The End of Handicaps, Part 1

August 6, 2001

Originally published April 1992. Published on August 6, 2001.

As an experiment, try watching a television news program with the sound turned off. Now try it again with the sound on, but without looking at the picture. Next, try a similar experiment with a situation comedy. You will probably find it easier to follow the stories with your ears alone than your eyes alone despite the fact that our eyes transmit much more information to our brains than our ears (about 50 billion bits per second from both eyes vs. about a million bits per second from our two ears). The result is surprising in that blindness is often considered a more profound handicap than deafness. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, yet the above exercise illustrates the power of human language to convey our thoughts.

It is also the case that we have made more rapid progress overcoming the handicaps associated with visual rather than hearing impairment. Perhaps the most significant blindness-related handicap has been the inability to read. Over 150 years ago, Louis Braille devised his system of writing and reading using patterns of raised dots, thus providing the blind with literacy. With the advent of phonograph records early in this century, and the subsequent development of cassette tapes, Braille was supplemented by talking books. This was of benefit to the elderly, who comprise over two-thirds of the blind population.

Braille can be difficult for an elderly person to learn because of its complexity and the tactile sensitivity required. Both Braille and talking books suffer from a serious limitation, however, neither provides access to the world of ordinary print. The Library of Congress translates only about three percent of the books published each year into Braille and a slightly larger number into talking books. The availability of more topical literature such as periodicals and interoffice memos is even more restricted.

Hearing is believing

In the mid 1970s, reading machines were introduced that could scan and recognize ordinary printed materials and convert them immediately into full-word synthetic speech, thus largely overcoming the principal handicap of blindness. The problem then became availability. Early models cost $50,000, weighed over 300 lbs., and were only suitable for institutional use. Today, reading machines weighing less than 20 Ibs. cost between $5000 and $12,000 and thus are affordable by at least some individuals. Fortunately, the digital technology of reading machines is enjoying the same exponential improvement in price-performance we see in many other fields, and the availability of high- performance reading machines in the $2000 to $4000 range will be here within a few years.

Another disabled population that is benefiting from the development of technology for the visually impaired is the dyslexic population. Estimated at seven million people in the United States, dyslexic individuals are unable to read effectively for reasons other than visual impairment. This population is already beginning to benefit from reading machines, both as a pedagogical approach to overcoming dyslexia and as a reading prosthetic in more difficult cases.

The other major issue in blindness is mobility. Here the greatest progress has been made not in technology but in devising methods of mobility training using an ordinary cane (although the design of the cane has benefited from modern plastic and Plexiglas materials in terms of its weight and sensitivity). With modern training methods, a blind person can be taught to navigate in buildings, across town, and even across the world.

Jumping visual hurdles

A company that I founded (Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc., now a division of Xerox) developed the first reading machine. We have had many talented blind employees who have contributed to all facets of this endeavor, including research and development, marketing, sales, and customer support. One important lesson I learned from this experience is the salient difference between the words disability and handicap. That this difference is not merely theoretical was demonstrated quite convincingly by the effectiveness of these employees who happened to be visually impaired. I came to realize that these employees, while disabled, were not handicapped. I may not be able to ask blind employees to drive a package across town, but I can ask them to deliver a speech, conduct a research project, or close a sale. I came to see blindness as more of a characteristic than a handicap.

Seen from another perspective, we can all be regarded as handicapped in that we all have many limitations that we must work with (or around). Yet society has seen the handicaps caused by the principal sensory and physical disabilities such as blindness and deafness as qualitatively different from those of the rest of the population. This perception stems from a combination of reality and prejudice. Much of the prejudice has ancient roots (consider the saying “the blind leading the blind”). The reality part is changing, however, through the judicious application of technology and training. The prejudice is more deeply rooted and is changing more slowly.

Social prejudice is the one handicap that our blind employees have indeed faced. I have had the following experience on many occasions while eating in a restaurant with a blind person. The waitperson will ask me if my blind friend wants cream in his/her coffee or something for dessert. While not intending any disrespect, the message is clear. Since there is no indication that the blind person is also deaf the implication is that he/she must not be capable of handling verbal language. Such attitudes can be particularly pernicious when they impact the educational and vocational opportunities of the visually impaired.

Reading machines: the next generation

Let us consider how the situation for the visually impaired is likely to change over the next several decades. Reading machines will continue to benefit from the remarkable inverse-exponential decline of prices in the semiconductor field. Reading machines under $1000 will be available later this decade. By the end of the decade, the large full-page scanners now required will be replaced with small digital cameras. The user will simply hold it a few inches from the page to be lead, press a button, and the machine will begin reading. Gradually, these highly portable reading machines will begin to “read” not only printed text, but will describe pictures and graphs, translate from one language to another, and provide online access to knowledge bases and libraries through cellular networks.

By early in the next century, reading machines will evolve into seeing machines with the ability to provide intelligent descriptions of real-world scenes on a real-time basis. Such a machine would be like a friend that could describe what is going on in the visible world. The blind user could ask the device (verbally or using appropriate manual commands) to elaborate on a description, or ask it questions. The visual sensors of such a device could be built into a pair of eyeglasses, although it may be just as well to pin it on the user’s lapel. In fact, these artificial eyes need not only look forward; they may as well look in all directions. And they may have better visual acuity than normal eyes. We may all want to use them.

Will such technology be expensive? The answer as with all computer-based technology is first yes, then no. Early versions will be crude and expensive; later versions will be greatly refined and much more affordable. There have already been electronic navigation devices developed, but they have not yet proved useful. Unless such a device incorporates a level of intelligence comparable to a seeing eye dog, it is not of much value. General-purpose artificial vision is now being developed for robots and is in an early stage, although progress is being rapidly made. Today, robotic factory “inspectors” can outperform human inspectors in many visually demanding tasks. Vision has lagged other developments in artificial intelligence because of the enormous flow of data required to intelligently process visual data. With the advent of massively parallel computing, this difficulty is gradually being overcome.

A minor inconvenience

What will be the impact of the availability and widespread deployment of technology that largely overcomes the handicaps of blindness? For one thing, we will gain the full use of significant talent. There are two million “functionally blind” (defined as the inability to read ordinary print even with correctional lenses) individuals in the United States. Technology available today is already greatly assisting this population in obtaining equal access to educational and vocational opportunities. As the technology continues to gain in sophistication and deployment, the remaining barriers will diminish further.

Interestingly, the career of choice for many blind persons is in the information industry. Because of the ability of the computer (equipped with synthetic, speech-based screen readers) to provide a powerful communication aid, a greater percentage of the blind population is computer literate than the population at large. The increasing reliance on computer-based sensory aids will continue to direct visually impaired persons to this industry.

Perhaps of greater importance, we will see an end to the ancient perception of the “blind” as the charitable wards of society. If blind people can read and navigate with ease and take their place in schools and the workplace performing with the same effectiveness as the rest of the population, we will begin to see this disability as a mere inconvenience, as a problem no mere difficult to overcome than poor handwriting or fear of public speaking or any of the other minor challenges we all face. It will be the end of blindness as a handicap.

We will return to the issue of deafness and language in next month’s column.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, April 1992. Copyright © 1992, Reed Elsevier, USA

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