Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Confessions of a BrailleNote User

by Jennifer Dunnam

Reprinted from the Minnesota Bulletin, Summer 2003, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota.

Jennifer Dunnam
Jennifer Dunnam

About six months ago, I acquired a BrailleNote. The University of Minnesota (where I work) had bought it for an employee and when that employee left, I inherited the machine. The BrailleNote is a personal data assistant (PDA) with multiple functions–much like the PalmPilot that many sighted people use–with a refreshable Braille display.

Most of you probably know that I have been an avid user and a zealous promoter of the Braille slate and stylus. I constantly make lists of things to do, take notes, and jot things down using the slate–often while riding the bus or waiting for appointments. So why would I want a BrailleNote?

My favorite use for the BrailleNote (after I turned off the voice output function) was to learn how to download a book into it. Suddenly I had access to an almost endless supply of Braille books–from Bookshare.org, from the National Library Service's WebBraille, and from books I scanned myself. I can put three or four books in at once (I don't have a flash memory card; if I did, I could carry around many more). I use the BrailleNote to read books for pleasure on buses, planes, etc.; I use it to read, take notes, and study for my history class.

The BrailleNote also has added to my versatility at my job. I can use it as a Braille display for my computer, so I can proofread foreign language material without having to Braille it. My job at the University involves coordination of alternate formats, including tape recording course materials. Student workers do most of the tape recording in our office but, on occasion, if we get into a scheduling bind, the person who coordinates the student workers or other staff will step in and do some taping. I have sometimes thought that I would like the ability to do taping when needed as well, but the only way for me to do that is to read it in Braille, and it never seemed an efficient or wise use of resources to use up paper to emboss a Braille copy for taping. Now, though, if the print copy is clear, I can help with taping too. I can scan about fifty pages in ten minutes, then download the file to the BrailleNote, and tape-record away. I only have an eighteen-cell display on my unit, so it took some practice to coordinate the display and my fingers so the reading rhythm sounded smooth and natural, but now it works just fine. Good thing, too, because we've had a number of last-minute requests recently, so I've taped several hundred pages this semester.

My schedule gets ridiculously complicated sometimes, so I have always kept a calendar/planner for my work schedule as well as my personal one. I did this using a spiral notebook and a slate and stylus. There's a planner in the BrailleNote, so I use that these days, and it's quite efficient. There is also a database for keeping people's contact information. Whenever possible, I prefer to use the card file on my desk because it's faster, but when I'm not near the card file and I'm making calls on my cell phone, it is quite handy to have all this information in one small place.

John Pastorius and Renee Bevan (examining BrailleNote)
John Pastorius examines a BrailleNote in the exhibit area of the Federation convention while Mom, Renee Bevan, looks on.

The BrailleNote's features are very useful to me, but I still never go anywhere without a slate. I carry one in the case with my BrailleNote. Why? First, of course, there's the obvious reason: as a backup. I have needed that backup plan far more often than I expected to. At least four times during the past six months, I have accidentally left the BrailleNote on and let the battery run down without realizing it until I needed to take some important notes. Once that happened during a state rehabilitation Council for the Blind meeting. How disruptive it would have been to try to find an outlet and plug in the BrailleNote near where I was sitting. Instead, I pulled out my trusty slate and steno pad and kept right on going. I'm thankful not only that I had the slate with me, but that I had been taught and encouraged to use it well so I could make that relatively seamless transition.

Sometimes, though, my BrailleNote is working perfectly, and I still find I'd rather use a slate. Obviously, if someone hands me a page of print–like a brochure or receipt–I can't use a BrailleNote to label it. Instead, I immediately place a slate over the bottom of the paper and write a few words so I can identify it later.

At this year's Washington Seminar during our Minnesota caucus, Joyce read us the names, times, and places of our appointments with the members of Congress. I started to copy them down using the BrailleNote, but then I thought to myself, "We have quite a few appointments per day. If I don't remember a time or a room number while I'm walking around the Capitol, I don't want to have to drag my BrailleNote out of my briefcase, turn it on, and hunt through a file to find what I'm looking for. I'd rather just keep a card in my pocket that I can quickly refer to." So I put away the BrailleNote and copied it all down with my slate.

I enjoy this BrailleNote very much, especially as a reading device; I will be a very unhappy camper if someone decides I can't have it anymore. Devices such as this with refreshable Braille displays take away an oft-used excuse for people not learning Braille–that Braille is not widely available. The availability of Braille is reaching an all-time high (and will get nothing but better once we get the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act passed). However, what some consider a tiring refrain is still true: technology offers wonderful enhancement, but never an all-out replacement for low-tech tools and for the skills needed to use them well.

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