The Touch of Genius Prize: Recognizing Braille Innovation

By Hannah Ransom Canning, Executive Assistant

When I first started in September 2016, I received a full breakdown of tasks that I would be fulfilling in my new position as Executive Assistant to the President. One of these tasks was taking on the role of the Program Administrator of the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. It seemed a little intimidating that I would be managing all of the coordination for submitters and calls and meetings for our Adjudication Committee.

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However, having now worked with the team to bring this competition to its fruition, I couldn’t imagine a more understanding and helpful group of people who are dedicated to fulfilling the meaning behind this prize. The Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize was developed to inspire innovators to support tactile literacy. After putting out a call for applications, we received 18 submissions from around the world that displayed their best efforts and ideas to continue supporting braille or other tactile literacy innovations. After careful deliberation, the Adjudication Committee decided our winner was John Hudelson, for his submission of BELLA. BELLA is the Braille Early Learning and Literacy Arcade, a programmable, educational software and hardware gaming platform using audio, visual, and tactile feedback to teach pre-braille skills, braille reading, and braille writing. By inserting a card with a barcode on it programmed for one of the four games or story option, you can interact with the device to use BELLA in a variety of teaching methods. The games KeyCrush, Whack-A-Dot. Cell Spotter, and Alphabet Cards are used to teach the chords of the braille alphabet, finger dexterity, and letter association between letters, braille cells, phenomes, and words by following prompts on the brailed barcode cards. The committee tested all of these features and were impressed by BELLA’s responsiveness and ability to program different cards for some of the games.

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The committee also selected Mandy Lau’s Reach and Match Learning Kit and Inclusive Learning Program for an honorable mention. This kit and its accompanying curriculum is designed for children with vision impairment as well as those with multiple needs to develop braille literacy and communication & social skills through tactile strategies and play-based activities. The kit contains mats that are differentiated in a variety of ways. On one side, they have a color: red, blue, green, or yellow, with a corresponding raised-line pattern. On the opposite side, there is a large brailled and large print block and an indented line to follow this “Braille Trail” to learn the braille alphabet. The Reach and Match Kit’s curriculum includes many programs to help preschool and kindergarten teachers.

From this competition, I have discovered how many creative individuals there are who are researching and developing new ideas. The submissions we received showed much promise and ingenuity, and the committee encouraged many of the submitters to improve their designs and consider submitting an application next year. Administering the Touch of Genius Prize gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of braille literacy, and I am looking forward to learning even more.

Six Dots: NBP’s plans for the New Year

Each year at NBP, we look forward to celebrating two very important days: New Year’s Day, which is all about setting goals for the upcoming year; and Louis Braille’s birthday (January 4th), which inspires us to be as bold and ambitious in our goals as he was in his life.

Louis Braille’s intellectual curiosity and determination drove him to create the braille code, which has brought literacy and independence to countless blind children and adults. Share his amazing life story with Jen Bryant’s new picture book, Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille, now available in print/braille.

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Inspired by his example, we at NBP will never stop advocating relentlessly for braille and braille literacy.

We will continue to grow our innovative Great Expectations program, which brings picture books to life for blind children through song, tactile play, engaged listening, and body movement. We will continue to serve families and teachers of the blind and visually impaired with our ReadBooks! program, which provides free bags of beginning braille materials to early braille learners to engage them early towards a path of braille literacy. We will continue to offer the fun Children’s Braille Book Club, which puts popular children’s books into the hands of children on a monthly basis. And, most importantly, we will continue to develop new, creative, and original children’s programs to meet the needs of all our young readers.

In addition to growing our children’s programs, here is what we have in the works for the new year:

