Access for all Internet service gives Freedom to people with disabilities

Oalkand Press - April, 27th, 2006

By CHRISTY BREITHAPT Special to The Oakland Press

The Internet has become, for most of us, an undeniable force. We pay bills, connect with friends, find information and do our shopping online. It can make life easier and makes connecting with the world less time-consuming. Many of us would be lost without it.

But the Internet isn't easy to master for everyone. Those who are blind, physically challenged or senior citizens can find the Internet a difficult and frustrating place.

Some organizations, such as eBlind!, are trying to change that. eBlind! is a nonprofi t group that offers programs for blind and physically challenged people to help them navigate the Web, and even their own desktops.

“If I do my job right and impart these skills to a person, they just light up like a lightbulb and smile and laugh,” says John Whitacre, director of services for eBlind! “It's just a very positive feedback.”

eBlind!, in its current incarnation, has been around since January thanks to the generosity of groups such as the Lions Club District 11-A2, the Optometric Institute and Clinic of Metropolitan Detroit and the Oakland County Library Board. The Lions Club is responsible for the financial support of the program and the Optometric Institute provides teaching space in Detroit, while the Oakland County Library has donated space in Pontiac.

Easy and inexpensive

A handful of programs is available for blind people to access the Internet, but they are typically expensive and time consuming. eBlind! has found the most luck with a service called Freedom Box, which costs subscribers around $10 a month.

The Freedom Box was created in 2002 by Michael Calvo, who was born blind. The service does many things, and sounds more complicated to explain than it is to learn.

Freedom Box uses software called a screen reader, which reads aloud whatever is on the screen. Also, the homepage for the service breaks the Internet down into simpler, more clarifi ed tasks.

For Amy DeKeyser, 22, the program has been a blessing. DeKeyser, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, had no problem catching on to the program.

“It was really easy,” says DeKeyser of Waterford Township. “It can type for you.”

Users can send e-mail with a few keystrokes. A blind or physically challenged person can use a headset microphone to record a voice message e-mail, and converts replied text into voice messages.

The program also makes it easier to access news, weather and entertainment. In fact, subscribers can choose from hundreds of voice-only movies to download.

“What's truly novel about it is its price point,” Whitacre says. “Most software, the commercial screen-reading software, sells for between $600 and $1,200, and then there's maintenance fees.”

The program, though created for the blind, also makes things much simpler for those who are physically challenged or partially blind. The screen is magnified for those who have difficulty seeing, and the minimal use of the keyboard works well for anyone who has diffi culty using their hands.

“You need minimal keyboard skills,” Whitacre says. “You need some minimal skills, but you actually don't need to be able to type. If you can just hunt and peck, you can do that much. There are some features you can use if you can't hunt and peck at all.”

Help for seniors

Its simplicity also works well for seniors who've never used a computer.

“It's a wonderful starting point for a senior or someone who's a little shy of computers because they're overwhelmed by the technology,” Whitacre says. “I wish more seniors would be aware of this and use it more. I think it's a wonderful starting point for them.”

Other programs for the blind, such as JAWS or Window-Eyes, can take anywhere from 40 to 120 hours of practice to gain a working knowledge. Learning Freedom Box can take as little as eight hours.

“It's kind of like getting into a swimming pool at the low end, and you can wade in. You're not taken to the deep end and thrown off,” Whitacre says. “You can develop your skills and go as deep as you want. It's capable of about 80 percent of the more expensive programs in terms of capabilities.”

Whitacre's son, Michael, is an instructor with eBlind! He's seen people of all skill levels come through the organization's doors. Some are anxious, but most are excited about learning a new skill.

“Some people are scared or nervous,” he says. “Usually the people who are recently losing their sight, who had sight previously, those are the ones you encounter like that. Just like when you lose a family member, you go through several stages when you lose your sight. The people who've gone thorough those stages, usually they're very, very excited. As they dive in more and the more they can do the more excited they get and the more they try other things. It's very exciting to see.”

And, the excitement is catching. DeKeyser has found a whole new world thanks to Freedom Box and her instructors at eBlind!

“You feel like the Internet caters more to you,” she says. “It can open up your world.”

For more information about Serotek Corporation or their products and services, please contact:

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Serotek Corporation

Serotek Corporation is a leading technology company that develops software and manufactures accessibility solutions under the brand name FreedomBox. Originally launched in 2001, the FreedomBox family of products and services make the worldwide Web and important application software systems available to virtually anyone, allowing command and control with the voice, keyboard, mouse, touch screens and other access mechanisms. FreedomBox solutions level the playing field providing people with disabilities powerful, affordable solutions that require minimal training.


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