The Braille Monitor                                                                                       March 2003

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Just Saying No to Reading Braille, Part II

by Sheri Wells-Jensen

From the Editor: Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen teaches in the English as a Second Language Department at Bowling Green University in Ohio. She is interested in psycholinguistics and language preservation. As a Braille user herself she thought that Braille Monitor readers would be interested in her observations and reflections on Braille literacy from a somewhat unusual perspective. We published part I of her article in the November 2002 issue in which Wells-Jensen described the insights she came to while working with illiterate campesinos in Ecuador. Now here is part II:

To be honest, it took me a good while to get over my shock at how Braille (and reading in general) were perceived in Ecuador. I'd always gone with the mainstream flow: it's clear and obvious that reading is good and therefore not reading is bad. I was slow to learn what the Peace Corps teaches: other people in other contexts lead perfectly reasonable lives. We have to work our way past pre‑set, culturally imposed ideas about what "reasonable" means so that we can meet as human beings without prejudice. What may at first appear strange or even outrageous becomes sensible when we begin by assuming the people in question are intelligent, sensitive human beings making rational choices.

So I decided that I'd be wise not to decide anything about the attitudes and motivations of non‑Braille reading Americans. I still believed (and continue to believe) that knowing how to do something (reading, knitting, carving a duck out of a hunk of wood) is better than not knowing. But it became clear to me that this very conviction could get in my way, preventing me from understanding what I wanted to understand. Once I work my way past my own idea that not reading Braille is an inherently bad choice, I could begin to listen more openly with an attitude of respect and appreciation rather than judging nonreaders out of hand. I vowed that I would try to begin with humility and curiosity and see what others could teach me.

The usual approach would be to ask a series of questions, each one designed to elicit part of the data. But inevitably each question I create is tinged with my own perspective. We give ourselves away at every turn, revealing what we think good or right answers might be. Asking questions almost always sets up the kinds of answers we will get; that's why prosecutors, looking for a fatal flaw in a story, guide witnesses carefully through a series of interrogatives rather than saying, "So, Mr. Jackson, tell us all about it, Dude!" We set up our questions so that one answer is easier to give than another. We can even make it almost impossible for a person to answer genuinely.

I wanted to create a context in which a person could talk to me about Braille, a topic which might be sensitive, without feeling judged by me. I also didn't want to guide my interviewees too much, perhaps missing something important by not asking the right questions. There might well be reasons for not being a Braille reader that I haven't imagined yet so wouldn't ask about. Better to let people express themselves with as little guidance as possible, building up their own picture of reading and literacy and the interconnections between those things and identity.

Borrowing from the methods used by linguists and anthropologists to get at internal attitudes toward different languages, I decided simply to provide a topic, start a tape recorder, and let people talk.

I recorded conversations with four blind Braille readers and three blind people who didn't read Braille. Partly just for kicks and partly to make sure I wasn't missing anything, I then interviewed three sighted people both about print literacy and about Braille. All of these speakers were college-educated, some pursuing advanced degrees. Everybody had a lot to say once they got started. I began the conversation with a very general prompt such as, "Tell me all about Braille." Then I just let them carry on.

After my first couple of interviews, I had some idea of what kinds of things surfaced in these monologues, so I began to use those ideas as springboards for later subjects. When, for example, a Braille reader said that Braille equated in her mind with freedom, I might mention to the next interviewee that the word "freedom" had been used by a previous subject (without saying whether it had been a reader or nonreader) and ask him or her to respond to that idea.

After the interviews I listened repeatedly to the tapes, checking for common themes and beginning to make myself a list. Here are some of the things readers and nonreaders had to say about Braille literacy, along with some of the more interesting quotes. Much of what they have to say will seem controversial: there is no doubt something in these quotations to offend everybody; so brace yourselves! I take this as a sign that people were genuinely speaking their minds without worrying about being judged and that they take the topic quite personally.

To protect the anonymity of my interviewees, I've numbered the quotes rather than using initials. Quotes from nonreaders are labeled with an "A" and those from Braille readers with a "B." I've also made no real attempt to balance the number of reader and nonreader quotes used here in response to each topic. I've simply included the best quotes wherever they seem appropriate. Each one, though, represents a theme found in the data.

