Why Teachers for Students with Visual Impairments Are So Important

Throughout my childhood, I attended mainstream classes in the public school system. This meant I could learn math, science and social studies alongside my peers who could see. At the same time, I received services from teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists. They taught me how to read and write Braille, use special technology for my classes and travel with a white cane. These teachers would also order my textbooks and transcribe class handouts into Braille, so I could participate in my mainstream classes.

During my years in elementary and junior high, I received this specialized instruction in a vision resource room with other blind and visually impaired children. Without a doubt, this allowed me to receive the individualized, one-on-one assistance I needed from my teachers to learn these critical skills. Learning alongside other students with visual impairments also gave me a sense of camaraderie because our vision loss meant we could all relate to each other’s challenges and successes. By the time I entered high school, I received these services from an itinerant teacher, who would go to my school several times a week to work with me and other visually impaired students.

Recently, I read this article about the ongoing shortage of teachers for the visually impaired in Illinois. Over the years, the number of these professionals has significantly decreased, thereby causing this shortage. If this trend continues, current and future generations of students who are blind or visually impaired will no doubt be negatively impacted. Many argue that students with disabilities should be fully mainstreamed and included in their home districts. As someone who benefited from mainstream education, I think this is a valid point. Going to classes with sighted peers provided me with invaluable social skills and the incredible opportunity to educate others about disabilities (I was the only blind student in my classes, so naturally my peers were curious to learn about Braille and the special technology I use.) However, I believe that having the support of a teacher of the visually impaired is imperative for students with vision loss.

Michael Hansen, who is blind and now works as a call center agent at The Chicago Lighthouse, agrees. He attended his local elementary school for several years, but says he found it very difficult being the only blind student in the entire school. This all changed when he began attending a program which offered a resource classroom and services for students who are blind or visually impaired. Although his bus ride to and from the school was about an hour each way, he says he “wouldn’t have done it any other way.” Being in this program provided Michael with both a mainstream education, while receiving the supports and services he needed due to his visual impairment.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have received both the opportunity to attend classes with my sighted peers, while at the same time learning the skills necessary for me to become an independent and successful blind person. This was thanks to my teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility instructors. The assistance these professionals provide is invaluable to students with vision loss. I sincerely hope more educators will consider the field of blindness and visual impairment for their future careers. This is an extremely rewarding career that will enable blind and visually impaired individuals to live successful and independent lives.

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How Technology Can Increase Braille Literacy

It has long been known that children who are blind or severely visually impaired encounter many barriers for learning to read and write Braille. For one, a lack of resources such as not having the appropriate tools in developing countries prevents students with vision loss from ever learning the system. Youngsters who are blind in the United States also might not have sufficient instruction in the classroom, primarily due to not being able to spend enough time with a teacher of the visually impaired. This leads to Braille illiteracy and thereby numerous missed opportunities for blind students.

To address this alarming issue, T-Var EdTech, a Boston-based startup company developed an innovative tool. The Read Read is a special device that allows students to learn Braille without an instructor. It uses a combination of tactile and audio feedback to teach Braille. Students at the Perkins School for the Blind recently tested the device, and its developer, Alex Tavares, found that they were highly engaged with the Read Read. Tavares and her team are currently seeking funding and support, and they hope to distribute 400 units to 400 students. Individual devices can also be purchased for $495 each.

As a Braille reader myself, I know how important it is for children who are blind to learn braille at an early age. The fact that I was introduced to the system as a preschooler made it much easier for me to fully grasp the concept. Without a doubt, assistive technology, like smartphones and screen-reading software, have drastically enhanced my independence. However, I still believe that it is important for future generations of individuals who are blind to learn to read and right Braille in order to be successful and independent.

The Read Read is a perfect example of how technology can increase Braille literacy among people without sight. It can help students, instructors and parents alike. Teachers can assign Braille lessons to their students so they can practice independently. The parents and families of blind children can also learn Braille with this easy to use tool. Even adults who recently became blind could find the Read Read beneficial when learning Braille. In other words, the possibilities for this device are countless!

