How a Braille Contest Serendipitously Accelerated the Use of Digital Audio Players

By Niebrugge, Nancy | Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, October-November 2012 | Go to article overview

How a Braille Contest Serendipitously Accelerated the Use of Digital Audio Players


Niebrugge, Nancy, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness


When Braille Institute in Los Angeles conceived The Braille Challenge contest more than a decade ago, the goal was to create an innovative way to promote braille literacy. Now that more than 4,500 students over the last 12 years from across the United States and Canada have chosen to participate in The Challenge, it is safe to say that it has been a success.

From a technological standpoint, until last year, The Challenge had been holding back from embracing digital technology. In the past, students were allowed to use manual braillers and cassette tape players. In 2011, the committee responsible for The Challenge (of which I am director) finally took the first step toward using digital technology by requiring participants to use digital audio players instead of analog tapes. This transition gave us a surprising sense of how wide of a gap remains between early adopters of new technology and those who have yet to embrace devices such as accessible MP3 players. We also learned that in order to successfully bridge this gap, the most important thing to do is to ensure that teachers of visually impaired students are provided with relevant and easily digestible ways to learn how to use such new technology.

DECIDING TO USE NEW TECHNOLOGY

Those in the field of visual impairment who have embraced new and emerging technologies have wondered why Braille Institute did not choose to make the transition to digital audio players long ago. Because The Challenge is a contest that includes students from across the United States and Canada, we needed to be sure that any device required for the contest was widely available for and familiar to the greatest number of students possible. Affordability was a primary concern for decision-makers, and it is the reason why electronic braille notetakers were not also adopted. Perkins Braillers, the manual braillewriters that are approved for use throughout The Braille Challenge, are available through Federal Quota funds. Electronic braille notetakers are not. It was unreasonable for us to expect that all students, schools, and school districts could afford the more expensive notetaking devices.

The Challenge's Speed and Accuracy contest requires middle- and high school students to listen to a passage and transcribe into braille exactly what they hear as quickly and accurately as possible. In previous years, students have used National Library Service (NLS) Talking Book Players, which are distributed free to all eligible students through regional libraries. Last year, we decided it was time time to make the transition away from the older technology. We decided, based on feedback from participants and regional coordinators, the best place to start was to replace the NLS Talking Book Player with the Bookport Plus from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the Victor Reader Stream manufactured by HumanWare.

Thankfully we were validated in our decisions regarding the timing of the change and our strategy to roll it out. By most reports we received from teachers and proctors of the contest, the majority of the 800-plus students across North America who participated in The Braille Challenge preliminary round in 2011 were quite comfortable using the two digital players. A secondary consequence to our decision, as we learned from feedback we received, is that the 2011 Braille Challenge served as a motivator that inspired some teachers and students to try digital players for the first time. As we reviewed the reactions from participants, it became clear that by its sheer size and scope, this international literacy contest has had the unanticipated ripple effect of accelerating exposure to newer technology.

PLANNING FOR TRANSITION

A good part of the success we enjoyed was due to how we planned the transition. In 2009, the Braille Challenge Advisory Committee, made up of six national experts in the field of visual impairment, began to work out the details of the transition. …

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