Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

(back) (contents) (next)

A Beginner's Guide to Access Technology for Blind Students

Reprinted with updates from Future Reflections, Winter/Spring 2006, Volume 25 No. 1

Steve Booth From the Editor: Parents and teachers sometimes struggle to determine which access technology will best meet a child's needs. The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) can be a valuable resource. In this article, members of the IBTC staff review some of the access technology options available today.

The International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) was founded in 1990. It is a comprehensive demonstration and evaluation center where the National Federation of the Blind has collected every type of speech output and Braille technology, both hardware and software, available in the United States and Canada, and some items from other countries as well. The IBTC takes calls and provides tours and demonstrations on weekdays by appointment between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Technology specialists assist parents, teachers, and students to identify the products 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 are descriptions of the major products that provide access to the world of computing for blind users. The term access technology refers to the whole category of items that provide access to the computer. You may have heard the terms adaptive technology, assistive technology, or compensatory technology. However, for clarity and consistency, we will refer to these specialized products as access technology.

First, a word about hardware and software. Hardware is equipment. A computer with its keyboard and monitor is hardware. Software is the program that runs on the computer's hardware.

Equipment Basics


Whether your child is a toddler pecking at the keyboard or a graduate student analyzing statistics for a dissertation, complete access to a computer is an essential ingredient to success. Computers are available in a number of flavors and shapes. The most widely used operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Apple's OS. Windows is still the dominant system, though Apple is increasingly popular. Desktop computers provide the most power for the money, but portable systems are pretty inevitable for most students. The choice depends on how the machine will be used. For basic use (web, mail, word processing) a high-end netbook will do the job. For more power, a laptop is the best bet. Finally, for those users who need a very light machine that is faster and more powerful than a netbook, the ultrabooks are a good compromise.

Screen Access Software

The International Braille and Technology CenterIn order to gain full and independent access to a computer, a blind student must use a screen access program. In the case of Mac computers and devices, this software is preinstalled and does not need to be purchased; however, the user does not have the option of using any other screen access program. The screen access program provides synthesized speech output, using the computer's soundboard and speakers. As the individual enters data on the keyboard or navigates a program, the screen reader announces the text that is displayed on the screen. In addition to reading the literal text, the program provides important contextual information necessary for navigation. For example, when the user presses the "Start" key the screen access program will announce, "Start, Menu." 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.

Programs offered by third-party developers can be installed on the PC by the user. Priced from $895 to $1,100, two programs dominate the US 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.

Other options are available, some of which are low-cost or even free. While such programs can be a good solution for basic use, they will not support some of the more advanced functionality. For more information on screen access software, please check <http://www.nfb.org/technology-resource-list>.

Braille Embosser

A Braille embosser, sometimes 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 computer to be produced in hardcopy 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 only one face of the page.

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. Three programs are most prevalent today: the Duxbury Braille Translator, Braille2000, 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, and HTML (web pages). Some important file formats are not supported directly, most significantly PDF files.

Braille2000--Braille2000 is a Braille translation package primarily designed for transcribers who are using six-key input. It is also XML aware: you can read and write Braille XML files as well as translate XML print text into Braille. Braille2000 works with Windows XP, VISTA, and Windows 7.

MegaDots--MegaDots is a styles-based program that operates in a DOS window on a PC. A variety of documents, including all current Word versions, can be imported. The program is particularly popular among transcribers for its power in editing large quantities of Braille. 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 markup 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--like sighted children--learn about the proper formatting of materials by observing the format of the textbooks and handouts prepared for them. Long before anyone teaches it, children learn about headers, indenting, italicized characters, etc. Improperly formatted 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.


First introduced by Blazie Engineering in the mid-1980s, these easy-to-use personal organizers now allow a user to create documents, read text, keep addresses and appointments, check email, use the Internet, and access a list of special utilities (such as specialized GPS, dictionaries, and tutorials). All notetakers include speech output as well as either a Braille or a QWERTY keyboard for entering data.  Many have refreshable Braille displays.

Here are some distinguishing characteristics that set notetakers apart from computers. Notetakers offer immediate access to information without boot-up time. Notetakers use mobile versions of Windows or Linux operating systems rather than the full systems that operate on regular computers or laptops. 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. It is important to note, however, that notetakers are not designed to be independent devices--they don't allow for the kind of power usage and advanced editing that a student or professional needs. A computer must be part of the equation, with the notetaker providing specialized functionality and portable use.

