Better Living Through Technology

laptop shows the software interface which enables people with hearing problems the ability to lip read a call on a cell phone. AP

To Annemarie Cooke, the world looks somewhat like an Impressionist painting. Details and colors are washed out, and anything beyond arm's length is almost impossible to make out.

Cooke was a newspaper reporter when her vision began to fail 25 years ago. She had few options for adjusting at work beyond making text on her computer appear larger.

Now, using software that reads aloud what's on the screen, Cooke, 50, is an executive at a nonprofit organization for the blind and dyslexic.

"All you have to do is breathe or blink and you can use technology effectively," Cooke said. But it's not all easy - cell phones and their tiny controls "are a nightmare."

Cooke's experience illustrates that while specialized devices offer assistance in dazzling ways, technology companies are just beginning to work harder at making all computers, gadgets and Web sites better accommodate people with disabilities.

Government regulations are largely forcing the industry's awakening, but so is a basic quest for profits. High-tech companies say that as the massive baby boomer generation ages, business will suffer if computers and other devices befuddle declining eyes, ears and fingers.

"If a boomer goes blind at 50, they're probably going to be far more motivated to have their PC remain a part of their life" than an older person today, said Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Microsoft's director of accessible technologies. "The voice of boomers will come through loud and clear."

It's a simple matter of numbers: Forty-two percent of people older than 65 have a disability, according to the Census Bureau. And the number of Americans older than 65 is expected to soar from 35 million now (12 percent of the population) to 59 million (18 percent of the population) in 2023.

Some technology companies such as Microsoft and Xerox have begun working more closely with organizations for the disabled and smaller companies that design add-on assistive software.

Telecommunications companies are closely examining services proving popular among deaf and hearing-impaired people of all ages, such as instant messaging over computers and two-way pagers.

AT&T and Sprint recently started offering video relay, in which a deaf person sets up a Web camera on his computer and uses sign language to address an operator, who in turn translates to the hearing party on the other end.

Users say video relay is faster and conveys more emotion than the traditional TTY system, in which a deaf person types his or her end of the conversation and an operator reads it to the hearing person and then types back responses.

"Video relay is absolutely fabulous," said Philip Jacob, a deaf 43-year-old systems administrator at insurance consulting firm DataLife Associates, in an interview over AT&T's video relay service.

Even baby boomers who develop hearing loss but don't know sign language will have several phone technologies at their disposal.

In an aid for good lip-readers, researchers in Israel have developed software that gathers the individual sounds in a phone conversation and displays a computer-animated face that appears to speak what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Northview Enterprises of Clearwater, Fla., plans to adapt the Lip-C Cell software soon for American English.

UltraTec of Madison, Wis., hopes to soon gain regulatory approval for its CapTel phone, which uses a captioning service as a silent middle man, so a person with poor hearing can read a transcript of a phone conversation almost in real time.

But technology still has a long way to go.

For example, newer digital cell phones often interfere with hearing aids. Preliminary studies show that disabled people buy just as many wireless devices as everyone else, but use them much less because they are difficult to master, said Ed Price of Georgia Tech's Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center.

The problem is considered so serious that Price and colleagues are leading an extensive discussion on how devices can be better designed for people with disabilities at this month's CTIA Wireless 2003, one of the industry's most important conventions.

Despite a 1998 law requiring federal agencies to tailor their Web sites for people with disabilities, a recent study funded by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that fewer than 15 percent of federal sites made their content sufficiently clear and easy to find.

Too many Web sites use fine print and light blue colors, which become more difficult to see as we age, and layouts that can trip up screen-reading software, said Bill Gribbons, a design expert at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

Gribbons advises financial services firms, health care providers and insurance companies how to make their Web sites better for their aging clientele. He hopes Web sites eventually will employ monitoring software that senses if a user seems lost or confused and offers assistance.

"Many times designers simply aren't aware of these things. What works well from their perspective can be problematic for an aging user," Gribbons said. "When I talk to my students, I refer to it as designing for our future selves."


By Brian Bergstein
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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