Printer Friendly

An alternative option to dedicated braille notetakers for people with visual impairments: universal technology for better access.

Technology provides equal access to information and helps people with visual impairments to complete tasks more independently. A major obstacle to the use of assistive technology for people with visual impairments is the expense associated with purchasing, maintaining, and updating such technology equipment (Microsoft Corporation, 2004). Sapp (2007) suggested that there are three important elements of technology to be considered for people with visual impairments. These are affordability, accessibility, and usability. Although proprietary technology venues developed for people with visual impairments may have fulfilled needs associated with accessibility well, it is the other two critical components for which there is significant room for improvement.

Universal design refers to "the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) which are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances)" (Vanderheiden, 1996, p. 1). The concept of universal design may have potential implications for addressing the issues related to the use of technology devices by people with visual impairments. More specifically, affordability, accessibility, and usability of technology devices can be successfully addressed by adopting universal design.

Among various assistive technology options for people with visual impairments, braille notetakers have been considered the most significant because of their technological innovation. Braille notetakers allow users who are visually impaired to retrieve e-mails, access web pages, maintain schedules and calendars, emboss braille documents, and perform math and scientific calculations (Farnsworth & Luckner, 2008). With their capability to utilize speech and braille at the same time and to use six-key entry or a traditional QWERTY keyboard, braille notetakers became widely used among people with visual impairments. For example, Edwards and Lewis (1998) reported that almost 25% of teachers in Florida said they used braille notetakers in providing instructions for their students. Various types of techniques in utilizing braille notetakers have been devised. For example, Kapperman and Sticken (2003) reported that braille notetakers could be successfully used to create mathematical equations and could assist students with visual impairments in communicating better with their math teachers. Nemeth code instructions (Amberg, 2001), foreign language translation (Kapperman & Sticken, 2002), and general notetaking and braille translation (Farnsworth & Luckner, 2008) were implemented as significant functions of the braille notetakers.


A braille notetaker is a portable device that has built-in refreshable braille display and is designed specifically for people with visual impairments (Samuels, 2008). While having functions similar to mainstream laptop computers and maintaining equivalent connectivity options such as Universal Serial Bus (USB), wireless local area network (LAN), and Bluetooth, it can store electronic documents, translate uncontracted and contracted braille in "real time," and allow access to mainstream technology such as reading Microsoft Word and text documents. In a Delphi study conducted by Smith, Kelley, Maushak, Griffin-Shirley, and Lan (2009) on identifying important competencies of assistive technology, the use of braille notetakers was regarded as a topic with which teachers of students with visual impairments should be acquainted. Furthermore, one participant of the study conducted by Farnsworth and Luckner (2008) indicated that the use of the braille notetaker positively reshaped his school work and communication with others. This statement exemplifies the importance of a braille notetaker for people with visual impairments.

Although braille notetakers provide a variety of functions for people with visual impairments, there are some perceived disadvantages as well. For example, the average cost of a 32-cell, refreshable-display version of braille notetakers ranges from $5,500 to $6,500. A BrailleNote Apex, a notetaker commonly used by people with visual impairments and equipped with 32 braille cells, costs $6,195 (National Federation of the Blind, Technology Resource List, n.d.). Since the braille notetakers have been developed for a small population, maintenance and updates can be costly. For example, the manufacturers of many braille notetakers recommend annual service maintenance, the cost of which can be substantial. The standard Portable Document Format (PDF), a file format widely used to distribute digital contents, cannot be accessed by any braille notetaker unless the file is converted to an accessible document format using a computer. Similar limitations exist for accessing applets (small applications or "plug-ins") on a webpage in Java programming language, using Flash contents, and installing external applications that are not available as parts of braille notetakers. As a result, users must wait until manufacturers implement necessary features on these devices, and these updates are often introduced long after mainstream technology options have been made available to sighted users. Obtaining maintenance and repair services can also be costly and time consuming. The use of braille notetakers is unique to people with visual impairments and thus unnecessary attention can be drawn from the public to users of such technology. This unwanted attention can be an especially critical barrier for those students who are in public school systems.

Since the technology implementation is based upon a proprietary design, users often have to learn an extensive number of commands to operate the tool. For example, in order to use certain braille notetakers, people have to memorize a great many chord commands. To invoke chord commands, users must press a spacebar and braille keys simultaneously. Since different companies utilize different command structures, the learning curve for a new device can be time consuming and can require memorizing many new commands.


