Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Braille: Powerful, Flexible, Elegant—and Misunderstood

Note: This post is about braille and one aspect of the braille literacy issue (some would say "crisis") which currently exists.

I sit on the bus during my commute home reading a novel on my BrailleNote to pass the time. As I read, my fingers skimming lightly over the raised pins of the refreshable braille display, a child sitting nearby turns to her mother and asks what I am doing. “She's blind," the mother answers, "so she has to read in braille."

I pause in my reading and briefly ponder the nuances of language which have just taken place. I realize that whenever people speak of braille, it is usually preceded with "has to use" or "has to learn." I wonder why this subtly-negative "has to" often precedes the mention of braille. I think of the role braille plays in my own life, of how it has made my hobbies, my studies, and my employment so much easier and, indeed, possible. I think of how braille was not something I had to learn and use but something I chose to learn and use; and, as someone with low vision, it's a choice I am thankful to have made. I am thankful to be proficient in a skill that, regrettably, the majority of blind and visually impaired people do not possess. Braille is a powerful tool, an incredibly flexible means of communication, and an elegant form of reading for those who choose to become proficient—but it is also very misunderstood, not only by the sighted public but by many blind and visually impaired individuals themselves.

The usefulness of braille is undeniable. While the unemployment rate of people who are blind in Canada hovers near a shocking 70%, the unemployment rate among those who are proficient braille readers hovers closer to 10%—only slightly higher than the overall national unemployment rate of 6%. There are many tasks, important for work, play, and daily living, which cannot be easily accomplished by looking closely at large print or by using speech output. Pressing an elevator button. Referencing notes during a meeting or discussion. Reading financial records. Keeping an organized filing system. Using a microwave independently. Delivering a public speech. Jotting down a quick phone number or memo. Using a ruler or other measuring device. Reading and following a map. Understanding a flowchart or diagram. Distinguishing a credit card from a library card from a bus pass. Tasks such as these are taken for granted by people who are sighted, and any employer would expect an employee to be able to perform them. But for many people who are blind who do not read braille proficiently, operating a microwave or discreetly jotting down information during a meeting or phone conversation is no simple task. Why is the braille literacy rate among people who are blind at less than 10%, while the print literacy rate among the general Canadian population is at more than 99%? Why are more blind and visually impaired people not learning and using this powerful, flexible, elegant system of communication?

There are several misconceptions about braille which are held by people who are blind in addition to people who are sighted. Many believe that braille is very difficult to learn, that it has become obsolete in the face of advancements in computer technology, and that braille use is slow and awkward at best. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many people see braille as a last resort—something that a person "has" to use when all else fails. Why is braille never spoken of as simply something someone uses or knows, without the "has to" part?

First off, braille is not a foreign language. The mere fact that Microsoft Word insists on "correcting" my grammar by capitalizing the word "braille" whenever I type it shows just how deep this myth runs. While English and French and Japanese should be capitalized, braille should not—just as the word print or audio should not—unless it is referring to Louis Braille, the inventor of the code. Braille is just that: a code. When someone reads braille they are reading the exact same English (or French, or Italian) as a print reader, they are just doing so using patterns of raised dots rather than lines drawn on a page as the coding system.

Another myth, largely related to this idea that braille is a foreign language, is that braille is hard to learn. While becoming fluent in braille takes much dedication and practice (just as reading print does—ask any primary school student!), the basics are not hard to learn. The alphabet can be learned in just a few minutes and proficiency built in just a few days of practice, and punctuation and numbers in just a little more time. This basic level of braille can (and should!) be put to immediate use labelling items and keeping personal records. Braille contractions, which must be learned if the user wishes to become truly fluent in the code (as this is the format almost all books are published in), will take several weeks to months to fully master. And braille does take practice—you cannot learn it and then not use it and expect to retain the skill.

Unfortunately, many people—particularly those who lose vision as adults—learn uncontracted or contracted braille initially through rehabilitation training and then fail to make use of it on a daily basis. Just as with any new skill, braille must be practiced in order to be retained and build proficiency. Imagine learning to play the piano and then never practicing! Although you may retain some memory of the positions of notes, the chances that you could perform in front of an audience are slim at best. Imagine learning to add and subtract and then never using it outside of the classroom! Braille, like any new skill, requires practice. It may be slow and tedious at first, but as with other skills this will slowly give way to speed.

