Braille Monitor                                             January 2016

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When History Repeats Itself, Why Must Blind People Be the Victims?

by Steve Jacobson

Steve JacobsonFrom the Editor: In the December 2015 issue of the Braille Monitor, we talked about the rollout of Unified English Braille and the decision made by the Braille Authority of North America, the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind to continue using Nemeth Code for mathematics in the same way that we continue to use music Braille for that very specific notation. Every organization that debated this issue was reluctant to change Braille, but all of them decided that, in the interest of allowing it to represent print symbols that are more commonly used in our more technical society, in an effort to produce better materials which are translated from print to Braille and from Braille to print, and in an effort to create a code which could more easily be expanded as changes in notation would require, we would make the difficult transition to Unified English Braille for the literary code. However, because of many concerns raised about the use of Unified English Braille for mathematics, a decision was made that we would continue to use the Nemeth Code for mathematics.

In this article Steve Jacobson discusses policy positions taken by the Braille Authority of North America and examines the implications of letting the choice of Braille instruction be individualized. I observe that the word “individualized,” like the word “choice,” seems to be the buzzword of the day. The question we must ask ourselves is whether words in common usage represent the goal being sought when they were adopted or whether their invocation too often represents just the opposite. Because individualized education is a part of the law, some claim there can be no requirement that blind children be given Braille instruction, that no test can be used to determine a child’s optimal reading method, and that, in essence, individualized means that what a child gets or does not get is dependent on his or her individualized education team, a team all too often composed of people who lack a strong understanding of (or often even basic exposure to) the efficient use of blindness techniques. Since so many in the field proclaim that we are interested in seeing more blind people enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, isn’t it reasonable that we point out that the argument is rarely if ever advanced that the answer to a scientific problem or a mathematical answer is individualized or a matter of choice? Arguing for a teaching style that embraces many different learners is commendable, and offering informed choice to the person who is most affected by decisions is unquestionably worthy, but I believe these words have been taken far beyond their intended meaning and have been used by those who want to avoid facing the making of sound, scientific decisions that lead to quality education and employment. Here is what Steve has to say about the recent debate over using the Nemeth Code:

During the past year, and particularly after BANA's fall meeting, some confusion has arisen regarding exactly where we are with respect to how to Braille math and scientific materials. As a result, there are several new issues we need to resolve with associated questions that must be asked.

As a starting point, let's take a look at the entire series of BANA (Braille Authority of North America) press releases to understand where we are now. We will start with the press release issued in 2012:

"... The most prevalently-used of these, the Nemeth Code, a Braille code for mathematics and science notation, has been widely recognized as a powerful and efficient system for representing these subject areas in Braille. Therefore, it is moved that the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) adopts Unified English Braille to replace the current English Braille American Edition in the United States while maintaining the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision; the Music Braille Code 1997; and the IPA Braille Code, 2008. The official Braille codes for the United States will be Unified English Braille, Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision and published updates; Music Braille Code, 1997; and The IPA Braille Code, 2008; . . . "

This press release continues with references to formats and tactile graphics guidelines, but we have not included that here:

In 2013 BANA issued a press release after their November meeting, setting the implementation date for UEB, and once again they referred to the motion passed in 2012.

In 2014, a statement approved at the BANA board meeting in November says: "As of the implementation date in 2016, UEB, Nemeth, Music, and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) will be the official codes for use in the United States. BANA is providing guidance on how to incorporate the Nemeth Code into UEB context with the intent that the Nemeth Code will continue to be integral to Braille in the United States."

Now we come to November 2015 and the following statement:

"The Braille Authority of North America (BANA) recognizes and appreciates the genuine concerns from the Braille community regarding the transition to Unified English Braille (UEB). BANA stands by our original motion to adopt UEB as a complete code as well as the implementation statement issued in 2014 in which we expressed that the Nemeth Code remains integral to Braille in the United States. The Board of BANA could not reach consensus regarding the establishment of a single standard code for technical materials for Braille in the United States. The decision to use UEB or the Nemeth Code within UEB context for technical materials should be made based on Braille readers' individual needs."

