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PORTSIDE  February 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE February 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Braille Comes Unbound From the Book: How Technology Can Stop a Literary Crisis

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Date:

Tue, 14 Feb 2012 19:31:01 -0500

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Braille comes unbound from the book: how technology can stop
a literary crisis

Apple is at the vanguard of a push behind technology that's
helping old-fashioned Braille replace text-to-speech audio
for the blind - and it couldn't have come at a more critical
time

By Saabira Chaudhuri
guardian.co.uk
14 February 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/14/technology-brings-braille-back-apple

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Chancey Fleet reads the menu of
Bombay Garden to four friends gathered at the back of the
Chelsea-based Indian restaurant in New York City.

Although she is reading aloud, there are no menus on the
table. They aren't necessary, because Fleet is blind.

Instead, she reads using a Braille display that sits
unobtrusively on her lap and connects to her iPhone via
Bluetooth, electronically converting the onscreen text into
different combinations of pins. She reads by gently but
firmly running her fingers over the pins with her left hand
while navigating the phone with her right.

"The iPhone is the official phone of blindness," she told the
Guardian.

Until recently, technology, especially that which converts
text to audio, has been hastening the demise of Braille,
which educators say is a bad thing. Students who can read
Braille tend on average to acquire higher literacy rates and
fare better professionally later on. But Apple's push into
the field - coupled with increasingly affordable Braille
displays - has the potential to bring Braille back in a big
way.

Fleet's iPhone has a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver
that works with all native applications. It tells Fleet what
her finger is touching, allowing her to download the
restaurant menu and read it, access her email, and do
anything else she needs to with the phone, either by
converting text into Braille on the separate display or by
reading out loud to her. (Here's a video of the process at
work.)

Fleet also uses her display to type, rather than navigate
with her iPhone or computer keyboard. It has a spacebar and
with eight thumb-sized keys - one that works as a backspace
key, another as an enter key, and the remainder that function
as the six dot positions that comprise a Braille character.

When Apple released the first accessible iPhone in 2009, "it
took the blind community by storm," said Fleet. "We didn't
know, nobody knew, that Apple was planning an accessible
device. The device went from being an infuriating brick to a
fluid, usable, opportunity-levelling device in one
iteration."

Apple has shown that "devices aren't inaccessible because
they have to be, but because companies made them with a lack
of imagination," said Fleet. "Apple proved that a blind
person could use an interface that didn't have physical
buttons."

Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National
Federation of the Blind, agrees.

"Apple has set the bar very high," she said. "No other mobile
OS provider, such as Google or Microsoft, has made Braille
available on their mobile platform."

Apple's iPad, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and third generation iPod
Touch already support more than 30 Bluetooth wireless Braille
displays. And the company's recent push into digital
textbooks could greatly reduce the time it takes for Braille
textbooks to be available to students, not to mention reduce
their cost and size: a single print textbook must be
transformed into several volumes of Braille.

"Ebooks can be a game changer if they're properly designed
because it would allow us to get access to the same books at
the same time at the same price as everyone else," said
Christopher Danielsen, spokesman for the NFB. "Publishers and
manufacturers have to ensure they are designed to be
accessible to work with braille displays. That's what Apple
has done. Apple is not perfect but they're way, way ahead of
everybody else in this area."

The benefits of Braille Apple's accessibility efforts come at
a pivotal time. For decades now, the number of Braille users
has been on the decline. Data from the American Printing
House for the Blind's annual registry of legally blind
students shows that in 1963, 51% of legally blind children in
public and residential schools used Braille as their primary
reading medium. In 2007 this number fell to just 10%, while
in 2011 it stood at under 9%.

While there are many reasons for the decline of Braille,
technology that converts text to speech has been identified
as a major factor. In a nationwide sample of 1,663 teachers
of visually impaired and blind students conducted in the
early 1990s, 40% chose reliance on technology as a reason
behind Braille's decline.

"When we experienced the tech boom in the nineties, I was led
to believe speech was the way forward, that Braille was
becoming obsolete," said William O'Donnell, a Manhattan-based
student who has been blind since birth.

But learning or reading using Braille - rather than audio -
has distinct advantages, say educators.

"There's this tremendous importance to seeing the way print
looks on a page, what punctuation does and looks like in a
sentence," said Catherine Mendez, who works as a kindergarten
teacher at Public School 69 in the Bronx. "Braille in the
context of early literacy is huge. If we can get these
devices into the hands of kids early we can bolster their
understanding in a way speech can't do."

There are professional benefits to learning Braille too. A
survey conducted by Louisiana Tech University's Professional
Development and Research Institute on Blindness found that
people with sight disabilities who learn to read through
Braille have a much higher chance of finding a job, even more
than those who read large print.

And once you get that job Braille might help you keep it. "In
business meetings it's more unobtrusive to use Braille. If I
want to multitask, headphones are rude, but Braille is
acceptable," said Fleet. She uses Braille when writing formal
letters or papers, or preparing notes for a public speech or
presentation.

A 'literacy crisis' Still, for now Braille displays can only
show one line of Braille at a time and can cost between
$3,000 and $15,000 - depending on the number of characters
they display at a time - which is prohibitively expensive for
some. "For me it was not practical to continue to use
Braille," said Mendez, who does not own a Braille display.

How the cost will come down is a problem that scientists are
working to solve. Dr Peichun Yung, a postdoctoral research
associate at the electrical and computer engineering
department of North Carolina State University, who lost his
own eyesight in an accident, has been working on a device
that would raise dots that by using a hydraulic and latching
mechanism made of an electroactive polymer, which is both
cheaper and more resilient than the prevailing technology.

"There is a Braille literacy crisis right now," said Yung.
"Literacy is the foundation for having a job and living an
independent life. For reading every day, you cannot just rely
on speech." Nihal Erkan. For those who own both an iPhone or
laptop and a Braille display, having to choose between audio
and Braille isn't necessary. Nowadays, the two go hand in
hand - literally. Many of the technologies that convert text
to speech also convert it into a form that can be read on a
refreshable Braille display, making Braille far more
accessible for those who own both devices.

"Braille has a versatility and a fluidity that it has never
had before," said Fleet. While she recalls owning a pocket
dictionary in seventh grade that took up "eight huge
volumes," now "Braille has come unbound from the book".

"Braille is portable, searchable, downloadable. You can
convert print to Braille yourself," she said. "You can go to
a library or use Bookshare, which is free for students, and
if you harness it, Braille is better than it's

___________________________________________

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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