Braille-ready laptop hits fed market

With the government renewing its efforts to accommodate employees with physical disabilities, Advanced Access Devices, maker of laptops for the visually impaired, is planning a push into the federal market.

Its product, called SuperBraille, replaces the traditional laptop display with a Braille display, which converts text into Braille. In response to information from the computer, Braille text is produced on the display by pins that are raised and lowered in combinations to form Braille characters. The system also features a processor that can be used with software for converting text into computer-generated speech.

Instead of a mouse, the laptop uses "screen reader" software and a series of buttons adjacent to the Braille display. The screen reader reads text on a screen—for example, menu options such as File and Edit in Microsoft Corp.'s Word—then displays those words on the Braille display. Users choose the menu option they want and then press a corresponding button. SuperBraille runs on standard C batteries, but users also can plug it into electrical outlets.

Jim Blacksten, a blind marketing entrepreneur in California who helps Advanced Access Devices pitch its products, said he intends to pursue federal business heavily and plans a series of trips to the Washington, D.C., area to market the products. "We...are fully committed to getting the word out to federal government agencies, departments, boards and commissions which employ or would like to employ blind people," Blacksten said.

Advanced Access Devices' push into the federal market comes as the Justice Department assesses how well agencies are complying with Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which requires agencies to ensure that federal employees who are visually impaired or otherwise disabled can access information and data on a comparable level to workers without disabilities.

Although the SuperBraille's steep price —about $10,000—may deter some private buyers, federal agencies may pay for the product if they are sure the purchase will be worthwhile, said Don Barrett, a blind computer specialist on the Education Department's Assistive Technology Team. "I'd sure want to make sure before I got that for somebody," Barrett said. "Because of the expense, you do want to make sure it's appropriately applied to the right person."

Company officials say the product combines several components that, if bought separately, would result in even higher costs.

SuperBraille integrates a 40-character Braille display, speech-to-text ability, a 233 MHz Pentium-class laptop and a "note-taker" function that enables users to write personal memos without having to boot up the entire computer. Instead, the note-taker function uses a separate processor built in to the laptop.

Crista Early, a resource specialist with the Technology Program at the American Foundation for the Blind, said having such an integrated product would help users avoid the hassles of having to transport and connect two separate pieces of equipment, a laptop and a Braille display. But she also said there may be a drawback to the all-in-one SuperBraille: If the Braille display malfunctions, the laptop in effect would be rendered useless.

However, SuperBraille does include several data ports with which users can connect to other computers or into which users can plug peripherals, such as additional Braille displays, according to David Mansoir, vice president of sales and marketing for Advanced Access Devices.

The laptop includes a Universal Serial Bus port, one VGA port, one parallel port, three serial ports, two keyboard ports and four PC Card slots, he said. Additionally, the product includes a built-in sound card, microphone, stereo speakers and a MIDI port for multimedia-related peripherals.

Education's Barrett suspects there will be a demand for the product. "The need for portable computers is at least as great among the blind population, probably greater," he said. "There is the issue of attending meetings, taking notes, having material available—materials that others might have in print."

For now, Advanced Access Devices will take the direct route in selling to the federal market, according to Mansoir. He said attempts to talk with federal resellers so far have not resulted in any deals that would give the company a quicker entry into the federal market. "We've tried to contact some of those people, but they've not been interested," he said.

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