Braille Monitor                                                 November 2010

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Are Braille's Days as the Great Equalizer Over?

by Kenyon Wallace

From the Editor: The following story appeared in the National Post, Friday, August 6, 2010. It is interesting because it discusses the current plight of Braille from a Canadian perspective. Here it is:

The publication in 1829 of a small booklet explaining how a series of raised dots arranged in a line could teach the world's blind to read is one of modern history's great, if often overlooked, turning points. Once hailed as the great intellectual equalizer, Louis Braille's development of a new alphabet that could be read with the fingers is now at risk of being consigned to history, overtaken by the rapid pace of changing technology.

Only 10 percent of blind school-aged children are taught Braille today, compared to about 50 percent in the 1960s, according to the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. The statistic is roughly the same for Canada. The prospect of Braille’s becoming obsolete has sparked a polarizing debate between advocates, educators, and individuals over the causes of the code's decline and what to do about it.

Advocates blame funding shortages, not enough qualified teachers, and decisions by administrators to deny Braille instruction to children with low vision because of an emphasis on encouraging these students to read print. Educators say this assessment couldn't be further from the truth and argue that today's diagnostic tools have honed the art of identifying those who truly require Braille instruction and those who don't.

Others still—including many blind people—say advances in assistive technology, such as audio books, voice-recognition software, and computer screen-readers, have rendered Braille unnecessary in daily life. They say its cumbersome nature—a single Harry Potter book printed on Braille paper will fill a moving box—makes it impractical and unaffordable.

"Braille is not necessary to have a full and complete life as a blind Canadian," said Edmonton resident Keith Gillard, who was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that rendered him legally, but not completely, blind at birth. As a child he was encouraged to use what vision he had to learn print, but not Braille. "They taught me how to touch type rather than learn Braille."

By his mid-twenties, the blurry fog obscuring his peripheral vision began to creep toward the centre of his eyes as his condition worsened. Mr. Gillard gauged the severity of his increasing blindness by his ability to see the lines on the ice at his local hockey rink each winter while playing on a blind hockey team. Now forty-nine and completely blind, he says he has contemplated learning Braille but probably never will, given the plethora of technological aids he uses at work as a federal civil servant and at home.

"Adaptive technology has opened up the world of education and employment for blind Canadians. Braille hasn't done that," he said. "I recognize the benefits. Would I be better off as a blind Canadian if I was a proficient Braille reader? I think I would be. Is it necessary for me to be successful? No."

Up until nine years ago, Sarah Empey, thirty-five, had full eyesight. When she was twenty-six, the Type 1 diabetic suffered complications due to high blood pressure and started to go blind. Despite several operations, she now has only 15 percent vision in her right eye. She intends to learn Braille one day but hasn't found the need for it yet and has learned only numbers. "It's not something I would use at this point," says Ms. Empey, a Calgary resident and short film director. She uses a program on her computer called ZoomText, which magnifies text and uses an audio device called a Victor Reader to listen to books. "Some people are fine with technology doing everything for them. I do see Braille as slightly dying off, but for me Braille still means more independence [in the future]."

Twenty years ago the predominant philosophy governing education of the blind was to maximize the efficiency of whatever vision students had in a regular classroom with their sighted peers. This required partially blind children to use a myriad of tools such as monocular telescopes to see the blackboard, magnifying glasses, bold markers, and large-print books. These tools evolved through the 1980s to include small cameras students could roll over text that would be blown up on a closed-circuit television.

"Braille was never given to them as an option because, if you had vision, you were supposed to use vision," said Dr. Carol Farrenkopf, coordinator of the Toronto District School Board's Vision Program. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that teachers began using a tool called a "learning media assessment," using observations and timed readings to determine if Braille should be introduced.

Another factor driving down the rate of Braille use is the fact that those who go blind later in life due to medical conditions, such as diabetes and macular degeneration, already have literacy skills and are therefore less likely to be inclined to learn a new writing system. "A sixty-year-old woman working who already knows how to read and write and then loses her vision, why does she need to learn Braille when she can keep going with technology?" said Ms. Farrenkopf. She stresses that not all blind children need to be taught Braille.

