Braille Monitor                                                 October 2012

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Readers, Braille, and Independence: A Scientist's Perspective

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat  VermeijFrom the Editor: Dr. Vermeij has been an occasional and thoughtful contributor to the Braille Monitor for a number of years. He is distinguished professor of geology at the University of California, Davis. Recent articles about the necessity of Braille compelled him to write this article. He said they “sent me over the edge,” by which I am guessing he means they caused him to speak out in support of a tool that has meant a great deal to him. Here is what he says:

Thanks to enormous improvements in technology, a vast amount of information has become available to the blind in recent years. Indeed, for some blind people and their sighted peers, audio formats and computer-generated Braille would seem to have largely eliminated the need for live readers, especially in fields far removed from mathematics and science. In fact I can foresee the sad day when blind people are expected to rely entirely on technology and when the option of having a live reader will no longer be available.

Over my forty-year academic career, I have relied very heavily on live readers and on the vast library of extensive Braille notes I have taken on the Perkins Brailler as I listen. With more than twenty thousand references at my fingertips, I have gained the freedom and independence to engage in extensive scholarship in many fields, all thanks to the flexibility afforded by having highly capable people read to me. It all began in college at Princeton, where I stood up during the first session in each class and asked for volunteers, whom I could pay (with New Jersey's money) about $2 per hour (in the 1960s). Highly capable readers always came forward, with the result that a symbiotic partnership was formed: I needed to read the material, and so did my readers. Fortunately, no disability bureaucrats interfered with this system, and the arrangement worked flawlessly.

As a working scientist with teaching and research duties, I outline four important reasons why live readers and Braille notes remain critically important even in the age of technology. Others may disagree, but I suspect these reasons will ring true to many students and others who carry a heavy reading load.

1. The volume of material to be read is great, and live readers are very efficient. I read ten to thirty scientific publications per week, depending on other commitments. In addition, I scan dozens of scientific journals and hundreds to thousands of titles; I conduct library searches online; and I review manuscripts and other documents, to say nothing of student theses and essays. Although much of this material is online and therefore in principle accessible without the intervention of a live reader, I save enormous amounts of time by relying on a human intermediary. Vision allows the reader to scan for items quickly without having to scroll down. If I want a particular citation or if I need to write down a quote, I can have it done in seconds with a live reader. The fifteen to twenty hours per week I spend with a live reader might well be doubled without her.

2. Most of the material I read is highly technical. It is laced with jargon, abbreviations, mathematical expressions, unpronounceable names, and arcane conventions. Sometimes illustrations communicate critical information, and often long tables contain information only some of which would interest me. A trained reader is at home with such complexities; and, when I make my extensive Braille notes, I have a permanent, easily accessible record that I can scan quickly with my fingers because I have whole pages of text to work with rather than a few cells of Braille. I use my Braille library every day, including many publications I read decades ago.

3. Not everything is online and accessible. A surprisingly large amount of scientific literature, especially older work and publications in languages other than English, is available only in its original printed version. For a scholar like me this literature remains essential, for I must often track down early descriptions of species and places and ascertain where ideas came from. For nearly every paper and book I have written, I have consulted publications that fall into this category. Without a live reader who can find and read me these sources, my scholarly work would be fatally compromised.

Many printed sources are still found only in a few libraries and cannot be scanned or removed easily. On occasion I have had to read old publications housed in rare-book collections at major academic institutions. Live readers and my ability to take Braille notes are indispensable in these circumstances.

4. Not everyone has my reading habits. For many undergraduate students materials accessible online will suffice to complement their studies, although highly technical material would likely be more accessible and more easily interpreted with the intervention of a fellow student reader struggling with the same material. My major concern is that the allure of technology will be seen as the only necessary accommodation to blind students and scholars. If live readers are no longer seen as a reasonable accommodation, a serious impediment would be imposed on graduate students and academicians. In our quest to improve technology, we must therefore strive to maintain flexibility in accommodation, allowing and indeed encouraging the use of live readers and the ability to accumulate extensive Braille notes in readily accessible paper form.

Engaging live readers entails a degree of dependence on other people, a situation that might seem to clash with the goal of gaining greater independence. But we must see this in a broader context: all of us live in a world of pervasive dependence on others. Most of us no longer make our own clothes, grow our own food, generate our own electricity, or teach ourselves. Like other forms of life, which live in interdependent networks in complex ecosystems, we cannot go it alone. A little dependence can relieve burdens of time and energy and ultimately leave us with the independence of thought and action we all desire.

Besides, how else would I have met my wife of forty years?

Professor Vermeij can be reached at <gjvermeig@ucdavis.edu>.

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