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Welcome to 268.. 2

Jonathan Mosen Speaks With Deane Blazie About Deane’s Significant Role in Blindness Technology History. 3

Deane Blazie Tells Jonathan Mosen About the New BT Speak Line From Blazie Technologies  28

Remembering David Holladay. 43

Response to Episode 267 on Intersectionality. 44

Can I Swim With the FeelSpace NaviBelt?.. 45

Where to Obtain the Blind Alive Accessible Workouts. 46

Pursuing a Career in Customer Service.. 47

Impressions of the Seleste Smart Glasses, and Apple Thoughts. 47

Be My AI, and Airlines With Braille Safety Cards. 48

VoCaster 2 with the Mac. 49

Best and Worst Airline Security Experiences. 50

Closing and Contact Info.. 51




Welcome to 268


Voiceover: From Wellington, New Zealand, to the world, it’s Living Blindfully – living your best life with blindness or low vision. Here is your host, Jonathan Mosen.

This week: we spend time with a blindness technology icon. Deane Blazie has plenty of memories to share about our tech accessibility journey, but he’s looking to the future with his new company – Blazie Technologies, and his new range of products, the BT Speak Basic and Pro.

Mate, you have so many podcasts you could be listening to, so thank you very much for listening to this one. I do appreciate it.

This is episode 268, and area code 268 in the North American numbering plan belongs to Antigua. And this is yet another example of area codes for the West Indies being word area codes, because 268 is A-N-T in the word numbering system. Isn’t that clever?

I guess this is an advantage of the fact that some of these West Indian area codes are all spin-offs of an original one, which I think was 809, and they’ve been able to look at what’s vacant and assign easy-to-remember area codes where the North American numbering plan had capacity for that to happen.

Now, area code 268 also serves Barbuda so it sort of breaks down at that point, in the sense that you don’t get a word number out of that. But still, credit where it’s due, right?

And in terms of the country code, we go from New Zealand to Swaziland. That’s country code 268.

There are about 1.2 million people in Swaziland, according to the last census data. And if one of them is you, a very warm welcome to Living Blindfully.

Whether you’re in the North American 268 or the country code 268, we celebrate your 268-ness.

Advertisement: We bring you transcripts of every episode of Living Blindfully. And that’s possible, thanks to sponsorship from Pneuma Solutions.

One of the cool things about the Internet is that it connects us with the wider world. But another cool thing about the Internet is that it can create places just for us. Of course, Living Blindfully is one such place. And another one is Sero.

Sero (spelled S-E-R-O) is a social network designed by us, for us.

Sero is available everywhere. It’s on your smartphone, your Apple TV, your Amazon Echo, and of course, on a fully accessible website.

If you download the Sero mobile app from wherever you get your apps for your mobile device, you’ll be able to sample some of the content free. And that includes this podcast and Mushroom FM.

But paying a subscription to Sero gives you access to a treasure trove of information, including newspapers, forums where blind and low vision people can discuss a wide range of issues, a handy accessible email client, and so much more.

You have to check out all the features. You’ll be amazed at how much is there.

Go to That’s Access the products link, and then choose Sero for more information.


Jonathan Mosen Speaks With Deane Blazie About Deane’s Significant Role in Blindness Technology History

In June of this year, it’ll be 25 years since I started interviewing movers and shakers in the blind community for an internet audience, but this is the first time I’ve had the honor of speaking with my guest today. It would be impossible to overstate the impact he’s had on the evolution of accessible computing, and indeed a wider range of devices for blind people. His name is associated with quality, affordability, and innovation, and despite having made an exceptional contribution already, he still has the desire to innovate. There’s lots to cover, so let’s get started.

Deane Blazie, welcome to Living Blindfully. It’s really a pleasure to have you here.

Deane: Thank you for having me, Jonathan. Thanks for the kind words, too. Really appreciate it.

Jonathan: Well-deserved.

You seem to have been born with this natural gift for electronics, engineering, and generally making things go boom as a kid. [laughs] What sparked your interest in electrical things?

Deane: Well, it was when I was a kid. I was very young when I started playing with buzzers, and batteries, and switches, and eventually got into Ham Radio and did a lot of Ham Radio stuff – building amplifiers, and radios, and transmitters, you name it. And I just always been into electronics.

Jonathan It’s interesting that a lot of blind people are into shortwave, and now still into Ham Radio. But you were into shortwave as well.

Deane: Yeah, I did a lot of shortwave listening at first with an old silver tone radio. [laughs] And then, I got into Ham Radio when I was around 11. My brother-in-law got me into that. And that’s really what sparked the rest of my career, which really started with that Ham Radio.

That’s how I met Tim Cranmer, first blind person I really ever met.

Jonathan: Yup.

Deane: And Tim was, you know Tim. He was an inventor, and he’s got a big history.

Jonathan: I know Tim very well. He was an amazing guy. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times.

Just before we move off of shortwave, did you sneak a few listens to Radio Moscow on that thing? It’s amazing when I talk to Americans from that period, from that Cold War era, and they say, “I didn’t want to tell my mom and dad about it. But I was curious, so I’d sneaky listen to Radio Moscow on the shortwave.”

Deane: That’s funny. No, I never did that, but I did hear some radio stations down in Cuba, South America, and of course, Radio Free Europe.

Jonathan: Oh yeah. Right. That was the kind of propaganda arm of the American government that would broadcast into Eastern Europe.

Deane: Yeah, it was.

Jonathan: Yeah. It did a lot of good, I think.

Deane: Yes.

Jonathan: We might not even be talking today if you hadn’t met Tim. And there’ll be people listening who don’t know about him, sadly. We could spend an entire show talking about his contribution, not just to tech but to advocacy as well. He was a staunch advocate, and he got a lot of things sorted out.

How did you meet him, and how would you summarize his contribution?

Deane: I met Tim when I went to a Ham Radio Club meeting.

I had just turned 16-years-old, and I began driving. We were organizing a Ham Radio Club in Frankfort, Kentucky, which is where I lived and where Tim lived. And my brother-in-law told me there was a blind guy who’s gonna be there. He told me about him, how smart he was and all.

So I met Tim, and by the end of the club meeting, he asked me if I was interested in working for him on Saturdays. And of course I needed money, and I said yes.

So I worked for him every Saturday (maybe a few, I skipped), from probably my sophomore year in high school through college, and in a paid way. He paid me, I think it went up to a dollar an hour after a while, but that was a good wage back then. This was in 1962, I think, I started working for Tim.

Tim was a brilliant man. He had a 6th grade education. I mean, these are things that came from Tim, so I may be off a little bit, but 6th grade education.

And after that, he was self-educated, and he and I used to talk calculus, and philosophy, and you name it.

We did a lot of electronics there. We built a few things, (quite a few things, actually), put together Ham Radios, and experimented with speech compression way back then, which was almost unheard of. And that’s really where I got my start in business.

And after I graduated from college, of course, I continued working with Tim – building things for him and with him. And that’s how I got into business of products, and selling products to blind people, and making products.

Jonathan: It’s a very serendipitous partnership. What do you think it was about you that made Tim ask you to be the person that assisted him on a Saturday? I mean presumably, he did encounter other young people at that time, but he chose you.

Deane: I really never thought about that. That’s a good question.

One is I could drive a car, and he needed transportation sometimes. Number two is I was into electronics and Ham Radio, so we had that in common. Three, I was young enough, and he could kind of mold me to do what he wanted to do, and I was willing to do anything. I crawled under his house, putting furnace filters in. That one I’ll never forget. [laughs] Climbing on top of his house, putting up antenna towers next to power lines. Oh, so many stories go with me and Tim, but those are the things I think of. And I don’t know, maybe he saw a spark of something in me that I didn’t see at the time.

Jonathan: I hear so many good stories about blind amateur radio operators with non-24 sleep-wake disorder. So they’re up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and they decide to work on their tower way up there.

Deane: [laughs] Yeah.

Jonathan: And the neighbors are all concerned that this guy’s doing this thing at 2 or 3 in the morning. And the blind person’s saying, “Well, what difference do you think it makes to me?”

Deane: [laughs] Yeah, exactly right.

Jonathan: [laughs] I do remember the compressed speech stuff, because we had an, I think it was an APH machine in the 70s that implemented some of that compressed speech technology.

And for those who aren’t familiar with this, if you speed up tape normally, whether it be cassette or reel-to-reel, you’re gonna get what people tend to call the chipmunk effect.

[chipmunk – faster speed, higher pitch] If you speed up tape normally, whether it be cassette or reel-to-reel, you’re gonna get what people tend to call the chipmunk effect.

But the compressed speech machine allowed you to speed up the speech without actually speeding up the pitch which these days, people take for granted in talking book apps and podcast apps.

[compressed speech – faster speed, same pitch] But the compressed speech machine allowed you to speed up the speech without actually speeding up the pitch which these days, people take for granted in talking book apps and podcast apps.

But that was a huge breakthrough.

Deane: Yeah, it really was.

Now, Tim and I didn’t really succeed at that, by the way. Somebody else did. But we were on the track, and we did try a few things, and it worked partially.

Jonathan: You had a hand in the Say When, which I still remember being around, being used by blind people in at least the 80s.

So this is not a computer gadget, but it was just a handy wee thing that made the lives of blind people a bit simpler.

Deane: Yes, in fact, that was the very first product I ever really sold for a profit or sold on the open market. I’m surprised you remember it. I didn’t remember what it did, but it was a little box with a 9-volt battery in it and a speaker, and it had some leads coming out, and you would hang it over a cup or a glass. And as you filled the glass up, when the liquid touched the 2 probes that were on the sensor, it would beep at you. And Tim named it Say When, because it would say when the cup was full.

Very clever. Clever guy, too.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: I mean, clever in naming things.

Jonathan: Yeah, and just a fascinating person to talk to, you know. You always felt enriched after you talked to Tim.

Deane: Yeah, that’s the best effect.

I got a quick story about how he got things done sometimes.

We were putting up an antenna tower, and it was about 30-40 feet high, and it was about 10 feet away from some high-voltage power lines. And of course, I wasn’t willing to mess with it with it close to the power lines, and neither was Tim. [laughs]

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: And so he called the power company, and tried to negotiate them turning it off and telling them what he’s doing – putting a tower up, and it might tip over and accidentally hit the power lines.

And they said, “Well, sir, I’m sorry, but we just, we can’t cut those power lines off just because you want to put an antenna up.”

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: And he talked and talked to them, and finally gave up and he said, “Well, okay. I guess I’ll just have to shoot them down.”

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: And the person on the other end said, “Well, sir, you can’t do that. That’s against the law, and we know who you are, and we’ll have to prosecute you.”

He says, “Well, when you get here, I don’t think they’ll bother me because I’m blind, and you’d have a hard time proving that I shot those wires down.” [laughs]

And Tim said they were out there the next day, and they cut the power off. We put the antenna up, and everything was fine.

Jonathan: So did that affect neighbors as well when they cut that power off?

Deane: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how that worked out. Maybe they warned the neighbors, or maybe they could feed the neighbors from another way. I really don’t know, but I know that power was off when we put that tower up. [laughs]

Jonathan: Well, that’s illustrative of what a persuasive advocate Tim actually was, because he did a lot of things.

He rescued the Commission for the Blind when they were doing what the tendency was to do back then, which was to consolidate.

So in Kentucky, there was a point where the Commission for the Blind was under threat.

Deane: You’re right. You’re exactly right.

You know, I’d heard that story offhand from a third party, because I wasn’t involved with it at the time. But yes, in fact, Dr. Jernigan from the NFB told me about that, that Tim stuck his neck out, almost lost his job. But he hung in there, and that’s really what saved the agency, instead of being swooped up in the general rehab for the state.

Jonathan: And we talked about your efforts with compressed speech, but another thing that you contributed to that space was the good old beepy tone index.

So there’ll be people listening who’ve never listened to a book on cassette in their lives, you see, which makes me feel very elderly. But what would happen was, if you fast forwarded through a cassette, you would hear this beep, what they call a tone index. And it was at such a low frequency that when you were fast forwarding very quickly, it would be a very audible, quite high pitched beep. And you and Tim were working on that.

