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ATU573 – A New Way to Braille with Jerry Drake

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest – Jerry Drake – Founder and CEO – Educational Media Consulting LLC
Contact Jerry: jerrydrake@comcast.net

Stories:
GAAD Website: https://bit.ly/3sQfB9R

No Mouse Day Story: https://bit.ly/3wjs4na

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If you have an AT question, leave us a voice mail at: 317-721-7124 or email tech@eastersealscrossroads.org
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Follow us on Twitter: @INDATAproject
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—— Transcript Starts Here —–

Jerry Drake:
Hi, this is Jerry Drake and I’m the founder and CEO of Educational Media Consulting, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello, and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the Indata project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 573 of Assistive Technology Update, it’s scheduled to be released on May 20th, 2022. Today’s show we’re super excited to have Jerry Drake, founder and CEO of Educational Media Consulting. And he’s on a talk about a new braille technology that he’s been working on that could really change individuals who are blind and need braille’s access to information. We saw a story about Global Accessibility Awareness Day in case you happen to miss it yesterday so that you can learn all about it, and we talk a little bit about accessibility in the digital world.

Josh Anderson:
If you’re looking for a transcript of today’s show, that’s available over at eastersealstech.com. Our transcripts are generously sponsored by InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at indianarelay.com. Don’t forget we’re always looking for great people to interview, your comments, your suggestions, your questions, all of those things. You can get those to us a myriad of ways, including on Twitter at INDATA project. You can call our listener line at (317) 721-7124 or send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org. We always love to hear from you; constructive criticism, compliments, comments, people that would make great guests, something you’d like to learn more about or hear on the show. If you don’t tell us, I don’t know. And we do 52 of these shows a year, so all ideas are definitely welcome. But for now, let’s go ahead and get on with today’s show.

Josh Anderson:
Maybe you’re looking for some new podcast to listen to, well, make sure to check out our sister podcast Accessibility Minute at ATFAQ or Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions. If you’re super busy and don’t have time to listen to a full podcast, be sure to check out Accessibility Minute, our one minute long podcast that gives you just a little taste of something assistive technology based so that you’re able to get your assistive technology fixed without taking up the whole day. Hosted by Tracy Castillo, this show comes out weekly. Our other show is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions or ATFAQ on assistive technology frequently asked questions, Brian Norton leads our panel of experts, including myself, Velva Smith and our own Tracy Castillo as we try to answer your assistive technology questions. This show does rely on you, so we’re always looking for new questions, comments, or even your answers on assistive technology questions.

Josh Anderson:
So, remember if you’re looking for more assistive technology podcast to check out, you can check out our sister shows Accessibility Minute, and ATFAQ wherever you get your podcast, now including Spotify and Amazon music. So listeners, as I said in the opening, this show comes out on Friday, May 20th. But that means that yesterday Thursday, May 19th was Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Now I know you’re probably all sleeping in today from all the partying yesterday to celebrate GAAD as it’s known, but I thought maybe I’d take a few minutes just to talk about Global Accessibility Awareness Day, what it is, why it’s important and why we should really look at it every single day. So, yesterday was the 11th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and this is always celebrated on the third Thursday of May. So, I’m going to give you this a little bit of information from what I found over at accessibility.day.

Josh Anderson:
So, this is the GAAD website. And this website is created by the GAAD foundation, GAAD for Global Accessibility Awareness Day foundation, which was actually started last year on Global Accessibility Awareness Days’ 10th anniversary. So, it is a little bit of context on why this day is so important, and this is some information from this website. It says in 2022 Web Aim analyzed 1 million homepages for accessibility issues and found the following. 98.1% of homepages with at least one WCAG 2.0 failure. 60.9 is the average number of errors per homepage. Now it goes down and even breaks us down a little bit farther. It says the causes of the most common accessibility failures are low contrast text, so very hard to see. Missing image alt texts, so not putting the descriptions and everything behind the pictures. Empty links, missing form input labels, empty buttons, and missing document languages down there.

Josh Anderson:
Those are all the big ones. So, if you really think about that, low contrast text, I can’t even read what’s on there. Missing image alt texts, so I don’t know what the pictures or the graphs or any of that stuff is. Empty links, things that don’t take me anywhere. Missing form input labels, so if I sit there and I’m trying to fill out a form or even a search bar or something, if it doesn’t tell me, and it just says form field form, form field, form field, that’s not going to help. Empty buttons again, please click here. For what? It doesn’t help if it doesn’t tell me what. And then missing document language of course is another very important one. So, looking through the website for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the rest of it is probably information that most listeners are going to know, just some common disability, some common needs that are really, and truly impeded by not having things be accessible.

