Future Reflections January- February 1984, Vol. 3 No. 1

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SOME COMMENTS ON TECHNOLOGY, PRINT-READING DEVICES AND BRAILLE

by Curtis Chong

With the advent of the electronic computer and related technologies, a number of aids and devices have been developed ostensibly for the purpose of making life easier for blind people. Although it is true that technology can make life easier and more pleasant for all of us (witness the pocket calculator), it is equally true that technology can become a stumbling block that can make our lives unbearably complicated. Also, the inappropriate dependence upon certain forms of technology can cause us to neglect learning some rather basic and important skills.

Let's talk about reading and writing. Braille is the principal method of reading and writing used by blind people. Contrary to what some people think. Braille is an alternative that is not slower than, but comparable to, print. Thousands of successful blind men and women will tell you that competence in the reading and writing of Braille has played an important role in their success.

As parents of blind children, you have doubtless heard about a number of marvelous devices that help blind people to read print. Each unique piece of equipment has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Each piece of equipment has its place in the general scheme of things; and depending on how it is used, can either help or hinder the development of your blind child. It is important to know what each device can do best, and what it does not do well or efficiently.

For example, all of the devices described below are slower and less efficient than Braille. Furthermore, the reader will experience physical strain and discomfort much more quickly with these reading aids than they would with Braille. These disadvantages make it undesirable to use these devices for lengthy or complex reading tasks. By and large, books and manuals are easier and faster to read and use in Braille. Another disadvantage is limited portability. Some are not portable at all, while others are similar to typewriters, projectors, etc. in ease of portability. However, even the most portable device is not practical for carrying around with you on a routine, daily basis. In other words, don't count on reading your restaurant menu with these. The significant advantage of all these reading devices is that they make a broader range of reading material immediately available to the reader. Letters, memos, newsletters, school handouts, assignment sheets, etc. are some of the kinds of reading matter these aids are most useful for. A reader can accomplish the same thing (and do it faster) but they cannot always be there when you need them.

The following discussion of some of the more well-known devices will serve to make these points clearer.

The Kurzweil Reading Machine converts print into synthesized speech. You can actually have the machine "speak" every printed word it sees. Although the Kurzweil does give your blind child access to most forms of printed material, you should remember that its purchase is not something that you will want to enter into lightly. The Kurzweil costs something like thirty-thousand dollars and is not at all portable. Also, it doesn't help your child to write print. That feat is accomplished either with a pencil or a typewriter. Of course, if your child wants to write Brialle, he or she uses the slate and stylus or the Braille writer. Then too, the Kurzweil machine cannot read handwritten materials. This is a limitation. Because of cost and size, these machines are most practical in libraries, schools and other institutional settings.

The optacon is a device that converts individual print letters into an array of vibrating pins that can be felt with one finger. Unlike the Kurzweil, the optacon is portable. It is, however, not as efficient as Braille in terms of speed. This is because the optacon presents letters one at a time, making it more difficult to recognize an entire word. Braille, which can be read with more than one finger (several, in fact), doesn't have this problem. The optacon is certainly cheaper (albeit slower) than the Kurzweil, costing something over three-thousand dollars. The optacon, like the Kurzweil, cannot be used to identify handwritten items.

Other devices exist that magnify and project printed information onto television screens. Visualtek and Apollo are two big company names in this area. Costs for these aids can range anywhere from about twenty-five hundred dollars up to over four-thousand. These aids do enable you to read handwritten material, examine pictures or graphs, and a number of other things. Reading speed will vary according to the amount of magnification needed. The higher the magnification, the fewer the words or lines that can be seen at one time.

Portable and standard are available.

There are a variety of reactions from partially blind people concerning magnification aids. While one specific magnifier may help one partially blind person, it may prove to be totally useless for another; so you should have some "hands on" experience with any magnification aid before purchasing it.

