More Than a Perkins Brailler: A Review of the Mountbatten Brailler, Part 2
In the first part of this article, published in the January 2005 issue of AccessWorld, I discussed some of the basic features of the Mountbatten Pro, features that would be especially useful for young students or beginners to braille reading and writing. These features included basic embossing, using different speech modes (and for what purpose), erasing errors, changing the embossing impact, and using the one-handed mode for brailling. These features are available in Learn mode, which is the default mode for the machine. In this article, I present some of the advanced features of the Mountbatten that can be used by more-proficient students and classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, or family members who do not know braille but need to create materials for children or adults who are blind. These features may also be used by adults who are learning braille and have had experience with word processing. Directions for using some of these features will be familiar to people who have had experience with accessible personal digital assistants (PDAs) as well.
Features, Features, and More Features
One of the most useful features of the Mountbatten, and one that greatly adds to its usefulness in the classroom, is its forward-translation ability. This feature allows someone who does not know braille to connect a PC keyboard to the device, type in a file, and have the Mountbatten braille the file. This feature is a boon to any classroom teacher or paraprofessional who does not know braille but needs to provide braille materials immediately for a student (for example, in the absence of the teacher of students with visual impairments). Let's say, for example, that it is the end of the school day and the classroom teacher is reviewing the day's activities with the students by writing a story on chart paper, while the children sit on the floor in front of the chart. This is a common classroom scenario, and one in which the child who is visually impaired may be a passive observer, rather than an active participant, if the teacher of students with visual impairments is not present. With the Mountbatten, however, the classroom teacher or a paraprofessional can type in the story on a keyboard as it is being written on the chart, and the Mountbatten can then provide an instant braille copy. Now the braille reader can have a copy of the story to read while the other children read from the chart, and the teacher can lead the entire class in this learning activity.
Caption: The Mountbatten Brailler.
And it is that simple--almost. With a keyboard or a computer connected to the Mountbatten, the machine will translate from the input device and create hard-copy braille. The trick is that the user must first put the Mountbatten in the Forward Translation mode. When a keyboard is attached to the Mountbatten, the device immediately starts brailling whatever is being typed in, but it will be in the computer braille code. For some files, such as simple spelling lists of words, it may not make much difference. But for a file that needs to use the capital dot and literary punctuation, not to mention contractions, the Mountbatten must first be told to go into Forward Translation mode. Then the Mountbatten will produce either contracted or uncontracted literary braille--whichever it is set to do. This is an important point that must be understood clearly by the teacher of students with visual impairments and must be part of the training that the teacher gives to anyone who uses the device to create braille.
Luckily, it is easy to get the Mountbatten to translate from print to hard-copy braille. First, the Mountbatten must be in Advanced mode. Attach the keyboard to the PS2 slot in the back of the Mountbatten. Commands can be entered into either the Mountbatten or the keyboard. With the keyboard, the Escape key acts as the command, and the End key acts as Enter. (The Mountbatten will say "on" when this is done.) When the command FE is typed in and the Enter key is pressed, the user can then type sentences and stories using the keyboard. After a pause while the machine translates chunks of text, the Mountbatten will then emboss the story. The default is contracted braille, so if uncontracted braille is desired, that command needs to be set on the Mountbatten before the machine is put in the Forward Translation mode. If several sentences are typed in quickly, the Mountbatten will start embossing, and when it gets to the next line, it will wait for you to hit the Return key before it continues. This way, you can choose to have it emboss all at once or bit by bit as information is entered. When the Mountbatten embosses several lines at a time, it embosses in a zigzag pattern; that is, it embosses the second line from right to left to save time as it swings back to the beginning of the line.
One feature that I briefly mentioned in the first part of this article is the ability for some contractions, but not others, to be embossed. This feature is called the Braille Exception Table, which can be used in both the Learn mode and the Advanced mode. The Mountbatten uses the list of contractions as they are found in the American Printing House for the Blind's Patterns series, although it is possible to create a personal list as well. Thus, the Mountbatten will emboss only the contractions that have been introduced to date and will use uncontracted braille for the rest. For example, if a student has learned the whole word and upper-cell contractions but not the lower-cell contractions, the Mountbatten can be set to translate only the contractions that are included in the particular Braille Exception Tables. There are 13 sets of contractions listed in an appendix to the Mountbatten manual, and each set lists the contractions that are included. For example, the set called "Patterns 1" includes the "alphabet words" (but, can, do, and so forth), "Patterns 2" set includes whole and part words of and, for, of, the, and with, and so on. Each set has to be entered into the Mountbatten separately.
