CORVALLIS - In another advance to improve technical information access for people who are blind or have other disabilities, researchers at Oregon State University have created a fairly simple new system to display, translate and explain graphic images on the World Wide Web.

Prototypes of the technology are already complete. It will be tested and refined in use at OSU this fall, and should soon be freely available for use by web page designers around the world.

"This will not be a difficult or time consuming process for people who put information on the web," said John Gardner, a professor of physics at OSU and director of the university's Science Access Project, who created this new system with OSU research associate Vladimir Bulatov.

"But for the first time, it should allow full access to computerized graphics for people who are blind or may have other visual or learning disabilities," he said. "And providing that type of access is already a serious issue in education and many other fields."

It may be a fairly short matter of time, Gardner said, before a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities will mandate that all information input onto the web have the types of "accessibility links" the new OSU system allows.

This newest advance, developed in the Science Access Project despite major recent budget cutbacks by federal funding agencies, takes advantage of some existing computer technology and improves upon its use. Tactile "touch pads," a touch screen on a computer and voice synthesizers - technology which has existed for some time - are used along with web-page design programs developed at OSU to more effectively label and describe graphic images.

"This is what computer programmers call a 'plug-in,' an external program that can be downloaded and used to interpret data or improve web page programming and design," Gardner said. "Our concept is to make it something a designer can do to a graphic one time, fairly quickly and easily, which will automatically adapt as computer technology changes and improves."

The idea is actually fairly simple, Gardner said. When a web page designer wishes to include a "bit map" graphic image in the page design, an "accessibility link" is also provided that users can click on to provide the information in an enhanced form to users with visual or other disabilities.

On that version, additional labels trigger a voice synthesizer to describe aspects of the graphic image as the user moves a computer mouse or feels it, sometimes with a raised tactile image.

On a map, for instance, a user could move down a row of buildings, feel their outlines and hear descriptions of the building names or the streets in front of them. Further improvements on the system in the future might allow users to gain information from a "force-feedback" mouse, a type of computer instrument that provides tactile responses to movements of the mouse.

"Right now it's very difficult to make a tactile line drawing that can stand alone and mean much to the blind or disabled person trying to access it," Gardner said. "Even the addition of braille is of limited use. Often there isn't room for it and frankly, many blind people don't read braille very well."

Technology and improved information access such as this, Gardner said, is becoming increasingly valuable not only to people with obvious disabilities, such as blindness, deafness or dyslexia, but also to the millions of people who most effectively learn information in different ways - some by reading it, others by hearing it, feeling it or stopping to have it repeated over and over.

An appreciation of the ways computers can provide information in so many different formats uniquely suited to the preferences of any individual student may soon revolutionize education, Gardner said, once those approaches are fully utilized.

Technological advances such as this have emerged in a steady stream from OSU's Science Access Project, an initiative created by Gardner. An internationally-recognized physicist who lost his eyesight in mid-career, Gardner and his associates have created a new "Dots Plus" form of braille to radically improve access to science and mathematics for blind people. And other technology such as a special printer to produce tactile graphics is nearing commercial marketability.

Some of the most recent work has been significantly slowed by funding cutbacks, Gardner said.

"We had been receiving $500,000 a year for this work from a federal agency, but that support has just been cut 60 percent for no apparent reason," he said. "Fortunately OSU has seen the value of this research and tried as best it can to help keep the program going. But I can't fathom why the federal government thinks education and information access for the disabled is a low priority."

Fundamental and applied research in this field by academics is almost essential, Gardner said, because private industry tends to perceive - rightly or wrongly - that this field is a niche market with lower profitability, and an area in which they have little knowledge, interest or understanding.

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John Gardner, 541-737-3278