Future Reflections Winter 1986, Vol. 5 No. 1

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TECHNICAL DEVICES AND SPECIAL EQUIPMENT FOR THE BLIND

(Editor's Note: This article is a slightly revised version of a chapter from the Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) publication, Technical Assistance for Employers: Hiring the Blind is Reasonable, Proper, and Necesary. JOB is operated by the National Federation of the Blind in partnership with the United States Department of Labor.)

A growing number of special devices are available for use by blind persons. They vary in cost from only a few dollars to $30,000 for a single device. Seldom does a device by itself make the difference in whether or not a blind person can do a job. Devices do, however, provide added independence and flexibility to blind persons in numerous positions.

Most special techniques of the blind require no special devices, and sometimes a simple, homemade device is as good as an expensive one. Nevertheless, blind job applicants and prospective employers of blind persons can benefit from knowledge of the devices available. This article is not meant to be an extensive list of all specialized equipment for the blind. Rather, it is intended as a sampling.

Caution: In every job and in every situation, the competence of the person to be hired is vastly more significant than any or all devices. If the employee is not adequate in the first place, equipment can't do anything about it. Also remember that blind individuals do not all use the same methods nor have the same skills.

Tape Recorder: Many blind persons rely heavily on tape recorders. Either a cassette recorder or an open-reel recorder can be used in a variety of ways depending on the needs, assignments, and preferences of the blind employee. Large amounts of information can be rerecorded on tape rapidly and less expensively than the same information can be converted into Braille. Often blind employees can get volunteers to do some of this recording or another reader can record it when it is convenient for the blind person to be doing something else. Some reference materials can recorded onto tape and tone indexed. Some tape recorders have a variable speed control, so that the listener can speed up the tape and read the material more rapidly than it is recorded. Thus, tape recorders may be a valuable tool to blind persons who need to deal with printed materials, although other blind persons will use them very little, if at all.

Speech Compressor: This device may be attached to a tape recorder, and it causes the elimination of pauses between syllables and words, thus speeding up the rate at which the speaker speaks.

This device has advantages over the variable speed control on a tape recorder: 1. It does not change the pitch of the voice and, therefore, is more pleasant of listen to. 2. More speed variation can be, accomplished with this method before the speech becomes unintelligible. One blind person who is employed to convert legal briefs into simple concise statements works primarily with tape recorded materials and then dictates or types her finished product. Attaching a speech compressor to her tape recorder increased her productivity by nearly 50%.

Talking Computer Terminal: A number of companies are now producing talking terminals which are known by a variety of names. A talking terminal is just what one would expect. It speaks the words that appear pn the screen of a standard print terminal.* The synthesized speech of current talking terminals is clear enough for most people to understand immediately upon hearing it.

The talking terminal must have some memory and a keyboard. It is generally attached to a print terminal in the system. It is up to the operator of the talking terminal to be knowledgeable about the print screen's formatting so that he or she will understand the full significance of what is said by the talking terminal. These terminals can be interfaced with a number of basic computer systems and the manufacturers can tell you what they are designed to interface with. The disadvantages of the talking terminal are its lack of portability and its lack of formatting. Advantages are speed in retrieving information and lack of need for substantial training by the user. Any blind person can learn to use a talking terminal quickly.

The first users of talking terminals have been computer programmers, computer analysts, and word processors, but we are on the threshold of using the talking terminal to open up numerous employement opportunities for blind persons; including flight and Amtrak reservations work, directory assistance and other telephone referral jobs, and department store cashiering where terminals are used.

The cost of some of these devices is not substantially higher than the cost of the Optacon. They may be purchased by the employer, the rehabilitation agency, the blind person, or someone else. The variaty of options available to blind persons using talking terminals is now enormous. New companies enter the market each month and established companies improve their products routinely. The National Federation of the Blind can give you up-to-date information about talking terminals.

Kurzweil Reading Machine: This machine was developed by Raymond Kurzweil to convert the printed page into synthesized speech by means of a special, automated scanning system and a mini-computer. A book or magazine is placed face down on the glass top of the machine. The user punches keys which command the scanning mechanism to find the top line of print on the page and read it. This occurs in a matter of seconds, and the speech of the machine can be set as fast as 200 or more words per minute. The biggest drawback of this machine is its expense. In addition, it requires moderately clear print. Currently, most of these machines are located in libraries and schools or universities where they serve a useful prupose. Kurzweil Computer Products, Incorporated is now a subsidiary of the Xerox Corporation.

