by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: Curtis Chong, Director of the NFB's Technology Department, receives a steady stream of requests for advice on various aspects of technology and technologyacquisition. He recently heard from an alert and dedicated teacher of blind children who wanted help in planning the future acquisition of Braille technology for a bright six-year-old. The questions she asked and the answers and comments Mr. Chong provided will be useful to other teachers and parents grappling with the same set of problems. Here is the e-mail correspondence:
November 6, 2001
Subject: technology guidelines
I am a teacher of the visually impaired who is working with a bright six-year-old student in first grade who is totally blind. He is using Braille for reading and math along with his sighted peers and is keeping up quite nicely. I want to make recommendations to his school district about the assistive technology equipment he will need. Presently he is using the Perkins Brailler. He accesses some programs on the computer such as the software from APH that was written for Windows (Math Flash, Learn Keys), as well as some games from Bavisoft (Grizzly Gulch), and PCS (Mobius Mountain, A 2 Z). He is capable of using touch typing to locate all the letter keys of the qwerty keyboard.
He has also been introduced to the Braille 'n Speak Scholar and can recall the sequence of commands to create files, read in files, and do some editing. He writes mostly on the Perkins because I want him to spend more time with the dots, and we do not have an embosser to make a hard copy with the Scholar. Initially I thought about getting a talking word-processing program and Home Page Reader instead of getting a screen reader. However, he is very bright and interested in how to open and close programs in addition to playing the games. Now I think maybe I should just go ahead and recommend a screen reader. What do you think?
At some point in time I want to get a Braille-transcription program and embosser. Currently his Braille materials are being obtained through a variety of sources including myself and the Braillist aide. We are able to keep up with his present needs, but I know this will change rapidly. I also want to get him an electronic notetaker with a refreshable Braille display at some point. I guess what I am asking is: for this particular student, what do you see as his short term technology needs and his long-term needs? What do you suggest I recommend that the school district purchase, and in what order?
I would appreciate any help you can give me.
November 7, 2001
Subject: Technology Guidelines
Your e-mail to the National Federation of the Blind dated November 6, 2001, has been forwarded to me. You asked for some short-term and long-term technology‑related recommendations for a totally blind student who is six years old. I think that we can help you to come up with recommendations that will provide this student with not only the technology he needs—when he needs it—but also a solid grounding in blindness‑specific skills that will serve him in the long term.
To begin with, let me say how delighted I am that your student is keeping up with his sighted peers, that he is using Braille (on a Perkins Brailler no less), and that he is working with a teacher as knowledgeable and educated as you are. Regardless of any technology that he might obtain in the future, what he has available to him today has already set him on the right path—a path which will guarantee his future success. It is unfortunate that there are far too many other blind children in this country who are not as well situated.
I agree with your desire to encourage your student to work with the Braille dots. This is the best way to build up reading proficiency. While the Scholar may be a useful note-taking device, its inability to produce refreshable Braille creates a disadvantage for the student who needs to build up his Braille‑reading speed. If I were to suggest any improvement in this area, I would encourage the use of a slate and stylus as the ultimate backup to any electronic note‑taking system.
My short-term recommendation is to acquire screen-access technology for the PC (JAWS for Windows or Window‑Eyes) and to use this technology to help the student learn to produce printed work with a simple word processor such as Microsoft's WordPad. If the situation warrants, he can also start some supervised activities on the Internet. The important point to keep in mind here is that he needs to learn—as early as possible—to prepare printed material for sighted consumption using a standard qwerty keyboard as opposed to a device with Braille keys.
Preparing printed material using a Braille keyboard creates bad Brailling habits—habits which are hard to break as the child grows older and the mind less flexible. It is perfectly fine to write material in Braille for one's own use, but it is quite another to try to input Braille into a document which one intends to print. The convolutions that one must go through in order to ensure proper reverse translation from Grade II Braille to print force one to enter the Braille information incorrectly. Just think about how one would produce two hyphens (--) or how one would write the letter "K" by inputting these in Braille. The reverse translator will want to convert the two hyphens into something like "com‑" and the K into the word "Knowledge."
At some point, perhaps a few years in the future, a portable electronic notetaker with a refreshable Braille display (e.g., a BrailleNote) could be obtained. But I wouldn't rush to get this technology. It takes a few years to build up really good speed on the slate and stylus, and having an electronic notetaker available creates a powerful disincentive.
Ultimately, when the student reaches high school, consideration needs to be given to developing skill in finding, managing, and (if necessary) dismissing sighted readers. This skill is indispensable in the later years as less and less material is available in the format of the student's choice. Of late we have been noticing that students who are able to obtain 100 percent of their materials in Braille while in high school tend to be quite frustrated when entering college, where there is far less Braille available. They find themselves unable or reluctant to work with sighted assistance. This problem grows even worse when the student graduates from college and enters the workplace, where almost nothing is available in alternative formats.
As your student progresses through school, I hope you will be able to consider how to provide him with tactile graphics—that is, raised-line drawings and tactile representations of three‑dimensional objects. Many of us, growing up blind, had little or no opportunity to feel raised-line drawings, and as a result we find that we are not able to deal with such drawings when they become available. In my opinion, if blind students are constantly exposed to raised-line drawings and raised-line representations of three‑dimensional objects, they will soon be able to use these representations to learn far more than some of us did who were not quite so lucky.
I trust that I have given you some useful information. Please feel free to write to me directly if you need additional help or recommendations.
Curtis Chong, Director of Technology
National Federation of the Blind