriate for each individual. However, there are economic forces at work that is taking the HTML used on the WWW and trying to move away from open international standards to a more profitable system for a few companies. It is not clear what the economic forces will do to a system that is inherently accessible to persons who are blind or otherwise print disabled.

    II. Getting access to published material by persons who are blind

    It's not necessary to describe the difficulties that individuals with print disabilities have in getting access to information. It is worth briefly describing the major methods of obtaining access to information.

    A. Recording and Transcription

    The traditional method of making information accessible is through a human reader or braille transcriber. These mechanisms rely on a volunteer or a paid person to put the information into braille or onto a recorded form. In the modern age of technology it will be necessary for these individuals to produce the information using different techniques. It may require volunteers with different skills, but the human in the process is expected to be necessary for a long, long time.

    B. OCR scanning

    Many technology oriented individuals have turned to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning for access to information. This has been a tremendous advantage over the past ten years. I expect the need to do personal scanning will continue.

    C. Service organizations Using publisher files

    In this section I want to spend a little more time discussing the issues. The publishers of today are using computers to print their books, but it cannot be assumed that it is a simple process to make an electronic version of the book from what the publisher uses. Whether the electronic version is to be used to produce braille, or to produce a version that would be used directly by the person on a computer with adaptive equipment, the use of publisher files must undergo a lot of processing. Here is a short list of some of the problems one can expect.

  • The publisher is unwilling to give the files to anybody

  • The publisher does not have the files at all. The publisher used a subcontracted typesetter to produce the printed version and the files were never returned to the publisher.

  • Some publishers will want to be paid for the files and most service organizations don't have the funding to purchase the files.

  • The files may be in a form that is difficult or impossible to convert.

  • It may require a programmer to write a conversion program to convert files.

  • The files that are provided do not match exactly the printed version.

  • Despite these problems associated with conversion of publisher source files, it is easier to use this process than it is to use any other method. The key to being successful is the quality of the files themselves. You may even find some enlightened publishers who have their data in SGML. My recommendation to service organizations producing accessible information is to develop good relations with publishers and use their files to produce accessible books. This technique offers the hope of automation and vast quantities of information to be made accessible quickly and cheaply.

    D. CD-ROM publications

    Today, information is available on CD-ROM and multi media publications. An encyclopedia on CD-ROM is a really great collection of information. I have an encyclopedia and love it. I did have to check around to find one that worked with my adaptive equipment. It is not assured that the next version of this encyclopedia will be accessible. Many times the publishers change the user interface from edition to edition. I have tested between 20 and 30 CD-ROM applications and less than five were accessible and only a few were really usable.

    The variety of user interfaces to CD-ROM's brings up another interesting point. Variety itself is an accessibility barrier. For a person using adaptive equipment, it's not easy to learn a new program. In the Graphical User Interface (GUI) environment, it is easy for a sighted person to pick up and use a new application. For the blind person to do this is very difficult. Several hours may be spent trying to figure out what comes quite naturally to a user interface designed for visual navigation. Can persons who are blind be expected to learn a new user interface for each CD-ROM they want to use? This approach is far too confusing for most people.

    E. The WWW

    Now we come to the overpowering technology of today, the WWW. Never before has a technology grown faster than the WWW. Many companies were taken by surprise by the rapid growth of the web. AT&T and Microsoft are two players who should have seen it coming, but they didn't. This gave Netscape an opportunity to move into the web market and within a very short time dominated the net. Microsoft and others are recovering very quickly from this setback and are pouring time and money into the development of networks, software and data to support the web. What this means is a development cycle that is accelerated far beyond what we can imagine. This acceleration is what is causing the rapid change on the net and It is difficult to imagine how this pace can continue, but it will continue.

    The fundamental notation of the web is HTML an application of SGML and as such identifies the structure and content of the documents. This is exactly what we want. However, visual graphics are being introduced to make the web pages more entertaining. It is useless to try and stop this visual development, but this difficulty can be minimized by following certain techniques.

    The techniques for making web pages accessible have been developed by many people in the disability field who are associated with SGML and HTML development. The International Committee On Accessible Document Design (ICADD) is one of the groups working on these techniques. The core of developers understand and appreciate the problems of persons with disabilities. The techniques for making web pages accessible are there and it will be up to the web authors to ensure that their data conforms to accessibility guidelines. There are things you can do to help here.

    First you should know about some of the techniques to make web pages accessible. You should also know what cause problems with adaptive equipment. When you encounter web pages that break these accessibility rules, email the web master and let them know about the problem and point them to web sites that can help them modify their site. You have to let these people know that blind people want to read their web pages too. I cannot emphasize how important it will be to gain access to the web and web browsers!

    III. The raging battle -- print versus Information Technology

    Today the sighted world is divided into two camps. There are those that are locked into the print paradigm and those that are trying to look at the nature of information and represent that information in a meaningful way. They all agree that the printed page is still the most effective way to present the information to a reader. However, the paradigm is changing for a variety of reasons.

