Is braille on its death bed? Some experts say the number of individuals with poor eyesight who are learning to read braille in North America is on the decline. One of the reasons invoked is the increasing popularity of voice technology.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), braille is “a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have low vision”.
People who are not visually impaired typically read braille with their eyes. Contrary to popular belief, braille is not a language. It is a code by which many languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and dozens of others) may be written and read. Braille is used by thousands of people all over the world in their native languages, and enables wider access to literacy.
Braille symbols are formed within units of space called “braille cells”. A complete braille cell consists of six raised dots arranged in two parallel rows each having three dots. The dot positions are designated by numbers from one through six. Sixty-four combinations are possible using one or more of these six dots. A single cell can be utilized to represent an alphabet letter, number, punctuation mark, and even a whole word.
Contrary to popular belief, braille is not a language. It is a code by which many languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and dozens of others) may be written and read.
Braille was invented by Louis Braille. He was born in Coupvray, France, in 1809. He was a student at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. At the time, books were created using raised print which was difficult to produce, hard to read, and difficult for people to write. While attending the Institute, Braille wanted to read more. He experimented with methods to create an alphabet that was easy to read with your fingertips. The writing system he created, at just age fifteen, evolved from the tactile “Ecriture Nocturne” (night writing) code invented by Charles Barbier for sending military messages that could be read on the battlefield at night, without light.
Voice technology: A new sense of freedom for the blind
For Nutsiri Kidkul, who went blind eight years ago, mobile apps have been “life-changing”.
At first, Kidkul would have to plan and prepare basic tasks such as grocery shopping, traveling or reading documents. She often needed assistance from other people to go about her day.
“I was always at the mercy of their time or schedule,” Kidkul stated. She uses Microsoft Seeing AI, a talking camera app, to help her read her own mail and documents. She finds it so convenient and accurate that she doesn’t have to rely on others for such tasks. “It gives me a sense of privacy to be able to sort and read my own mail without assistance from friends or family,” Kidkul adds.
She also uses Smart Ride to navigate public transportation; otherwise, her favorite transit apps are Uber and Lyft. “When I’m ready for a ride, I just call an Uber [or] Lyft and the car just shows up wherever I’m standing,” Kidkul says. “I also don’t have to pay the driver (since payment happens through the app). Much easier.”
The listening / brailling divide
Christopher S. Danielsen, from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, said its research suggests about 58 per cent of blind students in the United States were using braille in the early 1960's as their main reading medium. This number has dropped to roughly 10 per cent today.
Yet, Danielsen believes braille is not in danger of being lost. “Most blind people have some vision. Most of us are not totally blind but braille tends to be more efficient than reading print,” he adds. Danielsen says a person can get information but not literacy from listening. “We routinely see blind people who are obviously very intelligent, very well-educated, but they don’t have braille skills because they stopped reading print at some point … and learned primarily by listening,” he explains.
“These are folks who will have graduate level degrees and yet have very atrocious spelling and punctuation just because they haven’t read, they haven’t actually read. They may have a good vocabulary when they speak but they don’t even necessarily have the ability to translate that into writing.”
Mary Ellen Gabias, president of Canadian Federation of the Blind, says voice technologies also have certain limitations. “If you’ve ever used Siri to dictate a voice message to somebody or a text message to somebody, you know you can have some pretty humorous misrepresentation of what you were trying to say,”
Learning braille helps with understanding as well, she added. “If I’m listening to an audio book for fun or pleasure, I will often turn it up to double speed. With speech compression these days you can do that without the book sounding like Donald Duck, but if I really want to know and understand and study things, I want them in braille.”
“These are folks who will have graduate level degrees and yet have very atrocious spelling and punctuation just because they haven’t read, they haven’t actually read. They may have a good vocabulary when they speak but they don’t even necessarily have the ability to translate that into writing.” Christopher S. Danielsen, National Federation of the Blind.
Jennifer Dunnam, manager of braille programs at the National Federation of the Blind, believes access to braille is better now because it can be used with electronic tools. “We have refreshable braille displays, which can be connected either by cable or by Bluetooth, and they present what is on the screen of the phone or a computer,”
Jen Goulden, past president of Braille Literacy Canada, believes technology also makes it easier and cheaper to create braille. “We tend to believe that the biggest issue with braille is not that it is no longer valuable … but there is still a lot of stigma around it and people think that braille is slow to read,” she said. “I can tell you that I can read faster than I can listen.”
Despite the drastic usage rate drop, braille is still useful today and can be used in conjunction with modern assistive technologies.