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The Power of Access & Choice: Braille in the 21st century

NOTE: Are you a braille user, blindness professional, braille transcriber or parent of a braille reader? Want to stay informed about the exciting braille developments described below and more? Check out Braille Literacy Canada.

Nowhere in history is there an invention as pervasive and influential as the printed word. Print is everywhere, yet we often take its power for granted.

In school, learning to read and write is the backbone for later success, inclusion and societal participation. Arguably, the most liberating aspect of the modern age is the power of choice: we can often choose to access information electronically or in print, depending on what is most ideal for the situation at hand. But what about those who do not read print?

It is time to reaffirm the importance of Braille for those who use it, and to consider innovative ways to provide our blind and low vision students with the same level of choice and freedom that is provided to their sighted peers.

Audio formats alone are a poor substitute for learning how to spell and communicate in writing – skills that can only be learned through Braille or print. And while accessible technology is a great equalizer, what can truly replace the timeless satisfaction of being able to turn the pages of a book, or being able to read a menu on your own without a second thought, just like everyone else?

The question should not be "Does braille still matter?" Literacy equals equality, freedom, immansapation. These things always matter. The question is, in what ways can we improve access to braille for those who use it?

Less than 5% of the western world’s information is available in an alternative format; however, this percentage is significantly lower when assessing the availability of Braille alone. In the developing world, where 90% of persons with visual impairments reside, less than 1% of published material is accessible to non-print readers. Logistical red-tape (such as copyright laws) protect the interests of authors, yet these same laws prevent countries from sharing the accessible formats they produce, thus requiring much duplicative reproduction of materials (a process that is both costly and that greatly delays access to Braille). bookshare provides thousands of electronic books to those with print disabilities in the United States, and while access to their collection has significantly expanded within Canada, many of these books are not yet available to Canadians due to copyright laws.

Built-in accessibility features (such as those found in Apple's iPhone/iPad and Google's Android) allow users to activate speech-output software that will read aloud content on the screen, without the need to first purchase expensive, third-party accessibility solutions. Many of these mainstream solutions can also be connected to refreshable braille displays, providing instantaneous access to braille. Whereas braille learners were traditionally limited by the small volume of available hardcopy braille, much of which may have been below their reading and interest level, those with access to braille displays can now also practise braille while surfing their favourite websites and social media platforms.

Refreshable Braille displays improve availability to Braille, but these products have been traditionally expensive (often costing several thousands of dollars). Though Quebec maintains a program that provides eligible individuals with technical devices they may otherwise not afford, this is not the case in all provinces. In a study by the Adaptech Research Network, students with disabilities commented on the barriers that hinder their ability to complete their programs of study, and access to information ranked among the top four obstacles noted by respondents .

So, where are we now? We are witnessing a revolutionary shift in the ways in which we access not only braille, but also electronic and auditory reading formats. In June, Canada became the 20th country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print-Disabled. The treaty, which will become effective at the end of September, aims to address the book famine experienced by blind, visually impaired and other print-disabled persons in two key ways: by requiring countries which ratify the Treaty to have an exception to domestic copyright law for visually impaired and print disabled people, and by allowing for import and export of accessible versions of books and other copyrighted works without copyright holder permission. this means that member-countries will not have to duplicate efforts to repeatedly reproduce materials that are already available in an accessible format elsewhere.

English-speaking countries have now also adopted Unified English Braille - UEB. UEB is an update to the braille code that eliminates the variations found among braille codes of different English-speaking countries and the need for students to learn different codes depending on the text they are reading. The changes are minor for readers of literary material, but the implications are significant. UEB allows for easier and more accurate automatic translation of print to braille by translation software (because many of the inconsistencies within the code have been eliminated). It also allows for the more fluid sharing of braille material among English-speaking countries since there is now one unified, English braille code.

Finally, there has been a revolutionary explosion of technological advancements in recent years that is reshaping and redefining how we access braille -- making this arguably the most exciting time to be a braille user. Leading this revolution is the Transforming Braille Project, which has resulted in the development of the first low-cost braille display available to readers, known as the Orbit Reader braille display. The Orbit Reader will bring braille into the hands of more readers of refreshable braille than ever before because it will cost approximately $400 in comparison to the $3000 or more of traditional braille displays.

But the innovations don't stop there. The Blitab tablet will provide readers with a full-page of refreshable braille at an affordable cost. Expected to be launched in late 2016, the Braille Dot watch is advertised as the first braille "smart watch". And, the Refreshable Tactile Graphics display, developed by Orbit Research for the American Printing House for the Blind, is being called a revolution in access to tactile graphics - allowing braille users, for the first time, to access on-screen tactile graphics such as pie charts, bar graphs, geometric forms, maps, floor-plans, flow-charts, line drawings, and dynamic graphical content. Announced just this month, field-testing for this ground-breaking device is set to begin in fall 2016. What a game-changer that will be!

Almost 200 years since the 13-year old Louis Braille invented the Braille code, Braille still continues to be relevant, and I write today to say that it is not only irreplaceable, but meeting the 21st century head-on.

It is an exciting time to be a braille user and to watch the future unfold before our eyes -- or should I say, beneath our fingers!


This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.
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