Deane: Yes, that’s right. I can tell you the year for that, because I was in the army at the time working at the Human Factors lab in Aberdeen, Maryland.

And I built these things and used a, what did I use? Maybe it was an NE555 chip. And I think it was 40 hertz, 40 cycles per second. And you couldn’t hear it. You almost couldn’t hear it when you recorded it. But when you play it back, it would make a very clear beep.

Jonathan: Yeah. And that’s why I was making the point that actually, you’ve contributed well beyond computing.

Deane: Yeah.

Jonathan: And that’s just a, … It sounds like a simple thing, but that was a big game-changer, in terms of kids with textbooks wanting to get to the right place.

Deane: That’s right, yeah.

And then, they started building them into the recorders later on.

Jonathan: There are a handful of people I can immediately think of, and I’ve had the privilege of talking to most of them. David Holladay, of course, who we recently just lost.

Deane: Yeah, very sad.

Jonathan: Yeah, Russell Smith, who I worked with very closely. Ray Kurzweil, Doug Joffrey, and there’ll be a few others who are sighted pioneers in the blindness technology space.

Blind people are often a bit suspicious of sighted people thinking they know what’s best for us. But you’re one of those people who has the knack of understanding our needs, listening closely to our ideas, and then turning them into product.

What is it about the way that you work, or the way that you think, or the way you engage that has allowed you to be such a powerful ally of the blind community all these years?

Deane: I think it was because I worked directly with blind people. A lot of the people in this industry got into it, sort of from the outside, and I didn’t. I got into it from the inside, working with Tim Cranmer and Fred Gissoni, and maybe half a dozen other blind people that told me what was needed. I remember a whole lot of things that I’d take it to them, and they’d say, “No no no no, you can’t do it that way. It has to be like this, or this.” We would discuss it, and finally, we’d come up with something pretty profound.

Like for example, the navigation keys on the Braille ’N Speak. Almost everybody uses those same keys – .4 chord for cursor down, .1 chord for cursor up, and 3 and 6 chord for cursor left and right.

That came about through Fred Gissoni and Tim and I having a meeting one day, and talking about this Braille ’N Speak that I made. I was just trying to get the command set down. I remember distinctly that we changed a lot of things to make it spatially consistent. Your right hand moved you to the right and down, and your left hand moved you to the left and up. And it really worked out. It’s a really great thing that we devised.

But it didn’t come from one of us. It came because all three of us sat down together and talked about it.

I think that’s what made me realize that it just became nature to me at that point to always talk to blind people, and find out what they need, and listen to them. Don’t just pass it off just because it’s not as easy to do this way. If they want it, there’s got to be a reason.

And we’re still finding that today, by the way, in this new product, the BT Speak, which we’ll talk about later.

But people are asking for things. And sometimes, they’re pretty difficult to do. But when you listen to them and find out why they want to do it, you realize that’s the way it ought to be.

Jonathan: There was a real spirit of friendly competition at that time because that paradigm about .4 chord and .1 chord to do various things and on and on, to the best of my knowledge, that started with the VersaBraille, the TSI product, and they put that in there. That was an incredible device for its time. It shuddered, and it felt like it was going to rip itself apart every time you tried to load a document. [laughs] But it worked, and we had refreshable Braille in a relatively portable package for its time. And that’s the first time that I recall seeing that series of commands implemented in the device.

Deane: Yeah. They are the ones that invented the chording scheme, and using chords for commands. It was a great device, and it’s a shame for them that they stopped making the VersaBraille.

But it was good for us because we made the Braille Lite, and they didn’t, … They just gave us the market, so to speak.

Jonathan: I felt that the VersaBraille II missed the mark a little bit. I didn’t like the spongy keyboard, and it just felt a bit bulky for what it was.

The VersaBraille Original was the sweet one for me. That was something that just opened a lot of doors.

Deane: Yes, I totally agree with you. It was fantastic. And it had the cassette tapes, which you store a lot of information. They weren’t very fast, but they were better than anything up until then.

And it’s funny you mentioned the keyboard, too, because a lot of people like the VersaBraille II keyboard, but a lot of people didn’t like it.

Jonathan: Yeah. That one was an acquired taste. That really was. [laughs]

Deane: Yeah.

Jonathan: You’ve not worked in the blindness field all your life. People think that that is actually the case – that you’ve devoted your professional life to blindness.

But it seems like even when you were doing other things, perhaps because of your relationship with Tim, or just because of your curiosities, you were always tinkering and thinking about this market. And as a part-time project, you and Tim developed the audio tactile display. And that was a way, ever so slightly, of opening the door to accessibility.

Deane: Yeah, that’s right. It was. I’ve actually never stopped doing blindness stuff for very long.

Well, I guess for the past 20 years, I haven’t done as much, but still a little.

But yeah, when it was only because Tim Cranmer would call me with ideas and we’d get working on things, that’s how it happened. And he wanted to make calculators accessible. And this was before the telesensory calculator came out.

And Tim was being an electronics guy himself, and Ham Radio operator. He remembers the old digital counters. And I don’t know how he knew this. But somehow, he knew that these digital counters had a row of lights, and that’s what caused him to develop this audio tactile display, which was a matrix of on the bottom, 0, and the top, I’d say 9. And then from left to right, it had all these columns, depending on how many digits you wanted in your output that you wanted to read. And what you would do is run your finger down each column. And when you got to the column that was the correct digit in that column, it would beep at you. And the columns were in Braille, so on the top, you’d read from the top to the bottom, nin9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. And when you got to the right one, of course, it would beep. So you would scan left to right, or right to left, depending on what you were reading, and down each column, and then you would put together the number that was on the display of the calculator.

It was really a great idea, and Telesensory almost bought it from Tim. They bought the technology, which he had a patent on, by the way.

But right at that time is when speech technology became almost affordable. I say almost because it was very expensive, but it was not so expensive that you couldn’t put it in a $1,000 calculator.

And Telesensory finally decided to go with the speech technology instead of the audio tactile display.

But it was a great idea. It’s kind of a shame it wasn’t an idea 10 years earlier.

Jonathan: And you put it in stopwatches, too, I think.

Deane: Yeah, that’s right. I made a bunch of stopwatches. I forgot about those. Boy, you’re bringing up a lot of things that are in the back of my mind that I just forgot about in years.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: Stopwatch.

Jonathan: Well, you know, that one interested me because quite a bit later, I was working full-time in professional radio, and we’d have things like the network news bulletin where you’d have to make sure that everything timed out to the split second, so you didn’t cut off a song or whatever, when you went to the network news bulletin. And I used one of those old Sharp talking time things, which was okay, and it gave me guidance.

But when I learned a long time ago that you had done this, I thought, “Man, you know, that device would have been perfect for my use case where I just need to make sure I’m timing out exactly.”

Deane: Yes, that’s right.

I don’t know if you remember B.T. Kimbrough. He was on a radio station in Kentucky, and he was not a disc jockey, more of an announcer, a newscaster. He used it for exactly that. Sounds similar to what you were talking about.

Jonathan: We didn’t have the internet then. So as a young guy, I didn’t even know that there were all these blind people around the world working in radio, and I wish I had.

Deane: Wow! An interesting thing about the stopwatch was, if you say you had 4 digits – hours and minutes, 2 for each, you could put your finger on, say, the 5 of the minutes, and start the stopwatch, and go ahead and do your work. And then as soon as that 5 lit up, after 5 seconds or 5 minutes had gone by, it would beep at you.

And that’s not something you can do now with most things. You have to actually set a timer for 5 minutes.

But in this case, you could put your finger on a digit and when that digit lit up, you could feel it. Kind of neat.

Jonathan: And so we get to 1976, and you started Maryland Computer Services. I remember hearing about that company in the 80s, again, pre-internet, even before bulletin boards. So we’d get newsletters on cassettes over here in New Zealand. I always thought, as a young guy, that Maryland Computer Services was exclusively a blindness company. but I learned afterwards that that’s actually not the case.

Deane: That’s correct. I was working at the Human Engineering lab in Aberdeen, Maryland. And as a civilian at this time, because I’d already gotten out of the army in ’72.

And a friend that worked with me there, he was also a tinkerer, and he would help me out on some of these blindness projects, suggesting this and that. Anyhow, he and I started doing computer work on the side for companies in the local area – in Baltimore, really, that wanted accounting programs and word processing programs. Back then, there really weren’t any word processors out. That’s how we started Maryland Computer Services, was doing calculator and very small desktop computer programming. And we started it, and I quit my job and I think it was July of 76, and we started the business.

But at the time, I was still working with Tim, and he would call me about this and that, and the other thing.

And one day, he called me and said, “How can we get blind people to be able to look up phone numbers real quickly and find them?” He said, “Braille’s just too slow because there’s too many of them.”

And the state government here has a lot of telephone operators, and all they do is answer the phone and they give out phone numbers. They look up extensions and transfer the phone to it.

So at that time, we were working on a project, well, for Social Security Administration down in Baltimore and some other places. And we had a desktop computer. I think it was a 9826 was the number of it.

Anyhow, it was a keyboard, a fairly large thing, bigger than our laptops today, and it had a cassette tape in it. And we programmed that thing to look up a phone number, and we hooked it up to the parallel port on that into one of the speech boards out of the Telesensory calculator. What was the name of that calculator, Jonathan? Do you remember?

Jonathan: Speech Plus, I believe.

Deane: Speech Plus, I guess it was, yes. So we hooked it up to a Speech Plus board, and we could get it to speak the phone number. And I showed it to Tim, and we discussed how to do it, and all that.

Anyhow, it was $10,000 for that thing. Could you believe that?

But he said, “$10,000 is not bad when a blind person can be making, say, $5,000 or $6,000 a year.” Back then, that was a fair wage. And I think it was, maybe they could make more than that. But to get a person a job, he said $10,000 was not bad.

And they bought a half a dozen of them, and we sold them all over the country.

We didn’t sell a lot, probably 100 total, maybe, over the years. [laughs] But it was a start.

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s not even 50 years ago. So that’s a blip in history terms.

And yet, in those days, the only way that people could make a computer talk was to have it speak a character at a time. I mean, can you imagine?

I mean, you were talking about your other device where you would go through a series of Braille cells, and it would beep when you got to the right one. And this is a similar concept, I guess, that you would painstakingly read a screen, one character at a time, and that’s what there was. It couldn’t make words then.

Deane: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

And eventually, we used that same technology, but it was able to speak the full alphabet, and characters. And we used that in a computer terminal called T-Term, and it read 1 character at a time. And yet, we were able to get blind people to program computers, get them computer programming jobs using that terminal.

And that’s where Ted Henter came in. He was one of the first people that bought a T-Term. His company actually bought it for him and hired him, knowing that he could program with this terminal. And it was really crude. I mean, it was a great terminal, by the way. It worked well.

But to ask somebody to program a computer reading one character at a time was asking a lot. So Ted called me up on the phone a few times and said, “Well, why don’t you add this to it?”, and “Why don’t you add that to it?”, And “I need to be able to do this. I need to be able to move around better.”

So I was on a trip to Florida to visit my in-laws, and I knew Ted was over in St. Petersburg on the beach there at his job. So I went and visited him. And we became friends from then till this day, and we still are pretty good friends.

And Ted helped immensely in making that product better. And he eventually came to work for us up in Maryland. You probably know that, of course.

Jonathan: Oh yes, indeed. Yes.

And it’s interesting to me. Ted’s an example of how people can react to adversity in such different ways. He was blinded in a tragic motor vehicle accident. And yet, he picked himself up. He decided computers were the future. He was thinking, “What career should I pursue here? What makes sense for me?” And he just got into it. And of course, eventually started Henter Joyce. We have JAWS as a result of his genius. He’s just an example of sort of picking yourself up and starting a new life.

Deane: Yes, yeah, he’s that kind of guy. Ted has strong faith in God, and he figured well, if he hadn’t gotten blinded in that car accident at a motorcycle race, he would have died on the motorcycle course. And he said it was God’s way of saving him and giving him something else in life that he wanted to have done.

