Braille, Relevance of Literacy, And Double Standards

I just Emailed the following to Perkins in response to their question: “Is braille still relevant in a high tech world”? I think it speaks for itself. Would love your comments, so keep those cards and letters coming.


First, do I love my Perkins brailler? Of course I do.

I don’t really want to talk about that, though. Rather, I want to address the question you ask: is braille still relevant in a technological world? Of course you got the answer, and, in my view, the correct one, but what disturbs me is that the question was even asked in thee first place. It is, I think, the wrong question. In short, what happens if you replace the word “Braille” with the word “Print”? Does the question change? Does the relevance of the medium change? Does the answer change? What about the perceptions of the question–do those change?

A couple weeks ago, I was a fill-in host on the Serotalk podcast, where we discussed an article about the decline in spelling skills among today’s youth. However, I didn’t take away what was probably the intended message of the article. I took away a double standard. Now that it’s sighted children who use print and are losing the ability to spell, form proper sentences, and so on, we have a tragedy, and our electronics-centric lifestyle is to blame. Think of texting as the most often blamed culprit. Yet, where was this outcry for our blind kids 20 years ago, when, as now, we are told that talking computers and recorded textbooks are good enough? Double standard much? Why is it, do you suppose, that learning to read print and having access to print is essential to teach sighted children the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but such skills are adequately taught to our blind kids with talking computers and recorded textbooks? Or, is it that our blind kids and their skills and abilities in these areas just aren’t important enough to give the same amount of attention or priority? Why is, pulling a number out of the air here, a 10% illiteracy rate among the sighted a national tragedy, yet a 10% literacy rate among the blind acceptable?

If you get that I’m angry, you’re right. I am absolutely livid. This is only one example of this double standard where blind and sighted people are concerned. The thing is, it’s a huge example, and it doesn’t even seem as though we ourselves always recognize it for what it is, because we ask things like, “Is braille still relevant”. So long as literacy is relevant to gainful employment, career advancement, educational opportunities, and all the other things life has to offer, the answer should be obvious.

So, as I said, you’re asking the wrong question. There are probably a lot of “right” questions, but the one that comes to my mind, putting aside the “Why is this double standard acceptable” question, is, “How do we get braille into the hands of more kids and get more of our kids learning it, and more of our teachers teaching it”? Let’s start there; there’s much, much more that we should be asking as follow-ups to that.

Parenthetically, I note that the word “brailler” was flagged by my spell checker. Moreover, it was autocorrected to “broiler”. That speaks volumes.

Budcast #11: A Walk With Kapten Plus

In Budcast #11, join me and Leno on a walk with the Kapten Plus. I describe the unit (in my usual rambling fashion), and have Kapten Plus plan and follow a route. If you have other questions about the Kapten Plus, please feel free to get in touch by or on Twitter. You can also see the previous entry for my brief initial impressions of the Kapten Plus, and see this review from AFB’s Access World Magazine for more details and another impression. I also discuss things to consider when thinking about a standalone GPS like this versus off-the-shelf apps for a smart phone. (I use both, and I like both for different reasons.)

BTW, all the jingling? That’s Leno. He has a bell on his collar. Some may find such things annoying, but I kind of like it, it sounds cheerful to me, so it stays on. It sounds like a little sleigh bell, which is kind of what it looks like, and it rings with very little movement from Leno, so he’s pretty easy to track. While they might seem a little pricey at $25 per pair (I have an extra one, I only put one on him), these are high quality, sturdy bells, and the two bells you get are of different pitches, so you can pick the one you like better. Or if you have two dogs in the house, put one on each and you’ll be able to tell which of them has just raided the trash can. If you want them, you can find them on Noble Falconry.

Budcast #3: Random Musings And A Walk To Harbor Freight

In BudCast #3, take a walk with me to Harbor Freight to exchange an air pump. On the way (and on the way home), we meet neighbors and friends, stop in at Radio Shack, and of course, exchange the air pump. Today, we discuss lots of things in brief:

Also, it’s out! The new album from Those Who Dig, “Little Bitty Barley House”, recorded live this past fall, is out. Go andget your Mitochondria fix now, and tell ’em I sent you. OK?

BudCast #1: Intro and IBill Review

In this,my first podcast (that I’m posting,not that I’ve been on),I introduce myself and my family,talk a little about what we might be doing here,and review the IBill from Orbit Research. Podcasts will be posted somewhat irregularly, and I’ll do pretty much anything from technology reviews to sound seeing things with my family and friends. Feel free to Email me with any suggestions, ideas, or whatever. Thanks for stopping by!

Review: On The Go Sport Guide Dog Harness


Back in February, I ordered an On The Go harness from Julie Johnson. As these are individually made and she had some backlog, it took some time to arrive, but arrive it did, and I’ve had my new harness for about three weeks now. That should be plenty of time to give it a fair evaluation, I thought.

