Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

(back) (contents) (next)

High Tech, Low Tech:
Tools that Help Our Daughter Access the World

by Richard Holloway

From the Editor: Richard Holloway is first vice president of the Georgia Parents of Blind Children (GPBC). He writes frequently for Future Reflections, drawing upon the insights he has gained as he raises his blind daughter, Kendra. Here he reviews the many technologies that Kendra uses at school and at home. (Contact information for the companies mentioned in this piece appears at the end of the article "A Beginner's Guide to Access Technology for Blind Students," found elsewhere in this issue.)

When my wife and I learned that our six-month-old daughter, Kendra, was totally blind, I thought we would have to adapt the entire world for her. As time passed, we discovered that many adaptations already existed. We learned how much is possible, given a positive attitude and a variety of technologies.


Neighborhood map created with a thermoform machine Most typically sighted kids see print everywhere, almost from birth. We wanted the same exposure to Braille for Kendra, so we put Braille labels all over the house. We labeled the refrigerator, the dishwasher, the glass sliding doors, even Kendra's bed. You can buy clear plastic sheets with a sticky back for about two dollars per letter-size page. You can transcribe labels with a Brailler and cut them apart with ordinary scissors. A Braille Dymo labeler also works well. We've given Dymo labelers to a number of relatives so they can put Kendra's name on a card or gift now and then.

Sighted children usually notice printed words on the pages when adults read to them out loud. We read to Kendra from print/Braille books. Many of them are ordinary print books with Braille stickers on the pages. Others have Braille on clear plastic sheets inserted over the printed pages. We helped Kendra find the Braille in a great many books as we read to her. Like a young sighted child viewing print, she had no idea what the dots meant at first, but she was learning.

When it came time for our daughter to start learning to write Braille, we got her a Braillewriter. A new Braillewriter costs about $700. The machine is very durable, and a good used one can often be found on eBay or Craigslist. You may be able to borrow one for long-term use at home from your child's school, so don't be afraid to ask!

There are also more inexpensive ways to produce Braille. A slate and stylus is in the ten- to twenty-dollar range. The writing process can be slow at first, but experienced users can write very quickly with this device. Braille dots are punched one at a time from the back of the paper; then the page is flipped over for reading left to right. By first grade, some of Kendra's sighted friends were learning to write notes to her with a slate and stylus.

High-tech devices have revolutionized the availability of Braille. Many developing Braille users find electronic notetakers to be invaluable. A Braille notetaker is an electronic device that allows the user to create, edit, and read documents in Braille. The most popular varieties incorporate a Braille or QWERTY keyboard, synthesized speech, and a refreshable Braille display.

Hot glue turns the photograph of an owl into a tactile image Kendra first used a notetaker called the PAC Mate in kindergarten. It had a 20-character Braille display. Soon she moved on to the BrailleNote with an 18-character display. The BrailleNote from HumanWare is probably the most popular notetaker among the kids we know. We started with the mPower model and have since moved on to an Apex unit. Notetakers range widely in price, depending on brand and model, but most seem to fall in the four- to six-thousand-dollar range. Used notetakers can sometimes be found on eBay. However, this technology is fragile and quickly becomes outdated, so used equipment is not always a good option.

One notetaker, the Braille Sense Plus, has a small built-in LCD display. The BrailleNote Apex offers a VGA port, allowing the notetaker to be connected directly to a monitor. This can be a handy way for parents and classroom teachers to see what the child is writing.

Some notetakers can be connected to a computer by means of a USB cable. The notetaker's display can show the text on the computer screen. The PAC Mate, sold by Freedom Scientific, has a detachable Braille display that can be plugged directly into a computer to serve as a computer display. Detaching the Braille display does not interfere with the use of the PAC Mate as a notetaker.

Not only are notetakers costly to buy; generally expensive service contracts are necessary as well. Otherwise, repairs can run into thousands of dollars. In many cases, your child can bring home a notetaker that is assigned at school, often even keeping it over the summer. You first may be required to sign a document assuming financial responsibility.

Screen Readers

A screen reader is a computer program that can read a document, an email, or a webpage aloud. It can read computer menus and announce what the user is typing character by character. Our daughter started using JAWS when she was three years old. JAWS, from Freedom Scientific, is probably the most widely used screen reader for the PC, but at nearly $1,000, it is quite expensive. Arguably JAWS provides the most complete computer access of any screen reader available. At the other end of the cost spectrum are free solutions, such as NVDA for the PC and VoiceOver from Apple. VoiceOver is built into OS X on Macintosh machines as well as the iPad and iPhone. No one screen reader allows complete access to all of the information on a computer screen. Some work better than others for particular applications.


