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Technology for your blind child. What will you need?
by Richard Holloway
To move this section forward, I'm going to write based in part on my own technology experiences with my daughter and add to this over time. As of this writing, my daughter Kendra is 6 years old, so our most thorough technology experience for the blind will be from that perspective. Note that I'm including high and low-tech ideas here. (Sometimes there are advantages to each!)
The White Cane
No piece of equipment is more vital to the success of most blind children and adults than a white cane. Look around this site and ask the parents of successful blind and visually impaired children you may know about canes. (Check with blind adults as well.) Canes help to compensate for the loss of vision, it is that simple. We started our child with a cane at 18 months and we probably should have started a bit earlier than that. That's her (above) at about three years old. There are also so-called pre-cane devices. They may be appropriate for some situations but I have strong reservations about them as they tend to delay progress in many applications.
Please don't feel you've done something terrible if you haven't gotten your child cane yet– you make the best decisions you can as you go, but the sooner the better in most cases. If someone is telling you not to get a cane for your child, find out what their objection is and then decide for yourself. This isn't a decision for your child's school or even their O&M teacher. This is a parental decision.
For my child, if I were told she should not have a cane, I'd quickly ask who decides if a wheelchair is right for a child at the same school, etc. If I have the last word on medical decisions (like opting for or against major surgery) for my own child then surely I have some right to input where mobility decisions like using a cane are concerned!
There's a good bit more information on the site about canes for children (and remember that the GOPBC will help you get a cane if your child needs one!) so make an informed choice about canes for your child– don't let others choose for your child!
It would seem to go almost without saying, but I'll say it anyhow– braille is critical for the success of most blind or visually impaired children. At the age of 6, my daughter is already in her fourth year of braille instruction at school and keeping pace with sighted peers very well (ahead of many print readers). If at all possible, you don't want to have to play "catch-up" with braille so start as early as possible! There are many more things for a braille reader to learn as opposed to typical print readers, especially once contracted braille comes into play (also known as Grade 2 braille). This is an area that goes beyond the scope of this article, but much like the cane decisions mentioned above, the parent needs to be involved in the decision process. Also, be aware that many children who have some ability to read print with lots of effort can benefit from learning braille as well as conventional print reading.
If there is one piece of technology which has most effected our lives so for– as a family, it would probably be the light box. For the first year-and-a-half of Kendra's life, we were in a continual "sleep disaster" with our child. Kendra has no light perception and ended up on a schedule where her day tended to last about 25 hours. (Sun light helps most of us regulate our schedules.) That meant that every day she'd shift her schedule about an hour so that every three weeks or so, she'd have had one less day in her schedule than we would and of course in the middle of one of these cycles, her night and that of her parents would be totally opposed; quite a mess!
I could tell a lot more about Kendra's sleep situation but from a technology standpoint, we went to a sleep disorder clinic for children at Scottish Rite hospital and after a tracking period to see when Kendra was or was not sleeping, they then suggested a light box. To be candid, I thought this was among the stupidest things I had ever heard for a totally blind child but I said nothing, assuming it could do no harm... 30 minutes each morning in front of a light box and we'd see what happened. The result? The first day, her schedule dramatically improved and it stayed better from then on. Four years later we're still using it and her schedule remains "typical"– no sleep issues whatsoever. (I wish I could say the same for our sighted two-year-old!)
As it turns out, light boxes are common for something called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in places like Alaska where some people are without daylight too long. These boxes are used to trick the body into thinking it is getting more daylight. Apparently the "trick" from the light works on the pineal gland and not directly through the eyes...
Find more information on sleep disorders here: http://www.choa.org/default.aspx?id=6484
For light box sources, Google "Light Box" and "SAD" or try: http://www.alaskanorthernlights.com/
Slate & Stylus
More "low-tech" technology but is should not be overlooked. A slow system to emboss braille but it can work anywhere at any time and it can fit on your pocket. The key downside (apart from speed) is that you have to braille "backwards" with these (you press dots up from the back of the page) and some find this rather confusing.
They look old fashioned and clunky, but they work very well and no matter how much people come to rely on modern electronic substitutions these are great to fall back on. Much like the Slate & Stylus they work manually but are far faster than the slow approach of the slate & stylus and they also work with some sorts of media (for applications like braille labeling for example) where other devices may not work as well.
Mount Batten Brailler
Think of this as a hybrid between a mechanical brailler and a braille note taker (or perhaps a PAC Mate, more on that below). Nice but rather expensive, with models ranging from roughly $2300 to $3300 (exact figure depends on present Australian conversion rate). You may find it better to spend this sort of money on a potentially longer lasting solution but I read good things about them.
