College of Liberal Arts

Giving Site to the Blind

By Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts
Published: March 5

With the surge of smartphones, tablets and other handheld gadgets, millions of people around the world are relying more and more on technology to accomplish their everyday tasks. Whether you need to find directions to a friend's house, download a new book, or scan the latest headlines, information is at the ready on those handy flat-screen devices.

Now imagine the frustration you'd feel if you couldn't see that screen. That's the situation English professor John Slatin found himself in when he wanted to use Firefox 1.0. on his desktop computer, but was unable to do so because he was blind.

John Slatin, professor of English

John Slatin, professor of English, was founding director of the university's Accessibility Institute, which monitored the university's compliance with national accessibility standards and promoted Web accessibility for all users. His work on web-based accessibility resources earned international acclaim.

While all of his colleagues were using the latest in Internet technology, Slatin, who passed away in 2008, was limited to Internet Explorer, the only web browser that was compatible with a screen-reader program. But that all changed after he proposed a class project to build a solution.

Electrical and Computer Engineering alumnus Charles Chen (BS '06, MS '07) decided to take on the challenge. Little did he know this course project would lead to a highly coveted career at Google.

With Slatin's guidance, Chen not only managed to make Firefox work with a screen-reader program, he also went on to develop more revolutionary accessibility tools for the visually impaired.

Well known for his work in making the Internet accessible to people with disabilities, the beloved English professor was the ideal first client for Chen's project. The founder of the university's Accessibility Institute, Slatin traveled around the world to spread the gospel of opening the Internet to people with disabilities.

"I learned so much from John Slatin, who gave me a better understanding of what still needs to be done to help the blind use their computers," Chen said. "I got an A in the course, but I still thought that I could do better. And I felt like I knew enough at that point that I could take it to the next level."

Determined to raise the bar in eyes-free technology, Chen devoted his winter break to developing a text-to-speech engine that would allow users to hear headings, scan content and navigate websites.

In 2005 Chen launched his extension for Firefox at South by Southwest and caught the attention of T.V. Raman, a Google engineer known for his pioneering work in customizing technology for the visually impaired. Impressed with Chen's product, which is now called FireVox, he knew he had to get him on board at Google.

During his time with the corporation, the 25-year-old engineer developed the first text-to-speech add-on library for Google's Android operating system, a Web browser designed for smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. The add-on library later evolved into Android's built-in text-to-speech API, which gives other developers the ability to add audible features to their apps. As part of Google's Eyes-Free Project for Android, Chen also helped develop the Walky Talky, a navigational


Electrical and Computer Engineering alumnus Charles Chen, now a software engineer at Google.

aid that integrates Google's turn-by-turn walking directions with the names of streets and house numbers.

His latest development, ChomeVox, is a screen reading extension for the Chrome operating system that is primarily used for netbooks and desktop computers. The new program, which is also used in Android's web browser, gives people full access to their smartphones without ever having to look at the screen.

Chen will return to South by Southwest this spring to demonstrate his latest accessibility tools for ChromeVox and Android.

"At Google, our goal is to make equal access for everyone," Chen said. "It's not acceptable to just make online tools usable for the blind. We want to make sure that people with visual impairment can be just as efficient and effective as their colleagues."

For all his success, Chen pays tribute to his alma mater.

"I wouldn't be at Google today if it wasn't for The University of Texas at Austin," Chen said. "I never could have done this without the environment it provided me. John Slatin was a huge inspiration. And my supervising professor, Dewayne Perry, gave me a great deal of support and encouragement, helping me tailor my master's thesis to match my passion for software accessibility."