Jonathan: So TotalTalk, that’s a different product, right? And that, I think, … Was that the first speaking product that actually was able to speak complete words?

Deane: Yes. After T-Term was introduced, we were following the text-to-speech market very very closely. And the only people that had done really text-to-speech were a research group down at the National Naval Research Laboratory down in Washington. They had published some papers about text-to-speech, and Ray Kurzweil was doing it using a minicomputer for his reader, when he had developed that scanner that could read books.

So we took the software from Naval Research Lab and hooked it up to a Votrax synthesizer. This synthesizer was a board about a foot square, and I’m sure it was over a thousand bucks, which was quite a bit. We took that board and we hired a programmer, and he and I together worked out how to transfer that Naval Research Lab method of converting text into phonemes, and then phonemes into this Votrax synthesizer board to get speech out. We put that all in another terminal, very similar to the T-Term terminal, and we were able to get actually full speech on a commercial product. I think that really was probably the first commercial product that had full speech in it.

Jonathan: Yeah, a huge breakthrough.

And it probably is a very sad reflection on the things I was doing as a spotty youth. But the things I remember about the Votrax was that if you gave it a naughty word, it would bleep it out.

Deane: [laughs] Yeah, that was some of the later models that had the text-to-speech built into them. But you’re right, it would. It would bleep those out. [laughs]

We didn’t do that, by the way. You could do naughty things.


Deane: This has no dirty words in it. So I’ll tell you this little story.

We took this TotalTalk, and we were showing it around the country. And we went to the office (I think it was in Atlanta, Georgia), of Hewlett-Packard, to show them what we had done and to get them enthusiastic about helping the blind. We set the terminal there. We demonstrated it to a half a dozen people, and so they took us to lunch.

When we came back from lunch, on the screen of the terminal, somebody had written a little verse. It said, “Beat me, hurt me, say dirty things to me, make me feel cheap.”


Deane: So they had that on the screen, and they were playing it. I’ll never forget it.


Jonathan: My first computer was an Apple IIe, but Maryland Computer Services were working with CPM devices.

And by this stage, you actually had Ted working for you. And he then came up with, … He called it a speech pad, but that essentially was the prototype for the JAWS cursor, wasn’t it?

Deane: Yes, actually, when we did Total Talk, … What was the next, let’s see. What was the next name of the next product? Gee, I can’t remember.

You’re right. It ran CPM. It was very similar. It was based on a Hewlett-Packard terminal again, I think.

And Ted and I, … Yeah. Ted and I sat down and we decided, “Well, how can we make cursor up and down, left and right? And then next word, previous word.” And we laid it out graphically again. And it, … Yeah, it’s become the standard again. We called it the speech pad, and it’s still used. It’s used in JAWS, and it’s used in, well, most screen readers use it.

Jonathan: Many people still remember the Romeo Embosser, but I’m very surprised by how many people don’t realize that Romeo was actually a guy, and it’s not his first name. Mike Romeo and you worked closely together over the years. You hired him at Maryland Computer Services, I think.

Deane: That’s right, yes. Mike was, he was a Ham Radio operator, but I met him outside of the job.

And when we started making things and we needed someone to design circuits, and put them on a circuit board, and wire them up and all that, I just didn’t have time to do all that, plus software for these small businesses. So we hired Mike, and he was kind of our design guru.

Very very nice fella. He’s still working, by the way, and he still lives here in Florida, pretty near me. In fact, he has an office in one of my buildings. So he’s still a good friend. And by the way, he’s building wheelchairs for handicapped people.

Jonathan: Wow! It doesn’t surprise me to hear that he’s working because he seemed to have this boundless energy.

Deane: He does. He has the energy, and what a brain. He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He knows physics, and electronics, and acoustics, and optics. You name it, he knows it.

Jonathan: We were very fortunate here in New Zealand, you know. The exchange rate was not in our favour. But somehow, we ended up with a little suite at the school that I was at, where we had the Apple IIe, we had David Holladay’s Braille Edit, and later, Braille Edit Express. We had a VersaBraille, and then we had the Cramner modified Perkins.

And as a teenager, it felt to me like this huge tank of a thing, but it served as an embosser, and that really was revolutionary to get embossing at that price point, wasn’t it?

Deane: [laughs] Yes, yeah, and that came out of Kentucky too, as you know.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: Tim Cranmer and his group made that, and we took it, and we commercialized it, put it in a nice-looking case and fixed a few things, and it was a great product. We sold a lot of those. I don’t know if any of them are still around, but we sold a bunch of them.

Very noisy, though. Weren’t they just unbelievably noisy? [laughs]

Jonathan: Oh my goodness! [laughs] Yeah, they were very noisy.

Deane: Oh gosh!

Jonathan: But the alternative was that blind kids would have to Braille their work first on a Perkins, and then they would type them out for their teacher, so that meant that you couldn’t proof what you were typing for your teacher.

So when these technologies came along (the Apple IIe and the Cramner), it was just a huge change for us.

Deane: Yes, that’s very much true. They could do the whole thing, just like society kids. They could go off and do their own typing, and hand in a piece of Braille which a teacher could grade.

Jonathan: So you’re expanding, but this is the mid-80s. And I wanted to talk about this because I don’t want to leave people with the impression that you’ve had this charmed life, and that you haven’t been through difficult times because that might inspire people who are running their own businesses and wanting some advice on this.

So you’re in the mid-80s, you’ve got punishing interest rates going on, very high inflation, (even higher than the inflation we’re all enduring now), and things get difficult and acrimonious for you. And that’s the end of Maryland Computer Services.

Deane: Yeah, that’s true. It was a very very tough time. I owned half the company. I had a partner that owned pretty much the other half, and I think one employee owned a few shares. But yeah, times were tougher. Interest rates were 22%, Jimmy Carter was president, and inflation was just awful. And it was the Democrats running the company back then, by the way. Just for posterity’s sake, I should say that.

Jonathan: [laughs] Well, there were a lot of things going on that were external: the oil shocks, all sorts of things like that.

Deane: [laughs] Yeah, I was joking. I was getting political for a second.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: [laughs] But yeah, so it was tough on us, and we had loans on the company, and we were paying 22% interest on some of the loans, and you just can’t do that and run a business.

So it got really tough, and the banks came in and told us that we had to change things. And we tried that for a few months.

And then I came into work one day, and my partner said, … well, this was after a stockholders’ meeting the night before, in which I was voted out of being president.

So I came to work as usual, thinking I’ll just go on and keep designing products for the blind. And he said, “You’re out. Go home, pack up your stuff. We’re going to separate the company, and if you can find somebody that wants to buy your half, we’ll sell you your part of the blindness business.”

And of course, I couldn’t find anybody at that time. Nobody really wanted to invest in a small company, especially with interest rates being what they were. So it was tough.

I went home, and the banks were circling my house as collateral for the company loans. Times were really tough. It was tough on my family, my kids.

But you know, life throws you some screwy things like that, and you just have to pick up and go on with it. And we did.

Jonathan: But it was tough on you, too, though. And you thought at one point, “I am done with this blindness thing.”, right? That was it for you.

Deane: Yeah, I did tell myself that. I was done with it.

But it wasn’t six months later, it wasn’t even that long when I started thinking about how you could do this and that, and got the idea for the Braille ’N Speak.

Jonathan: Yes. I want to talk a bit about Fred Gissoni here because sadly, I don’t think I met him. But I have met people who just talk so fondly of him, particularly the way that he would provide tech support. And I’ve talked to several, many students, in fact, young kids who would call up and get Fred, and he was so patient with them, and nurturing, and encouraging. And he also had this kind of idea floating around of a notetaker device that planted the seed for the Braille ’N Speak.

Deane: Yeah, really more than that. Fred actually had the idea for the product, and he did most of the work, up to a point. And when I saw that, that’s what gave me the idea for the Braille ’N Speak.

And the problem was, … I think he called it the PortaBraille or the PocketBraille.

Jonathan: Right, okay.

Deane: And the problem was it didn’t have any speech output. It just had keyboard input and storage inside. And if you turn the power off, all the storage went away.

So I knew that was no good, and I knew it needed speech or something out. And at that time, Votrax had already announced the SCO2 chip, which became the SSI263 chip. And this was a small chip that could do phonemes. And I already knew how to turn text into phonemes with that software from the National Naval Research Lab, so I just put that together.

Phil Hall was working with me. Phil Hall was a blind guy that worked at Maryland Computer Services. And he and I and another fellow wrote the Braille translator, who worked at Aberdeen there. And then a third fellow took the circuit design and put it out in surface mount technology, which was really very new at that time, where you didn’t have parts going through the board. You had parts sitting on top of the board soldered in, and it allowed you to make things very very small.

So really, the 4 of us got together and put all these things together. And I did the software for the most part. Phil did the text-to-speech part and put it all together.

And gosh, I guess it was 87. I went to the conferences and showed it, and it was amazing. I guess I took 2 or 3 machines with me, and I came home with checks, and cash, and credit card numbers, where people wanted more of them. So that’s what started it.

Then I had to go to my wife and say, “Gee! We need $10,000 to make a bunch of these.”

And you know, we had just come off of the awful Maryland Computer Services shutdown, and yet she was willing to back me and say, “Okay. Well, if you think that’s what we should do, let’s do it.”

So we invested $10,000 in making these circuit boards and cases. And that’s really what started the Braille ’N Speak.

Jonathan: You mentioned the SSI263 chip. I wanted to give a bit of a shoutout to Arctic Technologies, who we don’t hear much about when we’re talking about history but they really ran with that chip, and they had a lot of interesting products.

Deane: They did. I’ll be really sorry that they went away because it was a good company, and they did some really really nice things.

Jonathan: I had dinner with them once, and it was just so interesting to hear the stories of the company. And they also had a couple of good screen readers.

WinVision was the very first screen reader to introduce a virtual buffer for the web.

Deane: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: Wow!

Jonathan: We have Judy Dixon on the podcast quite a bit because Judy has opinions, and it’s always good to have people on a show like this with opinions, and you know that Judy’s not afraid to express them.

Deane: [laughs]

Jonathan: You ran the prototype Braille ’N Speak by her and a couple of others, and they said to you, “Deane, you got to change the keyboard on this thing.”

Deane: Yeah, keyboards are funny things. If you look at the VersaBraille, for example, a lot of people loved the rubber brain keyboard, and a lot of people didn’t, just dislike it. They hated it.

The Braille ’N Speak had keys with a lot of travel. They stuck up a lot. They’d hurt your fingers after a while, or your thumbs because of the sharp edge. I don’t know. And yet, some people loved it. They thought it was just great. So I really don’t know how to please everybody with keyboards.

Jonathan: Yeah. My understanding is that you did change the keyboard before release, that it was much flatter than the one that you originally had in mind, and that you took that feedback on board. And when the Braille ’N Speak was released, you had a much flatter keyboard, more consistent with Braille writers of the past that went very well for people.

Deane: Well, I think what you’re talking about is when I put the Braille ’N Speak circuit board in a case, I made the case wedge-shaped, kind of like the older keyboards used to be wedge-shaped to make the back end of the product stand up. And so instead of straight up and down, you were punching at an angle.

And Tim Cranmer and Fred Gissoni said, “You got to get rid of that.” And they said, “Can you take something out of the case to make it flatter?”

And of course, there wasn’t anything in the case that kept it from being flat. I just had the wrong impression that people wanted it like a typewriter keyboard sticking up in the back. And it was just another, again, one of those things sighted people would think was normal. And if you talk to blind people, it’s not right.

And Judy said the same thing. “It was awful. It’s gotta be up and down, just like a Braille writer. The keys are flat, and they move up and down in a straight line.”

Jonathan: Are you aware of a product for the sighted that performed similar functions to the Braille ’N Speak at that time? Because it seems to me that blind people were carrying around notetakers long before PDA devices were more widely being used by sighted people.

Deane: There was one that inspired the way that Braille ’N Speak works. It was made by Radio Shack, and I couldn’t find it in the history books the other day. I was looking for it.

