From the Electronic Mail Basket:

                   Teaching Braille Online

                       by Curtis Chong
     From the Editor: A couple of months ago now, Curtis

Chong, President of the National Federation of the Blind in

Computer Science, sent me an exchange of comments--can one

refer to such exchanges as letters when they were never

intended to appear on paper? I found the information

interesting and, on the whole, reassuring. It is clear that

Federationists are patrolling the Internet and that people

of good will from various places are working to increase the

number of people who know and like Braille. It is also

comforting to see a constructive dialog begin among folks

who started a conversation in distrust and unhappiness. Here

is the exchange that was first printed in the Winter, 1996,

edition of Computer Science Update, the publication of the

NFB's computer science division:
     On December 12, 1996, an announcement was sent out over

the Internet about a new on-line Braille course. The

announcement was made jointly by the School of Education at

the North Carolina Central University (Durham, North

Carolina), the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, and

the Shodor Education Foundation, Inc. In a nutshell the

announcement promoted something called "BRL: Braille through

Remote Learning," a program funded in part by the U.S.

Department of Education. Here is part of the announcement:
          This program provides teachers, parents,

     social workers, and current/future Braille

     transcribers with a series of three integrated,

     online courses in Braille and Braille

     transcribing. The program is designed to offer the

     Braille student the RIGHT INSTRUCTION (almost all

     aspects of Braille) at the RIGHT TIME (self-paced)

     in the RIGHT PLACE (home or workplace). By

     combining electronic technologies, quality

     materials, and expert instructors, the program has

     as its goal the provision of a complete Braille

     instructional program to all types of consumers

     nationwide who have an interest in some or all

     aspects of Braille codes.
     Blind people who read the announcement took exception

to the course requirement for a graphical web browser. They

expressed the opinion that this requirement would render the

course inaccessible to the blind. I understand that Bob

Gotwals, the contact person for the course, received many

impassioned notes by electronic mail on this subject. Here

is an example of one note, which was posted to the EASI

mailing list:
From Jim Rebman [an active member of the NFB of Colorado]:
     I would like to point out that the technical

requirements and course materials, as you describe them,

preclude blind people who depend on speech synthesis and

screen reader technology from participating in this course.

The requirement for a graphical browser and the use of Java

scripts and graphical images (which I assume are not

described) are all integral, yet inaccessible parts of your

     As you are probably aware, blind people can be parents,

teachers, social workers, and Braille transcriptionists. By

making your course materials inaccessible, you are

effectively discriminating against the blind population. I

am certain that this was not intentional but nonetheless,

that is the result and, as somebody who frequents this list,

I would think you would be more aware of these issues. I

would also like to remind you that there are laws that

protect disabled people from such things.

                               Jim Rebman
P.S. Do you plan to do anything about this situation?
     I myself wrote to Bob Gotwals in my capacity as

President of the NFB in Computer Science, asking for

clarification. Here is what I said:
December 17, 1996
Mr. Bob Gotwals

The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.

Durham, North Carolina
Dear Mr. Gotwals:

     My name is Curtis Chong, and I am the president of the

National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science

(NFBCS). This organization of blind computer professionals

and lay persons works hard to ensure that blind people have

equal access to computer systems and applications.
     I read with interest your December 17 announcement

about the Braille-Through-Remote-Learning program. Your

announcement says in part:
          This program provides teachers, parents,

     social workers, and current/future Braille

     transcribers with a series of three integrated,

     online courses in Braille and Braille

     transcribing...the program has as its goal the

     provision of a complete Braille instructional

     program to all types of consumers nationwide who

     have an interest in some or all aspects of Braille

     In the section which discusses the technical

capabilities program participants must have, you mention

that a graphical web browser is required. Graphical web

browsers imply that some, if not all, of the information

that will be presented to the student is non-textual--that

is, purely visual. This leads me to ask if your program is

intended for persons who happen to be blind or visually

impaired? The requirement for a graphical web browser

implies that it is not. As I am sure you are well aware, it

is not uncommon for blind people to be social workers,

parents, teachers, and Braille transcribers. If, as stated

in your announcement, the program is intended to provide

Braille instruction to "all types of consumers nationwide,"

how will you make it possible for blind people to

participate in it on an equal basis with the sighted? I

would appreciate some clarification from you on this point.
                                            Yours sincerely,

                                                Curtis Chong


                            National Federation of the Blind

                                         in Computer Science
     Mr. Gotwals responded to me and to many others as

December 18, 1996

From: Bob Gotwals gotwals@SHODOR.ORG

Subject: Interest in On-line Braille Course

To: Multiple recipients of list EASI EASI@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU
     We are very aware of the fact that the current design

of the Braille online folks makes it difficult for blind

individuals to participate easily. This is a three-year

program. . . . Years one and two are concerned with

developing and pilot testing the curriculum and

experimenting with the use of current and emerging

technologies to try to think of new ways of presenting

Braille education. If you read the grant proposal

(, you

will notice that we intend, once the courses are

pilot-tested, to ensure that all of the materials are 100

percent accessible. We had asked the granting agency for

funding to do this earlier, but this portion of the request

was not funded. What was funded was the money to develop the

materials and to investigate the use of advanced

technologies, such as JAVA and VRML, in the teaching of

     What we are counting on is that the improvements in Web

browsers for blind folks by others who are being funded by

the Federal government (and other agencies) will make our

additional task of ensuring accessibility that much easier.

