Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Braille and Technology

by Jennifer Dunnam

Jennifer Dunnam at the 2012 Braille SymposiumFrom the Editor: Jennifer Dunnam is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, a member of the Braille Authority of North America representing the National Federation of the Blind, and a person who clearly spends a lot of time thinking about the role of information and how important Braille is in acquiring it. Here is what she said to the Braille Symposium:

The following has fascinated me ever since I heard it delivered as part of a speech back in 1990. The speech may be familiar to some of you, and it starts like this: "If the engineers of 1800 had possessed complete drawings for a transistor radio (one that could be bought today for $10), they couldn't have built it, not even if they had had billions or trillions of dollars. They lacked the infrastructure--the tools, the tools to build the tools, and the tools to build those; the plastics, the machines to make the plastics, and the machines to make the machines; the skilled workforce, the teachers to train the workforce, and the teachers to train the teachers; the transportation network to assemble the materials, the vehicles to use the network, and the sources of supply. All of this is generally recognized, but it is far less well understood that what is true of material objects is also true of ideas and attitudes. In the absence of a supporting social infrastructure of knowledge and beliefs, a new idea simply cannot exist."

The speech, delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Federation of the Blind, goes on to discuss ideas and the progress in opportunities and attitudes that has been made for blind people through our self-organizing and application of our collective experience. "The Federation at Fifty" is worth reading for anyone.

Although it is intriguing to contemplate the evolving infrastructure in the realm of ideas, at the time I first heard the speech I found it equally fascinating to give thought to where we have come from in material objects. Of course the infrastructure has further evolved since he gave that speech a short twenty-two years ago; we now have objects and infrastructure that we might never have imagined then. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act had not yet become law. The Internet was available to only a few people and bore little resemblance to the rich venue that we use now. The music we bought was all on vinyl records or cassettes or compact discs. Most people did not have mobile phones, and the phones that did exist were meant for making and receiving telephone calls. Life was different in countless ways.

To think about these technological changes in conjunction with Braille brings a sense of wonder. Not only have the changes of the last twenty years made a difference in the ways we can use Braille, but they have the potential to change for the better the way that we think about Braille and its role in bringing about the integration of blind people in society. The frequently used phrase "technology cannot replace Braille," while certainly well-intentioned, sets up a false distinction, equating "technology" with "audio." Braille can and should be as integral to and indivisible from technology as is the screen. Sighted children become fluent readers by being immersed in print all around them. It is on everything in our world. It is becoming possible to have a similar immersion experience in Braille, and it will get even more possible still--not just for the learner, but for any Braille reader.

Sometimes I wish I could show my younger self how things are now—the many things I used to wish for but could not imagine coming true ...

Upon getting up in the morning, many may read the daily newspaper with their morning coffee (whether on paper or online). I can now do this in Braille as well, using a refreshable Braille display with NFB-NEWSLINE® or other online newspapers. This means literally hundreds of newspapers or other periodicals at our fingertips, available to Braille readers at the same time as to print readers. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was fortunate in that most of my school books were transcribed into Braille. However, if the class was assigned to read an article from the newspaper about a current event, I needed to have someone read it to me. While this was certainly doable, it meant that I did not do much reading of the daily papers outside of class assignments except when someone felt like reading aloud what they happened to be reading. Some of the happiest moments of my life came when I received magazines in Braille--it didn't matter that they were two-month-old issues. Likewise I received Braille library books in the mail, but it was usually months or years between the publication of a print book and the release of the Braille version. What a difference now to be able to download a book the day it is released to the public and read it in Braille--even to purchase that book at the same price as the print reader pays.

I keep my calendar in Braille on an iPhone, connected to a refreshable Braille display, which also syncs with my computer. Certainly Braille calendars are not a new idea, but never has there been such flexibility. Now others can propose meetings on my calendar, whether they know Braille or not, and I can view the calendars of others. I can get a quick overview of the appointments for the week or month using the grid layout of the calendar on the touch-screen.

