by Curtis Chong
Editor’s Note: A little while ago I received a plea for help from a teacher of the visually impaired. The teacher, an experienced Braille instructor and avid believer in fundamental literary and math skills, had taken over a position that had been filled by an instructor with a great personality and a lackluster attitude toward Braille. The former teacher had concealed her own inadequacies in literary and Nemeth Code Braille skills by pushing the talking technology. She had, for example, convinced parents that their children did not need to know the Nemeth Code.
The new teacher was in an awkward position. He wanted to begin remedial instruction in Nemeth Code and other Brailleskills immediately, but parents were resisting. Could the NFB help? He particularly thought a letter from someone with strong credentials might help persuade the parents and the IEP team of the importance of a good foundation in Braille and Nemeth Code skills.
I took the problem to Mr. Chong, Director of the NFB Technology Department. He was happy to take on the task and, as you can see in his letter below, his credentials for speaking to this issue are as good as they come. Here is what Mr. Chong said about “Technology, Braille, the Nemeth Code, and Jobs”:
You asked me to express my views about children who are blind developing proficiency in literary Braille as well as the Nemeth Code. You also asked how good Braille skills relate to independence and career opportunities for persons who are blind.
Let me begin by telling you a bit about myself. I am totally blind. I currently direct the Technology Department of the National Federation of the Blind. For twenty years, from 1977‑1997, I held a variety of positions in data processing (now called information technology). I started out as an applications programmer writing mainframe software in a number of languages. I then moved into the technical support area, installing and maintaining operating systems, data base management, and communication software for the corporate mainframe environment.
When I left private industry in 1997 to take my current position with the National Federation of the Blind, I was managing the work of two technical support teams; one team supported mainframe communication systems, and the other, mid-range computer operating systems and performance monitoring software.
A critical factor in my success was proficiency in Braille. I used literary Braille to write operational procedures and performance evaluations. I used a mixture of the Nemeth Code and the Computer Braille Code to write and debug computer programs, to perform hexadecimal math calculations to analyze memory dumps (there was no hexadecimal calculator for the blind), and to jot down the syntax of the many programmatic statements used to configure the large data base and communication systems under my responsibility.
Although today I make full use of computers with speech output, I find that there is no substitute for being able to put my hands on a complicated piece of code or a document whose language requires careful crafting. Proficiency in literary Braille, the Nemeth Code, and the Computer Braille Code allows me the freedom to proofread, in extreme detail, the most complicated material—something which I would find exceptionally difficult if speech were my only means of receiving information.
There seems to be a widespread misconception that with today’s speech‑capable computers, it is possible for blind students to forego the development of proficiency in the more technical Braille codes. It has been said that a blind person can perform mathematical calculations with a talking computer or electronic note‑taker and achieve the same result as would be obtained using the Nemeth Code. I would like to correct emphatically any thinking along these lines.
While today’s talking computers are indeed capable of converting standard ASCII-printable text into speech, they cannot speak the non‑textual symbols used in even the most basic form of mathematics. They cannot speak the square root symbol, superscripted or subscripted numbers, triangles, arrows, and other geometric shapes used in basic algebra and geometry. Moreover, a talking computer does not render in a meaningful way the spatial information that is often the key to solving a complicated mathematical expression.
Another misconception that should be dispelled is that the blind student must learn the entire Nemeth Code in order to use it. This is not at all true. Just as sighted students learn new mathematical symbols only when they must use them, so it is with the blind student using the Nemeth Code. The student, who already should know basic Braille, only needs to learn the Nemeth symbols that are relevant for the mathematics being taught.
While discussions take place about whether or not blind students need to learn the Nemeth Code, some interesting statistics are worth keeping in mind. Among blind Americans of working age (18‑55), there is a staggering 70 percent unemployment rate. Of the remaining 30 percent who are employed, 80 percent or more use Braille. I submit that this is no accident. There is a direct correlation between success in employment and proficiency in Braille.
In closing, I would ask you to remember that Braille is to the blind what print is to the sighted. With Braille, a blind person can examine every aspect of a piece of writing, including the spaces between words, the exact punctuation used, the capitalization of each and every letter, and the layout of mathematical expressions.
Those who labor under the misapprehension that the Nemeth Code is a code that is separate from and unrelated to the Literary Braille Code should consider how mathematical symbols in print relate to literary print. Education in mathematics necessitates the learning of new symbols and concepts, and it doesn’t matter whether the student is blind or sighted. While the blind student must learn Nemeth Braille symbols, the sighted student must learn printed mathematical symbols—symbols which are unfamiliar at first but which become rapidly familiar as an understanding of the subject is achieved. Depriving a blind student of the opportunity to learn the Nemeth Code is the same as preventing a sighted student from learning the meaning of printed mathematical symbols.
I hope that I have satisfied your questions about the value of Braille in general and the Nemeth Code in specific. I also hope that I have put forth satisfactory arguments demonstrating that for the blind, Braille is a vital key to independence and career opportunities.
Curtis Chong, Director of Technology
National Federation of the Blind