Yes, there are a number of things that we can do early on,

such as make liberal and clever use of ALT tags for images.

We're not sure yet how we're going to handle the heavy use

that we make of screen snapshots, but we're working on it.

We think we'll be able to go a long way towards 100 percent

accessibility from the early stages.
     What are our options? If there is the demand that the

course be 100 percent accessible from Day One, our option

might be: we can't do that at this stage of the game, either

for the amount of money awarded us by the granting agency

and/or because of technical limitations. In other words, we

don't even try; give the money back. If folks are willing to

give us the time we need to develop the course, work on the

technological advancements, get bugs out, and wait/work with

others who are looking to improve browsers, then perhaps

everyone wins.
     I've worked in the VI field as a Braillist/teacher for

almost thirty-five years. My master's degree is in education

of the hearing-impaired from the National Technical

Institute for the Deaf. I taught at Gallaudet and am fluent

in sign language. I am well aware of all the issues

concerning accessibility, and we thought a lot about this

issue early on (that is why we asked for the additional

funding to make it happen!).
     This Braille education program is, by the way, part of

a larger VI master's degree program that is being developed

at North Carolina Central University. The idea is to make a

large part of that program accessible over the Net, and the

Braille course is the first test of that concept. We sure

would like a chance to make it work....again, if there is a

demand that the effort be made to ensure 100 percent

accessibility in the experimental phase, we can pretty much

ensure that the experiment will fail.
     Tell us what to do. The Foundation that I work for is a

group of computational scientists and educators--we do

chemistry and physics on high-performance computers. We want

to do this work because we think it's important, because we

think we have something to offer, and because we care deeply

about the community. Our original budget proposal was half

of what we were awarded--the U.S. Department of Education

felt so strongly that this work was important that they

asked us to look at new technologies as well as design the

series of courses. As computational scientists we think we

can take some of the techniques that we use on a daily basis

to do science to the problem of helping folks understand

Braille better. Hopefully, we'll have a chance to figure

that out, then deal with the problems of accessibility.
     Looking forward to a reasoned and reasonable discussion

of these issues.
     I wrote back to Mr. Gotwals, and he responded to me

fairly quickly. He chose to intersperse his responses within

the original text of my letter, which is a common practice

these days when communicating by electronic mail. Here is my

letter with his responses, which appear in italics:
December 19, 1996

From: Bob Gotwals


Subject: Braille Online
Mr. Chong,

     Thank you for your very kind and supportive note. Some

replies are imbedded in your note. I've taken the liberty of

copying the EASI group on this note.
December 18, 1996
Mr. Bob Gotwals

The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.

Durham, North Carolina
Dear Mr. Gotwals:

     I have received your post to the EASI mailing list

dated December 18, 1996; and I thank you for your candor on

this subject. You acknowledge in a straightforward and no-

nonsense manner that the current design of the Braille-

Online program makes it difficult for blind people to

benefit from the course material. I wish that you had made

this clear in your original announcement so as to mitigate

some of the criticisms you have doubtless received.
     We couldn't agree more and have modified our online

announcement to so reflect this. Future mailings will

absolutely include the appropriate statement. What a

wonderful and useful suggestion. In hindsight this one

should have been a no-brainer. We consider ourselves to be

intelligent folks, but common sense doesn't always prevail!
     Regardless of whether or not Braille Online will be

useful to blind computer users, the fact remains that the

blind community will be better served if more people become

proficient in reading and writing Braille. We, the blind,

need teachers of blind children who believe in Braille and

who are competent, both in its use and in its teaching. We

need more skilled Braille transcribers in order to increase

the number of Braille books that we can read. Above all, we

need more people who believe in the value of Braille so that

all blind children will be schooled in this vital tool of

literacy. We cannot know today whether any on-line method of

teaching Braille (such as Braille Online) will help to

achieve these goals, but this should not stop people from

trying to develop new and innovative ways of teaching

     As I may have mentioned, my foundation is not in the

business of working for or with the blind or deaf

communities. We're doing this work because of my personal

interest in Braille and sign language. I've been doing

Braille since I was seven, and it's been a love affair that

has gone on now for thirty-five years. The opportunity to

try to incorporate the work I do as a scientist and

technologist with my first academic love was just too good

to be true. I'm disappointed that we weren't more careful

about the wording, especially regarding accessibility. If

there is a Braille fan club, I'm pushing to be at the front

of the line!
     I am not personally convinced that blind people can

learn Braille using audio output alone or, for that matter,

any form of on-line, computerized instruction. Braille is,

after all, a tactual, hands-on means of reading and writing.