There are also now a number of devices which convert a limited group of type fonts into computer code. Material can be read into computers using these devices and "played back" on talking terminals or Braille printers. These devices read a very limited number of type styles, but their cost is usually less than that of a Kurzweil reading machine. Their biggest use is in quickly scanning typed material to obtain a computer readable copy. These devices were originally designed for business applications not specifically for blind people.

Optacon: The Optacon is used by a blind person to read the printed page directly. It consists of a camera, which is moved across the lines of print, and a small display consisting of rows of tiny vibrating pegs which show the shape of the letter directly under the camera. The blind person places one forefinger on the display and feels the shape of the letter as the vibrating pegs touch the finger. With practice, a blind person will attain a speed of reading from 60 to 90 words a minute too slow for large volume reading but fast enough for reference and scanning. (Note: 60-90 wpm is at the higher end of the range. Most users will read at about half this rate.) Reading both Braille and print is customarily 3 or 4 times this fast. The Optacon has been used most successfully by computer programmers and computer analysts. A special lens has been developed for use with the Optacon and the Cathode Ray Tube. The Optacon can be used to read printed or typewritten material, not handwriting. A skilled user can read charts and diagrams. The Optacon was developed and is available from Telesensory Systems, Incorporated. Substantial training is necessary before a blind person attains skill with this instrument, and we are told that some blind individuals are not able to become proficient in the use of the Optacon.

In spite of its limitations, the Optacon was the first device that enabled immediate access to print. For certain purposes, it is extremely useful. For other purposes, it is impractical. The Optacon might be useful to a mathematician, but it would hardly do for legal research. It is just right for some computer programmers, but much too slow for a news commentator.

Computer Driven Braille Printer: Several companies have developed machines which can be driven by a computer to print Braille. They range in price from about $3,000 to about $15,000. The less expensive models print Braille at 10-15 characters per second. The most expensive, print at about 130 characters per second. The Thiel printer from Maryland Computer Service is the most advanced high-speed Braille printer on the market in America today. Maryland Computer Services, Triformation Systems, Incorporated, and Visualtek also produce slower, but quite acceptable, Braille printers. All Braille printers can reproduce material from computer documents. Many can write Braille in literary or computer code. There are several software packages on the market which permit computers to translate documents into standard English Grade two Braille and back again. This is particularly helpful for blind people doing word processing or for those with no Braille knowledge who wish to transcribe material into Grade two Braille. If a blind person is highly specialized, it is certainly worthwhile to spend several thousand dollars on a piece of equipment, just as it is worthwhile for companies to buy expensive equipment to improve the quality and quantity of work done by sighted employees.

Paperless Braille Machines: Another type of machine which can be interfaced with a computer and serve as a computer terminal is the paperless Braille device. Two models are being made in this country (one by Telesensory Systems, Incorporated and the other by Triformation Systems, Incorporated) and other models can be purchased from Germany. These machines consist of a cassette tape drive, a 20-cell Braille display, a 6-key Braille keyboard, and a number of operating controls. (The Braille displays on some of the foreign machines are larger than 20 cells.) The cost of the paperless Braille machine is similar to that of the Optacon and talking terminals. It may be an advantage that these machines have writing and editing capabilities as well as showing the readout. It should be possible to interface this machine with certain electric typewriters, as well as computers. Thus, material could be typed by a paid or volunteer typist and read in Braille on the machine. The memory blocks of the two American machines vary considerably in size. The 20-cell display is a disadvantage, for that is a very small segment of material. Nevertheless, many blind people prefer to have the information in Braille. Paperless Braille displays which become part of microcomputers are now being tested and marketed. The advantage of these is that no special software is needed.

