WMU News

Prison-based Braille group funds Braille computers

April 1, 2005

KALAMAZOO--A non-profit, Braille transcribing organization housed in a Michigan prison is donating $36,600 to the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University to purchase 11 new Braille computers.

The announcement follows the pledging of $160,000 in scholarship funds by the MBTF--Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund--whose workers are primarily inmates at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, Mich., and produce Braille textbooks for thousands of children with visual impairments around Michigan and the United States.

The $36,600 grant will pay for 11 BrailleNote PDAs--Personal Digital Assistants. The BrailleNote PDA is a laptop-like computer with a Braille keyboard and a voice output, in addition to a single line of Braille that acts as the device's monitor. The operator uses the nine-key keyboard to type in documents or commands similar to how a "QWERTY" keyboard is used on the usual laptop computer. But instead of peering into the screen to read the output, the user reaches down on the near top edge to read a line of Braille dots that pop up through small holes in the case.

Dr. Susan Ponchillia, WMU professor of blindness and low vision studies who teaches the Braille course for the department, is excited about having the new devices.

"We have taught the Braille class for more than 20 years using a 1950s designed mechanical Braillewriter, which requires students to produce a perfect page of Braille on the first try or tear up the work and start again," she says. "It operates like an old fashioned typewriter. If you mistakenly type in a three-character word, but discover later when you are finished that you needed a four-character word there, you just could not correct the problem."

The BrailleNote is different, Ponchillia says.

"The BrailleNote acts like any other computer, so you can add a letter or take one away anywhere and the software corrects the spacing," she says. "The most exciting part of having the BrailleNote PDAs for class is that they give new Braille learners immediate feedback on the correctness of their work. That is, when students type the Braille letter using the keys, the letter is spoken and it appears on the Braille output line of the device, thus letting learners know immediately if they struck the proper keys for that particular letter. The old-fashioned mechanical device showed the letter shape on the paper, but gave no audible indication regarding its correctness."

George Ossentjuk, a world authority on Braille and part-time instructor in the department, is also excited about the new devices.

"The BrailleNote is motivating simply because it is extremely modern looking," he says. "Young students in elementary or high school are proud to carry it around and are motivated simply by its novelty and uniqueness. Also, since I teach the Braille math course at WMU and the BrailleNote is great for math learning and has a Braille scientific calculator on board, it has made learning the Braille mathematics code easier and more fun for graduate students as well."

The BrailleNote grant comes on top of the previously announced $160,000 pledge for scholarships. The scholarship funding is being donated in $8,000 awards per student. So far, six students have received $8,000 scholarships for a total donation to date of $48,000.

The MBTF also has pledged $20,000 to support a practice teaching program for WMU students to work with Kalamazoo County children with visual impairments this summer.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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