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Assistive Technology Transfer Update


Title: Technology for visual impairment
Author: T2RERC
Published: 2003
Publication: Assistive Technology Transfer Update: Vol. 5 Issue 1 (Spring)

I. Introduction

On April 5th and 6th 2003 the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer (T2RERC) held the "Stakeholder Forum on Technology for Visual Impairment," in Burlingame, California. The purpose of this Forum was to identify the critical needs of persons with visual impairments and to outline the requirements needed to enable the technology solutions to address those needs. The co-sponsors for this Forum were the Smith-Kettlewell RERC for Blindness and Low Vision and the Far West Region of the Federal Laboratory Consortium. The Forum was made possible by grant funding from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Department of Education.
The mission of the T2RERC is to facilitate the introduction of new products and technologies into the marketplace, benefiting individuals with disabilities. The Demand Pull Project embodies one approach to technology transfer whereby market (consumer) needs are identified prior to locating technology solutions to address those needs. The Stakeholder Forum is an integral part of the "Demand Pull Project on Technology for Visual Impairment." Past projects focused on technologies for Wheeled Mobility, Hearing Enhancement, and Communication Enhancement.

II. Background

Persons with low vision and blindness have diverse and complex needs. In North America there are between 10 and 19 million blind and visually impaired people; many of whom have "low vision" 1 and therefore still have some usable vision. Vision loss can occur in varying degrees and as a result of various causes, such as: impairment to central vision resulting in blind spots, poor acuity and difficulty or inability to see fine detail and perceive color; impairment to the cornea or lens resulting in blurred vision and sensitivity to glare; impairment to the peripheral vision (tunnel vision); loss of vision in other parts of the visual field; or a combination of any of these conditions. This year’s Stakeholder Forum sought to address these issues. To assist in this goal the title was broken down into four separate areas, identified before the Forum by numerous researchers, manufacturers, clinicians, and consumers who examined the current state of products and underlying technologies. The four areas were chosen based upon a significant potential for improvement through the application of advanced technologies and the resultant benefits to consumers. These discussions focused on:

  1. wayfinding,
  2. consumer electronics,
  3. textual information, and
  4. graphical information.

After identifying the four topic areas to be discussed at the Forum, a set of "white papers" was developed. The "white papers" provided Forum participants a glimpse of the topics to be discussed at the Forum, establishing a common understanding of these topics and providing participants with an opportunity to formulate their thoughts. Each white paper defined persons with visual impairments in terms of demographics, clinical, personal and social needs, and reviewed the products and technologies currently available to address these needs. Each participant received their set of white papers several weeks before the Forum.

III. The Stakeholder Forum

The Forum had a balanced mix of consumers, researchers, developers and manufacturers, known as "stakeholders." About 50 of the stakeholders came together for two days and worked together to identify critical consumer needs and "requirements" for Assistive Technology products to address these needs. Development and marketing executives from fourteen companies articulated industry needs. Twelve individuals with visual impairments from Buffalo or San Francisco represented the consumer perspective. Nine engineers and scientists from distinguished institutions such as John Hopkins University, NASA and Sun Microsystems spoke for advanced technology developers. Thirteen experts representing government agencies, clinical programs and rehabilitation research programs contributed additional public policy, legal and technical information. Dr. Stephen M. Bauer of the University at Buffalo, and Co-Director of the T2RERC, opened the Forum by welcoming participants and introducing representatives from the co-sponsoring agencies. John Brabyn, Co-Director of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute discussed the importance of the Forum and the critical unmet needs of persons with disabilities. Mike Sullivan, Vice-Director of the Far West Region of the Federal Laboratory Consortium discussed the tremendous potential represented by more than 700 Federal Laboratories to provided technological solutions to address the needs of individuals with visual impairments.

Following these addresses Carly Panchura, the T2RERC’s Demand-Pull Project Manager and the Forum organizer, instructed the stakeholders on the activities, schedules, and events for the two days of the Forum. Throughout those two days, eight discussion groups were conducted covering each of the four topic areas twice. A brief introduction to the four topic areas follows.

1. Wayfinding
Improved wayfinding technology would provide better critical orientation, mobility, navigation, and spatial perception capabilities - maximizing travel independence and safety for people who are blind. Consumers need accurate navigation, signage and landmark information, architectural details, business addresses, street maps, emergency warnings, transportation schedules, etc. If this technology were improved, individuals with visual impairments 2 would be able to plan complicated travel routes, navigate new surroundings, and independently access previously unknown facilities.

