One in Five, Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 4
Copyright 2003 Alpha One Enterprises, http://www.alphaonenow.com
Reproduced with permission of publisher.
Personal experience inspires JAWS
By Karen Farber
The best ideas may originate in self-interest. Take Ted Henter, whose company Henter-Joyce developed JAWS, possibly the most popular screen reader product available today.
Blinded in a car accident while in his 20s, Henter took computer science courses at the suggestion of a vocational rehabilitation counselor. He had a degree in mechanical engineering but it required a lot of drawing, which he could no longer do.
Henter found the screen reader tools available (in the early 1980s) cumbersome - they spelled rather than read words. Even the early DOS screen readers available five years later, he found frustrating to use.
With the funding assistance from another individual who was blind, Henter started his own company in 1987. The goal was to develop a better DOS screen reader. "It took us about a year to build a product to have to show and the business steadily grew from there. At the time, there were about five other DOS screen readers. Growth was slow and we struggled," Henter said.
By the early 1990s, it was clear to Henter that a Windows-based product would be needed. "We could barely keep our heads above water, let alone take on another project," Henter added.
In 1995, the first JAWS for Windows was released. Henter estimated, that at the time, there were only two other Windows-based products on the market. During the next five years, JAWS really took off. Since then, it has become almost synonymous with computer use for people that are blind or visually impaired, being translated into over 14 different languages.
JAWS stands for "Job Access With Speech." However, Henter speaks of the name's origins a little differently. While on a sales trip, Henter and a colleague were discussing a competitive product, at the time, named Flipper. The name reminded Henter of the dolphin, which led them to joke that their product was Jaws, like the shark. "My wife thought it was goofy, but it kind of grew on me," Henter said.
Henter-Joyce merged with two other assistive technology companies to become Freedom Scientific in 2000.
Back in 1996, he got the idea for the new company when helping his daughter with her algebra. He understood algebra, he could verbally explain it, but he couldn't show her how to solve the problem because he couldn't operate a pencil. "At that moment, I realized how tough math is for the blind," he said.
In 2002, Henter founded Henter Math.
Non-writing methods for math, like the abacus, said Henter, are fairly primitive. Although Braille is a good method for reading, it's not good for editing. "What you do in math is constant editing - reiterating an equation into a new form. Braille isn't a good mechanism for that but a keyboard and a talking computer are," he said.
"It turns out math and science are difficult in high school for kids with disabilities. It's such a negative experience that they have no desire to go onto college and they end up shying away from technical fields. I believe that with the right product ideas we can make the educational experience more positive, making kids want to go to college and want to succeed. That's the big outcome," Henter said.
Henter believes the applications for Henter Math products are enormous. "The concept applies to solving equations so that means engineering, chemistry, physics - it's a huge field," he said. Use of the product is not limited to those who are blind. Henter envisions use by those with motor impairments and learning disabilities too.
Virtual Pencil, the Henter Math product, currently handles addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Future versions will do higher levels of math, like algebra, trigonometry, differential equations, and calculus.
For Henter, it's important that the people involved in the development of assistive technology products have disabilities similar to their customer base. The chief programmer at Henter Math is blind.
Henter credits the success of JAWS to a blind programmer at Henter-Joyce. "I believe it's important to hire blind people if you're building something for the blind. At Henter-Joyce, 40 percent of the employees were blind or low vision - that's why it was successful," Henter said. This is particularly true of customer support. At Henter-Joyce, and at Freedom Scientific, customer support staff have the same disability as the product users.
As Henter Math grows, Henter plans to hire individuals with motor impairments and learning disabilities.
Henter attributes his success to many hardworking people. "I'm amazed. I never thought the (screen reader) market was as big as it is. I never thought there'd be so many customers or that we'd make so much money. The big lesson I learned is that when you work each day, if you keep doing a good job you have the opportunity to be successful even if you don't know it at the time. For years (at Henter-Joyce), we lived one crisis after another, solving problems for customers. It's quite amazing the whole thing worked out."
For information on JAWS see http://www.freedomscientific.com. For information on Virtual Pencil and Henter Math, see http://www.hentermath.com.