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As New Tools Bust Down Barriers For The Blind, Schools Struggle To Keep Up


Screen readers, programs that convert webpages and apps into spoken language, are incredibly useful for people who are blind, but the technology is not universally available. Schools, universities and even technology companies themselves have been slow to use this simple digital tool. Steve Henn of our PLANET MONEY podcast has the story of one young man who is trying to knock down some of the remaining barriers to the blind.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Kartik Sawhney has been blind since birth.

Did you remember when you first interacted with a computer that had a screen reader?


HENN: So you were 7. What was that moment like?

SAWHNEY: Oh, I was so happy. Like, when when my - when that instructor told me, your computer can talk, I was like, are you serious - like, no (laughter). My computer can just play music. But then he introduced me to screen readers, and it changed my life. It got my family really excited too.

HENN: And a computer that could read aloud was a godsend. Growing up in New Delhi, India, most of the textbooks Kartik needed to read in school - they weren't digitized. As he got older and used his talking computer more and more, he had this problem, though. His computer talked to slowly. And I mean, think about it. Most people read much faster than we speak. So Kartik cranked up the speed a lot.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Arrangement in progress for "That Girl" by Justin Timberlake.

HENN: Do you always listen to your Slack messages that quickly?

SAWHNEY: Yeah or any other thing. Like, I mean, so, like, and let's log this.


HENN: Wait; wait. You have to translate what she's saying because she's going so fast.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Steve Henn, Steve Henn - re NPR interview, 4:17 p.m. I am running about 10 minutes late. Should I call you when I arrive? Steve Henn - (unintelligible) to select a custom action.

SAWHNEY: I am running 10 minutes late. Should I call you when I arrive?

HENN: Yeah, I got that. I could understand her there because I typed it, but that's the only reason.


HENN: But Kartik had one more problem. He decided he wanted to be a scientist or maybe a mathematician, and a lot of what he needed to understand he couldn't really read even with the best screen reader. There was really no good way to read a chart or a graph out loud. So he took this problem on himself. He created software that would turn graphs into musical notes.

SAWHNEY: Consider you have a graph - Y equals X-squared, right? And you plotted between, say, negative 10 and 10. Then basically, it would sound like - so (imitating tonal changes).

HENN: It's a parabola.

SAWHNEY: Yeah, basically - yes.

HENN: This is his program reading a straight line.


HENN: This is a horizontal parabola.


HENN: Now, by this point, Kartik had convinced himself he could do anything, learn anything a sighted student could. So he decided to apply to the Indian Institute of Technology. It's like the MIT or Caltech of India. But officials wouldn't let him take the entrance exam using a computer. He asked for human being who knew scientific notation to read the exam, and they said no.

So he applied to what was really his safety school, Stanford. A human being read him the SAT allowed, and he killed it. Now he's majoring in computer science in the heart of Silicon Valley. But even here, even today, many of the computer programs and websites Kartik needs for school or research aren't designed to work with his screen readers. And to Kartik, this seems just crazy.

SAWHNEY: And I come across a page which is totally inaccessible with my screen reader. Oh, oh, my God, how I wish this interface was better.

HENN: So Kartik is studying human-computer interaction. He thinks all computers should talk and listen. And he has pretty grand ambitions to build computers that make...

SAWHNEY: Everything to be universally available to everyone.

HENN: And he says if you think about it, this is really better for everyone. I mean, who wants to spend their entire life head down, typing with your thumbs on a tiny glass screen? Kartik's convinced it would be better if you could just talk to your little screen and it would talk back. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.