I swear, I thought it was called the HW20. It had a 20-cell liquid crystal display, or some kind of display. I don’t want to say liquid crystal because I don’t think they were invented yet. But it had a display, 20 characters in 4 or 5 lines. And the neat thing about it was, when you turn the power off and you turn it back on, you were exactly where you were when you left off. So the display still had the last character you typed on it. It didn’t change at all. You were still in the same file. I don’t even know if they had files back then on this device, but it was the same. And that’s what inspired me to make the Braille ’N Speak the way it was, where when you turn the power off and back on, you were exactly where you were when you left off.

Jonathan: Over here in New Zealand, Russell was working with the Epson computer that had this little dot matrix printer and a tiny LCD. It had a QWERTY keyboard. And I’m pretty sure that’s the same computer that Doug Geoffray and Dan Warwick were using for their SmallTalk product.

But that was a slightly different device. It was more laptop-like.

Deane: I don’t remember it, honestly. But I remember Epson was big back then, too, and small computers.

Jonathan: Yeah, they were.

You mentioned that NFB convention where you announced the Braille ’N Speak. And we would use the term going viral at that point because there was just so much enthusiasm. It was a very significant moment, I think in particular because here was this portable device where you could carry so much information in your pocket, and it was priced at a point where some blind people, at least, could hand over a credit card number or write you a check so they didn’t have to get rehab involved.

Deane: Yeah.

Jonathan: And that was quite new for a blindness product.

Deane: Yeah, we didn’t know whether that would work or not. I didn’t know whether that would work or not. I just thought that I knew what it cost me to make them, and I thought it should be a fair price. And maybe, if I priced it low enough, individuals would buy it instead of state agencies, which at the time were buying most of the technology.

And sure enough, it worked. A lot of people paid their own out-of-pocket money for this thing. It was a phenomenon. It was a lucky guess.

Jonathan: Oh. It was a product for its time, for sure.

I never owned a Braille ’N Speak. But I did own a Braille Lite, and I cannot tell you how much use I got out of it, and the difference that it made to my ability to get my work done, and present in public.

I was a government relations professional by that time. And to be able to be in a committee room and hear people talking, and compose notes, and then present those notes on the fly was just huge for me.

Why such a long delay between the Braille ’N Speak and the first Braille Lite?

Deane: Well, it took a lot of money to develop products. It was only Mike Romeo and myself that were really doing the technical stuff, and we only had so many hours in a day, and we just couldn’t do it all.

Furthermore, the Telesensory had the Braille display market pretty much locked up with the VersaBraille. And it was only when they killed the VersaBraille that we thought well, let’s make a Braille Lite.

And fortunately, we were able to make it small enough and use the same software that the Braille ’N Speak used. And we were able to get Braille displays outside of buying them from Telesensory. And you add all that up, and time was just right for it.

Jonathan: Yup, and it was the immediacy of it. Having come from a VersaBraille, the idea that you could quickly go into a document and it was all in solid state memory so you didn’t have to wait forever to get that document, and make notes, and switch. The O-U cord is still very much ingrained in my mind to switch between the last two documents you were working with. [laughs]

Deane: Somebody mentioned that just the other day. “Are we going to have an O-U cord on this BT Speak?”

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: And someone said, “It’s already there.” But I forgot about it.

Jonathan: Yeah. See, these are the things. Blind people care about efficiency. And I’m troubled, actually, by the fact that many people don’t understand how all these little glitches add up and impede your productivity. And that’s what the Braille ’N Speak products were very good at, is maximizing efficiency.

Deane: Yeah, we were pretty good at being able to take an idea somebody had and implement it fairly quickly. I remember sometimes overnight, someone would say, “You ought to do this.” And I thought, “Wow! That’s a great idea, and it’s really easy.” Since I was the one doing the software, I could evaluate it right away and literally go in and do it. And it made the product so much better by having so many customers.

And by the way, talking to them. That was the other thing. I was on the phone most of the day, talking to customers. And I would do this software development, sometimes at night. And it’s nothing like being close to your customers, and listening to them, and talking to them, not through a salesperson or through a third-party, but talking directly to them.

Jonathan: Look, I remember that so fondly.

Once I got my Braille Lite, I was on the Blaizie email list. And of course, David Goldfield ran a lot of that, and did a lot of support. But you would pop in there too, and it kind of felt like the Braille ’N Speak products belonged to all of us. They were yours and it’s your company, but it felt like we were building them together. And we had this very special relationship with you and people working on the product that meant that if we had a good idea, there was every chance that if it was technically possible, it would get in the product.

And I suppose this is one of the downsides of scale. There are a lot more users now.

But also, so much of the technology we use is being produced by massive companies – Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple. And we just can’t have that relationship like we used to, to influence the assistive technology that we use.

Deane: Yeah. But you know, it doesn’t have to be that way. It still can be the way you described.

And we’re trying to do that again, my sons and I. I’ll talk about that later.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: But we still want to do that. We still want to maintain closeness with our customers and implement what they want, because we don’t know. We’re not visually impaired.

Jonathan: I like to think it’s possible. And in fact, with Google, at least at some point, they did have some of their developers on a public email list that you could go on.

Apple is incredibly secretive, and that’s frustrating because the quality of their product is declining quite quickly now. And even people who were calling me a whiner 3 years ago now have to admit that there is a serious systemic problem with the way Apple is developing. So it’s actually quite a serious issue because that filters through to our ability to do our jobs properly.

Deane: Yeah, I agree. I feel the same way about Apple, and I always have, that they’re just too closed, too close to company.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: And I understand why they believe that, but I’m just not there.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Look, I remember going to a couple of NFB conventions in the ’90s. And as a young guy from New Zealand going to those conventions, I mean, it was glorious. It really was. It was like meeting quite a few of my heroes in a very special time.

And I remember going to the Blazie booth, and that thing was packed all the time. And if I’m remembering correctly, you could get your software upgraded at the booth. You’d have to hand your device in, and then they’d tell you when you could come and pick it up again.

And one year, there was even a double speed upgrade where you took the unit apart, and you upgraded the hardware at the convention.


Jonathan: The company was still successful, but small enough that you knew everybody. It felt like you are part of a family. That was a really cool thing, going to the convention and getting surgery on your Blazie product.

Deane: Yeah, those were really fun. We had such a good time at those conventions.

Most of the company was there – Lola, I remember Dolores that worked for us, and a lot of our secretarial staff, and a lot of our salespeople. We all were there, and everybody was doing something – upgrading computers, and taking credit cards, and someone was sending us soldering, some people putting in new chips. It was just a great time. It really was.

Jonathan: Yeah, you get your Braille display repaired.

Deane: Those are tough ones, yeah. But you can get them displays fixed right there, yep.

Jonathan: Yeah, amazing.

So yeah. You had this booming business going on. It had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, I’m sure.

Deane: Oh, yeah.

Jonathan: And then, you get to a point where you choose to sell the company as part of the creation of Freedom Scientific.


Deane: That was Ted Henter’s fault.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: I have to blame the whole thing on Ted. [laughs]

You know, it’s funny to say that. I wish he was here talking together because it would be fun.

But Ted wanted to sell his company because, I don’t know why. I guess you should, you probably have to ask him that too, Jonathan. I don’t know.

But my side of the story is Ted really was interested in selling his company because, I guess, somebody had approached him to see if he was interested in selling, and he said yeah, he was. So he also hired a company to help him market the sale of his company.

Well, some of the people that he was going to sell to said, “Well, you’re just too small for me to put together a venture capital deal to do it. If you could get a few more companies together, it might be more favorable to the venture capitalists.”

So Ted came to me and asked me about it. And of course, I had no intentions of selling. But the more he talked, the more I thought well, you know what? I’m getting older here. I was 54, 52, or 53 at the time. I don’t remember. But I was pretty young, really, looking back at it.

And after 3 or 4 months and talking to Dick Chandler from the venture capital guys, I thought well, it might be nice. I could buy a boat, whatever, and live the rest of my life out in quiet. And so the more I talked about it, and Ted and I talked about it, the more we thought it might be a good thing.

So that’s how we pursued it. I still blame it on Ted.

Jonathan: [laughs] But originally, it was the plan that you and Ted were going to have significant influence in the direction of the company, correct? It wasn’t like you were going to disappear off the scene of assistive technology. That was the original plan.

Deane: That was the original plan, yes. Ted and I would still run our divisions of the company. We would have an overall president.

But it was pretty clear. I sort of blame this on Ted, too.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Deane: But we developed a bad attitude about the way they were treating our employees, and some of the directions that the company was taking. Of course, it was their company. They had every right to do whatever they wanted. We were feeling that it just isn’t the way. We used to do things in a way that ought to be done.

So what can I say? Ted and I went to the directors and said, “You know, we don’t like the way this is being done. We think it’s a mistake. We think you should do this and this and this.”

And basically, they came back to us and said, “Well, why don’t we pay you guys off and you go away?”

Jonathan: I mean effectively, you guys tried an attempted coup, right? You thought that maybe it was time for Dick to move on, and some new leadership. I was on the scene by this stage, doing things like this – interviewing people about what was going on. I believe that would have been about April, 2001. So that’s only a year after the announcement of Freedom Scientific, and you guys are fed up and you’re essentially trying to do an attempted coup at that point.

Deane: That’s pretty much, pretty much what … We didn’t really wanna do a coup in terms of us taking over. We wanted them to put somebody else in the company that we thought would do a better job.

And it didn’t work out that way. And I really don’t blame Dick Chandler, and I also don’t blame the venture capitalists for what they did because this fellow was only running the company for a year, and Ted and I kind of wanted out. So they said well, who should we be backing?

Well of course, they had to back Mr. ,Chandler and I don’t blame anybody for that. It was just a decision they made, and they thought it was the best thing to do.

Jonathan: Mergers and acquisitions are very difficult when you’ve got to combine cultures and teams. But when you’re creating a more corporate culture on top of all of that, from that kind of free spirited can-do culture that you and Ted came from, it’s hugely problematic.

There were a lot of leaks at that time, I’m pleased to say, because it was great for me. [laughs] I had lots of interesting stories to cover at that time, and I know that there was some bitter struggles between the Henter Joyce division and the Blazie division, particularly when it came to the subject of the next generation of notetaker. The Blazie division had one based on Linux in the hopper that would compete with the BrailleNote, which was really starting to eat market share by then. And then, the HJ side wanted to do a Windows CE device, and that actually won eventually, and became PAC Mate.

What do you think the next generation of Blazie notetakers would have been like if you’d have adopted that Linux approach?

Deane: I think they would have been very much like the Braille ’N Speak. That was our intent, is to have a Braille ’N Speak with a real operating system as a basis, instead of just a giant loop in software that checks keyboards and things. And it was a good idea, and that’s, well, what can I say? I think they made a poor choice choosing Windows.

First of all, you have to pay for Windows. Second, Windows is locked up, except for what you can pry out of Microsoft.

Whereas Linux is very open. You can do what you want with it. You have all the source code right there. And I’m still a believer in open source software, and that our decision was right. We just didn’t do a good job selling it.

Now, Marc Mulcahy was running that product, and he was young at that time, just gotten out of school pretty much. And he had the right ideas, I think. He just, he couldn’t sell Dick Chandler any idea, that this was the way to do it. And that had a lot to do with just personalities and age.

But Dick didn’t realize what a smart guy Marc Mulcahy was.

Jonathan: Oh, Mark is an exceptionally gifted guy.

Deane: Oh my gosh! He really is. He is a really really really smart guy.

Jonathan: Yeah, a lot of respect for Marc.

So we get the PAC Mate instead, which is very JAWS-like. So I suppose you can see the synergies that you’ve got JAWS, this gargantuan product in the screen reading industry. And then, you get a notetaker device that leverages on that user interface. So on the surface, it makes sense.

Deane: Yes. For computer users, it made sense. But not for, I think, the majority of blind people who don’t use computers.

Jonathan: In retrospect, do you wish you hadn’t sold?

