After losing her sight due to an accident at the age of 14, Dr. Chieko Asakawa became very frustrated with no longer being able to be the independent person that she was before. At the time she was going to school there wasn’t as much adaptive technology to help her, she had to depend on her brothers to read textbooks to her and then she would create her own books in Braille.
Wanting to be free from needing others all the time, Asakawa developed a strong desire to innovate. As she got to know cutting edge technologies in the mid-1980s she noticed there weren’t many to help people with limitations like herself. So, she started developing book technologies; including a digital Braille editor, a digital Braille dictionary, and a digital Braille library network. This work made digital Braille books a reality long before e-readers and digital books for the masses became available.
With the advent of the World Wide Web she was inspired again to help blind people have access to the internet and to the world of information that was available to everyone else. So, she created ways to render the web into synthesized voices. In 1997 she developed the Home Page Reader first in Japanese and then translated it into 11 other languages creating a way for the blind to be part of the digital world and within five years of being released it had become the most widely used web-to-speech system available being used by many people outside the blind community.
But that isn’t enough for her and she is working on a cognitive assistance program that uses beacons and sensors on a smart phone to interact with her world more independently including integrating facial recognition to identify those she meets and to convey their facial expressions to make these interactions more full.
Currently Asakawa is on assignment working with the Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. on projects looking at how accessibility technologies can play a key role in the real world to help create opportunities for more people to actively participate in society.
Written by Angela Goad