New tool lets blind surf web

New software developed at the University of Washington now lets blind or visually impaired people surf the internet on the go.


For blind or visually impaired people, using a computer has, until now, required special screen-reading software typically installed only on their own machines.


Not any more. New software, called WebAnywhere, now lets people surf the internet on the go. The tool, developed at the University of Washington (UW), turns screen-reading into an internet service that reads aloud web text on any computer with speakers.


‘This is for situations where someone who’s blind can’t use their own computer but still wants access to the internet. At a museum, at a library, at a public kiosk, at a friend’s house, at the airport,’ said Richard Ladner, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.


The free program and both audio and video demonstrations are at http://webanywhere.cs.washington.edu.


WebAnywhere was developed under Ladner’s supervision by Jeffrey Bigham, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.


Free screen readers already exist, as do sophisticated commercial programs but all must be installed on a machine before being used. This is claimed to be the first tool hosted on the web, meaning it doesn’t have to be downloaded onto a computer. It processes the text on an external server and then sends the audio file to play in the user’s web browser.


Like other screen readers, WebAnywhere converts written text to an electronically generated voice. So far the system works only in English but the source code was released recently and a web developer in China has expressed interest in creating a Chinese version.


The UW team plans to create updates that will allow users to change the speed at which the text is read aloud and add other popular features found in existing screen readers.


Bigham is also working with Benetech, a Palo Alto, California outfit that supports the development of tools for the blind.


Bigham believes this could be the first of many web-based accessibility tools. ‘Traditional desktop tools such as e-mail, word processors and spreadsheets are moving to the web,’ he said. ‘Access technology, which currently runs only on the desktop, needs to follow suit.’