First, if you didn’t already know, Julie has sold and, separately, her harness making business. These harnesses, now from Pawpower Creations, can be purchased from (interestingly enough) Pawpower Creations. Email for latest info and pricing.

Find information on these at the guide dog harness page.

So what’s the deal with these harnesses, anyway?

First, to avoid confusion, I will henceforth refer to the harness company by its new name. Meaning no slight to Julie and her excellent work, naturally.

Pawpower Creations harnesses are a great alternative for the owner trainer or anyone who, for whatever reason, wants another harness than the one the school provides. Some people just want a generic harness with no school names on it. Others want features that their school harnesses do not provide. Others may want a harness that’s easy to clean and care for. In all these cases, the Pawpower Creations harnesses fill the bill nicely. Being made of nylon instead of leather, they are easy to clean (machine washable, I’m told), and lightweight. Take them to the beach and get them all wet and icky and it isn’t really a problem. Moreover, the harness is made to fit your dog with measurements you provide as instructed on the harness Web page. Also, and my main reason for buying, the handle is easily removable. No more wrenches! You see, I’ve been wanting an easy to remove handle for ages. It’s especially been a problem with Chet. I have two harnesses from my school, and both of them, from getting in and out of cars and getting stuck or bumped or whatever under the dash of too many cars, have the leather coming unstitched and raggedy lookin’. This is a problem, since the handle sticks out roughly another inch off Chet’s rear end. So I really wanted something I could pop off easily without removing the whole harness.

They are inexpensive, costing around $100 for one with all the extras (extra padding and reflective tape).


I chose the sport harness. I understand this is a more european design. Unlike the traditional American harness, the handle does not pass through loops on the back, instead moving freely. This can be a disadvantage if you’re not careful. The handle can literally swing over your dog’s nose! Not in the course of regular work you understand, but it really does have complete freedom of movement. You could, potentially, more easily overstep your dog, but by then you would notice your handle at a very odd angle. Anyway, the handle attaches pretty well right at the dog’s shoulders. Where the harness you’re used to has a strap that goes around your dog’s middle with another one going from there all the way around his chest and perhaps a martingale coming off that down between his front legs, this sport harness has the girth strap around the dog as you would expect, but then has two straps coming off the back strap, over the dog’s shoulders, meeting then in the middle of the dog’s chest with the martingale between his front legs, in the shape of a print letter Y. The handle attaches to these two straps by means of plastic backpck fasteners, the sort of thing that snaps together and that you squeeze to release. A similar fastener buckles the harness closed. If you want a more traditional American style harness, Pawpower Creations makes those as well, with or without a martingale. Actually, they can custom make something if you need. Rox’e (and Julie before her) will work with you to design the harness you need.

Going For A Walk

Putting the harness on goes about as you might expect, with one small bit of challenge. Since there are no loops to hold the handle down, you’d better keep ahold of it along with the back strap as you put the harness on, or you could turn it inside out! This isn’t a huge deal, since it just flips right way round again very easily, but it is something to be aware of. You put it on as one would expect, by putting your dog’s head through the open part of the Y, then threading the girth strap through the martingale and snapping shut on the right side of the dog. You’ll note that the shoulder straps fit nicely over your dog’s shoulders. Some adjustment of the martingale and girth straps may be necessary. Both are threaded through a buckle, and feel a bit stiff. That’s OK, though; once they’re adjusted, they’ll pretty much stay put. Remember that these buckles make the straps infinitely adjustable; there are no holes, so you really can make the adjustments very fine if you need to and they should stay put. The handle lays flat along your dog’s back. At least, right at first. You may find at times, depending on how your dog moves sometime or how it’s put down, that it lolls off to the side, a consequence of the total freedom of movement in the handle. I may sound like I don’t like this, but really I do. having that much freedom of movement also means your dog can really make a very tight turn without any real discomfort either to you or to him.

Now here’s what I really like about this harness. Chet is mostly very bored with my neighborhood. This means that, as he walks, he has almost no pull. With my school harness, the handle would feel just slack and as though we were crawling instead of walking. With this harness, you can really feel your dog’s shoulders moving as he walks, and even with a light pull, you feel a very steady pressure in the handle, and it’s very easy to detect even the smallest change in speed, whether it’s more pull or a slackening of speed. I felt that I was getting a quicker response and could more easily tell when a distraction was coming; feedback felt more immediate. The handle always felt “engaged”, even with the lightest of pull, instead of feeling slack. This was an unexpected and welcome surprise.

