Mobile computer looks out for the sight-impaired

The $2,595 PAC Mate portable PC weighs two pounds and can work without a keyboard.

The new PAC Mate mobile computer for visually impaired workers is the first to run standard Microsoft Windows applications.

Sight-impaired users generally must rely on proprietary operating systems that don't work with the dominant Windows or Linux applications.

The PAC Mate'dubbed the Pocket PC for the blind'runs versions of Microsoft Word, Outlook and Internet Explorer for the Pocket PC and Windows CE operating systems, and it can synchronize with desktop applications.

The Eloquence speech synthesizer reads documents and e-mail messages to users of the PAC Mate, jointly produced by Freedom Scientific Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Microsoft Corp. The device this year will gain wireless connectivity and peripheral ports for Global Positioning System devices and braille displays, officials said.

PAC Mate's launch came on the same day the National Institute of Standards and Technology unveiled a prototype technology that 'draws' computer images for blind workers on a surface like a bed of nails.

Freedom Scientific, which holds contracts with the IRS and Social Security Administration, sponsors full-day workshops at agencies that do compliance testing for Section 508 accessibility.

Such a device 'would free me to do work beyond my workstation,' said Courtney Smith, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center computer specialist who is blind. She said she has to collect, scan and format documents well before a meeting so that her operating system can handle them.

Designed for braille or standard keyboards, the two-pound PAC Mate will be a leveling force for blind workers, said W. Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of Labor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

The PAC Mate's $2,595 price tag is $95 more than the usual limit for an agency credit card. Freedom Scientific president Lee Hamilton said the company could 'work something out' with the price, but one government analyst said that difference might be a deal-breaker.

'It's definitely an issue,' said P.J. Bright, a disability resource analyst for the Transportation Department. He said he'll test the PAC Mate's capabilities before deciding whether to buy it for employees.

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