Deane: No, I don’t think so. I think it was a good experience for me.

I think it had a lot of positive outcomes, too. I mean, they taught me a lot about what not to do, which is what they did, and let me sit back and watch what happened afterwards with all the different changes in the industry.

So no, I’m really not unhappy with that. I was able to do a lot of other things and had a lot more time for my family, which was a good thing. So I wouldn’t do it over. I mean, I would still have done that same thing.

Jonathan: You mentioned changes in the industry. And one thing that’s very different now is that most blind people are using standard computers and smartphones.

The notetaker is quite strong still in education, which is where I think the PAC Mate struggled, coming back to your point earlier. But even there, it’s being challenged by iPad.

What’s your view of the user experience that blind people have with these mainstream devices, and the embracing of accessibility by some of the larger corporations?

Deane: Well, I think the accessibility initiatives are really really good. I think that they’re doing the right thing, and I think it’ll pay off for them.

But several things.

One thing is that the Braille keyboard and the Braille display are two very very important things. They contribute to literacy of a blind person. They make a huge difference in a blind person’s life, if you learn to use Braille. That’s been proven over and over.

It’s not easy to do. It’s very difficult to teach blind kids Braille and all. I don’t say very difficult, but it involves a lot more work on the part of the teacher and the school system.

But the advantage you give to blind people is just, … You can’t overestimate. It’s just different. Knowing Braille is worth a lot.

So I think the iPhones, and the Androids, and the tablets are great. They’re inexpensive, and you can do an awful lot of things with them. But I don’t think that they’re going to replace a Braille keyboard and a Braille display. So that’s the way I feel about it.

The typewriter keyboard is fine for blind people, and most people get along fine with that. But they’re so large, you can’t really … Well, you can, but you don’t really normally carry them around as much as you would the old Braille ’N Speak.

Jonathan: I have one final history question, and that is that obviously, you’re in the process of making this comeback, which is very intriguing and exciting.

This is really the second attempt, because we did have the Braille2Go notetaker in conjunction with National Braille Press, and there was a lot of talk about that.

What happened there?

Deane: It was a second attempt. It was smaller than the Braille ’N Speak, and it was less expensive. It had a pretty good Braille display. It was based on Android.

I never really got a feeling that that was done right. What happened really with it was the cost to build it was way more than what we expected, and that was a learning experience for me. And I’ll tell you why in a little bit.

But National Braille Press was really not set up to handle computers. They’re more or less a Braille production house. They know Braille production well, and they do a great job at that.

Brian McDonald wanted to get them into the 21st century, and he thought that this product like this would go a long way.

Well, the product ended up costing more than what I expected it would cost, and the board of directors just wasn’t in tune with what we wanted to do. And they eventually killed the product by not really investing in future designs, and in making enough of them to get the cost down.

So we made 100 units, sold those 100 units, and then they stopped.

Jonathan: What was the reception like?

Deane: I kind of don’t know that. That would be a good question to ask some of the users that bought them, because I really don’t know enough about how they perceived it.

I sort of separated myself after the board dropped future development of it.

I still talk to Brian McDonald a lot about it, and well, a lot about a lot of things. And he really pushed it. He pushed hard for it, but it just wasn’t to be. They figured that National Braille Press just isn’t a computer-oriented company. I think they should have continued in that business because that’s where the market’s going, more and more away from hard copy Braille. But that’s the choice they made. I think it was a good product, though.

Jonathan: I know that you’ve been interested in Braille cells, and the cost of them, and whether there can be some sort of breakthrough. I mean, the piezoelectric Braille cell has been remarkably enduring. [laughs]

Deane: Yeah.

Jonathan: Where do you think that’s going?

Deane: I actually think I know where it’s going, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute.

But I wanted to go back a little bit to the, if you don’t mind, to the BT Speak.

Jonathan: Sure.

Deane: The circuit board, the net BT Speak, the bare circuit board was around $400 or $500. It was very expensive, which really astounded me. I should have known that from the beginning, but I didn’t.

Here’s the reason. They only make 100 of them or so at a time. They’re very expensive. If you make a million of them like they do with cellphones and stuff, then they become pretty cheap.

The reason the board was so expensive was because it was an 8-layer board, and with very fine traces on the board. That’s because the processor on the board was a bunch of chips, and it required 8 layers to lay that board out. That’s why it was expensive.

And I’ll come back to why that’s insignificant in a little bit.

Jonathan: That’s with the Braille2Go, right, rather than the BT Speak?

Deane: That’s right. That was the Braille2Go (B2G).

Jonathan: Right. Okay. Yeah.

Deane: So then, you asked me about Braille displays. There is a Braille display out there, a module, that I think will drive the piezos, I won’t say out of business. It may take a number of years, but it will replace them. This is a module that was designed by Dave Schleppenbach and his company. The full name escapes me at the moment.

He has designed this Braille cell, actually a module of 4 cells of 8-dot Braille. They fit together tightly. You can pack them one next to the other in top and bottom. They’re very tiny. They’re about 5/8 of an inch thick, through maybe 3 quarters of an inch tall.

They’re roughly the same price, if not less than, after they’re made in quantity, than piezo cells. They take up about a fifth as much volume as the piezo cells. They’re very tiny. I think they’ll be the same price, if not less.

If in fact they prove to be resilient, I think they’ll take over the market. It’s a fascinating technology, how he’s done it. The guy’s brilliant, the way he did it. He solved all the problems. I don’t know. I just got my hats off to him.

Dave’s company, by the way, is Tactile Engineering Company.

Jonathan: Okay. Interesting. We’ll keep an eye on that.

Deane: Please do, yeah. Dave Schleppenbach. And I tell you, that’s where I think Braille displays are going.

And I know the piezo cells have been around a long time, and they’re resilient. I mean, they’re very very good. They’re reliable. But you can only make them so small. And I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of that curve.

Jonathan: Yeah, and the cost of refreshable Braille is still an issue for many people.

Deane: Yes.

Jonathan: After the break, I’ll continue my talk with Deane Blazie. Having talked predominantly about the past, we’re going to look to the present and future with new products from a new company, Blazie Technologies.

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Deane Blazie Tells Jonathan Mosen About the New BT Speak Line From Blazie Technologies

Jonathan: We’re back with Deane Blazie.

Why in 2024, when you’ve got this incredible legacy, would you risk getting involved again and coming out with this new product?

Deane: Well, you know, I’m a tinkerer, so I’ve been tinkering for all these 25, 27 years since Blazie Engineering sold. And my son Brian lives in the same town here, and we do a lot of tinkering together. We build things, and we use 3D printers, and we just build a lot of computer-like junk stuff.

And about 4 years ago, we were doing 3D printing, and I hooked up a Raspberry Pi to my 3D printer, and I was looking at the new Raspberry Pis. They announced the Raspberry Pi 0, and it’s really tiny. It’s about 3 inches long, maybe an inch wide, and maybe 3 quarters of an inch thick, and it’s $15.

And I told Brian, I said, “Imagine what kind of Braille ’N Speak we could make with this Raspberry Pi 0.”

And you know, we just set it off the cuff. And then pretty soon, we started talking more and more about it.

Then they announced the Raspberry Pi 0W, which had Wi-Fi, and that was it. I said you know, we ought to do this.

So I put together a Braille keyboard, wired it up to a Raspberry Pi, and got it working. That took about 6 months, just because I was doing this part-time, you know, whenever I felt like tinkering, and that’s what started it. Brian designed and printed the 3D plastic case for it.

I wish I could show you a model. The first model had a hinge to where dots 1, 2, 3, and dot 7 would swing away from dots 4, 5, 6, and 8, and the space bars would be on both sides.

And it would open up, and then it would close up. It was hinged. And when you’d open the hinge up, it would say, you know, “BT speak ready.” or whatever, and you’d close it up, and it would power it down. And it was pretty clever.

But it was expensive to make because of that hinge, and it was too thick. It was just big.

So we got rid of the hinge, and we made it flat, very much like a very tiny Braille ’N Speak, about a third the volume in terms of, you know, cubic inches as the original Braille ’N Speak.

And so we decided, “Let’s make a company out of this, and do it.”, and we invited the other 2 sons.

I have 2 sons living in San Diego. One’s a computer engineer who was working for Abbott Medical, and the other is a molecular biologist working for a company that does DNA sequencing. And both of those decided to join us, not as full-time jobs, just as helpers and financial backers.

So the three of them really started the company, and I’m just more or less donating my time and effort toward it.

And that was 4 years ago. And now, it’s to the point where we’re actually starting to ship the units out.

Jonathan: So you’re breathing away, and this is based on a Raspberry Pi. What’s the market for them in 2024, do you think, given that most people are carrying smartphones, (be they iOS or Android,) in their pocket with a lot of power and a lot of apps on there? Who will use Bt Speak?

Deane: That’s a good question, and I’ve always questioned that. I’m still not 100% sure.

But I think there is still a market. It may not be as large as it was, but the Bt Speak has got a Braille keyboard. Remember I told you how I thought that Braille was so important, and touchscreens are so bad for blind people? Yeah, they figured out ways to use them, but I don’t think anybody really likes it. It’s worth the effort because of what you get out of an iPhone or an Android phone, but the touch pad really makes it difficult to use for some applications. And those applications in particular are taking notes. You can’t sit there and take notes in a class with an iPhone, unless you record them with speech. So I think there still is a market.

And since we announced it maybe a couple of months ago, we’ve had a lot of interest. And I grant you, most of those people that are interested are old Braille ’N Speak users. So they remember the Braille ’N Speak, and this product looks just like a Braille ’N Speak, except it’s about the size of an iPhone Pro, and it’s got a Braille keyboard. So so far, it looks like people really are in need of something like this. Plus, they like the simplicity of the Braille ’N Speak and the way it worked. So it still remains to be seen, Jonathan, whether this will work or not.

Jonathan: Is there going to be a version of it that has a refreshable Braille display?

Deane: I think there has to be. I mean, we don’t have it yet. I have here in my hand a mock-up prototype of a Braille display version of it with a piezo display in it, but it’s big and heavy. Well, I mean, it’s bigger than the BT Speak, and it’s heavy. So I don’t know. I think so. I think that if the BT Speak is at all successful, there’ll be a Braille version.

Jonathan: There are other notetaking companies. You’ve got Humanware and HIMS, both of whom are doing notetaking devices that are powered by Android, similar to the Braille2Go, I guess. What do you think the point of difference is between their products and what BT Speak is doing?

Deane: I think it’ll be smaller.

It might be less expensive. I don’t know that, because we don’t really know what the other ones will cost. I don’t know if anyone has got really just a speech-only notetaker that is selling much, but they all have Braille in them. And of course, Braille makes it expensive. Maybe we’ll figure out a way to get that cost down a little bit.

I don’t know. We just think that we can take better care of our customers than what other companies do. We try.

Jonathan: So what does it do? What features are on the device?

Deane: Well, it started out to be nothing more than a Braille ’N Speak. In other words, it would do exactly the same thing as a Braille ’N Speak did. Operate the same way. You do O chord and it says options, and then you do F for files, and it says files.

But it’s evolved into more than that.

First of all, we’re using a Raspberry Pi compute module 4 (CM4), it’s called. And all of the processing, and all of the memory, and all of the Wi-Fi and the Bluetooth, they all reside on this little module which is rather inexpensive, like 100 bucks, depending on how much memory you put on there.

And so the circuit board that we made to house the keyboard, and the speakers, and the vibrator, and all the battery charger, and clock and those things, the circuit board’s relatively cheap. You can buy these boards for like $10 a piece, or $15 a piece in hundreds of quantities.

So we got the cost. That’s why I mentioned the B2G before, the Braille2Go before was, the cost of the product was just too high. Well, we got all that down by using this Raspberry Pi module.

And it’s very small, too. Even compared to the Raspberry Pi 0, it’s much thinner. So like I said, it’s about the size of an iPhone Pro.

And it’s got 32 gigabytes of storage on the board, about half of which is used up by the operating system. It’s got 4 gigabytes of main memory, with 4 computer cores running at 1.5 gigahertz. So that’s a lot of power in a little tiny package that you can put in your shirt pocket. It’s almost about the same power as most laptops have.