More information here: http://www.mountbattenbrailler.com/index.html
Raised Glue Lines and similar techniques
As simple as it may sound, this can be useful technique– trace things on paper with Elmer's glue (or the brand of your choice) and let them dry. The result is tactile and quite useful at times and it is extremely inexpensive. Add glitter, sand or other textured materials to glue for other applications. Glue together different textures of paper or fabric. There are many variations on the theme. Even crayon lines can be often be felt in contrast to smooth paper. It is hard to argue with decent results for under $1.00!
Wikki Stix, Pipe Cleaners
Wikki Stix may or may not be in your box of regular craft supplies but they're pretty easy to find and can be bent into lots of interesting shapes. They feel like wax covered string. Pipe cleaners are also useful and hold their shape even better are but somewhat harder to attach to paper for projects. A couple dozen Wikki Stix come in a small pack for $2 or $3 or they're cheaper in bulk.
We're getting a bit more high tech now – For our family, until we find one used and really cheap our exposure will be mainly through books which sometimes include thermoform graphics (left photo). They're really long lasting but generally cost prohibitive to make on your own. These machines (above right) start around $2500 new and go up from there. The work by melting plastic sheets enough to make them bend when a vacuum is drawn over a particular shape. http://www.americanthermoform.com/ezform.htm
Swell Form Graphics
Special paper uses encapsulated material that expands the paper when passed through a heating device but only under areas with carbon-based pigment. This means that a copier or laser printer will work, as will some ink jet inks and some pens. You may find one used at a good price but they cost around $1200 new. Paper for these units is about $1 per sheet (sold in $100 packs).
More on machines like these here: http://www.americanthermoform.com/swell.htm
I'll lump everything into this group from tracing wheels (see photo above, a few dollars from a local fabric store) to patterns from braillers (or even a slate & stylus) clear up to high-end computer graphics sent to a computer brailler, typically called an embosser. Other variations can even include sheet metal with patterns raised by hammers and nails or any number of more sophisticated metal embossing techniques. Be creative! (Just watch out for sharp edges with sheet metal!)
Adapted Computers (PC's with JAWS)
The key adaptation for many PC users is a package called JAWS by Freedom Scientific. It lets a blind person hear virtually everything on a computer screen. Current versions even support most things in web browsers and this is not just about document content. Menus are supported as well. It is thorough and very useful but not inexpensive. Expect to spend more on JAWS than the computer itself, starting off close to $1000 a copy... Oh, one important caution, at the time of this writing, only 32 bit operating systems are supported. Do NOT buy a 64 bit OS for use with JAWS until Freedom Scientific releases an appropriate upgrade!
More on JAWS here: http://www.freedomscientific.com/jaws-hq.asp
Adapted Computers (Macs)
I'm what many would call a computer enthusiast, but more than that I'm a die hard Macintosh user. I've been buying them since the 1980's. I even worked for a Mac dealer in the '90's and I think they're great– superior in many applications to PC's. I'm not trying to get in an argument with PC folks, in fact I'm married to one. The reason I'm mentioning this is that as much as I think Macs are great, there is no JAWS (or similar) solution for Macintosh. There is speech software built-in on current Macs and yes, it can help but it is not up to the capacity of JAWS by any means. Since you can turn this on (and off) for free on current Macs, if you have a Mac, give it a shot, but don't expect this to be a long term screen reader to replace other products.
PAC Mates & similar "PDA's"
A number of PDA-style solutions exist which have been designed for the blind. The PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific is a popular choice and is based on the Windows Mobile platform, Some off-the-shelf software can be used in some cases but some does not adapt so well. Attachments exist to solve many needs including a bar code scanner that checks a database to tell you what's in a can on the shelf of a store for example. GPS applications also exist to give audible turn-by-turn directions for the blind via an appropriate input interface. PAC Mates range from $2400 to $6800 not including the optional service agreements. Notice above that these come with either perkins style (left) or "QWERTY" (right) keyboards. Choose wisely because you have to replace the $2400 base unit to change keyboards (or scrounge up a used one).
More info: http://sales.freedomscientific.com/category.aspx?categoryid=24
Available to attach to PAC Mates and similar devices as well as to attach to computers. Some can also work in both capacities (detach from a PAC Mate and plug into your computer via USB). They're quite expensive (starting around $1400) so it makes sense to get "double duty" from one of possible. These units basically display braille with dots that can refresh on demand to you have effectively an endless display of braille on one small set of cells. Service agreements are available and I recommend them as repairs are costly.
Apart from the PAC Mate above, there are other units that are GPS only such as the Trekker Breeze from Humanware.
