April 4, 1973: Accessible tools for computer users with visual impairments

An audio-based system made it possible for people with visual impairments to use computers.

"Bureau Caters Only to Blind DP Users" published in Computerworld Volume 7, Issue 14 on April 4, 1973
“Bureau Caters Only to Blind DP Users” published in Computerworld Volume 7, Issue 14 on April 4, 1973

In order to navigate and interact with computers, people with visual impairments rely on assistive technology in combination with accessibly designed systems. For example, accessibly designed websites will include an “alt text” description of any photos. These descriptions can then be read by an assistive screen-reading tool to describe the content of the photo to a user. In 1973, a team of computer scientists at American Systems Inc. implemented an accessible computer tool for blind users.

Called an Audio-Response-Time-Shared system, the original idea for the tool was proposed by Dr. Kenneth Ingham, a blind physicist who designed an audio system to facilitate his own work during his doctoral studies. According to an article in Computerworld magazine, to use the system, a visually impaired person would first call in from their home or office. Then, the user would transmit information to the computer over the telephone line using a keyboard (either standard or Braille). The talking computer would read out back to the user what was typed, or the results of a command. The user can request a copy of the session either printed with ink, in Braille, or as a voice recording. 

The Audio-Response-Time-Shared system aimed to be cost-friendly, with an initial cost of $450 for equipment and a $1.50 hourly rate. Importantly, testing proved that new users without any computer background could be trained on the system in a few hours. Together, the low cost and user-friendly design made the system popular, garnering users in several states.

–By Kathleen Esfahany