Future Reflections Special Issue, Vol. 14 No. 2



by David Andrews, Director International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind

When talking about technology that blind people, both kids and adults, use with computers, it is important to use the correct words and to mean the same things with those words. Consequently, we will provide some basic explanations of commonly used access technology. We will also provide you with any pseudonyms commonly used and some examples and brand names of each type of technology. SPEECH

SYNTHESIZER: This device may also be called a voice synthesizer, a voice card, a speech card, or the like. It is the actual hardware that produces the sounds that a blind person uses to access a computer. It may be either internal (a circuit card that goes in an expansion slot inside the computer) or an external unit (one that hooks up to a serial or parallel port on the computer). Many companies who make synthesizers make both types. In general, internal synthesizers are less expensive and may respond more quickly to commands. External units are easier to move from computer to computer and may take less memory as some internal models have software modules which must be loaded into memory prior to using them. Your choice may be dictated by the availability of expansion slots and serial or parallel ports.

A synthesizer takes the datastream generated by the screen review program (see below), and turns it into words. It uses a set of rules to decide how to pronounce each word. It is called synthesized speech because the synthesizer decides, on the fly, as it goes. The words themselves, and their pronunciation, are not encoded into the synthesizer, only the sounds called phonemes. Consequently, the synthesizer will try to say anything that is sent to it. If you type the entire alphabet, without spaces, and send it to the synthesizer, it will make a word out of it.

A speech synthesizer should not be confused with a sound card such as a Sound Blaster. These computer add-ons are primarily used to produce sound effects for games and multimedia CD-ROM's. While some of them can produce digitized and/or synthesized speech, they are not designed for the kind of use a blind person demands from a synthesizer. It is likely that this situation will change in the future, as people move to Microsoft Windows. But for now, and especially when using MS-DOS, a sound card will not give most people satisfactory results.

Some examples of speech synthesizers include the DECTalk from Digital Equipment Corp., the Accent line from Aicom, the Audapter from Personal Data Systems, the Artic SynPhonix line from Artic Technologies International, and the Double Talk line from RC Systems. Prices range from approximately $130 to $1200. Speech quality is subjective, but generally, the more you spend, the better the quality.

SCREEN REVIEW PROGRAM: This software, which also may be called a screen reader or a screen access program, is necessary, along with the speech synthesizer, for a blind person to use a computer. It is software that has two functions: 1. to control the speech synthesizer; and 2. to give the user a set of commands which allow him/her to use computer applications interactively. If you think of the speech synthesizer as an audio printer, you can see how it works. Your computer sends data to it, and it speaks that information. However, it can only speak it once as the data is being sent. It is then gone. The screen review program gives the blind person a way to go back and re-read the screen, to hear the information again. It also allows him/her to read the information by character, word, line, sentence, paragraph, screen, page, and/or document. It allows the user to find and track the cursor, read the status line in an application, read pop-up boxes, pull-down menus, and more. Screen review programs have a set of tools for creating an environment for a given application which will make it talk when it should, and shut up when it needs too. Speaking of shutting up, screen review programs also provide the means for silencing your synthesizer--the most important command--as well as commands to control speed, volume, pitch, and other parameters. Some commonly used screen review programs include Vocal-Eyes from GW Micro, ASAP from Microtalk, JAWS from Henter-Joyce, and Business Vision from Artic Technologies. Prices range from $75 to approximately $900.

BRAILLE EMBOSSER: This hardware device, which prints Braille on paper, is also called a Braille printer. Generally, the paper used is somewhat larger and heavier than paper used in laser or dot-matrix printers. It measures up to 11 by 11.5 inches and is 100 pound weight paper. Thinner and/or smaller paper is also sometimes used.

