The Braille Monitor August/September, 2002
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Research and Future Opportunities for the Blind
by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: On Monday, July 8, 2002, Dr. Fred Schroeder, executive director of the Professional Development and Research Institute at Louisiana Tech University and past commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Education, addressed the convention. This is what he said:
Thank you very much, Dr. Maurer. It is a real honor and a pleasure to be here. Yesterday Dr. Maurer said that, if we do our jobs right, the Federation will endure long beyond us individually. What does it mean to do our jobs right? One of the things that is critically important is investing in future leadership. At Louisiana Tech University I have had the opportunity over the past year to work with two young leaders in the National Federation of the Blind who have assisted me with special projects: Brook Sexton and Matt Lyles. These two individuals are both former scholarship winners. They are both intelligent, hard working, organized, dedicated, but mostly they have the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Maurer, by creating the opportunities for young people to come into the organization, to develop, to learn about the philosophy we share, your leadership will enable these young people to carry us well into the next generation and the one beyond. I sincerely appreciate your leadership and what you have contributed to our organization.
Research--what is it? What can it offer us, and what are its limitations? Research is a way of gathering information objectively and systematically to aid decision making, but it is not a substitute or replacement for decision making. The National Research and Training Institute for the Blind gives us the opportunity to apply our research efforts to address the real problems affecting the blind in education, employment, and integration into society. So where do we begin? There is, perhaps, no greater or more pressing concern than the need to address the crisis in Braille literacy, and yet the problem is quite complex and will take our collective best judgment to solve. Let me begin with a discussion of the Braille Code as a reading and writing medium and the interaction between print and Braille. To illustrate, I will discuss the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC) Project.
As you are aware, the UEBC project has become quite controversial. Many have argued that the controversy can be settled only through research. It is suggested that we need research to answer the question of whether the Braille Code needs to be changed at all and, if so, in what ways. I agree that research is an important component of the UEBC discussion. However, it is folly to believe that we can look to research to decide whether the proposed new code will better serve us than the current Braille system. Choices will have to be made, decisions reached, and judgments formed about the relative advantages of the current code versus the proposed code. The responsibility is ours. Research can assist us in immeasurable ways in developing logical, informed opinions, yet we cannot escape the fact that the answer lies not in our research but in our collective best judgment.
For example, the proposed UEBC eliminates some contractions. This means that it takes more space to write ordinary literary work in the UEBC than in the present Braille Code, but how much more? A comparison made at the National Braille Press showed that the UEBC added about 2 percent to the space needed for a typical literary passage--2 percent--about one additional Braille page for every fifty pages written in the present code. We know this through research, but research cannot answer the question of whether 2 percent represents an unacceptable expansion of the code. The question is one of judgment. We know that the proposed UEBC is bulkier, but we also know it is less ambiguous. Does its lesser ambiguity make up for its greater bulk? Much of the answer lies in opinion and, for that matter, familiarity.
Let me illustrate. In the United States we are accustomed to using the capital sign. However, until recently in the United Kingdom the capital sign was not used at the beginning of sentences. Why not? It was felt that the capital sign was unnecessary since it is commonly understood that sentences begin with a capital letter. Using the capital sign adds about 3 percent to the overall length of a literary work. Three percent--yet few of us in the United States would have argued for our adopting the U.K. standard. Why? Because we believe that using the capital sign makes Braille less ambiguous. The reader does not have to assume the capital letter, and some believe there is an educational argument in favor of using the capital sign. But it is also true that we are accustomed to seeing a capital sign at the beginning of sentences, and this to at least some degree shapes our opinions.
I raise this example to point out the highly subjective way in which most of us approach the question of whether to change the Braille Code. It is a natural tendency to regard the familiar as superior to the unfamiliar. And yet, if Braille is to continue meeting our needs, I believe that we must give careful thought to developing the overarching principles that will guide future code development. What will those principles be? Space-saving may be a good and important principle, but if it is adopted as a guiding principle, we must recognize that it brings with it increased ambiguity. There is an inevitable link between space and ambiguity.
Many of you have some familiarity with Grade III Braille. Grade III Braille uses many more contractions and other space-saving strategies than ordinary Grade II Braille. Yet few of us would propose replacing the current Grade II system with Grade III Braille. Grade III is more compressed, yet it is substantially more ambiguous and requires much more interpretation by the reader. The utility of Grade III is primarily in writing--as a notetaking system, not as a reading system. Therefore, as we think about the future of Braille, it is important to remember that Braille must serve us as a writing system and also as a reading system, and what serves writing may not always best serve reading.