One way for a blind student to transfer information from a notetaker or computer is to print it out. A document such as a homework assignment can be printed to a conventional printer for a sighted person to review. A worksheet or story can be printed in Braille with a Braille embosser. The Romeo, from Enabling Technologies, is one of the most affordable Braille embossers. The slowest model of Romeo starts at about $2,500, but I have bought them used for as little as $100 or $200, and they have worked well. Since service costs tend to run high, it may be practical to replace one used unit with another rather than trying to have it repaired. A Braille translation program such as Duxbury is essential to turn a print file into a hardcopy Braille document.

Kendra's school has a Braille embosser available for her use. They have a slightly higher end model from Tiger with an ink attachment. Kendra's teachers can print and emboss on the same page and reduce the need for manual interlining--translating the Braille into print between the Braille lines. The cost of these machines and the fact that so much can now be done with refreshable Braille makes an embosser a low priority purchase for our home. Besides, embossers generally are quite loud. An embosser can really disturb a functioning classroom or run you out of your home office when it's in operation.

Math and Graphics

AbacusWe have spent a lot of time in our IEP meetings determining appropriate technology for Kendra to use for solving math problems at school, in her homework, and on standardized tests. The typical methods of working out math problems are spatial in nature, presenting challenges for a Braille user. A talking calculator can be handy for a blind student, but the use of calculators isn't always allowed for class or homework assignments, and it is generally prohibited for standardized tests. Doing math with the single-line display on a Braille notetaker is complicated at best. Often Kendra writes out her math problems in Braille on a manual Braillewriter. In second and third grade she used a product called the Math Window, which enabled her to arrange print/Braille numbers on a magnetic board. The Cramner abacus has also proved useful. Kendra has also used manipulatives such as geometric shapes.

Charts and diagrams are other important areas for hands-on learning. Again, some solutions are inexpensive, while others may be priced at thousands of dollars. With a bottle of Elmer's Glue, a parent or teacher can make the graphics on some conventionally printed pages accessible by touch. Simply trace the lines and let the paper dry. You'll have a raised-line drawing ready to be explored. Some parents use this method to adapt coloring books so young blind children can color with crayons. I have gotten faster and better (if occasionally more painful) results with hot glue. The hot glue dries in seconds, not hours, and it is easy for a sighted person to see through the glue lines. Kendra can show photos to the class and point directly to features such as the wings, feather tips, beak, and talons of an owl.

Drawings can also be created and enhanced with textures. The choices are nearly limitless. Anything with a unique feel or surface can be used to add texture to the page. We have used satin, cotton, corduroy, cardboard, construction paper, wax, sandpaper, glitter, and even feathers and gravel. Crayons can make raised lines and interesting textures when a child colors on a page placed over a sheet of ordinary window screen.

A more expensive method for creating tactile graphics is the swell form graphics machine. The machine is priced at about $1,200, and it requires special paper that costs about a dollar a page. The paper is covered with tiny bubbles, or capsules, that burst when heated to a high enough temperature. Any black pigment, such as that from a black Sharpie pen or the ink from most ink jet printers, contains carbon that will trap heat and raise the lines on the paper. The black absorbs the heat, bursting the capsules and swelling the paper. The page can be reheated and more lines can be added, so that a complicated drawing can be built in stages.

Sample: A sharp drill bit and a razor blade lie beside their identical thermoformed shapes with identifying thermoformed braille labels. If your budget can't handle the $1,200 cost of the heating unit, you can buy a thermal pen to swell the paper directly as you draw. Some people have even used an ordinary household iron to supply the heat.

Personally, I have never been very excited by swell paper graphics. I much prefer graphics produced with a thermoform machine. American Thermoform makes a very serviceable machine for producing graphics on durable plastic sheets called Braillon. Mostly sold to schools, the machine costs about $2,750 plus shipping. Braillon costs fifteen to thirty cents per sheet, depending on the thickness. The thermoform process can make duplicate copies of anything Brailled or drawn on paper. The Braillon is heated until it is pliable, and then pressed over the Braille or graphic to assume the desired form. Avoid exposing Braillon sheets to hot glue, sunlight, or other heat sources, as the Braille or pictures will flatten out. I bought a Thermoform machine on eBay and had it repaired, all for under a thousand dollars. I expect to use it for Kendra from now through high school or even college.

We have used the thermoform machine to help Kendra create graphics for school projects, and also just for fun. Almost any low-relief object can be duplicated. As thermoform pictures, sharp objects such as knives and razor blades can safely be explored by touch. We made a tactile map of our neighborhood, using wires for the roads. To illustrate a story about a broken toy, we took apart a Matchbox Car and thermoformed the pieces.

Basic graphics can also be produced with Braille itself. Some software (including some versions of Duxbury) will convert graphics into raised images using Braille dots. Some Braille embossers, such as the Tiger units, have been optimized to produce graphics. Simple graphics can be created with a Braillewriter or a slate and stylus.


Kendra loves to read books. She reads traditional Braille books, but more often she reads digital books on her BrailleNote. She can use the BrailleNote's refreshable Braille display or hear books read aloud with the synthesized voice. She also listens to digital recordings on the Victor Reader Stream. The Victor Reader costs about $350, or $400 with the optional adapter for playing digital books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). NLS provides free service, including a free player designed for the books in its collection.

