“You’re braille reading days are over,” said the professor who taught me a study skills class over thirty years ago. Maybe, she was convinced that we who were transitioning into college needed to grasp the lifestyle of depending on readers and the blossoming technology head-on. Maybe, her comments were meant for emotive effect. But to my incoming freshman’s ears, they made the diminishing use of braille to sound ominous and unavoidable.
As we know now, a lot of changes in technology, rebranding and buyouts have happened in the blindness community since 1991. Still the word, the number, the computer codes written in braille remain in use all these years later.
To encourage the ongoing use of braille in school, at work and in public buildings, Braille Institute recently sponsored its annual braille reading challenge. Let’s consider it a spelling bee-like event that started with hundreds of competitors around the nation and ended with just a handful in five braille skill areas including reading speed and accuracy, comprehension, and writing. It’s no coincidence that these same areas form the basis of braille literacy classes during prevocational evaluation and training classes at our various vocational training schools such as World Services for the Blind and the NFB’s national center in Colorado. To pass such evaluative steps toward a vocational goal, a student must read at a given proficiency that is equivalent to the standard reading speed for someone using print on the job.
A major influence keeping braille in use over the decades is the refreshable display that enhances someone’s experience in a call center, working reception at a hotel, or in medical billing. Especially when dealing with numbers and equations, hearing the electronic voice will give only half the needed data. Without the braille, a string of numbers can mean a whole lot of things but makes navigating a chart or document nearly impossible until someone feels the plus, minus, or divided-by signs with his fingertips. Similarly, when editing a paper in school or preparing a novel for publication, gleaning information is doable by sound alone. But, having the braille at your fingertips will make correcting a misspelled word or replace one phrase with a better one a quicker task.
Of course, some will give us pushback about the need for emphasizing braille literacy. In a very well-balanced article, Melissa Helquist speaks to the need to go beyond just tactile acquaintanceship with braille to consider oneself literate. She points out that the ability to listen with the use of audio technology gives someone the tools and information they need to learn and work in society. Besides, she points out, only ten percent of people who are blind read braille and yet technological advance has given people of all ages the ability to use a laptop. Form words and sentences by voice, and become sound dependent as our world is becoming more image-driven.
Yet, the ongoing statistics which Ms. Helquist quotes show a greater unemployment rate among those blind or low-vision people who cannot read braille. That doesn’t bode well for the prospect of getting a larger percentage of people having disabilities out of poverty world- or nationwide. Furthermore, as the American Federation of the Blind points out-quoting the January-February, 2022 edition of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness-no solid basis stands behind the oft quoted ten-percent statistic. No solid sources reference the dynamic change in people’s ability to read braille as is available and encouraged by the very technology that some claim could replace it.
In fact, as a 2016 article in the blog for Braille Works shows, literacy goes beyond the mere ability to read and write. Familiarity with a system of symbols and their use in general society connects a person to what’s tangible firsthand rather than otherwise imparted by others. So, when a traveler reads the tactical dots on his hotel room’s sign, he can tell he’s in, for example, room 225 without someone telling him. And while well-meaning passers-by may orient him to the men’s room instead of the women’s, he can verify that by feeling the braille on or next to the restroom’s door.
For as image-oriented as our society has become, we are just as or even more so dependent on the word to inform us what the image means. So it is with braille. It puts skin, bone, and sinew to the otherwise hearsay of secondhand discourse. And while we all enjoy our iPhones, audio books, and other modes of reading, braille gives a person who is totally blind or low-vision the needed terre firma on which to stand and interact each day.
In other words, our braille reading days are not over. Rather, with the implementation of the refreshable displays, available tactile signage in public, and encouragement of blindness professionals such as TVI’s and CVRT’s to know it, braille will remain with us and provide the needed path out of a potential literacy crisis.