Josh Anderson:
So, it’s great that there’s a day out there to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, but it’s a day. This isn’t something that can be roped in to just one day. This is something that needs to be thought about all the time. I mean, especially for web developers, for website developers, for content specialists, for really anyone who’s creating content or doing work online needs to think about accessibility. It’s like if you build a house.

Josh Anderson:
So you build a house, it’s all done. If you forgot to put the foundation in, it takes a hundred times more work to put a foundation in after you build a house, kind of the same thing with your website and making it accessible. If you build this stuff in, if you think about it from the ground up as you build, yes, there may be some issues. Yes, there may be a few things you missed, but they’re going to be small. They’re going to be minute. They’re going to be little things that you can go back, tweak and fix and not something that you have to completely spend a bunch of time on or anything later on. Yes, it takes some work upfront to make sure, but it’s one of those things that becomes second nature. Something that you do all the time.

Josh Anderson:
If you’re able bodied individual, you’re getting out in your car, you get in your car, you probably put the key in, you buckle your seatbelt, you do these things and you almost do them without thinking. Without having to think, oh, I have to put the key in, oh, I have to put my seatbelt on, oh, I need to put the car and drive. You just do them, they become second nature. And if those that create content, if those that do things on the internet, programmers, coders, all these folks think about accessibility at the beginning, it becomes second nature. And as they build it, these things will show up. If they get used to putting alt texts behind pictures, behind graphs, behind charts, they will just automatically do it.

Josh Anderson:
So again, very, very important, but something that cannot be roped into just one day. So, just because this was yesterday does not mean it’s not important today and tomorrow. And looking at some different things that happened for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I did find a story coming out of Stony Brook university, and this is just a tiny-little news clip. So, not a very long story, I could pretty much tell you everything about it. But it says that their office of equity and access was celebrating global accessibility in May. And in order to do this, they participated in something called the No Mouse challenge. So, this is something that I think, and I’ve used a lot, in fact, in one of the interviews, and I don’t remember whom in the last few weeks, we talked about it. And when I talk about accessibility, when I talk about assistive technology, when I talk about having accessible websites and these things, it’s a long conversation. So, if somebody just asks, what is assistive technology, I say, go over and do something on your computer. And they do and I say, okay, great. Now do this, this and this, but don’t touch your track pad or your mouse. And they freeze because, well, I click here, I click there, I click this, I click this, I click this, I click this.

Josh Anderson:
That’s great if you can physically use a mouse, that’s wonderful. But if you can’t, then we have to rely on keystrokes. We have to rely on assistive technology. We have to rely on alternative input devices and it really, and truly gets home to them what assistive technology is, why it’s important and all it can do as far as access to things. But like as highlighted in this day of celebration is that that’s only one step. I mean, the assistive technology, the different input devices, the screen readers and different ways of accessing a computer are all wonderful, but if the content is not accessible, well, then it doesn’t do a darn thing. So, I feel like lately these things have been getting better. The things are becoming a little bit more accessible, that people are talking about it maybe a little bit more.

Josh Anderson:
I know in our workplace and in many workplaces and other things around the world right now, diversity, inclusion and equity are extremely important things. In fact, to the point where DEI is actually an acronym that I understand now, because it is diversity, equity and inclusion. But as we think about those things, let’s not overlook individuals with disabilities who do make up the largest minority group in the entire world and the only one that really any of us can join any time. It affects people of every culture of every color, every gender, every sexual orientation, every religion, and pretty much any other label you can put on a person, disability affects all of those groups and everyone. So, if you really truly want to make the world more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive, we need to make sure that individuals with disabilities can access things online just like their able bodied counterparts.

Josh Anderson:
This is always one of those things that you really think about and it is great that they do have Global Accessibility Awareness Day every single year, but wouldn’t it be great if the day was just to celebrate 100% accessibility, if the day was there just to represent, Hey, look at all these amazing things people are doing that instead of having over 90% have something inaccessible on their homepage, that it’s that 90% is 100% accessible. That there’s a few that aren’t, but you know what, they’re working on it. Unfortunately, a lot of times this is an afterthought. And I think as I’ve said on this show, many, many times as a business owner, as someone who has a website and wants people on my website, wants them to access my content, buy my products, look at my services, all these other things, excluding even one person is taking money out of my pocket. So, why in the world would I not want to make it to where anyone that wants to access this content can get to it. If I’m putting it out there, shouldn’t it be accessible to all. And I think until businesses, individuals, anyone making content online thinks this way, this problem’s always going to persist.

