Lars Ballieu Christensen
What motivates a young man in his mid 20's to want to help two students who were blind by ensuring that their textbooks were accessible? What inspired him to move from working in his spare time with information technology and digital accessibility to making it a full-time career commitment? Lars Ballieu Christensen was born in 1963. Today he works with information technology and design for people with special needs. He founded Sensus, a research-based consultancy organisation, in the mid 1980's. Since then he has advised numerous governments, national and international organisations, NGOs and private companies on accessibility, inclusive design and access to digital information. Lars is the inventor or co-inventor of numerous innovative enabling technologies, including the award winning RoboBraille email-based accessibility translation service. This is his story.
For many years, my work with information technology (IT) and design for people with special needs was a niche for me and something I did in my spare time while I pursued a career in mainstream IT industry. Since 2006 however, I have dedicated myself entirely to the field of digital accessibility, working together with a team of like-minded professionals at Sensus ApS.
Two of the most frequently asked questions I encounter are: "How did you become involved in this area?" and "Are any of your relatives blind?" It seems, to the outsider, that there has to be a special, personal motivation to work in this area. However my motivation for getting involved initially and for continuing to work in this field is entirely different. Designing and developing technology for people with special needs is intellectually challenging and – obviously – personally rewarding. In later years, some degree of social indignation has also fueled my motivation.
As a computer scientist, one of the most thrilling experiences for me in my professional life is encountering a computational problem that has yet to be resolved. This is especially true if people challenge me and say it cannot be done. That was exactly what happened in the spring of 1986 and what initially got me involved with IT for people with special needs.
In the mid 1980's I was completing my Master's degree in Computer Science and was considering the topic for my thesis. While I was studying, I also worked at the Copenhagen Business College providing support for two blind students who had lost their sight to diabetic retinopathy. Both were enrolled in a rehabilitation programme that would qualify them as Computer Programmers. One of my key tasks was to make sure that they had their education material in a format that was accessible to them. At that time it meant recording textbooks on audio tape; it soon became clear to me that this was a less than ideal medium for COBOL and Assembler manuals.
Although the college had invested in a Braille embosser, they did not have conversion software that could be used to transform textbook material into Braille in accordance with the Danish Braille code. As I began to explore that code, most of the people I spoke with suggested that it could not be automated – the contraction rules were too complicated, with some contractions even depending on the pronunciation of the words, and a mainframe-based project some years earlier had proven them right by failing in quality as well as in practical terms.
In the spring of 1986 I made up my mind to develop the first Danish Braille translator that could run on a PC and produce error-free contracted and uncontracted Braille. The project was accepted as the topic for my Master's thesis and the Danish Ministry of Education was helpful in providing funding. In the summer of '87 the product, named ForkBra, was launched and soon became the de facto standard for Danish computer users who were blind. Using a combination of rules and exceptions, ForkBra could produce Braille with a correctness in excess of 99.8 per cent. Incorrectly contracted words could be added to the exception lists, further improving the accuracy. ForkBra has since evolved into the Sensus Braille Translation system that is used to produce the vast majority of all Danish Braille today.
While ForkBra and Sensus Braille were successful solutions in their own right, they suffered from the inherent challenge of having an extremely limited user base – the number of proficient Braille readers in Denmark is probably in the order of 500 individuals, which is hardly enough for long-term sustainability. Having worked on improving and refining Sensus Braille for most of the 1990s, it was evident that a different approach was needed. The solution came in 2004 when my friend and colleague Svend Thougaard of the National Center for Visually Impaired Children and Youth and I got the idea of RoboBraille – an email-based service where users can submit their documents by email and receive them back in an alternative format by email.
RoboBraille solves the problem of critical mass in two different ways. First of all, RoboBraille is global in nature, and available to Braille users throughout the world. Secondly, the concept of automated document conversion can easily be extended beyond Braille to audio, DAISY, ePub and OCR processing, thus attracting other user groups including the people who are partially sighted, have dyslexia, are illiterate and people with poor reading skills.
With funding from the European Commission and later the Danish Government and private foundations, the RoboBraille solution has been made available in a growing number of languages and currently serves thousands of requests each month from users around the world.
My job is in many ways privileged as I get to travel around the world to share my knowledge and opinion, and propose solutions to important problems:
- How do we support integration and inclusion in mainstream society as a viable alternative to segregation in special schools?
- How do we ensure that educational materials are accessible to people who are blind or have a reading disability?
- How can we take advantage of emerging technologies to provide equal opportunities in education and employment for those with special needs?
In sub-Saharan Africa, my team and I are currently exploring how we can combine mobile technology and speech synthesis to provide audio books for the mainstream market while at the same time delivering a technology that is accessible people who are blind or partially sighted. In the Arab world, we are attempting to address the needs of those who are illiterate or who have dyslexia with tools initially developed for people with a vision disability. In the new EU countries of the former Eastern Europe, we work to minimise the need for special schools for the blind and partially sighted by introducing some of the tools, methods and technologies we have been using for decades in Denmark and other Western countries. And in other parts of the world, we introduce basic document conversion services that make textual information available in accessible formats to everyone with a need.
Today, I consider myself to be an advocate of inclusion and equal rights for people with special needs, and a crusader for digital accessibility. In brief, my mission is to work toward an information society that is both accessible and inclusive.
Editor's Note: Other enabling technologies developed or co-developed by Lars include PharmaBraille (email-based Braille translation service for the pharmaceutical industry) and Motto Captura/CapturaTalk (mobile solution for people who have dyslexia). He is an active accessibility advocate and a recognised authority on e-accessibility, and has authored multiple articles in Danish as well as international journals on accessibility, inclusion, information technology, disability and braille. Lars has co-authored the Danish guidelines for accessible web design and is a member of the Danish Expert Committee on Accessibility at the National IT and Telecom Agency and well as of the Danish Standards Expert Committee on IT Accessibility. He regularly lectures at universities and conferences on web-accessibility, information technology and disability. Lars holds master degrees in computer science and journalism from the University of Roskilde, Denmark. In 1996 he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in computer science and communication by the University of Roskilde in recognition of his dissertation "Applying Information Technology as an Intelligent Interface for the Blind." He is the RoboBraille Coordinator and leader of the RoboBraille Consortium. Additional information about RoboBraille is provided in the DAISY Planet article RoboBraille Web Interface: Easily Transforms Documents into Accessible Formats