Innovative computer program helps the blind experience national parks

Updated: Aug. 26, 2019 at 12:22 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The artificial voice coming from Brett Oppegaard's computer introduces the listener to what's in store.

“Welcome to the audio-described version of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park print brochure,” the voice says.

Blind people who visit some of America’s national parks using Oppegard’s UniDescription program rave about how it helps them “visualize” the surroundings.

"It really takes you to new heights. It makes things more fun and exciting to listen to," Sajja Koirala said.

Oppegaard, an associate professor of Communications at the University of Hawaii, developed the program that scans text and converts it into the spoken word.

The U.S. National Park Service asked him to create audio brochures.

"You see here in this brochure how visual it is. Imagine if you close your eyes and you can't get this information. How are you going to get it? This doesn't talk," he said, holding a brochure of one of the parks he's worked on.

With some help, he developed his UniDescription program.

Koirala is blind. She’s part of his team, field-testing the product.

"Before I started working on the UniDescription Project I just did not realize how much and what I was missing," she said.

Through the UniDescription app, a user hears the computer voice verbalize text and describe photographs and maps.

Oppegaard said it enables sight-impaired people to enjoy the parks, an experience he felt was missing.

"People are not getting access to our public resources," he said.

“There is a lot of information on our National Parks brochures that is not accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals," Koirala said. “This project makes it possible for blind people to have access to all this information.”

Oppegaard’s team has completed audio brochures for 67 national parks. They will eventually have audio descriptions for all 420.

"I think we're making a difference. We're changing people's access to national parks and in turn changing the world for the better," he said.

The American Council of the Blind recently presented Oppegaard with its 2019 research development award.

The program was designed so other groups and individuals can apply it to their own written materials.

“Because we’re funded by federal grants, we create the program and then we give it away,” Oppegaard said.

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