Gladys Loewen discussed some of the changes that have occurred in technology over the last 10 years. Operating systems have more accessible features, including magnification, mouse adaptations, some text-to-speech capabilities, and macros for saving keystrokes.
Costs are going down. In the 1990s, voice recognition software cost about $8,000; now, it can be obtained for about $350. Computers are now bundled with more peripherals and software. Also, some adaptive products are sold in mainstream stores-and the prices have gone down as competition has increased, Loewen noted.
There have also been changes in the peripherals that come with computers. There is a wide variety of pointing devices and keyboards, including scroll, trackball, infrared, and orbit features. Printers are getting smaller, for easier access. Also, there are a variety of personal data instruments. For example, AlphaSmart is a portable keyboard and memory system that is convenient for travellers.
Voice recognition software now has greater flexibility with accents and pronunciation and allows the user to program a specific pronunciation. There have been experiments with its use for captioning and faculty dictation, and overall, the software is easier to use. Even someone who is ventilator-dependent can now use voice recognition software by programming out the sounds of the ventilator, Loewen said.
Digital recorders allow the user to upload sound files to computers, and some are compatible with voice recognition programs. These have better sound quality than analog tapes and last longer. Textbooks are now being produced in digital format (e.g. e-text, CD-ROM, MP3) rather than in cassette format.
Captioning options have also improved. There is now a capacity for remote captioning, and this is being used in the classroom by many U.S. universities. Voice recognition software, however, remains more common, she said. There are also more trained court reporters, and the software is available for them to do shorthand for conferences and other events. Also, visual FM (produced by a Canadian company) allows speech readers to see the lips of the speaker.
There is a range of text-to-speech products, providing more options for auditory feedback. Some include talking dictionaries, a thesaurus, and homophone support. These products work with word processors and provide options for users with learning disabilities or auditory learners-they are not just for those with visual impairments, Lowen emphasized.
Scanners and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) include programs for those with visual impairments and learning disabilities. Capabilities include study features and bookmarks, and there is more flexibility in changing settings. This technology allows the user to scan colours, charts, and graphs.
There is also a range of CCTV options, including stand-alone, colour, and SVGA; portable and room viewing systems; and varying sizes and types of tray.
Refreshable Braille technology involves a keyboard or a portable notetaker. A key benefit is that it uses active reading rather than passive listening, Loewen said. This technology is allowing for a resurgence in Braille teaching. It reduces the need for hard-copy Braille, and is useful with e-text materials, she added.
USB ports are making a big impact-since all computers now have them, there are no longer compatibility issues with the platform and there is no need to get adapters for other ports. Also, hubs allow for extra peripherals.
There are also a variety of assistive listening devices, which are getting smaller and less obvious. Digital hearing aids can be programmed to tune out surrounding sounds like a car motor or a barking dog. There are smaller conference microphones, and a sound amplification system is available for those with cochlear implants.
Future trends include more options in digital format and a greater variety of accessible features in the operating system, Loewen said. E-text allows for additional options other than print. Books are now available in a variety of formats. In addition, there is increased funding from both federal and provincial sources to help people gain access to resources. For example, there are many more types of disability included under the Canada Study Grant, which gives people access to technology, she concluded.