I can easily access any number of city bus schedules in Braille using the smart phone as well. I can also communicate using Braille with any number of friends and colleagues on email, social media, and text messaging. When I was a child and teenager, hardly any of my friends knew Braille unless I taught it to them, so my written communications with friends were rare.

In my work I use Braille all day long, not only to write notes for myself, but in a variety of interactive ways—emailing, taking down info from calls, writing documents, proofreading documents, looking things up in online references, and using a variety of websites. If I collaborate with colleagues on something, we use the exact same file, not a separate copy for me. I can read and type in it in Braille while they read and type in print.

As a child I wrote all of my homework and took all of my tests in Braille, which was vital to my development of literacy. However, in order for others to read it, someone else had to write out a print version of my work, or, as I got older, I did so myself on a typewriter. Computers with speech access came into widespread use long before refreshable Braille was widely available; Thus during that time it became easier simply to skip the step of Brailling the work and instead type it directly using the computer. It is fortunate for my literacy that such an option was not available to me as a student in school.

In college I studied several languages and did not have access to books in Braille. The literature classes proved to be the most challenging. On occasion the books were available in audio format. Often the readers read at a normal speaking pace, but my knowledge of the language was not always up to the task of understanding at that speed. If the book was not available on cassette, I needed to find a reader who could read so I could understand. I depended heavily on class discussions and was able to do well in the classes but certainly would have benefitted from Braille books. Also a portable dictionary is an invaluable tool when working to learn a language. Now downloads and scanning/OCR technology make these books and dictionaries far easier to get.

If during work I should happen to go to lunch with colleagues, the restaurant menu may be available in Braille on paper, but more often it can be viewed online in refreshable Braille, again through a mobile device. Back at work I can access meeting agendas and reports, take notes, and run slide presentations using refreshable Braille. If another speaker uses a slide presentation, there is even software that lets me view the information in Braille as the slides change.

Refreshable Braille can facilitate participation in all kinds of other activities. For example, during choir practice I can easily find the correct page in the music and make notes directly in the music as the director points out things for us to remember. If a new piece is passed out during a rehearsal which was not available to be Brailled in advance, I can quickly type the words while the group is singing through it for the first time so that I can still participate in further rehearsal of the piece. Certainly I did all these things using a slate and stylus on paper before refreshable Braille, but the technology makes for a quick and smooth experience.

Embossed Braille cookbooks have been available for many decades. However, an infinite number of recipes are now easy to find online. To avoid damage to the technology while cooking, the Braille-using cook can place the refreshable Braille display in a plastic bag and feel the dots easily through the plastic.

For those who may want to spend a bit of time on the couch in front of the TV or listening to music after a long day, a bluetooth Braille display can be used much like a remote control if connected to an iOS device plugged into a larger entertainment system. One can scroll through options of movies, music, or television shows, reading the names and information in Braille, and control the playback. Online shopping can be accomplished all in Braille as well.

Certainly there is still much to do to ensure that Braille readers can operate on an equal footing with print readers. Today's Braille displays, although becoming more economical over the past few years, are still beyond the price range that many can afford. Many websites, documents, programs, and other print material are designed in a way that makes them unusable by people who read using assistive technology. Sometimes issues of incompatibility arise between mainstream technology and screen readers. Still Braille is more widely available than ever before in history, and the direction of the future holds much promise because of the focus, passion, and know-how of people who recognize that Braille is as essential as literacy. The technological realities of today seem amazing when viewed from the perspective of decades past. They will likely seem primitive a few years from now.

During a recent airline flight a fellow passenger who saw me reading asked me about the purpose and use of my Braille display. A few minutes after we finished the conversation and settled back into our individual activities, she suddenly asked: "May I read along with you?" For a moment I was puzzled, since she had made it clear that she knew nothing about Braille. Then, realizing what she meant, I gladly agreed that she could read along; my iPhone, on which I had downloaded the book, was on the tray next to my Braille display. She could see the very same book in print on the screen. What a pleasant sign of the possibilities for integration with society. If we keep our focus on thinking about and pushing for this type of integration, things will only get better.

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