And the fact that we’re running Linux underneath it, which is by itself pretty lean and mean and fast, this thing boots up in like 30 seconds, and it’s ready to go. It’s got built-in speech, can do all the things that Linux can do, and you can hear it talk, too. Linux has so much software out there for it. It’s just amazing. But like I said, we were limiting it to just the Braille ’N Speak.

Of course we have a speaker so we can do voice recognition, and you can do voice commands like tell me the news, tell me the time, tell me the date, what’s the weather, those kinds of things. Just, I don’t know how useful they are, but you can do those things.

You can take notes, just like the Braille ’N Speak could. You can have 20 files open at a time, and cycle between them with 1 chord command. So you can go from one file to the next, to the next, to the next.

See, what else would it do? It has a lot of applications built into it, like the Gregorian calendar that we had on the Braille ’N Speak. People seem to like that. It’s got a calculator. The Bible is built into all the units. It’s got a BT radio, which is a Pandora, a front end to the Pandora music streaming service. So you can play Pandora music on it.

It will eventually have a music player.

You can use grade 2 Braille in the files. It’ll back translate to the speech.

So it’s essentially a Braille ’N Speak.

Jonathan: And good old DECTalk speech.

Deane: Yes, we have 2 different speeches. Thanks for reminding me to them. [laughs] I didn’t have this written down very well. But yes, we have DECTalk speech built in.

By the way, DECTalk was given to us, or we have a licensing agreement with the people that own DECTalk, which is Human Voice LLC. It’s a company that bought the rights to DECTalk a while back. And they graciously allowed us to use it for the blindness market for free up to a certain point. Then we have to pay for it if we sell a lot of units.

And it sounds pretty good. If you want, I can play a little piece of it for you. But if you want to get a demo, let me…

BT Speak: Charging stopped dash 100%.

Deane: Okay. Can you hear that?

Jonathan: Oh, yeah. Man, that brings back memories.

Deane: Okay.


Deane: Well, I unplugged the charger and it says charging stopped at 100%. So I’m going to do O chord for options.

BT Speak: Options menu.

Deane: Options menu.

BT Speak: 100 percent.

Deane: That’s the battery. time, …

BT Speak: [11:26:49] AM.

Deane: So O cord T, O cord D.

BT Speak: Friday, 23 February, 2024.

Deane: Okay. So I’m going to get out of this, and go back.

BT Speak: Options menu.

Deane: System, …

BT Speak: System menu.

Deane: System administration.

BT Speak: System administration.

Deane: Change settings.

BT Speak: Change settings, shortcut is S.

Braille table.

Deane: Okay. You can change your Braille table. And here’s the next one that I was looking for.

BT Speak: Text-to-speech engine.

Deane: Text-to-speech engine. And we’ve got …

BT Speak: ESpeak ng.

Deane: Most people are familiar with ESpeak because it’s a free synthesizer, and it’s pretty good, and have a bunch of different languages.

BT Speak: DECTalk voice.

Deane: And then, DECTalk. You can change your voices in DECTalk.

BT Speak: Perfect Paul, standard main voice.

Beautiful Betty, standard female voice.

Huge Harry, deep male voice.

Deane: That’s my favorite – Huge hairy.


BT Speak: Dismiss.

Deane: So now, we’re using huge Harry.

BT Speak: DECTalk voice.

Deane: So let’s change the text-to-speech engine.

BT Speak: Text-to-speech engine: DECTalk.

Deane: I’ll change it to eSpeak.

BT Speak: Text-to-speech engine changed to ESpeak NG.

Deane: That sound more familiar to you?

Jonathan: It sounds disturbing.

Deane: [laughs]

Jonathan: I never got used to ESpeak, but I love the DECTalk. [laughs]

Deane: It’s strange. Most people do seem to like it.

Jonathan: Okay. Well, I’m glad you put the DECTalk in. [laughs]

Deane: Most people like DECTalk, but there are a few people that much rather have ESpeak. So I don’t know. So I’m going to go back to DECTalk.

BT Speak: Text-to-speech engine…

Deane: Okay.

BT Speak: Change settings, shortcut is S.

System administration.

Deane: Okay and I’ll go all the way back to …

BT Speak: System.

Deane: I want to go to applications.

BT Speak: Applications menu.

Deane: I’m going to go down the application menu real quick just to show you some things that it has.

BT Speak: BT alert, shortcut is L.

Deane: Okay. That’s BT alert, and that’s a program that lets you do flashcards similar to Flashlight. We designed it to be a Braille teaching aid because schools are going to probably be a major customer for us as before, and that’s one of the things they asked for already, was a way to teach Braille.

So this allows teachers to create a curriculum in Braille, and store it on the machine, and have kids take a test. And it’ll grade the test and all that.

BT Speak: Voice command.

Deane: So you got voice command.

BT Speak: Dictionary.

Deane: you got a dictionary to look up words.

BT Speak: Weather.


Email Alpine. Deane: okay. Email alpine. Now, we’re not really using alpine. I mean, it’s up to the user to set up alpine if they want it, but email right now is not something that we’ll set up for you. You can use alpine if you want. It works pretty well, and some of our users have been using it.

BT Speak: Search the web.

Deane: You can search.

I’m assuming you can hear this and understand it, so let me know.

Jonathan: Very well, yes.

Deane: Okay, good. Then I won’t repeat it.

Jonathan: Yup, yup.

BT Speak: Web links.

Deane: That’s a links browser. That’s a text-only browser.

BT Speak: ChatGPT.

Deane: This is ChatGPT. It doesn’t say it properly, but you can go in and do chats with ChatGPT.

Jonathan: Okay.

Deane: Most of this, by the way, requires wi-fi. Not all of it. BT Learn doesn’t, dictionary, weather does. Next one, …

BT Speak: BT radio, shortcut is R.

Deane: that’s the Pandora I was telling you about.

BT Speak: morse code.

Deane: Oh, it’s got a morse code app. I gotta demo this because I can. [laughs] There’s intertext, I’ll type hello.

[moarse code of hello]

Deane: So it says hello. [laughs] I can’t help it. I’m still a geek.


BT Speak: The bible.

Deane: Okay. And the last application is the bible. So in the bible, you can search, by the way, and you can read by chapter and verse, and you can do searches. It’s really quite nice.

Jonathan: There are 2 versions of the product. There’s the standard version, and the pro version. How do they differ?

Deane: Yeah. About 6 months ago, we were looking at how are we going to do email, for example, and how are we going to do proper web browsing so that you can, say, book an airline ticket, which I would never want to do using any product for the blind, but some people somehow do it.

So what we decided to do was offer another model of the product that has a full desktop using a screen reader. And so we added that on here, and it’s called the pro version. So you’ve got the Braille ’N Speak version here now.

Now, if I press 8 chord, …

BT Speak: Starting desktop mode.

Deane: It says starting desktop mode. Now normally, it would just go to the desktop. But the first time you do it after you booted the machine up, it has to load the desktop. Now, it’s going to take a few seconds to do this. But Now, it’s loading the desktop.

Normally normally, it’s quicker than this. It’s almost like this was not working. But I’m sure it is.

Hello! [laughs]

Jonathan: it’s the demo gremlins. Demo gremlins, that’s what it is. I’m well familiar with those over the years.

Deane: [laughs]

[3key presses, followed by 3 short beeps]

Deane: Huh? Well, this unit is not doing it. Let me go back to the tablet mode.

No, this has a bug in it.

Okay, let me do it. I Just did a reset, a sort of a reset. I’m now at the welcome screen.

Jonathan: While we’re resetting, You’ve got ports there – USB-C, HDMI as well?

Deane: Yes. On the back of the machine, right between dots 2 and 3 is an HDMI port. You move over just to where .2 is, and you got a USB-C port. That’s used for charging, you can put USB sticks in there, You can put a USB hub in there, and put a keyboard on it, a regular QWERTY keyboard or any number of USB devices you can put on there.

And further to the right of that is an SD card slot. It’s a micro SD card slot, by the way. It’s kind of tiny and small, but seems to be that the world’s going to tiny now, Though.

Jonathan: Yeah. and I hear you can get up to a terabyte of storage in there.

Deane: Well, the highest anyone’s tried so far and reported that it works is a 512 gigabytes. But but I don’t see any reason why a terabyte wouldn’t work. It’s using a protocol that’s become grandfathered into SD cards now, so it’s fairly likely a terabyte will work in it.

Jonathan: Applications for the US market. Will you have Bookshare and NLS in there?

Deane: Well, we’re hoping.

What we’d like to do is get users out there that are listening to this to please contact NLS and the Bookshare people, and ask them if they would please support this product. We’ll do the work, we just need their, you know, they’re okay to distribute their books, or to allow customers to get on and get their books through the BT Speak. So contact them.

Jonathan: And since you have USB-C and it recognizes keyboards and a bunch of other devices, could you connect a Braille display to this?

Deane: Yes, you can. In fact, it runs BRLTTY underneath as a base, and BRLTTY was designed to be an interface to Braille displays. It also does speech now, but it was made for Braille displays.

Jonathan: Okay. Do you know if that will support the human interface driver Braille displays such as the APH Mantis and a few of the other ones that have gone over to HID?

Deane: I don’t know, honestly. I would love to try one. I really can’t commit, but it would probably be very easy to make it work because this is, again, it’s Linux, and it supports an awful lot of different devices.

Jonathan: So who would want BASIC and who would want pro?

Deane: People that used to use the Braille ’N Speak and love the Braille ’N Speak would be very happy with the BASIC. People that have used computers, desktop computers with JAWS or other screen readers, NVDA or Orca, would want the pro, so they can have both.

Jonathan: When you get into Orca, are you at the command prompt in Linux at that point, or are you using a GUI environment?

Deanie: It’s just a full GUI environment.

Jonathan: Okay.

Deane: It brings up a desktop. And we’re using, for those that know, we’re using the MATE desktop, M-A-T-E, which is one of the most accessible Linux desktops there are. So it’s got menus, and it’s got a desktop with icons on it that you can go from one to the other, and it tells you what they are. Very similar to what JAWS does and NVDA.

But we set it up for a blind person, so it’s much easier. You don’t have to go and do a lot of customizing to make it pretty slick.

BT Speak: Standby.

Jonathan: And are these devices shipping now?

Deane: Only to beta testers. But March 1st, we’re going to be shipping real ones.

What’s holding it up is plastic. The plastic cases are being injection molded, and we’re waiting to get those. And they’re supposed to be in next week.

Jonathan: And speaking of cases, I take it that somebody will develop a carrying case for this where you could put it over your shoulder and use the device inside the case?

Deane: Yeah. In fact, one of our users got 3 different cases from Amazon, and she picked one that she liked the best, and we’re telling people that she likes this one. So that’s already available. But you can’t use that case with the Braille ’N Speak while it’s in the case. You have to take it out.

But it’s got a shoulder strap, and it’s small, and you can hold a charger and headphones and those kinds of things with it.

Jonathan: Very interesting. Is there anything else you wanted to show us?

Deane: I’d like to show you the desktop for a test.

Jonathan: Okay. Yeah.

Deane: It doesn’t seem to want to go to the desktop mode, and I don’t know why. So I’m going to grab another unit.

Jonathan: Okay.

Deane: Plug it in.

The on-off switch is on the right-hand side, by the way, and it’s a little button between two humps, and you press on that and hold it, and it comes on. And you press on that and hold it to turn it off, or to go into low power mode.

And it’s got, it’s an 8-dot Braille keyboard with a space bar, which is pretty standard.

Jonathan: Right.

Deane: And it’s booting up.

Battery time. Within the basic mode, you should get 10 hours minimum out of it with normal use. If you use it, literally use it typing and speaking for 10 hours, it might not go for 10 hours.

Jonathan: Is that a little less than the old Braille ’N Speak battery life?

Deane: It is, I think it’s a little bit less, yeah.

BT Speak: Welcome screen is open.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: That was our goal, to get 10 hours out of it. And we think it did.

