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ATIC mission, making computers helpful to all

For most people, personal computers have become progressively easier to use in recent years as software and hardware have increased in sophistication. For those with disabilities, however, that technology can be out of reach.

At MIT, the ATIC lab (Access Technology for Information and Computing) works to find solutions for members of the community whose ability to use computers is restricted by conditions such as sight loss, physical disability, neurological disorders and repetitive strain injury (RSI), a relatively common malady characterized by pain in the hands and wrists brought on, ironically, by too much keyboard work. The lab, which opened in April 1992, started with eight clients and has now worked with more than 150, according to M. Susan Jones, coordinator of the ATIC lab.

The lab, which is next to the Athena cluster in Bldg 11, serves as a work space with specialized equipment and layout designed to provide an optimal computer environment (for example, all the tables are adjustable to accommodate users in wheelchairs, and the lighting is recessed and low-intensity to provide maximum screen visibility). Consultants work with clients, who may be MIT students or staff members, to find the appropriate hardware and/or software and try it out with them. The consultants also provide training, support and workshops for the general MIT community.

"We help [clients] make intelligent decisions about what works best for them," said Ms. Jones, a computer consultant who began working on adapting computers for the disabled several years ago while working at Oberlin College. "We do a lot of searching to find ways to make things work." Clients can work in the lab on a continuing basis or use it as a proving ground for equipment they will eventually acquire themselves for use in their homes or offices.

Among the adaptive devices in the ATIC lab are systems that make monitors display extra-large characters, voice-recognition systems for input by people who cannot use their fingers and hands for typing, alternative mice and trackballs, and scanners with voice synthesis equipment so computers can read books aloud (even using different tones of voice for text that is boldface or in italics). There are also Braille printers and special keyboards for those who can't use ordinary keyboards because of RSI. One of the people who developed computerized Braille embossing is Professor Emeritus Robert Mann, who headed the Sensory Aids Lab and then the Newman Lab for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation and is president of the National Braille Press.

People with neurological problems such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis can wear a headband with a piece on the forehead that reflects an infrared beam from a small box atop the monitor, so users can point to items on the screen and make selections by holding the beam steady for a moment. Also available (although ATIC currently has none) are tactile screen displays, eye-track systems and tongue pads, Ms. Jones said.

The ATIC lab is also a beta test site for hardware and software designed for people with disabilities. One of the products now being tried for those with RSI is the Data Hand, which consists of two palm-shaped "pads" with depressions for the fingers. Each finger-hole has several buttons or switches inside, so the user can type by pressing his or her fingers in various directions while keeping the hands and wrists stationary.

"The movements are much smaller and without pressure, for the most part," Ms. Jones said. "A couple of people swear it's saved their careers."

Another prototype in the ATIC lab is a screen reader called Outspoken that verbally tells a visually impaired user where he or she is located among the windows on the screen. A product for Macintosh computers is already on the market; ATIC is testing a DOS version.

One of those whom the ATIC lab has helped is Gail Masci, a programmer/analyst in Development Research and Systems who began losing her eyesight several years ago and became legally blind in the mid-1980s (although she still has some residual vision). When her department switched over to Macintoshes, she had to find new ways of interacting with her computer. "I was a bit concerned because [the Mac] is so visual," she said.

Among the solutions that she and ATIC consultants found was using an Apple Duo-Dock, a device that lets her plug a standard-issue Apple Duo notebook computer into a larger system that includes voice synthesis and a 16-inch monitor to display large characters. With this arrangement, she's not tied down to cumbersome equipment; she can take her small computer home and send files to a mainframe using a modem. She's also starting to learn Braille and may get an embosser printer some day, although for now she brings her Braille work on disk to ATIC lab and prints it there.

In computers as in other areas of her life, "there are some things I can't do, but there are a lot of things I can do; I just have to do them differently," Ms. Masci said. "Su [Jones] was really good as far as helping me figure out speech and enlargement software and even what kind of Mac to get."

Ramon Vela, a graduate student in political science who is also visually impaired, found a program called LP-DOS through the ATIC lab. Before discovering it, using Athena and other computer systems at MIT was very difficult for him. "I could barely read the instructions on the screen," he said. LP-DOS (the first two letters stand for large print) enlarges on-screen text and gives him more flexibility by letting him enlarge only certain portions of a file, switch back and forth from large to standard size, and move around the screen more easily. He can also print files in very large type on ATIC's laser printer. In addition, an ATIC consultant found a large font for Athena that makes it easier for him to use the network.

"It's a great thing to see what I'm typing as I'm typing it," Mr. Vela said. "Without that initial help, it would've taken a lot longer and it could've been a real pain" to use computers at MIT.

Although her vision is fine, RSI makes typing impossible for Debra Hofman, a research associate at the Center for Information Systems Research at the Sloan School. With an intelligent voice-recognition program called DragonDictate, the computer transcribes her spoken input, and she can edit and move the cursor with a variety of spoken commands the system recognizes.

ATIC "gave me an opportunity to try out things instead of just seeing a demo," Ms. Hofman said. "You can really test it and see what works for you. The fact that ATIC exists is wonderful. They really provide a very needed service."

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 13).

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