Braille “Typewriter” Gets A Much-Needed Redesign

The Perkins Brailler—which has served as a literary lifeline to the blind community for almost 60 years—gets a long overdue redesign.

Most people understand that the act of reading Braille is a physical one, in which fingertips skim a landscape of raised dots. But what about writing Braille? The most basic tool, the slate and stylus, requires the user to press each dot (up to six per character) by hand into the back side of the page, working in reverse—as if in a mirror. No wonder the mechanical alternative, which makes brailling more like typing, has been so widely adopted. The standard machine used around the world is the Perkins Brailler, released in 1951.

Aesthetically and functionally, the ten-pound steel device is a bit like the Underwood Champion portable typewriter released the same year. Both are dependably rugged and clack nostalgically when you hit the keys, but, frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone lugging around either one in the featherweight age of the Mac­Book Air. So when David Morgan came on board in 2005 as the general manager of products at Perkins School for the Blind, he was faced with modernizing the Boston-area organization’s enduring best seller.

What people love about the machine is its indestructibility. The number one complaint, however, is its weight. “Think about a little kid carrying ten pounds around all the time,” says Judi Cannon, a Braille-services specialist at Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library. The dilemma is this: because Braille cannot be rendered in bits and bytes but must remain solidly 3-D, the device cannot be dematerialized. Paper still has to roll through it; the dots still need to come out crisp and clear.

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Though there are plenty of Braille-writing alternatives—note-taker PDAs, screen-reading software, computer embossers—the mechanical device still has a role to play. “It’s really the pencil and paper for people who are blind,” says Kim Charlson, the director for Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library. And in places like India, the cost of those other technologies (around $6,000 for the Braille Sense Plus note taker, versus $375 for Perkins’s classic braillewriter) puts them out of reach, while the slate and stylus is so laborious that it impedes the learning process as students begin to compose more complex sentences. “There seems to be something about the immediacy of the written word through Braille that still attracts folks to the Perkins Brailler,” Morgan says. “So we wanted to figure out how to stay true to the original design. There was always a doubt that we could downsize this package and still capture the same physical characteristics.”

Product Development Technol­ogies was recruited to bring the machine down to scale and up-to-date because, according to Morgan, the Illinois-based firm was one of the few “within a day flight” that had in-house engineers and experience with medical devices, and could source the international manufacturing. PDT also has a built-in research process that led directly to many of the changes that were made. “We watched people in the environments in which they actually use the Brailler—in Boston, Indiana, Mexico City, Malawi, and remotely in India and South Africa,” says Sona Patadia, who led PDT’s design team. “Watch­ing quietly allows you to see needs that people sometimes aren’t able to articulate.” Ob-serving students bend their wrists 90 degrees behind the Brailler to feel what they had just written led to the addition of a reading tray. And when PDT witnessed younger children using two fingers to press down each key, the designers made sure that the new ones required less force.

Later sessions, where users tested materials and prototypes, proved invaluable to overcoming some of the sighted designers’ assumptions about good design. “We might think a rubberized product that is textured and soft is great,” Patadia says. “They told us that rubberized products have a lot of dirt that sticks to them that they can feel. We would never have known that had we not done this research.” And when a round paper-roller knob broke during testing, PDT learned it wasn’t as easy to grasp as in-tended anyway. “One of the users told us they would like it better if it worked a different way,” Patadia says. “We quickly mocked it up, and that’s where the final cog design came from.”

Released last October with American Printing House for the Blind, a supplier of accessible products, the Next Generation Perkins Brailler features a streamlined turquoise-blue plastic body with contrasting smooth gray keys and levers. Perkins will release its own raspberry-red and midnight-blue versions later this year. If the candy colors ring a tad trendy, that’s no accident: while the design needed to appeal to adults who might want to upgrade, it primarily had to capture the fancy of children and teens eager for accessories with the style quotient of iPods. “Kids in the U.S. want to have all the cool stuff that their brothers, sisters, and classmates have,” Patadia says. “We learned that this wasn’t just a tool in the way that the classic Brailler was. It needed to have a personality.”

Replacing the steel case with polycarbonate and substituting some of the 600 unique metal components inside with consolidated Grivory-plastic pieces took the weight down to 7.5 pounds and the price to $650 (though subsidies from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation allow the Braillers to be sold in developing countries for several hundred dollars less). Having plastic connecting with metal also makes the machine quieter and, because it requires less oil, more recyclable.

Overall, Perkins’s new Brailler has been well received. “I just came back from Paris for the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Louis Braille,” Charlson says. “I took it to the conference and people were really thrilled with the easy-erase button”—the feature that for the first time allows users to correct mistakes without scratching them out manually. The director of professional development at the American Foundation for the Blind, Karen Wolffe, who has no vision impairment but uses Braille to communicate with her colleagues and clients, cautions that the erase button doesn’t completely flatten the dots, which could cause confusion. “Let’s say you typed an r, which is dots one, two, three, and five. What you really meant to do was a p, which is dots one, two, four, and four. If you don’t fully erase it and add the correct dot, you now have one, two, three, four, and five, which is a q.”

Wolffe is quick to praise the new paper-roller knob, though: “It’s almost like a wingnut. This is a huge improvement for kids with multiple disabilities. The little round knob on the old one took pretty good finger dexterity to turn.” But universal design is always more of an ideal, or perhaps a happy medium, than an absolute reality. “A round roller I can almost use more with the palm of my hand,” says Cannon, whose severe arthritis means she favors an electronic braillewriter. “But, personally, I can’t grasp the new knob for rolling the paper in.”

Shortcomings aside, Cannon acknowledges that PDT and Perkins got one thing exactly right: they included the blind community in their research. “Many times I have seen them give us a product and say, ‘This is what you wanted,’” she says. “That’s a big mistake because it can end up being nothing like what we need.” Something never in dispute? The community was sorely in need of this 21st-century update to its old, reliable workhorse.

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