Jonathan: Right.

Deane: I mean, our measurements are that it’ll do 10 hours.

[BT Speak, 2 short beeps]

Deane: Okay, this one appears to be coming up in a desktop mode. Yeah. You hear the little chimey tone there?

Jonathan: Yeah, mm-hmm.

BT Speak: Screen reader on.

Jonathan: So there is a bit of boot up time. But once you’ve booted it, you would just put it into standby, right? So it will be pretty much immediate after that.

Deane: Yes, that’s exactly right. Yeah. In fact, I’ll show you that in just a second.

Right now, it’s got the desktop up there, and I can do an O chord to get into menus.

BT Speak: Applications menu.

Deane: And at the top of the screen, it says applications menu, and it’s got …

BT Speak: Places menu.

Deane: Places, which are like the folders, and the network, and all of that.

BT Speak: System menu.

Deane: And then, it’s got a system menu, which lets you change your preferences, and help screen, and log in, log out, shutdown, all those things. So I’m gonna go to the applications menu.

BT Speak: Applications menu.

Deane: While I’ve got the menu up, I’m gonna go to the basic mode with a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 chord.

BT Speak: Tablet mode.

Deane: And you see how fast it was tablet mode?

Jonathan: Right.

Deane: And I’m right in my file.

BT Speak: For help on specific topics, press O chord to open …

Deane: But I can do this, just a .8 chord, and I’m on desktop. So it’s instantaneous switching from one to the other.

BT Speak: Accessories menu.

Deane: In the main menu, you’ve got applications, and it’s listing about 10 applications there. Things like the Debian reference, the archive manager, calculator, a G edit editor, an imager, a mate calculator, mate font viewer.

I really thought I took those out.


Deane: I’m learning a few things here.

A mouse pad. Now, that’s something I should really take out.

Diagnostics, SD card copier, snapshots, another editor.

BT Speak: Graphics menu.

Deane: Graphics. I did take some out of this one.

BT Speak: Internet menu.

Deane: Okay. And the internet menu gives you Chromium web browser, Firefox browser, MUT browser, Pidgin, which is an internet messaging service program, and then Thunderbird. Thunderbird’s a pretty popular email program.

Jonathan: Right. So now we’re into this environment, you can pretty much run any Linux application on here that’s accessible?

Deane: That’s right. We don’t lock you out from loading apps, if you want. You can break things, if you’re not really careful, but we don’t lock you out. We’re not an Apple, in other words.


Jonathan: It’s quite amazing to think that I could potentially put the internet server software that powers the internet radio station I run on the BT Speak, and actually power the whole of Mushroom FM from the BT Speak, and that would work.

Deane: Yes, I think it would work, yep.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Deane: In fact, one of the things I have in mind to do is put a small web server on here so that you can www into it, if you know the IP address or the device name.

Jonathan: Yes.

Deane: I haven’t done that yet, but I really want to do that.

Jonathan: That’s a really good idea.

And actually, that brings me to a very important point. How do you get information off this device? If we connect it via USB-C, will it appear as a drive in Windows?

Deane: If you’re on the same network with Wi-Fi and you go into your Windows network and you enable, there’s one thing you have to enable on the Windows network. If you enable that feature, then you’ll see the BT Speak there on your network.

Jonathan: Okay.

Deane: And you double-click on it and open it up, and you’ll see a public folder, and you can actually go to the home folder also and copy files back and forth.

Jonathan: And what file formats can you support when you’re writing a document? Can we create Word documents, that kind of thing?

Deane: Yeah. Right now, the next in-menu item after internet was Office. We have the LibreOffice suite. That’s the free Microsoft Word-like Office suite, and it lets you do spreadsheets, and it lets you read and write Microsoft Word documents.

Jonathan: Right, it’s a powerful little package.

Deane: Yeah. You have to be somewhat careful because Microsoft’s all the time changing the format, and if you store it in their latest format, LibreOffice may not be able to read it, so you have to go back and re-save it into a more standard format of Office, a DOC format, for example. I think it’ll read DOCX also.

Jonathan: Daisy Book Reader? Any chance of that?

Deane: There’s a chance of that, yes. We don’t have it running yet, no, but that’s something that we’re working on.

There’s one called Thorium. Are you familiar with that?

Jonathan: Thorium? I’m not. No.

Deane: It’s written to help blind people get access to DAISY books, but they don’t have a library for it for this ARM processor that we’re using.

So we’re going to talk to them and see if we can’t get them to just compile a version for us.

Jonathan: Yeah. That’d be great because NLS is obviously a very special use case for your primary market, but a lot of libraries around the world are just using the open DAISY standard. So even if you have to copy the DAISY book onto the BT Speak, if you could have software to read the DAISY, you’d be up and running.

Deane: Yes, and we have to do that. We know that’s one of the things.

The Bookshare is an example. A lot of people use Bookshare. We have to do that.

Jonathan: Yeah, Bookshare is very popular globally.

Let’s talk about pricing for these 2 units.

Deane: The basic version is $795 US, and free shipping in the US. Overseas is whatever shipping is.

And the pro version is $1195.

Jonathan: So it sounds like the good news is that in this case, you’re not going to have an elaborate distributor network or anything like that, where things are limited by territory. So if I’m in New Zealand and I want to order, I can order directly from you, and where the cost of the shipping, and you would be able to ship it to me no matter where in the world I am.

Deane: Yes, that’s right. We haven’t made any decision on distributors. We’ve got a lot of calls from people, but we just don’t know what we’re going to do with distributors. And we’re so busy right now, we don’t really have time to even think about it.

Jonathan: [laughs] Right. There’s a lot of interest in this.

I see you’ve got documentation available. If you register on the Blazie Technologies website, you can read that.

And also, you’re in the process of preparing audio tutorials. Yes, we have one audio tutorial, but it’s clipping the speech because of an adapter we used.

Jonathan: Yeah, I saw the Mastodon complaints about that.

Deane: Yeah. That turns out to be the adapter that we ship with the units for headphones. And I’m not sure why. I haven’t looked into it yet, but I’ve got to fix that.

But you can tell the speech sounds pretty good over this link.

Jonathan: Yes, yes. So there’s just, it’s obviously some sort of energy-saving thing going on there that’s just clipping the beginning.

Deane: I think so.

Jonathan: Yeah.

So when you plug headphones in, do you do that via the USB-C port, or is there a headphone jack?

Deane: There’s no headphone jack. You plug into the USB-C port.

Jonathan: Yes.

Deane: Right now, I’m using Bluetooth when I use it.

Jonathan: Alright. Very good point. So Bluetooth is an option as well.

Deane: Yes. You can also plug in regular USB headphones to it. Those work well.

Jonathan: I look forward to finding out what happens next.

And I don’t know how to conclude this interview, Dean, other than to say thank you for all you’ve done. It is just so good to talk to you about all these memories, and also to know that you’re influencing the present. So your contribution is immense, and it’s just been a real pleasure to talk with you.

Deane: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure really, to be doing this in my life. I’m very fortunate.

Jonathan: And you can find out all about Blazie Technologies by visiting their website, which is That’s

So how do you feel about the new Blazie Technology products? Will you be buying a BT Speak? What place do you think it has in 2024? Have we all moved on, or is it technology that still has relevance and still has appeal for you, particularly given the pro version has full Linux built in?

Of course, be in touch. We always look forward to your views.


Voiceover: On Living Blindfully, we hear the opinions of blind people from all over the world.

So why not share yours?

Drop us an email. You can write it down, or attach an audio recording. Email us today.

Or if the phone is more your thing, phone our listener line in the United States: 864-60-Mosen. That’s 864-606-6736.

Remembering David Holladay

Caller: Hey, Jonathan! This is Paul Edwards.

I wanted to join you in expressing my sadness at the passing of David Holladay. David and Caryn were a really important part of my life in the 1980s.

One of the things that you didn’t mention, but that I think deserves notice, is David Holladay was really the very first person to help ACB get started with its newspaper at our convention.

I remember a couple of articles that I’d written, published in the Raised Dots Computing newsletter, and I felt like I’d really made it to nirvana when that happened.

He was an amazing person, and cared immensely for people who were blind. I spent lots of time sitting, drinking beer with David, and talking about technology.

Rest in peace, David, and all the best, Caryn.

Jonathan: Always good to hear from you, Paul.

I didn’t know about David Holladay’s connection with the ACB newspaper until we were talking about this briefly on the Mosen Explosion on Mushroom FM. And Roger Peterson, who was one of the early customers of Raised Dot Computing, mentioned to me that he remembered being in David and Caryn’s room at the hotel (I don’t recall which hotel, I’m not sure if he said which one it was) when the ACB newspaper was being produced in Braille, and they had a Braille embosser on the bed, and it was all mayhem, and that newspaper was rolling off the press, as it were.

So that’s a lovely story, and something that I didn’t know.

Response to Episode 267 on Intersectionality

Let’s talk about the subject of intersectionality covered in episode 267.

Rebecca Skipper writes:

“First, I am a Florida resident, and strongly disagree with Governor Ron DeSantis’s policies concerning the LGBTQ+ community and other groups.

I am glad that the ACB has an affiliate interested in addressing the concerns of blind LGBT+ individuals and their allies. However, I think ACB affiliates should have autonomy and work with other advocacy groups.

I’m not worried about the fact that the ACB board isn’t taking a position. I am more concerned about whether LGBTQ+ organizations and other advocacy groups create inclusive environments for individuals with disabilities. Intersectionality works both ways, and there are times when advocacy organizations need to put differences aside.

We should encourage ACB’s blind LGBT Pride International affiliate to join other LGBTQ+ organizations. Individuals with disabilities make up the largest minority group, and our voices need to be heard in any policy discussion. We can’t confine ourselves to our corner in the disability community.

I admit that I do not know how much autonomy ACB affiliates have. However, if ACB members are not happy with the board’s decision, they can find ways to support the LGBT+ community, or any other group on their own.

Our community has a larger responsibility here that goes beyond the ACB. We must go outside our bubble and be an ally for other marginalized groups.

You have discussed employment on your podcast, and this is another area where the LGBT community has struggled. There may be other examples where we can find common ground.

I would like to see more segments about the promising work others are doing in and beyond the blindness community. Would you consider letting listeners know about the Great Work ACB’s Blind Information Technology Specialists are doing right now?

I do not want or expect the NFB or ACB to take a position on every issue. Let members engage with groups they are interested in, so the blind community is truly represented. This will never happen if we limit our advocacy work within blindness organisations. The world needs to learn about our abilities, and the good we are doing within and beyond the blindness community.”

Thank you very much, Rebecca.

To answer your specific question, yes, indeed, I was having a text exchange with the Bishop about this very thing a couple of weeks ago, Jeff Bishop that is.

And I said, “We really should get you on the podcast to talk about BITS.”, the Blind Information Technology Specialists affiliate of the ACB, which is doing some very good things at present.

He’s happy to do it, so we will schedule it and get to that at some point soon.

Caller: Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan! It’s Mike Taylor calling from Jack Actionville, Florida.

And I listened to episode 367, and that lady trashed my city, trashed our governor, and I don’t hear any facts in that. It’s fear mongering, and I don’t know what it gains. I really don’t.

People that routinely attend conventions will see that this is a bargain. We’ve had conventions in Jacksonville before. There’s been no, you know, attacks on people. I resent, you know, that she’s even offering that up as a possibility.

Jacksonville is a great place to live. A previous president of ACB lives here – Paul Edwards. And we’ve got a, you know, a black community and all that. They’re not attacked.

I think, you know, people that listens to her rambling nonsense and take it serious are gonna miss out on a good time. There’s gonna be a lot of interesting people show up at ACB, and it’s combined with BVA at the same site, so it’s gonna be a great convention. Don’t miss it.

Can I Swim With the FeelSpace NaviBelt?

Jonathan: Avnish says:

“I heard with great interest in your podcast 264 about the FeelSpace NaviBelt, and that it is a high tech orientation and mobility tool.

I love to swim.

