Sunday, August 08, 1999

Access tools assist disabled

Electronic devices open up technology

Enquirer contributor

        Recently, I was on the phone setting up an interview when it occurred to me that something was amiss with my calendar.

        A while earlier, I had made a lunch date with a friend, and a doctor's appointment for my daughter. This particular day I knew I had a conference call and an appointment for a haircut. Yet, it struck me, then, that my electronic calendar had not shown me (in its electronic way) what I had going on today, and that something was definitely wrong.

        So many people ask the "How do you do ...?” questions that I decided that there was no time like a crash to write a column on some of my marvelous technology.

        First of all, we call it “access” or “assistive” technology when refering to devices that enable individuals unable to use conventional print to “access” a computer's information, or “assist” individuals unable to use conventional keyboards, mouses, or monitors or other technology tools.

        In my case, the basic tools I use are like those used by a writer with 20/20 vision — the popular tools used for word processing, data management, e-mail, Web browsing, etc. However, I have additional tools — access tools — that enable me to read the information off the conventional ones.

        The device with the electronic calendar is a portable notetaker/word processor, a bit larger than a standard video cassette. Called the Braille Lite and produced by Blazie Engineering of Forest Hill, Md., it is one of four machines distributed by the company.

        Often mistaken for an odd-looking tape recorder, my Braille Lite has seven keys for input, and a single-line Braille display from which I read the unit's information. There is no screen, no light to indicate on or off, no visual output of any kind. Yet, the unit holds literally thousands of pages of print information — displayed to me in Braille.

        With the Braille Lite's simple word processor, I can draft notes, documents or, when traveling, newspaper columns. It contains my telephone directory, check registers, calendar, and whole books downloaded from the Internet. I type all new input on its keyboard (seven keys because Braille is based on a six-dot cell, thus one key per dot plus a spacebar), and files for reading are easily loaded into the unit from floppy disks.

        When reading from the 18-character Braille display, I can tap the advance bar to move forward or back 18 characters at a time, or type a simple command to tell the unit to scroll automatically. If I prefer to listen to a document, I can type the “voice” command and hear the text read aloud.

        Although the Braille Lite or one of its relatives can serve as sole computer device for people with more limited technology needs, it is for me a portable device of convenience. I have an entirely separate desktop setup for most writing, e-mail and Internet research.

        But that's another column. For now, I need to call tech support and find out where my calendar has gone.

        Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


        For information on the Braille Lite or other portable notetakers with Braille or speech output, visit or contact Blazie Engineering, 105 E. Jarrettsville Road, Forest Hill, MD 21050. Phone (410) 893-9333.