Sunday, July 13, 2003

Kendrick: BrailleNote opens worlds

By Deborah Kendrick

A headline on "Taking IT with You" in an online magazine caught my attention. The reference, of course, would be to laptops, notebooks, PDAs - all of those marvelous technogadgets that keep so many Americans organized, in touch or able to tote a virtual office and file cabinet on the road.

The bad news triggered by such a headline is that, for many people with disabilities, such wonderful machines are completely inaccessible. A person who is visually impaired cannot use a device whose operation depends on interaction with a visual screen; a person with coordination difficulties cannot operate the small, closely spaced keys.

The good news, though, is that, for at least this single instance, some people with disabilities were way ahead of the curve.

In 1987, I bought a device the size of a videocassette that had no screen, only seven keys for input, and more power than anything of equivalent size on the mainstream market. Called a Braille 'n Speak, that little box allowed on-the-go note taking and word processing, as well as a calendar, clock and calculator. Friends who rely on visual screens had no equivalent product available to them.

Technology has come a long way in 16 years, of course, and the portable electronic information managers now available to people with visual disabilities are nothing short of remarkable. Today, the instrument of choice is called a BrailleNote, and makes it possible to do everything from writing a book or reading one to searching the Web, reading e-mail or finding out where the nearest restaurant is in an unfamiliar city.

To the uninitiated eye, my BrailleNote doesn't look like a computer. It is smaller than a laptop, larger than a palm pilot and has only nine keys, a few buttons on the front and a strip of pins that move up and down while I run my fingers across them.

In reality, while sitting in a waiting room or airport terminal with just this simple device, here are just a few of the things I might be doing:

• With the word processor, I might be writing this column - which can then be exported in a variety of formats, including Microsoft Word.

• From my books folder, I might be reading one of a dozen or more books I have loaded there - from best-sellers to classics to self-help and even a few current magazines. (These books and magazines are available online to individuals whose disabilities prevent reading conventional print.)

• With a cable connecting to my cell phone, I can send and receive e-mail.

• Also with that cell phone attached, I can use the BrailleNote to search the Web, read today's newspaper or even look at a restaurant menu while my friends around the table are studying the more conventional hard copy version.

• If I'm outdoors and carrying the GPS accessory, the BrailleNote can tell me where the nearest restaurants, hotels or other commercial points of interest are or, after I have added the "waypoint" myself, even direct me to my own home!

If I'm really feeling bored or responsible, I could use it to balance my checkbook, organize my address file or consult my planner.

Produced by Pulse Data International, a New Zealand-based company with a large U.S. division, the BrailleNote family of products ranges in price from about $2,000 to $5,000. For more information or to order, call (800) 722-3393.


Contact Debra Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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