Camp connects blind students, technology

Camp connects blind students, technology

Youths learn computer skills that could help in college and on the job

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

Much of the technology that has fueled the current employment boom has relied on visual cues'words and pictures on a computer monitor.

Fairfax County, Va., high school student Rachel Kennelly works on an assistive keyboard at a computer camp for blind and visually impaired students.

But what if you can't see the screen?

Although the unemployment level for the general population has hovered near 4 percent recently, the unemployment rate among the blind and vision-impaired is around 70 percent.

Unisys Corp. is working with Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools and the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., organization that provides services to the visually impaired, to provide a computer training camp for blind students in high school and college. Fairfax County Public Library Access Services also sponsors the camp.

Unisys gave the program six PCs valued at a total of more than $5,000, said Glen Dell, Unisys manager for testing and integration.

The company configured assistive keyboards, screen readers and speech synthesizers on PCs with 100-MHz to 700-MHz Pentium III processors. Assistive PCs need a minimum of about 256K of Level 2 RAM cache, Dell said.

Reading is fundamental

The PCs run screen reader software such as Job Access With Speech, a program that reads the content on a computer screen through simulated speech synthesizers.

Written in C++, JAWS is from Henter-Joyce Inc., a division of Freedom Scientific of St. Petersburg, Fla. It also has a built-in proprietary scripting language from Henter-Joyce that lets users customize the program. For example, a user can choose the speech quality of the program's synthetic voice by choosing speakers such as 'Grandma' or 'Rocko' from a pull-down dialog box.

Five visually impaired students from Fairfax County high schools attended the camp, which was held July 10 through Aug. 4 at the Fairfax County Government Center. The campers learned word processing, Internet navigation, spreadsheets and e-mail, said Joy Relton, a Unisys systems analyst who is also blind.

Blind students who have access to computers and the right assistive equipment'screen readers and visual displays'can read or edit papers, Relton said.

Julie del Rosario, a Unisys team leader for the project, said the company wants to update the students' assistive technology as they go to college and into the working world.

'It's not just unemployment that's a problem for the blind and visually impaired,' Relton said. 'It's also underemployment.' Far too many visually impaired people have low-level jobs that don't use their special talents and skills, she said.

Unisys also works with the Social Security Administration to supply assistive technology to the agency's 1,500 disabled employees. SSA is the largest employer of disabled workers in the government, Dell said. The company has learned from its work with SSA how to adapt a PC to a person's special needs, she said. Impairments vary widely; some users can't see certain colors, or some may need an enlarged cursor.


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