A few months ago, a friend who provides assistive technology services to students with disabilities shared a colleague's question with me: Could an iPhone serve all the note-taking needs of a blind student? My immediate feeling was that the idea was ridiculous. I'm as smitten with the iPhone as thousands of others, but to use it for something like taking notes on complicated lecture material struck me as illogical at best.
I reflected on the many methods I've used for taking notes over the years. In college, I used the slate and stylus, which required pressing dots rapidly into 8 by 11 inch pages of scores of spiral-bound notebooks. (I used spiral-bound notebooks because the paper was thin and the additional pages provided a natural cushion to minimize the sound. With grade 3 braille, my notes were voluminous and detailed, often more so than those of my sighted friends.) A calendar, though, and phone numbers and such, were often details stored in my head.
Later, I used a chain of electronic notetakers. With the Braille 'n Speak, I could enter notes in grade 3 braille and emboss them on paper for easier review. I began storing calendar and contact information electronically. Subsequent devices—BrailleNote, BrailleNote PK, etc.—offered similar advantages. Still, a slate and stylus is more often than not in my briefcase or purse, and I couldn't imagine taking notes in other ways.
As the question of the iPhone simmered in my brain, I began noticing how other blind people made notes and captured information. It became clear in short order that the methods were as many and varied as the people who employed them. The more people I asked, the more fascinating the topic became. To date, I have polled several dozen blind and visually impaired people on the subject, and the results are a mini-course in note-taking itself.
Tech Dogs Conference Call
In a monthly meeting of Tech Dogs, an alumni chapter of graduates from Guide Dogs for the Blind, we convened a panel of people with diverse note-taking techniques. I asked two questions: 1) What device or technique do you use for taking notes at a meeting or lecture? 2) What device or technique do you use for capturing a quick bit of information such as a phone number, name, or calendar item?
Here's a sampling of the answers.
Judy Mathews, a vision rehabilitation therapist for the Lighthouse of Central Florida, uses the BrailleNote Apex for both complex and brief notes. She explained that the advantages of being able to enter data instantly (there is no boot-up time with most braille note-taking devices) and being able to review what has been written in braille made this her device of choice.
Jeff Senge, information and computer access coordinator for California State University Fullerton, grew tired of having information in too many places long ago. His solution was to use two laptops, configured identically. One is at work and the other travels with him on his commute to and from work and throughout the day until returning to its at-home docking station at day's end. He uses Outlook to sync all data he needs to access—contacts, calendar, and email messages. For a meeting, he says he arrives a bit early, puts his laptop in hibernation or sleep mode and is then ready to begin typing notes when needed. For smaller tidbits of information, his method of choice is to tell people to send him an e-mail.
Casey Mathews, an access technology specialist at the Lighthouse of Central Florida, addressed the iPhone question directly. He is currently using an iPhone 4 and an Apple bluetooth keyboard to take lengthy notes in meetings. He then sends them to himself via Dropbox for later retrieval with his computer or phone. For short notes, he uses the iPhone's Notes app or a third-party app called List Recorder. If already at the computer, he uses a Windows 7 application called Sticky Notes.
Deborah Armstrong, a long-time assistive technology professional who works at a small college in California, uses a netbook with headphones at meetings. (Like Jeff Senge, she mentioned booting up the computer and putting it in sleep or hibernation mode to decrease the set-up time when note-taking begins). For shorter notes, she is an avid user of the Olympus 520 digital recorder.
Several other note-taking approaches were mentioned by members of the group. Many included braille notetakers such as the BrailleNote family of products and Braille Sense, and a few mentioned recording information on the VictorReader Stream.
A Smorgasbord of Techniques
To further my investigation, I asked the question of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who are blind, and also posted messages to a few e-mail listservs used by blind professionals and assistive technology users.
The first pleasant surprise was the number of people who still carry a slate and stylus with index cards for jotting down a phone number, recipe, or other reminder. Similarly, many referenced keeping a Perkins Brailler or slate and stylus by the telephone for quick notes. These same individuals were not strangers to technology. Many were also sophisticated users of PCs, electronic notetakers, and other assistive technology devices, but they simply found the immediacy and reliability of braille on paper to be a more satisfying method for capturing information.