Literacy is important for people with and without vision loss. Devices like the Read Read can be true game changers for people who are blind, as they provide an alternative way of learning Braille. Without a doubt, technology has tremendously benefited people who are blind or visually impaired for many years and it sure is wonderful to see developers who want to use it to enhance and increase Braille literacy.

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

At The Chicago Lighthouse, we are constantly testing new assistive technology products. I recently had the opportunity to review the Dot Watch, the world’s first Braille smartwatch for people who are blind. Made by Dot Incorporation, a startup company in South Korea, the Dot Watch allows iPhone and Android smartphone users to receive and view notifications on the watch in Braille. Please note that the model we reviewed at The Chicago Lighthouse is a beta version, and subject to fine-tuning before the actual retail version is released.

The Dot Watch consists of a simple design. On the face of the watch is a Braille display which has four cells, and below that are two touch sensors that allow users to scroll through and read each notification. The right side of the watch has three controls: the “Select” button, the “Dot Crown” dial and the “Home” button. These controls are used to operate the watch’s different functions. The watch is charged via a USB charger which is included with the device.

The Dot Watch works by pairing it with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Users must first install the Dot Watch app, available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores. Next, they have to create an account by registering their email, name and creating a password. The watch can then be paired with the smartphone. Once paired, users can begin receiving notifications from their phone, tell the time and date, and use other features. From the app, individuals can configure the watch’s settings, check the battery status, set an alarm and use the “learn Braille” function, a feature which allows users to send a message to the watch in Braille. Aside from having a minor issue with pairing the watch to my phone (problem which was quickly resolved by technical support), the set up process and app were completely accessible on my iPhone, and I was able to do it without sighted assistance.

Once the watch is set up, it alerts users when they have received a new notification on their phone, such as a text message. They can then read it on the watch’s Braille display. The watch also alerts individuals when they get a call, and they can check caller information and answer or decline the call (note that the watch does not include speakers, so users should have their phone nearby when accepting a call). The watch also includes a stopwatch, timer and alarm. Currently, the alarm only consists of vibrations, and could be particularly handy for individuals who are deaf-blind.

For me, the main concern was how I would be able to read notifications given that the watch only displays four Braille cells – or four letters or numbers – at once. To make scrolling through notifications easier, the watch includes two touch sensors, which are activated and display the next characters when the user taps the lower part of the face. I found the touch sensors helpful, because I could easily navigate through the notifications. The watch also has an auto-scroll feature, where the next set of characters are automatically displayed while reading notifications. The auto-scroll speed can be adjusted to suit the user’s reading preference.

The Braille pins on the display are clear and easy to decipher. One issue I did have was that occasionally, some of the dots would not be raised, making for incorrect readings of time, date and notifications. This was more common when I was not wearing the watch. Also, since the watch will be worn in all sorts of environments, it would be helpful if it included a cover to protect the Braille display from dirt or other objects that might damage it. This is something that the company is already working on developing. Also, the watch currently only includes one type of adjustable wrist strap. More options – such as bands or straps of different colors or materials should also be offered. People would appreciate these options given today’s desire for style and fashion!

The user manual was very detailed, and I was especially happy to be able to access it on the Dot Watch app and on the company’s website. The quick start guide is available in Braille, and included with the watch. While this in itself was helpful, more specific details about the watch – such as including a description of the different parts – is suggested. Contacting support for help when pairing the watch to my phone was simple and straight forward. I got a prompt response, and the support staff was able to quickly help.

The Dot smartwatch is without a doubt an innovative device for people who are blind, who will now have a new option for accessing information on their smartphones. Kudos to Dot Incorporation for their work on this watch, and a special thank you from all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse for allowing us to test and review it in our blog. For more information and updates about the Dot Watch, visit Dot Incorporation’s website.

