Novel approaches to icon-based AAC presented by Karl Wiegand

One can easily argue that few are as keenly interested in the well-being of a person with a disability as is a parent. Expanding from that core of support one can also include siblings, guardians, educators, social workers and health care professionals. One can further include advocates, friends, spouses and co-workers, all of whom are concerned about quality of life. That covers just about everyone, and just about everyone should be in attendance at Karl Wiegand’s presentation at this year’s Conference on Disability, hosted by CSUN.

Mr. Wiegand is presenting some astonishing work in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). His presentation, entitled “Novel Approaches to Icon-Based AAC,” will explore two different methodologies for message construction and input. These two approaches can elevate the quality of communication for a person who has locked in syndrome. “Locked in syndrome” is an umbrella term that describes people who may have paralysis to the degree that the individual is unable to move any major body parts, except for above the neck. Even a person who may be in a full body cast is an example of someone who may have near complete lack of motor function, albeit temporarily.

The choices in alternative and augmentative communication devices now commonly involve the use of mouth sticks, switches or eye gaze input devices that can be cumbersome and fatiguing for the user. The current systems were designed based on an assumption that the user can press a button, make repetitious movements, or is able to maintain movement or body position for extended periods, so as to select letters or short words or phrases from choices on a menu. Using letter-based systems can be time consuming, because a letter-based system is more generative than the icon-based system that some users prefer in face-to-face or real time communication situations.

The challenge for Wiegand and his colleagues was to answer the questions: How can you redesign a screen such that you can display a large number of icons, but not all at once, which can be cognitively burdensome? How can icon-based systems be redesigned for faster and more efficient communication, as well as to accommodate users with upper limb motor impairments?

Together with his advisor and colleagues at Northeastern University, Wiegand is working on initial designs of two new approaches to icon-based
AAC: one using continuous motion and one using a brain-computer interface (BCI). The continuous motion system, called Symbol Path, consists of 120 screen icons of semantically salient words. “Continuous motion” means that a user can touch a word to begin a sentence, and without breaking contact from the screen, swipe or drag from icon to icon, ultimately completing a sentence.

His second approach makes use of a practice borrowed from the field of psychology. It is a system that shows icons to a user that represents a word or small phrase, in a serial fashion. It’s called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation. It allows for more efficient sentence construction, rather than presenting the user with a screen full of icons that must be made small in order to offer the user a full compliment of choices, which may be overwhelming.

This method of presenting information in rapid-fire fashion has been used before. If it sounds familiar, you may have once used this same technique if you’ve ever tried to tackle “speed reading.”

“My goal is to build a star trek computer.” Wiegand declares. He went on to explain. “A computer like the one in the program Star Trek, that can understand anybody, and will do it’s best to fill a person’s desires or needs.”

Karl was gracious enough to patiently explain what essential elements of communication would be required in order to make a “Star Trek computer” possible. First, a computer would have to be capable of parsing, which senses for context and speech recognition. Another element would include learning contexts, whereby a computer would understand how people interact with systems and expected responses from users. Finally, artificial intelligence would have to be achieved, enabling problem-solving with incomplete information, and natural language processing.

Until the point at which Mr. Wiegand has utterly changed our lives, and I do not doubt for a moment that he will, Wiegand says he’d like to work on Siri. To achieve his ultimate ends, Karl has worked in a number of other fields that have led him to this research. “I like AAC.” Wiegand continues. “It is a very focused area that is actually a vertex for four or five other fields.”

At CSUN, Karl will demonstrate the SymbolPath system, a prototype version of which is currently available for free on the Android app store (search for “SymbolPath”), show the BCI system, explain how both systems work, and talk about future directions for both. Wiegand hopes to have a system in place at his CSUN session so that attendees who interact with AAC users, friends or loved ones of AAC users, or AAC users themselves, can help create a corpus — a data set that shows what certain users want in certain times or settings or situations.

“We have revised both approaches based on initial testing and user feedback, and we are currently conducting several iterations of user-assisted design and revision before proceeding to full user testing.” Wiegand notes.

Attendees can help build this database by contributing realistic text, utterances, or phrases that AAC users like to say. If you attend the session, or find Karl throughout the week, you can contribute to the database or ask questions. In exchange, Karl will give you a copy of Symbol Path.

