Braille Monitor                                     July 2017

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Is Braille on Life Support?

by Kane Brolin

Kane BrolinFrom the Editor: Kane is the president of our Michiana chapter which encompasses the states of Michigan and Indiana, as one might guess from the name. Kane is a financial analyst and works very hard to see that what is said about blind people and the techniques we use is accurate and reflects the views of the Federation. Here is what he wrote in response to a segment that aired on National Public Radio:

It has to be an unnerving experience to learn that some in the press are reporting one’s death, even though it hasn’t happened yet. “In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens—best known by his pen name, Mark Twain—was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895. He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures. … While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died. … It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health. … The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal. It said, in part: Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London... The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said: ‘I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. … The report of my death was an exaggeration.’”1

For Mark Twain, premature reports of death were annoying but correctable. But for the Braille code, which has enabled nearly eight generations of blind people around the world to have access to the written word, a consensus opinion about its demise would result in nothing short of tragedy. Unfortunately, multiple reports about the impending death of Braille are issued each year and disseminated by the mainstream media as well as spread across the World Wide Web. We in the National Federation of the Blind must be vigilant to spot and correct them.

I found out about one of the more recent mainstream media reports of Braille’s doomed future from a friend while he and I were talking in the hallway after the conclusion of a church service a couple of weeks ago. My friend, who is sighted, was telling me about a story that had aired on National Public Radio during his drive home from work a few weeks before. My friend had some questions: “So why are they saying Braille is almost dead, even though I’ve seen you using it every day? They say it’s the young people who don’t want it anymore. Is that true?”

I found the report my friend had listened to: “As Braille Literacy Declines, Reading Competitions Held To Boost Interest.”2 It was filed by Blake Farmer, news director of NPR affiliate station WPLN of Nashville. The piece went national when producers for the iconic public radio program All Things Considered picked it up and aired it on the evening of  March 13, 2017.

On first hearing, it seemed to me as though this reporter was defending Braille, even romanticizing it. The setting was the Tennessee School for the Blind, where students at the school were competing for a shot at prizes and nationwide recognition in the Braille Challenge. It is a contest sponsored each year by the Braille Institute of America, a not-for-profit organization based in Los Angeles, California. The atmosphere captured in Mr. Farmer’s soundscape was upbeat, as several students were heard clacking away energetically on PerkinsBraillers. A retired teacher from the Tennessee School, Joanne Weatherall, even had come back to the school to encourage students to take part in the Braille Challenge and to judge that part of the competition that the Tennessee School was hosting.

But then, I took another listen and took more careful note of what some of the participants were saying. Of course, the statistic that “Braille literacy has fallen to about 10 percent for children” was featured front and center. Although this retired teacher Ms. Weatherall is blind herself, and although she remains personally enthusiastic for Braille, she concluded, “The kids are not wanting to do it (Braille) because it takes extra time, and it’s harder…” Why is it harder?, she was asked.“The only thing I would think is because kids that start out in school very young learning technology—it's very easy for them," she says. “It's faster than reading and writing in Braille because that can be very slow and cumbersome.”

So there is a divide between people who use Braille and people who use “technology?” And what exactly is the difference between “Braille literacy” and just plain literacy?

“What to do to really get the kids really charged up about Braille, I don't know because many of them hate it, which just makes me crazy," she (Weatherall) says.

Even for those Tennessee School students who were competing in the Braille Challenge, this feel-good story expressed doubt as to whether it really mattered. At one point Farmer narrates as follows: “What makes Weatherall grin are Braille lovers like Marcus Johnson, who plans to attend a local university in the fall, though he says Braille will not be particularly useful in his college classes.” Farmer never goes on to question the truthfulness of this assertion, but just seems to take it for granted: Braille serves as a nice-to-have tool now that might win Marcus Johnson some limited glory in this year’s Braille Challenge if he is fortunate enough to be among the fifty finalists who get to go to LA, but at the end of the day it will prove irrelevant to his life in the real world.

The more I reflected on this story, what bothered me most was what it had left unsaid: nothing about electronic, refreshable Braille; nothing about the usefulness of Braille for the expression of math, scientific, or musical notation; nothing about the recent project to keep Braille up-to-date through the widespread adoption of Unified English Braille as a standard; nothing about Braille’s application to professional careers in STEM fields; and not even a cursory mention of the National Federation of the Blind or the work the Federation has been doing to qualify and certify new teachers of Braille. Most disturbing of all was this reporter’s lack of discernment about the nature of literacy. Without the ability to see well enough to read print efficiently enough to meet the demands of today’s world, doesn’t a lack of Braille in a blind person’s life make him or her illiterate? The question never was asked.

