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, June 30, 2016

Throwback Thursday Object: Index Typewriter

Our object this week is an unusual typewriter developed for blind users.  When schools for students who were blind or visually impaired first began, handwriting was an important school subject.  Inventers developed a number of handwriting guides—maybe I’ll show you some of those next week.  In any event, once the typewriter was introduced after the Civil War, it quickly replaced handwriting, since it offered a quick and accurate way for a blind writer to send a letter that could be read by a sighted employer, friend, or business associate.  This is an index typewriter invented by Oscar Picht for blind typists around 1907.  Catalogs advertising it exist that date as late as 1928.  Index typewriters did not have keyboards. One hand operated a pointer that selected a letter from an index while the other hand depressed a lever that printed the type on the paper.   This one is cool because it features a daisy wheel—remember them from the old IBM Selectric typewriters?  Oscar Picht (1871-1945) held multiple German braillewriter patents.  He invented the first German braillewriter in 1899 while teaching at the State School for the Blind in Berlin, Germany.  But, like all teachers at schools for blind students, Herr Picht realized his students also had to communicate with the sighted world, and invented this little beauty.  Incidentally, index typewriters were originally invented for the sighted world.  The first ones appeared about 1880 and were cheaper than the first keyboard typewriters.  Once Remington and  Underwood got their act in gear and introduced cheap yet reliable machines in the early 20th century, the index typewriter disappeared.  And blind students learned to touch type… just like their sighted classmates.

Methods for identifying U.S. currency

Blind and visually impaired people have struggled to identify United States paper currency due to its lack of tactile differentiation. This post includes information from the Federal Reserve concerning its recent efforts to combat the problem. However, we also have included an additional mobile app that assist with differentiating U.S. paper bills. The Federal Reserve information, with a few revisions, is as follows:
Meaningful Access to U.S. Currency

Federal Reserve notes, better known in commerce as U.S. currency, paper money, or bills, are the same size and weight regardless of denomination.  Because there is no tactile difference between a $5 and $20 bill, for example, individuals who are blind or visually impaired may experience difficulties denominating them.

The Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) is working to change that, and is taking a number of steps to provide meaningful access to U.S. currency for those with vision impairments. 

In January 2015, the BEP launched the U.S. Currency Reader Program to provide a free currency reader device to all U.S. citizens or legal residents who are blind or visually impaired.  The currency reader is a small, compact, hand-held device – about the size of a credit card and about one-half inch thick.  To use the currency reader, one simply inserts a U.S. bill into the reader and presses a button.  The device quickly identifies the bill’s denomination in one of three ways: a clear natural voice, a pattern of tones, or a pattern of vibrations for privacy.  The vibration mode assists people who are deaf and blind.  The currency reader identifies all U.S. currency in circulation, to include the $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations.  It runs on one AAA battery, which is included. 

Through an interagency agreement, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is supporting the BEP by administering the order fulfillment and processing functions of the U.S. Currency Reader Program.  NLS currently administers a similar program that provides free braille and audio library materials to U.S. residents and citizens living abroad whose low vision, blindness, or physical handicap makes it difficult to read a standard printed page.

To request a currency reader, individuals must mail an application form, which can be filled out and downloaded at .  The applicant must provide verification of their visual impairment by having the form signed by a certifying authority such as a doctor or by attaching verification documents issued by a federal, state, or local agency.  Applicants who are currently registered patron of NLS can simply check a box on the application and no further certification is needed.  Completed applications can be mailed to U.S. Currency Reader Program, 14th & C Streets, S.W., Washington, DC 20228.

Once an application is verified, a currency reader and operating instructions in large print, braille, and on CD, will be shipped via U.S. Postal Service to the qualifying individual.  Delivery takes approximately eight weeks from receipt of the application.(More detailed information about the iBill is available at the following link:

The BEP has contributed to the development of other technological solutions that allow individuals to determine a note’s denomination by using their smart phone or other mobile devices.  EyeNote®, first introduced by the BEP in 2011, and the IDEAL® Currency Identifier, developed in partnership with the Department of Education are two mobile device applications available for individuals to download for free.  EyeNote® operates on the iOS platform and is available as a free download through the Apple App Store.  The IDEAL® Currency Identifier is designed for use with Android phones and can be downloaded for free from GooglePlay.  Both apps utilize a continuous scan function and use the device’s camera to recognize a Federal Reserve note.  The note’s denomination is quickly communicated back to the user. 

