2001 Conference Proceedings

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Telecommunication For Deaf-blind Braille Users

K. C. Spear, MA


In 1974, a device reached the marketplace that enabled a person who was deaf-blind to access the telephone. It was called a "Code-com" and could be used in several ways. An individual familiar with Morse Code, used it to send and receive messages over the telephone. If you didn't know Morse Code, but used speech for expressive communication, you could dial the number of a family member or friend and, by mutual agreement, pass simple messages. As an instance, each Wednesday, I called a friend to ask if we were set to go grocery shopping at the usual time? My friend would reply by simply spelling "Y-e-s" or "n-o"; and, using the Code-Com, the number of vibrations provided the answer. Though primitive, this device was a tremendous asset to me, a widow, living alone with my 10-year old son. Implicitly, this was for initiating communication only, because there was no alerting system to enable the deaf-blind person to know when the phone rang.

Our ability to access the telephone was improved with the advent of a TTY (a teletype machine) that displayed one letter at a time in braille on a moving roll of paper. This device was excellent for communicating directly with a TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf) or a similar TTY system. However, one's ability to utilize this device to communicate with non-TDD/TTY users, was contingent upon whether a local agency or organization provided a relay service. Unfortunately, existing relay services were few and usually only available to those living in, or near, a major metropolis. With few exceptions, early relay services were manned by volunteers and usually operated on a limited schedule. Equally important, the number of consumers who owned the TTY braille system was limited, because few had the resources to buy one.

Two major developments greatly enhanced telephone access for persons who were deaf-blind. The first occurred in the early 1980's with the manufacture and distribution of the Telebraille. The origin of this device can be traced to the research laboratory at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC), where the prototype was developed. (The HKNC labratory has since been disbanded.) Telesensory Systems Inc. (TSI), assumed responsibility for marketing the finished product. The second major event occurred on July 26, 1990, when President George Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)A Title IV of the ADA, with the effective date of July 26, 1993, required common carriers offering telephone services to the general public to increase the availability of interstate and intrastate telecommunication services to individuals with hearing and speech impairments. As a result, telecommunication relay services were established nationwide and are required to operate 24-hours a day.

The Telebraille

The Telebraille consists of two components: a refreshable-braille display--called "Navigator"--and a modified TDD. Since it came on the market in the early 1980's, it has been issued in three successive models, each featuring a Navigator and a more sophisticated TDD. In effect, when newer TDD's were developed, the older models became obsolete, terminating the production of the Telebraille I, Telebraille II and, in 1997, Telebraille III. Implicitly, the Telebraille, which retailed from approximately $5,000 to $6,500 per unit, had a short life-span.

Realistically, this situation placed the deaf-blind consumer at a disadvantage for several reasons: 1. Most deaf-blind consumers lack sufficient income to purchase a Telebraille. Hence, funding sources had to be found. Obviously, a benefactor who paid for a Telebraille in 1983 was leary of paying for a second one in 1985, because of the short lifespan. 2. Since the market is comparatively small, competition has been virtually non-existent. Ironically, since the establishment of State relay services, under the ADA mandate, programs are being established throughout the country to provide funds for the purchase of devices necessary to give individuals with hearing, speech and mobility impairments, access to telecommunication. However, with the elimination of the Telebraille, those of us who are deaf-blind and rely on braille access, were deprived of a means to use the telephone.

Options for Telecommunication Access Using Braille

As a professional who lives alone, I rely a great deal on my ability to access telecommunication. Consequently, I've made an effort to keep abreast of developments in the area of alternatives to the Telebraille. At the outset, it became apparent that, although several braille-based telephone-access systems reached the marketplace since the advent of the first Telebraille, each manufacturer experienced the same problem as TSI: the all-important TDD component has been discontinued. Logically, the solution to this dilemma is 1. a braille-based telephone-access system that can be interfaced with any TDD model, thus eliminating any modifications; or, 2. a system that has no TDD component at all.

In the area of braille technology, Blazie Engineering Inc., has earned the gratitude of blind and deaf-bind consumer worldwide through the development and marketing of such devices as Braille-N-Speak, Type-N-Speak, Braille-Lite and Type-Lite. Responding to the need for a braille telecommunication system, Braille-Lite and Type-Lite have been interfaced with other components to create a reasonably priced portable product. A system that went on the market in the Fall of 2000, consists of the Braille- or Type-Lite interfaced with an Ultratec Intel Modem. At the same time, the Company assigned an engineer to develop a second system that will interface the Braille- or Type-Lite with any TDD model. This means that modification of the TDD component will not be necessary. The second system is essential because, most individuals who are deaf-blind do not have speech and need a means to communicate with people both on the telephone and face-to-face.

You may be one of a growing number of individuals who finds the need for a laptop to facilitate job-related activities when traveling. If so, the laptop also enables you to check your E-Mail and surf the Internet for an update from Wall Street or other items of interest. And, all you need to do to call home is pick up the telephone in your hotel/model room.

Some of us in the deaf-blind community have the same need. As an example, when I travel, I need a way to access my employer's mainframe in order to record and retrieve work-related data; and, I also need a way to make telephone calls. However, because of the expense of a system that will be used infrequently, it is rare for a hotel/motel to invest in a braille system required by a deaf-blind guest to access the telephone. This being the case, the deaf-blind traveller must provide their own. As a result, I've traveled with a system consisting of a refreshable-braille display (an Alva BRaille Terminal), a laptop computer, a special external modem--with software to simulate a TDD--and an internal modem--for E-Mail and mainframe access. Currently, one company--Advanced Access Devices (AAD)--is exploring a possible alternative. the Company developed the Superbraille 2000 laptop with a built-in refreshable-braille dispay and the capability for E-Mail and internet access. By installing TDD-modem software, the device would present a portable, versatile all-in-one solution.

Due to the fact that the cost of either Blazie or AAD system will approximate $7 to $10,000, a deaf-blind person's financial resources will determine whether they can obtain one.

As is the case with the general population, the number of persons who are deaf-blind using desktop computers is on the rise. This is true even though the transition from text to Windows is often a frustrating, overwhelming obstacle for those who rely on braille access. On the other hand, once installed, TDD-modem software--such as Futura (a product of Phone-TTY) or Win-Talk (a product of Microflip), etc.--provides telephone access, eliminating the need for a stand-alone TDD.


The purpose of this article is to A) present an overview of both the history of braille access to telecommunication and B) provide some insight into several existing options. It is my hope to make clear that there is no reason why the rapid advances in "space age" electronics cannot be utilized to offer a range of telecommunication options to meet individual needs. For example, there are folks who need hard-copy braille; others depend on Perkins-style braille keys for sending messages, while many prefer to use a typewriter-style keyboard; and, persons, like myself, need a versatile, portable system for use when traveling. Summarily, there is no question that the isolation which has plagued deaf-blind individuals for centuries is no longer necessary if they receive the tools for direct access to people and information.

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