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New Tool Helps Blind
Students Learn Math
by Christopher Doering, September 27, 2002, Reuters
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"Great." "Perfect." "Fantastic." Using a combination of
Braille and speech, a teaching device with a deep,
computerized voice can offer instant praise to blind and
visually impaired students struggling to grasp mathematics.
Introduced on Thursday, the Speech Assisted Learning system,
dubbed SAL, is a flat, notebook-sized tool that can help
students tackle activities ranging from learning to count to
solving difficult calculus problems in Braille, all with
limited attention from a teacher.
"It's an absolute new era in education for blind children and
adults because it puts the student in charge of learning for
the first time," Sally Mangold, SAL's creator and a visually
impaired educator, said in an interview.
"Blind people who are literate are more employable, more
independent and more satisfied," she told Reuters after a news
conference at which the device was demonstrated.
Students insert a special Braille sheet with a barcode into
the device and its computer reads the words and symbols on the
page aloud. A student can press a character or symbol and SAL
will pronounce it.
A second press will spell a word or define what a certain
mathematical symbol means. SAL can even describe a picture.
The device also helps teach Braille, a system of writing for
the blind that uses raised dots felt with the fingers.
Although experts urge its use, Braille has been taught less
frequently in recent years as more blind children have been
put in regular classrooms and other tools such as audio tapes
have become more popular. "We can teach Braille in ways we
never thought before," said Mangold.
The SAL device, which costs $4,600, is made by Freedom
Scientific of St. Petersburg, Florida.
BRAILLE TEACHER SHORTAGE
The SAL system also may help combat a severe shortage of
"Any tool, especially one like this, that is going to
facilitate learning how to read Braille is going to have an
outstanding reception in the blind and visually impaired
community," said John Stanford, president of the International
Organization for the Blind, a Florida group that promotes the
teaching of Braille in early childhood.
The foundation estimated that as many as 5,000 more Braille
teachers are needed to educate 93,000 students below the age
of 21 who have a visual impairment.
In the United States, the American Foundation for the Blind
estimated that of the 10 million people who are legally blind
or visually impaired, only 10% of students, or about 5,600
people, and 8% of adults, or 104,000 people, use Braille as
their primary tool to read.
Many more use it for simpler activities including reading
floor numbers on an elevator or playing cards.
The SAL system will never replace teachers but should expand
learning opportunities. Mangold said the US Department of
Education ( news - web sites) has expressed an interest in
buying some of the devices.
"The main thing we do with this device that we've never done
before (for the blind) is listen to the consumer," said
Mangold, who has received suggestions to add geography and
astronomy exercises to SAL.