PDF reading tool helps visually impaired use computers

Each day I turn on my computer in the morning and after moments of waiting for the machine to boot up my eyes are greeted with the familiar icons doting the computer screen. Click on any one of them and their contents or the pages they are linked to come into view.

Rarely,  if ever,  do I give a thought to what I would do if suddenly the whole screen simply appeared as a plain black slate or a jumble of mushed up cloudy letters.

This, however, is a reality to perhaps millions of computer users who are either blind or visually impaired. Many of whom struggle for the lack of adequate assistive devices to accomplish tasks that others normally take for granted.

Over the years there have been many products in the market geared towards converting text into audio. However, converting more complext elements such as illustrations, graphs, images and large bodies of numbers such as financial statements have remained a challenge.

A new accessibility tool that focuses on PDF documents now promises to make such of documents produced by huge data geerators such as banks, hospitals and government institutions more accessible.

Xenos Axess, a server-based assistive technology developed by Xenos Group Inc., is aimed at elements such as statements, graphs, charts, photographs, records that have been converted into PDF by large volume data generators like banks, financial companies, governments and hospitals.

“Typically screen readers are ideal for text, but bog down when they have to handle PDF files,” said Craig Smith, Toronto-based vice president of sales and marketing for Xenos.

The current de factor standard JAWS (an acronym for Job Access with Speech) employs a software product that provides visually impaired users access to information on computer screen via text-to-speech or Braille display.

However, Smith said, products in the market today do not provide sufficient accessibility when data is presented in PDF form. “Until now, PDF’s can not be presented in an accessible form. If a JAWS reader were to go through a PDF it will present data in a non-logical order.”

“Essentially the Xenos Axess lays out the data so that a blind or visually impaired person can have it read to them with a JAWS reader,” he said.

The Xenos Axess is currently being beta tested by a North American credit card company. The product will be available for the public in May, but the credit card company intends to role out it out to its customers some time in the Fall, this year.

Better than Braille

According to Xenos, there are more than 3.3 million North Americans over the age of 40 who are either blind of visually impaired. This number will surpass five million in the next decade. A vast majority of this segment of society have bank accounts, credit cards data, investments or health records which they need to access.

Cathy Browne, a Vancouver-based independent public relations and social media consultant, says blind or visually impaired people have very little options when it comes to accessing digital data.

“I think the Axess is a great idea. Any technology that improves accessibility is a welcome,” she said.

“There’s a high level of frustration among the blind and visually impaired when it comes to accessing online information,” said Browne who herself is blind in one eye and only has 10 per cent vision in the other.

There are the JAWS readers that are generally not optimized to handle online images.

Some companies will also deliver audio CDs or Braille printouts of statements or records to blind or visually impaired clients. But these two latter processes often mean that there is a three-day to one month delay in receiving the information for such clients.

The current practice also means that companies or organizations often need to set two separate processes of distributing data – one for sighted clients and another for the visually impaired or blind.

Developers working for these organizations often have to go to individual accounts to insert the codes that will render the data readable by JAWS, said Sheri McLeish, an analyst for Forrester Research who specializes in accessibility issues.

“It could be a very time consuming and tedious process for a small company that has a small client base. But it is almost an unimaginable task for a firm with millions of customers,” she said.

To get around this, McLeish said, companies often outsource the task to third party providers that convert the data to Braille printouts or audio CDs.

Smith, however, said Axess can streamline the process.

Apart from being able to render PDFs readable to JAWS, the product also allows the storage and intelligent recall of recurring data. “Developers won’t need to repeat coding processes for many of the recurring data Axess can do it for them.”

“Xenos will help developers creating descriptive text achieve greater automation and consistency in their work,” McLeish told

Pressure from legislation and boomer population

Since the late 1990’s organizations have also been facing increasing pressure from government to embed accessibility into their products and services, said McLeish.

She said a product such as Axess can not only help companies comply with government legislation and industry standards but also help them increase their customer reach and improve client satisfaction.

McLeish noted that there have been a number of firms subjected to litigation for their failure to provide adequate accessibility.

But providing accessibility to the non-sighted or visually impaired doesn’t need to be expensive, according to Browne. “In many instances, I can be as simple as providing large print out or font capability.”

But ultimately, firms need to take a closer look at the needs of their clients, she said.

For instance, visual impairment does not always mean blindness. “It could mean people only have peripheral vision, are extremely shortsighted, or can only perceive objects within a narrow field of vision.”

Taking these into consideration, many governments and various organizations should step up accessibility efforts because a rapidly aging boomer population is bound to show signs of various stages of visual impairment, Browne said.

Online technology has allowed the mass distribution of data but challenges in “usability” remain, Browne noted.

For instance, converting large data sets such as statement or a flow chart into audio will not always work for the blind. If carried out non-intuitively it could mean a long list of numbers simply being read out.

Developers also need to embed some capability to enable blind users to navigate through a document and zero in on the information they need.

“Developers need to consult with the blind and visually impaired. Step into the shoes of the user and imagine how the data would be consumed by a blind person,” Browne said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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