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for the Blind

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Congress Allows NLS to Explore Providing Refreshable Braille Displays

Date: 12/1/2016

By Mark Layman and Mark Schwartz

A change in federal law has put NLS one step closer to realizing its goal of providing low-cost refreshable braille displays to patrons.

On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an amendment to the 1931 Pratt-Smoot Act that allows NLS to provide playback equipment in all formats, not just audio. The law previously authorized NLS expenditures “for [the] purchase, maintenance, and replacement of reproducers for . . . sound-reproduction recordings.” Sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and co-sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), the amendment reads “for purchase, maintenance, and replacement of reproducers for any such forms,” allowing NLS to explore the possibility of making braille displays available to its patrons.

“Up until now, refreshable braille displays have been quite expensive — $2,000 and up,” said NLS Director Karen Keninger. “But new products are in the pipeline that promise to be much more affordable. If we can get a low-cost, low-maintenance, refreshable braille display in the hands of our patrons, it would open up worlds of information that currently are not available to them.”

Throughout its history, NLS has provided its patrons with the equipment they need to listen to talking books, starting with phonographs to play records in the 1930s, then cassette tapes in the 1970s, and now digital cartridges and players. When Keninger became director in 2012, she said one of her goals was for NLS to provide patrons a device to read electronic braille (ebraille) books and magazines. But that couldn’t be done without a change in the Pratt-Smoot Act, the NLS authorizing legislation.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report earlier this year recommended that Congress make that change. In its report, GAO said that NLS “is considering whether to adopt several new technologies for delivering braille and audio content to its users which have the potential to improve services and reduce costs. However, in one case — providing refreshable braille devices to its users — NLS’s efforts are hampered by limitations in its authorizing statute, among other factors . . . . Without a change in federal law, NLS will have to forgo the opportunity to provide braille in a more modern and potentially cost-effective manner by distributing refreshable braille devices to its users.” The amendment removed that legal barrier.

Keninger said patrons would benefit in many ways if NLS is able to provide free or low-cost refreshable braille displays. The devices are less bulky to store and carry than the multiple volumes of hard-copy braille books. Also ebraille can be delivered to patrons more quickly and is less costly than hard-copy braille, so NLS could produce more braille books. The GAO report suggested that NLS could actually save money by providing refreshable braille displays. It cited a consultant’s study commissioned by NLS that estimated the total annual cost of producing, storing, and delivering hard-copy braille books and magazines at about $17 million.

The GAO report suggested that NLS could actually save money by providing refreshable braille displays.

But loaning refreshable braille displays to users and replacing hard-copy braille with ebraille could save almost $10 million per year, the study projected.

“One of the more popular examples my colleagues give to explain savings is the Harry Potter books,” said Keninger. “As the Harry Potter series became more successful, the books grew longer. The Order of the Phoenix book is 13 volumes long or 13 mailed packages. Using a braille e-reader would enable one to download the entire book at once.”

Promoting braille is one of NLS’s strategic goals, and as the GAO report acknowledged “braille is the literacy medium for those who are blind and visually impaired . . . Unlike audio, it is a direct corollary to print and displays features of print, such as capitalization and punctuation . . . . There is also some evidence suggesting that blind people have better employment outcomes if they use braille.”

“We can now investigate how to provide refreshable braille displays,” Keninger said. “Our patrons could have access to even more of the reading materials that they need to improve their quality of life and increase their engagement with the world. And that is what we’re all about.”

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