Other accommodations to provide meaningful access to U.S. currency are being developed as well.  The U.S. government is researching the addition of a raised tactile feature to the next redesigned Federal Reserve note and will continue to add large, high-contrast numerals and different colors to each redesigned note denomination that it is permitted by law to alter.  More information about the meaningful access program can be found at

Apple iPhone users also have an additional option for currency identification. The LookTel Money Reader App, available in the iOS and Mac app store, reads currency quickly and easily. Many users report that LookTel recognizes bills faster and is easier to use. The app costs $9.99, and I can state from experience that the app is stable, reliable, and accurate in its reading of currency. We welcome your comments on the iBill or any of the apps listed in this article.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Wright Punch Model 2600: A Method for Programming Old Main Frame Computers

Wright Punch Model 2600 card punch
Our object this week reminds us that it used to be pretty complicated to program one of the old main frame computers.  Information was coded by punching patterns of holes into cards, which were then fed into a computer via a card reader.  This is a mechanical IBM card punch for visually impaired computer programmers based on the
Hollerith Keypunch Code.  Hollerith was fairly easy for braille readers to learn. (Most sighted programmers used a typewriter keyboard to punch their cards.) A label on top of the punch reads "Wright Punch Model 2600, Wright Line, Worcester, Mass. USA." It also lists the key numbers and letter and symbols code. It has thirteen keys attached to a movable carriage. Letters and punctuation marks were made by pressing multiple keys, another similarity to braille, and a spacing key advanced the carriage. The keys punched holes into the IBM card placed beneath the carriage.   Larry Honaker, the original donor, used the card punch early in his career as a programmer. He graduated from Columbus Technical Institute in Pittsburgh, in 1974. He worked for the Defense Department in Central Design Headquarters, Defense Electronic Supply.  The Wright Punch Model 2600 was in use there until around 1986, when he began using an electronic terminal fitted with an Optacon for reading the screen.



Monday, June 13, 2016

Orbit Reader 20 Details

The June 2016 APH News previews
this article and provides a link to it; we also have chosen to include it in Fred's Head.

Orbit Reader 20 Details

by Larry Skutchan
After the recent announcement and feedback during the March CSUN conference about the release of the Orbit Reader 20™, a new refreshable braille display with an SD card slot and stand-alone functionality, it is clear the device warrants some additional description. In brief, the Orbit Reader 20 combines simplicity, functionality, and connectivity in a unique and low priced package to make reading braille more practical in many situations. The Orbit Reader 20 will be manufactured by Orbit Research and sold by the American Printing House for the Blind.

Current State of Refreshable Braille Technology

Users who are blind enjoy increasingly better and less expensive speech output accessibility in mobile devices, but braille access is nearly always achieved by employing an additional external device. The device works much like a Bluetooth keyboard, except in this case, the peripheral is a refreshable braille display that sometimes includes a braille keyboard. This scenario works, but few can argue that one single unit that includes the braille components is a far superior setup. Here, the unfortunate truth of manufacturing products for a low-incidence population arises—currently, no large for-profit manufacturer can justify the low return on investment for refreshable braille technology.
The need for specialization, recognition of the importance of braille literacy, and the advancement of electronics technology was the motivation behind the production of electronic braille displays for several companies in the blindness business. Over the years, these electronic braille products evolved into three categories.
Braille Terminals—a refreshable braille device that connects to a host, with no additional functionality. It usually includes a USB and Bluetooth interface and sometimes features a braille keyboard. The user reads the braille from an app running on a phone, tablet, or computer (host) and then controls the host and/or types with the keyboard using the braille terminal.
Note Takers—works like a braille terminal and includes additional functionality, such as editing or a calendar, that is used without connecting to a host. These devices always include a braille keyboard.
PDAs—a note taker that uses a mobile operating system to provide all the services of a smartphone or tablet. Modern PDAs include Android and Windows applications. These devices could even be called braille tablets. This is the next best solution for the user desiring the ultimate experience of a single integrated unit.
One of the disadvantages of braille PDAs is the cost. While the user can obtain a well-equipped iPhone® for about $800, or even use an Amazon Fire® tablet for $50, the cost of braille PDAs is in the thousands. And while it is almost painless to spend a few hundred dollars every two or three years to upgrade to the latest device, spending thousands to keep up with braille technology hurts a lot more and is out of range for many users.
These disproportionate prices should not reflect badly on the manufacturers—it is expensive to design specialty hardware, and the traditional braille cells used to date are very expensive. Relatively low quantities for manufacturing also contributes to the problem. And there is a market for premium braille PDAs.
For most users, the note taker offers a middle-ground approach. It provides minimal, but essential, functionality in a stand-alone operation and lets the user connect to a host device for more demanding tasks, such as web browsing or streaming movies. The disadvantage is the inconvenience of having two separate devices with which to contend. However, this aspect becomes an advantage when it is time to upgrade to the next generation of phone or tablet.

