US Computer Alternatives Designed to Help the Blind

BEWARE of computer myths, warns Kenneth Jernigan, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), based in Baltimore. ``The computer field has done more good and spawned more myths than perhaps anything else in the world. Someone always comes out and says, `This is going to revolutionize life for blind people.' But that's just not true.'' What is true is that computer aids make some tasks easier for the blind, he says. For example:

Desktop computers and hand-held translators that speak previously recorded words and numbers.

``Embossing'' machines that print in Braille.

``Refreshable Braille'' screens that have a strip where Braille characters can be read with fingers.

A talking calculator with algebraic and geometric functions (soon to be distributed).

In the United States, the most popular of these is Braille 'n Speak, a hand-held computer that can take notes in Braille and speak them back, and print them in ink or emboss them in Braille. The device fits in a pocket, weighs less than a pound, and does everything the larger Australian Eureka A4 does for less than half the price at $1,000, according to Dean Blazie, one of its inventors. And the Braille 'n Speak is easier to understand, says co-inventor Tim Cranmer of Frankfort, Ky., who is head of research and development at the NFB. ``The Eureka speaks with a terrible Australian accent.''

More than 2,000 Braille 'n Speak computers have been sold since Oct. 1987 when they were introduced, says Mr. Blazie. ``That's a large number for this market.'' Both Braille 'n Speak and Eureka A4 are IBM compatible. Another portable device for the blind is the Braille Blazer, which prints Braille and orally explains mechanical information such as margin widths and skipped lines. This is also the invention of Blazie and Mr. Cranmer. The Blazer weighs only 12 pounds - one-third that of most Braille printers, and costs one-tenth less, at $1,700.

For scientists, a talking calculator will be introduced this July at the NFB's 50th anniversary celebration in Dallas. This pocket-calculator computes sine, cosine, and algebraic functions.

These products are helpful, but there are obstacles to more widespread use, says James Gashel, director of governmental affairs at the NFB. The problem: One must use Braille with these machines. Only 10 percent of the blind in the US use Braille.

Betsy Zaborowski, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had partial vision as a child and wasn't taught Braille in school. She needs it now, and says learning is greatly helped by the Braille 'n Speak.

``It's the best tool I've found so far for learning Braille and using Braille,'' says Dr. Zaborowski. ``The Braille 'n Speak gives you immediate feedback if you're right or not when you type in a letter.''

But technology is no replacement for the traditional Braille methods, warns Mr. Gashel. At a recent NFB convention, he was asked to take notes that could be read immediately. He reached for his Braille 'n Speak and started typing, only to realize that without his embossing printer, he couldn't reproduce them for others. ``I'm now technology-handicapped!'' laments Gashel.

Fortunately someone in the room had the traditional slate and stylus used to punch each Braille character by hand. The meeting was called back to order.

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