BrailleNote hardware opens up Internet to Nelsen Middle School student

The machine is talking. “Hello,” it says. “My name is ... Brian.” But the machine is not Brian. Brian is the boy typing the machine’s words. “I am in 8 grade at Nelsen,” Brian writes. “I am in... number sign ... 8 grade ... at Nelsen,” the machine repeats. Imagine the halting, nasal voice of a robot. That’s what this machine sounds like.

The machine is talking. “Hello,” it says. “My name is … Brian.”

But the machine is not Brian. Brian is the boy typing the machine’s words.

“I am in 8 grade at Nelsen,” Brian writes.

“I am in… number sign … 8 grade … at Nelsen,” the machine repeats. Imagine the halting, nasal voice of a robot. That’s what this machine sounds like.

“Today I get my new BrailleNote,” the machine continues. “From the local Lions Club… It’s going to… really help me.”

Actually, Brian Saboroboro got his new BrailleNote a couple days before last week’s official presentation by three Renton-area Lions clubs. At the presentation, Brian demonstrated the BrailleNote’s functions for the nine Lions. His family and his teacher joined the group in a Nelsen Middle School office.

“Have you figured it out already on your own?” teacher Kathryn Botsford asked before the demonstration. Botsford is a teacher of the visually impaired in the Renton and Bellevue school districts.

“Almost,” said Brian, who calls himself “visually impaired.” Botsford says he can see about a foot in front of his face.

Botsford describes Brian’s BrailleNote as a “word processor and PDA (with) Internet access all wrapped into one.”

“It’s a powerful little computer,” she says.

Brian’s BrailleNote is as important to his independence as the white cane that helps him walk.

He uses the machine to take notes and do his class assignments. He turns the machine’s volume off in class. When finished typing, he connects his BrailleNote to a printer and his assignments come out in print. He can hook his BrailleNote to a Braille embosser, which prints Braille documents. He can also access the Internet wirelessly and download books onto the machine.

Brian types his notes and homework in Braille, using BrailleNote’s nine large plastic keys. He reads what he has written by running his fingers over the computer’s “screen,” made up of the raised dots of Braille’s cells, or characters. The characters change as Brian scrolls through the document. He reads Internet material the same way.

The Renton, Fairwood and Kennydale Lions clubs bought Brian’s BrailleNote, with help from the Northwest Lions Club Foundation and $2,200 credit from trading in Brian’s old BrailleNote. The new machine cost $6,000.

Without the Lions’ donation, it’s unlikely Brian would have received the machine. Botsford says the school district couldn’t afford it.

“I’m really grateful for the Lions; they do so much for so many kids,” Botsford said.

It was Botsford who asked the Lions for Brian’s first BrailleNote back in 2004.

Brian was in third grade then. He lost his vision the year before, over Thanksgiving. He says he doesn’t remember much about losing his sight.

“The only thing I remember is my vision getting bad and I couldn’t read print,” he says.

Brian was born with hydrocephalus, also known as “water on the brain.” That means he was born with too much cerobrospinal fluid in the cavities of his brain. A shunt running from his brain to his bladder drained the fluid. But on that Thanksgiving in 2002 the shunt malfunctioned, causing the fluid to push against his optic nerve and shut off his sight. The shunt was repaired, but Brian’s sight did not return.

The 7-year-old Brian stayed at Campbell Hill Elementary, taking an hour of classes a day and spending the rest of the day learning Braille. Learning the system took Brian about a year, which Botsford calls “really amazing” for such a complex system.

During that year of second grade, Brian relied on others to fill out his worksheets, which he says was annoying.

Meanwhile, his principal had asked the Renton Lions for help. Sure, members said. But how? Botsford suggested a BrailleNote. And, after some research, that’s what Brian got.

“It was amazing,” Botsford says of that first Lions’ gift. “It was just a major blessing”

Brian’s new BrailleNote is a replacement for that old one, which became irreparable. The old BrailleNote was also outdated. It didn’t have Internet capability or USB ports, which made connecting to a printer difficult. Before receiving his new BrailleNote, Brian relied on software to read aloud Internet content.

Teachers still have to translate Brian’s homework assignments from print into Braille. But with BrailleNote’s note-taking and Internet capabilities, Brian’s level of independence is now closer to that of a seeing student.

Without BrailleNote Botsford says a liaison would always have to be between Brian and his teachers.

“They’re great devices,” Botsford says. “If we can get one in the school it certainly makes a kid’s life a lot easier.”

Brian is one of eight or nine visually impaired students in Renton School District. But he is the only Renton student with a BrailleNote. Many of Botsford’s students have additional disabilities that would make using a BrailleNote difficult.

The Lions are “ecstatic” to provide Brian with a BrailleNote, says Fairwood Lions Club President Norma Valberg.

“He’s so excited,” she says. “It’s just exciting to be able to see our efforts in a local venue. A lot of times we contribute to a broader picture, but we don’t see the hands-on. So this has just been a wonderful opportunity.”

The largest service organization in the world, the Lions Club was started by a Chicago businessman in 1917. A general service club, the Lions began serving the visually impaired in 1925, when Helen Keller challenged the Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

Brian is grateful for the Lions’ help.

“It feels good,” he said of receiving his new BrailleNote.

An A and B student, Brian plans to take his new BrailleNote with him to Lindbergh High School next year and to college and the work force after that.

Brian wants to draw for a living. He likes drawing anime, which he does by putting his face so close to the desk it looks like he’s smelling the paper.

“He’s probably the best drawer in the school,” says Brian’s friend Nick Diaz, also 13 and a Nelsen eighth grader.