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 course.
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.
Respectfully, Jim Rebman firstname.lastname@example.org
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 codes.
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 President National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science
Mr. Gotwals responded to me and to many others as follows:
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 (http://www.shodor.org/Braille/grant/braillegrant.html), 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 Braille.
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 email@example.com To: Chong99@cris.com, EASI@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU 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 Braille.
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 Braille?
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 Braille. Done. 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 President 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. firstname.lastname@example.org WWW: http://storm.shodor.org/~gotwals/gotwals.html (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."