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Blind ambition: How RNIB introduced life-changing technology

A global technology project driven by the chair of RNIB means that millions of blind people worldwide could soon have affordable access to the internet.

For the last 30 years or so, the only way that Braille readers could access the internet was by converting text files into audio files and listening to them, or, if they were lucky enough to live in the developed world and had a spare £4,000, by using a “refreshable Braille” machine which converts computer files into Braille symbols.

This state of affairs bothered RNIB chair Kevin Carey, who is himself blind and was lucky enough to live in England and have one of these devices. “They were very, very expensive,” he says. “What this meant was that unless you lived in a rich country where the public sector bought these devices for education and employment, nobody got them. And huge amounts are still being spent generating hard-copy Braille on bits of paper from mega Braille printing presses – 30 years after the internet.”

Carey was sure there had to be a better way. “In an Archimedes moment, I said to an engineer somewhere, ‘don’t you think that motor there’ – you can buy millions off the shelf for next to nothing – ‘don’t you think that would hold a Braille dotter?’ And he came back and said yes.

“So in 2011 at the Braille Conference in Leipzig, I announced that RNIB is going to cut the cost of this technology by 90 per cent. It would cost a tenth of what it is now. Everyone said I was mad.”

And so began the story of the Orbit Reader 20, a 20-character Bluetooth refreshable Braille unit currently in production in Chennai for $325 each and available for sale from RNIB any day now for just a little more.

RNIB kicked off the project by providing £60,000 to consult with other blindness organisations, and discovered that more than 60 projects were already under way around the world trying to tackle the problem.

Then Carey convinced ten of those organisations to put in $250,000 to hire consulting engineers to weight and score all 60-odd projects. Once one was selected, prototypes were made for evaluation by blind users.

Carey then persuaded the ten organisations to stump up a total of $1.25m to produce 50,000 units over five years. At that point a limited liability company, the Transforming Braille Group (TBG) was formed, with the ten organisations as shareholders.

Says Carey: “To run a $1.25m engineering project we needed a board, and I had a solid rule that if you didn’t buy shares in the company, you didn’t get a vote. We didn’t allow anyone to have an opinion on this project who didn’t invest in it. The more shares you bought, the more votes you got.”

Carey was elected company president and the RNIB sent another representative to vote the RNIB shares. “The governance was absolutely tip-top. Everybody got treated the same way, everybody knew how many shares they’d bought and everyone else had bought.

“It’s no good trying to apply a UN kind of solution to problems like these,” he says. “I won’t name the country but if some Oceanic postage stamp has got the same vote as the USA, it’s okay in theory but it doesn’t actually work because you can’t actually generate money and decisions. What this did was it got the money on the table and got the job done.

“As soon as the money was put on the table to go to production in Chennai I resigned as president. Another principle of good governance is that you go when you’ve done your job. I’m no good at supervising manufacturing, that’s not my skill. The new people who have taken over are engineering people – they are not politicians who can get the money in and get the hard decisions through, which is what I did.” The first batch of 10,000 Orbit Readers will be reserved for TBG shareholders. But even that will disrupt the market, Carey says. “Up till now they only put 2,000 Braille displays a year into the market, and we’re suddenly going to put 10,000. That’s a revolution.

“Each machine will last five years. So for $1,000 you can buy two of these and two mobile phones and that will get a kid through ten years of education. $100 a year to educate a blind kid in a developing country, that’s astonishing.”