Future Reflections                                                                                     Spring/Summer 2004

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Appropriate Use of the Electronic Notetaker in School

by Curtis Chong

Reprinted from the January 2004 issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

Editor’s Note: Curtis Chong is president of the NFB in Computer Science and the former director of the International Braille and Technology Center. He was recently asked to give his views on the exclusive use of electronic notetakers by students to produce their schoolwork in print. His answer was clear and concise and will be of use to many students and teachers. Here it is:

You asked me to comment upon the value of exclusively using an electronic notetaker such as a Braille Lite or BrailleNote for blind children to produce printed work in school. As you know, I have some rather definite opinions on the subject.

First I would like to say that any note-taking technology that uses a Braille keyboard to enter information and a Braille display to review it can be of tremendous value to any blind person who knows how to write and read Braille. The Braille display makes it possible for a person silently and efficiently to read what is stored in the machine, and the Braille keyboard represents an excellent way to enter information quickly with a small number of keys—allowing for a compact design. If a person is going to use an electronic notetaker such as a BrailleNote or Braille Lite, mastery of its operation is essential.

Once mastered, the device can prove to be invaluable. Many proficient Braille users find it more natural to enter information using a Braille keyboard, and for many Braille users it is preferable to read information in Braille as opposed to listening to it. As for me, I find that I write better using a typewriter-style keyboard even though I read Braille very quickly, and I prefer to finish my written work on the computer even though I may have composed a rough draft on my electronic notetaker.

A blind student who knows how to produce printed material with an electronic Braille notetaker only is at a severe disadvantage however, when compared to a blind student who knows how to prepare printed

information with a Braille notetaker and a computer or a typewriter. For one thing, Braille formatting is distinctly different from print; e.g., Braille lines are shorter, and the Braille layout is more compact: a student entering information in Braille is not as likely to take this difference into account as a student who is using a computer and a commercial off-the-shelf word processing program. For another thing, it is highly likely that information entered correctly into a notetaker using correct contracted Braille will produce erroneous results when the material is transformed into print. For example, a double hyphen (—) when entered in Braille could produce “com” in print; “Dear Al” written in Braille would transform into “Dear Also” in print; or that “CD” I was writing about in Braille would be printed as “COULD” in print. To correct this conversion problem, the Braille user must necessarily learn some bad Brailling habits.

As blind people who live in a world designed for those with sight, we must necessarily create documents in print so that our friends, family members, and coworkers can read them. In fact I would go so far as to say that a majority of the documents that a typical blind person generates throughout the course of his or her life are for the benefit of people who can see. This is not surprising given that the blind represent a very small fraction of the total population.

Therefore it is necessary for any blind person who expects to lead a normal life to understand how printed material should be formatted. For example, how is a paragraph indicated in print? I can think of three ways: placing a blank line between paragraphs, indenting the first line of the paragraph, and leaving a blank line before the indented first line of the paragraph. When should a particular heading be centered? When should a heading be aligned with the left margin? What about page numbers? Are they printed at the top right of the page, the bottom right of the page, or are they printed at all? What is the difference between a proportionally spaced font and a mono-spaced font? These are questions that print readers can answer without thinking too hard. I am sorry to say that this is not as true for the blind.

Recently, as director of field operations for the Iowa Department for the Blind, I had an opportunity to chat with a graduating high school senior who was headed for college. I asked her how she prepared her school papers in print. She indicated that she used a Braille ’n Speak. I asked her if she knew how to create a footnote. She said, “No.” I asked her if she knew how to operate Microsoft Word. She said, “No.” I asked her about the formatting of her printed reports. She said that all of her material was aligned with the left margin—no centering, no page numbering, and no highlighting of text. The tragedy of this situation was that the student could not understand why I was concerned about this situation.

What I am trying to say, in a rather roundabout fashion, is that it is critical for blind students (and blind adults, for that matter) to have the knowledge and the ability to produce printed material with a variety of tools. Electronic Braille notetakers are one way to generate print; but just as it is important to master these devices, it is equally important for a blind person to be able to create printed material using a word processing program running on a regular computer.

If a person hopes to work in a professional job or attend an institution of higher learning, this latter skill is not only desirable but essential. College professors and potential employers will not regard with favor anyone who says that he or she can generate printed reports only with a Braille Lite or a BrailleNote. Moreover, the quality of a blind person’s work will suffer if these technologies represent the only way in which a person can produce printed material. I find it highly disturbing that any professional in the field of work with the blind would limit the achievement of a single person by recommending the exclusive use of a Braille notetaker for creating printed work.

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