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Blind Still Rely on Braille: High-tech advances can't entirely replace system

Daytona Beach, Florida--Two students sat across from a teacher in a darkened room. Their fingertips rolled confidently across the bumpy text of the books during the one-hour lesson. “I love languages, so this is my opportunity to learn another,” said Berline Mercy, who lost her eyesight after surgery to remove a brain tumour last year. “It's the language of braille.”

Mercy, a 30-year-old registered nurse, started learning how to read again last November at the Division of Blind Services on Dunn Avenue. Even with major technological advancements, braille remains the foundation of communication for the blind, although some studies indicate the use of the traditional reading system is on the wane.

Amy Williams, a blind braille instructor at the Daytona Beach facility, said computers, voice activation and large print can make life easier, but it will not replace the dotted code invented by Louis Braille almost 200 years ago. “What happens when the computer dies for people who can see? You go back to pencil and paper,” she said. “When the computer goes out for us, it's braille.”

Williams lost her eyesight 30 years ago and remains a “visual learner”--someone who finds it much easier to retain information by reading it on paper rather than hearing it on an audio disk or tape. “If you were a reader, your medium is braille,” she said. “And with high-tech you can't read things like labels on cans of food to determine whether it's (a) can of soup or peas.” Without braille, a home-cooked dinner often could turn into a “mystery meal.”

But the National Federation of the Blind recently reported that only 10 percent of sightless people today read braille, compared with about half in the 1950s. That doesn't bode well for employment. The organization reported that 80 percent of blind workers with good jobs are proficient in braille.

Reasons attributed to the decline include advanced text-to-speech technology, less emphasis on teaching braille to blind school children, and the expense of producing braille books. The American Printing House for the Blind in 2007 also reported that less than 10 percent of the nation's 58,000 sightless youngsters use braille as their primary method to read, compared to half in the 1960s.

“People talk about braille dying and that it's outdated,” said Ike Presley, national project manager for the American Foundation (for) the Blind, after a recent training session he held in Daytona Beach Shores. “It's not going to be outdated until print is outdated.”

For the sighted world, Presley rhetorically asks: “Would you be willing only to hear things?” He said day-to-day living for a blind person still requires braille. Just reading a business card, or checking a phone number or unusually spelled name, would otherwise be impossible out in public.

“Braille allows a person to have a reading and writing medium for both information access and for personal use,” he said. “Technology is not replacing braille. It increases the availability (of) braille, making it easier to produce and less expensive.”

Presley, who has lived with low vision his 56 years, said that in many places there's not enough classroom time dedicated to braille, with children receiving training once or twice a week. He said the parents of sighted children would be outraged if their youngsters received such minimal time learning to read and write.

He said the numbers regarding the use of braille are deceiving, since more babies are surviving difficult deliveries because of medical advancements. Sometimes these children are blind, but many also (have) other physical or cognitive impairments that leave them incapable of learning braille. “Twenty years ago, they might not have lived,” he said. “So the numbers are skewed because many people who are blind cannot actually learn braille.”

Edward Hudson, 55, the centre director at (the) Daytona Beach facility, gradually went blind as a child and didn't learn braille until sixth grade. “If you have a child with a vision (limitation), the earlier they start learning braille the better,” he said. “The repetition and practice to learn the shapes and forms, the tactile feel, is important. It's a matter of literacy.”

Hudson said a strong advocacy movement exists among educators and professionals in the field to keep braille a fundamental part of teaching for the blind. “Everything else is built upon it,” he said, adding that math is next to impossible to do without braille.

Kay Ratzlaff is on the front lines of education, as the coordinator of resources for the Florida Instructional Materials Center for the Visually Impaired. She said braille remains the foundation for learning. “Just listening is not the same,” she said. “You've got to have the foundation. It's like saying other (sighted) kids don't need print. Braille is the same thing as print for our kids. They can't do without it. Listening is so passive.”

Donna Ross teaches a braille course to future teachers at Florida State University. She said the state requires braille to be taught in public schools, “unless you can prove something else is better” for a student. “We want our teachers to know it and teach it,” Ross said. “It's not going anywhere. There's always going to be a need for braille.”

Reprinted with permission from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, January 27, 2010.