Although those of us who believe for a number of reasons that adopting UEB while maintaining Nemeth Code for math and science have reason to be disappointed in this statement, it also provides us with an opportunity to try to understand some of the various views on this subject. It also demonstrates the need to establish exactly how we approach changes to Braille in the future.
First, note that the word “standard” was not used in any of the press releases except for the most recent one. The word to describe the various codes was “official.” Given that past statements continue to be supported, Nemeth Code is still considered an official math code by BANA. This is further supported by the fact that BANA has implemented changes to the Nemeth Code during the past year. Some argue that by virtue of UEB being an official code, since UEB includes mathematics, it should have the same status with respect to math in the United States as does the Nemeth Code. Certainly many mathematical symbols will be used in materials that are not considered mathematical or technical.

Without repeating the consequential arguments already put forth by the National Federation of the Blind on this matter (see Resolutions 2012-13 and 2015-29), there are a number of questions that follow from the November 2015 statement that must be explored. What makes a student better suited to one code or the other? Are the two choices equal choices when viewed in a historical context? What do decisions today say about future decisions about Braille codes?

During the long debate regarding this issue, it has been difficult to document which approach, Nemeth Code or UEB, is clearly superior for the representation of mathematics and technical materials in Braille. Arguments show that there are strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Given that the decision as to which code to teach a student is in reality made by a teacher and not by a student, there is legitimate concern that what we are facing is the expression of a preference by an educator for a particular code rather than the application of an objective process to determine which code should be used by a student. Many educators have long expressed the opinion that Nemeth Code is difficult to learn and use. There is even a mistaken notion held by some that, since mathematics is already part of UEB, mathematical symbols (and thus mathematics itself) will be easier to learn if only UEB is used and not the Nemeth Code. In reality either code requires a good deal of effort to learn if one sets out to learn the entire code all at once as is the case for transcribers or even teachers. A student will generally not learn the entire code, whether Nemeth or not, all at once. Rather, a student will learn the elements that are required at a particular time. The challenges of learning a mathematical code will be different depending upon which code is learned, but it is difficult to see a clear advantage of either code in this regard.

In other aspects of education, there are usually characteristics of a student that can be used to make decisions about his or her education. Which characteristics would be used to determine which code to teach? How will the benefit of choosing UEB instead of Nemeth Code for math for some students be measured to insure there is a significant advantage when weighed against the fragmentation of resources and the other disadvantages of supporting two approaches?

Another concern raised regarding UEB/Nemeth is the fact that some UEB math symbols will be present in general non-technical material. This raises the question of whether learning two separate sets of symbols is a reason to avoid teaching Nemeth Code. It needs to be understood that what we used to think of as higher or more advanced mathematics is becoming more and more common at lower grades. The use of equations in math and science occurs earlier than ever before. Delaying the teaching of Nemeth Code will increase substantially the number of symbols that have both Nemeth and UEB representations that will need to be learned all at once, creating confusion rather than avoiding it. There is, of course, a downside to being required to learn separate representations of the same symbol, but there has been a very strong belief in the United States that moving away from the established Nemeth Code simply does not offer the same advantages as does moving to UEB for literary Braille. To a large degree, we have been learning multiple representations of the same symbol already, so this isn’t really new.

So have the waters just been muddied by the above? Is the choice of a math code strictly an "A" or "B" choice between equal alternatives? As has been written elsewhere, we have an infrastructure and experience in the United States with the Nemeth Code that we simply do not have with math and science using UEB. This includes trained transcribers, a certification process, and the refinements and supports that come from the decades of experience of Braille readers doing math. In addition, the retention and integration of Nemeth Code has been an essential part of gaining support for the adoption of UEB by consumer organizations and others. To use Nemeth Code allows us to continue down the path that BANA defined in 2012 and mostly still supports today. Not to use Nemeth code for mathematics undermines this position, fragments our ability to produce timely Braille, and requires that we develop a second set of transcribers and a new certification process. We have not been shown with clear evidence that there is truly an overall advantage in changing our approach to Braille math in the United States.

Finally, are we entering a new era that requires 100 percent agreement before we regard any choice of a standard code to be the preferred choice? Are we turning the clock back one hundred years to a time when the Braille code is defined in part by geographic boundaries within the United States or the school attended, just when mathematics and science are gaining an increasing importance in education? To move in this direction requires that there be a real advantage clearly demonstrated, and that simply has not been done. Until it has, and until the voices of consumers come to echo this, Nemeth should continue to be the code use for mathematics.

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