Assistive Technology Devices for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Even if some people are blind or visually impaired, the development of assistive technology has brought many possibilities for them in the areas of education and employment. With the use of the latest computer technology and other devices, the blind and visually impaired can do more daily tasks alone now especially in reading and learning stuffs.
Braille is a reading system for the blind developed by the French Louis Braille. It uses a code of small, raised dots on paper which the blind can read by running their fingertips over the dots. The system uses the 63 possible combination of six dots in a 'cell' (three dots high and 2 dots wide) to form the alphabet, punctuation marks and numbers.
Braille books are available in many libraries (like the Library of Congress) and schools for the blind. The production of Braille books used to use metal plates. Characters are stamped on both sides of the paper where the dots on one side does not interfere with those on the other side. But now, computers tremendously help in the publishing of Braille books. The text is typed into the computer and, with the help of a software program, it is translated automatically into Braille. Then the computer transfers the output onto printed paper or metal plates.
Assistive Technology for Braille Readers
Blind individuals can now read Braille not only on books but also on specialized equipment: Braille Displays are devices that allow the blind to read what is appearing on a portion of the computer screen by converting it to Braille which the user can read by touching. It is a gadget that is put on the user's desk, below the computer keyboard, and can display up to 80 characters which change continuously as the user moves around the computer screen. It usually costs around $3,500-$15,000.
With the help of a Braille translation software (costs $200-$500), any computer file or text typed into the computer can be converted to a Braille document. Then a Braille printer can be used to make a hardcopy of the text in Braille. It is similar to the everyday ink printers but this embosses Braille on both sides of a heavy weight paper using embossing pins. Depending on the printing volume, it can cost around $1,800-$5,000 (small volume production) to $10,000-$80,000 (big volume production).
Some blind people may prefer to listen to talking books or recordings of publications on casette tapes. Some of these talking books are available in libraries and schools and many are produced by the Recording for the Blind, Inc. Other than talking books, there are devices which help the blind to listen to any type of printed material with the aid of technology.
These devices use the optical character recognition (OCR) technology which allow the scanning of printed text and then reading it or saving it to the computer. After the scanning, the OCR software converts the images into intelligible characters and words. Then, the recognized text is spoken using a synthesizer. The information can also be saved in the computer or in the OCR system memory for later retrieval as a printed Braille, as a text-to-speech format or magnified images on the computer screen. OCR systems may costs $1,300-$5,500 depending on its features as self-contained or PC-based.
Accessing the Web Using Screen Reading Software
It is a great advantage that people who are blind can listen to different texts displayed on the computer screen with the aid of text-to-speech system. This system functions with the use of the synthesizer and the screen reader and turns any computer into a talking PC.
The screen reader reads all keystrokes, and any information displayed on the computer monitor and tells the synthesizer to speak them with the aid of the sound card. Some synthetic speech sounds may sound robotic, but there are those made to sound like the human voice.
This system can greatly assist the blind and visually impaired in sending and receiving email, surfing the internet, for reading spreadsheets and documents in the computer. Screen readers that support speech synthesizers are available for most PCs running Linux, Windows, OS. Costs range from free downloads to $1100.
Another powerful assistive device for the blind are portable handheld readers. One example is developed by Ray Kurzweil in partnership with the National Federation for the Blind (NFB). This Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader combines the technologies of a digital camera, a personal data assistant (PDA), and text-to-speech conversion system.
Blind users simply have to hold the Reader over any printed material like a restaurant menu, a business card, a school book or an office note. Then, the device reads aloud the contents of the printed material in clear synthetic speech. It has the capability to store printed pages using additional extra memory for big files and users can transfer the files to their computers or Braille notetakers.
Assistive Technology for Blind Writers
How can the blind write? There are some equipment that have been developed to help the blind to write. But this usually is usable only to those who are also Braille readers.
The Braille writer is similar to the typewriter. The main difference is that is only uses as few as seven keys, one for each dot of the Braille cell plus a space key. There are manual and electric versions available. The manual braille writer embosses dots on the paper with the application of the typist's pressure on the keys. The electric version requires requires only light pressure on the keys to cause the machine to emboss a dot.
The more advanced device for blind writers is the electronic braille notetaker. It is a small, portable device with braille keyboards where users can enter information and a speech synthesizer or Braille monitor to display output. The typed in information can also be transferred to a computer for reviewing using the built in speech synthesizer or printing a Braille hardcopy. The cost for a basic electronic braille notetaker is $1000-$3,000.
Other Assistive Technology for the Blind
In addition to all the special equipment and devices mentioned above, there are other assistive devices available for the blind like talking clocks and thermometers and mobile phones with Braille reader.