Reading speed and difficulty with the system itself: Although these are almost always the first issues mentioned by experts as contributing to low Braille literacy rates, neither readers nor nonreaders had much to say about reading speed or the complexity of the Braille system. Braille readers, both fast and slow, prefer Braille. Nobody mentioned how hard it might be to learn to perceive dots with the fingers or complained about contracted Braille (what we all used to call grade II Braille) being just too hard to learn. The conclusion here seemed to be that, if you wanted to learn Braille in the first place or had learned it as a child, these problems were no big deal. If you did not perceive a need to learn Braille in the first place, you didn't have to think about its being either slow or difficult to acquire. Such issues were irrelevant. This, by the way, was the only way in which both groups of blind people differed significantly from my sighted interviewees, most of whom were quite unsure whether they would be able to learn Braille at all, based on its perceived difficulty and strangeness. Reading speed and difficulty were among the first things mentioned by sighted folk when talking about Braille.

Independence and Privacy: Braille readers volunteered that they felt access to Braille was key to independence. Nonreaders also valued independence; they simply did not equate learning Braille with substantial increases in independence. They possessed the means to accomplish the same goals as sighted and Braille-reading peers, so their overall sense of mastery remained intact. One nonreader in particular expressed a sense of community and interdependence as opposed to what he sees as counterproductive rugged individualism of both his sighted and Braille-reading colleagues. Note, however, that he by no means lacked a strong sense of self‑determination as evidenced by his vehement reaction to a local rehabilitation agency that he viewed as overly paternalistic.

B1: "It's that independence that it [Braille] gives you to do your job as well as a sighted person."

B2: "I put labels on papers and stuff. I don't want to depend on people or wait and wait. I hate having other people read my mail, having someone I don't know know my damned business. I like to depend on people as little as possible. It's less frustrating."

A1: "I maximize the amount of control I can have . . . There's a lot of people who treasure what they think is their independence. What I think they're missing is they don't see how dependent they are all along. Do they grow their own food? Kill their own prey? There's a whole network of thousands of people."

A2 (referring to a local rehabilitation agency): "They like totally revamp you, and it's kind of despicable. They don't have any provision for somebody working [blindness] into their life plan. They want to totally remold you. It's infantilization. [They] think of you as a child who has to be retrained like potty training, how to cook and take care of your clothing. It's so patronizing in its fundamental attitude."

Negative Stereotype of Blindness: Readers of Braille feel that the ability to read Braille works to counteract negative stereotypes of blindness. Some expressed this as being more like sighted people and some as being efficient and graceful. Nonreaders on the other hand feel that Braille increases the gap between them and the sighted world, evoking (rather than counteracting) unflattering stereotypes of blindness, which they too reject. Both groups were quick to judge the other. Based on their own inexperience with the other's method, they were willing to draw quite dramatic conclusions and call names. These were the most difficult passages to work through since I kept stopping to wonder if this is a division within our community that we can afford.

B3: "I suppose Braille does make me feel more like a sighted person in a sighted culture. This is in part, I think, because reading is reading, whether it be Braille or print. I view feeling like a sighted person in a sighted culture positively, though I know some would disagree. This is not because I want to deny my blindness but because I don't feel a need for my blindness to be a primary identifier. If I'm not wasting time wading through a bunch of cross‑cultural dynamics pertaining to being blind, I can spend more time dealing with professional concerns, making friends, just going about the business of life. I guess I think that I want to minimize the time that I and others have to spend paying attention to blindness as difference. Also there are times when it's important to pay attention to the ways in which blindness makes us different, so it's kinda nice, I suppose, that reading doesn't have to be one of them."

B4: "If I had to do it from memory or from a tape prompt . . . I just think that'd be kind of klutzy. That's what concerns me a lot. They'll [nonreaders] be with an earphone or headphones and the tape might have their outline on it, and they'll be speaking, but you could tell. It's very obvious. There's a break in the flow. Some of those things are kind of obvious in some people."