Compressed writing is not unique to the blind. At one time shorthand was in common use. However, today its use has been mostly supplanted by technology. Nevertheless, the idea of compressed writing did not vanish with the steno pad. Consider e-mail. While a relatively recent phenomenon, e-mail threatens to replace letter writing and perhaps will soon replace most telephone use. Accordingly, a whole new system of compressed writing has emerged and is beginning to take on an informal level of standardization. Let me take a moment to test your knowledge of e-mail jargon or, more accurately, your knowledge of common e-mail acronyms:
BRB--Be right back
BTW--By the way
CUL--See you later
F2F--Face to Face
FWIW--For what itís worth
FYA--For your amusement
FYI--For your information
GMTA--Great minds think alike
IMHO--In my humble opinion
IOW--In other words
LOL--Laugh out loud
OIC--Oh I see
TIA--Thanks in advance
WRT--With respect to
There you have it. Compression speeds writing, but what about reading? I have taken the liberty of composing a brief note using a few of the commonly known e-mail acronyms just discussed. Here is how it reads:
WRT the UEBC, you may feel compelled to LOL, but IMHO operating from the principle that GMTA, I believe that through ongoing F2F discussion, we will find common ground concerning the future of Braille. I give you this FYA but also FYI and as food for thought. TIA for your serious consideration of my views and BTW, TNX for keeping an open mind. CUL, BYE.
For those of you who may have had some trouble interpreting my note, I will read it again with some additional elucidation: WRT (with respect to) the UEBC, you may feel compelled to LOL (laugh out loud), but IMHO (in my humble opinion), operating from the principle that GMTA (great minds think alike), I believe that through ongoing F2F (face-to-face) discussion, we will find common ground concerning the future of Braille. I give you this FYA (for your amusement) but also FYI (for your information) and as food for thought. TIA (thanks in advance) for your serious consideration of my views and BTW (by the way), TNX (thanks) for keeping an open mind. CUL (see you later), BYE. Sorry about that. BYE is just bye.
My point? Compression leads to more efficient writing but not necessarily to more efficient reading. Yet the human reader is quite adaptable. Over time, without formal instruction, we can learn to recognize LOL as "laugh out loud" or in another context as "lots of luck." The key is context.
In Braille we often use context clues. For example, in literary Braille, what is the at sign? In e-mail addresses I have seen the at sign written in a variety of ways: I have seen it written out (that is, the letters a-t with a space on either side), but as most of you know, in e-mail addresses there is usually no space before or after the "at" sign. I assume with this in mind someone thought of writing an "at" sign by placing a ???dot 4 before the letters a-t to distinguish it from other text. It can then be written in an e-mail address without a space before or after it. In still other instances I have seen dot 4 stand alone to represent the "at" sign. To a reader none of these constructions causes more than a moment's puzzlement. Once you have seen an "at" sign written in any of these ways or, for that matter, in some other way, it is easily recognized. The question remains, is there an "at" sign in literary Braille, and, if so, what is it or does it matter, given the resilience of the human reader?
While Braille must serve the reader, it must work equally well for both reading and writing. Yet Braille must serve still one additional purpose. With the rapid growth in technology, we now have the ability to interact between print and Braille in a way previously unimaginable. I use a Braille notetaking device to send and receive e-mail. The device displays my messages in Grade II Braille and allows me to compose in Braille. The translation and reverse translation are automatic. This is a tremendous advantage for me as a blind person.
However, technology, as I am sure you are aware, brings with it its own challenges. While the human reader considers context, the computer mostly does not. This became apparent to me when my name Fredric K. Schroeder written in Braille was reverse translated Fredric Knowledge Schroeder. The computer recognized the letter K as the whole-word sign "knowledge." For an accurate translation to occur, I must remember to place a letter sign before the letter K so as not to confuse the computer even though the absence of a letter sign would not confuse a human reader. While only moderately annoying in literary Braille, this problem is significantly magnified in Braille mathematics.
A serious limitation of the current math code is that its inherent ambiguity makes computer translation and reverse translation impractical if not virtually impossible. The reason is that Braille math is highly context-specific. For example, what is dots 5-6, y? Well, it may mean a variety of things, depending on context. It could mean subscript y, letter sign y, or the contraction for the letters i-t-y. Context makes the meaning clear to the human reader but confounds the computer. On the other hand the proposed UEBC has the very tangible advantage of eliminating spacing rules and other context-dependent rules. But it is bulkier--and in mathematics it is considerably bulkier--and, therefore, there is a tradeoff.
What then is the answer? How can we insure that Braille will continue to meet our needs? Research can help. Research can give us information and insight, but research cannot make the choices or the decisions for us. This is not a denigration of research but rather a recognition of its purpose.
Today through the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind we have the ability to determine our own destiny according to our shared values, our shared beliefs, and our shared philosophy. What will we as blind people do about the crisis in Braille literacy? Will we change the code? And, if so, how? Will the changes be large or small, immediate or gradual; or will we work to improve teacher preparation? Will we work to develop new instructional materials and strategies to teach blind children and adults to read and write Braille efficiently? Will we develop better technology to facilitate translation and reverse translation of Braille, or will we do all of these things and other things not yet imagined? Whatever the decision, whatever the course of action, whatever the strategy--it will be ours.
The National Research and Training Institute for the Blind gives us the opportunity to address what we collectively regard as the real problems of blindness--problems relevant to our daily lives. No longer will others decide for us what is in our best interest. No longer will we be the passive recipients of another's benevolence. The real power of the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind is the power of our movement generally: the power of collective action, the power of self-expression, the power to refute the artificial barriers arising out of myth and misunderstanding--in short, the power that comes from having our fundamental equality supported by our research, our technology, and our training.
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