Advantages of the Upcoming Orbit Reader 20

The Orbit Reader 20 was designed as a braille reading device. It falls into the note taker category. Its stand-alone capabilities include reading, writing, and file management. For anything else, the user connects to a host device that provides those services. In this usage model, the Orbit Reader 20 becomes a terminal that displays the braille for the app running on the phone, tablet, or PC. It works via Bluetooth with iOS and Android devices and through USB or Bluetooth for Windows, Mac, and any other operating system that includes a screen reader with braille support. In the USB configuration, Orbit Reader 20 supports both serial and human interface device (HID) protocols. This means, if the screen reader supports it, no driver installation is required.
When using it as a stand-alone device, Orbit Reader 20 starts as a reader displaying the content of files stored on the SD card. The interface is simple, keeping the focus on allowing the reader to scroll through the text and select other titles. The youngest readers find it easy to get the next line of braille by pressing the panning button. For more advanced users, Orbit Reader 20 provides searching, bookmark, and note taking capabilities.
In addition to its use as a reader, Orbit Reader 20 lets the user create and edit text. Make no mistake, the editor is simple and works with about 15 pages at a time. But if more complex formatting or spell check is needed, the user utilizes a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word, on the PC with Orbit Reader 20 serving as the braille terminal.
Finally, Orbit Reader includes file management capabilities as part of its stand-alone functionality. The user can rename, delete, copy, and create files and folders as needed.

Revolutionary Refreshable Braille Display

Along with these simple software features, Orbit Reader 20 boasts some noteworthy hardware. The most distinctive feature is the braille technology. Some compare it to the braille used on signage. The dots do not give when the user presses them. The dots on some braille displays using the traditional technology yield to pressure. Perceptually, this results in the sensation of pushing the dot down when the user applies deliberate force to it. The technology used in the Orbit Reader 20 does not exhibit this characteristic. Once the dot is raised, it stays raised no matter how hard the user examines it. This unique factor could have positive implications for beginning braille readers or those who suffer with some degree of neuropathy.

Development of the Orbit Reader 20

The Orbit Reader 20 was made possible by the Transforming Braille Group, LLC. Their goals for this device included increasing literacy by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology.
In 2011, Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), announced that RNIB would find a technology that disrupts the braille display market by radically reducing the cost of refreshable braille. He convinced 10 world-wide blindness organizations to form the Transforming Braille Group, LLC (TBG). The organizations involved in TBG are listed here:
  • American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
  • Association Valentin HauY (AVH)
  • Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)
  • Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
  • National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
  • Norwegian Association for the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)
  • Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)
  • Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
  • Sightsavers
  • Vision Australia (VA)
After a thorough examination of over 60 possible projects, TBG agreed to fund Orbit Research with $1.25 million to develop the reader for about $300 each, with a commitment of 50,000 units over a five-year period.
In March 2016, TBG and Orbit announced the successful completion of the project and revealed the prototypes at the CSUN conference.

Low-Cost Breakthrough in a Refreshable Braille Device

While no organization has yet published an end user price for the Orbit Reader 20, it is fair to expect a price around $500 for North America. TBG members can get the device for $320, but this is just for the device. Individual member organizations must package, localize, support, and distribute the device. TBG members are all non-profit organizations, so determining factors toward an end user cost depend on the cost of the following described items.
Packaging might include an SD card (possibly with some content), a USB cable, large print and braille quick start guides, an AC adapter, and a box and packaging. Some of these components vary depending on the location; for example, translation of the quick start guides into an appropriate language and provision of AC adapters compatible with local plugs. Member organizations may choose to collaborate for lower packaging and accessory prices.
Another example that could affect the end user price is the use of a software utility that allows an organization to translate the user interface into any language, thus allowing delivery of a product directly to their customers that is already configured and preloaded with content on the SD card.
Organizations may also want to create software and hardware support systems. While the device is engineered for varying climates, eventually the battery, for example, needs replacement. Currently, it is user replaceable, but some organizations may wish to consider providing services such as battery sales or installation.
Some of the most important considerations for successful integration of such a breakthrough technology are marketing, support, and education. Individual TBG members are responsible for providing information to consumers and educational and government entities about the cost and literacy advantages. They also build customer support channels and create and distribute tutorials or localized versions of the user interface and documentation.
To date, CNIB, RNIB, and APH have announced intentions to distribute the device when it becomes available in the fall of 2016. Non-TBG members will also be able to purchase the Orbit Reader 20, but they will not enjoy the $320 price. Final price and timing details are forthcoming. Orbit Reader uses common off-the-shelf parts. Most of these parts are used in millions of other consumer devices, so it is expected that the individual prices will continue to fall.
The end result of a low-cost refreshable braille display is not magic. The TBG made a commitment, identified a technology, financed it, committed to quantities, and accepted compromises to achieve this remarkable cost breakthrough. In addition to the financial and quantity commitments, the new technology and compromises made between TBG members complete the successful formula for the significant price reduction. A look at some of the compromises helps explain.

