BY CHRISTINE LAM
When Chuck Sheldon was a little boy, he watched his sight-impaired father use a tiny machine that looked like a typewriter.
"What's that, dad?" he asked.
"It's called a Brailler—a typewriter for the sight-impaired," his father replied.
"How does it work?" the boy asked.
"I press down certain keys and the machine creates little dots on paper that I can run my fingers over," the father explained. "It's a way for sight-impaired people to type letters to each other."
This technology for the sight-impaired fascinated the young Sheldon. He watched his father fix the Brailler when it broke down, and marveled at how a sight-impaired person could feel his way around the intricate details of the keys and the inner workings of a machine with such complicated components.
After he started working at Boeing, Sheldon, a general analyst in Facilities for Integrated Defense Systems Puget Sound, eventually apprenticed with an expert Brailler repairman, and learned how to fix the machines himself. Armed with this rare skill, Sheldon began volunteering as a Brailler handyman for agencies such as the Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Seattle. For the past 16 years he has helped the sight-impaired community with his expertise in repair.
For Sheldon, Brailler repairs always have been a fun challenge. "The more I repaired, the more I learned that if my dad could fix them, I could fix them," he said. "One of the reasons I have been doing this for so long is that there aren't many of us that do this type of work."
When a repair is needed, the local agency sends a Brailler to his home, where he performs all of the repairs. He uses only a couple of screwdrivers, a lubricant and an air compressor. Depending on the complexity, the process can take a few hours to an entire day. After he fixes the Braillers, he sends them back to Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted.
How can repairs on Braillers be so much in demand? As with all old-fashioned mechanisms that go through daily wear and tear, these types of machines are far more susceptible to regular glitches as a result of daily use than modern tools, such as computer keyboards.
Braillers require ongoing repairs and maintenance. The keys need to be lubricated regularly, and screws sometimes get loose. Almost always, Sheldon uncovers telltale clues to a person's life when he finds debris like cat hair and food crumbs inside the crevices.
While sighted people can communicate with e-mail, pictures and charts, those who are sight-impaired can exchange information only through verbal communication or Braille. They use Braillers for a variety of purposes, such as correspondence, lists and labels to help keep their lives organized.
Sheldon said it was relatively easy to learn how to repair Braillers. Compared to traditional typewriters, Braillers have only nine keys to communicate the same amount of information.
"If you really like working with your hands, Brailler repair can be a fun and rewarding hobby," Sheldon said. "Especially if you know the machine that you repair can help a sight-impaired person get on with life a little easier."
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