Karl will be presenting on Friday, March 1st at 3:10 pm in the Ford AB room, third floor.
Here is the link to the session page:

More about Karl Wiegand:

Karl Wiegand is a Ph.D. student in computer science at
Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. He works in the
Communication Analysis and Design Laboratory (CadLab) under the
advisement of Dr. Rupal Patel. Since joining the CadLab in 2009, Karl
has been working on alternative methods of communication for users
with neurological
impairments and severely limited mobility. His research includes
aspects of interface design, artificial intelligence, and language

Here are more ways to contact Karl, and help with his corpus gathering project:

Karl Wiegand’s homepage:
Karl’s lab:
Link to Karl on LinkedIn:

Finally, if you know or love an AAC user, you can help get the ball rolling on data-gathering here:

Don’t forget to use hashtag #CSUN13 when tweeting about the event. See you in San Diego!


It will only take a minute to make a difference with these Web Aim surveys

Web Aim [] has put out a call to assist in gathering data that will help people with disabilities to gain greater access to online and mobile technology. Here is an opportunity for you to toss in your two cents, and provide meaningful data and commentary that will make a difference in the lives of everyone who uses or needs assistive technology. Web Aim is asking anyone who qualifies to participate in two surveys, one for people who have low vision, and the other for people who have motor disabilities.

In reviewing both surveys, I found the questions to be thoughtful and interesting, enabling the respondents to not only share what devices or methodologies they are using now, but also to express preferences and offer input as to improvements in existing accessibility. the surveys are both short, and will help web and mobile developers to continue to make our technology usable and inclusive for all.

Low vision survey:

Motor disabilities survey:

The surveys will be open until March 15th, 2013. Raise your voice now!


Posted in Data Mining. No Comments »

An indoor navigation solution for blind users? Check out Navatar

This is absolutely fascinating.  Ever wonder why there are no navigational devices suitable for indoor use?  Ever wished to be able to efficiently navigate a mall, a hotel, or other indoor space?  Wonder why, when there is no end to the solutions for auto or pedestrian use, there seems to be no version of GPS for people who are blind to use indoors? 

Take a look at this.  It’s called Navatar.  In its earliest stages, research is being conducted on a device to assist blind users to move around in smaller spaces indoors.  Read more here:

Dr. Eelke Folmer is an Associate Professor researching Human-Computer Interaction
in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno.  "We are planning to expand our navigation system with a new feature that can help with spatial perception," says Eelke.  "We are currently sending out a questionnaire to potential users of our system to better understand the barriers of indoor navigation."

Want to help with the research?  below is a short questionnaire that you can fill out and send to Eelke.  Just cut and paste the questions into the body of an email, answer as thoroughly as you can, and send off the email to the address at the bottom of this post. 

I hope to have the opportunity to field test the actual device, so you can grease the wheels for me by letting Eelke know I sent you.  Well, now that I think of it, perhaps too many respondents will actually work to my detriment.  Hmmm.  Okay, here are the questions:

1. What type of visual impairment do you have?

2. Do you use a cane to navigate in indoor environments? and if so can
you name some limitations on using a cane in indoor environments?

3. Do you use a cane to explore the layout of a room? if not do you
use other techniques? e.g. hands?

4. Can you describe the process you follow to familiarize yourself
with the contents of a room?

5. When you look for an object in a room (e.g., phone or coffee cup)
what techniques do you use?

6. Do you sometimes use a sighted person to familiarize yourself with
an indoor environment? If so what kind of questions do you ask this

7. If we could build a tool that could help with spatial exploration,
what kind of features would you like this to have?
Send completed questionnaire to:  Eelke Folmer -  eelke.folmer at



A question of hope, healing or heartbreak for people with vision loss

There has been a flurry of recent reports circulating around the web regarding some promising results for people who have vision loss.  These latest research results are showing the potential for the implantation of human embryonic stem cells and people who have degenerative retinal diseases, such as macular degeneration and Stargardt’s disease.    Below I’ve hyperlinked just a few for you.  Disseminating this news is not my purpose here, however.  I want to ask my readers a few questions about your feelings on the subject.


