Figures of speech

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
A smooth-talking calculator is enabling sight-impaired pupils to prepare for university. Janet Boyle explains

Kelly Curran, a sixth-year pupil at Uddingston Grammar School, South Lanarkshire, has Scottish Highers at B grade in maths, English, physics and accounts. She is hoping to add to these good grades in sixth-year studies maths and two fresh Highers. It is a good preparation for university, especially as Kelly is registered blind.

Maths is one of the most challenging aspects of education for Kelly and her fellow pupils at Uddingston Grammar, which has a resource centre for visually impaired children. Their success demonstrates that an inability to see should be no barrier to good grades. Part of the reason is that they use a new generation of talking calculators.

The calculator, the world's first smooth-talking one, is produced by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Instead of flat, small, square keys, it has rounded finger-friendly ones. And far from the stilted tones of the old models, the latest digital technology has given this calculator an injection of personal charm.

"Competing with sighted children for university places is daunting," says Kelly. "Maths at this level can be challenging. But a friendly voice and user-friendly calculator gives it a new appeal.

"The calculator is linked to a printer and computer screen and, with big enough type, some of us can see the work. We all have varying degrees of blindness. "

Kelly suffers from microphthalmos (very small eyes), but has been accepted by four Scottish universities to study maths and psychology. She recently passed a tough sixth-year studies prelim. Adil Latif (15) has just scored 1s in his Standard grade maths prelim and Ruth Forrest (14) is on target for similar results.

Ruth, who has been totally blind since birth with cataracts and glaucoma, says: "The keypad layout is easy to follow and the rounded keys make it less awkward to use over long periods of time."

As Adil - who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa - explains, being unable to see a scientific calculator is a considerable drawback. "But we picked this one up quickly enough. It would be awful to love maths but be held back by not being able to use a calculator."

Joan Haston, assistant head in charge of Uddingston Grammar's resource centre for visually impaired children, says: "Without talking calculators, talented young pupils like these would find it difficult to gain good maths grades. That would be a pity, because some of them are very good indeed. All three are considering studying maths at university."

The calculator was jointly developed by the RNIB and the Open University. Tom Whittle, RNIB product development engineer, says: "We believe that this is the first smooth-talking calculator in the world, and we are quite proud to have made it. Previous ones have been stilted, robotic and expensive.

"We overcame the robotic speech by recording each word in digital form and storing this on an integrated circuit. To actuate speech, the calculator simply selects the words and the result sounds surprisingly natural.

"The Open University approached us with the idea of making a calculator that would help pupils with maths and science subjects up to degree standard. Children at Open University summer schools for the blind would also benefit. "

The talking calculator costs Pounds 180, compared with its nearest rival which sells at Pounds 350. The technology has come down in price as well as having increasing their list of functions, explains Mr Whittle.

"The OU provided the basic circuit and software as well as continuous support. We produced the printed circuit board layout, the recorded speech, the graphics, design of the keypad and external component design."

Around 50 blind children used the calculator prototype and helped make the final product possible, says Mr Whittle.

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