Braille isn't just for elevator buttons anymore.
As America shapes up to life with the new laws governing universal access, architects, engineers and manufacturers are increasingly planning, building and designing for people with disabilities. In such an atmosphere, it's only logical that many manufacturers are thinking Braille.
In the past year, a variety of new products, from alarm clocks to egg timers, have come on the market. Being able to buy merchandise that incorporates Braille--the system of embossed symbols invented by Frenchman Louis Braille in 1834--into its design is very important to those who are able to read it, said Deborah Mason, spokeswoman for The Lighthouse Inc., one of America's more prominent organizations for the visually impaired.
"Only a small percentage of the visually impaired read Braille," said Mason. "It's very difficult to learn, so only people who are born blind or who suffer vision loss in childhood really learn. It requires a great deal of tactile sensitivity. But for those who do learn it, having products with Braille labeling means increased independence."
In August, Tupperware announced that its new CrystalWave bowls were being manufactured with Braille sizing labels on the bottoms.
"It has always been part of our strategy to make our products as accessible as possible," said spokesman Tim Coffee, adding that Tupperware's "bell tumbler," the oddly shaped plastic cup that was one of Tupperware's earliest successes, originally was designed for use by the elderly.
The use of Braille in CrystalWave is Tupperware's way of putting a toe into the water, Coffee continued. If the market is receptive, more products labeled with Braille could follow.
By contrast, Whirlpool is a comparative old-timer at providing accessibility to its products. Several years ago the company began providing Braille overlays for the controls on everything from dishwashers to microwave key pads.
These innovations have been incorporated into an experimental apartment at the Conklin Center, a learning center for visually impaired persons in Daytona Beach, Fla. Such overlays are free to owners of Whirlpool appliances.
Meanwhile, Universal Braille, a Canadian company, has developed a system of silk screening that will print Braille on paper. Developed by entrepreneur Joan Yim, the technique will be easier and cheaper than methods now in use, allowing manufacturers to label their products for the blind.
But most of these products don't have the status of technological breakthroughs. Rather, they generally are the same, mundane items used by many people every day. Like oversize playing cards in large type and Braille. Or a 60-minute timer that denotes the quarter-hours in Braille. Or a labeler that will print in Braille as well as in the standard alphabet, used to print the new "sight trails," Braille signposts installed at the Garvies Point Preserve in Glen Cove, N.Y.
And not all of the products are purely functional. Three years ago jewelry designer Kim Christiansen was trying to think of a special birthday present for his wife, Fay. "I was driving along and trying to think of something to give her," explained Christiansen.
"I wanted something different, something shiny, something flat, something with texture. Suddenly it came to me: 'Braille.' "
Even though his wife is not at all visually impaired, Christiansen said, Braille seemed a perfect way to send a private message of hope and love.
The earrings he fashioned created a sensation among the party guests and quickly caught the attention of groups serving the visually impaired.
The messages of Christiansen's jewelry is completely positive, with words like "Joy," "Peace," "Harmony" spelled out on medallions of sterling silver or gold plate.