Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2006

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A Beginner's Guide to Access Technology for Blind Students
Part One

Prepared by the staff of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), January 2006


Editor�s Note: We are pleased to present the following article for all those parents who are new to blindness, and are just beginning to explore what kind of technology is available to blind children. Computers are such an essential part of our work and daily lives that the question, �How will my child use a computer?� is certainly on a parent�s top-ten list of concerns. The purpose of this article, which is part one in a series of three, is to give our readers a descriptive overview of the basic computer equipment and Braille and talking technology commonly used by blind students and adults. Part II will tackle the questions of how a parent (or an IEP team) decides which technology is appropriate or most effective for the student, and when (at what grade level or competency level) the technology should be introduced. Finally, Part III will provide a descriptive overview of low vision technology and other high-tech and low-tech technology that does not fit easily into any category. We are grateful to the dedicated and knowledgeable staff of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind for preparing this document and for their contributions to the subsequent articles in the series. Here is Part I:


by Steve Booth

Steven BoothThe International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) was established in 1990. It is a comprehensive demonstration and evaluation center where the NFB has collected every type of speech output and Braille technology, both hardware and software, available in the United States, Canada, and many other countries as well. The IBTC takes calls and provide tours and demonstrations weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. by appointment. Our technology specialists can assist parents, teachers, and students to identify the products that are best suited to meet educational, professional, and personal needs. For a consultation by phone, call (410) 659-9314 and select the option, �technology answer line.� To arrange for a tour or an extended visit to the IBTC, call (410) 659-9314, press 0 for the operator, and ask for community relations. Mrs. Patricia Maurer, Director of Community Relations, will make sure an IBTC technology specialist is available to assist you when you visit.

Below is a description of the major products which provide access to the world of computing for blind users, and a list of where to purchase these products. Access technology refers to the whole category of items which provide access to the computer. You may have read or heard references to adaptive technology, assistive technology, compensatory technology, or other such terms. However, for clarity and consistency, we will refer to these specialized products as access technology.

A word about hardware and software. Hardware is equipment. Your computer with its keyboard, monitor, and other items which may be attached are all hardware. Software is the programs which run on your computer�s hardware. Here, now, is the descriptive list of the hardware and software that brings the world of accessible computing to life for blind users:

Equipment Basics

Personal Computer (PC)

Whether your child is a toddler pecking at the keyboard or a graduate student analyzing statistics for his/her dissertation, complete access to the personal computer (PC) is an essential ingredient to success.

The term PC, as we use it in the blindness community, means a computer that includes the Windows operating system. While recent changes to the Mackintosh operating system have introduced some rudimentary accessibility features, their limited scope prevents us from considering the Mac as an equivalent alternative to the PC.

The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind occupies 5,000 square feet at the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind.The PC is available as either a desktop system or as a laptop or notebook. Desktop systems are the most common for classroom use, particularly in kindergarten through high school (K-12) settings. As a general rule, they offer the highest performance at the most economical price.

Laptop or notebook computers, as they are more commonly referred to, offer the flexibility of portability. Access to a notebook PC is also an increasingly common requirement for many college students. This convenience and smaller size comes at a price. Despite recent reductions in notebook prices you should expect to pay a twenty-five percent premium for similar power and features when comparing a notebook with an equivalent desktop.


Screen Access Software

In order to gain full and independent access to the PC a blind student must have a screen access program installed on the PC. The screen access program provides spoken, synthesized speech, output, using the PC's soundboard and loudspeakers or headphones. As the individual enters data on the keyboard or navigates the Windows operating system or a program the screen access program announces the text, which is displayed on the screen. In addition to reading the literal text, the program provides important contextual information, which is necessary to navigate. For example, pressing the "Start" key will result in "Start, Menu" spoken by the screen access program. This tells the user that the word "start" is highlighted and that the computer has displayed a menu. A menu is navigated with the up and down arrow keys only. Pressing other keys will result in either nothing being announced, or performing an unintentional function.

These programs are offered by third party developers and are installed on the PC by the user. Priced from $800 to $1,100, two programs dominate the USA market. JAWS from Freedom Scientific and Window-Eyes from GW Micro are both well-established programs. It is safe to say that the screen access program is the most fundamentally important access technology that a blind student is likely to use.

Braille Embosser

One of the many Braille embossers on display at the IBTC.A Braille embosser, also referred to as a Braille printer, is a piece of very specialized computer hardware. The embosser allows Braille files that have been created on the PC to be produced in hard copy for your child to read.

Embossers are priced from $1,900 to $80,000. As a practical consideration schools and students typically spend from $2,000 to $4,000 to purchase a new embosser that is appropriate for individual use.

Embossers in this price and performance class are either single-sided or interpoint. Interpoint embossers create Braille on both sides of a sheet of Braille paper while single-sided models produce Braille on just one face of the page, as the name suggests.