If I had to guess, I would imagine the responses to my questions would vary widely,  depending upon when, and under what circumstances, you lost your eyesight.  How likely would you be to participate in this sort of trial?  If your eyesight could be restored, would you leap at the chance?  What if the results were only temporary?  What if the treatment were of a nature that precluded later, potentially more promising outcomes?  What if the treatment worked for many, but not for you?  How would you feel about no longer being part of a community, such as the smaller RP community, or the larger disability community?  How much of your sense of self is defined by your vision, or lack thereof?  Would you choose a restorative treatment for yourself first, or your children?  If you are a sighted spouse of a partner who is blind, how would you feel about the change in dynamic of your relationship?  Is there any aspect of your character or personality that would be changed by restored vision loss?  What if the result was little more than an approximation of eyesight, say, the ability to perceive outlines, but no details or color?  Would you be satisfied with mere light perception?  I guess the ultimate question is, what would you be willing to settle for?     


I can think of a thousand other questions, but you get the idea.  Please comment and share your thoughts.  I think many of my sighted readers might be very surprised by some of the responses.

      Click here to read Stem Cells Bring Hope

Click here to go to The Lancet

Click here to read AARP blog

Click here to read article on

Click here to read more on clinical trials


You can also learn more by following @fightblindness on Twitter.


So, what would you do if you could change everything?



Oscar and disability: Rate these portrayals

Now that another Oscar program is in the can, those of us who advocate for people with disabilities have made note of the fact that yet another Academy-acknowledged film featured a character with a disability.  I did some quick research, and below is a short list of some recent Oscar winners that either featured a character with a disability, or in some way dealt with issues pertaining to having a disability.        

The King’s Speech 2010  

A Beautiful Mind 2001  

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975  

Rain Man 1988 

Scent of a Woman 1992 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

Born on the Fourth of July 1989 

Charly 1968 

Children of a Lesser God 1986 

Coming Home 1978 

Forrest Gump 1994


This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but I was culling  through a list of only Oscar winners.  Also, I skipped over movies about addiction, such as "Leaving Las Vegas," or movies pertaining to disfigurement, like "Mask," "Phantom of the Opera," or "The Elephant Man," arguably appropriate for the disability column.  I also passed on the murderous madmen and psycho killer movies.  One could easily score a point if one cares to make an argument that these, too, count as disabilities.

    What are your favorite movies featuring issues or characters with a disability?  Why do you like that choice in particular?  Do you feel the portrayal was a realistic one?  Do you feel that the movie reflects your personal reality, or that of someone you know?  Does the movie confirm or dispel stereotypes?  Which movies have you found to be the most objectionable when depicting a person with a disability?  Comment below and share your views.



What is your favorite disability resource? Help build a directory

Most bloggers and webmasters use analytics tools to evaluate the scope of their reach.  The particular tool one might use is selected on the basis of the volume and specificity of the information desired.  Since I am no analyst myself, I use a simple tool for my blog and web sites.  The only information collected tells me where my readers are coming from, whether referred by a social network or a search engine.  One of the more interesting categories of data the tool provides to me is a list of the search terms used to find my blog.  What is interesting about these search terms is the vague or awkward language often used in the query.  I experimented with a few of these search terms, and was surprised at how little relevant information was returned.  I tried a few more queries, but was unable to retrieve a robust list of web sites and blog’s that pertained to sites specifically about blindness and low vision.


Yes, there were some, of course.  However, I was surprised that some of my own favorites were not listed on the first two pages of the search results.  Setting aside the conversation about SEO and marketing, I found myself wondering how a person who is entering into their senior years or a person who has recently struggled with vision loss might find the most useful information about how to thrive when learning to live with  low or no vision.


While I would not dispute the value of governmental or health related web sites, it occurred to me that the best sources of the kind of information that I believe to be the most relevant comes directly from those who are living the experience.  Is the National Institute of Health web site really the best place to find information on how to use technology to continue to run a business while losing eyesight?  Is a site advising a person on how best to collect government disability payments the best place to learn how to navigate city streets, cook for oneself, or stay connected online?


In my opinion, no.  The above examples contain more general educational information or theory than realistic day-to-day solutions.  That’s why I want my brilliant readers to help me to build a directory of web sites and blog’s that a person who is seeking useful information on coping, communicating, or care giving can turn to for real world advice.  Further, the best people to ask are those who avail themselves of these resources.  Therefore, I’m asking you to help build a directory that anyone can use to get real insights into how we live every day.


Please respond by either submitting a comment or using the accessible contact form link at the top of the page.  Please respond to the following questions:


1:  What is your favorite site for finding information about blindness or low vision? 
Note that the site can be a tech, issues, accessibility or independent living site.

