By Rebecca Fater
When the box containing the Perkins SMART Brailler® arrived at her Pittsburgh, Penn., home last March, Jessica Kovacs was more than a little skeptical. What, she wondered, could her 3-year-old son Tommy, who is blind, possibly do with this technological machine?
She got her answer when the curious preschooler quickly discovered that the SMART Brailler talks back.
"He was hitting buttons and giggling," laughed Kovacs, recalling Tommy's joyous play with the Brailler, which features real-time audio feedback when braille letters are typed. "The sounds were hysterical to him. And he was really hitting letters! He knows his ABCs, so I felt like it was a meaningful connection for him."
The Kovacs family is the first of six families participating in the Backpacking SMART Brailler event: a program that gives parents and children the opportunity to experiment with the SMART Brailler at home for two weeks and blog about the experience online before shipping it off to the next family.
The program is an effort to introduce families across the country to this cutting-edge product, which combines a digital screen and audio feedback for an interactive, intuitive way to learn braille. The machine announces each letter as it is typed, giving a braille learner immediate confirmation as to their accuracy or mistake.
For Tommy, who was not typing letters intentionally, the audio feedback was a completely new, exciting way to help him make these connections.
"He hits an A, and it says 'A.' He hits an E, and it says 'E,'" said Amber Bobnar, founder of WonderBaby.org, a Perkins partner that is promoting the Backpacking SMART Brailler program. "He's just playing, but he's getting this immediate audio reinforcement of what's an A or an E."
Once Kovacs realized that the SMART Brailler talks back, she knew it was perfect for Tommy. The toddler has Persistent Fetal Vasculature syndrome, a condition in which his eyes did not develop correctly before birth. With the help of five surgeries on his eyes, he now has some light perception. Despite that gain, he still tosses aside silent stuffed animals and prefers toys with music and activity.
"He's a mover and a shaker, that's for sure," said Kovacs, who has been blogging about her son and their experiences as a family on the Thomas Marshall Does It All blog, since 2011. "He needs sounds, motion—stuff going on. That's why this Brailler was so perfect."
But Tommy wasn't the only one hooked. Kovacs, who is sighted and has been trying to learn braille, discovered the SMART Brailler was the solution to her struggle. The digital screen gave her visual confirmation that she had, indeed, brailled a sentence using the correct punctuation and contractions.
"Before, I would worry about not getting it right. Then how would I teach him?" said Kovacs, who is already anticipating the future when she'll need to help Tommy with homework and reading. "But with this Brailler you have that comfort, knowing that, yes, I did braille it correctly."
The SMART Brailler can bridge the gap between a child of any age who is blind and a sighted parent or teacher, added Bobnar. A child in a mainstream classroom, who works with a specialized teacher for only a few hours a week, can benefit from the audio cues and encouragement. A parent who is sighted and doesn't know braille can check the child's homework with confidence.
And thanks to the Backpacking SMART Brailler program, selected families will have the chance this spring to discover the benefits themselves.
"They get to interact with the Brailler one on one and see what works," said Bobnar.
Families interested in participating in the program still have the chance to volunteer by visiting WonderBaby.org. Households must have a school-age child who is learning or is expected to learn braille; have a blog or website where they can post their experiences; and share photos and video online of their family using the Brailler.
And in case there wasn't enough to like about the SMART Brailler, the program offers one more incentive: the chance to keep it. Bobnar will post the participating families' blog entries on WonderBaby.org, and readers will have the chance to follow along and ultimately vote for the family they believe got the most out of it.
Now that she knows the SMART Brailler's benefits, the chance to win one is thrilling, said Kovacs.
"The way Tommy got into it, I could really see this as being something helpful for him," she said. "He really had fun with it."
You can read more about Tommy's experience with the SMART Brailler by visiting WonderBaby.org. Learn more about the Perkins SMART Brailler® at SmartBrailler.org.
Read more about Thomas and the Kovacs Family in their blog Thomas Marshall Does It All.