My vision has deteriorated to the point where it causes a considerable amount of eyestrain just to read movie subtitles for a couple of hours. Reading books has become a luxury that my eyes can no longer afford. But don’t worry, there is good news!
Two or three months ago my wife ordered a Braille Note BT for me. The Braille Note QT comes with a QWERTY keyboard, but that’s not the one I have. The Braille Note BT comes with the standard six-cell brailler keypad, plus a few function keys. I had been wanting a Braille Note mainly to read books and to keep track of important notes. I also had a vague idea that I might be able to use it with my PC as a refreshable braille display, but I was worried that it would be too complicated to hook it up to Linux. But it CAN be done!
Understand that everything about the Braille Note BT (version 5.1) is designed to work with Windows. The operating system is an older version of Windows CE, and all of the companion software on the disk (ActiveSync, JAWS for Windows, KeySync, etc) is also designed to run on Windows.
Worse, there was nothing in the manual about hooking up the Braille Note to Linux. I have gotten used to using Slax Linux, a small “pocket operating system” which I run as a LiveCD, LiveUSB, and on my Hard Drive. I like it because version 6.1.2 comes with KDE 3.5.
The nice thing about KDE is that there is a feature in the font control panel that allows the user to quickly adjust all the KDE fonts to a particular size. This allows me to globally set all the font sizes for all the windows, dialogs, system messages, and menus all at once. I had always been maddeningly frustrated at adjusting the fonts in Windows. One of the core fonts in Windows is called “small fonts” for Pete’s sake. They might as well just call it “screw_the_blind_people.ttf” And don’t even get me started on the other tiny, anorexic chicken scratch fonts that most Windows programs use!
But, alas, I’d venture to say that most accessibility gizmos and gadgets are designed to work with Windows, so I had some trepidation about getting my Braille Note to work. Would I have to install Windows? And at first it looked like I would have to. I had tried installing ActiveSync under WINE, and it worked well enough, but it wouldn’t recognize any of my COM ports.
So I started hunting online for a solution. The percentage of people who use Linux is fairly small, and the percentage of BLIND people who use Linux is almost nonexistent. But they DO exist! I finally found out that a program called “brltty” is specially designed to work as a terminal for refreshable braille display. And after a few hits and misses, I figured out that I needed to specify the device name of the serial port (brltty -b bn -d /dev/ttyS0). After that, I read through the manual until I found out how to put the Braille Note into terminal mode (you just press T with the 2, 3, 4, and 5 keys). After that, I was all set! I was not only able to read the output of textmode console commands, but I was also able to run the nano editor to read books right off of my hard drive. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for me: email, web browsing, irc chat, instant messaging, interactive fiction… all of these are available to me on a braille display now.
So my fears about using an older model of Braille Note with Linux were groundless, and now I have a way to read books and use my Linux PC in braille!