The toggle feature (described in the first part of this article) applies with this command, so that the Mountbatten will tell you whether that set of contractions is on or off. With this feature, you can skip around and add specific contractions and patterns that the reader knows. This feature may be easiest to apply with adults who have been print readers and are learning braille, since they tend to learn contractions in chunks like this. With children, learning to read contractions is rarely this simple, since contractions may be introduced in other contexts and in a different order as children learn to read and write. Still, it is a useful option to have available.
Save Now, Braille Later
Another useful feature is the ability to save files into the Mountbatten to be embossed at a later time. The teacher of students with visual impairments can use this option to enter a file into the Mountbatten ahead of time--say, this week's spelling words or a list of homework tasks--and tell the student the file name. The student can then independently bring up the file and have it emboss by entering the command "pr" and then typing the file name and hitting Enter. Students can also save their own files, such as the draft of a paper, to add to or work on later. The Emboss mode can be turned off before a file is entered, so that you can compose silently and then print out the file later. The file can also be edited in speech.
I had trouble with the Editor feature, and after struggling to figure it out from the directions in the manual, I finally called tech support. The reason I had difficulty was easy to fix: The Mountbatten must be in Synthetic Speech mode to work, an important point that was not mentioned in the manual. Once I knew that trick, it was easy to use the Editor to change and add to files.
The Mountbatten can also back translate; that is, it can translate braille into print by connecting it to a printer. For students who like to write in braille, having the option of printing a document in print for the classroom teacher, for a friend who does not read braille, or for any other reason is a helpful option. The process works in the same way as the Forward Translation feature, in that a command is entered, the text is entered in braille with the Mountbatten, and then the printer prints a line at a time. It is important to know that the Mountbatten only works with "line printers" (which print one line at a time), such as dot-matrix and most bubble-jet printers, but will not connect to a laser printer. I was able to connect the machine to an Epson dot matrix printer, which dutifully printed while I was embossing. If you have access to an old Apple Image Writer, save it for the Mountbatten. I hope that the manufacturer is working on an upgrade of the Mountbatten, so it will work with a wider variety of printers, because this feature adds a great deal to the versatility of the machine.
The Mountbatten holds a charge for a long time, which is particularly helpful for use in school. The device will inform you of whether it is charging when it is turned on, and you can check the battery level. The Mountbatten beeps intermittently to remind you that it is on if it has not been used for a while.
The Mountbatten can also be used as a simple calculator and as a scientific calculator. I did not fully explore these options, but directions for their use can be downloaded from the Optelec web site (the American distributor of the Mountbatten).
But How Do I Use It?
I found that the most important trick for using the Mountbatten successfully is to input commands in the correct sequence. I sometimes found this sequence difficult to figure out because although the manual gives the name of the command, it does not always give the correct sequence for multiple commands. You must often figure out this sequence by trial and error. Remembering which commands to do in which sequence may also be confusing. For example, I wanted to do Forward Translation but in uncontracted braille with the speech off--a setting that I could see would be of great use in the classroom--but I had to try to do so a couple of times to make sure I had the correct sequence. It is helpful that the Mountbatten is good at remembering its settings, so when the machine is turned off, it will turn on again with the same settings it had when it was on last. It may take the teacher and student a few tries (and a cheat-sheet) to get common sequences down pat, but like any technological device, practice makes perfect. After a while, the settings become familiar and even second nature.
As I stated in the first part of the article, the Mountbatten is in desperate need of a user-friendly manual. The fact (noted earlier) that the manual does not tell you that the Editor works only when the Mountbatten is set for synthetic speech is an example of the many gaps that I found in the manual. I decided to review this machine as many teachers experience it: receiving the machine without any training and having to teach myself how to use it with nothing but the manual. Teachers of students with visual impairments often experience the scenario of their supervisor coming in with a large box, putting it on the desk, saying "Here's that technology thing you ordered," and then leaving. It is often up to them to figure out how a device works, what tricks to use to get it to work, and how to troubleshoot. A good manual is a huge time-saver for a busy teacher--and for a busy reviewer as well. Although technical support and training are available from Optelec (the U.S. distributor), many teachers do not have the time to telephone Optelec during the school day or cannot get time off to attend a workshop.