Many books are available in audio formats for the general public, and blind people can avail themselves of these resources. Kendra loves to listen to CDs, be they musical recordings or audiobooks. At first we searched for CD players with tactile buttons that were easy for her to identify. Now she memorizes any buttons pretty quickly. Taped markings or small Braille labels can also help.

Audio Description

Our daughter has enjoyed videos from an early age. People often wonder why videos would interest a blind child. First of all, videos offer a great deal of useful information through the dialog and other audio content. What cannot be heard can be described. A great many videos come with an audio track with description for the blind. Also, some TV shows are broadcast with an audio description track, usually where one might look for a Spanish translation. I have found described TV shows on stations including PBS, Fox, Turner Classic Movies, and Nickelodeon. However, unlike closed captioning for the deaf, described shows for the blind are rarely well documented, and finding them calls for diligence.

Some theaters offer audio description for select movies. Generally it is available for new releases and is only provided for a few showings. The listener hears the audio description through special headphones while taking in the conventional audio from the main speakers in the room. Information on current films is available at <www.captionfish.com>. We have even attended some live events, such as special performances by the Big Apple Circus, where a commentator delivers a running description of the performance. Again, the description is audible through special headphones. By the time the 2013 presidential inauguration rolls around, Kendra will be old enough to enjoy an audio described version of the ceremony. I better track one down pretty soon!

Movement and Travel

While digital technology has made a tremendous difference in Kendra's life, some of the technology that has helped her the most has been relatively basic. From the beginning, we were told that Kendra would be delayed in walking because of her blindness. Sighted children are motivated to crawl and walk because they want to reach the interesting things they see around them. We lured Kendra forward with intriguing sounds. We also gave her shoes called "Pip Squeakers," which squeak when a child puts weight on a foot. Kendra walked at fifteen months, and we soon got her a white cane. The white cane is technology not to be overlooked.

Often people are amazed that our child had a white cane in hand by eighteen months of age. If we had it to do over, we'd have gotten one for her even sooner. A child-size white cane is a great tool to help a blind child learn about the world beyond the reach of her fingers and toes. A blind child's world expands with every inch added to her reach. Of all the technology we have used with our daughter, nothing has been more important than her white cane.

Now that she has learned to get around with her cane, Kendra has begun to use a personal GPS, or global positioning system. Her O&M instructor has been teaching her to use the Trekker Breeze, a product from HumanWare. The GPS may be very useful when Kendra has a greater need to travel alone in unfamiliar places.

Having Fun

Richard Holloway with children Kendra and TJ pose with their recumbent trike Another area of technology that we must not overlook involves playtime. All children, blind and sighted, need to have fun. We offer Kendra as many choices of activities as we can, making adaptations where they are necessary.

Last Christmas Kendra requested a digital camera/video camera combination, and it turned out to be her favorite gift. She loves taking pictures and making videos of herself, her brother, and their friends. She usually asks us to describe the visual content to her when she plays back what she has recorded. She also makes recordings of various sounds and voices. She has hundreds of these on file, and she accesses them on her BrailleNote.

Like most kids, Kendra has many hobbies and interests. Some have required more technical adaptations than others. She has a great interest in astronomy, and she has four adult friends who are professional astronomers. She enjoys descriptions of equipment in planetariums and observatories, and loves to examine tactile graphics produced from telescope images.

Kendra's activities include gymnastics, yoga, ballet, and swimming lessons. All of these activities involve lots of description and hands-on demonstration. Her participation in Chess Club requires a properly adapted chess set and a nonvisual teaching approach. Boating requires no special adaptation, while cycling has worked best on tandem bikes and trikes. For future music study she will have to learn the Braille music code. For now she is happy exploring the piano and other instruments on her own.

Family outings and school field trips are accessible to Kendra through a variety of means. Some facilities, such as the Atlanta Aquarium, offer an audio tour that can be played by selecting the proper number of a recording at various points of interest. Disney World takes this approach to the next level with a player that automatically senses the user's location in the park and on certain rides. Whenever possible I describe things as best I can on walks and car rides.

School field trips to plays used to be frustrating for Kendra because she felt left out. Her teachers have learned that a special behind-the-scenes tour sometimes can be arranged by request. Such a tour can allow Kendra to meet actors, touch costumes, and examine props. Once they learn of Kendra's interest and need, a surprising number of people have allowed us special access to explore areas of the theater not generally open to the public.

The recurring theme here is providing the most information possible to our children, empowering them to learn and grow. It might involve a complex computer system, an expensive graphics machine, a hot glue gun, or a collection of feathers and stones. It might involve personal descriptions or a running commentary delivered through a fancy headset. We want to do whatever we can to provide all the information our child can use to her best advantage. Then we'll sit back and enjoy what happens next.

(back) (contents) (next)