By Deborah Kendrick
(Reprinted from “Access World,” March 2023.)
For most of us, March 2020 will always evoke the memory of lockdown, quarantines, masks and all of the other traumatizing changes wrought by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But there were positive events taking place in March 2020 as well, and the one that stamped its most indelible memory on a few of us doing work for the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled was the launch of the NLS Braille eReader Pilot.
A Little History
In the summer of 2013, a conference was held in Watertown, Mass. that would bring significant changes to the delivery of braille materials by the NLS. The Braille Summit was a think tank of sorts, bringing together braille teachers, braille readers, braille producers and other lovers of braille to dig in and brainstorm the future and promotion of braille. One significant idea that came from that intense conversation was that putting a refreshable braille device in the hands of all braille readers would encourage the reading of braille and provide braille material in a more equitable fashion to blind people. Rather than long waiting lists for a finite number of braille copies of a single book, an infinite number of readers could download that book to read and choose their own time for reading it. Many braille readers had been downloading books for years by 2013, but refreshable braille displays are costly and were therefore not available to all.
Fast forward just five years to an amazing appropriation by the United States Congress, a one-time appropriation of $5 million in order for NLS to launch the eReader pilot. Bids went out. Two products were selected, and in March 2020, seven of us began putting these machines through their paces. Spearheaded by Tamara Rorie, head of the Patron Engagement Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, the pilot is now a program, the two eReaders have been distributed to 40 of the 50 states, and the plan is for all states to have received their units by the end of 2023.
Two Machines, One Set of Functions
Certainly, there are differences between the two eReaders. They look and feel distinctly different from one another. There are some distinctions in features and performance. The important takeaway, however, is that they are both powerful machines designed to do the same job: display and download books and magazines from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. And both do that job extremely well! One is from Zoomax; the other is from HumanWare. I’ll first provide an overview of their physical appearances, and then a more detailed analysis of features and functions.
Both NLS eReaders are small enough to fit into most typical backpacks, tote bags, or purses. The Zoomax measures 8 inches wide, 5 inches deep, and 1.5 inches tall. The HumanWare eReader is from one-half inch to one inch smaller in every dimension. Both machines have 20 braille cells, with 20 accompanying cursor routing buttons. Both have long battery life. Both are charged via a USB-C port. Both have powerful wi-fi and Bluetooth capabilities. Both have 16GB internal memory, and both are designed to accommodate additional storage via SD card and/or USB flash drive.
Each eReader ships with the following accessories: a custom carrying case and lanyard; a USB-C cable and power block for charging; a USB-A cable for connecting an NLS-style cartridge, and a hardcopy braille user’s guide.
The HumanWare eReader has the eight-dot Perkins-style keyboard (the six braille keys plus Backspace and Enter), on top, in a slightly curved arrangement believed to be more ergonomic. Directly in front of the keys are the 20 cursor routing buttons (which feel like large round dots), followed by the 20 8-dot braille cells. Finally, at the front of the top surface, at its center, are two space bars.
On the front edge of the unit are four evenly spaced rectangular thumb keys, with one round Selector button in the middle. In addition to acting as the four arrows found in a cursor cross on a qwerty keyboard, these keys are used for panning backward and forward, executing navigational commands, and more. Patrons who have used other HumanWare braille products will recognize the thumb keys as a brand standard.
On the left edge are the USB-C port, power button, and USB-A port. On the right are up and down volume buttons and an audio jack, none of which have any function in the use of the eReader. To underscore this fact, the audio jack has a rubber stopper.
On the back edge is the SD card slot.
The Zoomax eReader sports a few more keys which sometimes provide more options for getting things done.
Again, the Zoomax is slightly larger in every dimension than the HumanWare machine. On its top surface is the eight-dot keyboard (again, the six braille keys of a Perkins-style keyboard plus Backspace and Enter). There is also a Space key located between dots 1 and 4 as on a Perkins Brailler. The keyboard is slightly elevated (about one-quarter inch higher than the rest of the top surface.) As on the HumanWare eReader, you will find the 20 cursor routing buttons in front of the keyboard and the 20 braille cells in front of those. On either end of the 20 braille cells are three display buttons. Arranged in the pattern of a braille cell, with three on the left and three on the right, these keys provide a variety of functions, including panning text.
The front edge is a slightly slanted design, so that its bottom edge juts out toward you. Along the front edge, moving from left to right, are 11 controls. These keys are all very tactually distinct and perform a variety of valuable functions. Most significantly, they provide multiple options for panning text.
On the left edge is the SD card slot, and on the right are the USB-C and USB-A ports, as well as the buttons for On and Off. One very nice distinction of the Zoomax machine is that all of the left- and right-side ports and buttons are identified with permanent braille symbols.
