Braille Monitor                                               November 2013

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Old-School Braille Needs Image Update

by Deborah Kendrick

From the Editor: Deborah Kendrick is a member of the National Federation of the Blind who lives in Ohio. She is a prolific writer whose articles appear both in blindness-related publications and in the mainstream media. Much of her work focuses on explaining blindness and the tools blind people use in ways that are novel and dramatically different from what we too often see in the public media. Here is one example of the artistry Deborah brings to her work. It is reprinted with the permission of the author from the Columbus Dispatch, June 30, 2013.

Who was Helen Keller? We know the answer, and yet the answer has changed with time. Thursday marked the 133rd anniversary of her birth. While most of us are familiar with the story of the miracle that occurred when a little girl who was both deaf and blind suddenly grasped the power of language, Helen Keller's image has transformed dramatically over the decades.

Her only access to classroom lectures and textbooks was the relentless interpreting of her teacher, spelling into Helen's hand. She graduated with honors and became internationally known as an author, speaker, and humanitarian, but her image was once a bit removed from regular people. She was a phenomenon, yes, but society also viewed her as a kind of freak of nature, a paragon untouched by the more common human needs.

Her image has changed—and for the better. Today we know that she was a complex, multi-dimensional woman—not asexual or unaware of earthly matters, but rather a feminist, a socialist, an advocate for disability rights—and a flesh-and-blood woman whose one true romance was thwarted by her "handlers" just short of her elopement.

You might say that, with time and more knowledge of her humanness, Helen Keller has gone beyond legendary and remarkable; she has become cool. This same transformation has occurred with our perceptions of other disability trappings. American Sign Language (ASL), once perceived as that odd business of a couple of people frantically, silently waving their hands around in public, is now recognized by all immediately as just another way of talking. Mothers teach it to their babies. Colleges and universities offer it for credit. Most people think that to know at least a few words and phrases in ASL is decidedly, yes, cool.

At the first-ever Braille Summit last week, a conference organized by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (a division of the Library of Congress) and that same Perkins School, where Helen Keller was a student, one hundred of the most passionate advocates for Braille literacy from throughout the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France gathered to talk about the future of literacy for people who can't read conventional print.

The problem is of crisis proportions. Although we recently celebrated the two hundredth birthday of the blind Frenchman who invented the tactile system of reading and writing for blind people, only 10 percent of blind people currently use it. Schools often assign a low, if any, priority in lieu of teaching blind kids to use their ears to listen to recorded texts and computerized voices. Adults losing sight consider it a badge of failure, so they learn it only if they have the good fortune to find a teacher who knows its value.

Without Braille a person who cannot effectively read or write print is illiterate. Although employment rates for blind adults are deplorably low (about 30 percent), 85 percent of those who are employed use Braille on the job.

"So how do we fix it?" was the question posed to those gathered at the Watertown, Massachusetts, event. A solid list of solutions was developed, a list for the Library of Congress staff and others to contemplate and try to implement. But one of the leading suggestions was this: Braille needs a better marketing campaign. It needs to be perceived as cool. For those of us fortunate enough to use it, of course it's cool. Reading and writing and language are recognized universally as keys to information, knowledge, and success. Braille is just another literacy medium, a system of dots rather than lines and squiggles. You see it on elevator panels and restroom doors. Why not look it up in the encyclopedia and puzzle out those numbers and letters? Teach it to your children and grandchildren. It can be a fun tool for writing secret messages. That's how it began, after all. Nineteenth-century French military developed "night writing" as a way for soldiers to relay messages after dark. One of them shared it with a school for the blind; young Louis Braille got his hands on it and turned it into a system that could convey to the fingertips any text ever written.

Every word I've ever written was read by me in Braille. It's not quirky or complicated or obsolete. It's just literacy—and that is 100 percent cool. Like Helen Keller and American Sign Language before it, Braille needs to be seen in a more positive light; it needs an image makeover.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities. You may contact her by writing to <[email protected]>.

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