Josh Anderson:
It is good to have a Global Accessibility Awareness Day because I guess we all do get a little jaded. If we do work in this field, live in this world, we think about these things. They’re top of mind, they’re front of mind, they’re things we see every day and things that we know about. For individuals out in the for-profit world, out in industry, out in other things, they may not even think about this. They might not even know it’s important or know that it’s there, so just make sure you tell them, if you find something inaccessible, try to maybe email that company or whomever owns that website, let them know.

Josh Anderson:
You don’t know what you don’t know and you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. So, it’s always important to get that information to them as well. I’ll put a link over to the story out of Stony Brook and their No Mouse Day to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day, as well as a link over to the Global Accessibility Awareness Day Homepage. Although you got about 364 more days until the next Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let’s go ahead and hope that by the time those 364 days tick down, maybe everything’s a little bit more accessible.

Josh Anderson:
For individuals who are blind, braille can be a great outlet to print in materials and text. There are embossers, Perkins braillers and refreshable braille displays, but these all have some limitations and can be time, space or cost prohibitive. Our guest today is Jerry Drake and he is working to create a new way to access braille and we can’t wait to hear all about it. Jerry, welcome to the show.

Jerry Drake:
Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
So, I’m really excited to talk about the technology today, but before we do that, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Jerry Drake:
Sure. I’ve been working in the field of instructional technology for about 30 years. I was a graduate student at George Mason university in the early ’90s, and I was invited to join a group of faculty and students who were working together at that time to introduce the university faculty to this new thing, digital technology that was emerging. We were exploring ways that interactive digital media, primarily the web, could be used to enhance teaching and learning at the college level. I later took a position with Discovery Education to serve as a Senior Editor for their web based textbooks. And for the last six years I’ve been working on the new braille technology, doing research and development on the device.

Josh Anderson:
And that’s what we really had you on here to talk about. So, you are working on this new device, can you tell us about the concept?

Jerry Drake:
Yes. Having worked for 20, 30 years in digital educational media in the form of web-based textbooks and learning management systems, I was stunned one day to find out that blind students were still using braille embossed paper textbooks. The size of a braille character is about five times as big as traditional textbook fonts. So, one page of traditional printed text requires about five pages of braille. If you convert a 400 page textbook on high school Chemistry to braille, that textbook would be about 2000 pages of paper. It’s ridiculous. It’s heavy, it’s bulky, it comes in several volumes. So, having spent all those years in educational technology gave me a set of skills that made me comfortable taking the risks to invent and patent a new system of refreshable braille. And this new system is what I’m going to call flat braille. And it uses spinning micro disc to replace the race dots of the conventional braille. So, it’ll serve like Nook or a Kindle tablet for the blind.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. And you answered this a little bit, but just to dig in a little bit more, Jerry, why do you think this is important?

Jerry Drake:
Oh, it’s absolutely important. I mean, the idea that people are still using paper braille in the 21st century is astonishing to me given all the personal technology that we have. Why have the blind been overlooked in this regard? So, it’s important because there really is no future for a blind person in the 21st century, unless they are literate and educated. And this new refreshable braille technology gives them a better opportunity to achieve both. Denying the latest technology to the blind would be like me asking you to get rid of your word processing app and go back to a typewriter, you wouldn’t tolerate it. And so this is a step forward for the blind braille readers.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. And Jared, whom would this help?

Jerry Drake:
Anyone who reads braille. I mean, current refreshable braille readers are typically or typically a tablet has 20 to 80 cells of braille. Another thing that astonished me was how expensive these devices are. They cost them the average between $5,000 and $8,000. They can get as expensive as $15,000. And the braille are typically unemployed or underemployed, so I don’t understand this business model. I don’t understand how the people that manufacture these things actually feel that the blind could afford them. So, this technology seems to transform the lives of the blind and the visually impaired by one, improving literacy, increasing education access, increasing employment opportunities and closing the technology gap.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. Jerry, what really sets this idea apart from other solutions? I mean, besides of course having to carry all the braille books and everything, what really sets it apart?

Jerry Drake:
Okay. So, there currently is a braille technology that’s being used to develop devices that are used for refreshable braille text. What’s different between what’s currently out there and what I’m proposing is that one, it will be significantly less expensive. It’s more durable because the technology is simpler and therefore it’s less likely to break down. Current refreshable braille tech tablets barely last six months without requiring repairs. That’s ridiculous. Now this is something I learned while working on my project. It avoids problems like braille fatigue. I didn’t realize there was something called braille fatigue, but it’s a phenomenon where the fingertips get desensitized after dragging them against endless rows and columns of braille logs. I mean, think of it. It’s almost like rubbing your fingertips against sandpaper. There’s much less braille fatigue from this new technology, from this spinning micro disc.