The Mountbatten is definitely a device that improves when you have had some training. It does so many things, and I am afraid that users will not take advantage of all its capacity or features in the absence of a decent manual or without receiving direct instruction through a workshop or tech support. You may get frustrated trying to figure out the directions from the current manual or will not take the time necessary to experiment with the features to configure them the way you want them to be. If so, you will not get all you can from the Mountbatten, and it would be a shame to use it as nothing more than a brailler.
The teacher of students with visual impairments is also left to figure out not just how to make the Mountbatten work, but how to teach it to his or her students. So I am happy to say that Special Education Technology-British Columbia, familiarly known as SET-BC, has come to the rescue. Graham Cook has developed a set of lessons for teachers and students that will be of great help to teachers who want to use the Mountbatten in their classrooms. Visit SET-BC's web site <www.setbc.org> or go directly to the URL <www.setbc.org/res/mbpro/default.html> to download the Mountbatten curriculum materials that SET-BC has developed. And as I mentioned in the first part of this article, Quantum Technology also has an excellent CD with easy-to-follow directions for basic features. It would be an enormous benefit if Quantum developed a version that explained some of the more advanced features of this multifaceted machine.
Although the many features of the Mountbatten seem to be overwhelming at first, a teacher of students with visual impairments can slowly add features and options as a student gains proficiency. At first, some features may seem to be less useful than others, but the fact that they exist gives users more options. For example, I did not see the usefulness of being able to set the left margin until I had to use paper that was three-hole punched. Then I could see why such a feature had been built in and was grateful for the ease with which I could set that option. The many features that are available for formatting and the many combinations of options make the Mountbatten truly versatile and able to meet individual needs.
The Bottom Line
Many of the features that are found in the Mountbatten are also available in other devices or can be produced in other ways. For example, an accessible PDA can save files, edit them, connect to peripherals, and so on, and most PDAs are small enough to fit in a briefcase or backpack. The Mountbatten is certainly less portable than a PDA. However, it is more than a PDA and more than a brailler. Like a PDA, it has speech for auditory feedback, works with other peripherals, and has a host of other features. But the greatest advantage of the Mountbatten is its ability to create hard-copy braille quickly from files without the need for an intervening machine (such as a separate braille embosser). For people who love "real" paper braille--as opposed to refreshable braille displays--the Mountbatten combines the best features of an accessible PDA and an embosser. This makes it a powerful classroom tool, one that can be used to create a braille-rich environment, surrounding the braille reader with as much braille as his or her peers have print.
I can also see the Mountbatten serving as a bridge between hard-copy braille and electronic text as the student gains experiences with electronic files, editing, and publishing. For young children, having that bridge between hard copy and more "virtual" content can be a useful step in their writing development. Eventually, students will learn to use a PC, an accessible PDA, a refreshable braille display for electronic books, and so forth. The Mountbatten can provide immediate braille in kindergarten and will still be useful for older students who are learning to use more advanced features. The Mountbatten may not be for everyone (what device is?), but it fills a unique niche, and one that can definitely meet the needs of individual students, especially those who need or want to use paper braille.
"One of our biggest challenges with the Mountbatten has been to communicate effectively all that it can do, so thanks again to AccessWorld for this excellent review. Moving to an electronic device for early braille instruction can be challenging for some teachers of visually impaired students; however, this is typically not the case for the students. For them, the Mountbatten can help engender a sense of excitement about braille, provide a simple "bridge" between print and braille, and be the solid foundation on which they build the technology skills they will need throughout life. The criticism of the manual has been noted and will be rectified. In the meantime, the 'MB Pro: A Visual Guide,' available at <www.setbc.org> and our training CD are highly recommended. A new web site will be online in early March at <www.mountbattenbrailler.com>, which will contain some excellent resources, as well as information and news about the exciting plans for the Mountbatten in the future. The Mountbatten will continue to grow to meet the challenges that students who use braille face in our increasingly digital multimedia world."
Manufacturer: Quantum Technology, P.O. Box 390, Rydalmere NSW 2116, Australia; phone: 61-2-9684-2077; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.quantech.com.au>.
U.S. Distributor: Optelec, 321 Billerica Road, Chelmsford, MA 01824; phone: 978-392-0707 or 800-828-1056; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.optelec.com>.
The Braille Teacher's Pal: A Review of SAL by Frances Mary D'Andrea
More than a Perkins Brailler: A Review of the Mountbatten Brailler, Part 1 by Frances Mary D'Andrea
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