By Michael D. Barber
My very first introduction to the world of refreshable Braille was in 1991 during my employment as the first totally blind customer service representative at then Norwest Card Services (later to become Wells Fargo Card Services). My job was to help customers understand their monthly statements, assist with replacing lost or stolen cards, make necessary monetary adjustments to their statements, give balances, etc.
At that time, I was using Artic Business Vision, but because of unresolved conflicts between Norwest’s system and the screen reading technology, it was clear my short stay at Norwest was in jeopardy. Enter Humanware and the Alva 280 Braille display.
I had never seen a Braille display and was totally unfamiliar with what it could do. This Alva display was a job saver for me, because now I could, without any conflicts at all, do all the things my sighted coworkers were doing.
Since then, I’ve seen many different displays, ranging from an 80-cell display all the way down to a 12-cell display. Some of these displays are simply that–Braille displays. Other displays provide the ability to enter information through a Braille or QWERTY (typewriter-style) keyboard. The Braille EDGE 40 from HIMS, Inc. is just such a display.
The Braille EDGE 40 is a very basic note-taking device and refreshable Braille display. It is manufactured by HIMS, Inc. It features a 40-cell Braille display, an nine-key Perkins style keyboard, 8 function keys, eight navigation buttons, four scroll buttons, and 40 cursor-routing keys. Additionally, it operates using the Windows CE 5.0 operating system and has a Lithium polymer battery which will last approximately 20 hours before it needs recharging. The package includes a USB cable, an AC power adapter, a CD containing the manual, and a 2 gigabyte SD card.
The unit measures approximately 12 inches long and about 4 inches deep. It weighs about 2 pounds. Its primary function is that of a Braille display that can work with a variety of screen access programs and IOS devices (presently, the Braille EDGE 40 does not work with IOS Version 5.1.1, but HIMS hopes that support will be forthcoming in IOS 6).
With the Braille EDGE 40, you can open formatted Braille (BRF) files such as those used by the National Library Service for the blind and Physically Handicapped to distribute Braille books electronically. Also, you can edit text files which might contain Braille or ASCII text. It also comes with a built-in calculator, planner, stopwatch, countdown timer, and an alarm. Its price is slightly under $3,000, which is about half the price of other Braille note taking devices on the market.
While the Braille EDGE 40 provides a nice ergonomic design for the keyboard (the keys are easy to push and very responsive), there is a problem getting one particular setting to hold in the Options menu. This setting is for the Braille EDGE 40 to start in a new document whenever it is turned on. HIMS has informed me that this is a known problem.
Another shortcoming with the Braille EDGE 40 is the lack of a reverse Braille translation function. Other Braille note-taking devices allow you to enter information using contracted Braille and then to have the contracted Braille converted to plain readable text when the file is saved as text. This feature allows a person to write the basic document in contracted Braille and then to perform final editing on a computer using either speech or Braille. With the Braille EDGE 40, information that is entered using contracted Braille cannot be conveniently edited on a computer using speech.
On the plus side, I was able to successfully install the driver software needed for the Braille EDGE 40 to work with the JAWS for Windows screen access program. When you connect the unit to the computer with a USB cable, the Braille EDGE 40 automatically powers up, and you are immediately placed in Terminal mode. You then have to unload and reload JAWS so that the Braille display becomes active.
The manual which accompanies the Braille EDGE 40 is easy enough to follow. The steps to perform various functions are written in an easy-to-follow style. The manual, which is on the provided CD, is accessible to the blind.
First, HIMS has developed an excellent product which can be used as a good refreshable Braille display. As a bonus, it can be used to take personal notes which are best read on the unit itself and not transferred to a computer for final editing or review.
Secondly, the cost, which is about half that of a traditional Braille note-taker, will be appealing to individuals and agencies alike.
Thirdly, the Braille EDGE 40 is very comfortable to write with. Its refreshable Braille dots are very firm and easy to read.
Fourth, the fact that the Braille EDGE 40 stores information on an SD card (a storage capacity of up to 32 gigabytes is supported) means that a vast amount of information can be stored.
Points of Concern
First, the lack of a reverse Braille translator detracts from the Braille EDGE 40’s appeal as a device that can be used to prepare an article that will be finalized on the computer.
Second, I fear that because of the small percentage of people reading or writing Braille, the Braille EDGE 40 may not sell as well as it would otherwise if, for example, it came with a QWERTY keyboard.
Finally, functional as the Braille EDGE 40 is, I could live with a unit half its size with 20 refreshable Braille cells, which I believe would offer improved portability.