7:01pm

Fri January 3, 2014
Technology

For The Blind, Connected Devices Create A Novel Way To Read

Originally published on Fri January 3, 2014 7:43 pm

Saturday is World Braille Day, commemorating the birth of Frenchman Louis Braille, who was blinded in an accident when he was a toddler. Undeterred, he became a brilliant student but was frustrated that he couldn't read or write.

In school, he learned about a system of dots used by soldiers to communicate at night. Braille adapted that system into something that would transform the lives of the blind and visually impaired.

Almost 200 years later, Braille hasn't changed so much. But with the advent of computer screens, tablets, smartphones and e-readers, the way we read things has. Judy Dixon, with the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, speaks with NPR's Audie Cornish about the ways technology has changed Braille reading over the past few decades.


Interview Highlights

On learning Braille

I started reading Braille when I was in the first grade at the school for the blind in Florida. When I first started reading Braille, all we had was Braille on paper. ... I read the typical schoolbooks that other kids in the class were reading. ...

On "refreshable Braille displays"

The Braille technology really started taking off in the early '80s with the development of devices that we call refreshable Braille displays, and they're small boxes [of] different sizes. ...

This device that's in front of me I have connected to an iPhone, and I have the app BARD Mobile, which is an app that was developed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to read our Braille and audio books.

And these devices have Braille cells. ... Braille is made of six dots; each dot of the Braille cell raises and lowers, so that if I wanted to read the letter A, which is Dot 1, the upper left of the Braille cell ... the pin for that dot would raise, and all the other pins would not raise. ...

I feel now that I can read almost anything that's published, in one way or another, between my iPhone, my Kindle. The other kinds of Braille displays also can be connected to computers, so any book or document that can be read on a computer can be read with a Braille display.

On the accessibility of Braille devices

The major drawback of refreshable Braille devices is that they are expensive. These devices are in the thousands [of dollars]. So a smaller version like this 14-cell unit that I have here would be about $1,500. Larger units, a 40-cell, would be in the neighborhood of [$3,000] to $4,000, and the prices go up. So these prices are somewhat prohibitive for many people.

If a way of making Braille cells can be found that uses a mainstream technology that was in many, many devices and was pennies per unit, then Braille devices could be made for perhaps a few hundred dollars, and could be affordable by all Braille readers.

On whether she thinks Braille could endure for another 200 years

It's hard to imagine what will come along that could replace Braille for us. Audio is a linear experience — the words come, they go. But with Braille, I can see the word, I can see how it's spelled, I can see how the punctuation is. I don't have to wonder if a word has one T or two T's. It just is something I observe when I read a Braille word under my fingers. ...

I personally am kind of a visual learner — I don't take things in well [with] audio. If I see it in Braille, I remember it, because it goes into my visual memory.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Tomorrow is World Braille Day, a day to commemorate the birth of the Frenchman Louis Braille. Braille was just a toddler when he was blinded in an accident. Undeterred, he went on to become a brilliant student. But he was frustrated that he could not read or write. In school, he learned about a system of dots used by soldiers to communicate at night. Braille adapted that system into something that would transform the lives of the blind and visually impaired.

Almost 200 years later, Braille has not changed so much, but how we read things has. Now that much reading takes place on screens and not on paper, how has that affected Braille's popularity among the blind? Well, here to explain is Judy Dixon. She's with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. Welcome to the studio.

JUDY DIXON: Thank you.

CORNISH: So first, to explain, you've been a Braille reader since childhood, right?

DIXON: Yes. I started reading Braille when I was in the first grade at the school for the blind in Florida. When I first started reading Braille, all we had was Braille on paper. And, of course, we read Dick and Jane and Sally. I guess I'm showing my age here.

(LAUGHTER)

DIXON: And I don't think people read those books anymore. But I read the typical schoolbooks that other kids in the class were reading. And I just read on paper.

CORNISH: Now, as an adult, you were one of the first people to really get involved in kind of high-tech Braille, right, and Web Braille. And can you talk a little bit about where the technology is today? Because, obviously, smartphones, for instance, have become an incredibly valuable tool.

DIXON: The Braille technology really started taking off in the early '80s with the development of devices that we call refreshable Braille displays. And they're small boxes - different sizes, of course. I have a couple of them here. This device that's in front of me I have connected to an iPhone. And I have the app BARD Mobile, which is an app that was developed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to read our Braille and audio books.

And these devices have Braille cells, so the pins of a Braille cell - Braille is made of six dots. Each dot of the Braille cell raises and lowers so that if I wanted to read the letter A, which is dot one, the upper left of the Braille cell which - the Braille cell is three dots high and two dots wide. The pin for that dot would raise and all the other pins would not raise. And I have the book "The Joy of Cooking" loaded here.

And I was just looking at the introduction to "The Joy of Cooking," which is saying things like all new illustrations, rich new soups, more cooking with fire, including grilling, hot and cold, smoking and hearth cooking. New meals, turns. New grains chapter. Cook for a day, eat for a week. So it's - I'm reading the introduction to "The Joy of Cooking."

CORNISH: And as your fingers are running over and I can see those little pins kind of bobbing and disappearing.

DIXON: Yes.

CORNISH: Now, how do you feel today when you think of just how much wider the access is with Braille?

DIXON: I feel now that I can read almost anything that's published, in one way or another, between my iPhone, my Kindle. The other kinds of Braille displays also can be connected to computers. So any book or document that can be read on a computer can be read with a Braille display and Braille.

CORNISH: Tell us about the price of this, because I understand that Braille readers are pretty expensive.

DIXON: That is certainly still the major drawback of refreshable Braille devices is that they are expensive. These devices are in the thousands. So a smaller version like this 14-cell unit that I have here would be about $1,500, larger units of 40-cell would be in the neighborhood of 3 to $4,000 and the prices go up. So these prices are somewhat prohibitive for many people.

If a way of making Braille cells can be found that uses a mainstream technology that was in many, many devices and was pennies per unit, then Braille devices could be made for perhaps a few hundred dollars and could be affordable by all Braille readers.

CORNISH: Now, how important do you think Braille is going forward? Do you see this enduring another 200 years?

DIXON: I think about that, and perhaps yes, perhaps no. It's hard to imagine what will come along that could replace Braille for us. Audio is a linear experience. The words come, they go. But with Braille, I can see the word, I can see how it's spelled, I can see how the punctuation is. I don't have to wonder if a word has one T or two T's.

It just is something I observe when I read a Braille word under my fingers. And it's a very different experience. I personally am kind of a visual learner. I don't take things in well audio. If I see it in Braille, I remember it, because it goes into my visual memory.

CORNISH: Judy Dixon is with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. Thank you for coming in.

DIXON: Thank you.

CORNISH: We were talking on the eve of World Braille Day. Louis Braille would've been 205 years old tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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