Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Throwback Thursday Object: the Portabraille, one of the first refreshable Braille displays

I was looking through our catalog of previous entries to this blog this morning, searching for inspiration, but the little box to my right could not be ignored.  It is one of Wayne Thompson and Fred Gissoni’s original PortaBraille machines, and it has an interesting story.  We lost Fred about eighteen months ago, so I can’t call him up any more and get some additional—and usually very funny!—scoop.  That continues to be a great loss to us all.    (You can read more about Fred in a previous Fred's Head post I hope everyone is excited about the new low cost refreshable braille display that will soon come out, the Orbit Reader 20.  Our story comes from the time before refreshable braille devices were very common at all.  In the mid-1980s, you only had a few choices:  the Elinfa Digicassette and the Telesensory Versabraille were just about the only game in town.  Both stored their input on audio cassette tapes although later they could connect to your PC.  And they were briefcase sized, fairly heavy, and cost about six grand.  At the Kentucky Department for the Blind, two legendary futurists were about to start changing that.  Wayne Thompson and Fred Gissoni had come up with a tiny little device they called the PocketBraille in 1985.  It fit into the case of a standard VHS tape.  Powered by nine-volt batteries, it had a little internal memory (32K!), but was really just a braille keyboard that allowed you to take notes in braille and then export your notes to your computer for editing, storage, or printing.  And it had a tiny speaker and the capability to read back your file using a very early speech chip, the SSI-263.  But Thompson and Gissoni were also working on a more ambitious idea, our object this week, the PortaBraille, which combined the features of the PocketBraille with a twenty cell refreshable braille display from an Italian company, Tiflotel.  The PortaBraille was a “portable, fully interactive braille computer terminal.”  It had 56K(!), weighed less than four pounds, and had a rechargeable battery.  But one of the neatest things about the Portabraille was that Wayne and Fred published—I would say posted but in 1986 there was no internet to post things to as we know it--the assembly instructions and for $900 in parts from a Lexington supply house you could build your own!  Imagine a day when you built your own computer and the designer just gave the plans away.  A few years later, Deane Blazie took the plans to the PocketBraille and developed the very influential Braille ‘n Speak.  And APH had its own version as well.  Our example in the museum is interesting because while it has the feel and look of a prototype, it is actually one of the few built commercially for the Department for the Blind by the parts supplier, Southland Manufacturing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Be Safe: Tips for Blind or Visually Impaired Persons Using Ridesharing Services like Lyft and Uber

Whether or not good public transportation exists in a particular city or town, blind and visually impaired persons increasingly are relying on services like Lyft Uber and other similar ridesharing services for many reasons. These services provide timely rides with costs that usually are quite reasonable. Additionally, these service providers seek to keep drivers and passengers safe. Background checks are part of the process of becoming a driver for such a platform. Cars must meet certain requirements and receive inspections to assure they are safe and reliable. Lyft's safety standards emphasize these points. Uber has a safety page and additional pages discussing driver and passenger safety.

Blind and visually impaired persons, however, can and should take further steps to ensure they can ride safely when using these services. We welcome additional tips which you can leave below in the comments section. Nevertheless, here are a few that I have noted now that I have used ridesharing services.


First, if you have usable vision, use it to your advantage. When you schedule a ride with a ridesharing service, you get valuable information, namely the driver’s name, color and type of car and license plate number. If you can visually determine any of these things yourself, you increase the chance that you will locate your driver, especially if you are in a crowded or unfamiliar area.


Second, know where you are and where you are going. Of course, if you are leaving home, work or another familiar place, this concern is not a concern at all, but if you are going somewhere new, make sure you know the address and/or nearby landmarks. The ridesharing apps allow you to enter your destination, and you can use dictation to do it. So, for instance, if you are going to a particular store but do not know the complete address, you can type or dictate the store name and the name of the street, and the app should find the correct one and let you double tap it to select it. If you don’t know the street name, the app may give you a list of available stores with the corresponding name, but there is no guarantee that the app will display the correct store. Therefore, it is best if you at least know the right street name so that you don’t go to the wrong location or to one that is far away from your home.


Third, be sure to identify your driver. Your driver may say “Lyft!” “Did you ask for an Uber ride?” or something similar. Whatever the driver says, even if they call you by name, ask the driver if their name is the one shown on the app. In a situation where several people may need rides, you want to take the correct ride. If you make the error of taking the wrong vehicle, someone else may receive an unauthorized charge on their method of payment; if someone does this to you, then you will likely face the same situation.


