In 1824, Louis Braille, aged 15 and blind since childhood, developed a written code for the French language that would improve night writing, a writing system developed for Napoleon’s army to quietly communicate at night without the need for light. Naming the system after himself, Braille went on to produce a French alphabet based on patterns of strategically positioned bumps on a page to represent letters and text. These letters are “read” by feeling, with your fingers, the position in which the bumps are placed.
In 1880, Helen Keller was born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama. Though born a normal, healthy baby, by her second birthday, Keller was blind and deaf, reportedly from Scarlett fever. Over the years, Keller developed more than 60 hand signs, communication gestures that her family grew to recognize. At age 7, she was sent to a school for blind-deaf children and it was there she met Anne Sullivan, a vision-impaired woman who would eventually work and remain Keller’s companion for the next 50 years. Keller went on to become an author, women’s rights activist, supporter of trade unions. She also helped to standardize the education and treatment of visually impaired people throughout the world, thus widening the usage of Braille.
Because of her determination to communicate, Keller did learn to speak by touch. She spent much of her life speaking publically and lecturing. She could “hear” what people were saying by placing her fingers on their lips when they spoke. She “heard” music by placing her fingertips on a table placed close to where the music was being played and feeling the resonance. She proved that people with severe vision and auditory handicaps could become not just a member of society, but a major contributing factor to help change fundamental beliefs held by that society.
In today’s world, methods like Braille and reading language through touch are still widely used. However, with advances in technology and the realization that people with visual and auditory impairment can and should be a part of today’s technological world, there are many products available to assist in those affected with blindness and deafness.
One of the most disenfranchised groups in society, the blind and deaf population has been a focal point of attention for the past decade. Indeed, the US government passed a law designated the 21st Century Communications and Video Access Act (CVAA) to help bring individuals with these handicaps into the technology mainstream and give them access to “distance communication” capabilities. Distance communications is the ability to communicate with someone not in their presence using modern-day, electronic technology. The CVAA legislation makes sure that accessibility laws enacted in the ‘80s and ‘90s are brought up to date with today’s technologies, including newly developed digital, broadband, and mobile innovations. Under the Act, up to $10 million a year of Federal dollars are committed to allow states to purchase and provide equipment for people who qualify for the program. The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP) was established to provide funding to each participating state to purchase up-to-date hardware and software for their deaf/blind residents. Though the budgets are small – the $10 million annual budget is allocated and distributed to individual states based on population; Massachusetts received just $190,000 from the fund last year – the products approved cover a broad spectrum of everyday computer products modified for use by those with visual and hearing problems.
In addition to the wide array of desktops, laptops, and tablets by Apple, Dell, and HP and mobile devices provided by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, there are specialized accessories such as wireless Braille computer keyboards, blue tooth headsets compatible with hearing aids, and Voice Over software which converts text to speech. Additionally, there are wearable and outboard signaling systems which let the user know when a phone call, email, or other message is coming in.
The program is officially administered by iCanConnect. Operating under the auspices NDBEDP, iCanConnect’s website states it offers “free access to distance communication technologies to people with significant combined hearing and vision loss who meet federal income guidelines.” Their mission statement includes “iCanConnect provides distance communication technology, including smartphones, computers, software, and braille readers, as well as training and support.”
Louis Braille gave severely handicapped people a way to communicate. Helen Keller took that communication to the next level. Today, iCanConnect continues their work by making easier for more and more handicapped people to become part of mainstream society.