  • We pledge to advocate for every blind and visually impaired child, veteran, and adult to have the tools and opportunities to learn braille.  We will continue to provide braille materials in every format that is needed to support braille literacy, including developing e-braille solutions at the lowest price possible.
  • We will strive to continue to expand our outreach and education with braille courses, offering training in Unified English Braille in the spring and specialty workshops on tactile graphics, formats, and technical materials in the months that follow.
  • Just as you’ve always been able to rely on NBP’s Publications department for excellent books on Apple/iOS products, our goal for the new year is to provide equally exciting books on Android-based apps and devices. In 2016 we published Getting Started with Android and plan to add even more books to serve the wide-ranging technology interests of our community.
  • In 2017, we also want to focus on getting more face-to-face time with our customers, by attending more exhibits and conventions around the country. We get so many ideas and so much good, constructive feedback when our customers have the opportunity to browse our books and products in person!
  • Attending more conferences nationwide will also give us the opportunity to network with additional businesses, educating them on the importance of providing braille materials.
  • Finally, we will strive to connect more with our customers and supporters by hosting more Because Braille Matters luncheons across the country, bringing the A Million Laughs for Literacy Gala to more people, developing activities and events that showcase our mission, and increasing the number of Literacy Champions who donate to us each month.

Updated 1/24/17

When Pigs Fly? A Full Page Braille Display with Real-Time Tactile Graphics

One of these days a blind or low vision person will be able to read on their device a periodical like National Geographic or Newsweek, or even a textbook or standardized test, and not only will the information be translated into braille and displayed in full page format, but the device will also instantly produce tactile images or graphics. ‘When pigs fly’ some of you say—but the response shouldn’t be ‘it’s impossible,’ it should be, ‘when will it happen?’

Every year National Braille Press produces thousands of pages of braille for tests and textbooks including hard copy raised tactile graphics for students. Unfortunately, the ability to render tactile images in real time on a device has not yet come to fruition, at least not with the affordability or resolution that is really needed to be effective. However, that long search for the ‘Holy Braille’ is finally starting to show some exciting promise.

Amazing advances in technology are leveraging new, affordable approaches to raise a braille pin or to render an image in unconventional ways, and we at NBP have created the Center for Braille Innovation (CBI) to act as a global information broker and champion for just such breakthroughs in engineering design. We want blind students and adults in the workplace to have the same tools as their sighted peers, and to be able to compete and experience the ‘Internet of Things’ like everyone else, so we build the partnerships needed to keep us on the cutting edge.

Through the CBI we have built relationships and partnerships with the University of Michigan,  MIT, IBM, Google, Northeastern University, India, China, and others to find the right mix of components and features that can be leveraged to create a tablet for the blind—and that can be manufactured affordably. Economies of scale are a critical fact of life in the affordability of a product, and if it can be built into existing, mainstream products with a universal design, everyone wins.

Through a relationship with an Indian company founded by two MIT doctoral engineers, we launched the Tactile Caliper, a low cost, mechanical, refreshable braille ruler that allows accurate measurements to the 1/16th of an inch (a metric version is also in the pipeline).

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Photo: Tactile Caliper measuring object

And in partnership with the innovative Deane Blazie, we launched the B2G earlier this year, our first refreshable braille consumer electronic product.

The B2G uses a conventional piezo-electric method to raise braille pins, but our design also allows for OEM options for any future successful methodology. We developed it for two reasons: First, we wanted to lower the price for consumers so that more people could afford this indispensable tool. Second, we wanted consumers to have control over customization; our B2G allows them to add or delete the apps they want and to change user features to suit their own, individual needs. For example, customers can use the Echolink app to turn the B2G into a ham radio station.

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Photo: Green and Gray B2G’s

 

Last week an Anheuser Busch semi-tractor trailer delivered 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer on a 120-mile journey without a human at the wheel. This robotic delivery of beer shipped through Denver to Colorado Springs and was called “uneventful.” The technology revolution is in full swing and unfortunately the blind and low vision world has not been top of mind for many designers. Yes, driverless cars and trucks will be an indirect and valuable benefit for BVIs and PWDs, but that wasn’t the motivation to create them. We believe that access to information, especially e-braille outputs, must be included in all products and we will never stop advocating for and championing new technologies that have the potential to serve the blind community.

So, one of these days you may be zipping down the road in a driverless car, and reading a story on your accessible braille tablet while feeling the raised tactile image of that pig flying after all.

By Brian Mac Donald, President, NBP

A Blind Voter’s Story

For my last birthday, my two daughters presented me with a truly awesome and thoughtful gift: a contribution to National Braille Press. In their note, they recalled the wonderful bedtime reading rituals with their dad. We all loved NBP’s children’s braille books, and as they’ve grown up, they’ve hung onto those books. Perhaps someday I’ll get to read those (and new NBP books) to grandchildren, but that seems a good way off yet.