Fourth, be ready when your ride arrives. Ridesharing apps show you visually where your driver is located. This visual information is not necessary, though, if you want to know approximately how far away your driver is since the apps show the number of minutes away the driver happens to be at any given time. Lyft and Uber differently handle the way they let you know that your driver has arrived. Uber uses notifications rather than texts, a setting which you may or may not still be able to change. Also the app displays a message that your driver is “arriving now” just before they actually do arrive whereas with Lyft you get a text, and the message “Your driver has arrived” displays on the app. It is essential that you are ready as your driver may not see you. Fair or not, the driver may start the ride before you enter the vehicle, and once the ride starts, you are being charged.


Fifth, remain alert for any signs of trouble. While the likelihood that you will be put in danger by a driver is probably minimal, remain alert nonetheless, especially in a new area or with a driver you have not ridden with previously. If you have a service animal, make sure it enters the car safely and is in securely before closing doors. You are responsible for your animal’s safety; avoid injuries of any kind to your animal due to closing doors without noticing if the animal is securely in the vehicle. In an unfamiliar area, you can learn information from a helpful driver; you may be able to ask about landmarks, stores, restaurants or anything else in the town that interests you.

In summary, ridesharing services succeed when both drivers and passengers remain safe, but you as a visually impaired person should take extra steps to ensure your safety. Be alert, prepared and aware of your surroundings being certain to let your driver know where you need to go. By following these guidelines, you should have excellent experiences with ridesharing services.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Couple of Older Braille Writers

It is unfortunate but we actually know much too little about our large collection of European braillewriters.  Case in point the St. Dunstan’s Braille Writer, made in Croydon England by Redwing Ltd., a former aircraft company.  We just bought a second example and in the course of cataloging it, I noticed that it is a direct knock-off of the original Picht from Germany.  Put them side by side and you’ll see what I mean.  The one we had was dated 1948 but with nothing to back that up.  Look on the web and… nada.  But by widening my search a bit I found this.


It is cool because Sir Ian Fraser, the head of St. Dunstan’s--which was a rehabilitation center for blinded British and Allied servicemen and women--freely admits it is “merely a copy.”   By the way, we also have several of the Stainsby Waynes in our collection.  More about that later.


St. Dunstan's Review, April 1949, No. 362, Vol XXXII

St. Dunstan's Braille Machines

The old Stainsby- Wayne is a faithful friend. Most St. Dunstaners learnt their braille

with its help. But it writes downwards, so that you cannot read whatever you have written

without taking the paper out. I remember, in my father's office forty years ago, an old

Yost typewriter which wrote upside down, and you had to turn the carriage on its back

to read what you had typed. No typist would thank you for a machine like that nowadays,

but we are so very conservative, especially blind people, and we stick to the Stainsby
probably because we have got used to it. However, now we have introduced a new St. Dunstan's

Braille Writer. It writes upwards and you can feel what you have written immediately.

It only writes on one side of the paper, but normally this does not matter. Paper is cheap

enough. For the business man who wants a machine on his desk, or for the letter or note

writer, it is a great improvement. New St. Dunstaners will be taught on it, and will qualify

for it if they need it when they leave. St. Dunstaners who have left can apply for it, and

if it makes a contribution to their business, or enjoyment of life, they can have one. The

keyboard is different to the Stainsby and a little confusing at first, but it will soon be learnt

by a keen braillist. Lessons can be arranged at Brighton or Blackpool for those who want

to qualify for it, and take a test when they are on their annual vacation there. No country

in the world uses a machine which writes upside down, except ours. The new machine

is not original. It is merely a copy of one of the best and simplest which has stood the

test of time. It is light and well-made. I recommend it to anyone who really makes use

of braille writing and is not too old to learn a slightly new technique for the fingering.




Friday, May 13, 2016

Redesign of our Physical Education, Recreational and Health Webpages!

