IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa recalls the painstaking process of translating her textbooks to Braille when she was in college. No Braille textbooks were available, so family members read while Chieko translated using a Braille typewriter. Translating an English textbook required her family members to spell out each word – which could take 20 to 30 minutes per page because Braille is “written” by punching holes into paper.
When she joined IBM Research – Tokyo in 1985, Chieko dedicated her work to the digitization of Braille. Twenty-seven years later, the Japan Braille Library has recognized Chieko for that dedication with the ninth Honma Kazuo Bunka Award.
Chieko started by collaborating with Braille libraries and volunteer groups from across Japan to advance the digitization project. The group launched an inter-library Braille network in Japan with goal of putting Braille books online – in 1988.
Honma Kazuo Bunka Award
The award was founded by the Japan Braille Library in 2004, recognition of its blind founder, Kazuo Honma, who devoted his life to making books available to the blind, helping to improve their quality of life and realize an inclusive society.
The Braille translation network works like this: volunteers install Chieko’s digital Braille editor onto a PC. By making Braille translation data available online, it allowed Braille libraries to easily share books; helped reduce duplication of work by volunteers; and allowed volunteers to split translation project among a number of different teams in different locations.
The network was initially hosted by IBM Japan. Today, it is operated by Sapie Library, a nationwide online library managed by the Japan Braille Library and the National Association of Institutions of Information Service for Visually Impaired Persons of Japan – making Braille books available anytime, anywhere.
Chieko continued to improve Web accessibility for the blind by developing a talking web browser that converts text on Web pages to speech. Home Page Reader, developed in 1997, allowed a visually impaired person to surf the Internet by spoken word. It was capable of reading web pages in American or British English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and other languages, and has since been rolled up into IBM’s Easy Web Browsing project.
Chieko continues to broaden her research scope beyond visual impairment by looking at the further integration of computer technology and human knowledge. She is now working on how crowdsourcing can help create technologies that everyone can use and benefit from.