Multilingual Computing for the Visually Impaired

Imagine yourself blindfolded (your travel eye shades will do), seated in front of your computer screen, your hands on the keyboard, ready to work. What do you do? This may seem daunting, but today's technologies turn computers into a powerful tool and an indispensable window to the world for millions of visually-impaired people worldwide.

The arrival of computing has had a major impact on how visually-impaired people can live their lives and communicate - among themselves as well as with the outside world - and has extended and enriched their options enormously. Importantly, technology enables blind and visually-impaired people to go to universities, enjoy life-long learning and have jobs previously unimaginable.

Drivers for accessibility

The visually-impaired community, which includes blind as well as partially-sighted people, can be surprisingly large. The World Health Organization estimated in 2002 that there were over 161 million people worldwide who were visually impaired; more than 124 million people had low vision; and 37 million were blind.

This excluded people with refractive errors such as myopia (short-sightedness) and hyperopia (farsightedness), which are a frequent cause of visual impairment and which in many cases can lead to blindness if not corrected. So making products or content accessible to visually-impaired people enables them to live more fulfilling lives and to better realize their potential. It also makes good business sense.

Legal pressures are also driving accessibility. In the United States, for instance, the Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that web content maintained by the federal government must be made accessible to people with disabilities. The same section also prevents federal agencies from buying electronic and information technology (IT) products that are not accessible by people with disabilities.

Section 508 was the law for a number of years, but it was the amendment, passed in 1998, which gave the right to sue agencies in case of non-compliance, that made accessibility a more serious concern. The fact that public procurement may account for more than a quarter of all IT equipment purchases in the United States was certainly a factor. And similar laws apply in other countries, too.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission is taking steps to promote accessibility in areas such as public procurement, certification of accessible products and services, and accessibility of public websites, among others, under the heading of eAccessibility.

And there is already the recently amended European Union directive (Article 56a of Directive 2001/83/EC) that stipulates that product names should be labeled in braille on pharmaceutical packaging. It also states that information on pharmaceutical products contained in patient information leaflets (PILs) must, on request, be made available in formats accessible to visually-impaired people. This means in a suitable print for partially sighted patients and in a format perceptible by hearing (such as CD-ROM or audiocassette) or in braille for the blind.

To continue reading, please complete this simple form below and download the full PDF version of this article, published in MultiLingual Computing magazine #93.

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