Email list hosting service & mailing list manager

[BCAB] Apple is at the vanguard of a push behind technology helping old-fashioned Braille replace text-to-speech audio for the blind Colin Howard 31 Dec 2012 08:30 GMT

Apple is at the vanguard of a push behind technology helping old-fashioned
Braille replace text-to-speech audio for the blind

Apple is at the vanguard of a push behind technology that's helping
old-fashioned Braille replace text-to-speech audio for the blind - and it
couldn't have come at a more critical time

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Chancey Fleet reads the menu of Bombay Garden to
four friends gathered at the back of the Chelsea-based Indian restaurant in

New York City.

Although she is reading aloud, there are no menus on the table. They aren't
necessary, because Fleet is blind.

Instead, she reads using a Braille display that sits unobtrusively on her
lap and connects to her iPhone via Bluetooth, electronically converting the

text into different combinations of pins. She reads by gently but firmly
running her fingers over the pins with her left hand while navigating the

with her right.

"The iPhone is the official phone of blindness," she told the Guardian.

Until recently, technology, especially that which converts text to audio,
has been hastening the demise of Braille, which educators say is a bad

Students who can read Braille tend on average to acquire higher literacy
rates and fare better professionally later on. But Apple's push into the

- coupled with increasingly affordable Braille displays - has the potential
to bring Braille back in a big way.

Fleet's iPhone has a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver that works with
all native applications. It tells Fleet what her finger is touching,

her to download the restaurant menu and read it, access her email, and do
anything else she needs to with the phone, either by converting text into

on the separate display or by reading out loud to her. (Here's a video of
the process at work.)

Fleet also uses her display to type, rather than navigate with her iPhone or
computer keyboard. It has a spacebar and with eight thumb-sized keys - one

that works as a backspace key, another as an enter key, and the remainder
that function as the six dot positions that comprise a Braille character.

When Apple released the first accessible iPhone in 2009, "it took the blind
community by storm," said Fleet. "We didn't know, nobody knew, that Apple

planning an accessible device. The device went from being an infuriating
brick to a fluid, usable, opportunity-levelling device in one iteration."

Apple has shown that "devices aren't inaccessible because they have to be,
but because companies made them with a lack of imagination," said Fleet.

proved that a blind person could use an interface that didn't have physical

Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of
the Blind, agrees.

"Apple has set the bar very high," she said. "No other mobile OS provider,
such as Google or Microsoft, has made Braille available on their mobile

Apple's iPad, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and third generation iPod Touch already
support more than 30 Bluetooth wireless Braille displays. And the company's

recent push into digital textbooks could greatly reduce the time it takes
for Braille textbooks to be available to students, not to mention reduce

cost and size: a single print textbook must be transformed into several
volumes of Braille.

"Ebooks can be a game changer if they're properly designed because it would
allow us to get access to the same books at the same time at the same price

as everyone else," said Christopher Danielsen, spokesman for the NFB.
"Publishers and manufacturers have to ensure they are designed to be
accessible to

work with braille displays. That's what Apple has done. Apple is not perfect
but they're way, way ahead of everybody else in this area."

The benefits of Braille

Apple's accessibility efforts come at a pivotal time. For decades now, the
number of Braille users has been on the decline. Data from the American

House for the Blind's annual registry of legally blind students shows that
in 1963, 51% of legally blind children in public and residential schools

Braille as their primary reading medium. In 2007 this number fell to just
10%, while in 2011 it stood at under 9%.

While there are many reasons for the decline of Braille, technology that
converts text to speech has been identified as a major factor. In a

sample of 1,663 teachers of visually impaired and blind students conducted
in the early 1990s, 40% chose reliance on technology as a reason behind


"When we experienced the tech boom in the nineties, I was led to believe
speech was the way forward, that Braille was becoming obsolete," said

O'Donnell, a Manhattan-based student who has been blind since birth.

But learning or reading using Braille - rather than audio - has distinct
advantages, say educators.

"There's this tremendous importance to seeing the way print looks on a page,
what punctuation does and looks like in a sentence," said Catherine Mendez,

who works as a kindergarten teacher at Public School 69 in the Bronx.
"Braille in the context of early literacy is huge. If we can get these
devices into

the hands of kids early we can bolster their understanding in a way speech
can't do."

There are professional benefits to learning Braille too. A survey conducted
by Louisiana Tech University's Professional Development and Research

on Blindness found that people with sight disabilities who learn to read
through Braille have a much higher chance of finding a job, even more than

who read large print.

And once you get that job Braille might help you keep it. "In business
meetings it's more unobtrusive to use Braille. If I want to multitask,

are rude, but Braille is acceptable," said Fleet. She uses Braille when
writing formal letters or papers, or preparing notes for a public speech or

A 'literacy crisis'

Still, for now Braille displays can only show one line of Braille at a time
and can cost between $3,000 and $15,000 - depending on the number of

they display at a time - which is prohibitively expensive for some. "For me
it was not practical to continue to use Braille," said Mendez, who does not

own a Braille display.

How the cost will come down is a problem that scientists are working to
solve. Dr Peichun Yung, a postdoctoral research associate at the electrical

computer engineering department of North Carolina State University, who lost
his own eyesight in an accident, has been working on a device that would

dots that by using a hydraulic and latching mechanism made of an
electroactive polymer, which is both cheaper and more resilient than the
prevailing technology.

"There is a Braille literacy crisis right now," said Yung. "Literacy is the
foundation for having a job and living an independent life. For reading

day, you cannot just rely on speech."

My desires for you and yours at this time of the year
will be found in my signature.

Colin Howard, living near Southampton in Southern
England, hopes all have enjoyed a blessed  Christmas
day and will have a peaceful, prosperous and happy
2013, remember the Babe of Bethlehem is not the end of
this story, for when he grew up, he died on a cross
shedding his blood, so we could be absolved from sin
and so have the relationship with our creator, he
always intended for us.