Braille: The Challenge for the Future
Print edition page number(s) 742-744
When 2011 comes to a close, I will conclude 5 years as chair of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). As a consumer relations officer at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for more than 30 years and having been a braille reader since age 5, I assumed the position for BANA with a reasonable knowledge of braille. I have enjoyed spending the last 5 years thinking even more than usual about braille and its future, and helping guide BANA's efforts towards making braille more relevant in today's technological world.
When I was in school, all of my braille books were embossed on paper. They were brailled by transcribers, and they occupied an enormous amount of space on the shelves of my classroom, sandwiched under my bed at home, and anywhere else we managed to squeeze them. Today, I have only a few physical braille books, and I am sure that it has been decades since a human transcribed a book for me with or without a computer.
Many factors continue to push braille and its users toward change. The widely differing and changing ways that braille readers are now using braille is certainly a major one. More and more braille readers are interacting with braille through electronic devices. Fewer braille readers are reading hardcopy braille books. These changes do not mean that braille is less important in the lives of braille readers, but it does mean that hardcopy braille is more often used for labeling and notetaking while book-reading is often done on a refreshable braille device. As refreshable braille devices become more affordable and available, this trend will certainly continue and will likely become the primary way braille is read. Despite all this innovation, braille codes in the United States are still based primarily on the premise that braille is going to be embossed on paper and read in a reasonably linear manner.
Decisions about braille and braille instruction for school-age students are often made by administrators and others who have little knowledge of braille and who believe that it is expensive, bulky, and often slow in coming. I frequently talk with members of the general public who have a question or comment about braille. They often ask: "Should my [relative or colleague] learn braille?" "Should [company "X"] add braille to its products?" "Is braille really a good way to communicate with blind people?" I often find such attitudes toward braille to be very disturbing. In general, people seem to believe that braille is complicated, outdated, and only read by a few blind people. Where did they get these ideas? What can we do to change them?
Framed by these thoughts, I have three recommendations for all of us who care about braille. We must first make it our priority to increase the number of braille readers in the United States, and we must examine the reasons why so many blind people are not braille readers. There is no shortage of people with visual impairment who could benefit from using braille. Rather than concentrate our efforts exclusively on braille for current braille readers, we need to expand our work to address the needs of those who could benefit by using braille, but who, for various reasons, do not. I believe that braille's complexity and the confused and misguided attitudes toward it are the primary reasons for the ailing condition of braille.
Braille needs to become simpler--simpler to read, simpler to write, and simpler to produce. By simpler, I mean that each print character would have only one way for it to be represented in braille; there would be few, if any, exceptions to the rules; and all context-based rules would be eliminated. If braille were simpler, more teachers could teach it, more people could learn it, and it might even cost less. And yet, this simplified braille would need to be able to represent technical material for those pursuing careers in mathematics and science. This question may sound contradictory: If print manages to incorporate both literary and scientific notation, why can't braille?
Along these same lines, we need to be able to accurately generate braille from print publishers' files. The braille code needs to be able to interface with modern print publishing standards so that a braille version of a document can be immediately and accurately produced from the electronic files. This is not currently possible.
Statistics on the number of people in the United States who read braille need to accurately describe the population of braille readers. One of the major statistics often cited is that only about 10% of blind children are being taught braille in school. Although this figure is quite motivating for those of us who think the number should be higher, such statistics discourage unknowledgeable administrators and decision makers from supporting braille and braille instruction. Misleading statistics also have the effect of discouraging manufacturers who might have otherwise considered adding braille to their products. The statistic quoted above actually only reports each student's "primary" reading medium. Braille readers who may use other media because their school systems deem it more economically viable are not counted as braille readers. Additionally, this figure does not include students who use braille for some tasks and subjects, but do not use braille as their exclusive learning medium, as braille readers. To further confuse the situation, prereaders and nonreaders are included in the total upon which this percentage is figured. The real questions should be: How many children with visual impairment who are old enough to attend school and who are pursuing academic subjects can read braille? How do we reach those individuals who do not read braille, but for whom braille would be useful?
I close my tenure as chair of BANA with a broader picture of braille than I had five years ago and a very hopeful spirit. I am hopeful that the entire braille community--BANA, braille readers, braille teachers, braille transcribers, braille producers--will have the courage to risk and embrace change in braille. Of course, the few ideas I presented here will not solve all of the problems related to braille. I do believe, however, that if my ideas were effectively incorporated into today's strategies for braille revision, they would go a long way toward ensuring the future of braille. And, by making braille easier to learn and produce, we would no doubt increase the number of users while improving literacy and independence for future generations.
Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D., chair, Braille Authority of North America, consumer relations officer, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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