by Tom Balek, Chairman Technology Committee Parents of Blind Children Division National Federation of the Blind
Editor's Note: The purpose of the POBC Technology Committee is to help parents and educators get good information about technology which may benefit blind children. The committee members are made of parents of blind children who have a special interest in technology, and are willing to share their knowledge with other parents and educators. If you have questions or information to share about technology and blind children, Tom and the committee would like to hear from you. Contact: Tom Balek, Chairman, Technology Committee, POBC/NFB, 5640 South East Croco Road, Berryton, Kansas 66409; (913) 862-1518.
No doubt about it--computers are here to stay, and your kids—both sighted and blind—need to be deeply involved. But you already know that! So let's get to work.
Here are my very personal opinions on some frequently asked questions:
DOES MY FAMILY NEED A COMPUTER AT HOME?
Yes! Your kids need to fully understand computer concepts such as: What is a program and how does it work? How are data and programs organized and stored? What kinds of tasks are computers good for? Chances are the computer time your kids are getting at school is spent playing educational games by pushing buttons on an Apple. This is a good teaching method for academic subject material, but don't confuse this with learning about computers. Real understanding of computers comes from hands-on experience and experimentation. There isn't enough time or equipment in schools for much of that.
Adults can make great use of a home computer, too. Everyone has need for printed documents and correspondence. Computer "word processing" has made typewriters obsolete. Income taxes are a snap with an inexpensive and easy-to-use tax program. (I use "Turbo Tax" —just answer the questions and it prints out all your tax forms, ready to sign and mail. More thorough and accurate than many tax preparation companies, for about $50!) Other good applications for a home computer include family (or business) finances and accounting, club rosters and newsletters, mailing lists and labels, dialing into subscription services such as Compu-Serve, connecting with the main computer at your office--in fact, for every task you can imagine doing on a computer, there are several inexpensive and effective programs on the market, and the list grows daily.
Let's not forget that computers are Just plain fun for kids and adults. For entertainment value Nintendo pales in comparison to the endless array of inexpensive and intriguing games available to computer users.
MY KIDS USE APPLE COMPUTERS AT SCHOOL. SHOULD I GET AN APPLE OR AN IBM COMPATIBLE?
No contest. Get an IBM compatible (DOS) computer. Schools are full of Apples as a result of a brilliant marketing scheme deployed in the 1970s. In its early years, Apple Corp. gave thousands of computers to schools, with two aims: (a) to get the schools familiar with their product so they would buy more of the same, and (b) to sell lots of software, often at a premium price, to run on these computers. The strategy worked. But while Apples are found in most schools, they are virtually nonexistent in the public sector. Apple computers are generally more expensive than comparable IBM compatible models, and the selection of software is skimpy and costly. The Apple MacIntosh set the pace some years ago in graphics applications and desktop publishing but has since been surpassed.
In a nutshell, IBM compatibles cost less, do more, outnumber Apples by a huge margin, and are the machines that people use to help them earn a living. `Nuff said.
CAN I AFFORD A COMPUTER? WHAT SHOULD I GET?
You can afford one if it is fairly close to the top of your priority list. A good home computer would be an XT-class computer with 640K of memory, color monitor and a 30-megabyte hard drive. This unit should cost about $1000. Add a printer for $250 and you're in business. This is equivalent to the cost of two packs of cigarettes a day for a year, a mid-range stereo system, weekday lunches at McDonald's for a year, or a skiing weekend for two in Aspen. You can save a few bucks by giving up color and the hard drive, but I don't recommend it. A few years ago you had to shop mail-order warehouses to get a good deal, but now you can drive down to your local discount electronics store and get a pretty good buy. Don't spend big money on brand names. Do deal with somebody reputable. There are some excellent mail-order companies (call me for more opinions!).
Don't worry about your computer breaking down--they are generally very reliable. I have had two cheap personal computers at home for six years and neither has ever had a problem. Computers are made of a few easily replaceable components, but even if you want to take it in to the shop, repairs won't break your budget because competition is keen.
Software gets cheaper all the time, and there are tons of good "shareware" programs available. These are programs distributed through bulletin boards or sold very inexpensively through the mail. If you find a program you like and use it, you are asked to volunteer a modest fee to the author.
WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED FOR MY BLIND KID?
You will need a speech synthesizer card and text-to-speech software to make your computer "talk". The card plugs into a slot inside your computer and has a small speaker on it (most also allow you to plug in an external speaker--a good option). The card works with the software to channel all text input and output to the speaker.
The program can repeat each keystroke audibly and "read" text as it is displayed on the screen. Each word is checked against the "lexicon", a file on disk which contains the phonetic pronunciation of thousands of words. If a word is not contained in the file, the program will "guess" how to pronounce it. You should select a system that has a clear and understandable "voice" and does a good job of phonetically guessing the pronunciation of words not stored in its lexicon. It should also offer different "voices" for keyboard input and different types of screen output, such as background, foreground, bold, etc., and these voices should be configurable to different speeds, tones, and volumes.
The system my son uses cost about $750 for the speech card and software. Prices are starting to go down as more competitors enter the market.
Older students may get good service from a lap-top personal computer. They have the same capabilities as their larger counterparts, and battery performance has improved dramatically. Users with low vision might want a large print display. There are new VTEK's which, in addition to magnifying printed material, can also be connected to a computer for enlarged screen display. This might be something to consider before purchasing a new print magnifier. Another innovative new product allows the user to enlarge part or all of his regular computer screen on demand. Low-vision kids sometimes resist using a speech synthesizer because they have to listen attentively instead of relying on their vision. But they should give the speech system a good try before giving up because once they get accustomed to it, it may be faster for general use than using a large print screen.
DOES THE COMPUTER ELIMINATE THE NEED FOR BRAILLE?
No, quite the opposite—it enhances Braille as an information medium. The computer makes conversion between printed text, data, and Braille much easier—a real boon to mainstreamed blind kids. A sighted teacher can now key or scan a test or workpaper into her personal computer, print the document in text for her sighted students on a regular printer, and print it in Braille for her blind students on a Braille printer. With an attachment to the standard Brailler a blind student can simultaneously print a copy in text for his teacher. And portable electronic Braille units will store data which can be uploaded to a personal computer for storage and later use.
A device with real promise for educational applications displays video images from a computer on a raised-dot tactile board. It also is digitized so that an area touched by the user can evoke a response from the talking computer.
Still another new device is a Braille display unit, which copies a line of text on the screen to a raised-dot line of Braille beneath the keyboard to be read tactilely.
I DON'T UNDERSTAND ALL THIS STUFF. WHAT DO I DO?
Don't be intimidated. The concepts are pretty simple once you get past the "buzzwords". You don't have to know any math or be a programmer to use a computer. But you do have to make the effort to understand a few basic concepts.
Fortunately, there's lots of help out there. There are introductory computer classes at computer stores and local schools, at little or no cost. And there are many good books written in plain language.
Everybody has a friend who is a computer nut. You probably know somebody at work who would love to help. Don't be embarrassed to ask questions or for help getting started. Want advice on what to buy? Having trouble picking software? Call your POBC technology committee! Call the NFB computer science committee! Call somebody, but just get going!
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