Thanks to today’s digital revolution, there is no shortage of new technologies available for people with visual or hearing impairments.
But for the estimated 7 million people in the world who have both visual and hearing impairments (according to World Health Organization data), assistive technology options are few and far between.
When I learned of a device called the HaptiBraille Communicator, which its developer claims provides total independence for people who are DeafBlind, I’m pretty sure one of my eyebrows physically raised. While technology can give partial access to two-way communication between someone with use of all five senses and someone who is DeafBlind, nothing can replace the services of a skilled American Sign Language interpreter, who can translate spoken dialogue into tactile sign language in real time.
After reading the literature for the HaptiBraille Communicator, I wanted to learn more about how this small device can conquer the seemingly unconquerable, so I met with Alyona Markova, a representative of 4Blind, Inc., a small startup in Boston focused on providing technology solutions for people with vision and hearing loss.
Markova walked me through how the HaptiBraille Communicator works. The device is surprisingly small and sleek – about the size of a standard smart phone when held in the horizontal position. Users hold the device vertically in front of the chest with the right and left index and ring fingers resting on solid raised “dots” on the back of the device that represent the six cells used in braille.
Instead of using movable pins, the HaptiBraille Communicator transmits text through vibrational patterns delivered to the user’s fingers character by character and word by word.
While the braille communication is impressive, the star of the HaptiBraille Communicator is its braille-to-speech input and output capability, which empowers people who are DeafBlind to “speak” to hearing people. Consider this scenario:
A shopper who is DeafBlind seeks assistance from a grocery store employee. First, the shopper types “Hello, can you provide shopping assistance?” through the braille dots on the back of the device. HaptiBraille Communicator uses braille-to-speech translation to instantly speak the request to the employee. Then, two elongated buttons light up on the back of the device – one glowing green for “Accept” and the other red for “Refuse,” along with spoken instructions telling the employee to press their choice.
After the green button is pressed, the device shifts to listen mode and the employee’s verbal response, “Yes, would you like a cart?” is captured and translated into braille that the user feels through the vibrating dots on the back of the device.
The result is the breakthrough ability for someone who cannot see or hear to engage in instant two-way conversation completely independently and, when needed in settings such as medical appointments, privately.
“For the first time,” Markova told me, “a young boy was able to sit in the back seat of his mother’s car and communicate with his mother without having to sit right next to her. We are elated to witness the profound impact that our invention has had on fostering connections and enhancing the lives of those we serve.”
For more information about HaptiBraille, point your browser to: https://4blind.com/solutions-en/haptibraille-en
Technology reviews are written by Doug Goist, program manager, workforce development at NSITE and a recognized leader in the field of technology accessibility who has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, the military services, federal agencies, and private sector partners.