Is having a removable handle really that handy? I’d have to say that it is. There’s nothing like having a handle stick into your shins! Nuff said. Just pop the handle off and put it somewhere handy, then pop it back on when you get out of the car. No more re-threading martingales, and you only need to stick something over your dog’s head once.


These harnesses are very well made. I don’t feel like they’ll come unstitched any time soon. Seams are double stitched and sturdy. I got extra padding, which was very nicely stitchd in foam, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon. the handle is similarly stitched. It’s obvious that real care and time were taken to make sure these harnesses were put together right the first time. Also, high quality buckles and fasteners were used throughout. I don’t think we’ll be in danger of losing a handle clip or something like that, and I don’t think the adjustments of girth strap or martingale length will slip when you don’t want them to.

I give this harness a definite 11 out of 10. You really can’t go wrong with this one if you have a need for a new harness for your guide dog, or even just want one. I don’t think you’ll find one better.

SMA, RIP: Significant To the AT Industry, Not a Huge Change For Serotek

Today at the ATIA Conference, Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek, announced that, as of today, “the Software Maintenance Agreement (SMA) is dead.” Apparently, Serotek had tombstones at their exhibit to mark their passing.

So what’s the big deal, you ask?

For years, the major players in the AT space–the people who make the screen readers for, generally, Windows-based computers, have sold “software maintenance agreements” (SMA’s), to their customers who wish to keep their screen readers up to date with the latest updates, features, and operating system and software application changes. These agreements differ somewhat in how they’re constructed, whether lasting for a year or a certain number of major version upgrades, and they cost somewhere between $150 and $350. Users are encouraged to buy a new agreement shortly before the old one expires, and not doing so usually means one has to pay for all the intervening upgrades from the one he owns to the current one. This could cost several hundreds of dollars. In any case, the SMA has been a pain in the ass for many a user of assistive technology.

So, Serotek’s announcement that they have dropped their SMA is significant, if only symbolically significant. More on that in a minute. Mike Calvo stated in an interview on their new Internet radio station that other companies may see the SMA as their bread and butter, but Serotek does not. Serotek seeks to add value in other ways, in ways that they believe their users will find relevant, useful, or at least enough fun to keep paying for (my words, not his, but, generally, his idea as I understand it).

Had Serotek done this a year or two ago, it may not have had the impact that I believe it will have now. Serotek is doing innovative things an really catching up and in some cases surpassing the more established players. System Access worked on 64-bit Windows before the “big guns” did. And let’s not even talk about the free web-based version of System Access, System Access To Go.

Now, they’ve laid down the gauntlet. They’ve issued the challenge. What will the other players in this space do? Will they drop their SMA’s and seek to keep their customers’ loyalty (and buying dollars) in other ways? Or will they continue to do what they are doing now?

I said earlier this was a significant statement, if only a symbolic one. While it’s true that Serotek had a software maintenance fee ($60/year, if memory serves), it’s also true that owners of the System Access software got their upgrades free as long as they were also members of the System Access Mobile Network, a $129/year subscription. Also, the software as a service offerings included software upgrades at no additional cost (not to mention access to the network). So there were a couple ways to not pay a software maintenance fee, and I suspect the number of people who just owned the software and not the network was a very small number. So in real terms, I doubt the SMA was a very small issue in Serotek’s real world dealings. Taking it away completely was, I suspect, no huge loss to them. As they said, the SMA isn’t (and wasn’t) their bread and butter. Rather, offering compelling reasons to use their other offerings and pay for them is what keeps them going. It’s what we in the rest of the world call capitalism. And clearly, they’re offering compelling products and services: easy remote control of your home PC’s, a completely portable and non-disruptive screen reader that does what most people want to do with their computers, an easy service with all the stuff you want right at your fingertips (great for the computer neophite), and all pretty inexpensively. I find it noteworthy that there are Web sites that don’t work with the big name screen readers, yet they work fine with System Access. That’s worth something in itself.

I’ll say it again. The AT space is changing rapidly. It’s changing for the better, as far as the average blind consumer is concerned. New companies are doing interesting, innovative things, and the prices are falling. You can now get a fully functioning machine, with a screen reader that will do most of what most people want to do (Email, surf the web, talk to their friends, write a letter, and so on), for under $500 if you look hard, under $600 if you don’t but are OK with putting all the software in yourself (or know someone who is), or under $800 if you want it to just work when you turn it on. Considering that the big boys charge more just for the software, this is even more significant than the death of the SMA, and it’s been a reality now for a little bit longer. Sure, you could get Linux running with Orca, let’s say, using Ubuntu, or Windows with NVDA, but you’d better be pretty comfortable with computers already. The price breakthrough is as significant, in its way, as Voiceover making any Mac not only usable, but eyes-free installable, without modification. This is the kind of development that’s changing this space, and the established players had better stay on their toes.