New York Times, January 3, 2009
T. V. Raman was a bookish child who developed a love of math and
puzzles at an early age.
That passion didn’t change after glaucoma took his eyesight at
the age of 14. What changed is the role that technology — and
his own innovations — played in helping him pursue his
A native of India, Mr. Raman went from relying on volunteers to
read him textbooks at a top technical university there to
leading a largely autonomous life in Silicon Valley, where he is
a highly respected computer scientist and an engineer at Google.
Along the way, Mr. Raman built a series of tools to help him
take advantage of objects or technologies that were not designed
with blind users in mind. They ranged from a Rubik’s Cube
covered in Braille to a software program that can take complex
mathematical formulas and read them aloud, which became the
subject of his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell. He also built a
version of Google’s search service tailored for blind users.
Mr. Raman, 43, is now working to modify the latest technological
gadget that he says could make life easier for blind people: a
“What Raman does is amazing,” said Paul Schroeder, vice
president for programs and policy at the American Foundation for
the Blind, which conducts research on technology that can help
visually impaired people. “He is a leading thinker on
accessibility issues, and his capacity to design and alter
technology to meet his needs is unique.”
Some of Mr. Raman’s innovations may help make electronic gadgets
and Web services more user-friendly for everyone. Instead of
asking how something should work if a person cannot see, he says
he prefers to ask, “How should something work when the user is
not looking at the screen?”
Such systems could prove useful for drivers or anyone else who
could benefit from eyes-free access to a phone. They could also
appeal to aging baby boomers with fading vision who want to keep
using technology they’ve come to depend on.
Mr. Raman’s approach reflects a recognition that many
innovations designed primarily for people with disabilities have
benefited the broader public, said Larry Goldberg, who oversees
the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH, the public
broadcasting station in Boston. They include curb cuts for
wheelchairs, captions for television broadcasts and optical
character-recognition technology, which was fine-tuned to create
software that could read printed books aloud and is now used in
many computer applications, he said.
With no buttons to guide the fingers on its glassy surface, the
touch-screen cellphone may seem a particularly daunting
challenge. But Mr. Raman said that with the right tweaks,
touch-screen phones — many of which already come equipped with
GPS technology and a compass — could help blind people navigate
“How much of a leap of faith does it take for you to realize
that your phone could say, ‘Walk straight and within 200 feet
you’ll get to the intersection of X and Y,’ ” Mr. Raman said.
“This is entirely doable.”
ADVOCATES for the blind have long complained that technology
companies have done a generally poor job of making their
products accessible. The Web, while opening many opportunities
for blind people, is still riddled with obstacles. And
sophisticated screen-reader software, which turns documents and
Web pages into synthesized speech, can cost more than $1,000.
Even with a screen reader, many sites are hard to navigate.
Last year, the National Federation of the Blind reached a
settlement of a landmark class-action lawsuit against one
company whose site advocates found unusable, Target. In the
settlement, the retailer agreed to make its Web site accessible
to blind people. The federation assesses the usability of Web
sites and currently certifies only a handful as being fully
One challenge is that technology often evolves much faster than
the guidelines that ensure Web sites work well with screen
readers. In December, the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet
standards group, released Version 2.0 of its accessibility
guidelines for Web sites. The previous version dated back to
1999, when the Web consisted largely of static Web pages rather
than interactive applications.
Obstacles on the Web take many forms. A common one is the
Captcha, a security feature consisting of a string of distorted
letters and numbers that users are supposed to read and retype
before they register for a new service or send e-mail. Few Web
sites offer audio Captchas.
Some pages are just poorly designed, like e-commerce sites where
the “checkout” button is an image that isn’t labeled so screen
readers can find it.
“The overwhelming percentage of the industry really hasn’t
stepped up to the plate to provide the blindness community with
equal access to their products,” said Eric Bridges, director of
advocacy and governmental affairs at the American Council of the
Blind. Mr. Bridges and other advocates argue that accessibility
should be built into new technologies, not added as an
People with other disabilities face similar challenges on the
Internet. “On the deafness side, the frustration is huge because
of all of the video out there without captions,” Mr. Goldberg
MR. RAMAN, who before joining Google in 2005 worked at Adobe
Systems and as a researcher at I.B.M., is intimately familiar
with accessibility problems, both personally and professionally.
In 2006, he developed a version of Google’s search engine that
gives a slight preference to Web sites that work well with
screen readers. The system had to test millions of Web pages.
