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Braille typewriters get a digital-era update

Computer screen, text-to-speech feature on Perkins School’s system help the blind master a tool they may need to find a job

Like 6-year-olds around the world, Madison Logan is learning to read and write. Unlike most children, however, the Quincy girl has vision problems severe enough to make her legally blind. But that is not slowing her down.

“L, C, H, W,” Logan said as she read letters with the fingers of her right hand on a recent day.

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She had just typed the letters herself, in Braille, the writing system that transforms text into raised dots on paper. Logan did it with a new kind of Braille typewriter that employs digital technology to help students and teachers master the tactile language.

Steven Rothstein, president of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, said the typewriter, called a Smart Brailler, could lead to increased literacy and better lives for blind people worldwide.

“We believe it’s a transformative learning device,” he said.

The blind Frenchman Louis Braille invented his writing method in the 1820s, around the time the Perkins School was founded. The school began teaching Braille in the 1870s. Other schools for the blind followed suit. By the middle of the 20th century, about half of blind children got Braille ­instruction in such schools.

But in 1975, a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was passed to help integrate disabled students into mainstream public schools. As a result, fewer blind students got training tailored to their special needs. Often, their teachers did not know Braille.

Schools came to rely more on audio books and computer programs that can read digital documents out loud. As a ­result, a 2009 report from the National Federation of the Blind said fewer than 10 percent of American children with vision problems were being taught to read Braille.

In effect, that makes such students illiterate, and like sighted people who cannot read, their job prospects are bleak. The federation report estimated 70 percent of blind Americans are unemployed, but of those with jobs, 80 percent can read Braille.

Since 1951, Perkins Products, a company based at the school that makes assistive products for blind people, has produced mechanical braillers. They are similar to old-fashioned typewriters, complete with a knob for rolling a sheet of paper into the machine. The nine keys are enough to write anything in Braille. The original Perkins brailler has barely changed in more than six decades; about 3,500 are sold each year.

But David Morgan, Perkins Products’ general manager, ­realized the old brailler needed a digital update.

He wanted to attach a small computer with a video screen to display the letter or word ­being typed and a text-to-speech feature that would ­pronounce it out loud.

The computer could also contain Braille tutorials that would allow students to practice on their own. An electronic voice would correct them when they made errors and recorded cheers would ring out when they got words right. The new device has all those features.

Components for the Smart Brailler, which sells for $1,995, are made at Perkins Products. Once a month, enough parts to build 1,200 of the devices are shipped to a factory in Chennai, India, for assembly, at a ­company that employs many blind workers.

Unlike laptops and other electronic devices that sell in the millions, the market for equipment to help blind people is relatively small, so prices tend to be high. Then again, the Smart Brailler’s closest competitor, the Mountbatten Learning System by the Canadian company Humanware, costs $2,750. Mountbatten is more expensive partly because it uses an electronic keyboard instead of the Smart Brailler’s old-school mechanical system.

Mary McCarthy, a teacher of the visually impaired, said she prefers the Smart Brailler to standard Braille typewriters for her young students. “I love it because it’s motivating to them,” she said. “They love hearing that auditory feedback.”

With its video display and speech features, the Smart Brailler could also be a useful tool for teachers and parents who are not Braille-literate. “It gives the teacher of the visually impaired, the sighted classroom teacher, the parent, a window into Braille,” said JoAnn Becker, a trainer and tech support specialist for ­Perkins Products.

Although the Smart Brailler is mainly aimed at children, its self-teaching tutorials may also appeal to people who became blind as adults, or to those who did not study Braille when young.

“Our hope is that the Smart Brailler demystifies some of the complexity,” Rothstein said, “and makes Braille cool.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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