Orbit Reader 20 Features vs. Full-Featured Devices

The first difference from full-featured devices is the lack of cursor routing buttons. What that means to individual users depends on how they use the device. These buttons, which are associated with individual cells, make the interface easier on modern operating systems. The cursor routing buttons were eliminated due to limited usefulness when used as a reader and to save on cost. Currently, there are discussions taking place about the introduction of models with additional features, and cursor router buttons certainly qualify as one of the more important features being considered.
The second difference from full-featured devices is that the unit refreshes differently from previously existing technology. The refresh rate is slower, and the user can just hear the slight tap as each pin rises from left to right. However, it happens quickly, usually in about half a second for the whole line—the left side is ready almost immediately. The refresh rate could be faster with additional cost, but initial indications show that many users are satisfied with this alternate technique.
The last difference is in the size and appearance; it is not the smallest or sleekest refreshable braille device available. It is approximately 6 inches wide, 4 inches deep, and just over 1 inch tall; and it appears more utilitarian than elegant. Regardless, it looks good, is built ruggedly, and functions well. It does not come with a carrying case, but it does contain rings where a strap may be attached. Orbit Research will offer a case for purchase, and it is likely that some of the well-known case developers, such as Executive Products, will supply a carrying case.
The device is not intended to compete with high end PDAs. Its purpose is to get braille into the hands of more users. Now, parents can afford a braille reader to accompany the family tablet, libraries can reduce costs for those users that desire electronic distribution, and governments can provide inexpensive, easy to maintain devices on which to read.
For teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) in the United States, it means that schools can provide a braille display for every student that requires one, which should be available to the student for home use for evenings and weekends. The TVI can use it to provide high-quality transcribed electronic textbooks. At school, students can use it to read textbooks, write homework assignments, take notes, and interact with the school computer. At home, they can read books and magazines, work on homework assignments, interact with their iPad, and connect it to the home computer.

Orbit Reader 20, a Breakthrough Coming This Fall

In short, the Orbit Reader 20 provides a simple, well-built, inexpensive method to offer the prospect of literacy to more people who are blind and visually impaired by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology. It is not the sleekest, most elegant, smallest, or most feature laden device available. It is, however, an incredible value for simple, reliable, electronic braille tasks. The Transforming Braille Group is optimistic that this combination will ease the literacy crisis among blind citizens the world round.

Friday, June 10, 2016

June 2016 APH News now online

**This Month’s Headlines:

  • Orbit Reader 20 Details
  • Eagerly-Welcomed Advice from Our EOT Committees
  • APH Welcomes Researchers from Korea
  • Have You Visited APH’s New Accessible Tests Resource Center?
  • 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…

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Picture of Stevie Wonder and Muhammad Ali

Our object this week is in remembrance of Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali, who died last Friday and is being remembered all over the world this week as a great athlete, humanitarian, and voice for human dignity. We have had this photo since 2011, when we installed our exhibit telling the story of Stevie Wonder, his tutor Ted Hull, and his teachers at the Michigan School for the Blind. The picture came with many others donated by Ted, who traveled all around the world with Stevie Wonder and taught him on the road. Ted told his story in the 2002 memoir “The Wonder Years,” which you can still find on Amazon. The photo is a press photo from, we think, the Detroit Press, showing a twenty-one-year-old Ali, already the number one heavyweight contender, but not yet a champion, and a thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder clowning around. Both were definitely still on their way up. It is a typical pose for “The Greatest,” with him taking a fake punch from Stevie, who wears a white tuxedo jacket and black bow tie and is smiling broadly. Doing some internet research, I found a wider shot of the same event, and discovered that it was taken backstage at the Apollo Theatre in San Francisco in December 1963. Stevie was there for a package show; the second picture I found included the Ronettes, Dee Dee Sharp, Dion Warwick and several others. Don’t confuse San Francisco’s Apollo with the one in Harlem. The one in San Francisco was built in 1928 as the “Amazon.”

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The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data contained in the Fred's Head articles; however, APH makes no warranty, guarantee, or promise, expressed or implied, concerning the content or accuracy of the information provided in Fred's Head. APH does not endorse any technique, product, device, service, organization, or other information presented in Fred's Head, other than products and services directly offered by APH.

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