"Legal blindness is not the same thing as being totally blind," said Ms. Farrenkopf, noting that 20/200 vision—legal blindness—is still functional vision. (Someone with 20/200 can see a letter at twenty feet while a person with normal vision can see the same letter from 200 feet.) "Kids with 20/200 vision don't need to be reading Braille."

That opinion is not shared by all Braille advocates, who wonder at the logic of not teaching the system to children when many eye conditions are degenerative. "They're in the school system where people are being encouraged to use the technology and their remaining vision at the expense of learning Braille that will prepare them for vision loss as they get older," said CNIB spokeswoman Ellie Shuster.

Advocates also say the integration of blind children within the regular school system means less one-on-one time between teachers and students and therefore less consistent Braille instruction. The result, they say, is that many students end up being functionally illiterate.         "School districts across the country, in general, don't adequately support Braille instruction," said Betty Nobel, president of the Canadian Braille Authority. "In the primary grades kids should have daily Braille instruction, but they're not getting that."

Forty years ago Canada was home to several residential schools for the blind, where all students were expected to learn Braille. There is only one such school remaining today: W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind and Deafblind in Brantford, Ontario. The Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, which provides educational services to students from birth to twenty-one years of age with sensory impairments, has also established several successful short-term, intensive Braille courses that can be taken during the regular school year.

But it's not enough, says Ms. Nobel, who is also department head of the Program for the Visually Impaired at Vancouver Community College and a CNIB library board member. She says teachers in the regular school system may not have blind children in their classes every year, meaning they lack the opportunity to stay proficient in Braille. "If this means lowering the workloads for teachers that have blind students, that's what we need," she said.

The implications for an illiterate blind population are profound. A study by Dr. Ruby Ryles, a blindness researcher at Louisiana Tech University, found that visually impaired people who learned Braille at a young age were more likely to be employed, financially independent, and better educated than those who relied primarily on print—this in a world where blind adults already face an unemployment rate of over 70 percent.

Diana Brent, a teacher of visually impaired students, and her husband, Doug Brent, a University of Calgary communications professor, are the authors of one of the only studies comparing the writings of blind people who learned Braille at a young age and those who didn't. NonBraille users were asked to type stories on a keyboard using audio software. Their findings were alarming. The Brents described the prose of the nonBraille group as "jumbled and confused." "It's as if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken, and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table," the authors concluded. "The process of making connections, linking one idea to another is tenuous at best."

While preliminary, the results suggest that blind children relying solely on an oral education have virtually no means of literacy in the sense that society has come to understand it. "It's still well worth teaching children Braille, even if they choose later to drift away from it," said Mr. Brent. "To not have access to a way of organizing thought that depends on a system of written record, to not be formed by that arguably makes people think differently and puts them at a significant disadvantage."

Who was Louis Braille? Louis Braille was born fully sighted on January 4, 1809, in a small town near Paris, France. He lost his sight as a small boy after accidentally stabbing himself in the eye with a stitching awl in his father's shoemaking workshop. An infection in one eye spread to the other, rendering him completely blind. A creative and intelligent boy, Braille earned a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris when he was ten. While there, he learned to read using a system of raised letters by pressing shaped copper wire onto paper. But this cumbersome system made it impossible for blind people to write by themselves.

In 1821 French army captain Charles Barbier de la Serre visited the school to share his invention, which he called "Night Writing." The invention was a series of twelve raised dots combined to form words that soldiers could use to communicate in the night without talking. The code proved too difficult to understand, so Braille modified the system to a series of six raised dots, with characters representing each letter of the alphabet. In 1829 he published his system in the booklet, "The Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Song by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged by Them." This new system of reading and writing—Braille—did not catch on immediately. Braille, who eventually became a teacher at the Institute, died of tuberculosis on January 6, 1852, before even his own school adopted his code.

The French government officially recognized the Braille system two years later, and it eventually became the world standard for written communication for the blind.

In 1952 Braille's body was disinterred and reburied in the Pantheon in Paris to lie with the remains of other distinguished French citizens.

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