IBM has demonstrated a prototype product designed to make applications and Web pages built using the Java computer language accessible to the blind.
IBM's "screen-reader" reads aloud the information on a user's computer screen, and is the first such application to support Java.
The product was demonstrated at Closing the Gap in Minneapolis, a three-day conference where the disabled community met with government and industry representatives to discuss IT needs specific to people with disabilities.
Existing products that use a voice synthesiser to convert on-screen text into spoken words will not read Java, which often employs colorful icons and animations to guide sighted users around the Internet and through networked applications, says Phil Jenkins, accessibility program manager for IBM.
IBM's screen reader, code-named JavaJive, will turn those graphics into voiced messages by reading a special Java "accessibility API (application programming interface)" which Sun is developing with IBM.
"What's unique about Java APIs is that they allow applications to provide more details about a document's structure and content than could be provided in the past" by programming languages like C++, says Richard Schwerdtfeger, lead architect for the JavaJive development team.
That could benefit people with other disabilities, like dyslexia.
"People with dyslexia will be able to control parts of the document - highlight words or paragraphs, give them a different background color - which can make it easier for them to read it," Schwerdtfeger said.
The accessibility API is expected to be included for free in the forthcoming version of Sun's Java software development kit, SDK 1.2, Jenkins says. Sun and IBM are also making available special "tool kits" and guidelines that will help developers build the accessible applications.
IBM's screen reader, meanwhile, is still under development, but may be ready for commercial release in the second half of 1998, Jenkins said. Details of how the product will be offered have not been finalised - it may be built into browser software, or sold as a stand alone product, Jenkins says.
Like IBM's current screen-reading products, JavaJive is expected to be available to non-English language versions also, including several European languages and Japanese, Jenkins says.