Jerry Drake:
Another problem with the current braille refreshable braille technology, it collects dirt and oils from the fingertips because the braille is devised from small posts that go up and down into the device. And those little posts, which try to emulate conventional braille, they drag these stuff, the dirt and the oils, down into the device and it gums up the machinery. So, spinning disc would avoid that problem. The tactile sensation from the spinning micro disc delivers, and this is really important, it really delivers a stronger sensation signal and has better resolution than conventional braille dots. So, that’s pretty much what sets us apart.

Josh Anderson:
Now that’s awesome. And you brought up some great points. I’ve worked with a lot of folks who’ve used refreshable braille displays and yeah, a lot of times, if one of those pins quit working, well, every letter that pops up on that cell is now completely and totally wrong. And it may be a while before you even realize that pin’s not working. So yeah, I know that they do need, oh, a lot of cleaning, a lot of maintenance and a lot of other things. So, a solution that didn’t have that would be really, really great. Jerry, this is a pretty unique and new idea, where did it come from?

Jerry Drake:
Well, I had just finished working for eight years on a digital textbook platform, essentially was delivered over the web. It had all the latest horns and whistles. I mean, interactive, simulations. It had media of all sorts, Discovery had an unlimited library of films. One day had a conversation with someone who is teaching braille, and she mentioned that she was having problems getting a braille textbook. We got into a conversation about what a braille textbook was. And I was just stunned to know that to learn actually, that these thousand-page volumes were being used in the classroom for the blind. So, I decided to try to invent a better system of braille. Initially I looked at replacing the braille dots with tiny vibrating actuators. But it turns out that the vibrating actuators sensors don’t have sufficient resolution, so when you touch something that’s vibrating it spreads out. It’s called a funnel effect. And so you can’t really read the dot. While I was looking on the web for these micro motors, I came across the little motors with the spinning shafts and I said, if I put a cap on that, that will provide sufficient tactile sensation that it would serve as a dot. It was a Eureka moment.

Josh Anderson:
Very nice. A lot of folks I talk to about assistive technology is that the necessity is the mother of invention and yeah, they see the problem and it’s like, there’s got to be a better way to do this. And it sounds like this idea came from that same way. Well, Jerry, what phase of development are you currently in with this device?

Jerry Drake:
We’re currently testing a five cell version of the technology. We have budget constraints, and we’re trying to build this with off-the-shelf technology. And I have a team of mechanical, electrical, software engineers who are helping me to build this prototype. All the test subjects have been very excited about the experience of again, what I’ll call the flat spinning braille. So, this Summer we expect to begin working on a 250 cell model of the technology. And the ultimate goal is a thousand cell tablet that would essentially be a full page of braille.

Josh Anderson:
Jerry, when do you plan to have this ready to go to market?

Jerry Drake:
It’s a clear benchmark here that 200th anniversary of Louis braille’s invention is two years away. So, we’re hoping to have it on the market by 2024.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, that’d be perfect. Jerry, you talked about this being a much more cost effective option, is there a certain price point that you’re really aiming at for launch?

Jerry Drake:
Yes, $1,000. It would be a dollar a cell.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, that’s okay.

Jerry Drake:
We can do that.

Josh Anderson:
Very, very cool. And, yeah. That’s a huge difference from the prices you talked about earlier as far as per cell. That is a giant, giant difference. Jerry, if our listeners want to find out more about you, about the device, anything like that, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Jerry Drake:
I would say the best way is to send me an email at jerrydrake@comcast.net, and that’ll get you the quickest response.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. And I’m sure they’ll probably be folks following up with you to find out some more about this, or maybe how they might be able to help you test or at least make sure that they do know whenever it is available to come out to market. And we’ll make sure to try to update folks on the show too, whenever we find out whenever it’s out there and ready. So, Jerry, thank you so much for coming on today and talking about this amazing new technology you’re working on. There really hasn’t been anything new in the braille sphere since probably the refreshable braille display and that’s been around at least as long as I’ve been doing this. But I know when you talk about the braille books, I remember the first time I worked with a visually impaired pastor and I saw the braille Bible and it was an entire wall of books. So yeah, I know a lot of folks who have had issues with that. But thank you again so much for coming on the show.

Jerry Drake:
My pleasure.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on an Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter @indataproject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nikol Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the Indata project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the Indata project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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