Navigating visual impairment maze

CHAPEL HILL — A blind child made his way through a simple maze Wednesday at UNC and smiled brightly when he reached the end.

The sound of wolves howling and elephants roaring could be heard coming from the maze, but the young boy wanted to try it again.

The maze was part of Maze Day 2005, a special event at UNC’s Computer Science Department that put UNC students together with visually impaired children. For the children, it was a fun day to try computer games designed just for them, and for the UNC students, it was a chance to receive feedback about the computer programs they had developed.

There are few software programs for the blind and some of them are cumbersome and difficult to use. But through a UNC computer science course called Enabling Technology, UNC students are developing programs for blind people from age 2 up. For the very young children, the programs help them learn directions and sounds. For older people, the programs can help them complete graduate research papers.

UNC graduate student Peter Perente demonstrated a screen reading and writing program he is developing that will make browsing the Internet and working on computers much easier than with JAWS, the program that most blind people use. “It will be more like the way people talk,” Perente said.

James Schlosser, a blind student at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough, tried out Perente’s program Wednesday.

“It was pretty cool,” he said. “I can read any e-mail and browse the Web and stuff like that.”

He hopes the program will be completed soon so he can use it in the future.

“One day I’ll be able to use that on the stock market and get rich,” he said. “I’m very serious about getting rich.”

His mother, Denise Watson, was impressed with Perente’s program, too.

“There’s not a whole lot out there,” she said. “JAWS is difficult to use and difficult to learn. We have JAWS at home. It’s doable, but something that’s a lot easier clearly would be great.”

Gary Bishop, a UNC professor who teaches the course, claims to be a geek and a nerd, but his rabid enthusiasm for developing computer programs for the blind has spread to his students, who often keep working on their projects long after they’ve finished his course.

UNC freshman Jonathan Pittard is one of those students. At Maze Day, he set up his computer game called Pathfinder, which helps young blind people learn how to listen to sounds to help them as they learn to walk with a cane.

“This was definitely a more rewarding experience than my other classes here,” Pittard said. “I got the feeling that I was contributing to an area where they really needed help.”

That’s the same experience many of the UNC students have had, Bishop said. “I think we’re changing the way some of our kids think about what they can do with computers,” Bishop said. “Geeks making the world a bit better. That’s us.”

When Bishop first started thinking about developing software programs for disabled people, he wasn’t sure what direction to go. He said he thought and prayed about it, and then one day got the answer as he was walking across campus. He saw a blind man with a guide dog.

Bishop started to walk past him, but the blind man called out and asked Bishop what street he was on. The guide dog had made a wrong turn, and the blind man was lost in the middle of campus. Bishop started chatting with the man, Jason Morris, and Morris told him he was a graduate student in the Classics Department.

“It was entirely an accidental meeting, and it was extremely fortuitous,” Mason said. “Sometimes the best things in life are accidental.”

Morris began telling Bishop that it was difficult for him to study maps of ancient cultures. Bishop took the problem back to his computer science students, and they developed a program called BATS, which stands for Blind Audio Tactile Mapping System. Using the program, Morris was able to complete his research project.

BATS has been further developed so that it can help blind students learn the geography of their state or, more practically, how to find their way around their schools or towns.

Bishop then met a woman named Diane Brauner who teaches blind children the special skills they need in using a cane and listening for sounds to guide them. At one of the schools where she worked, she noticed that when the sighted children went off to computer instruction classes, the blind students were left behind with nothing to do.

Working with Bishop and his students, they began developing software games that blind children can use to develop their skills. That program, called Hark the Sound, is now available on the Internet and can be downloaded for free.

Bishop recently received a letter from India. When he opened the large sheet of heavy paper, he saw it was written in Braille.

After getting some help in translating the letter, he learned that Hark the Sound was being used in a classroom for the blind in India. “From India, people are writing us and saying we really appreciate this software because there’s nothing out there,” Bishop said with a big smile on his face.


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