    A. Navigation in print

    The printing industry has perfected formatting to maximize the eye's ability to navigate print. The eye is naturally drawn to headings that are large, bold, and presented differently from the surrounding text. The hierarchy of the information is represented in a descending order of size. In addition there are side-bars and boxed information that allow quick browsing. Of course, the table of contents allows for easy selection of a portion of the book to read. The printed index is an interesting element of a book that is actually a collection of items that the publisher feels the reader might want to find -- it is a predefined search. The index is static and does not change and if the reader does not find what they want in the index it may be difficult to locate the information they need. In general, the printed book is very efficient way of organizing information for quick navigation and location of needed information.

    B. Advantages of print

    Print looks good. There is no comparison between the resolution of even the best computer screen with the printed page. The print is more appealing and easier on the eye. One can get more comfortable reading a book than one can get with a computer. Books are more portable, but most importantly printed books are understood. People know how to produce them cheaply.

    C. Replicating print on a computer screen

    Many products have just tried to transport the printed page to a computer screen. The most notable of these products is Adobe's Acrobat. They use the postscript file and use a similar font on the screen to present the page. This has met with success for some applications, but is most useful for delivering the document for printing on the user's local printer. Forms and other types of preformatted text is the best application for this. The file format for this is called Portable Document Format (PDF). In 1994 major discussions raged over this format, because of its inaccessible nature. Adobe has undertaken a project to extract ASCII from these PDF files and are meeting success especially when the layout of the page is straight forward. This provides better results than OCR since the processor knows more about the letters than just an image, but this still uses a lot of guessing to reconstruct a page for a person with a print disability.

    D. Structured electronic information -- SGML

    First SGML can represent much more information than can be represented in print formatting. This is very important. Information should be stored in a meaningful way. An element in a sgml document has a meaningful name. For example, the name of a heading could be stored in a element called "heading." In the print oriented file system it may be represented as bold or some other visual formatting convention. the SGML version of the electronic document identifies what it is; not simply what the word looks like in print.

    SGML, then, gets closer to the nature of the information. It is this more precise knowledge about information which is powerful. Knowledge about the true nature of the information is what will drive Information Technologies of the future.

    E. HTML or the combination of presentation and structure

    While pure SGML's goal is to present structure and content devoid of formatting of any kind, HTML has fallen into combining the structure and content with visual formatting. In the early days of HTML this was not true, but today the HTML is heavy with formatting conventions. To eliminate some of this the notion of "style sheets" has been introduced. This is an attempt to again separate format from structure and content. For now, it looks as though that HTML will continue to incorporate the visual presentation of the web pages.

    Many corporations -- content providers -- want their pages to "look" a certain way. While the web masters tell their bosses that the look of the page depends on the web browser being used by the person on the other end, this seems to make no difference. They, the bosses, insist on their pages to look a certain way. Their web site may take a long time to load, or may look awful through a text based browser, this does not matter. As long as it looks good to them on their monitor, that's all that matters.

    This kind of thinking may be economically prudent with 80% of the population using Netscape, but this thinking fails miserably as the number of browsers in use increases. It would be far better to use the styles recommended by the Web Consortium than to hard code the HTML to one browser. Oh well, I guess we will just have to wait and see what happens.

    F. HTML the agent of change

    It's clear to me that HTML and the browsers that support HTML will dominate the world. I am not just talking about web pages, but all kinds of information. Earlier we were talking about the problem of many different interfaces to CD-ROM's. You can expect that the next interface to that CD-ROM application will be your favorite Web browser instead of a special user interface. In other words, you will have CD-ROM applications serving up their information through a web browser interface of your choice.

    Don't think that the web browser interface will stop with the World Wide Web and CD-ROM applications. Next the documentation that comes with applications you purchase will be served up to your favorite web browser. Yes, no more printed documentation -- that paper is just too expensive. You will get your software on CD-ROM, install the software and the documentation will be available in HTML to your browser. So, what else will come to us through our web browser?

    IV. What the future holds

    Ignoring the web means certain disaster for publishing companies. There will be strongholds of print based publishing, but most publishers will start dual publishing. Their published materials will be available simultaneously in print and through a web browser. Once a publisher wants to publish in two formats, the advantages of SGML become clear. The reduced costs of using SGML in dual publishing and the ability to reuse and republish information will direct the prudent business person into using Information Technology. and SGML.

    A. Breaking the print mind-set

    Most people still want to read from paper. This will not change until there is a device to replace paper. If you go out and invent a thin screen that can be held comfortably in a easy chair -- a screen that can equal the quality of the printed page, you will have put an end to print. You will also become very rich. we have seen hardware developments that stagger the mind. The developments in displays have not progressed at the same rate as other computer components. Once this changes, you will find that the standard method of publishing turns electronic.

