Caption: Peer Advisor Empish Thomas Reading Braille Bathroom Sign
There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the relevance of braille in the digital age, in an age when computers will talk and audio files are everywhere—podcasts, books, broadcasts, etc. As the VisionAware (VA) Peer Advisors began preparing articles to celebrate Louis Braille’s 210th birthday, this topic surfaced and stimulated a vigorous discussion among the VA Peers who have personal experience in using braille.
After all, everyone, sighted and blind people, uses audio formats, and who is more popular than Siri and Alexa? In light of these developments, Steve Kelley, peer advisor and author of articles on assistive technology posed, “Why read the Bible, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain from large volumes of embossed braille on paper, when you might just have the computer read the text, or play a narrated audio book?” My follow-up question to Steve’s query is, “If everyone is using audio texts, pod casts, and talking information managers like Siri and Alexa, why not eliminate print along with braille?”
A History Lesson
Let’s start with a history lesson: “Louis Braille was not the first to realize that fingers were to the blind what eyes were to the sighted, but he was the first to work out a practical method of employing the fingers to do the work of the eyes” (Koestler, 2004). Braille’s tactile system was not the first reading system designed for blind people, but it was the first system that could be read and written without the use of vision. You might think these wonderful inventions that could improve the literacy of the students at the School for the Blind in Paris would be readily embraced by the faculty. Official recognition of his genius, however, came only after his death in 1852.
Around the time braille was adopted at the Paris School for the Blind, one of the founders of the Missouri School for the Blind was traveling in Europe and learned about the braille code. When he brought it back to the Missouri school, the students and blind faculty “seized it with delight” (Koestler, 2004(, but the sighted faculty resisted for four years, refusing to learn the code and read it with their eyes. Eventually, the Missouri School for the Blind officially adopted braille as its reading and writing system in 1858, as the first American school to do so (Koestler, 2004). Obviously, resistance to braille has not been just an issue of the nineteenth century, or we would not be discussing its relevance almost two hundred years after Louis Braille developed the code.
Exploring Both Sides of the Question
Both blind and sighted people recognize the absurdity of eliminating print, but it’s necessary to explore both sides of the question in order to recognize the equally absurdity of eliminating braille. The immense majority of the population who depend on print for 99.9% of their information and communication never imagine what it would be like if they didn’t have it.
What Would a World Without Print or Braille Be Like?
Expanding on another comment by Steve Kelley, I think that any inquiry into the relevancy of braille and print should include putting that question to braille and print users, who both enjoy all forms of literacy: reading, writing, and conversing; a greater chance of employment; higher education on average; and the many opportunities that reading and writing provide whether it’s print or braille.
This question will be explored in three parts. In Part 1, several VA peers who are blind or visually impaired and who are of different ages and backgrounds describe various ways they use braille in their daily lives, showing why it is essential to their lives. In Part 2, several sighted people describe various ways they use print in their daily lives, showing reasons they could not function without it. Part 3 describes what scientific evidence reveals.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series and be sure to read Braille Awareness Month, the Starbucks Example of Relevance.