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Braille literacy has been in dramatic decline. Yet in Bristol, users and innovators are joining forces to create technology to save it.

Words & Photo: Ann Burke

“Braille is an incredibly powerful tool for control over your life and for employment. Braille is essential to literacy for visually impaired people and for so many practical, day-to-day tasks.”

That’s the view of Paul Sullivan, an engagement officer at Bristol Museum and lifelong braille user. He’s passionate about braille literacy and is a founding member of the Braillists, a community of users and advocates with branches in Bristol, Reading and Dublin.

09-braille-reading-the-canute-credit-ann-burke-featThe group came together when they were invited to product-test an exciting new device. Developed by community interest company Bristol Braille Technology, the Canute is essentially a braille e-book reader with a refreshable display, which can read and convert files from a USB stick.

Inventor and director Ed Rogers, an animator by training, started Bristol Braille Technology in 2012 to provide affordable braille technology. That year Kevin Carey, the chair of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), declared that “braille is on the verge of a global catastrophe”.

How does the Canute work?

Any text file can be converted to electronic braille format on a computer and put on a USB stick. This goes into the Canute, which uses physical mechanisms to raise and lower braille dots to create lines of text. It essentially acts like a library: the Canute’s buttons enable users to navigate through menus their desired material and to ‘turn pages’. When changing the page, the lines adjust in a ripple from top to bottom.

Worldwide decline

Printed braille was first developed by Louis Braille in 1824. But declining use over the last 40 years has led to concerns it could become a dead medium.
The decline can be partly attributed to visually impaired children’s integration into schools, where less time is dedicated to teaching braille. Advances in audio material and technology, from the cassette to synthesised speech, have played their part too. In educational settings, audiobooks were regarded as an easier, more efficient alternative, so fewer and fewer visually impaired children became braille literate.

Sullivan, however, believes braille literacy is vital for independence: “It’s the simple things: being able to label your medicine or CDs; being able to function within the workplace. Voice technology is wonderful, but isn’t practical when I need notes to deliver a presentation or training to colleagues. It doesn’t allow me to take in information, speak and interact simultaneously – only braille does that.”

Yet while technology may be to blame for putting those benefits in the shade, it may also be its saving grace. When we catch up with Sullivan and fellow Braillist, Dave Tyler, they’re testing the mark 9 prototype of the Canute. The Canute project, they explain, is an opportunity to bridge the divide between visually impaired people and those developing their technology.

“Often in the world of accessibility, people design things and, when they’re a long way into the process, they consult the people who will use them,” says Sullivan. “They find designs need to be changed or scrapped, which is expensive, time-consuming and, ultimately, discouraging for all involved.”

It’s a sentiment Tyler echoes. “It’s nice to get in on the ground floor,” he says. “Our involvement can keep things pointed in the right direction – that’s exciting.”

Power through affordability

It’s not, however, just braille users’ direct input that sets the Canute’s development apart. “The powerful thing is that it’s going to be affordable,” says Sullivan.

engineer-russ-at-bristol-hackspace-credit-bristol-cableRogers and his team of largely freelance engineers, operating out of Bristol Hackspace, in Bedminster, have developed a mechanism for refreshing the braille display made from ‘off the shelf’ components, slashing production costs. The Canute’s market price on release next year will be in the hundreds rather than the thousands, as is the case with existing e-readers.

Another defining feature is the device’s multi-line display. Existing technologies are single-line, which limits their use. Maths equations, for example, are very difficult to solve with only a single-line display – a huge disadvantage for blind students.

Sullivan already envisions many future applications for the Canute’s technology. “Museums, railway stations, hotels – anywhere you find screen displays of information that’s subject to change, Canute technology has the potential to be extremely useful,” he says.

The future is an adaptable one, adds Rogers. “Canute technology is one product at the moment, but it’s flexible… there could be dozens of products based on it.”

As a not-for-profit enterprise, Bristol Braille Technology survives primarily on grants. “Our limitations made us creative,” says Rogers. The lack of major financial backing was restrictive, he continues, “but it stopped us from drifting off in the way that larger projects have”. Anagraphs, a braille e-reader project by Leicestershire-based Pera Technology, was effectively scrapped after a couple of years, having received £1.2 million of EU investment. The Canute has cost just £190,000 to date.

During the same speech in which he declared that braille was on the verge of a global catastrophe, Carey called for radical action to stop it dying out. As they battle daily with miniature componentry and the trials of 3D printing, Rogers and his team may not feel like they are doing something radical. Yet their eventual success can transform the lives of braille users and, hopefully, along with the work of advocates like the Braillists, bring the medium back from the brink.

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