by Pam Coffey

For many years, my faithful print-reading aid was the Optacon, distributed by Telesensory Systems, then in Palo Alto, Calif. For those of you who are relatively new to blindness issues, this was a tactile scanner. Weighing about four pounds, it was extremely portable. It had a rechargeable battery pack and AC adapter, making it usable when the power went out or you were far from an electrical outlet. It was unusually dependable (my Optacon had to be repaired only three times), and it was incredibly versatile.

To use this device, you placed the camera, which wasn't much larger than a finger, onto what you wanted to read. The camera, connected to the main unit by a long cable, picked up what was directly underneath it, and the electronics within the main unit converted it into tactile vibrations according to the shape of the character under the camera. The vibrations registered on a little plate, called the array, which was in the main unit. You moved the camera with your right hand and read the vibrations with your left index finger. The reading was quite slow -- you read only one character at a time -- and considerable training was required in order to use the device. But increased proficiency came with experience, and the rewards were great, because you had absolute control over what you read.

Because the camera rested on the material to be read, you could read things that were curved, such as labels on soup cans or medicine bottles, without first removing the label. You could make adjustments for the size, color, and boldness of the print, as well as for the intensity of the vibrations. If the text was complicated by graphics, insets, sidebars and other such things, you -- and not the machine -- decided how best to deal with them. While you might not be able to decipher the minute details of a picture, you could determine its size, shape, and other basic characteristics. Because the device did not talk to you, your imagination gave voice to what you read, as it does when you read braille or a sighted person reads print.

When you turned the machine on, you didn't have to wait for it to warm up, and you didn't have to wait for it to scan an entire page -- it was "read as you go." There was even an optional magnifying lens for extremely small print, and an optional typewriter attachment which enabled you to read what you were typing.

When, in October of 2003, my 26-year-old Optacon let me know that it needed a fourth repair, I discovered that not only were they no longer being made, but also that no one was servicing them. Therefore, because I am always needing access to printed materials, my only choice (since I am not a computer geek) was to invest in one of the new-fangled speech-output stand- alone scanners. I finally decided on one that was relatively small (about 14 pounds), and that didn't require a technician to set it up. This was important, as I would soon move from a fair-sized house into an apartment, and because I am not much of a techie.

I soon found myself at the mercy of the machine. I waited for it to boot up, then waited for it to scan a whole page, then, once I was reading, I hoped it didn't decide to power down by itself or the power wouldn't go out and I'd lose what I was reading. Because the material lays on a flat screen, it must be perfectly flat in order to be read properly -- which means peeling the label off the soup can. If the material has those complications mentioned above, you either endure a considerable wait for everything to process, or you are given an announcement such as "no text is recognizable." Also, you have no way of knowing how the material is laid out on the page, and things really get interesting if the page is larger than the screen. In that case, I scan part of it at a time, then jump back and forth between the segments -- possible, but often exasperating. This was not an issue with the Optacon. As long as the cable would reach, it made no difference.

True, you can read faster with the newer machines, but only when no quirks appear and no scanning delays occur. And yes, you can save material for later use with these machines, which is nice and often convenient, but if the power surges while you are feeding the material in, you lose it. In addition, you cannot use them without electricity. While, overall, the reading voices of these scanners are very good, they sometimes have difficulty dealing with regional dialects, foreign words, and abbreviations which can be used for several different words (e.g., Dr. can mean "doctor" or "drive"). The machine chooses one interpretation for an abbreviation, when the text might refer to the other. In addition, you may get the same announcement when a page is utterly blank as you do when it is totally covered by a non-captioned picture. With the Optacon, on the other hand, if the page was blank, the array didn't vibrate at all. If the page was covered by a graphic, the whole array might vibrate.

Finally, there is the dependability issue. Because the newer, more computer-like scanners are so complex, there are more things that can go wrong with them. After less than two years, my speech-output scanner had to go across the country for repairs, and then two more times over the next seven and a half months. In light of this inconvenience, I invested in a second scanner (of a different brand) in order to have a backup. This second scanner then became my main one. Three months after the warranty expired, it had to go to a neighboring state for repairs -- then again after another six months. Because these scanners are larger, shipping them for repairs is quite expensive. My Optacon, on the other hand, only needed its first repair after seven years.

Now don't get me wrong; I am grateful for any means of being able to read print, but as one who always preferred braille over talking books, I feel that I (and others of the same persuasion) should be given a choice as to how we all read printed materials. My plea: Someone out there with the know-how to do so, please bring back the Optacon!

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