Learn more here: http://www.humanware.com/en-usa/products/gps/trekker_breeze/_details/id_101/trekker_breeze.html
Dymo Tape Labelers
Using solid colored or clear tape, just like traditional Dymo labels, these are simply braille versions. Do think before you apply solid labels in case sighted people would need to read what's under the label. (I know of someone who labeled their microwave such that the numbers are now covered with solid colored braille tape!) This is an inexpensive ($20 range) solution to get brailler labels in a lot of places.
Generally called embossers, these are expensive but extremely useful. They start at a couple thousand dollars and go up. A popular lower end unit is a Romeo from Enabling Technologies (above, left), starting around $2500. A double-sided Juliet (above, right) would start around $4000. Some solutions offer conventional print (by inkjet) mixed with braille, (line by line) but these start around $7,000 and go up. Sometimes you can find a good used embosser for a few hundred dollars and it may work for years as you find it, but be aware that repairs are expensive so plan up front for possible repairs with used gear. Also, older units may not have USB connections while newer computers may not have serial or parallel connections. In other words, various problems may arise with used solutions and support may be hard to find as well. Read more on the Romeo here: http://www.brailler.com/romeo.htm
Professional Braille Embossing?
If you're thinking that the above must be really high-end printers for giant batches of braille, unfortunately that is not the case. $2000 or so gets you high-quality braille at a speed of about 25 characters per second, single sided only. As you move up to $5000 and $10,000 units the speed goes up to 100 or more cps capping out around 300. Beyond that, braille can be printed in sheets, like a printing press prints conventional print but the plated are raised and they emboss a whole page in a single strike.
There seem to be two key reasons why you cannot buy a really inexpensive braille printer– (1) Production volume of braille embossers is far lower than conventional printers, and (2) Braille embossing by the nature of the process would quickly destroy a cheap printer as there is physical contact for every character printed. Also, be aware that all braille embossers make a good deal of noise as the solenoid (braille print head) makes contact while "printing". Optional devices are sold for hundreds or even $1000+ to reduce the noise level of some embossers– this may give you a better actual idea of the noise produced.
Duxbury Translation Software (and similar products)
I mentioned "contracted" braille earlier– some still call it "Grade 2". Braille is so large that steps are often taken to make it as compact as possible. This also makes it a bit quicker to type with a perkins-style keyboard (the kind of keyboard found on a perkins brailler) as fewer separate actions are required to input the braille. The problem that comes up rather quickly with computer output is that most programs don't know how to translate typical text to contracted braille. That's where Duxbury comes in, but like so many solutions for the blind, it is a pit pricey. Figure $600 for basic Duxbury and toss in a few hundred dollars extra if you want to add graphics capacity.
Learn more here: http://www.duxburysystems.com/default.asp
Plain old cassette players can still access kids' cassettes and those can still be found but books on tape sometimes require a special player from the Library of Congress. They have a different format from traditional cassettes. 4 Tracks and a selector determines which one you're monitoring. Also some are recorded at half of traditional speed. Further, a speed adjustment lets the listener adjust speed to preference– These are tabletop designs but the good news is they can be supplied for free as can the books on tape. Contact the Georgia Library for Accessible Services for more information. Note that a changeover is intended / in progress to alternative digital formats. Do avoid buying these units on places like ebay as they are government property, not for sale, and besides you can have one for your child to use for free! http://www.georgialibraries.org/glass/
Books on Tape & CD
Often targeted for a sighted market-- these can clearly be of use to the blind as well. Conventional recordings well work on most any player including the Library of Congress units– they play regular tapes just fine. Specialized recordings for the blind are also available but often require special equipment, see tape players (above).
Novelties for the Sighted Market
Various devices often marketed to the general population offer interesting opportunities for the blind and visually impaired. Radio Shack has offered talking watches (shown above), clocks and even picture frames for a long time. Some cell phones "speak" numbers and can even report caller ID information through a synthetic voice. If you can find something made for the general population that solves a need for a blind person, the cost is often a fraction of the specialized, "made for the blind" item it may replace.
Your basic Office Depot special may work-- lots of fun for kids if the controls are sufficiently accessible.
iPods are great but unfortunately the controls are not very blind-friendly. They may not be as bad as the incredibly useless iPhone (I find them useless for the blind– touch screens are terrible for tactile use), but reality is that most MP3 players's controls require a lot of hit and miss or else help from a parent, sighted peer, etc. If you really want access to PM3's for your child, look at something lie a VictorReader. (See below.)
