WPI Students Make Navigating the Internet Easier for the Visually Impaired

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass Navigating the waters of computer technology can be challenging enough for sighted sailors. Visually impaired people who wish to access the Internet, exchange e-mail messages or retrieve data face an even more difficult voyage.

Three Worcester Polytechnic Institute students are identifying computer hardware and software that can be adapted to meet the needs of a visually impaired computer user. Christine Manganis, a junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering from Somerville, Mass., Aaron Newman, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering with aerospace interests from Millerville, Pa., and Jeremy Olszewski, a junior majoring in actuarial mathematics from Framingham, Mass., are spending seven weeks at WPI's London Project Center, where they are completing an Interactive Qualifying Project in cooperation with Angus McKenzie and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

Before leaving for London in August, the students evaluated programs available in the U.S. that the blind can easily install and use with the least amount of assistance and that are also cost-effective. "Many visually impaired people are already active computer users," say the students. "Computer interfaces give them a connection to the world that was previously unavailable." But many still do not have training or access.

McKenzie speculates that in Britain alone, an estimated 15,000 visually impaired people would embrace the independence this technology would make available. Manganis, Newman and Olszewski are interviewing blind computer users to determine their needs and preferences. The students will then assemble several hardware and software packages for evaluation by these individuals.

The students completed their research to satisfy their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) requirement. The IQP is one of three projects all undergraduates at WPI undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan, a flexible, exciting and academically challenging program introduced in 1971. Under the Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities for integrating classroom studies with preprofessional academic projects conducted on campus or at companies, agencies and project sites in the U.S. and abroad. The purpose of the IQP is to make students aware of their responsibilities to manage technology effectively and ethically. R. James Duckworth, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, served as IQP advisor.

"The students have handled this difficult and challenging project in a competent and professional manner," says Duckworth. "I am sure the results of their work will not only benefit visually impaired people who are currently using computers but will also encourage others to try working with this valuable resource of information."

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is an independent, technological university founded in 1865. The London Project Center is part of WPI's Global Perspective Program. About one-third of the Institute's undergraduates now complete their required projects with businesses and organizations at locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America broadening their horizons, learning to work as professionals in other cultures, and seeing firsthand the role of science and technology in other nations. They account for more than 10 percent of all U.S. engineering students studying abroad.