Applying Technology to Improve Our Lives

by Peggy Chong

When we hear the word "technology" today, most of us think of high tech computers, Braille printers, talking note takers, and many devices that talk to us and do everything but empty the dishwasher. The founders of our organization were concerned with new and beneficial technology as well. But today, we would probably consider it "low tech".

The white cane was the first example of the interest in new technologies that would help blind persons become first-class citizens. You might be interested to know what a cane cost. In 1935 a white cane about three feet long cost 15 cents or 25 cents if it had already been painted white. In 1952 the cost of a cane was advertised as 65 cents. They have gone up a little in price since then. At the June 3, 1933 Board of Directors meeting, President Otto Grey told of the Talking Book Machine that he was going to see at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind the next week. Later that year, the Board purchased three talking book machines from the American Foundation for the Blind for use by members and residents at the Home. The first talking book machine was released by the Library of Congress in April of 1934.

Although the talking book machine was a welcome addition to the reading choices for blind persons, many members were concerned that this would be thought of as a replacement for Braille materials. Resolution 34-04, introduced by Christopher Easton, addressed the importance of Braille as a basic reading skill and encouraged continuing funding for Braille periodicals and other Braille material. Mr. Easton reported that the growing popularity of Talking Books had already caused a decline in the production of Braille publications.

The Minnesota Bulletin ran many articles and announcements about new technology for the blind. Articles concerning anything from new Braille writers and watches to glass eyes and writing guides were frequent. Sources for more information were listed as well as the cost for the items and how to get them.

Before all the high tech came on the scene, Federationists were inventive with their ideas so they could keep up with their sighted co-workers. Early computer programmers in our affiliate used a thin piece of elastic across the pins of a printer to produce Braille output for their jobs.

In the early '70's technology for the blind took off. Members brought to the organization all the information they could find on new ideas and items. Many items were shown at conventions. Members would also show their new devices in the back of the room or in the hall between sessions. At the summer quarterly meeting in August of 1975, a new talking calculator was introduced and demonstrated. This eight-digit eight-function calculator cost only $565--a bit out of most individuals' price range.

At first, as in the general computer world, most technology was for business purposes. It was much too bulky and expensive for an individual to own. Attention was focused on the providers of services for the blind to set up new technologies that would speed up the production of Braille material. Resolution Q73-02 encouraged the application of computer technology at State Services for the Blind (SSB) to improve services to those who read Braille. A committee was formed to work on this issue with Stan Potter, Director of SSB. This turned out to be the most popular committee in the organization with more members asking to serve on it.

When the Optacon first came out, it was believed by the professionals that this too would replace Braille. The Optacon is a camera-like device that transmits the print letters that it scans to a pad where hundreds of little pins would then take the shape of the letters. In 1976 the St. Paul Public Schools applied for grants for a program that would teach use of the Optacon and talking calculator to their blind students. The reasoning behind this was that the Optacon was much faster than Braille. The schools never were approved for funding for this project.

Many employers were beginning to deal with making an office easily accessible to both blind and sighted employees in the early '80s. Computers were everywhere and in almost every job. The NFB of Minnesota wanted to create a model system to show employers how easily blind and sighted employees could work on the same equipment in an office setting. We purchased the newly-introduced IBM Personal Computer and software. Speech and Braille output were added to the system. Each day blind members and a sighted secretary used the same computer for the organization's business without difficulty. The computer system was purchased in the fall of 1983. We received grants for $12,000 from IDS in computer time, $1,000 from IBM, and $9,500 from Northwestern Bell. Businesses did come to learn just how easy it would be for them to hire a blind person for their office.

If there is one lesson to be learned from history, it is that no matter how advanced technology may become, there is no replacement for Braille.