Braille Thermoform Machine: This machine is comparable to a copy machine for print materials. It is useful for making a limited number of copies of a Braille page or pages. This is the way it functions: a Braille page is placed on a flat surface on the machine. A blank plastic page is placed on top of the Braille. Both pages are held in place by a frame which is lowered over the edges of the platform. A heating unit is then pulled over the material and held there for three seconds. At the end of this time, a vacumn device sucks the softened plastic page down over the Braille dots, so that the plastic is molded into a pattern identical to the page underneath it. The whole process takes only a few seconds. In this, also, it is like a print copy machine. Most employers will not need to have Braille Thermoform machines. However, it may be useful to know about the process. Public and private service agencies for the blind often have these machines and will duplicate Braille material on request at little or no charge. If a company employs more than one blind person and both need to have access to certain material in Braille, it would be possible to have the material put into Braille by a volunteer transcriber and one or more copies made with the Thermoform machine.

Braille Dymotape Machine: If relatively brief Braille labels are needed on file folders or equipment, they can be made by a blind or sighted employee using a Braille Dymotape ma chine. A dial marked in print and Braille is turned to the appropriate letter or punctuation mark. Depression of a lever causes the Braille symbol to be imprinted upon the tape. The plastic back can be peeled off the tape and the label applied to most kinds of surfaces. Of course, Braille labels can be made with a slate or stylus or a Braille writer, but the Braille Dymotape machine can often serve a useful purpose as well.

Closed Circuit TV Enlargers; A number of models of these devices are available from two different companies Apollo Laser and Visualtek. These machines magnify print from a printed page onto a screen. Enlargement can be as much as 60 times the size of the original print. A number of adjustments can be made according to the preference of the reader. For instance, the machine can be set to show black print on a white background, or white print on a black background. This is useful to some individuals because it helps them to reduce glare and control sensitivity to bright light. Many blind individuals have a limited amount of usable vision, generally not more than 1096...This means their vision is usuable, but not good enough to use standard materials. The closed circuit TV enlargers increase independence and flexibility for blind individuals who can use them. Closed circuit TV enlargers also exist for computers as well.

Other Magnifiers: Magnifiers can be very simple and inexpensive, or they can be large and cost several hundred dollars. They do exactly what one would expect them to do. They magnify the print 1 to 10 times and are helpful to some persons with very limited vision. There are dozens of types of magnifiers on the market, some with several lenses and some with with special lighting. They can be purchased from optometrists and other retailers of visual aids. Very often, if a person has difficulty using a closed circuit TV enlarger or a magnifier, he or she can work more efficiently with recorded materials.

Typewriters: There is no such thing as a typewriter for the blind. There is not, because there is no need for it. Blind people use standard typewriters: manual, electric and selectric. Blind secretaries use them to earn a living. Other blind individuals use typewriters as the major method for writing print. At work a counselor, supervisor, teacher, news reporter, or any of a hundred or more other types of employees who are blind can type information for others to read. The typewriter can be used by a blind person to fill out forms, to type drafts of manuscripts and letters, make notes or instructions for others, as well as to do all variations of secretarial work. It is a machine that blind persons may depend on more than sighted persons. No special adaptions are needed. Some blind persons write legible handwriting. Some do not. In any case, there is no reason to worry about the blind person's handwriting as long as he or she knows how to type. If the blind person does not type, this will reduce his or her flexiblity, but dictation through a machine or directly to a secretary is still an easy technique in many employment situations. Since typing is done by touch, it is a natural and easy skill for a blind person to acquire. Typing is a valuable skill and is used by the blind for some purposes when a sighted person might not type.

Of course, it would not be sensible to insist that all blind persons do a lot of typing. This would not be desirable in some jobs. For example, the author of this book typed all her work in college and developed good speed and accuracy. She handled personal correspondence and correspondence for an organization for which she was secretary for several years after college. She now types only a few pages a year, because her work load is such that typing is inefficient.

Light Probe: In certain jobs it is necessary that the operator of a piece of equipment know when a light is on, and it may also be necessary to know the position of the light. For example, the magnetic tape selectric composer has a panel of lights which signifies which command the machine is ready to receive. A multiple line telephone has lights which indicate which lines are in use and which line is ringing. Telephone consoles and switchboards often provide information to the operator by means of light intensity and the speed of flashing lights. A blind person can operate any of these pieces of equipment and many others by using a simple tool commonly known as a light probe. One end of the probe can be used to scan for light signals. When it registers light, a buzz or squeal sounds. Very often the pitch will vary with the intensity of light. With practice, a person can develop considerable skill and speed using this simple device. Light probes have been developed for individuals by local electronic technicians, and some are available commercially. The telephone company makes a model which can have the output directed into the operator's headset.

