Technology Has Limits
Advocates for the blind say the trend away from Braille has not turned around despite several years of lobbying for better state and federal laws. "The infrastructure isn't there," said Maurer of the National Federation of the Blind. "In order to have people who are literate who are blind, you have to have folks who believe in blind people, who believe in Braille, and somebody prepared to produce it." Technology can be seductive, he said, but the machines have their own limits. For example, early vocalization software, which converted text to sound, worked well. But later innovations--particularly on the Internet--have reduced their effectiveness. The flashy images that make Web sites appealing for the sighted wreak havoc on the vocalization programs, rendering them ineffective about 70 percent of the time, he said.
Rachel Heuser, who teaches visually impaired students at Castille Elementary School in Mission Viejo, said she believes Braille is critical for blind students to become literate. But sometimes, she said, the difficulty of Braille precludes students from learning it. Readers of enlarged print take 50 percent longer to read the same material as a sighted reader. Braille readers take twice as long as a sighted reader to absorb the same material.
Kelli Kay of Rancho Santa Margarita never had a choice of instruction for her son, Derek Czajka, who was born totally blind. When her son was 3, she said, he was exposed to Braille through programs at the Braille Institute and has continued with Braille instruction under Heuser at Castille Elementary. Last year, as an 8-year-old second-grader, he excelled on a literacy test that measures reading ability for Braille readers from third grade into adulthood, Kay said.
Paradoxically, publishers of Braille material say they are producing more books now than before, as Braille readers continue seeking out material to read. The Los Angeles-based Braille Institute has its own Braille Press--the largest Braille publisher on the West Coast. Over a twenty-year span the Braille Press has more than tripled its output, from 1.9 million pages in 1977 to 5.8 million pages in 1997.
For Senge, though, the increased amount of Braille reading material represents lost opportunity. With his limited literacy, there are books he will probably never read. "Think about the challenges people have in life who don't have a sufficient mastery of the written language," said Senge, director of a Cal State Fullerton program that transcribes reading assignments into Braille for California college students. "It puts you in the category of being illiterate." The limits of technology, from tape players to computerized readers, quickly become evident, he said. "It's seductive at the beginning," he said. "When you're a little kid, you think this is easy; you don't have to struggle with [learning to read]. You become attracted to it. But at some point, it comes back to bite you."