2004 Conference Proceedings

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Jim Halliday
Pulse Data HumanWare
175 Mason Circle
Concord, CA 94520
Phone: 925-566-9222
Fax: 925-666-2149
Email: jhalliday@humanware.com

Personal Braille Libraries are Rare Indeed
Production costs of a single Braille textbook can range from $10,000 to $30,000. These Braille texts may be four to eight volumes thick taking up one to two cubic feet of space. Students may have four or five academic classes that require textbooks. Does that mean that the student who is blind receives $40,000 to $80,000 worth of Braille books each year? Not likely, yet every sighted student has a copy of every required text in print. Even if blind students did have Braille copies of every textbook, the sheer volume of Braille would equate to the size of one four-drawer file cabinet. It would be impossible for a student to carry around the equivalent Braille information that a sighted student carries in his backpack. Or would it?

How About Audio?
Why not put all of these textbooks onto audio tape? That would save space and money! Admittedly, some of us are auditory learners, but we don't find sighted students or their teachers rushing out to replace print textbooks with audio tapes. Why not? Literacy involves more than just listening. The auditory brain pathway is different from those used for visual or tactual learning. Ask any sighted student if she would prefer an audio textbook for subjects that involve concentration, analysis, critical thinking or spatial information. For these activities, they want print. Coincidentally, most Braille users select exactly the same textbooks for Braille that sighted students would demand in print because the cognitive learning processes are so similar through both pathways.

The Validity of Braille
74% of working-age people who are blind are unemployed according to the September/October 1997 issue of JVIB. Blind Inc. (www.blindinc.org) tells us on their website that 93% of those blind people who are employed read and write Braille. Although different studies quote different statistics, all studies consistently show that the vast majority of blind people who are employed are Braille users. These studies in no way undermine the use of speech products, but clearly, speech usage alone has nowhere near the impact on employment that Braille has. With such profound evidence to support Braille, we must accept the fact that Braille usage is a tremendous advantage in both educational and employment settings and it is critical that our schools ensure the learning and availability of Braille.

Storing Information in the 21st Century
The US Library of Congress holds about 600 gigabytes of printed materials or .6 terabytes. This printed material is growing at only 2% per year and represents only .003% of the total information stored. Overall information storage is growing at 50% per year. Digital data is by far the largest contributor and fastest growing piece of this increase. The surface web, which is the web that is accessible by the public, contains 50 terabytes, 20 of which are textual. That's 2.5 billion documents. Eight million pages are added each day and the volume doubles each year. The deep web, which is the web-connected databases and company intranets, is 200 times larger than the surface web. That represents 550 billion documents. There's a message here.

The One or the Many
As we begin to grasp the magnitude of the opportunity facing us, it becomes clear that the challenge is not so much about how many Braille books are produced or even how many print books exist, but rather how people in the 21st Century will access electronic information. There is no way that all of the information available to us digitally will ever be available in hard copy print let alone Braille. However, with the appropriate technology, it can be selectively available and ultimately printable or embossible as necessary.

School districts and parents are beginning to question the cost of a $15,000 Braille book that has only one purpose. What about the rest of my student's Braille needs? For less than half the cost of that Braille book, a student can have a BrailleNote AND a Kurzweil 1000. A single Braille book meets only one of a student's extensive Braille needs. Students are expected to read more than one textbook. They are also expected to write papers, take notes and do research, preferably in Braille. They should get handouts from their mainstream teachers in Braille. They need to organize their time and access current events and newspaper articles in Braille. They need to access the internet in Braille. And they need to do all of these things in multiple settings, i.e. classrooms, libraries, home, in transit, etc. But don't you want that Braille book? OF COURSE, we want that Braille book, but not if its cost deprives the student of her overall success needs. Parents and teachers are starting to demand that print textbooks be scanned into the computer using the Kurzweil 1000 or 3000 so the file can be dumped directly onto a BrailleNote. For less than half the cost of the Braille book, the student has an electronic version of that book PLUS the other critical tools needed to succeed as a student. And this is a one-time purchase, not an annual purchase. The book takes up absolutely no space. In fact, a BrailleNote with a 5 gig microdrive can hold the WHOLE Library of Congress Braille collection. This library consumes only 40% of the cards memory, so there's room to grow!

There are other advantages of this approach. Once the book is on the BrailleNote, the student can use the search capabilities of the BrailleNote to find specific topics when studying for a test, something that is not possible with the hardcopy version. Also a student can cut and paste key paragraphs into a study file or enter lecture notes and personal comments into the document to enhance learning while studying for a test. The same study file can contain research data collected from the internet so that textbook highlights, lectures, handouts, notes, and research materials are all easily organized for more efficient review. All of this information is available in contracted Braille, so the student is working in a medium that is fast, efficient and intuitive. Because BrailleNote has bi-directional translators, a paper written in contracted Braille can be back-translated into print and either printed or attached to an email as a Word file to the teacher. Likewise, mainstream teachers can make daily handouts available to all students, sighted or blind, via email and the blind students can have those handouts instantly translated into contracted Braille on the BrailleNote.

Another amazing advantage of this solution is that once the textbook has been scanned, it can be uploaded to bookshare.org and made available to every other bookshare.org subscriber. BrailleNote has the software built-in to decrypt the downloaded files so that they are readily available in Braille. If every school in the US scanned one textbook per year and uploaded it to bookshare.org, there would be thousands of new textbooks downloadable to BrailleNotes each year. Imagine!

What's the Downside?
BrailleNote has a single line of refreshable Braille. Textbooks that include graphics, charts, or other spatial information that would be available in the hardcopy version will be missing from the electronic Braille copy. Luckily, rather than spending $15,000 on the Braille book, it would make sense to spend a fraction of that amount on producing the appropriate graphics data as a hardcopy supplement to the electronic version. This would still save money in the long run. Why not scan all required textbooks for students who are blind and get Braille publishers to produce the wide variety of spatial content in textbooks in the form of hardcopy supplements? There is no reason that a blind student shouldn't carry around the same books as sighted students.

Formatting is another issue. Hardcopy Braille follows stringent formatting rules and scanned text breaks most of those rules. On the other hand, the search capabilities of the BrailleNote resolve many of the issues that formatting helps address. Of course, the proper placement of a page number or the centering of a title has far less value than having a personal productivity tool that converts the growing amount of electronic information into contracted Braille whenever and wherever needed.

Setting the Record Straight
This paper may appear to downplay the value of hardcopy print or Braille Books. This is certainly not my intent. As an avid reader, I always have at least one hardcopy book with me. I love the feel of a real book. However, in the 21st Century, we need to realize that 99.997% of the information available to us will never be available in hardcopy unless we choose to capture it and print it ourselves. The glorious benefit of a product like the BrailleNote is that people who are blind have Braille access to the same vast amount of textual information that sighted people have. It is a new day for Braille because every BrailleNote user can have his or her own Braille library on a little storage card. Happy reading!

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