The next surprise was the number of people using older technology. I talked to people who use various models of the Braille 'n Speak, Braille Lite, and Type 'n Speak notetakers, all from the Blazie Engineering line of products introduced in 1987. As Mary Hiland, executive director of the American Council of the Blind of Ohio summed it up:
My all time favorite piece of equipment is the Braille 'n Speak. It's easy. It's fast. I jot down phone numbers, reminders to myself, items for my grocery list that I think of during meetings, and yes, even notes about the meeting. What I like is that there is no waiting for booting up, no menus to plow through to get to where I want to go, no strange things happening while I'm reading something, and it's right there where I left off when I turned the thing off, so I don't even have to use my ear buds once I've started writing and know I'll be continuing in that file. Files don't disappear or get placed in odd folders. It's just a shame that the world had to get so complicated.
Others using this older technology made similar statements, and many of them use and own such state-of-the-art devices as iPhones and computers equipped with Windows 7 and the latest versions of screen readers.
There were some who reported using laptops or netbooks with earbuds, but these were far outnumbered by those preferring new and old versions of electronic notetakers. Then there were those who use digital recorders for both long and short notes. The most frequently mentioned products were the VictorReader Stream, BookSense, and various Olympus recorders. Some people return to longer recordings and insert bookmarks for locating material more easily; others transfer them to the computer for editing.
Two of the most innovative responses with regard to digitally recording notes came from Jeff Samco and George Kerscher. Jeff Samco, who works with assistive technology at a facility in Grass Valley, California, said: "Currently, I never leave home without my Sony voice recorder, PlexTalk Pocket, and iPhone 4." The Sony recorder is a model that has been out of production for six or seven years, but he purchased multiples on eBay and prefers it for short recordings due to its ease of use and organizational features. The PlexTalk Pocket is his preferred listening device and he uses it to convert longer files to a DAISY format for ease and navigability.
George Kerscher, secretary general of the DAISY Consortium, uses the PlexTalk Pocket for both short memos and longer lectures. For the latter, he uses the DAISY feature of the device, pressing the button for a new heading with each change of topic, thus making the recorded file easy to review.
Back to the iPhone
While there were many who echoed my own initial sentiment that the iPhone might not be the best device for recording lengthy notes, I did indeed find people who were doing just that. In addition to Casey Mathews, I heard from Heather Berg, a physical therapist who uses her iPhone 4 with a bluetooth keyboard as well as a netbook with ZoomText. John McCann, a staff attorney advisor for the Social Security Administration, uses both the iPhone with bluetooth keyboard or a netbook (in each case with headphones) for lengthy notes. If he needs to generate a Microsoft Word document for others, he opts for the netbook, since notes taken with the iPhone are plain text and require conversion. Like others, he uses an Olympus digital recorder for shorter bits of information. There were many others using the iPhone with external keyboards as well, often with Bluetooth braille keyboards/displays, which afford the ability to read what is written as well as perform quick data entry.
Low-Tech and Effective
There were also those who used old but simple methods for recording notes. One woman I spoke with has a recorder permanently attached to her phone line for recording financial and other information received over the phone. A few others spoke of simply calling home and leaving themselves messages via answering machines or voice mail.
Perhaps the oldest method still used by many was stated boldly by Scott Granados, a chief network engineer for a large advertising company, who said: "I use my brain… I'm blessed with a very good memory, especially for large strings of numbers, so I'm able to remember my action items, high points, phone numbers, contact info. When I get back to my desk, I enter the data usually via the computer into my contacts." Others mentioned memorizing as a tool they felt had been somewhat diminished by an increasing dependence on technology.
James Muirhead, a physical therapist who resides in the United Kingdom and who has used a variety of braille and recording methods in his education and profession, offered the following comment: "Having discussed, over the years, how other totally blind physiotherapists cope with note-taking and printing out relevant information, I found that no two of us ever used precisely the same methods." Indeed, if there were any common denominator to be found in the scores of responses compiled for this article, it's this: Blind and visually impaired people are truly resourceful.