Braille Monitor                                     March 2017

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The Future of Braille is Refreshing!

by Amy Mason

Amy MasonFrom the Editor: This piece first appeared in the NFB Access Technology blog on January 3, 2017. Amy is an access technology specialist at the Jernigan Institute. Although her education did not start with a strong foundation in Braille, she was perceptive enough to identify the need and disciplined enough to learn the skill. Her observations about Braille are particularly timely given our emphasis on getting more refreshable Braille to blind patrons of the National Library Service and our wish to enable blind people to buy more technology themselves with the assistance of a federal tax credit. Here is what Amy has to say:

Every year on January 4 we celebrate Louis Braille’s birthday because of his invention of the Braille code—the most powerful and successful reading and writing system designed for the blind. It has given us freedom that only a scant 200 years ago we couldn’t have imagined. It allows us to study the sacred and mull the mundane. From Christmas cards to Coraline, The Great Gatsby to grocery lists, the Bible to the beer menu, and everything in between, Braille has changed the fortunes of the blind by opening the written word to us.

In the same way that Braille has transformed the lives of the blind, the refreshable Braille display has transformed the way that many of us use Braille. Braille displays make Braille portable so we can read anytime and anywhere. Automatic translation means any text can be Braille in a few moments, so even text messages and face-to-face communications for the deaf-blind can be Brailled instantly.

I learned Braille just about the time Braille displays were beginning to become more commonplace, and I am deeply thankful that I did because I don’t know that I would have met with as much success as I have if I hadn’t had access to refreshable Braille.

I began learning the code in the latter half of my high school career, and through the support of some amazing role models from the NFB of Nebraska who inspired me to practice (a lot), I learned to read about forty words per minute before starting college. Unfortunately my nomadic university experience did not provide me with much space or time to spend with Braille books, and my speed and comprehension suffered.

Fortunately two opportunities were presented to me before I returned to college for my junior year. First, I was able to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind, and second, I was able to get my hands on a Braille notetaker with a display.

I credit these two opportunities with my literacy today. If I had not had the time to keep Braille under my fingers for an extended period of time, I could have never improved, and the notetaker was a huge part of that for me. Because of the Braille display, I was able to practice whenever I found a free moment—on the bus, between appointments, and in bed—I was reading. I could quickly and easily get my hands on all sorts of documents, long and short. In a word, it was magical.

Because of all of this practice, my speed increased to just above one hundred words per minute. I can’t imagine going back to working without a Braille display. I wouldn’t be nearly as efficient or as good at my job, and I know many others who would agree.

Refreshable Braille is sadly still very expensive, though prices have improved some over the last ten years. The cost of forty-cell displays now average about $3,000, but advances in technology mean a better price is on the near horizon. I cannot express how exciting this is.

A few years ago the National Federation of the Blind and several other blindness organizations decided it was time to make a significant change to the cost and availability of Braille and did so by creating the Transforming Braille Project. They donated money, time, and testers to the process of finding a cheaper way to produce refreshable Braille, and the first fruits of this partnership are coming to market shortly.

The Orbit Reader is a twenty-cell display which employs a new method of raising and lowering the dots. The new cells use less electricity, increasing the display’s battery life, and they are less expensive to create than traditional refreshable Braille cells. The new cells also refresh one at a time and remain very firm when dots are raised. The Orbit Reader will work with all major screen readers (mobile and desktop) that support Braille today, and its cost will be just under $500 for twenty cells of Braille. The NFB will be selling the Orbit Reader! Details are coming soon.

The Orbit Reader won’t meet everyone’s needs, but in a very real way it is opening the door to more affordable refreshable Braille. Given my own transformative experience with Braille displays, I am a firm believer in what these devices can do for others. I can’t wait to see them in the hands of Braille readers who were unable to afford them previously.

Whether the Orbit Reader is the device you’ve been looking for or another display would better suit your needs, the access technology team would love to help you learn what is possible when it comes to refreshable Braille. The International Braille and Technology Center houses a wide variety of devices including simple Braille terminals, smart Braille displays, and full-fledged notetakers, so if you have been wanting to learn more about a specific device or just about what refreshable Braille can do for you, please feel free to reach out to us at access@nfb.org, or the Access Technology Answer Line (410) 659-9314 option 5.

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