B5: "Before my life here I was in law school. I took a course called Trial Technique, where our final exam was we had to try a case in front of a group of jurors, and I had my Braille notes there, and I was giving my opening, and it was smooth because I had read it over. I had rehearsed it in my mind. I had practiced it before. And I think, if I had to rely on a tape recorder, there would've been a lot of stops and starts. It would have been jerky, and I would have lost the jury's attention."

B6: "And also to a sighted audience, I think that would be a distraction if they see somebody fiddling with a tape machine or listening or knowing that they have an earphone in. I mean, to me that would be obvious. If you're reading from a card, that would look a little bit more natural, even though you've got one hand on the card."

A3: "It is true that I have an image of Braille as making me more like a blind person: ugly associations that are standard. From when I was sighted and younger and saw how some blind people acted. It seemed kind of pathetic, some of it. Barely progressing along, tapping clumsily, and . . . unclean and . . . who knew what, and I think I associate Braille with some of those negative images."

A4: "It's true that I tend to think of thick, funny‑looking books as part of a negative gestalt image of blindness. Braille is a musty old‑world image about blind people stuck away, and that sort of thing . . . [Tape] seems more sleek and high‑tech.

"Braille equals adjusted to blindness? In general, many readers believe that a blind person's failure to learn Braille reflects an underlying lack of adjustment to the loss of sight. Nonreaders, understandably, object to this interpretation, seeing the issue of reading media as a choice between valid alternatives. Braille is simply one method of accessing the printed word--not necessarily the best one--and it has nothing to do with lurking, unconscious maladjustment."

B7: [in response to the question of why a particular person didn't learn to read Braille] "Maybe that person wasn't comfortable with their vision loss."

A5: [in response to the statement above] "Sounds like someone's got some kind of schoolmarmish . . . . It reeks to me of some kind of protestant ethicky, prejudiced way of thinking . . . . It's a normative way of thinking. They like their blind people to be a certain way . . . . They like their blind people to be nice, disabled persons."

Definition of Literacy and Need for Reading: Again, understandably, the groups differ dramatically in their functional definition of literacy. Readers often take the hard line, equating literacy with unmediated visual or tactile reading. Some characterize voice synthesizers and tape recorders as props: only finger-reading is reading. Only finger‑reading is sophisticated enough to give you flexible access to literature. Nonreaders take a more complex, cognitive/social stance. They tend to define literacy in terms of the ability to manipulate text or to freely use the register of written English. They emphasize intellectual ability to do the job over direct perception of written characters as a defining feature of literacy.

B8: "If you don't have vision and don't read Braille, you're illiterate."

B9: "Not only is speech slower when you want it to go faster, but you have less flexibility in varying the speed with which you read a given bit of text, and to control the speed, you can't simply let your hands or eyes stop or slow down, but you have to begin pushing buttons and changing knobs. When a word is spoken, it evaporates into the air and is forever gone. One can linger over a written word, savoring it, pondering it, fitting it into context, and so on. While one can go back and replay a tape, this involves added activity and repetition rather than contemplative pausing.

"Perhaps this is a literary thing, but often when reading a text, I will be struck by the author's choice of a given word, and sort of hang there for a moment, thinking about why she or he might have chosen that particular word or phrase."

A6: "I come on the scene at a time when I can leapfrog past Braille."

A7: "I don't need it to take notes with because I've got that covered with my little tape recorder. I don't need it to read because now I have a scanner and one of those Kurzweil things . . . and tapes and talking computers. I just don't need it. I sort of need it for labeling things. I wish some technology could leapfrog on that, too . . . ."

A8: "Do I feel illiterate? It's an interesting, funny question. Hmm. I don't feel illiterate because I . . . can manipulate text. I guess the feeling is that there's such an easy connection between manipulation of keystroke on computer and doing things with words and letters. Of course I'm not illiterate; I type."

A9: "How does that apply to reading? I'm so skilled at manipulating the reading aloud of the words: I can go one word at a time and have it spelled. The connections between doing that and the visual process of reading are so strong that it feels like literacy."

A10: "I manipulate tapes so easily. I can pause over the word that way. I've been known to replay a phrase five times if I want to get exact words. I can slow down. Some people are natural musicians. They just meld or merge with their instruments. They don't experience the barrier that they're working with bulky, mechanical objects. Their own energy flows and continues on over the instrument . . . and I feel relatively like that with cassette recorders."

