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Computer access for the visually impaired and blind
The history of the BEAM XVI terminal dates back to the year 1995. At this time we were talking to an existing customer of our Unix based parallel processing products. He was visually impaired and had difficulty in reading computer screens. To aid him we specified a large 21 inch monitor for his Unix computer workstation which increased the visible size of text on the screen. Following this we had a look around to see if there were any software tools available to assist him, we found none. Seeing an opportunity to help the customer and produce a product we set about designing a simple piece of software that would provide computer screen magnification. Our customer managed to acquire some funding from the Training and Employment Agency and the first screen magnification software product by BEAM was born.
Having produced an initial product we started talking to organisations about it, including the RNIB. At the time we had developed an X-Windows computer graphics terminal allowing users access to Unix systems across a network, this was selling well to Universities. We saw an opportunity in adding screen magnification software to this terminal and selling it as a complete standalone unit that could be plugged into any Unix host system without any software changes by the customer on the host. This new product, developed by us, was called the BEAM XVI Terminal (X-Windows for the visually impaired). The core software on the terminal was based on the up and coming open source Linux operating system with the addition of network management software and our screen magnification software.
The XVI Terminal took off as the only access route into Unix computer systems for visually impaired people. The RNIB were especially useful in marketing the product as they provided information to prospective clients on solutions available. Real success with the product occurred when a major bank, who had around 250 visually impaired and blind staff contacted us for assistance. They had a problem as their visually impaired and blind staff were predominantly employed as telephone operators in branches all over the UK. With the change to automated exchanges and call centers the role of telephone operator was fast disappearing. What was needed was a way to allow these employees to access a computer in a service center or other role. The XVI Terminal fitted in well with there needs as the bank's computer systems were based on Unix servers and users were already using X-Windows terminals. The BEAM XVI Terminal could be simply plugged into the network in place of one of the current units with no change of software on the part of the bank.
This provided support for the visually impaired users but not the blind. In 1996 we proposed a design modification to the XVI Terminal that would allow the terminal to support blind people and managed to get partial funding for the development from the bank. This development yielded the BEAM XVISB (X-Windows for the visually impaired with speech and braille) terminal. The basic unit was the same as the XVI Terminal but had an additional speech unit that provided a spoken description of the screens contents and a braille display that provides a row of braille cells displaying a line of text in braille driven by screen reader software. This allows people with severe visual disabilities and the blind access to computer systems. The bank now has around 200 visually impaired and blind people working in various computer orientated roles.
Apart from providing profit, it has been a joy to see people brightened when they recognise that they can use a computer and the future is open to them. For more information on the company and its products please see our Web site at http://www.beam.demon.co.uk.
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