So What Does an eReader Do?
Maybe your sighted friends or family members talk about reading on a Kindle Paperwhite or Kobo Libra. These are electronic readers, flat tablet-style devices for downloading and reading books in print. Our NLS eReaders perform exactly the same functions for people who read braille.
If the idea of refreshable braille is new to you, imagine having a room full of books in one handheld device. The braille scrolls beneath your fingers, 20 cells at a time. You can manually go forward or back (called “panning” on braille devices) or set your eReader to autoscroll at a speed which is comfortable for you.
Navigation controls make it possible for you to move forward or back by line or page or entire braille volume. You can bookmark your favorite poem or paragraph or recipe to return to it again and again. If you are the kind of person who likes to have three or four books going at the same time – a novel, a cookbook, your favorite book of prayers – your eReader will keep your place in all of them when you power off.
If reading on a braille display is new to you and you just want to start reading and save the technical steps for later, a sampler cartridge has been prepared that makes it easy to load a bookshelf of books into your eReader automatically. Using the cable provided, you simply attach the cartridge and let the eReader automatically load your sample library. If you don’t have Internet access or just aren’t interested in downloading for yourself, you can ask your library to load books of your choosing onto cartridges as a matter of routine. Don’t worry about space. You can put a few versions of the Bible, all the Harry Potter books, a few bestsellers, and still have plenty of room for more on your eReader. If you should begin to run out of internal storage space (which is unlikely, but always possible) you can add books on SD cards and/or flash drives.
These are eReaders, not eWriters. You can copy, move, and delete books and files, but there are no editing capabilities on either unit.
If you are a person old enough to remember life before computers and the Internet, and remember the days of waiting for those precious braille volumes to arrive in the mail, it is then safe to say that the ability to browse, select, and download a multi-volume braille title in a matter of seconds is nothing short of dazzling. Where you once had to concern yourself with where all 13 volumes of that new mystery or romantic saga was going to fit in your tiny apartment, you can now bask in the knowledge that your eReader will enable you to download dozens of such books and to flip forward and back from one to another at a moment’s notice.
The first step, of course, is signing on to your wireless network. This is relatively straightforward on both units for most people, but if you do run into difficulty, a simple text file containing your wireless network’s name and password can be loaded on to your eReader for an automatic solution. Similarly, the first time logging into NLS-BARD is mostly straightforward, but when problems do arise, this, too, can be accomplished by loading a simple text file onto an SD card or flash drive.
After you have logged in for the first time, as with other devices accessing BARD Mobile, future logins will be automatic. You can search by Recently Added, Most Popular, or by subject. You can search by title, author, or keyword, just as you can on other mobile devices or on your computer. You can add books to your Wish List, or go directly to your wish list for downloading. One important distinction regarding all browsing and searching with the NLS eReader is that BARD will show you only those titles which are available in braille. If, for instance, you are browsing one day on your computer and add a plethora of new titles, both audio and braille, to your wish list, the eReader will show you only the braille titles. Since the eReaders display only braille and have no capacity to play audio, this particular feature can save time and frustration.
Once your books are downloaded, no wireless connectivity is needed. Your eReader, which can fit into a large pocket or small bag, will allow you to take your library anywhere, even remote locations with no Internet!
What Else Can it Do?
In addition to accessing all downloadable books and magazines from NLS-BARD, the NLS eReaders both have the capacity to access NFB-NEWSLINE. This free service offers over 500 newspapers and magazines. Imagine being able to read your local newspaper (or any other) on the same day that it is published and being able to navigate by section, headline, or paragraph with ease. When your friends are talking about an article just seen in a popular magazine, chances are that from either NLS-BARD or NFB-NEWSLINE, you will have access to that same publication in braille.
At this writing, the HumanWare eReader also provides access to Bookshare for members of that service. Bookshare access for the Zoomax will be implemented at a later date.
Finally, you can also use your eReader as a window of sorts for other devices. Attached to your computer running JAWS or NVDA, your eReader can provide a braille screen of sorts. Paired with your iPhone or iPad, it will make it possible for you to read everything that comes to that screen as well as making it possible for you to write text for email or text messages or any other iOS apps.
The NLS eReaders are distributed by NLS network libraries. At this writing, more than forty states have received their machines and are distributing them to patrons, and plans are to add the remaining eight states by the end of 2023. If you are a patron of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, you can request an eReader by contacting your regional library. If you don’t have their contact information, visit the NLS website and follow the Find Your Library link.
There was a time when blind people were woefully excluded from the joys of reading books, magazines, newspapers, and temporary documents. Now, those who read braille can carry hundreds of publications and other documents with them in a refreshable braille device that is distributed without cost to every eligible blind or print disabled patron. That’s a true story of equality rising.