One layer after another, as I unpack the box and examine its contents, a single thought repeats in my brain: "This could be a braille user's dream!" The thought occurs so spontaneously because the contents of this box hold no mystery for the person who is unable to read print.
First, there is a USB keyboard. Next, is a slim 8.5 by 11-inch book, with an embossed label on the front cover announcing that it is the "6dot Label Maker User's Guide." Beneath the USB keyboard and the braille user's guide is another box. This, of course, contains the device itself, a device I am now more eager to see than I had anticipated. Nestled around the device are several rolls of labeling tape and a coiled AC power adapter. In the center, looking not quite like any device I have seen before, is the 6dot Label Maker.
Now, of course, I knew what this box contained before the unpacking began. This product was packaged with a braille-reading blind person in mind, with measures taken to ensure that every item was clearly recognizable and the product itself ready for the new customer to explore immediately. Braille is so personal, provides such an instant word-to-mind connection, that it is not lost on me that "6dot" is emblazoned in perfect braille on the top of the unit—and on the bottom.
With book and device on my desk, I am ready to begin the familiar process of test-driving a new product.
The Many Uses for Braille Labels
Whether in a college classroom or a casual conversation at a party, if I am asked to explain how I use braille, the litany of labels always comes up. Beyond books and magazines in braille, beyond reading my computer screen and iPhone screen from a refreshable braille display, there are the labels that are affixed to all manner of items throughout my home and office.
From shampoo and laundry detergent to coconut milk and soy sauce, from cuticle oil and Tylenol to Mexican vanilla and ground curry, braille labels of my own making enable me to grab products with ease and efficiency equal to that of a print-reading person. Braille labels are on my appliances, credit cards, movies, music CD's, power adapters for an array of technology, and file folders.
This is not extraordinary. Any blind person who works, cooks, or pursues any activity independently will have a similar assortment of items labeled in braille for confident recognition.
How that braille gets thereon to any one of those objects in the first place, however, is a somewhat tedious story.
Current Methods for Making Braille Labels
Probably the most ubiquitous material for labeling objects in braille has been DYMO labeling tape. Users put braille on the tape by employing a variety of methods. For decades, a mechanical device called a DYMO labeler, a wheel with the braille alphabet around the rim and a handle to be squeezed as each choice is aligned, has probably been the most popular tool for this purpose. The problem with this method is that only the alphabet and a few contractions fit onto the wheel. Thus, labels are long and cumbersome, and words do not take the shapes so familiar to the fluent braille reader. The labelers are temperamental, at best, with a reputation for failing easily, either by jamming or not cutting the tape properly. Usually, the labels had to be cut apart with scissors, sometimes frustrating blind and sighted alike by the awkwardness of peeling off the adhesive backing.
Two other methods of producing more accurately formatted braille labels have been to use a Perkins Brailler or slate and stylus.
An accessory for the Perkins Brailler enables the braille user to use whatever symbols or contractions she pleases, but again, inserting and removing the tape and device can be tedious, and only the experienced braille user can do the job.
Finally, many braille slates have been designed with slots for feeding the tape through the slate and holding it in place while the user hand punches the desired braille characters. This has been my own labeling method of choice for many years, allowing me to employ any braille configuration that fits the space and the item to be labeled, while also allowing some portability since a slate, stylus, and roll of tape can be easily transported. Many competent braille users, however, have never learned to use a braille slate and stylus, so this method is not particularly widespread.
Thus it is with a resounding "Drum roll, please!" that the 6dot Label Maker appears on the scene with an automated approach to making personalized braille labels.
The 6dot Label Maker
My first thought upon lifting the 6dot out of its box is that it somewhat resembles an old Braille 'n' Speak on steroids. A sighted friend commented that it looked like a miniature flying saucer! It is roughly egg-shaped, measuring about 8 inches wide by 5.8 inches from front to back and 2.8 inches tall. It weighs 1.5 pounds.
