February 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 2

Letter to the Editor

An AccessWorld Reader Shares his Discontent with the Reliability of Braille Notetakers

Dear AccessWorld:

Why isn't there a reliable braille note taker worth its price on the market today? Is there anything the consumer with vision loss can do about it?

In this letter, I try to outline some of the problems I see as severely limiting the reliability and effectiveness of note takers currently designed for the visually impaired user. I believe that we demand far too little of the companies that design and manufacture such devices. I also offer a possible starting point for empowering the visually impaired user. More reliable information on the actual performance of such units should lead to greater competition among manufacturers and to significantly improved note takers.

Today, there are a number of companies producing and marketing adaptive aids directly to those of us who are blind or visually impaired. In this piece, I restrict myself to a discussion of braille note takers. These are small, light-weight devices using a refreshable braille display and/or synthetic speech for their output and a braille or QWERTY keyboard for input. Most boast that they are the only Personal Data Assistant (PDA) you will need during your busy day. They claim that their proprietary software integrates a fully functional word processor, e-mail client, web browser, calendar, and address book. They also claim that these note takers can connect seamlessly and reliably to your PC or netbook and that the calendars on both devices can be effortlessly synchronized. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, these claims are greatly overstated. The performance of these devices is spotty at best.

Well known note takers include: Humanware's Braille Note, Empower, PK, and Apex as well as Freedom Scientific's Braille Lite and Pack Mate, GW Micro's Braille Sense, and Voice Sense. (My apologies to any company whose offerings I have inadvertently omitted.) These devices generally cost from approximately $2,500 to around $6,000. Most are reasonably light in weight, physically fairly sturdy, have acceptable braille displays, and have speech which is fair but not great. In my experience, the main thing differentiating these devices is the sophistication of their software.

Today's Braille note takers are long on hardware engineering, but inconsistently programmed so that they are short on reliable software applications. This severely limits their usefulness. How have we, the consumers, the visually impaired community for whom such devices have in theory been developed, allowed ourselves to settle for products which only partially and inconsistently deliver what they advertise? It is my contention that none of these devices would be commercially successful, if they had to compete with equivalent products produced for the sighted consumer.

I offer an example from my recent experience. Unfortunately, it refers to note takers from HumanWare, a company I like and have respected. In the past, I have experienced very similar problems with products from Freedom Scientific.

I own the Braille Note Classic and the Braille Note PK. I purchased these units several years apart and I use them somewhat differently: the light weight PK for note taking and the 32-cell Classic more for reading. I purchased both with my own funds costing approximately $11,500. The reason for owning two such expensive machines is that Humanware's service contract does not allow for a temporary replacement unit while the defective one is being diagnosed and repaired, a process which can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. I do not understand how a company can sell you a device it claims is the only one you'll need, handling all of your note taking, word processing, calendar, e-mail, and internet applications, only to leave you hanging when it fails. (It should be noted that Freedom Scientific has long recognized this problem, and their service contract includes a loaner unit shipped to you overnight.) For me, being without a note taker for even a couple of days is enormously disruptive.

I am a clinical psychologist. Recently, I had my first session with a patient who had a lengthy and complex psychological history. I took copious notes since the patient was very clear about the exact dates of certain events, about medications which had been used, together with response and side-effects. The notes were on the flash drive of my BrailleNote PK. The PK was "not quite itself" that morning, and I did the recommended thing for such situations, I performed a standard reset of the unit. Much to my dismay, when the machine reset the only thing remaining on the flash disk was the original factory folders the PK places there. The two folders and numerous documents I had created were nowhere to be found. This time technical support was more sympathetic. However, the files still could not be located. It is worth noting that the PK has no "Undo" command as is common in more sophisticated devices. The only explanation offered was that sometimes the PK loses files when the disk has less than 1.5MB of free space. I was also told the Eloquence voices are "real memory hogs" and sometimes cause processing problems. If these factors are so critical, they should be emphasized more often. For example, why couldn't a message appear stating that the disk is sufficiently full and that saving additional files could result in their being lost or corrupted? (Just for the record, my disk had more than 5MB of free space when my files disappeared.)

I have drawn two conclusions from this and other disheartening experiences:

1. As consumers, we with vision loss, have allowed ourselves to buy products at a premium price which are unreliable, inferior to products available to the sighted, and poorly supported. Shame on us -- me included. I'm not sure how this deplorable situation came to be. But I do know that things will not improve until we demand more of the companies producing braille- and speech-enabled note takers. All of the hard-won legislation requiring interoperability of telecommunications will do us little good if we do not have adaptive devices able to handle this information efficiently and reliably.

2. I believe that the only way we will see meaningful changes will be if we utilize the very real power we hold as consumers. That is, by allowing our purchasing power to demand improvements. Economists tell us that accurate information openly shared is one of the most important factors for markets to function efficiently.

I have begun to wonder by what mechanism we, the visually impaired consumers, can get the information we need in order to keep the suppliers of braille note takers honest, and help us to make informed decisions. Magazines like AccessWorld provide an important service by giving impartial reviews of new products as they come to market. However, in my experience, it is only when many consumers use a product for many different applications that we really begin to know its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it is only when consumers bring problems to the attention of manufacturers that we truly know how committed those manufacturers and their distributors are to supporting and improving the products they sell.

Stimulating competition among the manufacturers and vendors of braille note takers will substantially improve the notetakers themselves and the lives of those of us who depend so heavily upon them.

(For a copy of the author's initial proposal on how the issues raised above might begin to be addressed, you may contact him at coyote@iglou.com.)


Michael Lichstein, Clinical Psychologist

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