Inventions that help the blind live more independently

Have you ever wondered where devices or technology for the blind and visually impaired came from? When did people first start reading braille? How were those dots on the page formed? 

Besides reading in braille, talking books are another accessible format. Who recorded the first talking/audio book? Or what about computers that talk to you, commonly known as screen reading software?

Where did this technology come from? Who invented it? In honor of National Inventors Month, let’s learn about popular inventions those with vision loss use daily to live a more independent life.

The invention of braille 

Technology for the blind visually impaired

Let’s start off with one of the most popular and recognizable inventions in the blind community. Created for reading and writing, braille revolutionized the lives of the blind through literacy, education, employment and independence. 

Blind people access braille through a series of tactile dots on paper. Born in France in 1809, Louis Braille lost his vision from an accident as a small child. His family enrolled him in the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris after realizing he could not learn through listening alone. 

While there, Braille began the process of crafting a reading and writing system by touch during his teenage years. He continued to perfect the system and as an adult, became an instructor at the institution. 

Unfortunately, Braille’s method was not accepted by the sighted instructors and he died in 1852, never seeing his creation used by the blind. Eventually, the code was accepted and today this system of raised dots is used all over the world. 

The braille code is made up of letters, numbers and symbols. It is not another language. The alphabet is based on a cell that is composed of six or eight dots, arranged in two columns of three or four dots each. 

Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the dots that are contained in the cell. Braille is usually found in a large book format on double sided paper to maximize space and can be read for math, science and music. 

The invention of the talking book

When Thomas Edison applied for a patent for his Tin-Foil Phonograph in 1877, one of the ten potential uses he listed was “…phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.” It took over 50 years before the phonograph could be used for talking books because of technology and economic challenges. In 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project established the Books for the Blind, a “Talking Books Program” intended to provide reading material for veterans injured during World War I and other visually impaired adults. 

Later, Learning Ally and the American Printing House for the Blind also produced talking books. The first test recordings in 1932 included a chapter from Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. 

The organization received congressional approval for exemption from copyright and free postal distribution of talking books. The first recordings made for the Talking Books Program in 1934 included sections of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and other patriotic documents, plays and sonnets by Shakespeare and fiction by Gladys Hasty Carroll, E. M. Delafield, Cora Jarrett, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, and P. G. Wodehouse.

Talking books evolved from the early days of vinyl records. Cassette tapes were used in the 1960s and 1970s. Compact disks emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, talking books can be accessed via a digital download from a computer or smartphone.

Reading materials now include fiction, non-fiction, magazines, foreign languages and other selections. Audio books have gathered universal mass appeal with sighted and blind people enjoying them. 

The invention of the screen reader

In 1986 Jim Thatcher, IBM researcher and accessibility pioneer, created the IBM Screen Reader for DOS, the first IBM screen reader

At first, it wasn’t trademarked because it was primarily for low vision staff members. Since it was created for DOS, which is a text-based desktop operating system, he later created the Screen Reader 2. This one would be used for graphical interface PCs, such as Windows 95 and IBM OS/2. 

Freedom Scientific produced JAWS, currently the world’s most popular screen reader, for DOS and then Windows. Released in 2006, Nonvisual Desktop Access is a free open-source screen reader for Windows. 

Microsoft has a built-in screen reader called Narrator. Then there is Orca, a free open-source screen reader for Linux from the GNOME project.

In 2009, Apple announced a new feature called VoiceOver making their products more accessible to people with visual impairments using the touch interface of the iPhone. Apple began incorporating VoiceOver into the iPhone 3GS. 

VoiceOver is now the screen reader built into Apple operating systems, including macOS, iOS/iPadOS, and WatchOS. Google was not far behind with their version called TalkBack for Android devices and ChromeVox for ChromeOS.

These inventions for blind people have transformed the lives of people with vision loss. Reading braille, listening to audiobooks and using devices with screen reading technology builds confidence and enhances independence. Contact Outlook Enrichment to learn more about these devices.