Nickie Coby, who has just completed her second year at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, uses technology to its full extent in her academic life but stressed that it plays an extremely vital role for a student who is blind in a social context. With her computer equipped with the Window-Eyes screen reader and the Kurzweil 1000 OCR (optical character recognition) software, she does research, writes papers, accesses textbooks, and so forth but said that the computer is also an important link to other students.

“I can’t write a message on a white board on my dorm room door,” she explained, “or see what someone else has written on theirs, but I can send an instant message and find out if someone down the hall wants to do something.” She uses both MSN and AOL for instant messaging and both the voice and text aspects of Skype. She keeps a blog on LiveJournal and uses Facebook but finds it complicated to navigate with her screen reader.

When it comes to portable devices, Nickie seems to be totally plugged in. With her Book Port DAISY book/MP3 player, she reads textbooks that have been scanned with the Kurzweil 1000 and books from and With her BrailleNote PDA (personal digital assistant), she downloads the Pioneer Press or New York Times to read while sitting in a coffee shop.

The device with which she is currently enamored is her Motorola Q cell phone outfitted with the Mobile Speak Smartphone screen reader. With her cell phone, she has a quick way to write something down and takes full advantage of the calendar and tasks features. From a student’s perspective, the best feature is the ability to send and receive text messages. “I believe it is just as important to have access to a social life as to an academic life,” she said, “and it is so cool to be able to text message friends if I’m out getting coffee to see if they can join me.”

It is also her awareness of the social environment that makes Nickie glad to be a fluent reader of braille. If she is in a public place, she rarely wears headphones to read. She reads books from Web-Braille or newspapers from Newsline on her BrailleNote mPower, so if there is a conversation nearby that she wants to join, she will not miss it.

This piece first appeared in “Staying on Course: Interviews with Students Who Are Blind,” by Deborah Kendrick, AccessWorld®, July 2007.

Editor’s Note: Since this AccessWorld article was originally published, the BookPort has been replaced with the Book Port Plus. The Window-Eyes screen reader is no longer in active development but is still in use. The BrailleNote mPower has been replaced with the BrailleNote Touch, and the Kurzweil 1000 scanning program is still available and in active development. Finally, the cell phone technology mentioned in the article has generally been replaced with the iPhone running Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader, and Android phones running Google’s TalkBack screen reading solution.