Paperless braille, magnetic tape, and display readers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Everyone knows the story of how anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller how to understand the meaning of words. It was by pumping cold water on her hand from the family well and then tapping out the spelling of the word water on her palm to communicate what it was she felt. The world of language and eventually reading was opened up to Helen by her teacher and this literate method of touch.

Joan and Leonard Rose of Falmouth, Mass. want to do the same thing for sightless people in a modern way. And they believe their invention, the Rose Braille Display Reader, a paperless braille word processor that employs magnetic-tape cassettes, will be as effective as the water and well Anne Sullivan used.

In an age of increased awareness of the special requirements of handicapped persons, their Braille reader meets as well as anticipates the following needs for print material by persons not now able to see:

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* The large amount of space needed to store Braille material.

* The lack of portability of texts due to sheer weight.

* The high cost of Braille.

* A chance for the sightless to participate fully in the electronic revolution brought about by word processors, home computers, and microcomputers.

Leonard Scadden of the US Department of Education, Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, calls it "the first device to come up with a full page of paperless Braille display. Braille is a very important medium of information for the blind and the Rose Reader meets this need."

Allen Dittmann, research coordinator for the US Department of Education and project manager of the federal grant the Roses' received in developing their Braille reader, says, "Sighted people don't realize the terrible inconvenience of Braille. A blind person needs a wheelbarrow to carry a complete book."

* If the Gideons International were to place Braille editions of the King James Version in motel rooms, each Bible would require 15 volumes for the Old Testament and 5 volumes for the New Testament, 20 in all (a Braille volume is 12 inches by 12 inches by 2 inches thick).

* A Webster's standard desk dictionary is 72 volumes in Braille and a 20 -volume (inkprint) edition of the World Book Encyclopedia translates into 168 volumes in Braille and takes up over 74 feet of shelf space.

At present, $2.5 million a year is spent just paying for the postal costs of Braille texts, Dr. Dittman says. Braille texts are mailed free to libraries and schools, but the taxpayer ultimately picks up the tab. Having the information stored on cassettes would produce significant annual savings, he says.

The Roses' envision a triad of terminals avialable to a sightless student -- in the home, at school, and in the local public library. (The number of terminals in the latter two locations to be determined by user demand.)

"One of the applications we are most excited about is in the field of education," says Joan Rose. "Instead of staggering back and forth to school with the paper Braille texts needed for homework and review, the student can tuck the necessary tapes into his or her pocket. Until this moment, doing an average homework assignment has created an intolerable daily transportation burden for the blind student."

The size and layout of the braille cells and the size of the individual dots in the Roses' reader are exactly the same as those found on the conventional Braille book page, (42 characters across and 25 lines down). The difference is that one tape holds the equivalent of 500 pages of paper Braille.

A microprocessor functions as the heart of the Braille reader, transferring recorded electronic impulses from a standard size magnetic-tape cassette into intelligible Braille configurations on a mechanical grid of dots. The dots rise up through the display surface and change with each new Braille page. This was one of the most difficult details in making the Braille display reader, as a possible 6,000 dots per display page are involved.

Depressing a lever on the side of the machine triggers a manual page turner that advances the reading material on the casette to the next Braille page. A numerical "touch tone" keyboard is used to move the tape forward or backward quickly to give any desired inkprint-converted-to-Braille page when a change of more than a few pages is desired.

The keyboard feature is of particular significance to a sightless student participating in a regular classroom. It eliminates the considerable chore of leafing through the conventional Braille text when a teacher tells the entire class to turn to a specific page.

When a teacher gives instructions for everyone to turn to Page 254, for example, three taps on the keyboard give the blind student the same material as the rest of the class without shifting through pages and volumes of Braille text.

Joan Rose points out that "at present, Braille texts, if they even exist for the corresponding classroom text, do not correspond by volume, let alone by page."

Leonard Rose predicts "a great sense of independence will result, and from it blind students will have equal reading capability with sighted students in the classroom. Their handicap is no longer a handicap."

The reading device was developed under a $255,000 assistance contract from the US Office of Education, Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, and Mr. Rose estimates it should sell for $6,000 per unit once a full production run is started. Obtaining adequate financing has proved to be the most difficult challenge, and money now is the only obstacle in the way of widespread distribution of their invention.

The Roses hope also to devleop a portable notetaking machine for the sightless no larger than a hand-held taperecorder. It would have seven keys on it (six for the Braille alphabet plus a space bar) and would transcribe Braille letters directly to a casette tape that could then be read on the Braille-display reader. A blind student could record information the same as any student now does with a notebook.

Besides its critical role in education, paperless Braille will also "expand job opportunities by increasing the kinds of working and professional reference materials that are available in Braille, so that blind persons can qualify for occupations that have literary bases," Mr. Rose states.

He feels certain whole new business opportunities will spring up for the blind as a result of the invention as soon it is more available and its applications are put to fullest use.

For example, a large number of blind persons are practicing lawyers. Rather than needing oral readers to provide them with access to the technical and legal materials germane to the law profession, with the word-processing abilities and storage advantages of the Braille processor, whole law libraries are potentially available to the sightless at economic prices and in a physically manageable format.

Dr. Dittman does caution that it will "not be next month" that the blind will be using these terminals in any significant numbers. But the technology is available, he asserts. "It is an organizational problem now before this option for giving the blind access to the printed word opens up."

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