Braille Translation Software

The fastest Braille embosser available cannot produce even one dot of material unless a Braille translation program is installed on the computer. As with screen access programs, two titles are most prevalent today, the Duxbury Braille Translator and MegaDots.

Duxbury Braille Translator

The Duxbury Braille Translator or DBT, is a Windows program. As such, it will remind you of a word processor or the WordPad feature of Windows. As with a word processor, you can enter text directly from the keyboard, creating your own documents for Braille production as you would create a new document for print reproduction.

You can also import files from existing sources, again as with a word processor. The range of files that can be imported is quite wide and includes common formats such as Microsoft Word, ASCII text, WordPerfect, and HTML (Web pages). Some important file formats are not supported directly, most significantly PDF files.


MegaDots is a program that operates in a DOS window on a PC. It is particularly popular among transcribers who are intimately familiar with the Braille code and the rules of Braille formatting. Transcribers are among the most important members of the team of educational professionals because they bring properly formatted Braille materials to your child.

Once the file is entered from the keyboard or imported, the unique properties of DBT and MegaDots reveal themselves. With the click of a mouse or a simple key press, the file is translated into contracted Braille. Only a translated file can be sent to the embosser for output in hard copy.

Significant limitations exist in the arena of automatic conversion of files and some knowledge of formatting is required when creating original files in DBT or MegaDots. Because most imported documents will suffer the effects of conversion from one format to another, or will not have the necessary mark-up or styles required for proper Braille formatting, intervention by a skilled human is often required.

Note: It is important to point out that blind children�just like sighted children�learn about the proper formatting of materials just by observing the format of the textbooks and handouts prepared for them by their teachers. Long before anyone �teaches� it, children learn about headers, indenting, italicized characters, etc. The advent of computerized Braille production is an enormously important development in making more Braille available at the same time as print is available. However, poorly or improperly formatted Braille produced by adults inexperienced with Braille, will give blind children wrong or conflicting information about formatting. In other words, despite the advances in technology, the human element in Braille production is still important.


Electronic notetakers on display at the IBTC.Perhaps no single piece of specialized technology intended for use by blind students attracts more attention than notetakers, also called Braille notetakers. First introduced by Blazie Engineering in the mid-1980�s these easy-to-use personal organizers allow a person knowledgeable in Braille to create documents, read text, keep addresses and appointments, access a list of special utilities; and to do so almost a decade before the sighted found similar convenience in the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC.

Today, these devices are all grown up, and like the technology in common use by the sighted, most Notetakers can perform tasks which blur the line between portable PDA and note-book computer.

Here are some distinguishing characteristics that set Notetakers apart from PCs. Notetakers offer instant on and off capability. Notetakers use the Windows CE, or a related mobile operating system rather than Windows XP, which operates on the conventional PC. Notetakers offer at least some specialized programs and functions that address the specific needs of the blind. Notetakers typically offer Braille functionality and, in the case of those with a Braille keyboard, can be operated with Braille input exclusively.

Notetakers are produced in families with several variations on a basic theme. As many as six models may be available, all of which share a common software and hardware design. Examples are the BrailleNote family of products from Humanware and the Pac Mate products from Freedom Scientific. Two kinds of input are available, Braille and QWERTY (or typewriter). Each of these is available with an integrated 32-character Braille display, an 18-character Braille display, or with no Braille display, providing output with speech only. Units that offer a refreshable Braille display also provide spoken output which can be used in conjunction with the Braille display or turned off for �Braille only� operation.

With Windows, today's Notetakers can interface directly with a PC. Files can also be saved to various kinds of storage cards or to a number of standard storage devices, such as thumb drives or external hard drives. When disconnected from the Notetaker these storage devices can be connected to a PC for file transfer, used as a Braille display of the PC output, or as a speech synthesizer voicing the output from screen access software running on a PC.

The range of functions which a notetaker of today can support dwarfs the first generation of the Blazie products. In addition to full word processing (including MS Word support) the devices will hold almost limitless contacts, support email, Web browsing, audio file playback (including realtime streaming from the net), global positioning system technology (GPS) for navigation and orientation as you travel, and a host of other features.

Notetakers can also print directly to a Braille embosser or be connected to a conventional printer for text output.

Refreshable Braille Display

We mentioned above that notetakers can be connected to a PC and used as Braille displays with screen access software. There are also dedicated refreshable Braille hardware devices which can be connected to a desktop or laptop computer to provide Braille output for the print text on the computer screen. Called refreshable Braille displays, these devices allow the user to interact with his/her computer using Braille. They are called refreshable because the unit is made up of a line of pins that move up and down to display the Braille dots. Braille displays also have navigation keys so the user can move around the computer screen without taking his/her hands from the display to perform tasks. It is important to note that screen access software such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, or similar programs must be present in order for the Braille display to function on a computer using the Windows operating system. Braille displays are available in units from 20 to 80 Braille cells. The larger 80 cell unit makes it possible to display an entire line of print text on most computer monitors. Braille displays can be moved from one computer to another as long as each computer has appropriate screen access software. Prices range from $1,400 for a 20 cell display to over $10,000 for some 80 cell displays.

Scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR)

A flatbed scanner is connected and ready to use on this PC.Flatbed scanners are common hardware devices that can be found anyplace that sells computer equipment. They are commonly used to scan photos into electronic files on a PC. However, they can also be used to scan text material. When used in conjunction with a specialized optical character recognition (OCR) program for the blind, the scanned text can be read aloud immediately in synthesized speech. This makes virtually any typed print material accessible to the blind user.

Many kinds of documents can be read, but not all. Handwriting can not be recognized yet and some formats are difficult to render with speech, such as complex tables or graphical information. As noted in earlier sections, human intervention may be necessary to obtain the best results. Scanning large books takes many hours and for the student this may be using valuable time which could be spent learning the subject matter rather than placing page after page on a scanner. Time can be saved by scanning only the pages needed to complete assignments instead of an entire book.

Two popular OCR programs for blind users are Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook. Both of these programs come with speech output and can read documents aloud as they are scanned by the scanner. The Kurzweil and OpenBook programs offer many features including editing, book marking. and even adding notes to documents. Other files may be opened and edited including some PDF and HTM files. These programs also have options to save files for future use and translation to Braille. It�s also possible to create MP3 audio files.

A flatbed scanner may be purchased from most computer stores for approximately $200. The specialized OCR software for the blind is available for about $1,000. Sighted teachers and those who want to scan large amounts of materials and save the files for later reading may use the cheaper, commercially available OCR software. However, these cheaper programs will not allow the user to �read� the material as it is scanned. For this feature, you must have the specialized OCR programs for the blind.

Summary: The cost of the technology listed here can add up pretty fast. However, not everyone needs every piece of equipment in order to get satisfactory access to computers and/or print information. Once again, we invite you to contact our access technology team at the IBTC for more information and advice about which products are suitable for your needs and pocketbook. We do not sell any of these products in the IBTC. Our mission is to help people get the information they need so they can compare the products offered by the different vendors. For a consultation by phone, call (410) 659-9314 during regular business hours, EST, Monday through Friday, and select the option, �technology answer line.�

Finally, an excellent source of information on buying a computer is an article first written by Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, and updated by Steven Booth in 2003, entitled �Notes On Buying A Computer.� The updated article was published in the Braille Monitor, December, 2003. Visit www.nfb.org, select Publications, then the Braille Monitor, and then the link for the December, 2003, issue.

Selected Technology Resources

The companies listed below are the manufacturers of their respective products. If you visit the Web sites you will find that they offer many other products not mentioned in this article. It is advisable to contact the vendor and obtain the name of a reseller in your area. Resellers often carry more than one product and once you decide the products you need, the reseller may demonstrate their use and provide setup and sometimes initial training. Be sure to ask if these services are offered by your local reseller.

Screen Access Programs
JAWS for Windows. Available from:
Freedom Scientific
St. Petersburg, Florida
Phone: (800) 444-4443
Web site: www.freedomscientific.com
Price: $895 to $1,095 depending on your computer�s operating system.

Window-Eyes. Available from:
GW Micro
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Phone: (260) 489-3671
Web site: www.gwmicro.com
Price: $795

Braille Embossers
Several companies manufacture embossers in the $2,000 to $4,000 price range.
Enabling Technologies Company
Jensen Beach, Florida
Phone: (800) 777-3687
Web site: www.brailler.com

Sighted Electronics
Westwood, New Jersey
Phone: (201) 666-2221
Web site: www.sighted.com
Note: Sighted Electronics is the distributor in the United States and Canada of the Index line of Braille embossers. Index embossers are manufactured in Sweden.

Braille Translation Programs
Duxbury Systems
Westford, Massachusetts
Phone: (978) 692-3000
Web site: www.duxburysystems.com
Manufacturer of DBT Win and MegaDots

Braille Notetakers
Freedom Scientific
St. Petersburg, Florida
Phone: (800) 444-4443
Web site: www.freedomscientific.com
Manufactures the Pac Mate line of notetakers and portable Braille displays

The Humanware Group, Inc.
Concord, California
Phone: (800) 722-3393
Web site: www.humanware.com
Manufacturer of the BrailleNote/VoiceNote line of notetakers

OCR Software
Kurzweil Educational Systems
Bedford, Massachusetts
Phone: (800) 894-5374
Manufacturer of the K1000 Program

Freedom Scientific
St. Petersburg, Florida
Phone: (800) 444-4443
Web site: www.freedomscientific.com
Manufacturer of the OpenBook program
For a comprehensive list of products, vendors, and prices, visit our NFB Web site: <www.nfb.org>.

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