2. Consumer Electronics
Access to and control of consumer electronics has become a necessity when living independently within your home or fully participating in your community. Currently there are no universal means to access and control consumer electronics or to overcome the many technological hurdles that are still in existence. Partial solutions are provided by auditory cues, tactile feedback, accessible remote controls, and voice recognition

3. Access to Textual Information
The ability to access and produce print and electronic textual information is not fully developed for people who are blind or have a visual impairment. Video magnifiers, screen magnifiers, screen readers, refreshable Braille displays and related technologies provide partial access to textual information. Access to and production of mathematical text is in the early stage of development. The opportunity exists for major technological improvements in this area.

4. Access to Graphical Information
There is a growing trend to incorporate graphics into everyday objects such as books, newspapers, and electronic media such as websites and Internet cell phones. For individuals without vision loss, graphical objects provide a powerful and effective means to communicate information. For individuals with vision loss, the ability to access and create graphical objects presents additional challenges. Once again, partial solutions do exist. For individuals who are legally blind but retain some usable vision, images may be enlarged or reduced, image color may be altered and contrast may be increased. For individuals with complete vision loss, the graphical information must be transformed into tactile representations, audio descriptions, audio sounds and "haptic" effects such as pressure, position, vibration, texture and temperature.

IV. What Participants Had to Say

When asked what they hoped to gain from the Forum, participants gave thoughtful and insightful responses. Leah Vickey, part of the CSUN Center on Disabilities Training Team and a consumer, was very clear on what she hoped to gain from the Forum. "I hope to understand where the trends are going, both professionally and as an end-user. There is a lot of technology coming out that is inaccessible. How are manufacturers going to deal with this? What direction is industry going to take to address this problem and meet the changes?"

Leah Vickey and Shelly Bamrick, a consumer from Buffalo, thought that the Forum provided excellent networking opportunities. Shelly, Leah and others were able to meet with the people who manufacture and engineer assistive technology products and tell them directly what they liked, and didn’t like and needed in the products they used everyday.

Dr. Sumi Helal said it was "fantastic to see blind people, manufacturers, and technical experts all together." In 2001 he founded Phoneomena Inc. with a group of faculty and graduate students from the University of Florida, a company focusing on wireless integration and wireless communication applications. Dr. Helal is a member of the RERC on Successful Aging. Steven Landau, President of Touch Graphics, agreed with the general opinion that it was great to have such diverse groups of people in the rooms. "By placing an ‘expert’ next to a consumer the ‘expert’ directly learns the needs of the consumer while the consumer makes a potentially valuable contact who is aware of the statistical data and possesses the technological knowledge to address the consumer’s needs."

Larry Scadden, a recent award recipient of the Migel Medal - the highest award given by the American Foundation for the Blind, stated that "the highlight, for me, was to be with people from various companies and research projects and really having an opportunity to get caught up on what the State of the Research, well State of the Art and State of the Practice, State of the Research activities in the United States as well as England."

V. Ensuring the Quality of Stakeholder Forum

Dr. Vathsala Stone, Director of Research and Evaluation for the T2RERC, conducts numerous evaluations while the Forum is taking place and also directly following the conclusion of the Forum. The satisfaction felt by the Forum attendees is conveyed through her evaluations. Unsolicited comments included, "I spend a lot of time attending meetings across the country during the year. I was glad to see the group you had invited to participate. Many of these persons are not seen at every gathering of blind professionals in work for the blind. There were representatives from so many different aspects of blindness to lend an extraordinary breadth of knowledge to the meeting. I hope this knowledge was taken advantage of. From the final reports I felt progress was made toward some badly needed solutions."

Another attendee commented, "Thank you for inviting me to participate in this past weekend’s stakeholders forum. I found it enjoyable and stimulating. My hope is that all of you now can pull the nuggets from notes and transcripts that problem statements on relevant technologies can be developed and distributed to appropriate laboratories."

VI. The Next Steps

Information gathered at the Stakeholder Forum is taken back to Buffalo, analyzed and transformed into problem statements that summarize the market need and requirements for technology solutions. Data gathered from the Stakeholder Forum, a market summary, problem statements, a Forum participant listing, evaluation summaries and other information are published as Proceedings available online and in hard copy to Forum participants. Problem statements are circulated to technology developers in private sector corporations, public sector research universities, and Federal laboratories. The T2RERC screens technology proposals received in response to the problem statements and brokers the transfer of promising technologies to Assistive Technology companies. Technologies have been successfully transferred using this protocol for the Wheeled Mobility and Communication Enhancement Projects.

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1 Original published version read, "are considered legally blind"
2 Original published version read, "legally and totally blind individuals"