During the past few years, a new development called "paperless Braille" has been enjoying a steadily-increasing amount of popularity. This development has been regarded by a number of people as a long-term enhancement to the current "paper Braille" system. However, at the moment paperless Braille devices present information only a line at a time instead of a page at a time. This has been viewed by some blind people as a significant disadvantage.

Essentially, the units being marketed today consist of a cassette tape recorder that has been modified by adding to it a 20-40 character Braille display and some kind of a keyboard for entering data. Data is entered through the keyboard, stored on a cassette, and "played back" onto the paperless Braille display. The display itself consists of a number of pins that are meant to simulate Braille dots. These pins are moved up and down electronically, depending on what data is to be displayed. Unfortunately, the technology needed to produce paperless Braille is still quite expensive -- hence a one-line display instead of a full-page display. You can expect to spend between four thousand and twelve-thousand dollars for a paperless Braille unit.

From the foregoing, you can see that the currently available technology in the area of reading and writing for the blind is not without its advantages. The one primary disadvantage that exists is cost; most of it is still beyond the ability of individual persons to comfortably afford.

The second major disadvantage is how this new technology is perceived. Some people will rush madly off to buy something like a thirty thousand dollar Kurzweil Reading Machine, never realizing that an alternative to such a machine does, in fact, exist -- namely, hiring a sighted reader. There is also a tendency for well-meaning but uninformed educators to encourage their blind students to become proficient in the use of optacon at the expense of developing proficiency in the reading and writing of Braille. In other words, there is a stong tendency for people to become enthralled with this so-called "new technology" and to forget that simpler, cheaper, and often more reliable techniques still exist for getting the job done.

As I said before, thousands of successful blind men and women will tell you that proficiency in the reading and writing of Braille is an important factor to their success. Therefore, if you, as a parent of a blind child, are contemplating the purchase of some "new technology" for your blind child, please consider the following:

1. Remember that none of the equipment discussed here can replace Braille. Reading and writing skills are just as important for blind children as they are for sighted children. No effort should be spared to get your child to the point where he or she is skilled in reading and writing Braille.

2. Be prepared to spend a lot of money. None of the currently available technology is cheap -- at least, not in the area of reading and writing. Remember that a slate and stylus, a Perkins Braille writer, and a sighted reader, are still the cheapest way to go. Also, do not forget the old reliable cassette recorder.

3. It is respectable to be blind. Technology should not be used to hide or avoid blindness. For example, many people have shied away from Braille because of its direct connection to blindness. This has proven to be a disadvantage for some blind adults who, as children, were compelled to use print instead of Braille -- even though they could not read as well as their sighted peers.

4. Technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. To the extent that sighted people are becoming involved with computers and computer technology, so should the blind. However, technology is not going to end employment discrimination, lack of opportunity, insufficient reading materials, etc. These can only improve through public education, positive attitudes, and a greater acceptance of the blind as equals in our society. Technology, if properly used and understood, can do much to help our progress.

I have not tried here to deal with all aspects of technology, nor have I attempted to answer all of the questions that people might have about it. Suffice it to say that technology is a mixed blessing. Only through consultation with active and successful blind people can technology be put in its proper perspective. The best source for such information is, I believe, the National Federation of the Blind.

One final word about basic skills: Proficiency in the reading and writing of Braille is extremely important for your blind child, regardless of whether or not he or she is totally blind. Your blind child will be that much better off if basic skills are mastered first. Then and only then will technology end up as an aid rather than a hindrance to success.

Curtis Chong, who has been blind from birth, lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife Peggy (also blind) and their five-year old daughter. He has been employed by IDS (Inves tors Diversified Services) for four years, and has been a systems programming specialist for three of those years. Curtis uses an optacon, a talking terminal and a reader on his job. He has learned from experience a great deal about what techniques and aids are most helpful in a particular situation or for a specific task. For example, he uses the optacon if he needs to look something up right away, but for detailed research he waits for his reader who works for him in the afternoons. Curtis is very active in the National Federation of the Blind and currently serves as vice-president of his state affiliate and president of his local NFB chapter in Minneapolis.

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