On the top is a Perkins-style keyboard, bright green against a light gray casing, with a few additional blue keys to set them apart from the others. The braille name "6dot" is at the top of the unit, enabling the braille user to orient the device properly, with the name at the top. With the label maker in this orientation, there are the six keys for dots 1-6 in the center. Closest to you, at the bottom edge, is a long space bar. Between the space bar and 6 keys are left and right arrow keys with a round Enter/Cut key between them. That's all there is to the keyboard.
On the right side is a rocker switch for powering the machine on and off. And behind the dot 2 key, on the back of the machine, is the tape exit where the newly made label rolls out. There is a USB port for connecting the external keyboard and a connection point for the AC adapter. The unit arrives with six AA batteries and one roll of DYMO tape pre-installed. The included braille user's guide is clear and concise, albeit not entirely complete, and renders the new user ready for labeling in a matter of minutes.
As a veteran braille user, the pleasure of simply typing on that familiar Perkins-style keyboard to produce the desired label was initially nothing short of thrilling! The machine makes no sound when powered on, but a distinct beep or whine is heard for each character typed on the keyboard. There is about a two-second processing time for each character, but you can type quickly and wait for the 6dot to catch up. In other words, if you want to type "shampoo," you can type the entire word quickly and listen for the resulting processing beeps to conclude. Alternatively, you could type the "sh" contraction and wait, the "a" and wait, the "m" and wait, and so on, until the word is complete.
Again, each character takes about two seconds to process. Once the brailling has finished, a press of the round Enter/Cut key cuts the label and now the label is ready for you to pluck it from the tape exit location at the back of the unit. Each cut label has a tab at the right end, making the separation of the backing from the adhesive tape quick and easy.
What I particularly appreciated immediately was that I could quickly produce a label bearing any symbols I chose. I could make my label in uncontracted, English Braille American Edition, Unified English Braille, Grade 3 Braille, or even some short-form concoction with a meaning clear only to me.
The braille is outstanding – much crisper than produced by any of the manual methods detailed above. Adding the tab for peeling after each cut is a welcome benefit. Some might find the tab less than cooperative, but I found that by bending it back and forth a few times, the removal was smooth and clean.
Adaptations for Sighted Users
Sometimes, it is preferable for a sighted assistant, family member, or friend to make braille labels. One obvious situation where this would be the case is in immersing a child or new braille reader in the wonders of the tactile reading system. A sighted teacher or parent can make labels with confidence, knowing that the right end, the end where the tab for peeling is located, is also the right edge or last character of the word on the label.
For this purpose, the product includes a standard QWERTY keyboard and a small USB adapter for attaching it to the 6dot Label Maker. When attached, any character typed on the QWERTY keyboard is then produced by the label maker. The drawback, of course, is that labels generated by the QWERTY keyboard are produced in uncontracted braille. That said, they are also produced quickly and in crisp braille that will endure.
About that Dream State
As with any brand-new experience, once familiarity is established, flaws and caveats are more apparent.
The 6dot Label Maker is by no means perfect. Waiting for the processing of each character is sometimes tiresome; the tab produced by the cutter is difficult for some people to manipulate; the QWERTY keyboard could be smaller and include a direct interface. And it should be mentioned that as I tested the topic of this new device on the minds of a few braille-using colleagues, the consistent reaction was delight mixed with dismay that the price was too extreme.
So, no, the 6dot Label Maker is by no means perfect, but it is a stylish and efficient device, and the closest we have ever come to putting fast and fabulous braille labels into the work and play environments of braille readers.
The 6dot Braille Label Maker sells for $749.00.
- CSUN 2016 Conference Ushers in "The Year of Braille" by Shelly Brisbin
- Making the Transition from English Braille to UEB by Jamie Pauls
More from this author:
- The Talking DAISY Book & Media Player from Accessible Electronics by Deborah Kendrick
- Out of Sight or Out of Sound: There Is Always a Way of Living with a Secondary Hearing Impairment by Deborah Kendrick