We have completely redesigned our Physical Education, Recreation, and Health informational pages! Besides the great new look, these pages now contain many resources and include information concerning sport camps, toys and games, health and nutrition, organizations, other websites, and relevant APH products. We encourage you to submit items to the site! If your state, community, or agency is hosting a sporting event/camp, workshop, or training, send us the information using the form posted on the site.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Throwback Thursday Object: the Pathsounder, an O&M Device from the early 1960's

Our object this week comes from our AER O&M Division C. Warren Bledsoe Archives collection.  
The Pathsounder was invented by Lindsay Russell while working with the Sensory Aids Evaluation and Development Center at MIT in the early 1960s.  It was one of the first commercially available electronic travel aids.  Russell (1927-2000) had worked on radar installations for the Signal Corps during WWII, which led to a career in engineering and work on navigational aids for people who are blind.  The first model to be field tested was Model H in 1968-69.  By 1974, the E model was being made for distribution at the three Veterans Administration Blind Rehabilitation Centers.  Worn around the neck, it was designed as a secondary aid, in addition to the use of the long cane.  It worked using sound waves, shooting them out in front and detecting them as they bounced off objects in the environment.  Emitting a sound(buzzing or beeping), or a vibration (at the chest or neck), or both, it alerted the user to objects within the field of view above and below the waist, in the direct travel path, within a distance of 6-8'.  The Pathsounder was never widely used, although it was widely tested.  Users liked it because it could be worn around the neck, which meant they always had a free hand—many other aids were handheld—and the fact that it could be set to buzz rather than just beep—so users could carry on a conversation with a companion or listen for road noises while using it.  But like many other electronic travel aids, it could not detect drop-offs, it was expensive and fragile, its feedback could be hard to interpret for the average user, and most users found they preferred “just” a cane or “just” a dog guide.


The secondary box is the battery charger.  The size and effectiveness of batteries is a secondary story in the development of ETAs that I find interesting.  The batteries in the earliest models were as large as the units themselves and weighed as much as 20 ounces.  Modern ETAs, such as the Miniguide U.S. use a disposable battery that weighs around an ounce.

This example was donated to the Bledsoe Archives by the Rehabilitation Research and Development Services Division of the Veterans Administration in 1989.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Possum Moon Typewriter

Our object this week is a typewriter that wrote in an interesting tactile code that continues to be used to this day, Moon-Type.    The Possum Moon Writer was introduced in 1986.  On the front of the machine, which looks like a yellow typewriter without keys, is what the developer called a “master pad”--a metal plate with indented lines from which the Moon characters are composed. The user inserted their right index finger into a metal ring attached to a lever above the master pad and traced the shape of the character on the pad. This transmitted the shape of the character to the writing mechanism and pushed a stylus to inscribe a small version of the character onto paper. Dr. William Moon introduced his alphabet-based tactile system for reading and writing in 1847.  He considered it superior to other forms of raised letters because he felt his letter shapes were more legible.  The first mechanical Moon writer was introduced in 1908 by his daughter, Adelaide.  The system experienced some popularity in Great Britain, which declined after the adoption of braille, but it continues to be produced in small quantities there by the Royal National Institute for the Blind.  There is nothing to suggest the Possum experienced anything beyond a minimal run, although it did generate some research in British blindness research magazines.  Just as a note:  the “Possum” name, colorful as it is, has nothing to do with William Moon.  The machine was developed by Possum Controls Ltd., a British manufacturer of accessibility products.

MAY 2016 APH News now online


Click on the above link or copy and paste it into your favorite web browser.


**This Month’s Headlines:

  • APH Physical Education Website gets a New Look
  • Building on Patterns Now Complete!
  • Treasures from the APH Libraries
  • Quick Tips from APH
  • Social Media Spotlight
  • APH Travel Calendar
  • New Products from APH
  • The Braille Book Corner and much, much more…


Perkins School for the Blind Launches New BlindNewWorld Website

More than half of the sighted population can’t recall the last time they saw someone who is blind in the last year. Somehow they have missed a population of 7 million blind individuals. Why are blind people invisible to the sighted world? What can be done to create a world that is more inclusive of the blind community?


BlindNewWorld is a new social change campaign sponsored by Perkins School for the Blind to debunk stereotypes and inspire the sighted population to see the full social, professional and intellectual capabilities of people who are blind.


According to a new study, there are four main barriers to inclusion: discomfort, pity, fear and stigma. For years, the blind population and organizations supporting it, have been frustrated by the social and professional exclusion and the near invisibility of people who are blind from the public’s social consciousness.

“Many people hold preconceived biases that the blind aren’t capable of daily tasks and can’t lead happy lives,” said Corinne Grousbeck, Chair of the Board at Perkins School for the Blind. “Even worse, people often fear blindness more than many terminal diseases. This stems from a lack of understanding and contact with the blind community. BlindNewWorld reveals the realities of today’s highly capable blind population and provides simple actions that each of us can take to include the blind in the sighted world.”


To learn more and join the movement, visit and also like @BlindNewWorld on Facebook, and follow on Twitter and Instagram at the following respective links:

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