Commentary: Making Online Review Websites for People with Disabilities

For people who are blind or severely visually impaired, Braille is the equivalent of print letters and numbers to those with sight. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of signs and literature that we interact with on a daily basis are available in Braille. Elevators and bathrooms with Braille signage helps me know I am at the right place when I am out and about. In the rare instance I come across a restaurant with Braille menus, I feel a sense of independence because I can read the different choices on my own. Braille not only allows me to read and write, it also helps me be more independent.

Recently, police officers in Ottawa began wearing laminated Braille badges so that they can be easily identified by residents with vision loss. The badges list the officer’s rank and main police phone number on a Braille overlay. According to the Ottawa Police Department, this initiative was not generated by an incident or public push. Instead, the idea came to them after seeing a presentation by members of the blind and visually impaired community. Thanks to these Braille badges, those with vision loss will be able to confirm that the person they are interacting with is, in fact, a police officer.

To me, this is a great step in the right direction for accessibility and inclusion. The reality is that as people with vision loss, many of us are at a disadvantage when interacting with public officials. Unless we recognize their voice or they identify themselves to us, we might not know if someone is truly a police officer or other authority. Although I realize that some people who are blind might prefer not to examine these badges (they might be uncomfortable or feel strange asking an officer for their badge), it is great to know this option is available, in case it is ever needed.

More businesses and public authorities should follow in these steps by providing accessible information to people who cannot see. Places like restaurants, banks, doctors’ offices and the like should have their literature in alternative formats. Having menus, forms, brochures, etc. in Braille, audio or electronic formats would give us more access to information. It would also greatly enhance the independence of people who are blind or visually impaired in public places.

Commentary: Is Braille Still Important?

Without a doubt, technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, especially for people with disabilities. New devices make it possible for those of us with physical, visual and other impairments to do things that were previously impossible. Not a month goes by without hearing about new devices or apps that allow people who are blind to access and read print material without needing Braille. Just a few days ago, I came across an article about a new ring-like device that would read out loud books, letters and other print documents. New devices like these make people wonder if Braille is still important.

To me, inquiring if Braille is necessary is like asking if print is still important. For people who are blind, knowing Braille is the equivalent of knowing to read and write print by someone with sight. I began learning Braille during preschool, the same time my sighted classmates were learning print. Braille allows those of us without sight to learn to read and write. What’s most important, it teaches us to spell and the rules of grammar and punctuation. It would be difficult at the very least to learn all of this by simply listening to audio materials.

Braille is important even for adults who already know how to read and write. It has long been known that learning Braille can be a tremendous challenge for older adults. Diseases like diabetes make it difficult to be able to decipher the dots by touch. Not to mention the complex nature of the Braille system, which some describe as similar to learning a new language. Still, people who lose their sight at a later age should learn basic Braille. It will help them with simple things like reading elevator signs and labeling household items.

I am not undermining the importance and helpfulness of today’s assistive technology by any means. Thousands of people with vision loss now have greater access to print books and other documents thanks to new devices and software. I can read important letters in a matter of seconds without having to wait for them to be transcribed into Braille or for someone to read them to me. This is incredibly helpful both at home and on the job.  I am sure that new devices like the one I recently read about will continue to allow people who are blind to have more access to the printed word, resulting in greater independence.

Braille will always be an important means of reading and writing for people without sight. Although audio books and screen-reading technology help us have instant access to print materials, nothing can substitute the confidence and independence that reading and writing Braille provides. Both Braille and technology are equally important for people who are blind, and this will always be true no matter the time period we live in.

Commentary: Making Print Documents and Business Truly Accessible

Many organizations and advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired are constantly working to make restaurants more accessible and inclusive. Last week, an article in the Boston Globe about making Braille menus available in restaurants caught my attention. It also made me think about why Braille and other accessible formats are needed in restaurants and other public facilities.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone to restaurants with Braille menus. As the article points out, many times restaurant owners don’t fully understand the need for Braille menus, or the staff might be unaware they have them. On the rare instances I get my hands – literally – on a Braille menu, I can read through all the choices without having to rely on others. I find this convenient, because instead of spending those first few minutes reading the menu to me, my sighted companion can focus on deciding what he or she will have. This makes me feel included and just like everyone else in the restaurant.

