Braille in the Modern Age

by Larry Skutchan

A few times each year, articles or shows are published rationalizing how braille is no longer relevant, questioning its usefulness, or misrepresenting statistics. In this modern age, it seems like there must be something better.

Without usable vision, information must get to the brain through one of the four remaining senses. Touch and audio are the ones most relevant to literacy. A look at the facts helps explain why tactile instruction will never die out.

Slate and stylus

Before braille existed, there were numerous attempts to find a method of reading for blind people. The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind includes a collection of interesting solutions. Until the system of punching dots in a pattern, however, those methods were difficult to produce, and more importantly, did not provide a way to write. With a simple slate and stylus, available for a few dollars, you can punch the braille patterns for the words from the back. The fact that you must write the letters backwards, and right to left, along with the difficulty of reading what you just wrote (with the current line enclosed in the slate) led to innovations such as the more efficient braillewriter. Unfortunately, the braillewriter seems to symbolize obsolescence itself in the media’s eye. In reality, while it does not look very sleek or modern, the braillewriter serves as the equivalent of a pencil, and along with the slate and stylus, still provides the only way to write without requiring some kind of powered device.

Using braille to label folders or papers provides a way to identify that material for years to come, without the need for additional equipment, something you cannot say for audio alternatives. Additionally, the equipment itself tends to become outdated or unusable quite quickly. A case in point is cassette tapes. As recently as 20 years ago, this was an audio alternative that was easy for anyone to reproduce. Now, they are a thing of the past. Sure, you can use barcode stickers as labels, but you still need a device to read those barcodes. Will there be a compatible barcode reader in 50 years? Will the format of the barcode remain the same? Who knows? Nevertheless, we do know that Braille will still be readable.

picture of an APH Light-Touch Perkins Brailler

Of course, braille came before audio recordings and synthetic speech, but those options do not take literacy into consideration. Using only audio, a child learning to read and write will not be able to explain how the words to, too, and two are used. Serial and cereal, meat and meet mean nothing for learners that rely solely on audio to learn. Moreover, it’s not just the homonyms that present problems—any kind of unusual, or even common, spellings are nearly impossible when your only means of absorbing information is auditory.

Many people with normal hearing acknowledge that sound plays an important role in their lives; and some may even occasionally enjoy an audio book during the commute to and from work. But none would agree that it can replace the printed word, especially in regards to education.

Literate adults, who lose their sight later in life, have the luxury of electing not to learn braille, but many do anyway—even for limited use such as braille labels and signage.

Raising a child without literacy is not an option in today’s economy. Illiteracy condemns one to a life of dependence. Ask the parent of a sighted child if they would consider removing print from their child’s education in favor of audio, and you will see a reaction that only emphasizes the relationship between braille, print, and literacy.

Literacy means much more than spelling alone. Punctuation, format, conjugation, etymology, and relationships, just to name a few, require something more than auditory means alone. The limitations of audio are apparent when you try to describe something as simple as the shape of a circle. Imagine attempting to convey some of the more complex concepts in the STEM subjects.

picture of a textbook page showing braille and tactile graphics

High quality braille textbooks and tactile graphics provide students who are intellectually and physically capable of tactual reading an educational experience roughly equivalent to the written word. They contain many of the characteristics found in printed text and format. And, they represent the only means of literacy for a child with little or no usable vision.

As with printed textbooks, braille textbooks are mostly produced in physical, embossed format. Likewise, as the print industry moves toward electronic delivery of content, braille distribution gradually shifts in that direction as well. Young children enjoy the rich experience of holding a braille or print-braille book as much as anyone.

Refreshable braille displays are electronic devices that show a short line of braille characters comprised of pins that raise and lower for the pattern of the text included in that small view. They commonly show from 20 to 40 characters at a time. When used in conjunction with access software (for many devices), they display content from the screen of a computer or portable device. Refreshable braille allows multiple hardcopy volumes to be transported onto one small device.

Thanks to standards like HTML5 and universal design concepts, access software, such as VoiceOver on the iPhone, can deliver that content in meaningful ways, in this case speech and braille. The only additional burden on the blind consumer is the cost of the refreshable braille display; the audio (speech synthesis) is free.

Picture of the Orbit Reader 20

Orbit Reader 20 represents a pivotal break in the cost of refreshable braille displays. However, despite the unrealized possibilities of past decades, there is still no practical way to display graphics or more than one line of braille at a time on an electronic braille device. This is one reason embossed textbooks remain the predominate distribution method of braille, especially for complex content.

Fortunately, the industry is not sitting idle awaiting the arrival of electronic reproduction devices that show multiple lines and graphics. Skilled transcribers employ digital tools to translate, format, and draw tactile equivalents; and high-speed embossers and complex-drawing reproduction equipment are used to produce the textbooks.

BrailleBlaster startup screen

Research projects like BrailleBlaster, a desktop publishing system for braille, and Graphiti, a tactile graphics device, along with standards like EPUB, SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), and universal design, signify less resistance to the process of creating the tactile version of a textbook.

Some of the most important advancements, in regards to converting text to braille, come from standards bodies such as the Braille Authority of North America (BANA), the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These organizations research and create standards that developers can use to create software that reliably interprets electronic text and graphics. As these tools, standards, and techniques evolved over the past few decades, the dream of educational content becoming accessible is closer to a reality.

Interestingly, one of the most difficult accessibility barriers to braille transcription continues to be the education of authors. The tools exist to translate the text into contracted braille, but the software to determine if the information makes sense without vision does not. For example, an early childhood textbook displays two lines, one red and one blue, requesting the student to decide if the blue line or the red line is longer. The tactile rendition must substitute patterns for the colors, and then insert a tactile graphic to match those patterns. A transcriber might change the sentence to ask about the solid or dotted line, and then draw the two lines with the correct patterns. This is one of the simplest examples possible to illustrate the issue.

Given the recognition of importance of braille in the education of children with visual impairments, it is a wonder how braille continues to be so misrepresented. As with anything involving a number of factors, the answer is complicated.

The first factor to understand is the categorization of blindness. Degrees of blindness vary widely. While there are many who maintain enough vision to travel without additional aids, or to read print with proper equipment and conditions, there are others whose vision will never support independent reading or whose vision is declining at such a rate for which braille proves to be more effective than print.

Age and health are additional factors to consider as to the feasibility of learning braille. A child does not have a choice—he or she must learn braille to be literate. Adults who cannot develop the necessary tactile responses also do not have a choice, because they are unable to perceive braille. For those who fall between these extremes, the choice is less clear and depends largely on the progression of the eye condition, the ambitions and goals of the individual, and their age.

Adults already literate when sight becomes inefficient may choose to forego developing the tactile sensitivity and understanding of the contractions and codes for braille. The child learning to read and write does not have this choice. And, while it is tempting to choose the path of least resistance—in this case audio—this is not what’s best for the kids. Parents know their children are just as capable as any child of learning to read and write. They want their children to lead independent, literate, and fulfilling lives, despite their visual impairments. Braille instruction is still the only way to do it.

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