Today I read an article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph showcasing some of the technological inovations which occured during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. This caused me to dwell on the technological developments which I have witnessed during my 43 years on this earth.
I am registered blind and can not read print. As a child I was taught to read and write braille. During my school days the most efficient method for the majority of blind people to produce braille was by using a Perkins, a machine which punches holes into paper producing letters, numbers etc. I can recollect the clatter as several braillists took notes during lessons. Those machines can give one a nasty bruise and I well recall we children rushing along the coridors Perkins catching on fellow pupil’s knees!
Apart from the Perkins, braille books were central to my schooling. All of the key textbooks were provided in braille and the school’s library also aforded me with an opportunity to indulge my love of reading (I could often be found with my fingers busily running across the pages of a book of poetry or a children’s version of the greek myths).
On leaving school I attended a college for visually impaired people. Technology had moved on apace and I now used a Eureka A4. This machine was a talking computer (with no screen) specifically designed for blind users. It had six keys for producing braille the layout being similar to that of a Perkins brailler. I used the Eureka for taking notes during lectures which I saved onto a floppy disc (the Eureka had a built-in floppy disc drive). For it’s time the machine was great. It talked to me and I was able to produce printed text by connecting the Eureka to a dot matrix printer. Alternatively one could obtain a braille output by attaching the Eureka to an embosser which produced braille. I well recollect the terrible racket which that monstrous embosser made as it churned out my lecture notes!
On going onto university my Eureka went with me. In addition I purchased a Kurzweil reading machine. This was huge and somewhat like a photocopier. The blind person would open up the lid of the scanner, place a print book on the glass, press a button and Kurzweill would convert the text into speech. As you can imagine the Kurzweil was a godsend to blind people who, like me are not able to read print.
In addition to the Kurzweil the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) offered books on the now almost defunct compact cassette tape. This was great as far as it went, however the RNIB did not have the range of books I required for my studies so Kurzweil really came into it’s own.
It was only after leaving university that I had my first real experience of using computers. While at school and college I’d learned how to touch type using both a mannual and an electronic typewriter, however I’d never used computers. It was at the charity, Action for Blind People that I was exposed to computers and after a few glitches I became a fairly competent PC user. The laptop which I’m using to produce this post is a standard laptop purchased from John Lewis. The only modification which has been made to the computer is the installation of Jaws (software which converts text into speech and braille allowing visually impaired people to have the screen read back to them).
Technology has come a long way since the days when I roamed the school coridors bashing the knees of my fellow pupils with my Perkins Brailler! The Perkins is still produced, I own one but it gets very little use. It is my laptop, my I-Pad and my I-Pod which are used on an almost daily basis by me. (Both the I-Pod and the I-Pad use Apple’s built-in screen reader, Voiceover allowing me as a blind person to navigate around the devices). The Eureka is no longer produced although there are, I understand a few still in use.
The world has moved from one in which blind people were largely confined to specialist products to one in which visually impaired users can use a standard computer equipped with Jaws or other similar software.
For information on the Eureka A4 please visit http://www.sensorytools.com/eureka.htm
For details of the Perkins brailler please see http://www.rnib.org.uk/shop/Pages/ProductDetails.aspx?productID=bm36blue01