Braille Monitor               February 2024

(back) (contents) (next)

When Braille is not the Total Answer

by Gary Wunder

I feel so grateful to have been born in a time when Braille was available, providing a great way for blind people to read and write. I use it for labeling, notes, phone numbers, and even editing things that I write or review that other people have written. I understand the concept of an outline because of Braille and have a better feel for the grouping that goes into a paragraph.

Not getting people Braille is such a crime against their potential that sometimes we forget that Braille can be as inaccessible for blind people as print. If you are a blind person with neuropathy, you may not be able to feel let alone differentiate between the dot patterns that distinguish letters and words. If you learn Braille later in life, it may never serve you well for reading long letters, articles, or books. If, despite your best efforts, you can't read Braille at a speed you consider effective for reading a book, entertaining children, or speaking publicly, what alternatives exist?

What I want to talk about today is cases in which Braille is not enough and caution against an emphasis on Braille that suggests to others that they cannot be fully successful or meaningful blind people or Federationists if they aren't proficient users of the system of reading by touch. We would not stand for people being shamed because they could not read print, but sometimes we are perceived as shaming people for not reading Braille. I want to suggest that there are alternatives, and that while Braille is just as important to blind people as print is to sighted people, we must continue to look for alternatives when our senses and our situations do not allow for either of these reading methods to suffice.

If people can learn and use Braille efficiently, we know that audio as a substitution is wrong. Audio does not allow us to learn to spell passively through repeatedly observing a word under our fingers. Neither does it help us to learn spelling to repeated exposure to words so we can envision their shapes in our head and decode them into letters. We know that audio does not make clear when we are moving from one paragraph to the next. At the same time, many of us also know that we love Talking Books, and there are many situations in which we simply don't care about what we are missing or we will find other ways to get it. A phone number may be more easily retrieved in Braille, but a good audio device provides a great way to put it down. After years of listening to speech synthesis and compressed speech, many of us can listen to audio more rapidly than we can read Braille, and I suspect most of us find it more pleasurable to fall asleep to an audio book than Braille or large print.

Print and Braille both lend themselves to reading from a manuscript, ensuring that every word spoken is well-considered and not an off-the-cuff remark. Speaking from a manuscript may also be desired by presenters who want their remarks reprinted as delivered. If a presenter cannot read Braille or print, how can the benefits above be realized? One answer has been proposed by Bruce Gardner in his creation of what he calls the Audible Teleprompter. In its most basic form, the presenter listens to the words he wants to speak and then delivers them with the emphasis he wants for the audience to hear. The text the presenter listens to may be the monotone presentation given by many text-to-speech systems, but the presenter uses the full range of human options in his delivery. At a minimum this includes emphasizing words through vocalization, by pauses, or by the volume of one’s voice.

The key to this effectively working depends on two things. The first is the ability to stop and start speech from the listening device and have it stop immediately and restart after the last word spoken. The second is sufficient practice so that what is said represents what is demanded of a good public speaker. This practice is also required of one reading from Braille or print. Being able to read aloud is a necessary skill for delivering a speech, but an effective presentation goes far beyond the recitation of words. Beyond intonation and pauses, an effective speaker must account for audience reaction, up to and including shouts of support, applause, or even heckling. Although the goal is to speak from a clearly written presentation, every good speaker knows how to roll with the audience and to make a brief remark in response. Most of us who present try to place in our remarks something that someone earlier in the day has said, be that a meaningful observation, an interesting question to consider, or a humorous remark. The presenter has to be skilled in adjusting to changing time constraints such as delays in the schedule that must be made up somewhere, and the event planner takes some time from the presenter’s speech.

Although the Audible Teleprompter was created with blind people in mind, a search of the web reveals that there are others who have trouble speaking from a manuscript, and there are commercial devices that rely on an earbud and wireless technology. One of the websites I came across offers the hardware and training, but determining the cost of the product, the length of the training, and the specific hardware used is made difficult by the requirement to first undergo an interview to see if one is eligible. I did not think this necessary in order to discuss the Audible Teleprompter but did find it interesting that others have developed a similar solution for presenters who presumably have sight.

One thing I use Braille for is labeling, and I consider it tremendous. I realize, however, that this is not the only solution. Some who cannot feel Braille can feel the bump dots that we sell in the Independence Market. They can easily be used to mark the location of buttons, though admittedly they do not convey their functions. One can easily conceive of a homegrown system in which one bump dot on a can designates corn, two dots for peas, three dots for green beans, etc. The same system can be used for frozen foods or beef or produce. When the labeling system becomes too complicated for memory, a small digital recorder may suffice to generate the list.

In addition to the low tech solutions for labeling, there are also several systems that allow for affixing a label which, when read by a device, will announce the contents of a package or any other item that needs identifying. Two that readily come to mind are the PenFriend and the WayAround. There are also a number of systems that can read the electronic label used by most stores to speed the checkout of items and keep track of inventory.

I know there is always some fear in discussing alternative ways of doing things when there is the possibility that the alternative may be used as a shortcut. For the longest time, I had a hard time getting blind people to understand that dictating to a computer could dramatically increase their output. I could demonstrate that the system worked, but the real fear from skeptics was that blind folks would avoid learning keyboarding skills with the idea that they were no longer needed if one could simply talk to the computer. While there's always a chance that some may choose the seemingly easier path to productivity, this possibility doesn't justify neglecting the development and promotion of alternative methods. Canes, dogs, Braille writers, slates, refreshable Braille displays, and digital players and recorders are tools we use; they do not determine our worth as blind people. Like anyone who carries a toolbox, it behooves us to know how to use each tool and, based on that knowledge, determine which tool to use when.

(back) (contents) (next)

Media Share