It is equally important to have other accessibility methods in place for people who don’t know, or cannot read Braille. The National Federation of the Blind estimates that only 10 percent of people who are blind in the United States read Braille, and this is due to a variety of factors. This shows that other methods – like accessible restaurant websites or providing menus in audio format – are as important as Braille menus. One such example is Tappy Menu, a mobile app we have previously covered on this blog. This app not only allows people with visual impairments to browse menus independently, but it also lets restaurants update the information.

Accessibility goes far beyond having menus everyone can read. Restaurant and other personnel working in the customer service industry can greatly benefit from disability awareness training. Many times when I go to restaurants, the waiter will ask my companion what I will have instead of asking me directly. A friend who uses a wheelchair once had a waitress bring along an employee who happened to know sign language to her table because the waitress assumed my friend was deaf! I can’t say I am angry at these employees. I know it is quite likely they have never interacted with customers with disabilities, and therefore don’t know what to do. Disability awareness training for managers and the wait staff can help alleviate these problems.

Having materials in accessible format is also important in other settings. Most of the time when I go to doctors’ appointments, open a new bank account or do other business involving paperwork, the forms are not accessible. I need to have someone – either a friend, family member or even staff –read the information out loud. This means those nearby can hear my personal information, and not to mention the time consuming process of telling whomever is helping me fill out the forms what to write. By providing forms and information in Braille, large print, audio or electronic format, we can choose the best option for our needs.

The ADA requires that restaurant menus and other publications be accessible to people with disabilities. I applaud the numerous measures taken by restaurants to make menus available in Braille, and hope that more will follow in their footsteps. Not all people who are blind or visually impaired read Braille, and that is why it is important to provide menus and other documents in alternative media. By doing this, businesses will build environments that are truly accessible and inclusive for everyone.

Commentary: Making Braille Affordable and Fun with Legos

Lately, developers are turning to legos to come up with new ways of making and teaching Braille. In 2014, 13 year old Shubham Banerjee created the Braigo, a light-weight and affordable Braille printer. While the printer is not actually made from Legos, Banerjee was inspired by the popular toy to create the concept. Now, designers from Lew’Lara\TBWA in Brazil have developed Braille Bricks, blocks similar to Legos with Braille letters and numbers. Besides learning the alphabet, blind children can use the blocks as toys to build things.

There’s no better time for the development of these and other innovations, which will hopefully increase the Braille literacy rate among people who are blind in the United States and elsewhere. It is estimated that only about 12 percent of children who are blind in the United States know Braille. This is a significant contrast to 50 years ago, when over 50 percent of children learned the system. While some might say that Braille is becoming obsolete with all of today’s technology innovations, I – and other advocates – are in complete disagreement. After all, it would be unacceptable if our sighted counterparts didn’t know how to read or write.

Both the Braigo printer and Braille Bricks have an enormous potential of increasing the literacy rate among blind individuals. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the expensive nature of Braille embossers. It is expected that the new Braille printer being developed by Banerjee and his team will cost much less – around $300. I think this would greatly increase the access and affordability of these devices. As a result, more children and adults could have immediate access to Braille materials.

Currently, few toys and fun games exist for young Braille learners. Braille is typically learned by typing on a Perkins Braille writer – a machine similar to an old-fashioned typewriter but with less keys. Toys like the Braille Bricks would make learning Braille fun and exciting for children. Given that they are almost identical to Lego blocks, both children with and without sight can play together. This would promote integration and inclusion, something that should be instilled early on in life.

We are often lead to believe that technology is the only solution to today’s problems, but these two examples show us that sometimes the simplest of things can create innovative and far-reaching solutions. Both the Braigo printer and Braille Bricks can potentially change how people learn and access Braille all over the world. The low Braille literacy rate among children is an issue that should be taken seriously and which can be addressed by these new inventions. By using both old and new technologies, future generations of blind children and adults will have more access to Braille and therefore be fully integrated into society.