Without hard copy Braille material or a refreshable Braille

display (which most of us can't afford to begin with), how

can we realistically expect someone who is blind to learn

     Concur. We're not sure where technology will take us,

so all we can do is keep our fingers crossed that the

technology will move us past the audio. We had proposed

trying to incorporate a refreshable Braille display

capability to the course (with the assumption that prices

will go down), but the funding agency didn't or couldn't

include that.
     Carrying this thinking a bit further, I hope that your

instructional program will enable sighted participants

actually to feel the Braille they are learning.

Instructional programs in which Braille is presented only

visually (e.g., printed dots on the screen or page) fail to

reinforce the notion that Braille is first and foremost

something handled by touch!
     Most of the folks locally here who helped us test the

intro course this past semester prepared their assignments

on Perkins Braillers. Most of them are current VI teachers,

so have lots of access to Braille materials in their school

(most of our guinea pigs were Governor Morehead faculty). In

short, I couldn't agree more. Even as a sighted reader, I

use my fingers.
     If I were to make some specific recommendations, they

would be as follows:

     1. I think it is important that your promotional

materials clarify that Braille Online is not now accessible

to the blind. You might even take this notion a step further

and clarify that the target audience for the program

consists of sighted people who will be teaching or producing



     2. I would not hold out much hope that web browsers

will make the graphical world more accessible to the blind.

Although web browsers can and should be made more compatible

with screen-reading systems used by the blind, accessibility

to the Worldwide Web is more readily achieved if web page

designers take the time and trouble to ensure that the

design of their web pages meets basic accessibility

guidelines too numerous to list here.
     We have some of those guidelines and will adhere to

them to the maximum extent possible. We'll also be depending

on the community to tell us when we fail. Within

technological feasibility, we'll fix it. I don't share your

feelings about web browsers, however. Perhaps I'm the

eternal technology optimist! After all, didn't Bill Gates

say (not too long ago either), "640K of RAM memory is all

anyone will ever need"?

     3. If you haven't considered doing it, provide a way

for course participants to deal with hard copy Braille.

Based upon what I have read so far, it appears that course

participants will be producing Braille with either a Perkins

Braille Writer or a slate and stylus. This is eminently

desirable. I wonder how you envision having them turn in

their Braille assignments?
     Folks who did hard copy Braille mailed them to me.

Worked fine. Depending on student load, we'll have local

teachers here help with grading and evaluation. I did have

some folks use a piece of software that emulates a Perkins

Brailler. They also had a chance to use a real Perkins

Brailler. They were impressed with the similarities in the

two. We'll continue to investigate that phenomenon.

     4. I think that some research needs to be conducted

specifically to determine how on-line computerized

instruction courses--specifically, courses to teach

Braille--can benefit people who are blind. My initial notion

is that no benefit can be truly realized unless the course

presents information both audibly (using synthesized speech)

and tactually (using a refreshable Braille display) at

strategic points. You may have a different concept in mind.

If so, I would like to discuss it.
     Would love to have that discussion. Again, the current

design depends heavily on photographs (screen snapshots) of

the monitor. On the monitor is the Perkins-emulator program

that I use, which uses a special Braille font. The only way

we can think of now to replace those snapshots is with large

audio files. Unless the recipient has a high speed line,

this may be problematic.
     I want to thank you for taking the time to discuss this

important issue with everyone. I hope that you will not feel

personally offended by some of the comments you may have

received. All of us want more blind people reading and

writing more Braille, and all of us want more and better

Braille instruction and transcription services to be

available to the blind community. Where we may differ is in

our respective approaches.
     I have to admit that the criticism has been difficult.

We should have foreseen it better, and I'm mad at myself for

that. At the same time, I've been a Braillist and a

professional sign interpreter for a long time. A significant

part of my life has been devoted to this work, so it has not

been easy. We're still excited about the work, however, and

are determined to do it right. I concur that we both want

more and better Braille instruction, and that is clearly the

goal. I'm not sure our approaches are that far apart....but

hopefully we've started down the path of making those

differences disappear.
                                            Yours sincerely,

                                                Curtis Chong


                            National Federation of the Blind

                                         in Computer Science
     Many thanks again for your thoughtful, insightful, and

instructive letter. Best wishes for a blessed and restful

holiday season. After perhaps a rocky start, I'm looking

forward to a long, professional (electronic) relationship

with you and with other EASI participants.
                                      Robert R. Gotwals, Jr.

                              Computational Science Educator

                       The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.



                                              (919) 286-1911

     So, there you have it. I don't know how good Braille

Remote Learning will turn out to be. I can't even say if it

will help to increase the number of people who will know

Braille well enough to be of help to us. What I do know is

that in its present form Braille Remote Learning is not

accessible to the blind--nor is it meant to be. Can blind

people benefit from Braille instruction received on-line

through the Internet? If the only means of receiving

information we have available to us is synthetic speech,

then I would say "No." If we have both synthetic speech and

refreshable Braille available to us and if different

information is communicated through each channel, then my

answer is, "Maybe."