Bristol Braille Technology

Experiences with Braille

append delete BBT

We're very interested in hearing peoples' experiences with Braille; how and why they first learnt it, what they find it useful for, what --- if anything --- frustrates them about the usage and availability of Braille today.

Its our hope that these experiences can be used to feed into the Quixote's development and its long-term role in the world.

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append delete #1. Blaine

Hello all, I'm fully sighted so I don't use or even know Braille, however I'm a volunteer promoter and installer for Vinux, which is the Ubuntu build of Linux which has been optimized for the vision impaired group. By optimized I mean that the developers have taken Ubuntu, versions as recent as 11.04, removed any programs that are not keyboard navigational and screen reader friendly and replaced them with programs that are compatible. They've also optimized the Live mode and the physical installation of Linux to make both the screen reader and drivers for most common Braille displays active as early in the installation process as is possible.

So far, of the equipment I've installed and set up for others no one has tried a Braille display. Only one lady has returned her computer in favor of her old laptop with JAWs. It was a bit much for her, switching back and forth from what she was very used to and comfortable with to something new with just enough differences to be confusing. However, of the others I've installed, the users didn't have another computer and after learning the slight navigational differences between Microsoft and Linux, fell right into it as long as they'd had previous computer experience. For those who didn't have a computer before, they've now got internet browsing, emailing, instant messaging, an office suite and more.

A friend who is blind from birth and is an Assistive Technologies Trainer helps them get started. She uses Microsoft on several of her computers of course, and has Vinux set up on a couple others. She became interested because Vinux is free and accessible. All of the Linux screen readers, including Orca are free. The programs are free, and it's an entire operating system that a blind person can install by themselves once their computer's BIOS is configured to start from either the CD or the USB drive. There is no other operating system that can make that claim. There's a human voice generator for the screen readers that changes the machine voice that isn't free, but at less than $7 per language, Voxin won't break the bank!

A friend was performing a Microsoft system restore on a laptop when the power went off. Her battery didn't last. Her system was totally corrupted and wouldn't even boot. She had one important file and email address that she hadn't saved or backed up. Just to find out if I could do it, I put a CD with Vinux in, booted it up in the Live mode, so as not to further alter the hard drive, browsed her files and retrieved her information to a pen drive! So, with Vinux you also have an accessible file retrieval tool. I've approached the developers with the idea of making a fully accessible retrieval and rescue version of Vinux and they're interested, but don't have the time or resources to take on a new project. At any rate, a vision impaired user can use Vinux to retrieve files from a corrupt or failed computer hard drive, and with a Braille display a deaf-blind user should be able to do the same. If anyone tries this, please let the Vinux project developers know how it went. Wouldn't it be great not to have to pack up your computer and get it to a repair shop when things mess up?

You can find out more about Vinux at the Linux distribution watch site;
http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=vinux

Thank you.

append delete #2. TAS

I had a very unhappy childhood and books became my way of escaping. “Kidnapped”,Dr Who, Thor and Superman. The Iliad and stories of the Vikings. Fantasy and science fiction. I learnt of Ancient Egypt and the Prehistory of Avery and Stonehenge. I read and read and the pages would open up new worlds to me and stretch my imagination to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and beyond. I traveled in time and space. When I became blind and also hearing impaired I decided to teach myself Braille. It took me nearly a year to struggle through the alphabet. But I did it. My fingers slowly began to take the place of my eyes.

My very first Braille book was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. It was a child’s novella really and I was in my 30’s then. But that did not matter. It took me an three hours to struggle through just one page and 2 month to finish the single Braille volume. And I was so proud and happy. I now had a way of continuing to read even if I became totally blind and totally deaf.

Now I can sit back and my fingers skim the dots with ease so that I am barely aware of individual letters any more. As I feel rapidly along the lines the words form in my mind without any effort. The world of books lies open to me. They offer me a place where I can learn and grow. Where I can relax or thrill to an epic space battle or where magic explodes out off the pages. Reading Braille is a freedom which breaks through the barriers created by my disability that I have had since birth. Braille is freedom.

My only complaint is the severe limitations of Braille books that are available. only 7% of printed books are available in Braille, large print or audio titles. Of those less than roughly 2% of all printed books are available in Braille alone.

