Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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Braille on the Job
What do You Get When the Fingers Hit the Paper?

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderEditor’s Note: Gary Wunder is a long-time national and state leader in the Federation. He is the secretary of the national board of the National Federation of the Blind, and the president of the Missouri state affiliate. Here’s what he has to say about the critical role Braille plays in his Information Age career:

All of us who love and promote Braille have heard more times than we can count how Braille is no longer as important as it once was because of technology. This always strikes me as unfortunately uninformed given how technology has created for me a job where Braille is particularly useful and necessary.

I work for the University of Missouri Health System writing programs for the computer and documents for the people who use them. In whatever I do, spelling and syntax is critically important. If my documentation is poorly written, a comma out of place or a period where I should have used a semicolon, people have a harder time understanding my meaning. And if I make a syntactical error and try to feed it to the computer, occasionally the outcome is misunderstanding and results which differ from what I expect, but more often what I send is simply rejected with a cryptic error message which, in essence, says “No way--try again.”

So how does Braille differ from speech when it comes to finding errors in syntax? Consider the following lines--how they sound, and how much easier they are to dissect and analyze using print or Braille versus speech:

@array = ““;
@array = split (/|*/,$record);
$ar.ctr = “-” . $ar_ctr . “/2”;

Forget one semicolon and everything else in your program following it is ignored. In the example above where you see two quotation marks together, a null string is inserted. Put one or more spaces between those quotation marks and the field is no longer a null string but contains data - spaces. When later you check that field, what you wrote above will determine whether the computer thinks this is a field which can be ignored or which requires more processing. Leave out something as simple as a left or right brace and the logic you have built to say “Thank you for your prompt payment,” can easily turn into “This is your fourth notice. Please remit your payment immediately or we will be forced to send your statement to an agency for collection.” That brace can cost you a customer, and too much of that kind of mistake will cost you a job.

Here’s another scenario where Braille really shines but which is harder to explain. Let’s say that you know there is an error somewhere in the program you have written, but nothing comes to your mind that you can enter on the keyboard to find it. Not all errors are conveniently marked with the words “***** Error: Please correct the following line ***** .” Instead, one has to read through pages of information looking for anything that seems wrong--this is the situation we find ourselves in when we say “I don’t remember his name but I’ll know it when I hear it,” or “I can’t define offensive behavior, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

What I will find may be a space before a closing parenthesis, a comma not followed by a space, or a left bracket where a left parenthesis was required. It isn’t that a speech synthesizer can’t be made to say every punctuation mark and every space, but it takes far longer to listen to this detailed information than it does to read through it in Braille or print. And where working for money is concerned, one must not only be able to do the job, but do it efficiently enough that he can compete with others.

In my job, not only must I write and test programs, but I must also be able to show “the powers that be” how my programs work, answer questions, and incorporate suggestions into the final product. This means making presentations before programmers, project managers, and eventually doctors and hospital administrators who are the people--in my job, anyway--that I must ultimately satisfy in the first place. Braille provides my outline. Braille is the thing which lets me listen to the question with my ears while simultaneously searching for the answer with my fingers. I have two ears but I can’t really listen to two streams of speech. Luckily I can take in information from my ears and my fingers without one interfering with the other.

For me the existence of the Braille code is a very important tool in my arsenal. Could I survive without it? I’m a resourceful fellow and I probably could find a way, but one must understand that where reading and writing are concerned, Braille is to the fingers what print is to the eyes. Spelling, syntax, subordination through indentation, and the critical placement of material are all intuitive with Braille and print. The Frenchman who developed this code never saw or probably even conceived of the computing machines we have today, but his work puts food on my table, makes me a part of a team seeking to provide timely and affordable health care, and lets me answer the most frequently asked question a man between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four encounters: “What do you do for a living?”

Thank you, Mr. Braille, and thank you to those who transcribe books into Braille, those who invent the technology to reproduce it, and finally a thank you to all the passionate advocates who work so very hard to communicate the absolute imperative that blind people have a way to read and write in the Information Age.

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