In Honor of World Braille Day, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the invention of braille, and early controversies around its use. Today, nearly all countries use braille as the international standard of literacy for blind people. Yet we still live in a braille paradox: Braille is more available than ever before, yet less people are using it.

On one hand, braille is easier to produce and distribute than ever before. Modern technologies make it possible to emboss a braille book (once it is digitally formatted) in a matter of minutes. Some blind individuals also use portable braille displays, which contain a single row of pins that can change shape to represent braille letters. The user can scroll through a document using a joystick or thumb keys to advance from one line to the next. Braille displays can interface with mainstream computers or mobile devices to provide access to the screen in braille. There are also PDA-like devices that integrate a braille display and keyboard along with a basic processor, enabling the user to write and edit documents in braille before transferring them to a computer. Using these modern devices, blind individuals can have instant access to digital books in braille. Current braille technology has some limitations; it is too expensive for many individuals, can only display one line at a time, and cannot yet display tactile diagrams. But the technology is facilitating access to braille like Louis may never have dreamed of.

Despite these advancements, the number of blind schoolchildren learning braille is decreasing, at least in the United States. When most blind children went to segregated schools, about half were reported as braille readers. But in recent years, some researchers estimate that as few as 10% of legally blind children (in preschool through grade 12) are primarily braille readers. While some of these students do not read at all due to cognitive disabilities, a substantial percentage of blind students are either using their limited vision to read in print, or using only audio (through recorded books or text-to-speech technology) to read. A variety of reasons have been cited for this change, many of which are systemic: braille teachers are scarce and have high caseloads; many braille teachers do not know the code well themselves; and school districts may not be able to pay for enough braille teacher hours to give students adequate instruction. However, a number of myths about braille still persist that may also explain at least some of the decline in braille literacy. I will address some of the most common myths below.

Myth: Braille is hard to learn. Only the brightest students will be able to master it.
Fact: Braille is an extremely simple code. There are only 64 possible symbols that can be created in braille, so there is a high level of redundancy (e.g., a lowercase a, capital A, and the number 1 are the same symbol, with a second symbol preceding the capital or number to distinguish them). In braille, an a is an a is an a. There are no differences in font or creative ways of writing. I find print to be a much more complicated system, with different fonts, block vs. cursive letters, and large differences between languages. It is true that the contracted form of braille involves some additional learning, but if that learning happens early, many children master contracted braille at around the same age that their sighted peers master print. Students with all kinds of learning, cognitive and physical disabilities have learned braille, and there are adapted braille codes that can be used for readers with limited feeling in their fingers. In addition, braille is much less mentally taxing than print for students whose vision loss prevents clear, efficient reading in print. Of course, braille can be tough to learn for older children and adults who have already learned print. Spanish was hard for me to learn in high school, but I would never assume that a child growing up in Spain would have a hard time learning to speak.
The family legend is that I learned the alphabet in a day at the age of 3. Learning the contractions took longer, but I know that by the time I started kindergarten I was reading short books in contracted braille. My experience is not unique, either. On the other end of the spectrum, I have met a group of 90-year-olds in Colorado who learned braille and used it for pleasure reading.

Myth: Braille is slow. My child won’t be able to keep up with his classmates
Fact: Over the years I have met dozens of braille readers and observed them reading aloud, or discussed reading speed with them. It is clear that reading speed is correlated with the age of first exposure as well as the number of years spent practicing. I myself can read a hard-copy book at around 300 words per minute, and that speed is typical for those who learn in early childhood. Students who learn later in life tend to be slower readers, although they can build their speed with consistent practice. Instruction also matters, as there are techniques (such as reading with both hands simultaneously) that can greatly increase speed.
A related misconception is the belief that braille readers are slowed down by reading one letter at a time and then stringing those letters together into words. This is true for all beginning readers (in braille or print), but once a certain level of familiarity is reached, braille readers learn and respond to the shape of entire words.

Myth: Braille is no longer necessary, since so many books are available in audio form.
Fact: Sighted people also have access to a growing number of audiobooks and can use text-to-speech software, but no one (to my knowledge) is advocating ditching print. It is troubling when a different standard of literacy is suggested for blind people as for the general population. Written communication is a requirement for all programs of higher education, as well as almost all jobs (including all jobs that require a college degree). Just as it is very challenging for congenitally deaf people to speak orally without hearing speech, it is very challenging for a person who has never consumed the written word to produce it accurately.
When I write, I use my braille knowledge to mentally “picture” the words before I produce them. I have intuitions about how I should use capitalization, grammar, punctuation and correct spelling that are based on my reading experience in braille. Individuals who never learn braille or print don’t have that experience base to draw from.
There are a myriad of other opportunities that braille opens up. Braille can be read in any lighting, even in pitch darkness. I recently led a training workshop where I read my brailled notes while looking up at the participants. In the same week, I read stories in braille to my 2-year-old nephew and used braille labels to distinguish my shampoo from my hair conditioner. My medications and spices are labeled in braille at home. While all of these tasks may be technically doable without braille, they would have been much more challenging. Braille is a critical tool that paves the way for equal participation.

For further reading, check out these excellent blog posts:
Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying to Kill It)
Leveraging Technology to Achieve Greater Braille Literacy

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