This device I am working on is called the BecDot which is a literacy teaching tool I invented for our daughter Rebecca (www.memoriesforbecca.com) that could be used to teach visually impaired children Braille concepts. (More on the device and story behind it below.)
I am a father of two beautiful children, one of which has Usher Syndrome which is the leading cause of deafness/blindness. When we learned of our daughter’s syndrome we immediately began thinking of ways to adapt the world to her needs and to make it more accessible. I quickly realized that this would be no small task, but if I were to be successful, it would mean that I was not only adapting the world for her but also for anyone else that had similar accessibility needs. The world is full of challenges for people with extra needs, I see it now more clearly then I have ever seen it before, but what I also see are the possibilities to make it more adaptable. I am the director of hardware engineering at Onset Computer Corporation on the east coast of Massachusetts and the company has been very supportive of this project. I have a background in product development from concept to design and through manufacturing. I am able to take my twenty plus years of experience in this space and use it to develop low-cost, innovative solutions to help reach many under-served people with extra challenges. I am not afraid to commit to something and figure out along the way how to get it done. I have committed to adapting the world to meet my daughters needs; I am determined to make that a reality and I am in the process of figuring out what that means. I have a fire in my belly and incredible passion to drive this philosophy forward: of adapting the world to her needs and helping others along the way. I hope to use her story and the products that are being developed to enable me to fund future accessibility products that positively affect the lives of many people with accessibility needs. We started our mission with a couple of opensource projects that I was tinkering with and that expanded into a number of new ideas including our latest, the BecDot device which is a low-cost braille teaching toy for visually impaired children.
The BecDot is an educational tool/toy that will be used to introduce braille at an early age to children that are visually impaired, who have been diagnosed with conditions that will eventually cause blindness or for children who are already blind. The device incorporates 4 braille cells that react to objects with pre-programmed NFC tags attached to them. It currently uses an Arduino Uno (what is an Arduino?) to drive the individual dots.
The biggest challenge with the design was to create a device that was very low cost. I studied some of the Braille readers on the market and found that these devices are very complex and as a result make them very expensive for the consumer. This is why not many devices are designed for children and most of the focus is on the older Braille reader - I mean, who wants to give a 3 year old a $1000+ device. This is where after some trial and a lot of pain I came up with a design which could enable me to bring the device to market for under $100, enabling families, care givers, and educators the ability to afford the device. The innovation comes in the actuators that are lifting the individual braille cells, and one evening a completely new concept popped into my head and I ran with it. Once I got that figured out and got the first prototype cell working at some time around 2:00am on a Saturday morning, I immediately scaled it up to four cells which I thought was a good starting point for the age group I was targeting.
After this I incorporated an NFC reader (Adafruit PN532) into the device. The idea was that the reader would read a pre-programmed tag that a parent, caregiver or educator could place on a toy such as a letter block, a plastic dog, cow, goat, etc. When the child places the toy in the reader the device will display the braille equivalent of the object on the four cells. Of course lights and sounds would also come later in the development of the device.
So at this point all of that is working great and we have been cranking out prototypes the first one after about 24 straight hours of 3D printing was up and running and it was working well. I was showing it to family, friends and coworkers as well as teachers from the local schools for the blind and all I received was affirmation that this was a device that was needed. I also had my daughter Rebecca (hence the name BecDot) play with the device and she loved the lights and feeling the dots raise and lower. Of course being the first prototype I treasured it especially because of the time that went into making just the one. I was working on the design one day when I cringed to hear from the next room what could only be the BecDot crashing onto the floor. Luckily it mostly survived but many of the plastic bosses holding the thing together inside broke away.. Regardless, the device did not pass the first round of testing even if I was not really ready for it, but Becca sure was.
And that is where we are at. Working on additional prototypes and getting them in the hands of visually impaired children and educators so that they can continue to help us mold it into a perfect tool to help them teach and learn literacy.
Demo of the device with Big Sis Reagan helping to show how it works.
Being able to read is fundamentally important to a person’s ability to successfully navigate our world. This device provides access to children with visual impairments and at a cost where it will not break the bank, it promotes and supports efforts to bring literacy to the forefront of education for visually impaired children. Teaching children early how to read is critical to their development and a visually impaired child is no different. For every 1 braille reader on the market today more than 10 of these devices can be put into the hands of children. Literacy is crucial to employment and with unemployment at 70% among the visually impaired, it is obvious that something needs to change. We want to change that. We want Rebecca to grow up knowing how to read and write. We want the world to be accessible to her. We want her to learn, strive, and grow, and one day have a career and maybe a family of her own. It is so important to us that visually impaired children have the tools they need to succeed. The unemployment rate of the blind and visually impaired needs to be drastically reduced, and we would love nothing more than to have even a small part in making that happen.
I am a parent of a child with a disability who is determined to adapt the world to her. In doing so I am hoping to help others along the way as well by creating low cost solutions that promote accessibility. -Jake