It is a tiny proportion of books in print. Imagine going into any bookshop on the High Street and there are shelves and shelves of printed books on display and you are told. Sorry, no you cannot have this one, or that one.. no nor that one either. This little one here on the very back shelf is the only one available in Braille. Well actually not even the whole book. Here are just a few pages. And by the way you will have to pay far more than the cost of the full printed paperback for it!. There is a good chance that it is not even on a subject you are interested in. Anyone would find that frustrating to say the least.

I believe all visually impaired and dual sensory impaired people should be able to read any book they want in the same way someone sighted can. On the same day, for the same price as anyone else and in the comfort of my own home with a nice cup of coffee on the table next to them…. The same as anyone else.

What is needed is a readily available means of converting printed material into Braille in your own home. There are literally thousands of printed books over a wide range of subjects available for free online for example. From the Guttenburg Library to name just one source. But these are in print.

What is needed is a Braille display that works with any computer that will convert the print on the screen to tactile Braille dots. Not the current Refreshable Braille readers that can easily cost over £6000 to which is added another £1000 or more for the special software to run it. Most visually impaired/ dual sensory people can never afford anything like that. We are desperate for a means of accessing Braille at home that is affordable to everyone regardless of their income. We need refreshable Braille displays which are in the process of being developed in Bristol for about £200 only and which will work with free reading software.

Braille frees the mind and the spirit and if printed material of all kinds was more readily open to us there would be a huge upsurge of interest in learning Braille. There are so few Braille readers simply because even though RNIB does it best there is such a major shortage of Braille titles available and most of them are now old. Braille can be far more than just something to use for the quick shopping list. It has the potential to open up the world and to let the imagination roam where it will. To boldly go where no blind readers have gone before. To have freedom of choice the same as any sighted reader. I want to be able to read in Braille what I want when I want and where I want. That is my dream.

append delete #3. Ann P.

I've been using Braille for most of my life. I was born blind. I learned Braille in First Grade. Today, I use Braille for record keeping, calendar, notes on students, any time I have a detailed set of instructions to follow, any time I want to read math or French or anything technical. I may spend hours reading audio books, but when push comes to shove, I want info under my fingers.

I had the opportunity this year to teach four people who have recently lost their sight to read Braille! It is fascinating and humbling. As they have progressed through the text book we're using, they go from sounding out letters one at a time, to reading entire words. It is truly an amazing thing to watch these individuals who thought they'd never read again, reading, truly reading, not listening, not hearing a synthetic voice or a human voice interpreting information, but actually doing the interpretation themselves. As I say, it is truly humbling to be an instrument of such power. These students are amazing! If there could be a Braille display which would serve their needs, it would be a miracle.

append delete #4. Keith

I, too, was born blind and began to learn braille in kindergarten. I used Braille pretty much exclusively for my education until the end of high school. Once I reached the university level here in the U.S., I found that very few books were available in Braille and that I had to modify my learning style so that I could learn by studying audio books.

Fortunately, I was able to make this modification successfully and now work in higher education as well as serving as a pastor of a small congregation. However, as a previous poster has said, when push comes to shove, I want Braille under my fingers. It is still my preferred medium for learning, though I also learn quite well from speech in its various forms.

I use a refreshable Braille display with my computer on a daily basis on my job. In addition, I use a Braille display with my iPhone for all of my notes for sermons and for other public speaking engagements.

Finally, we have a service here in the U.S. known as bookshare.org. Once a book has been scanned and donated to this service (and there are more than 100,000 books in its library), I can download it and be reading it in minutes on my Braille display. Not only has this given me many hours of great reading, but I also read aloud to my wife when we travel.

My biggest frustration is the cost of Braille displays. The only reason I have mine to use is because of my job at the university. Were I to leave this job, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get one of my own. As someone who trains others in the use of assistive technology, I can attest to the fact that many of the people I work with would love to have access to a Braille display, but cannot due to their cost.

append delete #5. BBT

Posted on behalf of e-mail correspondent Harry:

"
How did I learn braille? I learned it using a peg board and thumb tacks, at 6 years old.

Why did I learn it? I learned it, because my teacher wanted me to learn how to read and write braille, because at that time, it was important for blind children to learn to read and write in braille.

What do I use it for? You name it, notes, reading my braille Bible, recipes, and my braille checkbook ledger.

Harry
"

append delete #6. Ed Rogers

Thanks to those who've responded so far.