With innovative user interfaces and fast-developing hardware capability, recent smartphones, including some tablet devices, embrace many features that had only been available for desktop computers in the past. These smartphones also have many accessible built-in features. Among them, a function that requires closer examination is a feature for a user to connect a refreshable braille display wirelessly. For example, Apple's mobile devices that utilize IOS5, their latest operating system for mobile devices, can be connected to a refreshable braille display. With its screen reader, VoiceOver, users can navigate web pages, compose e-mails, and maintain calendars and other functions available on these devices via voice output, as well as access wirelessly connected refreshable braille display. Since numerous applications developed by users and software developers are added daily, and many of these applications follow general guidelines for accessibility, users who are visually impaired have many more capabilities on smartphones than on their proprietary counterparts. Table 1 compares the major functions of an iPhone 4 and a refreshable braille display with a Braille Sense.

Advantages of the combination of a refreshable braille display with a smartphone include low cost, seamless interaction with sighted people, easy maintenance and support, fast implementation of new functions, and universal access to applications and web pages. While smartphones require monthly data plans (thus direct comparison of costs cannot be made), other devices such as iPads or iPods do not require a monthly subscription charge. A refreshable braille display from Perkins (40-braille cell version) costs $2,495 (Perkins Products, n.d). An iPad equipped with 16GB of storage costs $499. When combined, an iPad along with a refreshable braille display costs roughly half that of a similarly equipped braille notetaker. Second, and more important, the option of utilizing mainstream technology demonstrates superb integration with the external environment. Accessing different file types and synchronizing e-mail and calendar are limited or difficult to implement on braille notetakers. The built-in universal access for these smartphones makes it much easier for users to exchange data and ideas with other people. Third, although a refreshable braille display should be cleaned and maintained like a braille notetaker, support and service options for smartphones such as iPhones are much more flexible and often take less time. Finally, a smartphone allows various external applications to run on its environment, making implementing and expanding additional functions more flexible.


While numerous advantages are identified, the new option may not be for all people with visual impairments: some might derive greater productivity from dedicated braille notetakers. The smartphone/refreshable braille display combination does not have a braille translator. Thus, handling braille files is not as intuitive when compared to a braille notetaker. Second, although the majority of functions can be displayed in braille on a smartphone via its wirelessly connected braille display, there are some functions that must utilize voice output. For example, incorrectly labeled icons on some applications may not be displayed via braille display. Third, since applications are developed by many different companies and individuals, they differ in the way they are set up, and this requires problem-solving skills from users. This can be a huge obstacle for those people who have additional disabilities and who have difficulty generalizing and solving problems. Fourth, in dealing with technical issues, one may have to contact various vendors to identify problems and/or obtain repair services. This can be very inconvenient and time consuming, especially if various versions of software and different types of hardware devices are used in an agency or a school setting. Fourth, as the option is new, support groups for users who are visually impaired may be lacking. Although there are electronic listserves and user-developed demonstrations for the use of smartphones, supporting and instructional curricula materials are not as abundant as for a braille notetaker. It is also very important to note that typing on the new combination may not be as intuitive. Though there are some braille display devices equipped with a six-key keyboard that allows users to type directly to a smartphone wirelessly, those display devices without such a function may necessitate users to type directly into a smartphone or a tablet. Alternatively, an external QWERTY-type keyboard can be added, but this option increases the number of devices to be carried.

From posting a photograph on Facebook or identifying colors and money denominations, to reading bar codes for product usage and user reviews, the combination of a smartphone or a tablet and a refreshable braille display can function as an alternative to a dedicated braille notetaker. More important, this new option can provide many more functions and expand possibilities for people with visual impairments. While specific functions designed for users with visual impairments such as Nemeth code support, braille embossing, and native access to multiple-language braille are not readily available, a smartphone with a refreshable braille display can provide other functions by utilizing external applications that have not been available for a braille notetaker. Teachers of students with visual impairments, orientation and mobility specialists, rehabilitation counselors, and assistive technology specialists should carefully review the combination as an alternative to a braille notetaker and, if appropriate, provide

recommendations and instructions for students and clients with visual impairments.


Amberg, E. (2001). BrailleNote. T.H.E. Journal, 28(10), 54-56.

Edwards, B. J., & Lewis, S. (1998). The use of technology in programs for students with visual impairments in Florida. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 92(5), 302-312.