“You wouldn’t have found a single page that fully complied with
the accessibility guidelines,” Mr. Raman said. Still, the system
could detect which pages worked reasonably well with screen
The service is not being used as widely as he had hoped. Still,
it has had an impact. Several Web site operators whose sites
weren’t showing up prominently in Google search results asked
Mr. Raman how they could fix their sites so they would rank
The service includes a screen magnifier that enlarges individual
search results. Mr. Raman says the feature is intended to help
low-vision users, but it could also prove useful to a much
larger population, especially on cellphones and other devices
with small screens.
For his own use, he has built a highly customized system that
allows him efficient access to much of what he needs on his PC
and on the Web, stripping out anything that could slow him down.
For instance, the system goes directly to the article text on
the news sites he reads regularly, bypassing navigational links
and other features found on most Web pages.
On a recent day, Mr. Raman was working on a research paper about
the future structure of the Web. A monitor hung above the desk.
It is usually turned off, unless he wants to show a colleague or
visitor what he is working on. He typed at his keyboard, his
head slightly tilted to one side, listening to his screen reader
through a pair of wireless headphones.
The screen reader is calibrated to speak at roughly triple the
speed of a normal voice. To the untrained ear, the output is
incomprehensible, but it allows Mr. Raman to “read” at roughly
the same speed as a sighted person.
Processing information quickly is a skill he has developed over
the years: a video on YouTube shows him solving his Braille
Rubik’s Cube in 23 seconds. When he is not typing, Mr. Raman,
who wears large sunglasses, is often folding and unfolding
pieces of paper into tiny, origami-like geometrical shapes at
He shares a work area at Google with Charles Chen, a 25-year-old
engineer, and Hubbell, Mr. Raman’s guide dog. (Hubbell has his
own Web site.)
Mr. Chen, who is sighted, developed a free screen reader for Web
pages that works with the Firefox browser. Working together, the
two recently added keyboard shortcuts that help blind and
low-vision users navigate quickly through Google’s search
results. They’ve also developed tools to make sophisticated Web
applications, like e-mail and blog readers, suitable for
Now, much of their effort is focused on touch-screen phones.
“The thing I am most interested in is all of the stuff moving to
the mobile world, because it is a big life-changer,” Mr. Raman
To show their progress, Mr. Raman pulled his T-Mobile G1, a
touch-screen phone with Google’s Android software, from a pocket
of his jeans. He and Mr. Chen have already outfitted it with
software that speaks much like a screen reader on a PC. Now they
are working on ways to allow blind people, or anyone who is not
looking at the screen, to enter text, numbers and commands.
That development would complement voice-recognition systems,
which are not always reliable and don’t work well in noisy
Since he cannot precisely hit a button on a touch screen, Mr.
Raman created a dialer that works based on relative positions.
It interprets any place where he first touches the screen as a
5, the center of a regular telephone dial pad. To dial any other
number, he simply slides his finger in its direction — up and to
the left for 1, down and to the right for 9, and so on. If he
makes a mistake, he can erase a digit simply by shaking the
phone, which can detect motion.
He and Mr. Chen are testing several other input methods. None of
these technologies have been rolled out, but Mr. Raman, who is
already using the G1 as his primary cellphone, hopes to make
them freely available soon.
(Few screen readers are available for smartphones today, and
they can often cost as much as a phone itself.)
What may become the most life-changing mobile technology — a
phone that can recognize and read signs through its camera — may
still be a few years away, Mr. Raman said. Already, some devices
can read text this way. But because blind users don’t know where
signs are, they can’t point the camera at them or align it
properly, Mr. Raman said. Once chips become powerful enough,
they will be able to detect a sign’s location and read skewed
type, he said.
“Those things will happen,” he said. When they do, sighted users
will benefit, too.
“If you have the technology that can recognize a street sign as
you drive by it, that is helpful for everyone,” he said. “In a
foreign country, it will translate it.”
Mr. Raman’s innovations have already made their way onto
millions of PCs. At Adobe in the 1990s, he helped to adapt the
PDF format so it could be read by screen readers. That was
required for PDF to be used by the federal government, and it
eventually led to the technology’s being embraced as a global
standard for electronic documents.
“It was incredibly important to us as a business, and to the
blind,” said John Warnock, the chairman and founder of Adobe.
Mr. Raman says he thinks he has the largest impact when he can
persuade other engineers to make their products accessible — or,
better yet, when he can convince them that there are interesting
problems to be solved in this area. “If I can get another 10
engineers motivated to work on accessibility,” he said, “it is a
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