Blaine;

Your experiences raise an important point, which is that, as software is vital to the success of any hardware, so low cost Braille displays must be accompanied by affordable screen reading solutions.

TAS;

My only complaint is the severe limitations of Braille books that are available. only 7% of printed books are available in Braille, large print or audio titles. Of those less than roughly 2% of all printed books are available in Braille alone.

... And as a consequence less people use Braille, therefore the print runs for titles get smaller and more expensive. Ebooks, coupled with affordable speach and Braille EBook readers, have the potential to break us out of this cycle.

Braille can be far more than just something to use for the quick shopping list. It has the potential to open up the world and to let the imagination roam where it will. To boldly go where no blind readers have gone before. To have freedom of choice the same as any sighted reader. I want to be able to read in Braille what I want when I want and where I want. That is my dream.

I've never heard it put more eloquently!

Ann P.;

Today, I use Braille for record keeping, calendar, notes on students, any time I have a detailed set of instructions to follow, any time I want to read math or French or anything technical. I may spend hours reading audio books, but when push comes to shove, I want info under my fingers.

Though the focus for the Quixote mk.1 will be on EBooks (as mentioned above), you are right to point out that Braille is often regarded as a superior format for technical work. Usually this requires eight dots per cell, which is a future target for us.

Keith;

... we have a service here in the U.S. known as bookshare.org ...

I wasn't aware of this until you pointed it out, thank you. I wonder if Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org) would be similarly useful?

Harry;

Why did I learn it? ... Because at that time, it was important for blind children to learn to read and write in braille.

You allude to the possibility that it is no longer considered important for children. Is this an attitude that others can testify to? We would be particularly interested to know which countries hold which attitudes.

append delete #7. rrjoshi
append delete #8. Chris Norman

I learned braille at school because it was assumed that I would be working in that medium most often.

I stopped using braille once I'd left school, except on the thankfully rare occasions that I had to install Fedora, which at the time could be done very easily with braille. I can honestly say I only started using it again thanks to windows 7, and one of its delightful bug's, which means my audio services don't get loaded sometimes when I start windows. Before I found a mercifully quick way to restore these settings, I used my braille display to run through the trouble shooter.

I now volunteer at a place where I answer phones, and I use my laptop muted, with braille, to take notes on calls. Interestingly, at the same time, I started coding, initially a game, and now a website. I find using braille for both these tasks pretty invaluable.

My main problem with the displays on the market now is their price. They are horribly expensive, and I certainly couldn't afford to replace mine if it broke tomorrow.

With regards to fixing computers, both me and my girlfriend use Mac computers, which boast amazing accessibility. I could do all the stuff the man with Vinux talked about with my Mac, using VoiceOver, and braille, so I do not agree that no other operating system is capable of that level off accessibility, because OS X has Vinux beat for accessibility, and it has the advantage of not relying on 2 year old software. This is by no means a slight against Vinux, which I like a lot, and I have nothing but respect for the folks who got it working so well. My only gripe is that it's another specialist solution, like a BrailleNote, or any other product which is built specifically for the blind, where other options are available. This is chiefly why I gravitated towards apple. I can use the same tools and software as others, just with an accessibility layer on top.

Seeing an ebook reader, like the one proposed would be amazing, even for someone like me who doesn't really like braille all that much. I would love to reread books like lord of the rings, but getting the physical books is really out of the question. If it were to work something like the Linux command less, I would be a very happy man.

Also, you can't go wrong with a device that has Linux driving it, especially if you make all your drivers etc available to the community, to avoid my problem with Vinux. I personally wouldn't want my ebook reader running 5 year old software.

If I could then use that, with some kind of qwerty input, then such a device would help me greatly when answering the phones at my volunteering, even if the braille was laggy.

I hope all this makes sense, I'm writing it all on an iPad, so the work flow is quite linear.

I look forward to seeing what's on the horizon on the braille scene, and here's to a lasting partnership between braille and the raspberry Pi!

Take care all, and have fun.

append delete #9. ma

I am sighted, but my partner is not. Because we live in different places, I learned Braille so that we could send letters to each other. Many of the comments I've seen here echo conversations we've had about Braille. I know he would find something like this invaluable, for reading books himself rather than relying on a voice of some description, and for getting a better understanding of written spelling and grammar. Personally, I would like one too! Having learned basic Braille myself, I would like to practise more often, and be able to read in the dark when camping without disturbing anyone with a torch!

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