Smart Developments in Braille Technology

For quite a while, assistive technology devices produced for students with visual impairments and blindness have tended to be dedicated devices.  That is, they have been designed to meet a narrow, disability-specific need.  Though they have highly beneficial and functional features, they either lack the capabilities of modern smart devices or are unable to update to have such features.  This situation can frustrate users who are used to the amenities and features of smartphones.

For example, braille notetakers have long been considered among the most functional solutions for individuals who read and write braille; such devices boast desirable functions like printing, email, internet browsing, direct audio material downloads, and even social media.  However, some of the most recognizable braille notetakers run highly customized versions of Windows CE, with little ability to connect and engage with current technology like cloud computing (oh, how Google Classroom is everywhere I go as an itinerant TVI traveling across Tennessee), much less integrate with common productivity apps.  By the way, are you asking yourself what Windows CE is right now, or Googling it on your smart device? Exactly. 

When teaching students to access digital information using braille, solutions to consider include refreshable braille displays and what I am going to refer to as “smarter” braille notetakers. 

Refreshable braille displays are pure access devices.  That is, they themselves have no “brains,” instead providing braille input and output access to “smart” devices like laptops, cell phones, and mobile devices like iPads.  Why, then, are these “dumb” devices worthy of mention? Because they are essentially future-proof, working as advertised as long as they are paired with a device with a sufficiently up to date screen reading program installed (i.e. VoiceOver, JAWS, Talkback).  Plus, braille displays paired with other devices arguably provide more functionality and value than an all-in-one braille notetaker.  Refreshable braille displays cost from $450 and up to $3000.  An iPad?  They can do, and pardon my simple language, so much!  And as a personal anecdote, nearly every school I have consulted with has had an iPad readily available for my students to use.  If a braille display costs $2000, then all-in cost of a braille-accessible, common iPad apps and connectivity experience would be $2000.  Yes, that is a lot of money!  However when compared to a brand-new braille notetaker, which easily costs $5000 and does not have nearly the “smart” experience of an iPad, I don’t find the comparison close.  Are there limitations to the braille displays solution? Yes.  The glaring one that I have personally run across is Nemeth code accessibility.  iPads can present properly coded fonts in Nemeth code, but I am not familiar with a way to readily produce notes and work in Nemeth code on iPads, Android devices, or computers.  So, if you have a braille display and a laptop or iPad but are in math class, you’re out of luck. Back to the Perkins and manual work entry for ya.  (If you know of a solution for this, though, please contact me!)

Now, this is right around the time that the braille notetaker folks might be raising their hands for a turn to get a word in.  Don’t worry, I’ll do my best to give an overview on what’s new from their end. 

The highly encouraging (though rather late, if you ask me) new developments in high-tech braille devices involve manufacturers making the switch from antiquated operating systems to current, well-supported, and yes, "smarter," operating systems like Google Android and Microsoft Windows (I am leaving iOS out because there are no Apple all-in-one braille notetakers).  Notably, Humanware has developed the Braillenote Touch notetaker, based on the popular Android mobile operating system.  Furthermore, HIMS has its new BrailleSense Polaris, also an Android-based notetaker, and Freedom Scientific is producing the ElBraille 14, a Windows 10-based braille notetaker.  In an age when everything in education and life is apps and the internet of things, these devices are smart developments that finally provide braille access to the common apps, connectivity, and productivity that are taken for granted by the general population.  These devices are smart developments.  Any major downsides, though?  I see cost as one.  The Braillenote Touch 32 retails for $5495, and the BrailleSense Polaris retails for $5795.  I can foresee school districts and individuals balking at such a high cost for single devices.

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