So I decided to write to Blake Farmer myself. I did so in an email sent on Monday, May 8, 2017—just one day after listening to his story about the presumed obsolescence of Braille. My appeal was rather quickly written, so I am sure it is imperfect. But I just felt that something needed to be said. When confronted by a world that misunderstands and sometimes even now still ridicules blindness or legitimately proven blindness skills such as Braille, I believe it is imperative that I take a cue from the biblical Apostle Peter and “always be ready to give a defense” for my faith in the proven power and simple elegance of the Braille code. Here is what I wrote:

Blake:

I am pleased to make your acquaintance, even if just via email. I think your story set in the Tennessee School for the Blind . . . was well-meaning, and I know you made a valiant attempt to be balanced in your approach. But because many persons who occasionally do journalistic coverage of blindness have never knowingly met a blind person prior to their going out on the assignment, I wish to present you and your colleagues with another perspective . . .

Having been a lifelong, totally blind person who learned to read at age five or so (in the early 1970s), I feel very strongly that in my own case, if it weren't for Braille, I would be illiterate, regardless of how much I could remember from oral learning. Among the blind who are advanced students or who work in the professional world, Braille is making a comeback—especially as we learn how to utilize it rapidly, digitally, and noiselessly while connected to postmodern, commercial devices like mobile phones and tablets via Bluetooth. After all, it looks a lot more respectable for me to be in a meeting and taking notes in Braille or reading Braille while interacting orally with someone seated in my office than it does for me to have earbuds attached to my head while acting as though I'm listening to my client.

But this is not about just me and my own story or conditioned preference. Since I now serve on the board of directors for the Indiana State Affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, I encounter a lot of situations in which a parent or guardian is referred to me, not knowing what to do after receiving a medical diagnosis saying that his or her child is "visually impaired" or "sight-challenged." What you should know is that, even though your retired (TSB) teacher Joanne Weatherall is excited about kids wanting to learn Braille, this seldom is an opinion shared among newer teachers of the visually impaired who are entering the field today unless those teachers happen to be blind themselves. A lot of the opposition to Braille comes from the sighted professional community tasked to serve the blind as teachers, school administrators, or vocational rehabilitation counselors, because they find it hard to locate individuals qualified to teach or proofread Braille, and they consider Braille expensive to obtain and to store. Even more of a factor than this perceived need for cost containment, though, is the stereotype that blindness is a fate worse than death in the mind of many persons who have never encountered it before, and they are particularly scared if it is their children who must suffer this unthinkable fate. Blindness is so frightening to so many that otherwise rational and well-educated adults when confronted with blindness will freak out and go with whatever the first so-called "professional expert" tells him or her. All too often, that advice sounds like "saving eyesight," "taking advantage of all usable vision the child has left," and trying "not to make him or her look blind." All too often, this well-meaning attempt to help a young student keep fitting in to his or her social environment in the classroom proves ineffective and ultimately harmful to the child's academic achievement and future prospects, and sometimes harmful even to the child's brain health.

It is true that, according to statistics published by the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, only about 10 percent of American blind children learn Braille. It also is true that some people who are blind are also people who hate Braille—because they don't like reading by touch, or because they believe the embossed books are too bulky or heavy to carry around usefully if living a mobile lifestyle, or because diabetic neuropathy in some individuals just makes it next to impossible for them to pick out nuanced shapes with their fingertips. I respect someone's decision not to learn or read Braille if it is a consenting adult who makes that decision for him/herself. Unfortunately, though, the question of defending Braille or heralding its imminent death is one that has been used to divide the blind community, and much of the time it is children who get caught in the crossfire. The National Federation of the Blind, which is the organization I have chosen to represent voluntarily, is a fierce defender of Braille. But other organizations—and quite a few sighted professionals in the fields of educating disabled children and rehabilitating disabled adults—push back against Braille, claiming that synthetic text-to-speech and/or magnifying technology in a digital world is all one really needs. Some make the claim that the NFB's defense of Braille amounts to little more than a branding distinction used to market and fund the National Federation of the Blind. I quite disagree with this cynical and narrow-minded conclusion.

