The Second Time Around

by Iva Menning
Salem, Oregon

The above title might suggest that this article is about a love affair; perhaps it is in a way, but not the kind you may think. It is about admiration, appreciation, and an ongoing fascination with technological developments, especially those involving reading and writing skills. Some of the examples mentioned have been around for a long time while others are newcomers or are still in prototype form. Some of them are technological wonders and others would today be regarded as decidedly low-tech.

When I was a child, blinded in an accident at age 8 in 1938, braille became an absolute necessity for me. I loved to read, had been an eager reader of print books and enjoyed writing at an admittedly elementary level, of course. My writing tools were a slate and stylus. In those days, blind children did not use a braillewriter until they had learned to write braille by the hand method. They first became familiar with basic reading and writing skills, then advanced to using a Hall braillewriter, much as sighted children first learned to write with pencil and pen and then advanced to a typewriter. I never saw a Perkins Brailler until I was a junior in college.

Throughout high school and college years, my class notes were written with slate and stylus. Textbooks, available only in print during those early mainstreaming days, were read to me by readers whom I hired, scheduled for reading sessions at times convenient to both of us, and to whom I paid amounts as shown due by the records that I diligently kept in braille. There were no tape recorders available to me then, much less recorded texts. In time, recording equipment, using open-reel tapes and, later, audiocassettes, were added to my expanding toolbox. They were enthusiastically welcomed.

The Optacon was among the first of the truly high-tech print-reading inventions to be fully developed, manufactured in quantity, and sold extensively throughout the United States and some foreign countries. This electronic device made it possible for blind people to read printed materials by touch. The reader's finger rested lightly on a tactile array, displaying the shape of print letters, flowing along as the attached camera moved across the page. During the 70s and 80s, I was privileged to be one of the Optacon instructors who taught blind students how to use this new skill. At that time, such equipment was primarily used by schools and rehabilitation agencies for instructional and employment purposes. My first personally owned Optacon was purchased, second-hand, in 1982. Years later, when camera cable replacement and other repairs were no longer possible, I bought an Optacon II demo unit, which I am using to this day. Although the Optacon may now be considered obsolete, I depend on mine daily to identify mail, proofread, explore graphics to some extent, and perform other tasks that would be virtually impossible to accomplish as quickly or efficiently with the use of a scanner.

The Kurzweil Reader, other optical character recognition (OCR) software and speech synthesizers brought more huge improvements and increased our reading choices. Now we are told that soon we will have very small, but very powerful, handheld electronic devices to make our reading tasks even easier.

Next, came the miraculous electronic notetakers and braille embossers. As soon as I was able to do so, I purchased both a Braille 'n Speak notetaker and a Braille Blazer embosser. I found, and still find, both indispensable.

Although I now use a Windows XP computer system, complete with screen reader, OCR software, scanner and printer, I continue to use and enjoy all of the earlier reading and writing tools that I have been privileged to own. To all of those treasures, I have recently added a Braille Lite 40, which I was able to purchase through an auction at a pre-owned price. It is so great to have the additional advantage of a braille display when writing, editing, and downloading Web-Braille books on such a convenient and portable device.

For those of us who are willing to do without the latest, greatest equipment, with all of the amazing bells and whistles, or for those of us who cannot or choose not to meet the high prices of brand-new products, there are viable alternatives. We have the option of looking for used items that may still be in very good or near-excellent condition. We must be cautious, however. As in buying any used goods, it is wise to learn something about the history of the selected item and, perhaps, even something about its previous owner. Being acquainted with the seller, or with someone who has knowledge of the person's integrity, can be quite helpful. Ask questions, get answers. Shop around; examine ads for used equipment that you find in magazines and online. Get a feel for prices and availability. Remember, these items are sold as is, no guarantees. If you are in the market for equipment that you plan to use the second time around, your search may have a surprisingly pleasant result. Just be a wise and careful shopper.

Below is a list of magazines and Web sites known as sources for pre-owned adaptive equipment for blind and visually impaired buyers. These resources include low vision items, as well as braille products. Some even offer new products at discounted prices. Occasionally, manufacturers will post notices of refurbished equipment, or even new products at reduced cost. You may be pleasantly surprised by such discoveries. Happy hunting!


Ann Morris Auction
16810 Pinemoor Way
Houston, TX 77058
713-876-6971, M-F 9-5 CST

Click on Auction Barn to register for a free membership. Members enjoy discounted prices on all items in the warehouse. Proceeds go to raise funds for the Mousehole Scholarship for a blind student or a sighted student of a blind parent.

Blind World
Provides links to additional low vision resources.

Blind Treasures
2813 Iris Dale Ave.
Richmond, VA 23228
Operates both cyber and brick and mortar stores and offers discounts to blind shoppers.

Connections, Worldwide Classifieds for the Blind
Meagan Green
1410 Westfall Place Stayton, OR 97383

Place ads to buy, sell or trade items. Receive a free subscription by e-mail. Send a blank e-mail with "Subscribe" in the subject line to


Buy or sell large print and braille books, assistive technologies and independent living aids.

Freedom Scientific
11800 31st Court North
St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805

Occasionally offers refurbished and discounted equipment.

NEWSREEL (cassette magazine)
8 East Long St., Suite 420
Columbus, OH 43215-2914
614-469-0700 or 888-723-8737
Members describe items for sale or to give away.

Louis Lipschultz
888-299-6657, Ext. 701
Site focuses on blindness and low vision products. Provides a centralized location to buy and sell used equipment.

THE BRAILLE FORUM: High Tech Swap Shop
American Council of the Blind
1155 15th St. NW, Suite 1004
Washington, DC 20005
Readers can list items for sale or purchase in the High Tech Swap Shop column.

THE BRAILLE MONITOR: Monitor Miniatures
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson St.
Baltimore, MD 21230-4998
Readers can list items for sale or purchase in the Monitor Miniatures column.

80 Eighth Ave., Room 1304
New York, NY 10011
Readers can list items for sale or purchase in the Special Notices column.

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