People with visual impairments are often shut out from hot careers in STEM fields, including analytics and data science. Why? Because the technology is not accessible. That is changing, according to SAS Graphics Accelerator. The software provides access to data visualization and data science for people with visual impairments.
Historically, students and professionals with visual impairments have suffered from digital data visualization famine. No surprise, since most charts and graphs are created exclusively for visual consumption. SAS Graphics Accelerator aims to dynamically generate alternative presentations of SAS data visualizations, including verbal descriptions, tabular data and interactive sonification.
Sonification uses non-speech audio to convey details about the graph. Users can explore bar charts, time series plots, heat maps, line charts, scatter plots and histograms interactively, relying on sound instead of sight.
Take, for instance, a sonic representation of an entire bar graph, which incorporates both location and pitch. As the sound moves from the listener's left to right ear, indicating movement along the x-axis, the heights of the bars are represented by pitch. A high pitch indicates a higher value.
Ed Summers, Senior Manager of Accessibility and Applied Assistive Technology at SAS, believes the Graphics Accelerator will transform how people with visual impairments understand data.
"I'm using it daily to do data science at SAS and run our accessibility program," says Summers, who is himself blind. "It's thrilling to have access to data again that I haven't had for 13 years. I can 'see' the data with my ears just as effectively as my sighted colleague can with their eyes."
SAS Graphics Accelerator compliments SAS University Edition – a free product that allows students and educators to access the same statistical analysis software that is used at more than 83,000 customer sites globally.
In K-12, teachers of the visually impaired help general education teachers provide materials in accessible formats to students with visual impairments. By using SAS Graphics Accelerator and University Edition, teachers create accessible data visualizations for those students and engage learners, for free.
"The inaccessibility of online graphs is a huge barrier for students who are blind or visually impaired," says Sarah McManus, Director of Digital Learning for the Deaf and Blind at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. "The ability to interact with and understand data has the potential to increase these students' problem-solving skills exponentially and open up new opportunities, especially in STEM education."
According to the World Health Organization, about 285 million people have visual impairments. But while many countries have passed legislation to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, equal access to quantitative information remains a persistent barrier for professionals with visual impairments.
Amy Bower, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, served as a beta tester for the new technology. "As a legally blind research scientist, I am ecstatic about SAS Graphics Accelerator," says Bower. "I have been waiting for just such a tool for many years."
The technology integrates accessibility into charts and graphs created at customer sites around the world and facilitates collaboration between sighted and blind professionals.
"I will be able to participate more fully in scientific discussions with colleagues, since I'll have access to the same graphs and plots they're looking at," says Bower. "I don't need to wait for an assistant to describe the data to me... I can stay at the forefront of my field of oceanography despite declining vision."
SAS Graphics Accelerator will be officially unveiled at the 32nd International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (known as CSUN) in San Diego. On March 2, the company will host a data science lab where attendees can try it out.