So what I wish to do is to present my pro-Braille argument from another angle, drawing from sources outside the Federation. First, I refer you to an article entitled “Is Braille Relevant?” It was posted by a blind working woman named Neva Fairchild; it appears as a blog entry on the website of the American Foundation for the Blind. Of her childhood, Ms. Fairchild writes: “As the print in books that I wanted or needed to read got smaller, my ability to read diminished. By fourth grade, I was listening to Talking Books for pleasure unless I could get my hands on the rare large print book. I was not always able to complete reading assignments in school because the amount I needed to read took too long and caused severe eye strain. Somewhere around eighth grade, I noticed that teachers told us the important content from the textbook during lectures, so finishing my reading was less and less attractive to me. I made passing (although not stellar) grades, and that seemed adequate at the time. I wish that someone had pointed out that I was selling myself short, settling for less, and not living up to my full potential. I also noticed during this time that my spelling ability was declining because the majority of written words that I read were written by me, and therefore, spelled by me. Would you agree that my literacy was suffering?” Note that the writer of this testimonial was not encouraged to read or write Braille in school whatsoever; but she has adopted Braille because she found it essential later in life as a productivity tool in the workforce.

And there is a statistical correlation between those who read Braille and the higher likelihood of such persons to gain and keep competitive employment. It's documented in The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education, and Reading Habits by Ruby Ryles, PhD.3

Blake, you also need to understand the changing face of Braille, one you might not have seen at the Tennessee School for the Blind when profiling those contestants. Braille in the year 2017 is not just about carrying around a bunch of heavy, bound volumes that cost hundreds of dollars and hundreds of human-hours to produce. And it's not about just reproducing rows of dots by punching them mechanically into paper with a hand-held stylus or on a heavy, metal, nine-key manual typewriter. See Braille technology moves into the 21st century, available online from rawstory.com.4

Anyone who spends time in my office or who attends public events at which I speak—or who even comes into the room where I teach Sunday school at a local church—will observe that most of the Braille I use is refreshable Braille that pops up on a little, one-line, electronic display that literally is small enough to fit into my breast pocket. I can use this both to read output from and to control my laptop, iPad, or iPhone. I even know of a couple of new devices that are stand-alone Braille computers: a fully Braille-enabled Android tablet that can run Google Books, Google Docs, and Google sheets, and can interact with the Internet;5 and a Windows 10 tablet PC that also is fully empowered to interface with the user via Braille output and input.6 Both the BrailleNote Touch and the ElBraille described here have synthetic speech built in, but either can be fully operated without synthetic speech, if the user wants Braille only. I don't own either the BrailleNote Touch or the ElBraille, but I could gain access to a unit temporarily and demonstrate their use in public if called on to do it.

As for what you can do on paper, a variety of methods are being perfected that will allow for a standard commercial printer to be adapted so it may produce Braille hard copy output using touchable ink, not requiring embossing in the traditional manner and thus being far less expensive and far less labor-intensive than the embossed Braille available from specialized libraries for the blind today. Perhaps the code used for touchable ink printing wouldn't have to be Braille in the strict sense, but the basic principle is the same, and there is the possibility that this would make a gigantic difference as it enables blind people affordably and quickly to reproduce graphical material used in mathematics, science, and even the visual arts, or even to make their own graphs that could be accessed in real time equally well by blind and sighted project collaborators. Some of this R&D is happening in Bangkok, as outlined in a video from the international marketing company J. Walter Thompson.7

And while on the topic of the sciences, you should know that a blind man named Dr. Timothy Cordes, a board-certified psychiatrist working in Madison, Wisconsin, says Braille played a large role in his passing prerequisite math and science courses as he prepared for medical school.

Yes, Dr. Cordes is an MD and PhD who did a full medical residency at the University of Wisconsin.8

The problem with all this? Electronically produced Braille is still far too expensive for most individuals to afford, especially if they live below the poverty line. But solutions are being worked out: including H.R. 1734 the Access Technology Affordability Act, which has been introduced into the House Ways & Means Committee in the 115th Congress.

Last but not least, as my kids love to point out, Braille gives me a hidden advantage in life: being able to read in the dark. As my highly observant, seven-year-old, sighted son Max said one time, "Being blind in the desert wouldn't be hard. All you'd need is food, water, and Braille."

I welcome your response.

Since writing that letter to Mr. Farmer and a shorter version to the producers of All Things Considered on the same day, no response from anyone in public radio has been received. The battle for Braille continues.

1. Taken from This Day In Quotes for the entry posted for May 31, 2015.
2. For an audio archive and full transcript, visit http://www.npr.org/2017/03/13/519983877/as-braille-literacy-declines-reading-competitions-held-to-boost-interest.
3. Excerpted at https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm98/bm980204.htm
4. See http://www.rawstory.com/2014/06/braille-technology-moves-into-the-21st-century/.
5. http://www.rawstory.com/2014/06/braille-technology-moves-into-the-21st-century/
6. http://www.freedomscientific.com/Products/Blindness/ElBraille
7. https://www.jwt.com/en/bangkok/work/touchableink/.
8. For a transcript of an explanatory talk Tim Cordes gave about his medical school experience, see https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm10/bm1010/bm101008.htm.

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