Embossers are sent data from a computer via either a serial or parallel connection. When using a computer, Braille translation software is also used, (see below.) Embossers either print on one side of the paper (single-sided) or on both sides (interpoint.) This is one of the three major factors that determines cost. The second is speed which can range from 10 characters per second up to 400 characters per second or faster. The third factor is durability. While some printers are designed and built for relatively low-volume personal use, others are built for high-volume Braille production, such as the printing of textbooks.

Some embossers include the Braille Blazer from Blazie Engineering; the Romeo, Juliet, Thomas and Express 100 from Enabling Technologies; and the Thiel line from Telesensory. Prices for personal printers range from $1,695 to $4,000 approximately. Medium and high-volume printers range in cost from $8,000 to $97,000.

BRAILLE TRANSLATION SOFTWARE: These programs are also called Braille translators, Braille programs, and the like. There is one example which is a hardware-based box that goes between a computer and the Braille embosser, called the Ransley Braille Interface, but all other examples are software programs that are run on your computer itself. Braille translation software accomplishes two tasks. First, it translates text into Grade 2 Braille, a contracted form of Braille used by most adults and children after they have learned basic Grade 1 Braille. There are abbreviations for common letter groups and words. The software substitutes the appropriate symbols where necessary and sends the right characters to the embosser for the creation of Braille. Second, these programs handle formatting issues. Because of its increased size, we are not able to get as many characters on a line as with print. The number is usually a maximum of 42 characters, often less. Further, some formatting conventions are different in Braille. We do not use columns as much, an indention for a paragraph is only two spaces not five, and lines are not skipped between paragraphs. The translator may attempt to handle the translation and formatting tasks automatically, or may allow you to enter codes into a file manually, or edit codes that the software puts in for you.

Some common translation programs include NFBTRANS (which has been released to the public domain and is available from NFB NET), the Duxbury Braille Translator from Duxbury Systems, and Mega Dots from Raised Dot Computing. Prices range from free to $895.

REFRESHABLE BRAILLE DISPLAY: This device is also called a Braille terminal, a paperless Braille display, or a Braille screen. It allows a blind person to interact with his/her computer using Braille. There are small pins that pop up and down forming Braille letters. These pins are in groups called cells. A Braille letter or other symbol or contraction is displayed in each cell. Currently, all Braille displays have the cells in one line. Technical restrictions do not currently allow multiple lines of cells. Displays generally have either 20, 40, or 80 cells.

Some commonly used displays include the Alva Braille Terminal sold by HumanWare, the Navigator and the Power Braille from Telesensory, and the Braillex 2D from Pappenmeier. Prices range from $3,500 to $25,000.

NOTE TAKER: These small, hand-held devices have been around in one form or another for about 15 years. They have gotten steadily smaller and cheaper. They are basically specially designed portable computing devices meant for use by blind persons. They may have a Braille keyboard for input, or a small computer-like QWERTY keyboard. Their output may be in synthesized speech, in refreshable Braille, or in both. These devices fall into two camps, one of which uses a proprietary operating system and application software, like the Braille 'n Speak, and one that is based on a standard operating system and application software, like the Myna. All devices are battery powered and store applications and data in battery-backed memory. There may be provision for hooking the device up to an external disk drive, ink-print or Braille printer, computer, modem, or other device. Depending on the device, a variety of applications may also be available. Typical programs include basic text editors/word processors, calendar, diary, check book management program, terminal program, spell checker, database, organizer, etc.

Some note takers include the Braille 'n Speak, Type 'n Speak, and Braille Lite from Blazie Engineering; Myna from Technology for Independence; Keynote Companion from HumanWare; and the TransType from Artic Technologies. Prices range from approximately $1,300 to $2,500. Additional software, disk drives, printers, and other add-ons will cost you extra.

If you have questions about access technology, or are in the Baltimore/Washington area, then give the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind a call. You can reach us at (410) 659-9314. You do need an appointment to tour our facilities. You can also reach us via NFB NET, the NFB's computer bulletin board service. The 24-hour-a-day number is (410) 752-5011.