    When that high quality screen is created, print based publishing will no longer be the dominate method of delivering information. Then, the logical, structural techniques for navigating electronic documents will be adopted. Organization of information through a table of contents with links into the chapters will be common. The information will not be hard coded with formatting information. Instead styles will be applied to meet the preferences of each user. Braille styles and auditory styles will be the preferences most of us will choose.

    B. Information Technology will win

    The nature of information demands much more than just application of visual formatting. In truth it is not only people who are blind that care about what an information object is; everybody wants to be able to find the information they need. They are not going to find it by knowing that it is 18 point and bold. They will find the information by knowing what the object is.

    The world has already changed. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to immortalize an original idea, you would publish it. These people felt that once it was in print they had successfully passed on this information to posterity. Today, that mind set ensures that the idea will be lost forever! Nobody can find information today unless it exists in a electronic searchable form. When you think of publishing your next book, make sure it is published in an electronic form to preserve the ideas for future generations. Information Technology is going to win the battle between print and online reading.

    C. Structure and presentation happily coexisting

    Visual presentation of information will always need to be considered. It will continue to be essential to make the screens look good. The way to do this is not by intermingling the structure and content with formatting, as HTML does. This should be accomplished through DSSSL -- Document Style Semantic Syntax Language. DSSL is a new ISO Standard for formatting documents in SGML. It is very new and it will be a few years before it becomes widely used. For now think of this as a set of styles that are associated with each element in a document. Each style can be customized for the individual.

    D. The next few years

    In the next six months you will begin to see formally published materials delivered in HTML only. The software companies will be the first to do this. What was online help and printed manuals will become HTML that is delivered right with your product. Expect within two years that this becomes the standard in the software industry. During this same two year period, lagging behind a little will be the CD-ROM user interface changes. I believe that most companies will adopt the web browser interface into their CD based publications. Notice this eliminates the need to learn many user interfaces for each CD-ROM. Of course, we don't know if the design of these products will be accessible, but the chances are much higher -- especially if good HTML development is used. During these two years, Windows NT will become the dominate operating system. Your network connections to the Internet will become faster and more dependable. Cable connections to the Internet will begin to replace telephone connections.

    V. Directions

    I have always felt that technology in the hands of persons with disabilities is the "great equalizer." I still feel this way. There is another concern I have that relates to access to information. Our society will begin to be divided into "information haves" and "information have nots." It is essential that blind and print disabled persons be in the category of "information haves." If you're not connected to the Internet you will be cut off from the primary publishing and information systems of the future.

    A. Embrace technology

    In an ideal world, the Information Technology will be made of simple television like devices that support multiple environments that include, TV, Web TB, computing interfaces, video telephony, teleconferencing -- in general, telepresence! All this delivered through high speed fiber optic cable in real time. Of course, this is all accessible to everybody, regardless of their personal differences.

    While we are waiting for the ideal world to arrive, I encourage Each person with a print disability to embrace computers and Information Technology. It is through the technology that the effects of the disability are diminished. If you can get the same information at the same time, we begin to integrate on a equal basis. Your clear presence will have an effect on system developers and move us closer to the ideal world.

    B. Make our needs known to all

    It is absolutely essential that as we encounter information barriers on the Internet and in electronic publishing that we make our needs known. We must require, ask, holler, and even scream for equal access to the computing technology. It is not impossible for the software developers to produce accessible software and information. Most of these people never even consider the needs of the blind. We are not in the foreground of their thinking. Don't sit quietly in the background and allow these developers to ignore our needs. We must be vocal and let them know about our requirements.

    C. Accept nothing but full access to information

    The access we have today is much better than the access we had ten years ago, but it is not perfect. It is possible for the information technology to be made fully accessible. We must demand this.

    D. Have courage, work hard, and have fun at it

    It is not easy to learn how to use these computers. The software and hardware is expensive. We don't have an alternative! We must learn to use the systems under development. Our access tools must get better and we are a part of the process of making the tools better. Volunteer to be early usability testers for any software package or web site you know about. Let the developers know when things don't work. When you point out problems, make sure that you are a smart user that is reporting barriers Don't be shy -- let them know that something is not working. You will be amazed at how much influence a usability tester can have. Normally the usability testers are involved at early stages of product development. Beta testers, on the other hand, are testing the product when it is nearly completed. The usability tester has much greater influence over product development than a beta tester. Become usability testers!

    VI. Summary

    Whether you represent an organization serving persons with disabilities, or if you are a person with a disability, I suggest that you:

  • Learn as much as you can about the technology,

  • Complain about software that does not work for you,

  • help develop the technology by being usability testers,

  • Learn about web accessibility issues,

  • Complain about web sites that are not accessible,

  • Point web masters to information about web accessibility,

  • have fun!