by Donna W. Hill
From the Editor: This article was originally posted on November 10, 2014 by Donna on her blog. Some of our readers will know Donna Hill as the author of The Heart of Applebutter Hill, a young adult novel which prominently features a blind character. Others will recognize her as an active member of the National Federation of the Blind who lives in Pennsylvania. Here is what she has to say about literacy and the blind:
Which minority has the greatest disparity between literacy, unemployment, and income on the one hand and intellect, talent, and willingness to work on the other? Why are a few of its members medical doctors, engineers, scientists, and lawyers, while most have never had a full-time job? The answer is able-bodied working-age blind Americans.
When I started developing my “Libraries and Literacy” page for this site, my intent was to thank some of the libraries that carry The Heart of Applebutter Hill. I collected photos from my library visits and quotes about literacy from famous people. As I proceeded, I realized that I couldn't help looking into the disparity between the situation of blind Americans and that of the general population and how literacy and the availability of books in accessible formats affect that disparity. This article is based on my research. You will find links to sources cited in this article under the References heading at the end.
To understand what is happening to blind Americans, it is important to know what literacy is. It is commonly defined as the ability to read and write—a definition that raises more questions than it answers. What is reading? What is writing? To hone in on the essence of literacy, however, we need only look to its Middle English roots, which—according to Merriam-Webster—mean "marked with letters." Literacy is an understanding of and fluency in language based on its primary building blocks—letters, punctuation, and sentence structure.
The parents of a sighted child would be justifiably horrified and outraged if their child was denied education in reading and writing print. "Johnny is a wonderful listener. He doesn't need print," just doesn't fly in the sighted world.
But, for a variety of reasons (most of which boil down to a lack of understanding and low expectations), blind children are routinely steered to audio learning. Recorded books and synthesized speech have their place in a blind person's toolbox, and they are essential for the vast majority of students with print disabilities—including sighted students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Nevertheless, Braille is the only alternative giving true literacy on a par with print.
Braille provides immediate access through the fingers to what sighted readers see with their eyes. Punctuation, spelling, paragraph markings, and other essential components of the written word are apparent through touch, since Braille is read by characters, words, and lines just like print is for sighted readers. Braille, which is now available in downloadable digital formats for high-tech refreshable Braille reading devices, is also the only option for people who are deaf and blind.
Here are a few numbers that demonstrate how literacy and access to books affect blind people:
As you read this section, keep in mind that, of the less than 40 percent of blind American adults who are employed, 90 percent read Braille (NBP).
NLS provides professionally-recorded books as downloads, on digital cartridge, and (until the entire collection is digitized) cassette tape. Some books are available in hard copy and downloadable Braille and in large print. NLS chooses books based on the New York Times bestsellers list and books with significant national press coverage. Regional NLS libraries record some titles of local interest. Borrowing from the NLS is free to all Americans with print disabilities.
According to the World Blind Union (WBU), over 90 percent of published books cannot be read by people who are blind or have other print disabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 39 million people worldwide, including 1.4 million children under fifteen, are irreversibly blind. This does not take into account the visually-impaired and learning-disabled populations for whom reading print is not possible. Only 320,000 people with visual impairments and other print disabilities in approximately fifty countries have access to Bookshare's collection.
Send an email, make a phone call, or write a letter to support the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. The Marrakesh Treaty is an effort to update international copyright laws pertaining to reading materials in accessible formats. Urge your national senators to support ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, which will facilitate access to published works for people with print disabilities.
A project of WBU and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), it was signed by seventy-two nations including the US in 2013. But a signed treaty is just a piece of paper. It needs to be ratified by twenty nations to become international law. So far only India and El Salvador have ratified it (WBU and WIPO).
Follow what's going on worldwide in the struggle for accessible books by visiting the DAISY (Digitally Accessible Information System) Consortium. The DAISY Consortium is a global group of organizations working towards creating the best way to read and publish. Read their awesome newsletter, The Daisy Planet <http://DAISY.org/newsletters>.
National Braille Press: <http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/braille/needforbraille.html>
National Federation of the Blind: Blindness Statistics: <https://nfb.org/blindness-statistics>
CNN on 2012 Income and Poverty Statistics:
Eleven Facts about Literacy in America | DoSomething.org:
Library of Congress: <http://www.loc.gov/about/fascinating-facts/>
Learning Ally: <http://LearningAlly.org>
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped: <http://www.loc.gov/nls>
World Health Organization: <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/>