Screen-reader program targets vision-impaired students

Two blind computer programmers have developed a free, open-source program called NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), which ’reads’ the words on a computer screen as the cursor moves over them.

The invention won Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduate James Teh and his business partner Michael Curran two accolades in the grand final program of ABC’s New Inventors programme, which aired last month.

Teh said: ’We really are in the information age — everything is online these days. So access to computers for the blind and vision impaired is incredibly important, which is why we wanted our software to be free.’

Teh, who majored in software engineering at QUT, said blind students typically didn’t have the funds to purchase screen-reader technology, at the time in their life when they most needed it. Now NVDA can be downloaded onto anyone’s personal computer free of charge.

’It can also be copied to a USB stick, which can be used on any PC at school or university, with no installation required,’ he said.

Teh and Curran have drawn on their own experience as blind computer users to develop a product that has some unique and innovative features. For example, as the mouse moves up and down the screen, a small beeping sound becomes higher and lower in pitch to let a user know where the cursor is located.

Since its introduction, NVDA has been translated into 27 languages thanks to volunteer translators, and to date there have been more than 50,000 downloads.

Teh and Curran have been developing the software since 2006. They worked on the product without remuneration for two years, but when Mozilla offered funding in 2008, Teh was able to leave his day job and work on it full time.

The pair have future plans, including touch-screen options for the blind and vision impaired. While keen to maintain the independence and integrity of the product, the pair’s continued success may depend on the availability of further funding.