Talking Calculators: The first talking calculators were developed in the early '70's and were extremely expensive. By 1976 or '77 a rather primitive talking calculator was available for just under $400.00. Today blind persons have a choice of models of talking calculators at reasonable prices. Panasonic has two portable talking calculators which can be purchased from Aids Unlimited. The National Federation of the Blind has a limited number of inexpensive talking Cassios. There are accurate calculators but not meant for hard use. Canon makes a more specialized model of the talking calculator which produces a tape and is more expensive. These models are meant to be indicative of what is available, not a comprehensive list.

Braille Micrometer: Blind persons can be excellent machinists. One important tool for a machinist is a micrometer. A good machinist needs to be able to measure the diameter of a shaft or gear with an accuracy up to .001 inches (1 /1000"). The adjustment on the Braille micrometer consists of small dials in tiers to open and close the micrometer. A blind person's accuracy using this instrument is as least as good as the accuracy of the average sighted machinist doing this type of work. Individuals who have been trained after blindness to become machinists will very often know about this tool. If a trained machinist becomes blind, it will be important for him or her to find out about and learn to use the Braille micrometer.

Talking Calipers: Some blind machinists prefer the talking calipers. This depends some on individual preference and types of job assignments.

Rotomatic and Click Rule: Generally, linear measurement in cabinet making and wood working is required to be accurate within l/32nd or l/64th of an inch. The rotomatic measure is a bolt threaded with grooves every 1/16th of an inch. Turning in these threads is a guide which can be locked into place at any point. A quarter turn of the guide and/or the lock nut is l/64th of an inch. The threaded device is 6" long and extensions can be screwed into it at the end, making it possible to measure substantial lengths with as much accuracy as needed. The bolt is flat on one side with raised threads every half inch. This makes it possible to adjust the rotomatic measuring device without counting all the turns it makes. Another device which performs the same function as the rotomatic is the click rule. The click rule is a threaded rod with a "sleeve" around it . The threads make a small clicking sound every 1 /16th of an inch as the rod is pulled from the sleeve. It is also a tactual measure with raised threads every 1/2 inch. Both items (the rotomatic and the click rule) are available from the National Federation of the Blind.

A Beeping Sphygmomanometer: The Kentucky Bureau for the Blind developed a device to make it possible for blind persons to record accurate blood pressure readings. A major feature of the sphygmomanometer is that it can be set t beep every so many seconds, so that the blind person can get an accurate count on the pulse in that length of time. Instruments such as the beeping sphygmomanometer can be used by blind persons who are employed as nurse's aids, laboratory technicians, physicians, and in other medical positions.

Braille Thermometer: A metal, clinical thermometer which can be read tactually is available. When the body temperature has been taken, a button is pressed to maintain the position until the thermometer has been read. It can be used by individuals in medical employment or at home. A talking thermometer can also be constructed.

Some devices can be extremely important to the blind for personal use, but significant in employment as well. The talking clock is an accurate time keeping machine, a stop watch, an alarm, and a timer. Many blind persons carry it with them and use it as a watch. More than one model of the talking clock is available.

Many models of Braille wristwatches and pocket watches are available. A blind person will purchase whichever watch he or she prefers unless, indeed, this individual has now become a clock user instead of a watch wearer. Employers should know that these devices exist, but they should not need to secure them, maintain them, or deal with them in any way.

Standard tape measures and the steel tape roll-up measures are also available in Braille. The first 6 inches or foot of these measures are marked every 1 /4th or l/8th of an inch. The rest may be o marked only every 3 to 6 inches. Cloth tape measures may be marked with staples. Steel tapes may be marked with raised dots. Foot-long Braille rulers are also available if needed. Braille kitchen timers are inexpensive, easy to use, and may be handy in certain situations.

Other equipment may be labeled or marked tactually for the convenience of a blind person. Dials may be marked by making grooves with a scratch awl or dots of dried glue or fingernail polish. Combination locks can be marked with either of these methods. Blind persons may devise methods for doing any number of activities. Before going to the trouble or expense to adapt a device, mark a dial, or make other special arrangements for a blind person--an employer or supervisor should discuss the matter with the blind employee. You may find that no adaptation is needed, or that the blind person has already developed a simple method for getting the job done.

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