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Seeing Braille into 21st century

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Updated: October 2, 2012 6:04AM

A Lake Zurich company has played a key role in redesigning a 1950s-era Braille writer into a ‘talking’ LCD-screen device intended to make it easier for people to learn Braille.

The new Perkins Smart Brailler, with a “brain” developed by Product Development Technologies, addresses a controversy arising in the blind and visually impaired community: Will the blind and visually impaired become illiterate if they depend on technology such as the Apple iPad to do daily tasks, skipping the often-tedious task of learning Braille?

It’s a growing concern as Baby Boomers confront vision loss in middle age, and as a new generation relies increasingly on smartphone and tablet technology — much like students failing to learn to spell or write in cursive letters because they ‘text’ to communicate. The issue has economic repercussions, too: While seven of every 10 blind people are unemployed nationwide, only two of every 10 who know Braille are out of work, studies show.

Chicago-area experts say people need to be able to write to be literate, and the Smart Brailler could give them extra incentive to learn Braille because it operates much like today’s tablets, though it weighs in at 8.6 pounds and costs $1,995.

The new Brailler will be given for free to about 60,000 blind schoolchildren nationwide through a federal program that funds the purchases.

Its new smartphone-like screen displays letters alongside their “dot” patterns, allows lesson downloads, ‘speaks’ back audibly and immediately to tell the learner whether he spelled a word correctly, and prints out the student’s writing with embossed dots so he can read it.

Even better is the motivation a student receives when the machine “claps” at the end of a full sentence done correctly, said Mary McCarthy, a 38-year veteran Braille reading teacher at Perkins School for the Blind, the Watertown, Mass., school where Helen(CQ) Keller learned Braille.

“It helps the students to keep practicing, and they need the repetition to get the dot letters and dot names right and to learn to finger the correct keys,” McCarthy said.

The machine’s six keys have electronic sensors that instantly interpret a key stroke as a Braille symbol.

“Braille is an unknown to sighted people — no one knows about it and it’s scary at first,” said John Freese, program manager at Product Development Technologies, a 17-year-old company started by former Motorola and Zenith technology experts. “It’s a real challenge for parents with blind children or for older people losing their sight. If that’s you, you likely haven’t learned a new language in 50 years.”

As the Perkins school product division aims to get the word out about the Smart Brailler, other Chicago and federal efforts are underway to train people with vision problems about the vast and vastly less expensive ways they can use technology.

The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind offers free demonstrations and fee-based training for individuals and groups on iPad and iPhone apps and other equipment that make daily living easier, ranging from a $1.99 downloadable “money reader” that identifies cash denominations to a $29 EyeSight app that uses an iPhone camera to blow up print size.

The training costs $40 an hour for individuals and $25 for groups at the Lighthouse’s locations at 1850 W. Roosevelt Road and at the Vision Rehabilitation Center at 222 Waukegan Road in suburban Glenview.

Tom Perski, senior vice president of rehabilitation services for the Chicago Lighthouse, said the iPad’s compatibility with refreshable Braille displays gives people the kind of access to online tools that frees them up like never before.

“One of our interns who is blind uses a free app to audibly identify any item of food in the kitchen,” Perski said. The intern takes a photo on his iPhone of a cereal box or a bottle of iced tea, for example, and when he scans the item, the phone will say ‘honey-crusted shredded wheat’ or ‘bottle of Diet Lipton iced tea.’

People may also download books on an iPad and read them in Braille because the dots pop up on the display screen so the reader can feel the Braille symbols. They may download magnifying readers, cash and color identifiers, GPS locators and other things they carry around inside the single device. Before the iPhone and iPad, they’d have to buy individual devices for hundreds of dollars apiece and figure out which ones they could carry at a time.

The Lighthouse also works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to set up personalized iPads for veterans. The veterans specify their preferences for pre-loaded software, apps and features.

The federal government just launched its own campaign at and at to let low-income people with hearing and vision loss know about free technology and training programs.

Said Perkins President Steven Rothstein, “With the right technology, people with disabilities can link to information and ideas, be productive and move ahead.”

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