Braille Monitor                                             January 2015

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Why Braille?

by Deborah Kendrick

From the Editor: This article first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. Here is what Editor Barbara Pierce had to say about it:

Deborah KendrickEditor's Note: Deborah Kendrick is a member of the NFB of Ohio's board of directors and president of the NFB of Cincinnati. She is also an experienced user and teacher of Braille. We asked her to summarize the arguments for Braille that the panelists gave at a recent workshop for BSVI [Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired] counselors. This is what she wrote:
Answers supplied by BSVI counselors recently in a brief survey regarding their attitudes toward Braille prompted me to weep. I didn’t, though. Their attitudes are misguided. But they are the misguided attitudes rooted in good intentions. We blind people have not spent sufficient time providing them with the information they need, and that is what I commit to doing until the numbers of Braille-literate (and subsequently the numbers of employed) blind Ohioans increase.

Very few counselors offer Braille to their consumers who are new to vision loss. Why? Mostly they believe it to be unnecessary due to technological advances and too difficult to learn.

These are myths rooted in rumor rather than fact, and, while directing our attention elsewhere, we have not been fervent enough, constant enough to dispel and put them to rest.

I had the opportunity to speak to Ohio’s BSVI counselors at a workshop in August (along with three other adults who use Braille), and here are some of the facts we addressed in that presentation:

Braille Means Jobs

Although 70 percent of working-age blind and low-vision adults are still without jobs, 85 to 90 percent of those lucky enough to hold jobs are users of Braille. If you doubt this, count the blind people working in any group you know, and you will find proof of this statistic again and again.

Replaced by Technology

Braille has not been replaced by “technology.” By this statement well-intentioned naysayers are probably referring to technology that speaks. While screen readers are essential to efficient management of electronic data, many blind professionals actually access that information using a combination of speech and magnification or speech and Braille. Sighted people love technology too, and they also have devices that talk. That talking technology has not replaced the need to see certain words at a glance or put down certain words in a flash for your own personal retrieval. All of those ordinary ways in which a sighted person uses print, ways as intrinsic and routine as breathing and ways not involving technology, are the same kinds of needs that spell independence for the Braille user.

Examples: Braille labels on spices, cooking ingredients, electronics chargers, hand tools, small components of an art or craft hobby, file folders, or household products. How does a blind person distinguish the file folder containing his 2014 bank statements from the file folder containing drawings made by a grandchild? How does a blind person know which bottle contains insect spray and which furniture polish? How does a blind person pull the desired size knitting needle or socket wrench from an assortment? How does a blind executive refer to his agenda? Or a blind Girl Scout leader to her song lyrics?

Braille is the answer to these and millions of other mundane situations where the only independent path to success is a few written words. Without Braille in such situations, that same competent blind person is on hold until someone else’s sight is available.

Who Can Learn?

Braille is not the rocket-science-caliber code that some fancy it to be. It is comprised of sixty-three different characters (the number of permutations available when beginning with a six-dot cell). Yes, learning to use those sixty-three symbols according to the rules takes some study, but so does learning the ABCs of print. (Some would argue that print, with its infinite fonts and styles is far more difficult. Braille, after all, has its sixty-three shapes that never change.)

I personally have taught people from the age of six to sixty-six to read and write Braille, and I have been acquainted with people both older and younger than those years who have become fluent. In approximately four months, assuming that the student is meeting with a competent instructor twice a week and given significant practice assignments between meetings, most individuals of any age can become fluent.

In half that time, an individual could at least become familiar with basic Grade 1 Braille (alphabet and punctuation marks only), which at least enables the individual to label items, note a phone number for independent access, or make a list of bullet points for presentation.

Connecting the Dots with Attitude

For many adults losing vision and wanting to work, the BSVI counselor is the first expert encountered. Attitude is everything. If you believe your life will continue and be full without sight, it will be. If you believe you can continue to work, you can. And if you believe that reading and writing now depend upon learning a new system, a tactile system of reading and writing, well then, you will learn.

If the adult in transition from sight to blindness is asked what she needs, chances are that she simply won’t yet know what she needs and certainly won’t know the power of Braille. If the new guide whom she now trusts to tell her, her BSVI counselor, presents the facts above and demonstrates a belief in Braille, she will learn.

So…Why Not Braille?

My challenge to counselors and rehabilitation professionals everywhere is this: encourage and support the use of Braille. Operate with the presumption that, if one needs BSVI services, one of those services will be Braille unless the consumer chooses not to learn it. If counselors believe that all blind people should learn Braille in the same way that sighted people should learn print, we will see those unemployment statistics plummet!

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