All the swimming pools in my country are without lane markers. It is a great challenge for me to swim in a straight line. In fact, it is impossible for me to do so.

In order for me to swim in a pool where there is more than one person, I have to have someone by my side swimming next to me, and telling me to turn left or right so that i may remain in a straight line. Obviously, this is not very convenient for anyone.

For a long time, I’ve been trying to think of some way that technology could help me to swim in a straight line. Listening to your 2 speakers talk about crossing the road in a straight line using the FeelSpace NaviBelt got me thinking. Could i use this device in a swimming pool to help me swim in a straight line? It would be a game changer.

There are 2 points which would be relevant here. Would the directional sensors on the device work underwater? Secondly, is the device waterproof?

Will really appreciate if you could help me find this out.”

Happy to help, Avnish.

I reached out to FeelSpace to get the answer, and the answer is no. It’s only spray-proof. So it can withstand a short rain shower, if you’re wearing it outside and it’s exposed. But it is not waterproof, and therefore not the tool that’s going to help you stay in line when you’re swimming.

And it’s a big job to fix this. They say that the IP rating would require first, a redesign of the entire belt, and a larger form factor which of course, makes it more unwieldy to wear, I guess. And second, extensive and costly testing and classification procedures would be required.

And Markus, who is from FeelSpace, … You may remember we spoke with him here on Living Blindfully. He says: “As a belt user and passionate swimmer myself, I wouldn’t find wearing a belt while swimming particularly comfy.”

And that’s a very good point. So keep searching, Avnish, because it sounds like while this is a very intriguing mobility tool for getting out and about when you’re walking, it’s not the thing you’re looking for when you’re swimming.

But someone else may have already solved this conundrum. If you swim and you swim in a pool where it’s important to keep straight but there are no tactile ways of verifying your straightness, have you found any technology that assists? Get in touch if you have., or you can give us a call on the listener line – 864 60-Mosen. 864-606-6736.

Where to Obtain the Blind Alive Accessible Workouts

Caller: Hi, Jonathan! I understand that you’re looking for me. This is Mel Scott from

I did stop doing exercise materials because I could not make any money doing it. But all of the exercise programs are free on YouTube.

If you search for Eyes Free Fitness and Blind Alive audio-described fitness programs, my channel will come up. All of the programs are there. All of the audio descriptions are there. I don’t have the text files there.

If people are interested in the text files, they can email me at That’s BlueSpruce, like the tree, B-L-U-E-S-P-R-U-C-E 77

Jonathan: Thank you, Mel!

It can be very difficult providing services like this to the blind community. And I’m grateful that you gave it a go because the material is of superb quality, and I, for one, am delighted that I purchased every single Blind Alive workout that you produced, and I don’t regret that for a minute.

So good to know that people can still access them on YouTube.

Pursuing a Career in Customer Service

Thank you for calling the Living Blindfully customer support line. To speak with Ulises Gomez from California, press 1.


Oh, and here’s Ulises Gomez. And he says:

“This is my first time contributing to the podcast.

I got my Victor Reader Stream 3 in September of last year, and it rocks. I love it! I love it! I love it!

Also, there is a topic that I’m interested in for a future show. I am thinking about pursuing my career as a customer service representative. Are you, or any of your Living Blindfully listeners, experienced in customer service?”

I like to think, Ulises that I’ve done a bit of customer service in my time. But I have not ever worked in an actual customer services department, where you might be working with call center management software.

There might be a CRM, which is a customer relationship management system that you have to deal with. I know that quite a few people have success with SalesForce, which is a popular CRM, and they do seem to have a good commitment to accessibility. Although it’s a pretty broad platform, so it is possible to design inaccessible SalesForce implementations. but they’ve got people working on the accessibility side in SalesForce, and that’s a very positive, encouraging thing. I imagine there’ll be queue management software that you may have to contend with as well. So it’s a big area, this.

And you have to have the patience of a saint, which I’m sure you have. Because it does sadden me when I hear about people who are in the customer services industry, and they take calls from people who are extremely irate. And those people can sometimes take it out on the poor customer services person who almost certainly is not to blame, and is probably feeling a bit frazzled and also has some targets to meet, in terms of how many resolutions they make in an hour. I reckon it’s a tough industry.

But if there’s anyone with direct experience of customer services and you would like to advise Ulises on how to proceed, then do get in touch., or call our line. Operators are standing by. 864-60-Mosen’s that number in the United States. 864-606-6736.

Impressions of the Seleste Smart Glasses, and Apple Thoughts

Voice message: Hello to everyone in the Living Blindfully community. This is Claudia here from Tampa, Florida. I just wanted to share my overall impressions of the Seleste Smart Glasses.

First and foremost, I’m very impressed with the potential that these glasses have, and I would definitely like to see more of a demo before I buy. Because as I’ve mentioned before, I am currently unemployed, and I’m still looking for work. So I would definitely like to see more demos about what these glasses can do.

And I will definitely be interested to see what other capabilities that they gain in the future, particularly since this subscription offers us the opportunity to get the newest hardware, which I think is pretty ingenious on the company’s part, to send us the new hardware. I think that’s really awesome, actually. And I don’t think that $50 is that bad considering that.

The second thing that I wanted to bring up is the Vision Pro, and the potential for smart glasses from Apple in the future.

Since the Vision Pro already does have accessibility features, I am definitely curious to follow in these trends to see how these go, and if these can be useful for the visually impaired in the future using AI, or using something like Be My Eyes, or Be My AI in the future to see if Apple eventually allows the glasses to have third-party app access to the cameras, and all that good stuff.

So I’m definitely interested in hearing your opinions on this, and take care. Have a good one.

Jonathan: Thank you, Claudia!

And first and foremost, best of luck with the job search. I really hope something works out for you.

And hang in there, because you know what they say. The only job you’re certain not to get is the one you don’t apply for. And when you’ve applied for a lot of jobs, it can be incredibly tough to keep going. So I wish you all the luck in the world.

I agree with you. I think the Apple Vision Pro first generation is very much a proof of concept. It’s not available in New Zealand at the moment. And so that thankfully takes out of my hands the question of would I buy one, just so I can demonstrate it here on Living Blindfully. I see fairly limited utility in it for me right now.

But as you say, if they extend it eventually and relax a little bit, (and I think they eventually will), so that third-party apps can come to it, well, we’re talking a completely different value proposition then.

Be My AI, and Airlines With Braille Safety Cards

Anil is writing in on a couple of topics and says:

“Hey, Jonathan,

I hope you’re well.”

I’m very well, thank you, Anil. And I hope you are as well.

He says:

“I wanted to share a couple of thoughts.

Be My AI testing.

I tested Be My AI for Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk a couple of weeks ago by asking a question about clean installing Windows using Narrator. Unfortunately, the initial response was a bit off, stating that Narrator cannot run on the initial Windows setup screen.

However, today, when I posed the same question, I received a correct answer. It seems like there’s progress, but the explanation still appears incomplete.

Braille safety instructions in airlines.

On a different note, did you know that some airlines provide safety instructions in Braille? In my country, Indigo, Akasa Air, which also offers a Braille menu card, and Air India Express offer this service. Although I’ve flown with Indigo, I never checked it out myself.

In trying to find out how common this practice is, I discovered limited information online. Apart from the mentioned airlines, the only other one I could confirm is Emirates.”

Thanks for writing in, Anil.

Yes, I have seen Braille flight safety cards on various airlines. I believe I’ve seen them on KLM, Qantas has them too, I understand, and probably a few airlines in the United States. And the flight attendants who bring them are always very proud. “Whoa! We’ve got a Braille airline safety card!” And it is good.

I’m a pretty frequent flyer, so I tend to know the drill by now. But I always politely take the card because it’s good that somebody somewhere has made the effort, and it would be wonderful to see Braille in more and more places.

Perhaps, others have experiences to share on this. And also, how is Be My AI working out for you in the context of the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk? It’s not something I’ve used since I briefly reviewed it here on Living Blindfully. But do you think it’s improving? How is it going?, or 864-60-Mosen is the number, 864-606-6736.

VoCaster 2 with the Mac

John Dowling writes:

“Hi, Jonathan,

I’ve thought about getting the Rode VoCaster 2.”

Alright, I’m going to stop reading right there and say there is no Rode VoCaster 2, John.

There is the RodeCaster 2, and there’s the Focusrite VoCaster 2, and they’re very different products.

The RodeCaster 2 is a mixer type device, with a bunch of inputs and effects. And Rode has sadly, despite promising they will address this, shown relatively scant attention to accessibility. I think it may have improved a little bit now.

VoCaster 2, on the other hand, is made by Focusrite. It is an audio interface. And they have a very strong commitment to accessibility.

So I’m going to assume that it’s the VoCaster 2 you are asking about.

“I just had one question”, says John, “before hitting the big red buy now button.

Is the Mac VoCaster Hub app as accessible as it is on Windows?”

Yes, it is. I’m told that it is in pretty good shape on the Mac.

John says: “I listened to the podcast you made on the Blind Podmaker, but I can’t remember if you touched on the Mac side of things.”

Yes, so it definitely sounds like it’s the Focusrite VoCaster 2 that you’re interested in, John – a very good product for what it does, and I think you’ll be very happy with it.

Focusrite have told me that they did spend a lot of time on the Mac, because of course a lot of audio professionals are using Mac.

Best and Worst Airline Security Experiences

Caller: Hey Jonathan! it’s Jim East from Florida in the US. Hope you are well.

Really enjoying the podcast, and happy to be a member.

Wanted to tell you my best and worst experiences with security.

My best experience, excuse me, was when I was traveling to Canada a few years ago, and I got there for an early flight because I was going to BC (British Columbia).

And so when you fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, it’s usually best to leave at dark 30s. So my plane was supposed to leave at [6:03] AM.

They were nice enough to take me through the priority security line. Even though I wasn’t priority security, they already knew me because I was flying a lot out of the airport. And since there was nobody else there in either line, they said, “We’ll just take you through the priority line.” So I said cool.

So that was really nice. That was probably my best.

And of course, the security people took me all the way to the gates before I had, you know, a service to be able to help with that.

But I probably wouldn’t do that now. I’d probably use one of the services because they’re great.

And my worst experience was funny. It actually happened, … The same thing happened twice. Once in Orlando International… Oh, the first one was Gainesville, a little airport in Gainesville, Florida. I went to the University of Florida.

Anyway, in Orlando International, and also in the airport in Detroit, I was wearing dress clothes and I was wearing, you know, men’s, you know, socks, thin dress socks. And the security guy, I not only took my shoes off, but he actually wanded my foot with the metal detector, both feet. And I said, “You can see through the socks.” Heck! With the vision I had at the time, I could see through the sock.

He’s like, “Well, we have to do this.” I just think he’s, I don’t know whether he got defeat or what it was. I didn’t care. It wasn’t, you know, it was just kind of funny.

So I thought I would share that with the gang. But otherwise, I had great experiences.

And of course, the model experience I had was coming back from Canada. I got groped, you know, where they go over you all over with their hands, with their gloves on, to make sure you’re not armed and dangerous, which of course I wasn’t.

They’ve always been great with the dog. Occasionally, they would walk the dog, usually at smaller airports. But a lot of times, they would let me have him go through, and then I’d go through.

But now, I have an artificial knee. So I go off now. So it’s just, I say, just walk us both.


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Closing and Contact Info

Zoom has sent me 3 recorders. Thank you, Zoom! An H1Essential, an H4Essential, and an H6Essential.

I’ve started with the H6Essential. I’m getting to know it, and I’m off to have a play. And you will hear more about these recorders on Living Blindfully, when I put them through their paces in due course.

So thank you for all your contributions, and for listening. Have a great week.

And remember that when you’re out there with your guide dog, you’ve harnessed success. And with your cane, you’re able.


Voiceover: If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Living Blindfully, please tell your friends and give us a 5 star review. That helps a lot.

If you’d like to submit a comment for possible inclusion in future episodes, be in touch via email,. Write it down, or send an audio attachment: Or phone us. The number in the United States is 864-60-Mosen. That’s 864-606-6736.