Health & Science

Bridging The Digital Divide For People Who Are Deaf And Blind

Many of us know about Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind and yet went on to become a famous author and activist. Keller led the way for many deaf-blind people in the 20th century, and now the effort continues with a federal program to help deaf-blind people navigate the digital age.


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The people who most need to hear this story can’t hear it. They can’t read it online either.

That’s why there’s a special campaign going on to ask the rest of us to get involved.

If you know someone who has trouble both seeing and hearing, there are free digital tools available to help them to surf the Internet, make phone calls, or use an iPad.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker says the challenge of getting the message out was so great she decided to get involved.

“Well, there are a lot of people, a million people nationwide, who have that particular combination of disabilities. We have new technology now that helps those who are deaf-blind to better connect to the broader world.”

iCanConnect deviceThis Braille note-taking device, when connected to a computer, allows a person who is blind or deaf-blind, to navigate the Web, send email, and communicate with someone who doesn’t know sign language.

And machines that allow a deaf-blind person to send messages back and forth with anyone, even if the other person doesn’t know sign language or Braille.

The program is called It’s administered by the Federal Communications Commission.

Joann Becker came from Boston to speak to Houston groups about the technology. Becker works for Perkins Products, which makes Braille machines and other low-vision equipment.

She has very low vision herself, and trains people to work on the equipment.  

“I’ve got to tell you, I began working with a 78-year-old man, and he said to me: ‘Now, look. I want to use the Internet; I’m not interested in what my wife tells me.’”

Becker helped the man learn software that can translate Web pages.

She says the technology can transform lives, breaking deaf-blind people out of isolation and helping them learn and work.

“And then I’m working with an 11-year-old boy who had never text messaged, never worked with the Internet and all of a sudden this 11-year-old, he’s now able to do that. But he said to me: ‘The next thing, Joann, I want to be on Facebook, I want to be instant chatting with all my friends.’ So, that is absolutely going to happen for this kid.”  

The equipment is free for deaf-blind people who are low- or moderate-income. Some of the tools would otherwise cost more than $5,000 dollars, and  iCanConnect will also pay for training.  

Becker says it’s great that many popular devices like the iPad already come with built-in technologies for the blind.

But it may take extra devices working with the iPad to make it useable for someone who is deaf as well.

Visit for more information if you know anyone who could benefit from this service. 

New technology for deaf-blind people to communicate is available to qualified individuals for free from the federal government through

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