A portable device invented by undergraduates at The Johns Hopkins University is designed to give more blind people a way to write Braille. Other features enhance its usability. It is still at the prototype stage, but is shaping up as a device with ergonomic credentials that will enhance the lives of millions of people around the world.
Four mechanical engineering majors at the university were asked to produce a Braille writer that would cost less than $50. The low cost of the communication tool, which requires no electronic components, makes it more accessible to blind people of limited means. And it is designed to be hand held. Present Braille writers are typewriter-like devices that are cumbersome and typically cost much more.
The student inventors estimated that their Braille writer, if mass-produced, would cost about $10 each in an easy-to-assemble kit.
To keep assembly and maintenance costs low, the writer operates mechanically. It features six buttons that can be depressed to produce any of the embossed patterns that correspond to a Braille letter, number or punctuation mark. The device is used with a traditional Braille slate that features rows of rectangular openings or “cells.” When a piece of paper is inserted into the slate, the device can insert one Braille letter or number into each cell. Normally, a blind person uses a stylus to poke up to six indentations into each cell, forming one bump at a time. The students’ device uses metal pins to emboss up to six marks at once, which could speed up the writing process. Because the buttons are close together, a single finger can depress more than one.
The National Federation of the Blind is testing the prototype. According to a press release about the device published by Newswise in August, officials of the National Federation of the Blind believe such a device could assist many people in this nation and around the world who cannot afford more expensive writing tools.
“We were looking for a portable writing device that’s low-tech and does not use a computer,” said Marc Maurer, president of the federation. Although the prototype does not perform perfectly, according to the officials, the device includes a number of promising innovative features, such as a button mechanism to create multiple Braille impressions.
The students said the assignment forced them to think about how the device would be used by people who could not see it. They don’t think it will take long to train people to use it, particularly children.
The students’ first prototype demonstrated that the concept was sound, but the unit didn’t feel comfortable in the hand, so they produced a second that was superior mechanically and ergonomically.