Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3



by Tom Balek

     Jeff got off the bus, cane travelled down the road to the house, munched his after-school cookies, and then sat down at the computer to do his homework. He reviewed his Brailled Weekly Reader, typed the study guide questions and answers using WordPerfect, spell-checked his work for accuracy, and then came to the bonus question: "Which president of the United States was the oldest at his inauguration?"

     Hey, no problem. Jeff typed STW to load his CD-ROM encyclopedia. In the first search field he entered president and in the second he typed oldest. An article about Ronald Reagan appeared on the screen and the cursor located the sentence which explained that Reagan was the oldest president elected to office. Jeff turned on his printers and produced a copy of his work in Braille and another in print for his teacher. Homework done, it's time to go shoot some hoops before dinner.

     Even though I spend most of my working day on a computer, I am still frequently astonished at the knowledge and power at our fingertips. Jeff, my son, is a fifth grader at our local elementary school and is one of only two totally blind students in our county of 250,000. Before we installed a $159 CD-ROM drive in his speech-equipped computer, his encyclopedia was a suitcase full of audio tapes, produced in 1959, indexed by a series of Brailled books which would fill a small truck. Now, for fun, he listens to Neil Armstrong describing one "small step for man" as he walked on the moon, or with just a few keystrokes learns that Muhammad Ali was first known as Cassius Clay. He recognizes birds in our back woods by their songs which he has heard on his computer. When his class studied a section on the Revolutionary War, he recited a speech by George Washington, verbatim-he had heard it on CD-ROM. His sister watches the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk and searches Time magazine articles on CD-ROM for her high school term papers.

     The information age is here! Rapid access to incredible amounts of information is now afford-able, fun, and relatively easy; and it holds incredible promise for blind students. I urge parents of blind children (or any children for that matter!) to have a home computer available for their student's use. A student who grows up without a firm foundation of computer skills is at an educational and vocational disadvantage.

     Jeff uses a speech-equipped laptop computer at school which he will carry between classes when he reaches middle school. His regular classroom teacher, who does not know Braille, frequently uses the laptop to generate notes, instructions, support material, or tests in Braille. At home, Jeff uses an IBM-compatible 386 computer with a speech card and text-to-speech software installed. Two printers, one for Braille and another for text, are connected to the computer through an A/B switch. Jeff also uses a ram-resident Braille translation program which can be turned on or off by a keystroke at any time. I occasionally scan articles of interest with an inexpensive hand scanner and the text can be printed in Braille or read on-screen. And the CD-ROM drive was a tremendous addition to Jeff's system. With prudent shopping a system like this costs less than  $4,000 and can be done for much less by cutting some corners.

     As wonderful as they are, computers are not a replacement for Braille. Braille is the communication medium for the blind, and the computer is a tool. But what a magnificent tool it is!