Braille Monitor                                                                  March 1985


Of Optacons and Options

December, 1984

Dear Mr. Jernigan:

I was listening to the Fall 1984 issue of Dialogue magazine, and they had an article about Braille. This prompted me to sit down and write to you.

I have just learned how to use the Optacon. I cannot get an Optacon until I have a job. Rehab is going to pay half of the expense and the Lions Club will pay the other half. I am going to go back to college and finish getting my degree in music and perhaps I will be better qualified and will be able to get a job teaching. I am also going to be moving to ________ soon, and that will further help me because I'll be in a rnore populated area.

Anyway, there are a few gripes that I heve with the Optacon. First, I cannot use it when everyone is asleep around here because of that awful buzzing like a honeybee. Second, I soon found out I cannot read over forty-five minutes at a time because my finger goes rimb because of the vibration. Third, I annot read but twelve words a minute. That means that in forty-five minutes I am doing good if I can read a page or slightly less. Fourth, the size of print is terribly limited. I am finding out the hard way that the majority of things that I would like to read are either too large a print or too small a print for the Optacon lens to scan. Now, here is my wish. Oh boy, if it could only be a reality I'd be tickled pink.

I wish that someone would come up with a machine similar to the Optacon but instead of print characters, the machine would read Braille. I'd love it to be in Grade One (oh how I wish) in Grade Two Braille. It would pick up the print letter and in the machine it would be converted somehow and the raised letter would be Braille rather than raised print. I'd love it to be something that wouldn't make a noise, and I'd love it to be something that wouldn't vibrate, and I'd love it to be something that would have a wider range of print sizes to see so that you wouldn't have to have three or four expensive lenses to pick up this size or that.

Oh yes, I'd love it to be something that wouldn't cost five or six thousand bucks either. I wish that something like this was available. If it was, I'd get it rather than the Optacon. In a way, I am glad that Rehab is stalling on buying this Optacon and that they are letting me use one on loan when I go back to college. Maybe, if I really say a prayer, in a couple of years a machine like the one I am wishing for will be a reality and I can have that one instead. My reading speed would be so much faster and more efficient. Ah well, I'll just sit here and dream some more. Maybe you and others in the NFB can dream with me.


Baltimore, Maryland
January 1, 1985

Dear ________:

I have your letter about the Optacon, and I would like to begin by saying that (with certain notable exceptions) I do not believe the Optacon is truly a practical reading device for blind persons.

I mean this literally. Let me deal with the exceptions first: I think the Optacon can be helpful in identifying mail or other documents, getting an idea of the format of a printed page, identifying material on computer screens, and certain other specialized activities. For straight reading I think it is virtually worthless and that it has been vastly oversold and oversensationalized. I think it is not practical as an everyday aid for blind college students, blind business people, blind casual readers, or blind anything else. I believe that (despite all claims to the contrary) the Optacon cannot generally be used to read at a speed much greater than the twelve words per minute you describe and that many things cannot be read with it at all. When I talk of twelve words a minute, I am not speaking of scanning, getting the general sense of a page, or any other other evasive terminology which I have heard used. I am talking about straight reading reading aloud so that you can be timed and checked. I have seen it repeatedly tried, and I have seen the test repeatedly failed. In my opinion the Optacon is largely a money making gimmick for its manufacturer, a subject for exaggerated claims by the media, a device which permits a number of agencies to satisfy their emotional wish to avoid recommending the use of Braille, an easy way out for certain rehabilitation agencies and counselors, and a cruel hoax perpetrated upon blind people.

My experience indicates that a competent Braille reader can read Braille thirty or forty times faster than an Optacon reader can read by using the Optacon. I believe that a blind person who intends to be a successful college student should ideally use a combination of techniques--Braille notes and Braille reading matter, sighted readers, recorded material, computers when they are available, and a variety of other techniques, including the cultivation of the ability to pay attention and retain so that repetition will not be necessary. The VersaBraille (although it is costly and although it has been as oversold as the Optacon and the subject of unrealistic and impossible claims) can be of real help to a college student, but it will become a detriment instead of an aid if it is used to the exclusion of the other things I have mentioned. It may be that what we need is not so much new technology as new thinking about some of our traditional beliefs. In this connection I call your attention to the article by Geoffrey Bull in the December, 1984, Monitor. With not much more money than is now being spent we could have a tremendously increased amount of Braille, and an unbelievably reduced unit cost.

The computer is beginning to hold great promise for making printed material accessible to the blind, both in spoken words and in Braille. It may also be that the cost will be relatively small. As you doubtless know, we of the Sational Federation of the Blind are putting both money and effort into the development of computer technology to make the printed word available to the blind. Developments will be reported in the Monitor, and devices will be on display at the national convention this summer.

These are my thoughts, and they are just that--my thoughts. I don't know how many people share them, but they represent what I have observed and what I believe.


Kenneth Jernigan
National Federation of the Blind

P. S. In one way of looking at it (and especially if we can increase the volume and lower the unit cost) there is just such a reading device as you have dreamed about. It is inexpensive. It reproduces any kind of print. It is light-weight and portable. It can be read at several hundred words a minute. It is called a Braille book.