Now, what does this have to do with voting? Like reading, our participation in this most wonderful civic activity, voting, is a family affair. I remember the four of us walking into our local polling place a few years back when our youngest daughter came of voting age. By the way, it was a primary election in a non-presidential year. As you likely know, mid-term primary elections have woefully low turnout, but there we were, showing up to welcome our daughter as she joined the electorate for her first vote. Oh yes, her older sister is most assuredly a dedicated voter too, and she was lucky enough to be in school in Ohio when Bruce Springsteen was doing campus shows to energize young voters, and she taunts me to this day about getting to stand within 15 feet of him while he played acoustic guitar. Ugh!

I love voting, always have. For years, people with vision loss usually had to request some kind of assistance to cast their ballot. But, after widespread voting problems in 2000, advocates, including me, worked to get the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed. This law included accessibility requirements. As a result, I remember excitedly casting my first truly independent vote in the 2002 primary election in Maryland. I practically skipped out of the booth. The only thing that rivaled it was getting to mark a ballot to vote for my wife for school board back in Illinois.

OK, so, what does this have to do with braille? First, individuals who use braille as their reading medium should be provided an absentee ballot in braille, if requested. Braille ballots never really emerged as a practical access solution for voting at the local polling place, but braille is a critical tool for research and learning about voting and candidates. When independent access to newspapers and candidate information became possible for me with the emergence of online information in the 90s, I was thrilled to be able to prepare my own braille guide listing candidates and a bit of background. Thus armed, I knew I could vote independently, even spelling the names of my preferred candidates if for some reason that was necessary.

Just recently, I requested a braille sample ballot from my county Board of Elections. This is something I encourage everyone with a need for accessible media to do. The braille document is on its way, and just like my sighted family members who received a print sample ballot, I’ll have mine in my preferred accessible version. Then, I plan to show up at my polling place, and with an audio interface to the ballot, make my choices independently and privately.

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Photo: Massachusetts Information for Voters, 2016 Ballot Questions, Braille Edition

Of course, the four of us Schroeders will all be voting in November, though alas, with the daughters away at school, we’ll not be able to go to the polling place together.

As I prepare to vote, and as another birthday comes around to remind me of my daughters’ gift to me and NBP last year, I’ll be using braille as one of my key tools for independence, and I’ll be thanking NBP for making braille widespread, commonplace, and yes, even, cool.

Our friends over at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) have assembled a very nice newsletter about voting at the following web link:

Sources:

http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/research-navigator-a-quarterly-series-on-research-in-blindness-and-visual-impairment/research-navigator-voters-with-vision-loss-in-the-2016-elections/235

By Paul Schroeder

Introducing the Braille Caliper at NFB

I visited the NFB National Convention 2016 in Orlando representing Squirrel Devices and the Tactile Caliper at the National Braille Press booth. It was the first time I visited a full scale convention on Assistive Technology and Rehabilitation. I have been to smaller, regional conventions in the United States and India, however, the size and scale of this convention set it apart from my previous experiences.

As an inventor of the Tactile Caliper, my primary objective was to meet and interact with users of the caliper. I stood around NBP’s exhibit and saw visitors specially seeking NBP’s table to buy books, jewelry, and the caliper! I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to several students and parents who had used the caliper earlier, or were looking forward to using the ones they had just bought.

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New users are always surprised to find a braille display on the caliper. Their faces light up with the joy of refreshable braille on a device this simple and affordable. More familiar users continue to praise the device for its quality, simplicity, and usefulness. Users have invented several new applications of the caliper beyond drawing and geometry. Some use it along a triple beam balance to accurately measure weights. Others use it to teach new pupils numbers and fractions. One thing we have realized at Squirrel Devices is that the caliper has helped students not only learn and practice geometry, but also to appreciate and access braille itself. It has helped students have fun while they perform better in all STEM subjects.

Inventing the caliper and bringing it into the hands of users has been an exhilarating experience for me, and the convention was a high point in this unique journey. At Squirrel Devices, we continue to influence the future of STEM education through our devices and instruments. I look forward to more conventions like NFB in the future. They are the best opportunities for inventors and users to meet and learn from each other.

By Pranay Jain