2:  Why do you value the site?

3:  does the site or blog also have a social media counterpart?  Please provide links.


Finally, I’d just like to point out that this is  NOT a vote.  I’m putting together a directory, not a popularity poll.  think of it this way:  If you could dictate the Google search results for the search term "best sites for blindness and vision loss," what would the first page look like?


By the way, it’s okay to submit your own web properties.  Brag a  bit!  I’m here to support your efforts.



Construction zone: Your feedback is welcome!

As usual, I’m a bit slow on the uptake as far as technical things go, so I’m guessing I am among the last to update my blog to the latest WP version. However, it is my intention to do this soon. Additionally, I plan to add a few new features to the Accessible Insights Blog, and I hope you find them useful, fun, and not the least bit annoying since they will likely slow the site down somewhat. I’ve been trying to keep all of the plug-ins lightweight, but I have noticed some of these add-ons do create a bit of drag.


As I am always anxious to give the people what they want, I thought now would be a good time to poll my readers as to how I can better serve you. Are there any topics, not yet covered, that I can explore for you? Any product questions, how-tos, reviews or other educational insights I can provide? How can I ad value to the site for you? I’m open to suggestions, please write and tell me what I can do to make the site more interesting.

Most businesses would do well to interact with their customers in a way that is somewhat more robust than to simply take their money, although understand I have no specific objection to taking money.


So, while I toil in the back room here, I patiently await your feedback.



Posted in Data Mining. No Comments »

Accessible email and Win 7: Screen reader users silenced again?

About six months ago, in an effort to help solve the problem of email inaccessibility and the release of Windows 7, I posted a few suggestions in an entry entitled, Win 7 work-around for Zoomtext users. 


Unfortunately, this information requires an update due to the fact that there has been a recent change to my proposed solution, in the form of a version update to Windows Live Mail.  Like an idiot, I clicked on the update consent link before reviewing the new version notes.  To my horror, I now have a version of Windows Live Mail that I cannot use at all.  This has me so frustrated, and really ticked off. If there is anything within my power to do to advocate for screen reader users to Microsoft, I will.  Not that anyone will pay any attention to me whatsoever, but maybe a few of my accessibility tweeps will join me. 


First of all, the update to Windows Live Mail changes the look and feel of the interface  to that of the “ribbon” design.  If you detest that same interface in Word, you won’t like it here.  I am using an older version of MS Office on another PC, so I’m still enjoying the quite accessible XP MS Word interface.  So, when I saw the new Live Mail version, I was not thrilled.  Then, I attempted to use it, and found it to be utterly maddening.  the bottom line is, there is no accessibility with Zoomtext, which is the screen reader I use. 


Now, for my readers who use Jaws, perhaps you are having a different experience.  However, my extreme pathos drove me to Google, whereupon I conducted a somewhat fruitless search into accessible email solutions.  Here are the options I’ve discovered so far:


There are several forum posts out there from users who provide a step-by-step means by which to use the Vista version of Windows Mail with Windows 7.  While at first glance this seemed doable, I must concede this is not for the faint of heart.  If phrases such as “take full administration ownership,” and “change the registry” make you nervous, I suggest that you do not take this on unassisted.  I was feeling pretty intimidated by this option myself, so I moved on. 


A second option is to find another email program altogether.  I found lists of them, just Google “free email for Win 7” and you’ll find a dozen choices.  One of them is Mozilla Thunderbird, which I understand has an Outlook-similar functionality. I tried another choice first, called Incredimail, and I was not happy.  Incredimail seems like it would be a lot of fun to use if you want to add effects and whimsy to your email messages, it offers myriad backgrounds, ecards, animated graphics, sound effects and more to your communications.  I found it to be obnoxious.  Cute, but obnoxious.  Plus, I couldn’t figure out how to make Incredimail work with Zoomtext.


The Mozilla option seemed the better of the two, but I know little of the thunderbird program.  What I do know is this:  The email file formats are not interchangeable. You cannot use the .dbx extension, there is some converting required if you want to import  your old email messages.  I honestly do not know if this is significant. Does it mean that I cannot sync up my laptop and desktop, swap email messages and read them interchangeably?  If you know the answer, please share. 