Interpretation of and Distance from Texts: In addition to objecting to the barrier of the tape recorder, Braille readers express the idea that silent reading puts them in a more intimate relationship with the text and its author. Nonreaders either welcome the narrator's interpretation or ignore it without noticing.

B10: "To me there is greater distance between text and reader; there is a go‑between, the person reading, or the speech output software. Some of those readers are dreadful . . . . I guess that's part of it too; speaking implies at least some level of interpretation. I have refused to read [i.e., listen to recordings of] certain books just because I didn't like the tone of a reader's voice or the way she or he dealt with questions of phrasing. But when I'm reading, I'm the one in charge of interpreting, and the only voice I have to deal with is the one inside my own imagination."

A11: "I find it enriching. There's enough room in my mind to accommodate both the author and reader as people I'm visiting. Whatever the reader is doing doesn't affect my interpretation of what the author is saying. It adds a dimension. I can extrapolate from the reader what the author is saying, including punctuating it differently. I'm doing an extra thing in my mind. Sometimes I get the same book read by the Library of Congress and by RFB or--you know the way RFB books are typically read by a string of readers. It's fun to have them switch."

Readers and nonreaders have more in common than we might have thought. Both groups have thought through their choices with some care. Both presented themselves as confident, adjusted, articulate adults who value independence and self‑determination. Both were ambitious, organized, strong‑willed, and hardworking.

Upon honest reflection, none of the non‑Braille readers felt that they were missing anything. Nor did they seem especially defensive or shy (an attitude frequently evidenced by sighted people who are unable to read print.) They weren't especially hostile toward Braille; it just wasn't in their game plan. When I asked if they would be willing to find out more about Braille or take a preliminary lesson just for fun, nobody reacted with hostility or resentment. Their responses reminded me a lot of my own usual reaction when a salesperson tries to interest me in the latest, hot new mobility gismo: say a curb and flagpole detecting gadget. I think, sure, I could have a look, but lacking any evidence at all that I need it, the idea slowly slips lower and lower on my list of priorities until it quietly disappears off the bottom. I never quite get around to it. The salesperson stops calling eventually, probably with a sigh, thinking how much better off I'd be if only I weren't so closed‑minded. By that time I've completely forgotten about it, feeling not one bit worse off.

So where does this leave me as an advocate for Braille literacy? It leaves me squarely where I started in Ecuador years ago, but now a bit wiser for having made the journey. No marketing approach or set of pointed questions or line of persuasive rhetoric can lead a person who is comfortable with his or her lifestyle to change approach radically. Why change when everything is already fine? That doesn't mean that I give up. I acknowledge that the charge-straight-in approach is not the best way. There is a way to affect even long‑standing habits, but it's subtle and requires both more work and more self-examination and discipline than most public relations campaigns.

The only way I can see to effect what amounts to a cultural shift for nonreaders is to live a viable, better alternative. I didn't say present, demand, or preach; I said live. I can change my community only through gentle, joyful action, becoming the change I wish to see. Advocating that other people learn Braille is a less effective way of spreading Braille literacy than allowing everyone, blind and sighted, to see through our daily actions just how damned terrific, beautiful, and useful Braille is in its own right. It's not a second‑class substitute for print that I can take or leave; it's our community treasure. Our collective understanding of these facts will shape the way we live, play, and work, and eventually it will shape the way Braille is perceived.

After all, the evidence that I need to go out and buy that curb and flagpole detector comes not in the form of the brochure from the salesperson but rather in the form of blind people I respect who quietly use their own as a matter of course and clearly benefit from it. Only then can I see that I may need one too. It doesn't do the salesperson any good to keep calling, and if I'm constantly harangued by users of the device saying that I must have one or I'm some kind of pathetic, dependent loser, my desire to go out and buy one evaporates completely.

So at its heart this isn't about what nonreaders think or about what readers say. It's about what readers do and about the way we treat one another. We can't coerce or convince nonreaders to take up Braille or force newly blinded folk to learn it, but we can, through our own consistent joyful use of Braille, make it practically irresistible.

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