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Joe Stuteville
IU School of Informatics

Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pulliam Trust grant boosts IUPUI research to help blind students

March 22, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS -- A $115,000 award from a private trust will help School of Informatics researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis make computing more accessible to blind students.

The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust grant will help faculty advance their design of an acoustic user interface (AUI) that replaces text or number-based titles and file names with easily memorized "sound symbols." Such a system would help blind students more quickly access contents and files stored on their computers.

Steve Mannheimer

Steve Mannheimer

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"By crafting short sound symbols around educational subjects, our project hopes to create a more powerfully memorable sound map of academic content to help those students for whom the marvelous advantages of computer technology are often a disadvantage: students who are blind or visually impaired," said Steve Mannheimer, professor of new media. Mannheimer is leading the project along with Mathew J. Palakal, associate dean for graduate studies and research and director of the Informatics Research Institute at IUPUI.

The trust's namesake suffered a brief period of blindness, which was diagnosed as an allergy to printers' ink, said Carol Peden Schilling, a trustee for the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and a niece of Nina Pulliam.

"She completely recovered her sight, but from that time forward, Nina was particularly sensitive to the needs and challenges of those with sight impairments," Schilling said. "Nina would have been thrilled to be a part of improving the educational experiences for blind students. Her belief that education is the single most important thing one can do for one's self, coupled with her deep appreciation for the challenges of the blind, makes this grant very special."

The overarching goal of the project is to improve the educational experience and outcomes for blind students, specifically by improving the ways by which they can navigate and manage the educational content delivered to their personal computers.

"This is a simple idea," Mannheimer said. "We all have tremendous acoustic memories, as evidenced by our ability to almost instantly remember old songs or old voices or common sounds after only a couple of seconds and, more to the point, often remember large amounts of content attached in our memories to those sounds.

The researchers propose to construct an AUI designed in collaboration with middle-school students and the staff at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Participants from the institution would help create a broad glossary of sound symbols and information architecture to meet their needs.

A vital part of the interface would be a touch-screen overlay to computer screens, allowing students to move their fingers across the computer screen, hear sound symbols that identify types of content and engage them.

"With an AUI and touch screen, the blind user could quickly scan the entire newspaper listening for sound symbols," said Mannheimer. "For example, a sound symbol of a thunderclap would indicate a weather report, or a bouncing basketball could signal the latest scores in the NCAA basketball tournament."

A Web site offering access to the initial glossary of sound symbols also would be created, allowing visitors to suggest improvements and create their own symbols.

The IUPUI researchers will begin their technical work this May, acquiring the hardware needed for the project. The next step would be to work with the ISBVI and students with initial testing later this year and continuing through 2008.

The Pulliam grant for the School of Informatics project was among $1.9 million awarded to 23 Indiana nonprofit organizations on March 15.

The trust is named for Nina Mason Pulliam, a journalist and philanthropist, and is designed to help women, children and families primarily in Indianapolis and Phoenix, Ariz. Since 1998, it has awarded approximately $64 million to 365 Indiana nonprofit organizations.

For more information about the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust visit the Trust's Web site at

For more information about the project, contact Joe Stuteville at 317-946-9930 (cell), 812-856-3141 or