One of the bigger myths is that braille is becoming obsolete and unnecessary due to advances in technology. In fact the opposite is true—technology has made braille more available and portable than ever before, which makes the drop in literacy rate from more than 50% in the 1950s to less than 10% today a bit ironic. I have seen countless articles over the past few years about technology replacing braille and making it obsolete. Where are all the articles saying how technology has vastly expanded braille accessibility? In the past braille books had to be transcribed by hand, dot for dot with a slate and stylus or cell-by-cell with a braillewriter. These days, however, a braille document can be produced in a matter of minutes through the use of a scanner, computer software, and braille embosser. Many products such as the BrailleNote and Braille Sense contain refreshable braille displays in extremely portable and versatile packages. Refreshable braille displays can also be connected to standard computers, tablets, and cell phones (not all, but many). Far from making braille obsolete, technology has enhanced the usability and availability of braille far beyond what could have been imagined when Louis Braille invented his code. It is now possible to store hundreds of books on a flash drive to access anywhere—on the bus, at work or school, or at home—rather than needing an entire room to store a dozen large volumes that make up a single book and being limited to carrying around one or two volumes at a time. (This is one area where people who read braille were way ahead of everyone else. Braille readers have been using electronic books for the past 10-15 years; the rest of the world is just starting to catch up!)

Also, while a lot of people who are sighted marvel at the ability of someone with a visual impairment to feel braille dots, many people also believe that braille is inherently a slower reading medium than print. This misconception may be "confirmed" when, after a few weeks or months, a beginning braille reader continues to read haltingly and with awkward pauses. To dispel this myth you need do nothing more than listen to a proficient braille reader to realize that braille can be read fluently, eloquently, and with expression. Some parents and teachers of students with visual impairments fall into this trap, and as a result set low expectations of their braille readers' speed and inadvertently create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a child is only expected to read 50 words per minute, then that’s all they’ll read. If they're expected to eventually reach 200 words per minute or more, then that’s what they’ll reach. Every new braille reader (child or adult) should have the opportunity to listen to a proficient reader read aloud so that they can know what is possible.

Finally, one of the most harmful and widespread misconceptions is that braille is only useful if a person cannot read print at all. This is so far from the truth. A large number of adults with low vision say they wished they had learned braille as a child. There are those with low vision who learn braille and are amazed at how much they were limited by large print alone. And yet, there are countless people with low vision who do not learn braille because they do not think they need it. If someone has low vision then braille should definitely be considered an option—and not a last resort! I, as a low vision person myself, would not be able to have gotten as far as I have—through two undergraduate degrees, student teaching practicums, most of a master's degree, and become a successful professional—without braille. I could not make oral presentations, or read from notes during meetings or lesson plans during teaching, or read and write while commuting to maximize time, or quickly use a system for filing papers, or even find an elevator button gracefully, without braille. And just because someone with low vision uses braille does not mean they must do so at the expense of print. I, and many others, happily utilize both mediums on a daily basis depending on the task at hand.

And so, there are (what I think) are the main misconceptions about braille; misconceptions that are held not only by people who are sighted but also by people who are blind. Misconceptions which—among other causes—hold people back from learning braille and, more importantly, from becoming proficient and graceful in reading and writing it. A lot of people just don't realize the possibilities in braille, and the flexibility of it, and the fact that it is fast and is efficient rather than clumsy and slow—but they have to practice and believe it's possible to get there! This post is, of course, not addressing all of the obstacles to people learning and using braille, but I think if braille could be reframed so that it was viewed as a valid choice people make rather than a last resort, perceptions toward braille, and the number of people learning and using it, would change for the better.


  1. Very informative post. Individuals with visual impairments need more advocates like you! Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more!

  2. I looked at the link to the BrailleNote device, I was expecting a $300.00 price tag and was shocked at the over $4,000.00 cost.
    The price of the equipment surely is a factor in learning to read and write in braille.

    1. Absolutely, it definitely is. Some companies are trying to work on this issue, though, such as http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/technology/braillepda.html.

  3. Hi :)
    I was researching for a design project about written communication for the visually impaired, and found your blogpost. It's so helpful! Thank you for sharing!!