Dominique Burger - Part 1

Most of us who are committed to making information accessible became involved because of a personal contact or personal experience. And, most of us who believe that DAISY is the best solution to making information accessible knew this from our first introduction to it. It is fortunate that Dominique Burger met a young student who was blind and attending mainstream secondary school more than 30 years ago. It forever affected the direction his life would take and the contributions he would make. This is the first part of his story, and although DAISY does not come into the picture in Part 1, the connection becomes very clear in Part 2.

(This is the first part of a two-part story)


Portrait photograph of Dominique Burger I was born in 1950. In 1974 I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the Ecole Supérieure de l'Electronique (ESE) in Paris and then started a career as a research engineer at INSERM (Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale) in 1976. My research at that time focused on EEG (Electroencephalography) signal processing. I am sighted.

Around 1980 I became friends with a couple whose daughter was blind. Louise was studying in a mainstream secondary school. At that time ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and assistive technologies were only just emerging, and the very first Braille displays – very archaic by today's standards – were appearing on the market. Research laboratories were releasing their first speech synthesis prototypes and personal computers were becoming increasingly affordable.

It suddenly dawned on me that these developments were opening up new possibilities for people who were blind or partially sighted. As an engineer, the challenges faced by Louise at school, in particular problems with accessing textbooks and other support materials prepared by her teachers provided an exciting opportunity to explore the potential of emerging ICT. I could combine a professional interest in these technologies with my own desire to do something useful.

Research into Non-visual Human Computer Interaction

Polyson: a sound-creating tool for primary schools

Photograph of 3 young boys using Polyson in the 1980's Beginning in 1982, I centered my research on rehabilitation engineering, with a special focus on education. My first project, Polyson, set about making an accessible version of the Logo programming language developed by Wally Feurzeig and Seymour Papert in the late 60's, to assign drawing functions to a robot. Logo was gaining ground in French primary education in France, but was entirely inaccessible to blind pupils. Polyson introduced an alternative environment based on sequences of sounds, notes and spoken word using a very simple syntax based on Logo. The programming interface was non-visual and used either plastic punched cards or bar code readers that the children ran over tactile command sheets. Polyson was manufactured by a small company and was used in several schools in France. I remember Brahim, an eight year old blind boy, using the device in his classroom and suddenly announcing: "When I grow up I want to make Polysons".

The Polyson project provided a unique opportunity to explore one of the many ways humans can interact with the real world when the real world is not visible to them.

Tactison: accessible touch devices

Photograph of a young girl using the Tactison Multimedia Learning Tool, taken in 1994 The purpose of my next project was to explore the potential of combining a touch device and a sound production system to access textual information and control computer environments. Tactison was implemented as part of a Multimedia Learning Project for Blind Children. Tactile overlays were installed on a touch device so that actions could be operated by touching the surface which prompted audio feedback. Three different actions could be triggered by touching the surface of an overlay: click, double-click and press, each precisely defined in time. Today, when I look back on this project, I am struck by a number of similarities with the Apple IPhone VoiceOver function.

The Arrival of the Internet

The arrival of the Internet in the mid-90's marked a significant and stimulating turning point. It seemed that all of a sudden a new means of global digital communication was born; and a standard for simple content structure made it possible for visually impaired people to communicate easily and transparently with sighted people. I remember the first time I corresponded with a person who was blind – using the Internet. I was oblivious to his disability for some weeks. On a personal level, I greatly benefitted from the Internet as it meant that I was able to correspond with people who had a visual disability without having to learn Braille!

BrailleSurf: accessible web browsing

Braillesurf screenshot, 1997 In 1997 with the support of the French Federation of the Blind and a student named Djamel Hadjed, we launched the BrailleSurf project. BrailleSurf was a Web browser for visually impaired users designed to display information either via a Braille terminal or a speech synthesizer. It was compatible with a number of braille displays and text-to-speech synthesizers through downloadable optional drivers. The text could also be presented on the screen according to the needs of partially sighted people. BrailleSurf was released free of charge over the Internet in English, French and Spanish. We were very proud of the fact that BrailleSurf had users all over the world.

Web accessibility guidance

As Web content became increasingly complex and graphic, it became more and more difficult to access this content using text-based interfaces. It soon became apparent that authors and web developers were in desperate need of guidance. In response to this, in 1997, I joined forces with the University of Paris 6, two organizations for the blind, and a Braille terminal manufacturer to create BrailleNet. Our goal was to promote a better, more accessible Web that would encourage the social and, above all, professional inclusion of people with a visual disability.

BrailleNet team photograph; Dominique Burger is standing at the far left The W3C had just launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This worldwide initiative was an extraordinary confirmation that we were not alone and that there was great impetus for international cooperation. BrailleNet took part in the Education & Outreach activity launched by W3C/WAI with the support of the European Commission.

AccessiWeb: the authority on web accessibility in France

In 1999, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 were published and the French government chose to adopt them as a reference for all public sector websites. We were soon contacted by a number of public sector organizations that wanted us to test the accessibility of their websites, or that were seeking advice on how to apply the WCAG. This is how AccessiWeb came about: initially it was a methodology for testing WCAG conformity, then it evolved to provide specialized training, and finally it went on to offer certification for compliant websites. AccessiWeb soon became a reference in France and abroad. It is currently maintained by BrailleNet and a network of accessibility experts to ensure that it conforms to the latest version of the WCAG (currently WCAG 2.0).

Part 2 of Dominique Burger's story will be published with the December DAISY Planet. It begins with his first introduction to DAISY, while it was not much more than a vision, and years before the DAISY Consortium was formed.