Farnsworth, C. R., & Luckner, J. L. (2008). The impact of assistive technology on curriculum accommodation for a braille-reading student. RE:view, 39(4), 171-187.

Kapperman, G., & Sticken, J. (2002). A software tutorial for learning the Nemeth code of braille mathematics. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 96(12), 855-857.

Kapperman, G., & Sticken, J. (2003). Using the Braille Lite to produce mathematical expressions in print. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 97(11), 710-713.

Microsoft Corporation. (2004). Accessible technology in computing--Examining awareness, use, and future potential. Redmond, WA: Author. Retrieved from com/enable/research/phase2.aspx

National Federation of the Blind (NFB). (n.d.). Technology resource list. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://www.

Perkins Products. (n.d.). Adaptive technology: Blindness/low vision products: Braille displays. Watertown, MA: Author. Retrieved from Ecommerce?FOLDER=1120&store_id= 1101

Samuels, C. A. (2008). Braille makes a comeback. Education Week, 27(43), 27-29.

Sapp, W. (2007). MySchoolDayOnline: Applying universal design principles to the development of a fully accessible online scheduling tool for students with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 101(5), 301-307.

Smith, D. W., Kelley, P., Maushak, N. J., Griffin-Shirley, N., & Lan, W. Y. (2009). Assistive technology competencies for teachers of students with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 103(8), 457-469.

Vanderheiden, G. (1996). Universal design ... What it is and what it isn't. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Trace Research and Development Center.

Sunggye Hong, Ph.D., assistant professor, coordinator, Program in Visual Impairments, Department of Special Education, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132; e-mail: <>.
Table 1
Comparison between a Braille Sense and an iPhone 4
connected with a refreshable braille display.

Function                                           Braille Sense

Connectivity       Bluetooth                       Yes
                   Wireless LAN                    Yes (802.11 G)
                   Wired LAN                       Yes (10/100
                   USB                             Yes
                   External VGA                    Yes
                   Parallel port                   No
                   Serial port                     No
E-mail             POP3 Ssupport                   Yes
                   IMAP support                    No
                   Exchange support                No
                   Basic e-mail function           Yes
                   Multiple e-mail accounts        Yes
Internet           Basic navigation                Yes
                   Flash support                   No
                   Java Applet support             No
                   Bookmark support                Yes
                   Multiple tabs                   No
Software           Calendar                        Yes
                   Calculator                      Yes
                   Messengers and social           No
                     network services
                   Voice recorder                  Yes
                   Address manager                 Yes
                   Media player                    Yes
                   Clock                           Yes
                   Installing external             No
                   Modify default menu layout      No
Storage            External memory card support    Yes
                   Installed storage               8GB
Synchronization    Wireless sync                   No
                   USB sync                        Yes (limited to
                                                     Windows only)
                   Sync application                Window active sync
                   Data sync                       Contact and

Braille document   Display braille contents        Yes
                   Input braille contents          Yes
                   Braille translation             Yes
                   Handling common braille file    Yes
Word processing    Supports basic feature          Yes
                   Supports advanced feature       Yes
                   Supports major file extension   Yes (limited)
                   Print                           Yes (wired)
                   Emboss                          Yes
GPS                Built-in compass and map        No
                   GPS function                    Yes (optional)
                   Voice guidance                  Yes
                   Braille guidance                Yes
                   Adapted for visually impaired   Yes
Access to media    Video                           No
                   Music                           Yes
                   Voice memo                      Yes
                   Pictures                        No
                   DAISY                           Yes

Function           iPhone 4

Connectivity       Yes
                   Yes (802.11 N)

E-mail             Yes
Internet           Yes
                   Yes (limited)
Software           Yes
                   Yes (with external

Storage            No
Synchronization    Yes

                   Contact, schedule,
                     music, video,
                     bookmarks, and other

Braille document   Yes

Word processing    Yes
                   Yes (with add-on)
                   Yes (wireless)
GPS                Yes
                   Yes (optional)
                   Yes (limited)
                   Yes (limited)

Access to media    Yes
                   Yes (with external

Note: Compared equipment and configurations
are as follows: Braille Sense, iPhone 4.
COPYRIGHT 2012 American Foundation for the Blind
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hong, Sunggye
Publication:Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2012
Previous Article:Teaching the benefits of smart phone technology to blind consumers: exploring the potential of the iPhone.
Next Article:Assistive technology competencies for teachers of students with visual impairments: a national study.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters