Perkins Library pilots 'Kindle for folks who are blind'

Library patrons will test new affordable braille e-reader as part of a one-year pilot program

A man smiling while holding the Orbit refreshable braille reader in his hands

Perkins student Zachary checks out his Orbit Reader 20 during the launch event on Thursday.

August 4, 2017

As a teenager, Nallym Bravo placed a phone call to the National Library Service with a simple request.

“I said, ‘hey, send me all the braille books you have by Stephen King right now,’” she recalled. Braille books are nearly a square foot in size, and the average novel spans several volumes. “When they arrived, they covered every square inch of my room.”

On Thursday, Bravo was handed the Orbit Reader 20, a brand new refreshable braille display that could transform the way libraries like Perkins’ distribute braille reading material. For her, the moment was akin to Christmas morning.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” she said. “Digital braille means I can take it anywhere. I can slip every book in the world into my purse and take it with me.”

Bravo and nine other Perkins Library patrons are the first individuals to take an Orbit Reader home as part of a one-year pilot program for the device. Over the next year, that pool will grow to 100 users who will deliver feedback to Perkins via regular phone surveys.

“We need to get some hard data,” said Karen Keninger, director of the NLS, which is partnering with Perkins on the program. “Who will use these devices? How they will operate within the library system? How much training will people who’ve never used one need?”

In the future, Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson hopes the Orbit Reader will become “a Kindle for folks who are blind,” allowing library patrons to download braille books directly to their devices and read them anywhere they please. The device would be loaned to patrons free of charge, similar to a talking book player.

“We’re now in the 21st century, so maybe there’s a 21 century way to circulate braille,” she said.

The Orbit Reader Pilot Program represents an exciting foray into the world of affordable adaptive devices, said Perkins President and CEO Dave Power. Currently, refreshable braille displays and notetakers retail for upwards of $3,000, putting them out of reach for many library patrons.

“We’re hoping this breaks open a new era of low-cost devices for people who use braille,” he said. 

The Orbit Reader was not created overnight. It took nearly six years of discussions and experimenting with different technologies to develop the device, which is being manufactured by Orbit Research. The effort was led by the Transforming Braille Group, of which Perkins is a managing member.  

At Thursday’s launch, Perkins Library staff displayed a complete braille version of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which takes up 14 volumes and weighs a combined 74.2 pounds. By contrast, the Orbit Reader weighs less than a pound and can hold 57.7 metric tons of hard copy braille.

“One thousand five hundred and fifty five copies of ‘War and Peace’ could fit,” said Charlson. “So just imagine what you’re carrying around when you fill up your Orbit Reader.”

After receiving his device, Perkins Library patron James Badger chatted with fellow testers about the role braille has played in his life. To him, the Orbit is about more than just convenience, it’s a testament to the continued importance of braille literacy in the modern world.

“Making this kind of material available to everyone is a revolution in our experience as people who are blind,” he said. “It’s a real statement and affirmation of the importance of braille in the world and the importance of braille to all of us.”