Sublime Sunday Reading Presents! Late Braille-bloomers: Forgotten But Not Gone by author and public speaker Tony Candela

Sublime Sunday Reading Presents! Late Braille-bloomers: Forgotten But Not Gone by author and public speaker Tony Candela

Late Braille-bloomers: Forgotten But Not Gone

By Tony Candela

In the beginning, there was darkness and then there were the stars and then there was light. The darkness remained, mostly at night and in places that block the light and to a greater or lesser extent, in people who lose all or most of their eyesight.

Despite the best efforts of the Moon and of course, Thomas Edison’s electric lamp, the darkness has never fully gone away. There are those of us who have once enjoyed the light and through the vagaries of human anatomy and physiology, lose that ability later in life. Without the ability to perceive what the light reflects, many of us have relied on our hearing. A few of us have also relied on our sense of touch. We learned to read Braille. We are the late Braille-bloomers, people like myself who learned to read Braille in his mid-thirties or even later.

The Typical experience of people in my cohort is that we have moderate writing skills and slow reading capabilities, despite solid knowledge of the Braille system. Yet we who live in this realm are almost as equally addicted to Braille as someone who learned to read and write it as a younger person. Those folks are generally much faster at all aspects of using Braille, including for the purposes of this essay, using the plethora of Braille-display devices that have evolved over the past 30 years. These devices contain features that significantly enhance their ability to function in various learning, social, and work environments.

Unfortunately, those of us whose Braille skills are secondary and whose listening and QWERTY keyboarding and general computer skills are primary are currently left out of the technology mix. If we have been forgotten, the developers need to know that we are not gone.

Braille had its beginnings in 1821 when Louis Braille adapted a bumps system the French Army had experimented with for night-communications. After other systems like New York Point lost significance in the 1900s, Braille became the premiere communications tool for blind persons. There was a time not long ago when reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. The advent of talking technologies threatened to divert people with poor enough eyesight to warrant adopting an alternative reading system to decide to take an easier way out and just listen to books and other reading materials. Luckily, the disadvantage of this approach became evident, but more important, the inclusion of Braille display devices in advanced assistive technology brought the importance of Braille back into focus. The ease of access to materials via digital downloads and ready creation of Braille on refreshable displays completed the task of bringing Braille all the way back from the grave.

A recent European Union report of braille display preferences illustrates how Braille users employ or would like to employ if they could afford them, a wide variety of devices. They include single-line displays of 20 or 40 characters and multi-line and full-page displays that produce large amounts of written information and tactile graphics. The latter is the gold-standard for facilitating all sorts of complex learning and work tasks. Devices include but are not limited to the Vispero Focus series; various Papenmeier 40-cell display models; VisioBraille ultra, pro and super models; a number of Humanware Brailliant selections; and the one that gives me some hope, the Humanware/APH Mantis Q40. Models by Handy-Tech, HIMS, Optalec, and several others appeared in the survey, but none from an old stand-by, Blazie Technologies whose BT Speak Pro, much like a number of modern devices (e.g., Mantis, Pacmate), is a combination of a computing system (modified laptop, portable notebook) with Braille input and Braille and speech output. Most gratifying was the brief appearance in the survey of the aforementioned Pacmate, my technology life-partner for the past 20 years. It is the discontinuation of the Pacmate that has necessitated my search for a new device and this report.

Braille display devices are quite complex and expensive. Although their cost has gone down over time, the holy grail of inexpensive and versatile display technology is still a work in progress. These devices can either stand alone or interface with a base unit like a computer, notebook/tablet, or smartphone. Most modern portable stand-alone devices use Braille keyboard input that requires the user to learn a unique system that includes “chords,” Braille letters like ‘O’ in combination with the spacebar to initiate for example, the file-opening process. The Pacmate uses a QWERTY keyboard and a Windows-based system along with the nearly ubiquitous JAWS screen reading software, much more comfortable and definitely to my liking. The Mantis has many of these features including a QWERTY keyboard option, likely obviating the need to learn an arcane input process, something people like me would like to avoid.

For a blip in time, the ElBraille device, formerly marketed by Freedom Scientific/Vispero, held promise. A combination of Braille display and a Windows-driven base-computer with a Braille keyboard, the ElBraille had an option to interface a QWERTY keyboard. Although I didn’t like the idea of the extra piece, preferring an all-in-one system, I seriously considered buying an ElBraille but then the American market dropped out. The device is purportedly made in Russia and current geo-political and supply-chain issues have negated this possibility.

The Mantis Q40 (Humanware/APH) would seem to be the most promising option for people who want to use a QWERTY keyboard and access their files with both Braille and the JAWS screen reader. It contains a variety of functions including text-file management (creating files, downloading files, storing files) as well as the ability to switch from QWERTY input to Braille input if one desires. This will be the device to which I will turn if my rebuilt Pacmate cannot for the third time in a year be brought back to life by the one repairman in the northeastern U.S. who I found, courtesy of a tip from a Freedom Scientific staff member.

Thank goodness for technology and the creative people who design it. When ultimately it becomes necessary, if I can muster up the $2,682.00 for the purchase of a Mantis, I will be back in the saddle again.

Anthony R. Candela, Author

Saying aloud what should not remain silent.

Books by Tony…

Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy

A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports

Vision Dreams: A Parable

A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.

buy his books here.

More About Tony…

Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.

Follow him on Facebook for more here.

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