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, the BrailleSense line from HIMS, and the Pac Mate Omni 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 (40-cell or 20-cell in the case of the Pac Mate line), or with no Braille display, providing output with speech only. Units that offer a refreshable Braille display also provide spoken output that 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 or used as a Braille display of the PC output.

The range of functions supported by today's notetaker dwarfs the first generation of Blazie products. The user can create basic documents and can even access and edit Word documents; however, most major formatting requires a full computer-based word processor, as no font information is available. Notetakers will hold almost limitless contacts, support email, web browsing, audio file playback (including real-time streaming from the Internet), global positioning system technology (GPS) for navigation and orientation, and a host of other features. Pac Mate Omni also gives access to Excel and PowerPoint. All of the current notetakers can read DAISY books and Audible books, as well as electronic Braille files and PDF. With proper authorization BrailleNote and Pac Mate support books from Learning Ally. Likewise, the BrailleNote and Braille Sense can read NLS BARD audio books. Notetakers can 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 computer and used as Braille displays with screen access software. There are also dedicated refreshable Braille hardware devices that 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 or Window-Eyes must be present in order for the Braille display to function on a computer using the Windows operating system. On Mac computers, the preinstalled VoiceOver software will provide speech and support Braille displays. Braille displays are available in units from 12 to 80 Braille cells. The larger 80-cell unit makes it possible to display an entire line of print text as seen on most computer monitors. Braille displays can be moved from one computer to another, as long as each computer has appropriate screen access software (and in some cases the hardware drivers, which can be downloaded from the manufacturer's website). Prices range from $1,000 for a 12-cell display to over $10,000 for some 80-cell displays.

Scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR)

Flatbed scanners are common hardware devices that can be found anywhere computer equipment is sold. They are generally used to scan photos into electronic files on a PC. However, they also can 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 or printed material accessible to the blind user. More and more, OCR software now also uses some specific cameras for scanning, since these are faster than flatbed scanners. These cameras can be purchased directly from some of the OCR software vendors, such as Freedom Scientific and ABiSee.

Scanners can read many kinds of documents, but not all. Handwriting cannot be recognized yet, and some formats are difficult to render with speech, such as complex tables or graphical information. It takes many hours to scan a large book, placing page after page on the scanner. A document feeder can speed up the process, but the book must be cut apart. The cameras mentioned earlier can provide significantly higher speeds than scanners, though it is a bit harder with those to keep from accidentally covering text.

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 being scanned. Other features include editing and bookmarking. Other electronic files may be opened and edited, including some PDF and HTM files. These programs allow files to be saved for future use or translation into Braille. They can be used to create MP3 audio files and to open DAISY files.

For those who want a portable solution for OCR, ABiSee's Eye-Pal and the KNFB Reader Mobile are good solutions. The KNFB Reader Mobile hosts the OCR software on a Nokia N82 cell phone, making it perfect for on-the-go use. Handouts at a meeting, labels on products, and restaurant menus are easy to access with the KNFB Reader Mobile. The Eye-Pal is more appropriate for book scanning. It requires a laptop or PC as well as the Eye-Pal camera. The camera, which incorporates a folding stand, weighs about a pound and works with any computer that has the software installed. It does not have the powerful editing features of Kurzweil 1000 or OpenBook, but it has outstanding book scanning speeds.

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 material, saving the files for later reading, may use less expensive, commercially available OCR software. However, these cheaper programs will not allow the user to listen to the material as it is being scanned.

Portable DAISY Players

Portable DAISY players provide access to books with navigation, allowing the reader to skip to page, chapter, or section headers. Many of these players also provide other features, such as music storage, voice recording, and podcast support. The players listed below are some of the more feature-rich units.

Book Port Plus: This pocket-sized book player and digital recorder packs many features into its small case. The Book Port Plus supports Secure Digital memory cards (SD cards) with capacities up to 32 gigabytes. Built-in text-to-speech software will read DAISY-formatted books and text files in a variety of formats, including TXT, RTF, and HTML. Human-recorded books from the National Library Service, Learning Ally, and Audible.com are also supported. Users can connect an NLS cartridge, flash drive, or USB-powered CD-ROM drive to Book Port Plus for additional connectivity. Book Port Plus also includes features designed to make it a powerful digital recorder, including stereo microphone input, a built-in microphone, the ability to edit recordings, and the ability to turn your recordings into digital talking books.
American Printing House for the Blind. Price: $329.00.