Also from Humanware, this is sort of a combination of several useful devices including a DAISY talking reader and an MP3 player, all with audible control feedback and tactile controls. A very popular and useful product, starting from about $300, but that does not include blank media so factor in from $10 for a 1GB SD card to perhaps $70 or so for a 16GB unit.
Learn more here: http://www.humanware.com/en-usa/products/dtb_players/compact_models/_details/id_81/victorreader_stream.html
A cell phone that snaps a photo of most anything and reads the contents aloud. Very cool and you can use it as a cell phone too! (Cell service costs extra unfortunately.)
Learn more: http://www.knfbreader.com/
Scanner / OCR / Reader
Various scanner / ORC / Reader combinations allow a page to be scanned and read aloud buy an automated system. Some solutions are more like a freestanding computer scanner and others interface with a computer as part of a larger system.
Remote Controls, Calculators
Recently at the drug store (a CVS near Atlanta) I saw a huge calculator and a giant remote control with excellent potential for low vision, and possibly no vision applications. They appeared to be targeted for senior citizens based on the surrounding items in the display. I have seen these exact same items (or their virtual twins) on specialized web sited for several times the drug store price. While clearly intended for low vision based on the size, some buttons have unique shapes and also, given their size some buttons could probably be labeled with dymo or similar braille labels.
It may sound expensive but these are quite affordable and widely available. Wal-Mart currently has a talking model for under $100 on-line. Just Google "Talking Microwave" and see what comes up.
Other Low Vision Solutions
Many of the items above apply to blind and low vision individuals while others not listed are mainly useful only for low vision applications. Examples would include items like various types of CCTV's and magnifiers, some quite "high-tech". (Some offer contrast and color variations as well as magnification.) My child has no vision at all so I have much less information on such solutions. Other are welcome to offer some input to post (in all areas, but especially about low vision solutions). I'll post more when I have a chance to do some more research but until then, for more information, go to Google and search under "low vision".
List of Sources for Low Vision aids:
I recently ran across a very large list of suppliers of low vision aids. In a quick count I noted over 200 links and each of these appears to be a supplier of low vision needs. I haven't looked through them all but it looks like a good source of information. Here is a link to the list on the Macular Degeneration web site "MD Support". The list clearly represents a lot of work. I hope they will not mind my linking to the list rom here: http://www.mdsupport.org/resources/lowvisaids.html
Recreation and Technology
This will probably become a section by itself but for now a brief mention of recreation & technology. A combination of technology and ingenuity seem to offer an ever increasing list of sports and recreation options to blind children and adults who were at one time expected to sit and do virtually nothing related to sports. I should mention that some of these ideas are really not new at all. For example one sport (Goal Ball) which is designed only for blind participants (and so all participants wear eye shades or goggles to block any residual vision) was developed over 60 years ago.
Other areas of this site address a variety of tandem biking options and some simple adaptations have been used to allow our daughter (and other GOPBC children) to participate in dance classes (also shown on this site).
Our blind daughter has become a very good swimmer in the last year or so. We continue to find areas of interest that at first seem inaccessible, only to discover that in fact not only is our blind child more than capable of the activity but others are also willing to adapt the teaching of the sport or activity to her.
A few other areas of blind recreation (with more to come later) include:
Goal Ball, developed in 1946
Paralympic Association Football
Paralympic Association Football is governed by the IBSA
International Blind Sports Federation
The following is from a Wikipedia entry on the IBSA:
The International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 in Paris. Its mission is to promote the full integration of blind and partially-sighted people in society through sport and to encourage people with a visual impairment to take up and practice sports. It is an independent international federation in charge of fifteen sports for the blind and partially sighted, including: Athletics, Alpine Skiing, Goalball, Futsal (five-a-side football), Judo, Biathlon, Swimming, Powerlifting, Shooting, Archery, Showdown, Ten-pin Bowling, Nine-pin Bowling, Nordic Skiing, and Cycling.
IBSA is a full member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
To visit the IBSA Web Site go to: http://www.ibsa.es/eng/
I'm putting this at the bottom of the page only because I'm going to break this out into yet another page as soon as I have the time. Music can be recreational or vocational obviously and there is a vast amount of information available about music for the blind– the blindness component generally being the braille music reading aspect. Braille music reading also effects how things can be played while music is being learned in many cases. While a blind singer may be able to read music and sing at the same time, a piano player who uses both hands on the keyboard will need to use an alternative approach, reading and then playing in turn.
More Tech Info:
Additional information on the NFB site from 2006 may also prove useful:
This page remains a work in progress.
To submit additional suggestions for this page, please send them to the GOPBC webmaster, Richard Holloway: firstname.lastname@example.org