National Inventors Month
After I went blind some 20 years ago, I needed tools to adjust to my new life. I knew that as a blind person I wasn’t going to be very successful without some kind of accommodation or modification to the way I was living and moving in the world. May is National Inventors Month and I am very appreciative of the things that were created to not only help me regain independence but have a fuller and richer life. For example, I love my white cane for traveling. My metal guides for signing documents and writing checks. My talking and braille watches and clocks for time management. However, the three inventions that changed my life the most are talking books, screen readers and braille. I use these tools daily and wouldn’t know how to function without them.
Invention of the Talking Book
Thomas Edison originally wanted his Phonograph to be a talking book device for the blind. So, in 1877, he applied for a patent. One of the ten potential uses he listed was “phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.” Interestingly, this item was second in his list of ten; “reproduction of music” was fourth. It would take over 50 years before the Phonograph could be used for talking books. This was due to technology and economic challenges. In 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project established the “Talking Books Program” (Books for the Blind), which was intended to provide reading material for veterans injured during World War I and other visually impaired adults. Later, Learning Ally and the American Printing House for the Blind also produced talking books. The first test recordings, in 1932 included a chapter from Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. The organization received congressional approval for exemption from copyright and free postal distribution of talking books.
Since those early days of vinyl records, talking books have evolved. First with cassette tapes in the 1960s and 1970s. Then compact disks in the 1980s and 1990s. Today it is digital downloads from a computer. The options of reading materials have also expanded with a wide range of fiction, non-fiction, magazines, foreign languages and other selections to choose from. Additionally, the NLS National Library for the Blind and Print Disabled has become the dominant source for free reading materials. Today, audio books have gathered universal mass appeal with both sighted and blind people enjoying them. This is so true because I participate in two book discussion groups with sighted peers. Some of them enjoy reading books in audio verses print. I remember when I first joined the talking book library it kept my love of reading going. The ability to access books in audio format has kept the world accessible to me. I have been able to learn, grow and be entertained because I can read books in this format.
Invention of the Screen reader
In 1986 Jim Thatcher, IBM Researcher and Accessibility Pioneer, created the first screen reader at IBM. It was called the IBM Screen Reader for DOS. At first it wasn’t trademarked because it was primarily for low vision staff members. Since it was created for DOS, which is a text-based Desktop Operating System he later created a Screen Reader 2. This one would be used for graphical interface PCs such as Windows 95 and IBM OS/2.
IBM wasn’t the only company developing screen readers. Freedom scientific produced JAWS, currently the world’s most popular screen reader. It was developed first for DOS and then Windows. I have been using JAWS since 1998 or so and it has revolutionized my life. First, it has allowed me to keep working. Second, it has allowed me to access personal information to maintain my quality of life. I can handle my finances, do internet searches, send emails, and even write this blog post.
in 2009, Apple announced a new feature called VoiceOver making their products more accessible to people with visual impairments using the touch interface of the iPhone beginning with the iPhone 3GS. VoiceOver is the screen reader built into Apple operating systems including macOS, iOS/iPadOS, and WatchOS. Initially I was not on board with the iPhone. It took some time because of its flat surface yet eventually I bit the apple. Now I use my iPhone daily and listen to the AppleVIS podcast to keep up with the latest trends.
Invention of Braille
Braille is a code created for reading and writing. This code is a series of raised dots on paper. The braille code is made up of letters, numbers and symbols. It is not another language. The alphabet is based on a cell that is composed of 6 or 8 dots, arranged in two columns of 3 or 4 dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the dots that are contained in the cell. Braille is usually found in a large book format on doubled sided paper to maximize space and can be read for math, science and music.
Born in 1809, Louis Braille was a Frenchman who lost his vision from an accident as a small child. When it was apparent that he could not be educated by just listening, his family enrolled him in the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. While there, as a teenager Braille began the process to create a reading and writing system by touch. He continued to perfect the system and as an adult became an instructor at the Institution. Unfortunately, Braille’s method was not accepted by the sighted instructors and he died in 1852 never seeing his creation used by the blind. Eventually, the code was accepted and today this system is used all over the world.
I use braille mostly to read labels created with my braille Dymo label machine. These labels are great for all kinds of things like my spices, file folders in my home office, music CDs, and even lipstick tubes. I also read braille on calendars, greeting cards and bathroom signs. Got to know which door is the lady’s room, you know!
Without these inventions I am not sure what my life would be or look like. I actually shutter at the thought. I am grateful for the people who designed and created these devices to help me have a better life as a blind person.