BookSense: This compact digital book player that fits easily in the palm of your hand comes in two configurations. Both include the ability to read books, documents, and play back audio files. Supported book and document formats include DAISY (text and audio), TXT, RTF, HTML, DOC, DOCX, HTML, XML, and formatted Braille in either BRL or BRF files. The media player supports playback of MP3, MP4,   OGG, WAV, WAX, MP4A,  WMA, and Audible file formats. Files are stored on a high-capacity SD card. The BookSense can also function as a digital recorder with output in either WAV or MP3. The BookSense XT includes all of the previously mentioned features and adds Bluetooth output (supporting stereo Bluetooth headphones), 4 GB of internal memory, and an FM radio receiver.
HIMS, Price: BookSense, $349; BookSense XT, $498.

Victor Reader Stream: The Victor Reader Stream plays DAISY (including National Library Service, Learning Ally, BookShare.org, and NFB-NEWSLINE®, MP3, Audible, and text files. The unit has an internal speaker and an integrated microphone that allows the user to record voice notes. There is audible feedback for battery level, volume level, speech rate, and book position. The user can adjust the reading speed. The unit has a telephone-style keypad for navigation and control. Files are stored on an SD card.
HumanWare. Price: $359.

Mainstream Mobile Devices

Phones and Sundry

As phones become ever more like computers, it would be foolish to neglect them as bona fide tools for learning. Right now, the most obvious choice for a phone-with-benefits is the iPhone. The iPhone, like the Mac, runs VoiceOver, Apple's screen access software, and supports the use of a Braille display. No other phone currently offers this type of functionality with the same level of accessibility. Some simpler phones have speech for menus and texting, while the Android phones have all the horsepower of the iPhone without full access. Mobile Accessibility from CodeFactory for Android gives access to ten of the basic apps.

In the iOS line, the iPod Touch falls between the iPhone and the iPad and offers some of the same benefits--email, calendar, and other basics as well as DAISY/Bookshare reading with the Read2Go app, access to Learning Ally with its app, and so on.


Tablets--small computers with touch screens--are terrifically popular at the moment. They are everywhere. Unfortunately, they are almost entirely useless to blind students. The "almost" is on account of the lone shining example of the iPad, which, like its iOS brethren, has VoiceOver and excellent baseline accessibility (though many third-party apps are inaccessible). iPads are common in education and can really help a blind student--but the third-party app accessibility issues can really throw a wrench in the works.


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. 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 various vendors. For a consultation by phone, call (410) 659-9314 during regular business hours, Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, and select the option, "Technology Answer Line." You can reach us by email at [email protected]

Other excellent sources of information about access technology are the NFB monthly magazine, the Braille Monitor, and the Access Technology Blog and Technology Tips, all of which you can find at <www.nfb.org>.

Selected Technology Resources

Below is a list of companies that manufacture many of the products described in this article. Check to learn if there is a distributor in your area who may be available to demonstrate the product and to help with setup and initial training.

20 Main St., Suite G2, Acton, MA 01720
(978) 635-0202
[email protected]

American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
1839 Frankfort Avenue, P.O.  Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085
(502) 895-2405 or (800) 223-1839

American Thermoform Corporation
1758 Brackett St., La Verne, CA 91750
(909) 593-6711 or (800) 331-3676
[email protected]

Computer Application Specialties Company
P.O. Box 22219, Lincoln, NE 68542-2219
(402) 423-4782
[email protected]

Duxbury Systems, Inc.
270 Littleton Rd., #6, Westford, MA 01886-3523
(978) 692-3000
[email protected]

Enabling Technologies Company
1601 NE Braille Place, Jensen Beach, FL 34957
(772) 225-3687 or (800) 777-3687
[email protected]

Freedom Scientific, Blind/Low Vision Group
11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805
(727) 803-8000 or (800) 444-4443
Tech support: (727) 803-8600

GW Micro, Inc.
725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, IN 46825
(260) 489-3671
[email protected]

HIMS, Inc.
4616 W. Howard Lane, Suite 960, Austin, TX 78728
(888) 520-4467
[email protected]
[email protected]

HumanWare USA Inc.
1 UPS Way, P.O. Box 800, Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 722-3393
[email protected]

Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc.
24 Prime Parkway, Natick, MA 01760
(800) 547-6747
[email protected]

(back) (contents) (next)