Plain braille page, blue toned.

Why We Should Question What We Have Been Led to Believe

“To know that one knows what one knows, and to know that one doesn't know what one doesn't know, there lies true wisdom.”

When we read a statistic about blindness or low vision in the news media, how often do we think about the source of that data? Does it come from a census? A survey? An estimate? How recent are the data behind the statistics?

For Rebecca Sheffield, Frances Mary (F.M.) D’Andrea, and Valerie Morash, a desire to know the source of an oft-repeated statistic about braille literacy led them to a years-long research project involving stacks of old journal articles, a range of online archives, and a trail of citations (and missing citations) that spanned more than a century of publications. Along with Sarah Chatfield, these researchers recently published their findings in the article entitled, “How Many Braille Readers? Policy, Politics, and Perception,” in the January–February 2022 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness.

As researchers and advocates, the authors all had a desire to know the prevalence of braille readership among the population of people with visual impairments. For Dr. Sheffield, the question of how many braille readers there were was among the most frequently asked questions of her as a researcher and advocate when she worked at the American Foundation for the Blind. Dr. D’Andrea’s work with the Braille Authority of North America and her investigations into braille learning suggested that braille literacy statistics were elusive and misunderstood. Dr. Morash, a postdoctoral fellow at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Institute, knew that a better understanding of braille literacy rates would have important market and design implications for new and existing innovative technologies. For Ms. Chatfield, who is both a parent of a braille reader and a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), the prevalence of braille readership has implications for families and teachers when considering meaningful and effective supports for student literacy.

Undertaking a systematic literature review (a methodology for combing through systematically identified publications, following up on citations, and screening articles), the researchers were able to trace the source of an often-quoted statistic that suggests that “only 10% of blind people read braille.” They found that the original sources of data behind this estimate are outdated, invalid, or both for the purposes of estimating braille literacy rates. Additionally, the authors present several reasons for the difficulty in calculating or even estimating national rates of braille literacy, including a range of inconsistent definitions of blindness, visual impairment, and braille literacy.

“Answering a question like ‘How many braille readers are there?’ requires a shared understanding of what it means to be a ‘reader.’ As with ‘visual impairment,’ there is also no single definition of ‘braille literacy,’ or even ‘literacy’” (Sheffield et al., 2022, p. 17).

Recognizing that a peer-reviewed article about the sources and challenges behind braille literacy statistics would have great value to many audiences interested in the demographics and needs of the population of people with visual impairments, Drs. Sheffield, D’Andrea, and Morash spent several years reviewing the literature. The research was delayed, in part, after the sudden, tragic passing of Dr. Morash in 2017. The addition of Ms. Chatfield to the research team allowed the research to continue, providing new perspectives and ensuring that the researchers could update and complete the literature review and publish the findings. The team is especially pleased that the publication further recognizes Dr. Morash’s contributions to the field of visual impairment and honors her memory.

“The results of this study could be considered a cautionary tale for the field of visual impairment on using old data and repeating unsupported information” (Sheffield et al., 2022, p. 21).

For the authors, one of many important take-aways from this research has been the cautionary tale of how easily, in the absence of clear definitions and sufficient citations, soundbites of data can take on lives of their own. Researchers and advocates in the field of visual impairment have a responsibility to carefully manage both questions and the answers in order to move the field forward based on shared understandings of what we know and what we still need to find out.

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