Now that I’ve already been sucked into the update vortex and as a consequence have no access to the email that had already been saved, I’m stumped.  I suppose I can uninstall the updated Windows Live Mail and reinstall the old version, if the OS will permit it.  Why in the world do software manufacturers update their products only to set some users back?  I’ve had it, frankly.  What we need is an open source product that screen reader users can rely on.  A brilliant little piece of kit such as is Jarte, Juice and the many other accessible products where the needs of users with disabilities have been taken into consideration. At this point, I’d like to call upon my readers to submit some alternatives to Windows Live Mail. Let us divide the suggestions into two groups: Simple, uncluttered O E look-alikes, and full-featured productivity tools for heavy email users. Thanks in advance for your input.



Help build an accessible apps library

One aspect of the state of usability we refer to as "accessibility" that has irritated me of late is that some have seemed to play pretty fast and loose with the definitions.  Most of us recognize that the term "accessible" has both a connotation and a denotation, both a literal and figurative meaning.  With regard to online web development, there are specific "rules" of engagement as to actual techniques used to accomplish web accessibility.  For many of us, though, we tend toward the most fundamental of all of the meanings:  Can I use it or not?


There’s a practical aspect to what most users and consumers define as accessible.  For example, to each situation, I apply my "WSA" standard.  I need to be able to access, use or otherwise consume the product, establishment or service without sighted assistance.  That means that from beginning to end, it must be possible for me to complete the entire transaction or task on my own.


With the above in mind, I’d like to assemble a list of some of my readers favorite accessible apps for blogs, phones, Facebook and Twitter.  I’ve no doubt there are other lists or resources out there, but there is something to be said for a compilation generated by those who have personal experience in real world situations.  

Before you begin sending in your ideas, though, ask yourself the following:  Does this suggestion rise to the "WSA" threshold?

  Here are a few stipulations to consider as a guideline when offering your picks:   

1:  The web site from which you choose the app must be accessible.  This includes the download page.  

2:  If your pick is a blog app, the dashboard of your blog as well as the app install must be accessible.  No fair asking your brother or your assistant to do the install for you.  If you know how to do it, you must be able to, using your own access software such as a screen reader, puffer, stylus, touch board or whatever. 

3:  Once installed, you must be able to set up or configure the app to your preferences unassisted.  This also includes the registration process. 

4:  Once configured, you must be able to use it yourself on your own site, FB page, or phone. 

If you have to ask someone to read to you the serial number printed on a sticker on the product packaging, or complete the registration procedure or enter the graphical verification key, or download it from the developer site for you, it is not fully accessible.


So, if your app meets our usability standards from the word "go," as they say, then send me your picks.  Hey, I just installed an FB app that I cannot recommend.  I got all the way done, installed, configured, etc…only to find that, while I can "see" it on my FB page, I cannot use it!  Thanks, FB, for yet another inaccessible tab.  Sigh.  Well, I hope you all enjoy it, because I can’t. 

anyway, I look forward to reading your favorites.  help me build an accessible apps library that everyone can use. 


Who should be the face of a disability non-profit?

For my readers who have disabilities, here’s a chance to toss in your two cents. What do you think?

Should organizations that represent people with disabilities be managed by people with disabilities?

This may seem like an issue of no consequence, but I recently found myself investigating a local non-profit agency that specifically benefits the local blind community. However, the program manager of the agency is not blind or visually impaired in any way. I found this extremely irritating. It seems to me that the “face” of a disability advocacy organization should be that of a person who represents that demographic group. Or, should it?

On the one hand, the leadership, upper management, board of directors or membership of any organization wants the business to be competently managed, which renders race, ethnicity, disability irrelevant. One might say that this is the core of the issue of equal opportunity. Does this idea extend to organizations which specifically represent a particular group?

Does the choice of a sighted person as manager of a center for the blind suggest that a person who is blind cannot competently handle the operation? It suggested that to me, although in fairness I ought to take the time to find out if there have in fact been other program managers who have been blind. I will. Perhaps I am bent out of shape because her voicemail said, “Miss So and So cannot come to the phone right now, so please leave her a message.” What, she cannot even leave her own outgoing message? Is she voicemail impaired?

I’ll get over it.

In the meantime, I wonder: does a person of Japanese origin head the NAACP? Are the various chapters of the Jewish League run by Southern Baptists? Is the National Organization for Women captained by a person with a “Y” chromosome? I’m just asking.

What’s your opinion?