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In Search of Braille Product Labelling

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) has advocated for accessible product labelling for many years. Joan Yim is owner of Universal Braille Dots (ubdots) Inc., a small Toronto-based company that had an exhibit at the 2011 AEBC Conference in Brantford, Ontario. The company has reached out to the business community to promote and sell what it considers a valid and valuable commodity--braille.

Consider this. There are currently around one million Canadians living with vision impairments. Like all consumers, people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted should have access to, and information about, an infinite number of products. However, this is not currently the case.

People with significantly restricted vision are all too aware of the number of items that can be difficult to identify or use, due to inaccessible commercial labelling. Is it toothpaste, muscle rub or hand/facial cream? How often do I take this medication? Is this dinner microwavable? Whether it be an over-the-counter drug or a box of Kraft dinner, these potential buyers are forced to rely on the shopper beside them or sales clerk in order to decipher information on product packages. Or they have to depend on friends or family members to go shopping with them.

Braille labelling is not a difficult process. It could even be considered trendy in a socially conscious world that promotes accessibility. Ubdots, for example, offers more than the traditional braille equated with perforated punctures through paper. Its unique style of braille involves a process that leaves the original label unaltered save for discrete transparent dots as overlay. These dots, in turn, can be applied to various surfaces.

Unfortunately, not many businesses have warmed up to braille labelling. Strange, given how normalized braille has become in the consumer world outside North America. Blindness-related organizations and anti-discrimination advocates have paved the way to better access to information in the form of a braille-labelling imperative on over-the-counter drugs in Europe. Fostered by the Disability Discrimination Act of the United Kingdom (1995), the trend is being embraced by businesses, evidenced by braille labelling on other consumer products like food, wine and health/beauty aids. And the trend seems to be spreading.

Interestingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act preceded Europe's anti-discrimination legislation by a full five years, yet braille is rarely found on consumer products on the North American continent; this, despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities declaration of equal rights to education and access to information, and the identification of braille as the communication method of the blind. So what's the story?

The fact of the matter is that supports for the blind have been eroded to such a degree as to make braille virtually obsolete. Once upon a time, braille was afforded a special place in our educational system, and offered as the written communication alternative taught to people who are blind. In the 1960s, for instance, a full 50% of blind American school-aged children were literate in braille. The fact that these educational provisions exist no longer parallels the social invisibility and growing marginalization of the blind. Currently, only 10% of America's blind children can read braille. With regard to braille product labelling, why bother, when nobody reads or writes it anymore?

Some would argue that new technologies are replacing the need for braille, but statistics prove otherwise. Most would agree that, despite the technological explosion, literacy remains imperative to social advancement. Cuts to funding for braille education demonstrate social costs in terms of employment rates among America's blind; a full 80% of braille-literate people are employed compared with 33% of those who cannot read or write braille (National Federation of the Blind, Bicentennial Silver Dollar and Literacy Campaign, 2008-9).

To show how far Canada is lagging, ubdots' latest advertising campaign consists of a postcard with an image of a pair of prescription glasses. Everything through the lenses is clear as day, but beyond the rims the world is a blur. A slogan reads, "You won't see the difference until you've brailled your product line." It goes on to explain the benefits of braille to all, in ubdots' bid to braille consumer products--the juncture where business and blind consumers meet. The campaign proved pointless when I started receiving sympathetic letters from established businesses stating that they were not providing donations at this time!

Whether company staff could not be bothered to read the promotional ditty or are completely illiterate, the response was clear: in Canada, people with vision impairments--who could be you, me, company executives or even those hired to write the reply letters--are not to be considered in the work of "business as usual". The blind community are not considered consumers or even social equals, with the same universal rights to education and literacy, not to mention entitlement to goods and services. Unlike our European counterparts, Canada's blind population is considered merely a charitable cause, seeking a handout from the business community.

And yet, where there's political will, there's hope. In a 2006 landmark standard-setting decision, the National Federation of the Blind in the United States pulled the Americans with Disabilities Act out of a hat to win a class-action lawsuit against Target Corporation for failing to make online shopping accessible to the blind. This goes to show what can be achieved when individuals bring their seemingly singular frustrations together to evoke greater social inclusion.

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